Taika Waititi on WGA & BAFTA winner -Jojo Rabbit!

February 2, 2020 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with Jojo Rabbit screenwriter/director Taika Waititi from Issue 40 – the 1917 issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 40 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi deconstructs the year’s best satire.
By Jeff Goldsmith

Some writers fall in love with a book and pursue it as a film. In the case of Jojo Rabbit, writer-director-actor Taika Waititi fell in love with his mother’s description of a book. Around 2010, she told her filmmaker son how moved she was by New Zealand-Belgian author Christine Leunens’ WWII-era novel Caging Skies, about a young boy who must confront his formative beliefs after learning his mother has been providing safe harbor to a Jewish girl. Intrigued, he read it and immediately began ruminating on how to turn the serious novel into the hilarious cinematic satire he envisioned. “I liked the idea of this boy, who I guess in a way we shouldn’t really like or want to follow through a story, somehow still winning us over,” Waititi says.
Even as the film came to fruition, New Zealander Waititi realized the main obstacle to whether folks would take to 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is because he’s a Hitler Youth member whose best friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). Although Jojo tries his best to be a good little Nazi, he fails repeatedly and then stumbles upon the teen, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hidden away in their attic by his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). With anti-Semitism thick in the air around him, Jojo fears the newfound stranger before reluctantly befriending her, which poses the central question of the film: Will Jojo shed his Nazi enthusiasm and do the right thing? Waititi became fascinated with the dynamic of the indoctrination of children especially how many German children who were taught to hate Jews had never actually met one. “They had to deal all the propaganda pictures and the creepy descriptions of Jews from the kids books,” he says. “I like the idea of Jojo having what he thinks of as a monster living in the attic that he has to deal with.”
There’s been a rich history of comedian/filmmakers mocking Hitler, ranging from Charlie Chaplin’s aptly titled 1940 film The Great Dictator to Mel Brooks in The Producers. Yet Waititi brings about a completely characterization wherein Jojo’s version of the Führer is truly a 10-year old’s fantasy iteration. Just like the boy imagining him, Hitler here possesses a confused naïveté about how the world really works and often fears the unknown. And just like the real Hitler, Jojo’s imaginary Hitler is full of bad advice that he insists you take to heart—except in Jojo’s universe, Hitler is also devouring a candied-unicorn feast during a period of wartime rationing.
The roundabout way Waititi wound up playing Hitler was years in the making, since he didn’t originally envision himself in that big of a role. He wrote his first iteration of Jojo Rabbit in 2011, sent the script around, and before anything happened he got the funding to make his vampire comedy feature What We Do in the Shadows (which later became a TV series). Shadows took up the next two years, and then he embarked on another film, this time from one of his old scripts, a 2004 adaptation of Hunt for the Wilderpeople), which also got greenlighted and took two years to make. Those successes landed him as co-writer/director of Thor: Ragnarok, which sidetracked Jojo for yet another two years. And finally, when he was ready to return to the project, it turned out Fox Searchlight was interested in Jojo and wanted Waititi want to play Hitler. Although he originally planned to take a smaller part, he realized he understood better than anyone all the nuances involved in the crafting of this character as an imaginary friend to a young conflicted boy. “I just hate explaining things to people,” Waititi says. “[Even though] I’m brown and look completely different from him, what made it easier for me was that I wasn’t trying to do an accurate portrayal of Hitler. I had fun with that character and a lot of fun writing it because I could make him as stupid as I wanted to. So for me, that made it a lot easier to play the role.”

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 40 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 40, view our Table of Contents.