If American fans of New Zealand-native Taika Waititi’s (it’s pronounced TYka) writing and directing work didn’t stay to watch credits, there’s a chance they didn’t know he’s also been acting in his own films. He cameoed as Gordon, the late brother of the lead character, Jarrod, in “Eagle vs Shark,” played the unnamed title character’s dad in “Boy,” the vampire Viago in “What We Do in the Shadows,” the minister in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and the rock man Korg in “Thor: Ragnarok.” New Zealanders would have known who he was because of his pre-directing acting career as well as his stint as a standup comic, both in New Zealand.
So, it’s no surprise to see this writer-director who still loves to act appear once again in his newest film “Jojo Rabbit,” this time in the juicy role of Adolf Hitler - or at least a nonsense-spewing, totally idiotic version of him, who exists only as an imaginary “friend” of a lonely young German lad. The boy, Jojo, has his innocent sense of right and wrong challenged by the emotional chaos of WWII. Waititi adapted his script from the 2004 novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens.
The book was an imaginative, but serious study of why war is bad and why hate is wrong. Waititi kept the messages of the book intact but managed to make a film that works as a biting satirical comedy, with flashes of outrageous hilarity. He spoke about the film by phone.
Q: You’ve been wanting to make this film for a long time. Is it true that you got the idea from your mother?
A: That’s right. In 2010 she recommended I read the book. So, I did and it was brilliant. Then I decided to pursue the rights and try and turn it into a movie. I was able to see the film in my head. I could feel the tone of the film and everything. I finished the first draft of the script in 2011 and then I kind of put it aside for a few years and went and made three other movies.
Q: And you pretty much just got a call, out of the blue, from Fox Searchlight in 2017?
A: That’s exactly what happened. I was in post-production of “Thor,” and that’s when Fox Searchlight got in touch. They’d read the script and they wanted to make the film. They gave me a lot of freedom and they’re also very smart people. So, when they had notes or ideas, I tended to listen.
Q: Did you go back to that original script and begin rewriting it?
A: I dusted off the script and made another couple of passes on it. After a couple of drafts, it was only about four or five months before we started making the movie.
Q: You were definitely rather loose in your adaptation. For instance, there’s no imaginary Hitler in the book, but he’s a main character in the film.
A: I decided on imaginary Hitler probably about nine or 10 months after I’d read the book and after I’d started doing some work on the script with a friend. Then it came to me, in an epiphany! The idea just came out of thin air - of the boy and Hitler. I don’t know why. I can’t explain why.
Q: Did you write the part for yourself?
A: No. I had no intention of playing this character. I mean, look at me. Do you see what I look like? It makes no sense. Originally, we were just going to go to various actors - white actors - and ask one of them to do the role. But I think because the people at Searchlight were familiar with my work and knew that I’m willing to put myself in my films, they had the idea that I could play him and they encouraged me to do that.
Q: You were raised in New Zealand by a single mom, and the character of young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is raised in the film by Rosie, a single mom (Scarlett Johansson). Is Rosie based on your mom?
A: She’s a mixture of my mother and Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Q: The film opens and closes with familiar pop songs sung by the original artists in German versions. The Beatles kick it off with “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) and Bowie ends it with “Helden” (“Heroes”). At what point was that musical decision made?
A: I knew it right from the very beginning. “Heroes” in German was in the first draft of the script. The Beatles one was not, that was originally a Nick Cave song.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.