Director Taika Waititi on His ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Crew: ‘I Like Working With Nice People’

Taika Waititi jojo Rabbit BTS
Courtesy of Kimberley French/Fox Searchlight

To deliver the “anti-hate satire” of “Jojo Rabbit,” the story of a German boy who idolizes his own particular vision of Hitler before slowly learning the truth, director Taika Waititi followed a simple philosophy when it came to assembling his crew: “I like working with nice people.” 

Most of the members had previously collaborated with Waititi. For instance, costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, who recently made the Costume Designers Guild Assn. shortlist for her work on the film, also joined Waititi on “Thor: Ragnarok.” “She has such style and class,” says the director. “And she’s got a great eye.” Waititi says Rubeo traveled Europe to acquire the vintage textiles that brought the film’s costumes together. “She would haggle,” he jokes. 

It was through those travels that Rubeo met seamstresses who had knowledge of the uniforms that Hitler wore. That became useful when it came to assembling the outfits Waititi wore as Jojo’s vision of the character. The seamstresses would give feedback on how the clothes were made. As the film progresses, changes in Hitler’s uniform reflect the outside world. “As the Third Reich disintegrates, you see the clothes fray,” Waititi says. “By the end, everything is falling off, and the sleeves are ripped.”

Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“The Master” “The Hate U Give”) is new to Waititi’s crew. “We spoke on the phone and hit it off right away,” says the director, calling it an easy decision and an easy collaboration. Malaimare added color to World War II Germany instead of the bleak grays viewers are used to seeing.

Sam Rockwell, who plays Hitler Youth leader Captain Klenzendorf, was given a bit of a backstory that includes a penchant for partying. “He’s had this brief, flamboyant life. He went to clubs and longs to express himself that way,” Waititi says. By the film’s end, as Klenzendorf charges forward during the Allied attack, his uniform has transformed into an outlandish piece with feathers. 

Production designer Ra Vincent, who has worked with Waititi since 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” also scouted locations for the shoot. Vincent found what they were looking for in the Czech Republic, which offered a look that was accurate to the period thanks to the country’s history and its border with Germany. He also built Jojo’s home, giving it a vibrant color palette and warm tones to make it feel inviting. “All that detail he created was perfect, from the floorboards to the wallpaper,” Waititi says. “The rooms were all hand-painted.” 

The director worked with hair and makeup head Dannelle Satherley on three previous movies, including “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” Satherley was responsible for turning Waititi into Jojo’s early broad perception of Hitler as his best friend. Waititi jokes that the easiest part was sticking on the mustache. But she had to lighten his skin tone. “I’m browner than Hitler. It’s really hard to whiten someone up because no one is actually white. There were browns and reds, so she had to take me down a few shades.”

When it came to editing the project, Waititi tapped Tom Eagles, who cut the director’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” The most important factor was setting the film’s satirical tone right from the beginning. Black-and-white archival footage of Nazi propaganda was used to show crowds screaming and cheering for Hitler. A German version of the Beatles hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” played over the scene. “He’s so great at cutting things to music,” Waititi says, praising his longtime collaborator not just for getting the opening right, but also for telling Jojo’s story concisely.

“He can make things make sense … in such a short amount of time.” The film’s running time is a tight 1 hour and 48 minutes, which is just what the director wanted. “That’s really important to me,” he says. 

Michael Giacchino, who created the music for Pixar movies like “Up” and “Inside Out,” came on board to compose the “Jojo” score and give it heart. Keeping in mind the movie is a story told through the eyes of a 10-year-old, Giacchino delivered a score that was intimate and evolves with Jojo’s worldview, going from very narrow-minded to having his eyes opened through a friendship with Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Ultimately, Waititi, a longtime fan of Giacchino, had one simple requirement. “I wanted the score to sound like ‘Up,’” he says.