TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Jojo Rabbit" won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. My guest Taika Waititi wrote, directed and co-stars in the film. He may be best known for directing the hit Marvel film "Thor: Ragnarok." Waititi's earlier films are set in New Zealand where he's from. That's where he first started doing comedy with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, who became known in the U.S. for the HBO comedy series "Flight Of The Conchords." Waititi is part Maori, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand, and part Jewish.
His new film "Jojo Rabbit" is a satire about a 10-year-old boy named Jojo in Nazi Germany who has just become part of the Hitler Youth Organization. He's being indoctrinated to hate Jews and taught how to kill with knives guns and grenades. Insecure and lonely, he's created an imaginary version of Hitler, who he turns to for guidance and reassurance. After he's accused of being a coward, because he refused to kill a rabbit as part of his Hitler Youth Training, he talks to his imaginary Hitler, who's played by Waititi.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOJO RABBIT")
TAIKA WAITITI: (As Adolf) Poor Jojo. What's wrong little man?
ROMAN GRIFFIN DAVIS: (As Jojo) Hi, Adolf.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Want to tell me about that rabbit incident? What was all that about?
ROMAN: (As Jojo) They wanted me to kill it. I'm sorry, I couldn't.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Don't worry about it. I couldn't care less.
ROMAN: (As Jojo) But now they call me a scared rabbit.
WAITITI: (As Adolf) Let them say whatever they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. Oh, this guy's a lunatic. Oh, look at that psycho. He's going to get us all killed. I'll let you in on a little secret. The rabbit is no coward. The humble little bunny faces a dangerous world every day, hunting carrots for his family, for his country. My empire will be full of all animals - lions, giraffes, zebras, rhinoceroses, octopuses, rhineoctopuses (ph), even the mighty rabbit. Cigarette?
ROMAN: (As Jojo) Oh, no thanks. I don't smoke.
GROSS: One day, when Jojo is alone at home, he's shocked and terrified to find a teenage girl behind one of the walls. At first, he thinks she's a ghost. But then he learned she's a Jew who is being hidden from the Nazis by Jojo's mother. Jojo has to figure out how to respond.
Taika Waititi, welcome to FRESH AIR. I have the novel...
GROSS: ...Your movie - hi (laughter). I have the novel your movie is based on sitting right next to me. I haven't read the whole thing. I've read parts of it. It is by no means a comedy. Why did you decide to take this novel and take a lot of liberties with it but also turn it into a comedy?
WAITITI: Because I don't really know how to do the straight drama and have no real interest in doing that. I think there are plenty of filmmakers who do it very well. And I don't think we need another depressing filmmaker in the world.
So I stick to what I'm good at, which is making films and telling stories which have a mix of those tones. Yeah, a mix of - a little drama here and a little comedy here and a little horror and included an imaginary character, who happens to be Adolf Hitler. That's really the - yeah, where that came from. It's not necessarily just like, oh, I think, you know, this will be nice and controversial and this will spark some debate 'cause I'm from New Zealand. We don't - we're not necessarily into doing that sort of thing. We're too polite to want to be the bad boys of cinema.
GROSS: He's being indoctrinated as a member of - as a new member of Hitler Youth. And you could see how kids are - you know, a comedic version of how kids are indoctrinated. But for him - for the boy - for the 10-year-old boy, it's kind of like he's in, like, the Bill Murray movie "Meatballs," which is this kind of, like, wild and crazy summer camp where kids are bullied and everybody's crazy. So I was wondering if you were thinking about that at all.
WAITITI: I wasn't thinking about "Meatballs," but I did watch a lot of documentaries, and it's pretty much exactly what had happened...
GROSS: Yeah. So you were watching documentaries on Hitler Youth, but I'm bringing up meatballs, so yeah (laughter). But - so what did you see? What did you see?
WAITITI: Most of the things in the film are taken from reality, so the stuff - all the stuff on the - in the Hitler Youth camps and - the - you know, with the training and everything. They throw knives at trees and - yeah. And they're doing all these exercises and war games and stuff. It's all completely based in reality. I think the ones that I watched were made in the '90s - late '90s...
GROSS: I see.
WAITITI: ...And early 2000s. And they talked to a lot of the people who were in the camps. And - yeah - and the interesting thing that those people were saying is that when, you know, when they went into these camps, it was like you didn't want to be left behind. If every kid in your neighborhood or in your town was going to these, you know, to be indoctrinated and joining this thing and getting a cool uniform and getting a knife and all these things, the last thing you want to do is be left out. So every single kid wanted to be part of it. And, you know, if you were to say, oh, no, I don't want to be part of that, then it just spelled the end for you. You know, you would be bullied and, you know, ostracized.
So, you know, everyone knows what it's like to be 10 and to want to fit in and to want to be part of the group, and so everyone did it. And when they joined, the - their instructors and the leaders of those groups and those institutions, they made it very clear. They said, rebel against your parents. Don't listen to them ever again. We are now your parents, and you should only listen to us and our advice. And if your parents speak up against us and if they criticize the party, if they criticize our methods and anything like that, you tell us, and then we'll deal with it.
So in this film, you know, Jojo's mother is very much on the opposite side of the fence from the Nazis. And she wants to shield her son from the staff. And she's desperately trying to kind of coax him away from this way of thinking. But she's caught in a very, you know, in a very difficult position because she knows that if - you know, because he's indoctrinated and he has been brainwashed - that if she speaks up about this stuff and says, hey, Jojo, this is not the right way to be thinking, and also, by the way, I'm hiding this girl in the attic, that he - there's a very real chance that he could go and tell on her. And that would be the end for her.
GROSS: You cast yourself as Hitler in "Jojo Rabbit." Why did you take that role for yourself?
WAITITI: Well, when I was writing - I mean, if you're to look at me, you - I'm not the obvious choice to play Adolf Hitler in anything.
GROSS: You're not the perfect representation of Aryan blood (laughter).
WAITITI: I'm not, by no means, an Aryan-looking person.
WAITITI: But when I was writing the film, I had no intention of playing that role for obvious reasons. And Fox Searchlight got in touch and said, we really - we've always loved the script. We really want to make it, but we only want to make it if you play Hitler. And it was - so it was their idea, really. And I've put myself in all of my films. So, you know, I felt like when I was writing this film, I was like, well, there's no way I can put myself in this because this is my whitest film yet, and I'm a brown Polynesian from New Zealand. And I just can't really figure out a way to justify being in this. But they told me, yeah, look; we think you - you know, you've written that particular character a certain way. You know, we think that it's more effective if you play it because you know exactly how you want that character to be.
Also, if we had had a big celebrity playing Hitler in this film, it would've cast a shadow over the heart of the film, which is this relationship between these two kids and the relationship between Jojo and his mother. And it would have just become the celebrity - insert celebrity name here - Hitler film. And I feel that actually would have hurt the film more if it was - if the only talk about this film was, oh, have you seen the film where so-and-so plays Hitler? And so in a way, it's better to have someone who's not famous playing that role.
GROSS: Let me re-introduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest the screenwriter, director and actor Taika Waititi. And he wrote and directed and co-stars in the new film, "Jojo Rabbit." We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is screenwriter, director and actor Taika Waititi. And his new film is called "Jojo Rabbit," and it's about a 10-year-old boy in Nazi Germany who becomes a member of the Hitler Youth Organization and is indoctrinated. Meanwhile, his mother, who is not a Nazi sympathizer, who opposes the Nazis, is sheltering - is hiding - a teenage girl in the crawlspace of their home.
The boy who plays the 10-year-old boy in the film - Roman Griffin Davis is the name of the actor - is really just terrific. He's so expressive. And his eyes are so big and round, and they register pain and enthusiasm and fear, like, so well. How do you cast a 10-year-old? Like, what's an audition like for a 10-year-old so that you can really see not only how they perform on screen but if they can handle the stress of carrying a movie because he's on camera most of the time?
WAITITI: Well, in my opinion, you don't actually have to do much in the auditions with them. You just you just get them to do it. And you can work out pretty fast whether or not they're intelligent enough or if they have the emotional maturity to deal with these themes or just even, you know, being in a scene. I don't - I've never - I've worked with kids a lot, and I've never tried to force a kid to be something that they're not because that's where your ruin their performances, and that's when you get into this, like, American child acting thing. And so for me, the, you know, the best thing to do is to try and cast a kid who is as close as possible to the character that you have written. And then all they have to do - and it's harder because, you know, it's - you really have to search far and wide. And it takes a lot longer. But once you've done it, once you've found that person, all they have to do is learn the lines and just be themselves.
GROSS: So you mentioned - you referred to the American child acting thing. What do you think about when you say that? Like, what are you...
WAITITI: Well, you know what I'm talking about. I'm joking (laughter).
GROSS: I think I do, but I'm going to get you to say it anyways (laughter).
WAITITI: You know, all this kind of acting where you shake your hands to, like, you know, to just really, like, show that you mean something and, like, you know, do all this, you know, gesticulation when you're acting and that sort of Nickelodeon style of acting that these poor children have been forced to adopt. And I feel like, you know, the best acting for a child that I've experienced - and I'm just talking about in my work - is with kids who have never acted before. You find natural talent when people who are just being themselves and they don't have any - there's nothing else going on. Their parents haven't been brainwashed into this idea of, like, oh, job after job. And then what? Oh, now we're going to get them a Twitter account. And now we're going to get them an Instagram account. And now we're going to get them a team with an agent and a lawyer and a manager.
You know, we had people - these kids come, and they go, I would just like some time off school to go and hang out on a movie set. And that's really it. They just want to come and, like, experience something new. And that's why I never promise them anything other than they're going to be in this film. And that's why I feel like I get really great performances out of kids if you're honest with them and you say to them, all I want is for you to be yourself. Don't overthink it. Don't take any acting lessons. Don't watch other child actors and, like, copy anyone else. Just be you because that's the reason I've cast you is because of who you are.
GROSS: You were nominated for an Oscar a few years ago for a short that you'd done. And you know how it works at the Oscars. They name each person who's nominated. As that person is named, the camera closes in, like, zooms in on that person. So as your film was named and then the camera moves over to see you, you're sleeping, or you act like you're sleeping. I mean, the whole thing was a joke. But did the Oscars people and did the camera person and the director know you were going to be doing that?
WAITITI: No, no one knew I was going to do that. I'd mentioned it at - you know, I think everyone thought it was a joke. I'd mentioned it a few nights before to the other nominees. And I said, oh, wouldn't it be funny if we were all pretending to be asleep because I've heard this is going to be really boring? And then, I don't know, I just ended up doing it. And, I don't know, I found it funny.
GROSS: It was funny. What kind of reaction did you get from the people who were running the show - from the director and the camera person? Were they - like, did they get it was a joke right away, or were they worried that you were actually sleeping?
WAITITI: I didn't get to talk to any of the people from the show or anything like that. We just - you know, I just did that. And then the show was over. And then everyone left. But in New Zealand, there were, like - there was some strong reaction in New Zealand, actually, that I found hilarious. They were - I think because, you know, New Zealand, like, they like to be embarrassed where it's like the thing - you know, if someone's sort of getting too big for their boots or they, you know, they're doing too well, you've got to find a way to sort of bring them down and prove that they're not actually that good at what they're doing and, you know, sort of humble them. And so - so yeah. So after that happened, there were, you know, there were a couple of people who'd wrote stern letters to a local newspaper saying that it was very disrespectful to do that, which I found...
GROSS: Any regrets?
WAITITI: (Laughter) No.
GROSS: Taika Waititi, thank you so much for talking with us.
WAITITI: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Taika Waititi wrote, directed and co-stars in the new film "Jojo Rabbit."
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES")
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gilbert Gaul, author of "The Geography Of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, And The Cost Of America's Coasts." He investigates the role of developers in creating risky housing and how federal subsidies encourage coastal development in spite of the obvious risks and then pay for rebuilding when disaster strikes. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today as Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.