With five feature films under his belt including What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Oscar-nominated writer-director-actor Taika Waititi proves his comic versatility again with the outrageous satire Jojo Rabbit about a young boy (Roman Griffin Davis) whose indoctrination into the Hitler Youth during World War II is turned upside down when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their home. Waititi, Davis and McKenzie paid a visit to the Academy to talk about their film and were joined by actors Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson to reveal how this unorthodox comedy came to life.
The inspiration for the film came from the much darker novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, which Waititi first heard about when his mother was reading it. “She sort of made it sound a little bit like Let the Right One In, that he thought that there was a monster in his attic,” he recalls. “And I read the book, and the book is a really good book, but it’s not really how she described it… I like the challenge of selling a film with a kid who we sort of want to hate, really, just because of who he is and how he’s been indoctrinated into this thing and his attitudes. And I like the idea of that being sort of torn away and him changing, and making a really big change by the end. And so I tool the sort of bones of that story, him and Elsa’s relationship, and I wrote that into a script — and then added Hitler and jokes.”
One major addition was an imaginary friend version of Hitler played by Waititi himself, who adds, “Hitler can only know what a 10-year-old knows, and he’s probably manifested as a mix of probably his father and other father figures that he’s had, and his hero at the time. And I really like the idea that throughout the film, as the Reich is crumbling, so is his imaginary friend. I mean, obviously, look at me. When the casting thing comes out to play an Aryan in Nazi Germany, the first person you think of is a Polynesian Jew!.. When Fox Searchlight read it, they loved it and said, ‘We want to make it, but we only want to make it if you play Hitler.’ So it’s their fault.”’
The depiction of Elsa also bucks expectations with McKenzie and her director drawing on not just historical research but unlikely movie research including Mean Girls and Heathers. As McKenzie explains, “The fact that she is a victim isn’t what defines her. She is really strong and courageous and smart and kind and caring and is so many other things, and there’s so many layers just like onions in Shrek. And, yeah, she’s a cool kid, and I think Taika and I wanted to show that.”
On the other hand, Rockwell dove into such films as The Young Lions, Schindler’s List and Ship of Fools, though ultimately his role model came from a different place: “ If Bill Murray had a German accent and he was a disillusioned Nazi.” Wilson also had to tweak the Nazi stereotype of her character, noting, “One time, I think [Taika] made me do a run for 10 minutes about Jewish noses, and then the head of Fox was watching, and he had an incredibly big nose, and I only knew he was in the room at the end of the 10 minute run… And I haven’t worked for Fox since!”
Incredibly, some of the film’s more outlandish moments really came from fact according to Waititi: “There’s a lot of stuff that I think, if you’re watching this, you might think, ‘That’s a bit over the top,’ but most of the stuff in the film around the city and everything, I researched, and it’s based on factual stuff. All the kids dressed as robots and toothpaste tubes. There’s photos. That’s what they made them do, walk around getting metal so they could make more bombs.” Wilson adds, “And a lot of my dialogue was taken from real teaching books, so it sounds a bit like jokes, but they were actually real sentences.”
Shooting in the Czech Republic, which had been occupied by the Nazis and featured locations where Hitler had delivered speeches, caused some chills even today among the cast and crew, not to mention interiors shot at Barrandov Studios where propaganda films had been made by Josef Goebbels’ Prague Film company during the war. “I had to try and own it, and own that character,” Waititi says of the role and the production, “and I convinced myself that repurposing those clothes or repurposing that look and also repurposing Barrandov Studios to many films for good and films that are full of hope, and trying to make a difference or change someone’s attitude, is really the kind of positive take, and that bolstered me a lot in going forward. Something I’ve obviously enjoyed is possessing Hitler and making him do whatever I wanted, which was just making him a complete idiot.”
He also feels that the past still casts a darker shadow today than many realize, something really brought home by the process of making the film. “Living there, it’s definitely something hovers over the city and over the country still, as it should,” he says. “And to Germans’ credit, they teach the children that it’s a duty to keep the story going and to teach the younger generations what happened, in the hope that we can avoid repeating these mistakes in history.
Last year, The Guardian released the results of a survey, and the stats were that in America, 41% of Americans and 66% of American millennials don’t know what the word Auschwitz means or Treblinka or any of these extremely infamous camps. You know, people say, ‘World War II was so long ago. We’re sophisticated now.’ There’s a reason people said at the end of the war, ‘We can never forget, because this can’t happen again.’ But cut to 2019, only 80 years later, and if those stats are true and if that’s a real thing, then it’s very worrying. And I think now, more than ever, films like this, or films in general that keep this conversation going, are very relevant and important.”
Watch the full discussion: