Just days before my conversation with Taika Waititi, the 44-year-old polymath managed to crack The Hollywood Reporter’s annual list of the “100 Most Powerful People in Entertainment,” placing dead last. So naturally, when it came time to chat, I had to ask him if he does in fact, feel powerful. Remember, it was not too long ago that Waititi found himself on the other side of the world in his native New Zealand, making tiny oddball movies like the misfit adventure Hunt for The Wilderpeople and the vampire mockumentary What We do in The Shadows. Three years later, he finds himself being mentioned in the same breath as the Spielbergs, Feiges, and Igers of the world.
“I just got in there!” Waititi says about barely squeaking onto the list. “I feel like there are 99 people who, if they don’t manage to get it done, they call in the big guns to come clean up the mess. If they can’t get it right, then I’ll be there.” And while Waititi may have been joking about his newfound status as Hollywood’s go-to fixer, there’s always truth in jest. When Marvel needed someone to inject some much-needed energy into its lifeless Thor franchise, they called Waititi. The result was Thor: Ragnarok, a trippy-as-hell space opera that had Waititi’s eccentric fingerprints all over it, while also fitting seamlessly into the MCU. The film catapulted Chris Hemsworth’s Norse viking to the top of Marvel’s heap of superheroes, and launched Waititi’s career into the stratosphere.
Case and point: Jojo Rabbit. Waititi’s first movie since Ragnarok is a high-concept satire about a 10-year old boy growing up in Nazi Germany whose mother (Scarlett Johansson) hates that her son’s a fascist-in-the-making, and who’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself), can’t get enough. It’s the kind of movie that’s better the less you know, so I won’t say much else. It’s also the kind of movie that only gets made by a director with the kind of carte blanche that only an $850 million Marvel movie can buy. Waititi wrote the script in 2012, and after using the ensuing years to mature both as a filmmaker and a man, decided it was finally time to make his passion project. Here’s Taika on the challenges of Hitler cosplay, his upcoming Thor sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder, and why no one should ever have to be reminded that Nazis fucking suck.
After the film premiered in Toronto, a lot of people were comparing it to Life is Beautiful but not necessarily in a positive way. Does that bother you at all?
I can’t really remember that film because I saw it 20 years ago, but I remember enjoying it a lot, so it’s not an insult to me. If they were saying “I see it as this year’s Crash,” then I’d be pissed.
The film has the potential to be very divisive—
Listen let me ask you a question mate. Why is it that in America, “divisive” is seen as a negative word?
That’s what I was getting at. It feels like you prefer making art that’s polarizing and that sparks debate, as opposed to something that’s more easily digestible.
I think it’s a great thing. I feel like if I was going to make something that’s super safe that no one talked about, then there’s no point in doing it. It’s just boring.
After Jojo’s premiere, my friend and I talked about it all night.
And that’s great isn’t it—that it has a life outside of the cinema. That’s the thing that makes me feel really great. The kiss of death for me would be someone going “Yeah, I saw the film. Interesting.” That’s a sort of weird, derogatory way of describing a film. It’s like eating a cake. It’s enjoyable while you’re eating it, and then you don’t really remember it. You got no nutrition. You’re not completely satisfied. Whereas, I feel like if you’re talking about it afterwards, it’s doing its job.
Your portrayal of Hitler isn’t exactly historically accurate. Did you give much thought to how you wanted to play him?
Up until about three months before we started shooting, I wasn’t even sure if I’d still be doing it. I kept thinking, “Well, I guess maybe I'll do it.” I did no development of my character, I did no real preparation, but I was also really busy stressing out trying to prep the film and find kids to be in it, so in a way, I felt like there was a chance that I’d get someone else to do it because I didn’t think there was a way I’d be able to devote any time making something decent. In the end, that was beneficial to the part. If I had over thought it too much, I maybe would’ve ended up with one of these horrible more authentic portrayals of Hitler, which I think would’ve ruined the movie.
Did you have to take an industrial-strength shower after each day of filming, just to get the Hitler off you?
Yeah. I definitely had a little process of taking off the clothes, which wasn’t the nicest thing to do for the wardrobe department. It was just taking off those trousers and shirts and jackets and sort of tossing them across the room into a pile, and some poor person from wardrobe would have to find them and clean them. It’s not an enjoyable thing to wear, so I tried as much as possible without breaking the costume or the stick-on mustache. I did try and be as disrespectful to that stuff as possible.
This is the first time Scarlett has played a mother on film. What did you see in her that convinced you she was right for the role?
I’ve never seen her play this kind of role before, but I do know her, and I know she’s a mother. I was already aware of the maternal side of her and the comedic side of her, which is very clownish and fun to be around, and she’s fiercely protective of the people she loves, including her child. So I feel like it’s one of the most “Scarlett” performances.
She very much tries to shield her child from the horrors of Nazi Germany. Do you try and shield your children from what’s going on around us in the same way?
To a point. I don’t want them to have to grow up cynical before their time. They’re only 4 and 7, so I don’t want them to realize that the world is shitty and full of sadness and there’s no hope for any of us. I’d rather project a more positive outlook on the world. I think I do have a positive outlook on the world and where we’re going apart from the environment. I like to think inherently that we’re all good and we will get our shit together.
Do you think kids should see this movie?
Yeah, I think they should. I’d say 11 or 12 is probably the sweet spot. Roman was 10 when he shot the film and he was very aware of the story. He’s a very sensitive kid and very informed with very smart parents who made sure he learned as much as he could about the period and about what was going on. I would say that this is the perfect film for a 10-year-old to learn about the atrocities of WW2.
With the rise of Nazism and the complacency with which it’s often met, it seems as though some people have chosen to forget. Do you think people need reminding that Nazis were actually evil?
Absolutely. And the sad thing is that at the end of WW2, there was a very simple and clear law. If you were a Nazi you went to jail. Now it’s very vague and blurry and the law seems to be if you’re a Nazi, you’re free to go have a rally down in the town square in most major towns in America or lots of other places in the world. That’s one of the sort of bullshit parts about freedom of speech, is that people don't realize there are clauses against specific things, like hate speeches and spreading these bigoted ideas. It’s messed up that in 2019, we even need a film that says “don’t be a Nazi.”
Do you credit the success of Thor with helping getting Jojo made in the first place?
Not really, because people wanted to make this film in 2012, but I don’t feel like it would’ve been as good as it could’ve been. I feel like I had to do a little bit more maturing myself, because usually what I’ll do is I’ll write them and then I’ll put them aside for years and then come back to them. That’s what I’ve done on all of my films. Pretty much all of my scripts had a minimum of 5 years between writing them and then rewriting them and then deciding to get them made, so I went out and made three other movies and Fox Searchlight had always been talking to me about doing it and had always really championed it.
After the premiere you told me that you had just finished the new Thor script and called it “Romancing the Stone in outer space.” Is that still where you’re at with it?
I hope so. I still want it to be that. Whether or not it feels like that at the end of writing phase—which will continue through the shoot by the way—is yet to be seen. But it has those elements of adventure in it.
People seem very pumped about Natalie Portman as the female Thor. Does that make you pumped?
Oh yeah, it's great. I'm glad they’re excited. They should be. It’s a cool storyline, or at least the parts of the storyline that we ended up retaining from the comic run, from The Mighty Thor run. But even then, having that character develop that way is amazing.
You’re also acting in the new Suicide Squad movie. Did you have to get the blessing from the folks at Marvel to do a DC Movie?
No, I didn’t have to because I’m my own boss, and that’s James’ movie, and James is coming back to do another Marvel film afterwards, so I feel like it’s cool. But eventually, we’re going steal all of those DC characters and actors and absorb them all.
You seem to take a “one for them, one for me” approach when deciding on projects. What informs your decision in terms of working on a huge blockbuster as opposed to something more personal?s
I feel like the pattern is more four for me one for them, two for me one for them, eight for me one for them. I like the idea of mixing it up and going back and forth. I’ve developed a passion for doing these studio films from doing Thor, which was such a great experience and I want to keep doing that. I haven’t worked with any other studios so I can’t tell how that would feel with another studio. I just know that I really enjoy working with Marvel, which is why I’m doing another one next year. But after the promotion for Jojo, I’m going off to do a movie about soccer, a very small little film that I decided to squeeze in before doing Thor.
You once told me that you’re not even a fan of soccer.
No, I don’t know anything about it. But that’s why I think the film is probably going to be good, because I don’t know anything about space Vikings either, and look how that turned out.