Less than two weeks after its world premiere at TIFF, and just a month before its scheduled theatrical release in October, Taika Waititi seemed visibly nervous trying to find funny answers to serious questions about his upcoming black comedy Jojo Rabbit, which seems appropriate for what is basically a coming-of-age love story set against the backdrop of WWII. 

Waititi himself portrays a make-believe Adolf Hitler as the imaginary best friend to a young and impressionable German boy who is adamantly part of the Hitler Youth, and whose worldview is tested when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic.

“It’s not a comedy about World War II. It’s a love story about World War II with some jokes.” - Taika Waititi

Still, while the film is expected to do well at the box offices (and might even be a dark horse candidate for a Best Picture nomination), Waititi had to work hard to create a both a film and a performance that could be fun and humorous, but still create a world that is as sad and tragic as the darkest stages of war.

Blending Comedy and Tragedy

“I quite love films that are set in the darkest of environments, but then finding the light in those dark places.”

Speaking with the audience after the Fantastic Fest screening, Waititi spoke about how his own preferences for both watching and making films which are set in dark and tragic settings, yet are able to use those same oppressions as a way to create narratives that are heartfelt and true.

These dynamics of dark and light characters and themes have been seen in many of Waititi’s more personal projects like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the past, as well as perhaps in the upcoming Thor project for Marvel which is set to be titled "Love and Thunder".

jojo rabbit'Jojo Rabbit' (2019)Credit: Fox Searchlight

On Portraying Adolf Hitler

“I didn’t do any research. I didn’t like the guy and didn’t want him to give him that honor.”

Many of the most memorable lines and scenes from Jojo Rabbit come from Waitit’s surprisingly wholesome (and often adorable) performance as the imaginary Adolf Hitler who appears only to the 10-year-old protagonist Jojo. Waititi, who was understandably “uncomfortable with the idea of going method with Hitler,” creates a vaudevillian character who is closer to the Hitler depicted in old Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons that many of the more serious cinema portrayals.

This was done with intention according to Waititi. He wanted to create a Hitler that was borne purely from the imagination of a 10-year-old kid who’s only been fed propaganda his whole life. And while the result is quite humorous in performance, the lines are peppered with dark reminders of the war’s greatest atrocities.

jojo rabbit'Jojo Rabbit' (2019)Credit: Fox Searchlight

Casting and Working with the Right Kids

“80% of working with kids is just picking the right kids.”

Speaking about the film’s two young leads (Roman Griffin Davis who plays Jojo “Rabbit” Betzler and Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr, the Jewish girl hiding in the Betzler’s attic), Waititi talked about how the approach to casting is often much more important than any directing tricks you can use on set.

Having worked with child actors in the past (also on Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Waititi is a firm believer in not looking (or asking) for kids who can act and “become someone else” like grown-up actors do, but rather looking for those who can be comfortable enough to give authentic and real performances as themselves.

'Jojo Rabbit' (2019)'Jojo Rabbit' (2019)Credit: Fox Searchlight

Telling Stories That Need to be Told

“I do think it’s important that we keep telling these stories again and again. And I think you have to retell it in interesting new ways.”

In a surprisingly somber moment from the director and star, Waititi talked with the audience about why he felt that choosing to tell this story, based on a book given to him by his mother years ago, was something he “needed” to do. And for a film that wrestles with the questions of if is it just a comedy or just a tragedy was something he felt he was uniquely able to tell.

In a line that echoes in the movie (and is included in the trailer), Scarlett Johansson, who plays Jojo’s mother tells her son, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”