How Taika Waititi made Jojo Rabbit

Several planets needed to align to pull off Taika Waititi’s tonally daring Jojo Rabbit.

Several planets needed to align to pull off Taika Waititi’s tonally daring Jojo Rabbit — which included finding a young actor capable of carrying the picture. The filmmaking team talk about the journey from page to screen.

When Taika Waititi read Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies in 2011, he put his money where his mouth was and optioned the book himself. “Taika’s very entrepreneurial,” says Carthew Neal, who runs Piki Films (the Maori word means to ascend, climb over or get on) with Waititi and produced both Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit. “He has always taken the key role in developing, writing and optioning his material. In New Zealand, we have a funding system a bit like the UK, and a lot of people wait for the funding to write their script. What I love about Taika is he doesn’t. He’s like, ‘If you want to make a movie that much, write your script.’ So he did. He didn’t wait for anyone to give him permission.”

Waititi hoped Jojo Rabbit would be the follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 debut Boy. While the script had plenty of admirers — it made the Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood in 2012 — everyone Waititi and producer and wife Chelsea Winstanley developed it with wanted a big star to play Adolf Hitler, Third Reich leader and imaginary friend to the eponymous Jojo. Unable to secure a name actor, Waititi put Jojo Rabbit aside and went home to New Zealand to direct What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople.

Then, in 2017, while Waititi was in post-production on Thor: Ragnarok, Fox Searchlight called to say they would be willing to back Jojo Rabbitif if he played Hitler. Waititi agreed and Searchlight and TSG Entertainment came on board to the tune of $14m. With financing in place, Waititi turned his attention to finding his 10-year-old Jojo, bringing in UK casting director Des Hamilton to lead the search. “Des is known for his street casting, because that’s where we find less cultivated performers — people are more real,” says Neal. “Taika was looking for someone who, at that age, could just be themselves, rather than be acting too much.” Hamilton scoured the UK, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and the US without success. “Then Roman came out of the blue,” says Neal of Roman Griffin Davis. “We were only a month, six weeks from shooting, so were really cutting it down to the wire, and we were lucky to nd him. We had the most incredible audition with him, where we had three or four scenes to do and it was half an hour and he just had this incredible intensity about him and connection with Taika.”

While Davis had not acted before, his mother is shorts filmmaker Camille Griffin and his father cinematographer Ben Davis, whose credits include Captain Marvel and Guardians Of The Galaxy. “I worked with Ben years ago, making commercials,” says Waititi who did not know Roman was Davis’s son until after he had been cast. “He comes from this beautiful family of filmmakers, and what’s interesting is he had been on set a couple of times on his dad’s films, but had never acted, which I found fascinating. But he was also incredibly smart and informed, and he had done a lot of research. For his callback, he had decided to educate himself on the Holocaust. He’s a very caring kid, and the first time he saw me dressed as Hitler, he got emotional, because he knew the connection, and what it meant. So I knew I was in good hands working with him.”

Joining Davis were 18-year-old Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s attic; Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie; and Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, leader of Jojo’s Hitler Youth troop. “Searchlight have a big relationship with him,” says Neal, “because he had won the Oscar with them the year before [for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] and he was interested in the duality of this fallen soldier who was gay, basically.” Rounding out the cast were Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen and Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. The latter was another of Hamilton’s discoveries. “He’s an amazing find. A crazy, hilarious kid,” notes Neal.

This article originally appeared on sister title ScreenDaily.com.

How Taika Waititi made Jojo Rabbit
JoJo Rabbit. Credit: Kimberley French/20th Century Fox
How Taika Waititi made Jojo Rabbit
JoJo Rabbit. Credit: Kimberley French/20th Century Fox

Several planets needed to align to pull off Taika Waititi’s tonally daring Jojo Rabbit — which included finding a young actor capable of carrying the picture. The filmmaking team talk about the journey from page to screen.

When Taika Waititi read Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies in 2011, he put his money where his mouth was and optioned the book himself. “Taika’s very entrepreneurial,” says Carthew Neal, who runs Piki Films (the Maori word means to ascend, climb over or get on) with Waititi and produced both Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit. “He has always taken the key role in developing, writing and optioning his material. In New Zealand, we have a funding system a bit like the UK, and a lot of people wait for the funding to write their script. What I love about Taika is he doesn’t. He’s like, ‘If you want to make a movie that much, write your script.’ So he did. He didn’t wait for anyone to give him permission.”

Waititi hoped Jojo Rabbit would be the follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 debut Boy. While the script had plenty of admirers — it made the Black List of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood in 2012 — everyone Waititi and producer and wife Chelsea Winstanley developed it with wanted a big star to play Adolf Hitler, Third Reich leader and imaginary friend to the eponymous Jojo. Unable to secure a name actor, Waititi put Jojo Rabbit aside and went home to New Zealand to direct What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople.

Then, in 2017, while Waititi was in post-production on Thor: Ragnarok, Fox Searchlight called to say they would be willing to back Jojo Rabbitif if he played Hitler. Waititi agreed and Searchlight and TSG Entertainment came on board to the tune of $14m. With financing in place, Waititi turned his attention to finding his 10-year-old Jojo, bringing in UK casting director Des Hamilton to lead the search. “Des is known for his street casting, because that’s where we find less cultivated performers — people are more real,” says Neal. “Taika was looking for someone who, at that age, could just be themselves, rather than be acting too much.” Hamilton scoured the UK, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and the US without success. “Then Roman came out of the blue,” says Neal of Roman Griffin Davis. “We were only a month, six weeks from shooting, so were really cutting it down to the wire, and we were lucky to nd him. We had the most incredible audition with him, where we had three or four scenes to do and it was half an hour and he just had this incredible intensity about him and connection with Taika.”

While Davis had not acted before, his mother is shorts filmmaker Camille Griffin and his father cinematographer Ben Davis, whose credits include Captain Marvel and Guardians Of The Galaxy. “I worked with Ben years ago, making commercials,” says Waititi who did not know Roman was Davis’s son until after he had been cast. “He comes from this beautiful family of filmmakers, and what’s interesting is he had been on set a couple of times on his dad’s films, but had never acted, which I found fascinating. But he was also incredibly smart and informed, and he had done a lot of research. For his callback, he had decided to educate himself on the Holocaust. He’s a very caring kid, and the first time he saw me dressed as Hitler, he got emotional, because he knew the connection, and what it meant. So I knew I was in good hands working with him.”

Joining Davis were 18-year-old Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding in Jojo’s attic; Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother Rosie; and Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, leader of Jojo’s Hitler Youth troop. “Searchlight have a big relationship with him,” says Neal, “because he had won the Oscar with them the year before [for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] and he was interested in the duality of this fallen soldier who was gay, basically.” Rounding out the cast were Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen and Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend Yorki. The latter was another of Hamilton’s discoveries. “He’s an amazing find. A crazy, hilarious kid,” notes Neal.

This article originally appeared on sister title ScreenDaily.com.

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