Taika Waititi on His WWII Satire, JOJO RABBIT

Writer/Director/Co-Star Taika Waititi poses next to the camera on set of Jojo Rabbit (2019)

After directing the most successful Thor movie to date, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Taika Waititi sets his sights on the greatest conflict the world has ever seen, World War II. Waititi brings the same comedic touch that helped revamp Marvel’s formerly austere God of Thunder to the gravitas of war, creating a uniquely original satire, Jojo Rabbit, starring himself, Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and Stephen Merchant. Jojo Rabbit comes to Regal on October 18th.

“I hope the humor in Jojo Rabbit helps engage a new generation,” says Waititi. “It’s important to keep finding new and inventive ways of telling the horrific story of World War II again and again for new generations, so that our children can listen, learn, and move forward, unified into the future.”

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(left to right) Adolf (Taika Waititi), Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

New Zealand writer/director/actor Taika Waititi made his feature debut in 2007 with the rom-com Eagle vs Shark. His next three features, all of which he earned a credit for writing, directing, and co-starring (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with Boy earning a Grand Jury Prize nomination. 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok marked Waititi’s first major Hollywood movie, which he followed up by consulting with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely on Thor’s storylines in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In addition to directing the third Thor feature, he voiced the character of Korg, who also makes a cameo in Avengers: Endgame (2019). It’s already been announced that Waititi will return to direct and write Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021, which will see Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster wield Mjolnir as the first female to portray the Avenger. 

Taika Waititi’s latest feature, Jojo Rabbit, centers on a lonely German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who is forced to confront his blind nationalism after his world gets turned upside down upon the discover that his single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their attic. Throughout the movie, Jojo is guided by his imaginary friend and advisor, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Waititi’s screenplay is based on the 2004 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. “I have always been drawn to stories that see life through children’s eyes,” says Waititi. “In this case, it happens to be a kid that we might not normally invest in.” 

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Writer/director/co-star Taika Waititi on set of Jojo Rabbit (2019)

War can be a very bleak subject matter to tackle, especially one that is steeped in such a dangerous ideology. “I knew I didn’t want to make a straight-out drama about hatred and prejudice because we’ve become just so used to that style of drama,” says Waititi. “When something seems a little too easy, I like to bring in chaos.” Waititi uses his flare for comedy to draw the audience into the subject matter, which retains much of the serious drama we’ve come to expect. “I’ve always believed comedy is the best way to make an audience more comfortable,” explains Waititi. “So, in Jojo Rabbit, I bring the audience in with laughter, and once they’ve dropped their guard, then start delivering these little payloads of drama that have serious weight to them.” The writer/director knew the risk he was taking when crafting this satirical tale. “As an artist you always want to challenge yourself, and if I don’t worry that a project would be a disaster, then it’s not really worth it for me,” confesses Waititi. “I like my work to feel dangerous enough going in that it could fail. Because that’s when I start scrambling. I start trying to make it the best thing possible, and that’s where I get the most creative and inventive.” 

Though he allows ample room for his creativity to flourish, including an anachronistic soundtrack, Waititi researched the German psyche before the war and watched documentaries to get a sense of how things really looked during that time and place. “I wanted to be mostly accurate, playing only with music, palette and the language,” says Waititi. The filmmakers paid close attention to the wardrobe and colors of the time period, looking to contrast the impending doom with beauty. “In a lot of WWII-era films, everyone dresses in brown and gray and it just feels kind of sad and dated,” says Waititi. “But if you look at the fashions of the time, though, there was really lots of bright color and high style,” he continues. “We didn’t want to push too far into something surreal, but we wanted to really bring out the color and energy you don’t usually see.” 

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Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Waititi and his casting team watched over 1,000 audition tapes and conducted a global search to find the right boy to play Jojo. That search came to an abrupt end upon meeting Roman Griffin Davis, an 11-year-old from Great Britain who seemed to intuitively understand the emotions that drive the lead character. Fellow New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie possessed the confident, complicated grittiness that Waititi was looking for in the character of Elsa. “The thing I zeroed in on was trying to create a friendship between two people who are, in their minds, total enemies,” says Waititi. “I like the dynamic where, contrary to what Jojo expects, Elsa holds most of the cards and calls the shots,” he continues. “But also, they are in a Catch-22 that binds them together because both face terrible stakes if their secret gets out.” 

The role of Rosie, Jojo’s mother, is played by Scarlett Johansson, whom Waititi says possesses a “sort of goofy quality” that he had always really wanted to see in a movie. “At the same time, she makes Rosie a love letter to single mothers,” says Waititi. “Even in the middle of a time that’s so dangerous and crazy, Rosie keeps a hold on Jojo’s innocence, and she is truly one of the strongest characters in the film.”

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Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Waititi takes on the role of Jojo’s imaginary friend and advisor, Adolf Hitler, though the filmmaker laughs, “I wasn’t my first choice for the role.” Being that this depiction of the historical leader of Nazi Germany is a figment of a young boy’s imagination, you can expect something different than versions in past WWII movies. “For me, it was fun because I didn’t base him really at all on the historical Hitler. He’s a figment of Jojo’s imagination so his knowledge of the world is limited to what a 10-year-old understands,” explains Waititi. 

Inspired by some of his personal filmmaking heroes like Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin, Taika Waititi tackles unsettling topics through parody in Jojo Rabbit, combining the look and feel of World War II Germany with more fantastical and humorous elements. You can see Taika Waititi’s latest movie, Jojo Rabbit, when it comes to Regal on October 18th.

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