- Taika Waititi spoke with Business Insider about his acclaimed Nazi satire, “Jojo Rabbit.”
- Waititi wrote and directed the movie, and also stars as an imaginary Adolf Hitler who the main character talks to.
- Waititi said the first draft of the script was more dramatic and didn’t include the Hitler character.
- Almost five years after Waititi wrote the script, Fox Searchlight said it wanted to make the movie, as long as Waititi played the Hitler character, “which was lunacy to me,” Waititi said.
- The director eventually agreed and the result is a movie that is building Oscar buzz.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Taika Waititi’s eyes widen when he spots a couch in the room where his interview with Business Insider is set to take place. He goes straight for it and lies down, stretching across the entire piece of furniture. Moments later, he takes off his shoes to get even more comfortable.
Waititi will take relaxing moments when he can find them. His last few weeks have seen him pin-balling from Disney’s huge fan event D23 in Los Angeles, to the Toronto International Film Festival, to the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, and now back to LA.
But the actor-writer-director isn’t complaining.
He’s currently a hot commodity in every facet of his career. On the acting side, there’s roles in anticipated projects like the Disney Plus series “The Mandalorian,” the Ryan Reynolds comedy “Free Guy,” and James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad.” Waititi has also begun work writing “Thor: Love and Thunder” (coming out November 2021), the sequel to his successful first directing effort of a Marvel Cinematic Universe title, “Thor: Ragnarok.” But what he’s focused on most as he lies on the couch is his latest directing effort, “Jojo Rabbit” (in select theaters on Friday).
Written, directed, and starring Waititi, the movie is a unique coming-of-age tale: Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy living with his mother (Scarlett Johansson) in Germany at the height of the Nazi regime during World War II. Jojo wants nothing more than to grow up to be a loyal Nazi and even has an imaginary friend who is a Nazi: Adolf Hitler himself (played by Waititi).
But the boy’s life is thrown for a loop when he learns that his mother has been letting a Jewish girl hide in their house.
In typical Waititi fashion, the story is original, full of heart, hilarious at times, and showcases the talents of its actors (particularly Johansson). All that adds up to a movie that you will hear more about as we get deeper into award season (especially after the movie won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which has led to Oscar gold for numerous past winners).
Business Insider spoke to Waititi about switching quickly from drama to dark comedy in the early drafts of writing “Jojo Rabbit,” why he knew casting a major star to play Hitler was the wrong move, and what it was like to direct while in his Hitler costume.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: The source material for “Jojo Rabbit” is Chelsea Winstanley’s book, “Caging Skies,” but did your time spent in Berlin painting during your 20s influence the story at all?
Taika Waititi: No. I stole some of my friends’ names that I grew up with while living in Berlin and put them in. While I was in Berlin, I was living the life of an artist so it was very free. Germany was very vibrant and liberal. The club scene was incredible. I think I drew more on the World War II films that I’d seen and some comedies.
Guerrasio: Speaking of watching war movies, was “Empire of the Sun” one of them? Because in some ways I compare the journey of Christian Bale’s Jim character with Jojo’s.
Waititi: I definitely watched it in the last few years. I would have watched it to specifically look for something.
Guerrasio: Even John Malkovich’s character in that movie has a similar father figure-like relationship that Sam Rockwell’s Nazi commander character has with Jojo.
Waititi: Yeah. You’re right. So there’s that. “Alive Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” that was more for the mother relationship. Ellen Burstyn is the greatest single mother character that’s ever been committed to screen. She’s so good in that. Having a mother who raised me by herself I was really struck by watching that film. And having kids myself, I also just fully realized how hard their job was. And not to just keep a kid alive, but to shield them from bullying and prejudice and the darkness of the world. Trying to keep their lives bright and happy even when you’re feeling like s–t. Not to take it out on them, trying to raise a good person.
Guerrasio: Scarlett Johansson’s character is a mother who really knows how to keep her interactions with her son not as toxic as everything around them. Is that a character trait your mother had?
Waititi: When I was growing up I felt it was pretty chill but obviously there are certain things, and again, being a father now, there are just things kids do that piss you off. [Laughs.] With Scarlett’s character I thought a little of [Roberto] Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful,” where he is distracting his son from what’s really going on around them. He never loses it at all. There’s the one moment with Scarlett in the living room where she just snaps and then remembers herself. But I really wanted people to fall in love with her. I wanted the audience to see her as really the only grounded force in the film. Everyone else is running around like headless chickens and all she’s trying to do is keep the kid safe.
Guerrasio: Did you get any rehearsal time with her? I would think with her schedule you only had her for a limited time.
Waititi: Yeah, we just talked. We talked a lot about it.
Guerrasio: Did you feel that was enough?
Waititi: Unless you are searching for something, I’m not really sure you need much rehearsal. I felt the script was really in a place where I was really happy with it, and if there was anything we were searching for dialogue-wise, we could just talk about it and go off and try to execute those notes. And then there’s also having amazing actors. With Sam and Scarlett, you don’t really need to overthink it. I’ve learned that over the years, if you know someone is really good and they’re smart and you have had those homework discussions earlier then most of your work is done.
Guerrasio: Let’s change it up and talk about Hitler.
Waititi: I’ve brought this on myself.
Guerrasio: It sounds like early drafts of the script didn’t have him in the story, right?
Waititi: The very first draft didn’t have him, but then I started all over again.
Guerrasio: What was the lightbulb moment?
Waititi: The book, I’ll be straight up, is not a comedy. It’s very much dramatic. And I was just about to do “What We Do in the Shadows,” and I felt then that I was only interested in doing this if it’s a different story from these World War II films. Knowing myself, I knew eventually I was going to put humor into it somewhere. When I rewrote it, I just started typing and it just kind of wrote itself. It only took me a couple of weeks. And I don’t usually start at page one but I started and basically wrote all the way through. And the Adolf character came about and the script hasn’t changed that much since. It’s really hard to explain because the only time it’s really happened to me is with this script.
Guerrasio: So in the rewrite that’s when things get outlandish.
Waititi: Yeah. The first version wasn’t a comedy.
Guerrasio: That first draft was more true to the book?
Waititi: Yeah. I wrote the first draft with a friend of mine. It was brilliant but it just didn’t feel like me.
Guerrasio: And also you probably asked yourself, “Do you want to do a serious movie on this subject?”
Waititi: “Do I have to go to work and feel sad and angry all day.” So I started again. I didn’t even have this idea in my head of having this imaginary friend. I think I wanted to get rid of the father. I wanted to have this life in the house small and simple. Just the kid and the mother. In the book there’s the kid, the mother, the grandmother, the father comes back and forth. There were just too many characters to try and do this. So I got rid of all of that and then just gave him a friend.
Guerrasio: How did you end up playing Hitler?
Waititi: It was never my intention. The furthest thing from my mind was me playing him. Then we shopped it around to a few agencies, not even specific actors, and asked, “What do you think of the script? Who do you think would work?” Back when we were getting this off the ground it was all about what actors are a box-office draw when it came to making period movies. So a lot of the investors said, “We need an A-lister to play Hitler.” I could see why they would say that, but weirdly it’s not like that anymore.
Guerrasio: And if you cast a star, all I’m going to see in that role is that star.
Waititi: You’re exactly right. So, let’s come up with a name. Big movie star.
Guerrasio: Um … Brad Pitt.
Waititi: If it’s the Brad Pitt Hitler movie that’s all it’s going to be known as.
Guerrasio: It’s true.
Waititi: And he’ll be the only thing on the poster and it will distract from the real heart of that story which are these kids. And I want to see a Brad Pitt anything movie but it would have taken away from what the story is trying to deliver.
Guerrasio: So you have to take the role.
Waititi: And it was [the movie’s distributor] Fox Searchlight’s decision.
Waititi: After I finished shooting “Thor: Ragnarok” they came in and said they really loved the script. This is four or five years after I wrote it. They said they really want to make it but they said, “We’re only interested if you play Hitler.” Which was lunacy to me.
Guerrasio: What was their pitch? Why?
Waititi: They made a good point which was that particular role is written a certain way and it needs to be handled by the person who invented that character. Part of it, like we said, is the celebrity distraction thing, but also because the way I wrote it, and because I knew how it needed to be played, it fell on me. And it actually made it easier to play because I didn’t have to deal with someone else filtering what I was trying to do. They were right, looking back on it. If I worked with another actor maybe that person would have researched it too much or tried to do a more authentic version of Hitler and pulled away the buffoonery I was after.
Guerrasio: So what was it like on set directing in costume?
Waititi: Yeah, it was horrible.
Guerrasio: Did you address everyone on set the first day of shooting? “Sorry guys, it is what it is.”
Waititi: I did actually have to do that. I was just embarrassed on set. Having to be dressed like that and having to talk to people. Often I took off the mustache between set ups or put a hat on. Or I would take the jacket off. But still, you catch yourself in a reflection and you’re reminded. For most people it’s something like seeing themselves and going, “I forgot, I got a haircut yesterday.” For me it was, “Ah, I forgot, I look like Hitler.”