[Fantastic Fest 2019 Interview] Taika Waititi and Stephen Merchant Discuss The Idiocy of Hatred and The Power of Humor

Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit celebrated it’s US Premiere at the 2019 Fantastic Film Festival, wrapping audiences in a warm and hilarious blanket of emotional satire. Our very own Kimberley Elizabeth said “JoJo Rabbit, and films like it, force us to look at the past with a renewed and reinvigorated horror of a message we should all actively remember,” calling Taika Waititi’s performance “hilarious as JoJo’s Hitler, staying aloof and silly enough to never offend, but still to confront us with the presence of the world’s greatest Boogyman.” Read the full review HERE.

Jojo Rabbit tells the story of a little German boy doing his best to live up the expectations of his war-torn and backwards-thinking country, with the help of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. The film stars Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, and Rebel Wilson, as well as Stephen Merchant and writer/director Taiki Waititi. We had the opportunity to chat with them after the Fantastic Fest screening about the idiocy of hatred, and the power humor has to topple the world’s worst monsters.


“…humor, more than anything, can undermine prejudice and anti-semitism because it just fundamentally shows the inherent absurdity and ill-logic of it.”


How do you go about pitching this movie to a studio?

Taika Waititi: It’s a hard thing to pitch, for sure. In like 2011 I was trying to describe the idea to people, I wasn’t even pitching it, just describing it to friends or people in the industry. Almost immediately you’d see their eyes glazing over with this look on the faces of “Mmmm, this might not be a good idea”. It’s why I think also that there feels like there’s a saturation of world war two films and that we’ve heard the story before, but my theory is that you can’t hear it enough because,- I said this last night at the screening- It’s important to keep telling the story again and again in different ways because people actually do forget what happened. They did say after the war, “Lest we forget”, let’s never forget what happened. And then the guy did a poll in the States, and 66% of the people that asked did not know what Auschwitz was, and like 44% of Millennials, I think, had no idea, had never even heard the word.

Stephen Merchant: They find it very triggering, if anyone explains it to them. They’re triggered. They don’t want to hear about it.

TW: Oh yeah. ‘That wasn’t me. That wasn’t my generation. It was like 1000 years ago, wasn’t it?’And so that, to me, means that it’s important to keep telling the story and I don’t think it gets boring. I think it’s important to keep reminding ourselves, and sometimes you have to use humor to do it. That’s why I think all my films- I like to think that they use humor to draw an audience in before delivering the real message of the film, or the more profound and deeper themes of the film.



There’s been a lot of discourse over the last year about ‘when does satire go too far?’ and ‘how far should comedians push boundaries?’ and you pulled it off. You took a super sensitive subject and satirized it, and it worked. What do you think is the key to artists not crossing that line between ‘Oh, this is excellent and hilarious,’ and ‘Oh, my God, this is very uncomfortable and shouldn’t be happening’? How did you balance that when you were making [Jojo Rabbit]?

TW: I balance it by just asking audiences and testing the film a lot, and seeing what people’s comfort levels were like. New Zealanders, we have a more polite style of comedy. I don’t think we like to make people feel bad about themselves, so I don’t think there was ever a chance that this would push it into the zone of really uncomfortable and inappropriate storytelling. Where as the British [gestures toward Merchant]

SM: [laughs] We do not give a damn. We will say anything. You know, the thing that shocked me when I read the script, [was] the use of humor to satirize something as insidious anti-semitism. It reminded me of this- I’m a big Marx Brothers fan, and Groucho Marx famously wrote a letter [after] his daughter went to a Beverly Hills Country Club with friends. She was young, and they wouldn’t let her swim in the pool because the Country Club didn’t allow Jewish people, and they knew her father was Jewish, and they wouldn’t allow us in the pool. Groucho wrote a letter to the club in which he said, “you wouldn’t allow my daughter swim in the pool although I’d like to point out that she’s only half Jewish. Can she go in up to her waist?’ What’s brilliant about that is it pulls at the thread in a way that I feel very emotional about the absurdity of prejudice, and I think that’s what Taika’s film does. Once you start to pull the thread, it falls apart in your hands because it’s so irrational and I think that’s what he’s done so magnificently. I think that’s when humor, more than anything, can undermine prejudice and anti-semitism because it just fundamentally shows the inherent absurdity and ill-logic of it.


“…in a way, they were living their own fantasy and that in itself is absurd […] when you look at each little aspect of who they were, from that point of view, it becomes easier to lambaste them.”


TWThe other thing that people might ask [is] “Does using comedy trivialize things and does it make the Nazis seem like kids”? If you look at all the designs of their uniforms, they were children. They were just teenage boys who though “What’s cool? What can we put on our uniforms that’s cool”? On their hats it’s got skulls and crossbones, lightning bolts on their belt buckles. Everything is all basically pirate themed, and to do with Norse gods. It’s like anything that they thought, ‘This would look cool!’ ‘How about this?’ ‘Oh this would look so cool if we had sunglasses and a big hat with skull and crossbones’. So, in a way, they were living their own fantasy and that in itself is absurd if you pick apart each part of the way that they presented themselves. And they’re so all over the place with their design influences as well. ‘Alright, take a bit of ancient Rome, take some of the Norse stuff, we’ll take some pirate themes-‘ so I think when you look at each little aspect of who they were, from that point of view, it becomes easier to lambaste them.

SM: Well also- people talk about the rise of Neo Nazism and so on now, and this idea that you have to speak about it in only very pious and po-face terms. Again, I think the reason that humor is so powerful in undermining anyone like that is because the thing they trade on is fear and respect. They want you to respect them and the more you chip away and undermine it, they can’t stand it. It’s the one thing that any dictatorial fascistic person- the reason they ban art, and theater, and cinema and the sensor it is because they don’t want to be criticized because they’re terrified of criticism because it undermines and it weakens them, and it’s the first thing- and I just think that its the reason Taika’s film is in a long lineage of people, right back to the war itself, mocking Hitler and the rise of fascism. I mean, there was a documentary on that radio the other day about [when] the BBC German Division employed comedy writers to write sketches at the expense of Hitler to broadcast on the BBC German service, so the people in Germany would hear it during the war, and undermine and kind of mock him. To me, there’s an irreverence that you need to treat some of this subject matter with.



Did you realize how current this was when you were writing it?

TW: No, because I wrote it before Trump got it. I wrote it in a time where there were still small pockets of hate groups and things popping up here and there, but nothing like now. And so when I came to make the film, he had been in power two years, and just in those two years, just seeing how much the world has changed- and not just America- I was noticing how much I was seeing this in the news with hate groups and acts of intolerance. So it did it did feel very timely but, again, what Steven was saying- with bullies, you have to keep making fun of them. Like, at high school, the only way that you can really get back at a bully was to make fun of them, and that will drive them even crazier because they would often not know how to fight back [against] something like that because once you make someone the butt of the joke and everyone’s on your side, laughing at this one person, it’s much harder to come up with an intelligent response to that, then is to just punch someone. Which is why, I think, Trump would rather take time away from running the country to tweet back at Christine Teigen because he’s so upset that a celebrity might make fun of that he’s willing to put off running a fucking country.

Just thinking about your film being part of a long standing tradition of satire, if Adolf Hitler was able to see your movie and Chaplin’s Great Dictator, which one do you think would piss him off the most?

TW: I still think The Great Dictator

SM: Surely.

TW: Didn’t he- well, who knows if this is true but, wasn’t Adolf’s mustache inspired by Chaplin? I think he was inspired but then, year’s later The Great Dictator came out and he was very upset, but I think he’d committed to this thing [laughs]. 

SM: ‘I can’t shave it off!’ 

TW: ‘Noone will recognize me! It’s my signature’

Can’t repaint the posters.

TW: That’s right, yeah. ‘Who printed all the posters!’ [laughs]


it’s much harder to come up with an intelligent response to [being made the butt of a joke], then is to just punch someone”


One of the understated themes of the film for me is that this is a movie that has very anti-despair […] and I just want to know your thoughts on that, and despair as opposed to engaging.

TW: Well, the film really is about mothers and families, but for me mainly mothers. I grew up with a single mother and she did everything sh, e could to protect me from Predujices and certain ideas in the world and people. It wasn’t until I became apparent that I really realized the depths she went to. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is probably the main touchstone for this film and what Ellen Burstyn’s character in that film is to her son, you know, taking him, dragging him across the country, trying to make money but also being the biggest clown in his life, being his best friend, and being his biggest source of inspiration was a big thing for me making this. 

You get such a wonder performance out of him. What was the process of coming down to him as an actor and giving him the role?

SM: When you say him, do you mean me? [Laughs]

TW: Yeah, he’s an incredible kid, and very sensitive. When I first came onto set dressed as Hitler, he got quite emotional. I’m not sure how much research he’d done, but enough to know that this guy was a real prick. And that, for me, was the key. Finding kids who are sensitive and who are very open, and engaged. You know, you don’t want a kid who doesn’t care about anything. Who doesn’t care about people or doesn’t want to do the research, or doesn’t care about history but Roman [Griffin Davis] is such a smart, and intelligent, and very emotionally sensitive kid. It made it a lot easier to tell the story ad it helped a lot with humanizing Jojo. I think one of the dangers is that some people think that even the Nazi kids were just born that way. Which is ludicrous because there are kids who are brought up to think like that today. It’s just the way they’re educated and the way that they’re brought up.


jojo rabbit 2019 review


A lot of times at films, when we have that nature versus nurture discussion, it usually goes the opposite direction, versus what you see here. I was curious, when you were approaching this, were you conscientious of how you were taking that idea and turning it on its head?

TW: I didn’t want to feel too obvious, or that everything was telegraphed, and that it was just another film about World War Two, and you expect the same things from the parents and the same thing from the girl who’s living upstairs. For instance, with Elsa’s character she [Thomasin McKenzie] was asking if she should go and visit camps and do all this research and all this stuff. I said, yeah, you should definitely do all that stuff, learn as much as you can but you should also watch the Heathers because that’s how I feel your character exists in this world. She was probably in the coolest group at school and now is being forced to live in some stranger’s attic. I know if I was a teenager, if I was 17 years old and I was in the cool group at school, I would be pretty pissed off that my lot in life and now was to live in this attic [with] no food. I’d want to get back at these people, I’d want to manipulate this 10 year old kid to do what I wanted, because it’s about survival. So that, for me, was about trying to twist, a little bit, the expectations of a film like this and also not to be too cynical, which is like a real comedy danger. I think most of my films have quite a lot of heart and embrace a bit more simply by the idea of being sensitive. 

You give a genuinely incredible performance in this movie but you’re known as a writer, director, filmmaker, what is your relationship to acting in general?

TW: I’ve put myself in every single thing I’ve done. I started as an actor and then became a filmmaker because there were not many acting jobs in New Zealand. So I was like. “I’ll write my own stuff and put my friends in it’. I still enjoy it. I enjoy acting more now that I get to decide what I get to do. This whole filmmaking thing has just been a very long attempt at just becoming an actor. There ar easier ways I’m sure [laughs]

SM: Just audition.

TW: [laughs] But, yeah, I love acting. I loved the idea of doing this character because I’m not interested in doing a real depiction of Hitler because I feel like that would be too stressful. So I liked this idea of this goofy guy is basically just a 10 year old’s version of maybe a mixture of his father and his idol, and other people, so there’s no real- I’m starting to think there isn’t any real link to Hitler at all in this [laughs] other than the one [bit] in the kitchen was one of the speeches that he actually did. All that, enemy coming to the wolves lair’ [Rolls eyes].


JoJo Rabbit celebrated its U.S. premiere at the 2019 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Read all of the coverage of our festival here, and join the conversation with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!


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