Taika Waititi & Stephen Merchant Talk Hope, Hate and Jojo Rabbit at Fantastic Fest 2019

Taika Waititi has been making hilarious, well-liked movies for more than a decade. His comedic voice is incredibly distinctive, with What We Do in the Shadows perhaps being the prime example. It’s the type of filmmaking that manages to round up loyal devotees.

But Hollywood became much more aware of the New Zealand-born filmmaker when Thor: Ragnarok was released and went on to become a huge hit for Marvel. So how does one follow-up such a huge blockbuster? With an unconventional World War II movie the likes of which we’ve never seen, Jojo Rabbit.

Much ink has been spilled over this movie, largely due to the hook, which is that Waititi is playing an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler. But the movie is much more than that. Jojo Rabbit recently screened at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and Waititi, along with star Stephen Merchant (The Office, Logan) made the trip to present the movie to a welcoming crowd.

Related: JoJo Rabbit Trailer: Taika Waititi Is Hitler in Anti-Hate Satire

I was lucky enough to participate in a roundtable chat with the people behind what may very well be an Oscar contender later this year. To start things off, we discussed how one pitches a movie such as this. As one can imagine, it wasn’t so simple and, undoubtedly, the success of Thor: Ragnarok helped get this thing greenlit.

Taika Waititi: It’s a hard thing to pitch for sure. In 2011 when I was trying to describe the idea to people, I wasn’t even pitching it, just describing the idea to friends, people in the industry, almost immediately you’d see their eyes glaze over. The look on their faces, “This might not be a good idea.” People feel there is a saturation of World War II Films. That we’ve heard the story before. My theory is you can’t hear it enough. 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, “Let’s never forget what happened.” Then the Guardian did a poll in the states and 66 percent of the people didn’t know what Auschwitz was. 44 percent of millennials, I think, had no idea. Hadn’t even heard the word.

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

Taika Waititi: “I don’t want to hear about it! That wasn’t me! That wasn’t my generation! That was like a thousand years ago, wasn’t it?” It was 75 years ago. That to me means it’s important to keep telling the story. I don’t think it gets boring. To keep reminding ourselves, and sometimes you have to use humor to do it. It’s why I think all of my films… I like to think they use humor to draw in an audience before delivering the real message of the film. The profound and deeper themes of the film.

Discussion then turned to comedy and satire. There has been much discussion about what is too far in comedy? Where is the line? No question, this is a movie that will test those boundaries for some, but both Waititi and Merchant feel WWII was worth looking at through this lens.

Taika Waititi: I balance it by just asking audiences and testing the movie a lot to see 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. Whereas the British…

Stephen Merchant: We do not give a damn. We will say anything in order to get a raise from people. Do you know the thing that struck me when I read the script? It’s the use of humor to satirize something as hideous as antisemitism. It reminded me of… I’m a big Marx Brothers fan, and Groucho Marx famously wrote a letter. His daughter went to a Beverly Hills country club with friends. She was young. They wouldn’t let her swim in the pool because the country club didn’t allow Jewish people. They knew her father was Jewish and they wouldn’t allow her to swim in the pool. And Groucho writers a letter to the club in which he said, “You wouldn’t allow my daughter to 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 find very emotional about the absurdity of prejudice. I think that’s what Taika’s film does. Once you start to pull the tread, it starts to fall apart in your hands, because it’s so irrational. I think that’s what he’s done so magnificently. I think that’s when humor, more than anything, can undermine prejudice and antisemitism, or anything like that, because it just fundamentally shows the inherent absurdity and the illogic of it.

Taika Waititi: The other thing with that, does using comedy trivialize things? Does it make the Nazis seem like kids? If you look at all of the designs of their uniforms, they were children. They were just teenage boys who thought, “What’s cool? What can we put on our uniforms that looks cool?” On their hats they’ve got skulls and crossbones. Lightning bolts on their belt buckles everything is all basically pirate-themed or to do with Norse gods… In a way they were living their own fantasy. That, in itself, is absurd, if you pick apart each part of the way that they presented themselves. They were so all over the place with their design influences. Take a bit of ancient Rome, take some of the Norse stuff, take some pirate things. I think when you look at each little aspect of who they were from that point of view, it becomes easier to lambast them.

Stephen Merchant: I think also, people talk about the rise of neo-Nazis now and this idea that you only have to speak about it in such pious and po-faced terms. I think the reason humor is so powerful in undermining anyone like that is the thing they trade on is fear and respect. They want you to respect them, and the more you undermine it, they can’t stand it! It’s the one thing that any dictatorial and fascistic person, it’s the reason they ban art and theatre and cinema and censor it. It’s because they don’t want to be criticized. They’re terrified of criticism because it undermines and it weakens them. It’s the reason that Taika’s film is in a long lineage of people, right back the war itself, mocking Hitler and the rise of fascism. There was a documentary on the radio the other day about the BBC German division employed comedy writers to write sketches at the expense of Hitler to broadcast on the BBC German service so that the people of Germany would hear it during the war and undermine and mock him. To me there’s an irreverence that you need to treat some of this subject matter with.

Taika Waititi: Trump hates it

Stephen Merchant: He’s terrified of it.

The chat then shifted to the need to hope in the world. The hope that things can get better, which is a major theme in Jojo Rabbit. As it turns out, that’s a current theme for many people, but it’s something that was almost stumbled into by accident.

Taika Waititi: I wrote it before Trump got in. I wrote it at a time where there was still small pockets of hate groups and things popping up here and there, but nothing like now. When I came to make the film, he had been in power for two years, and just in those two years seeing how much the world had changed. Not just America. I was noticing on the news with hate groups and acts of intolerance. It did feel very timely. I think that’s the thing, again like Stephen was saying, with bullies, you have to keep making fun of them. Like, in high school, the only way to really get back at a bully was to make fun of them. That would drive them even crazier because they would often not know how to fight back something like that. Because once you make someone the butt of the joke and everyone’s laughing at this one person, it’s much harder to come up with an intelligent response to that than it is to just punch someone. Which is why I think you see this thing with Trump, he’d 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 him that he’s willing to put off running a f***** country.

Charlie Chaplin famously gave Adolf Hitler a send-up in his classic comedy The Great Dictator. Waititi was then asked to weigh in on which movie, Chaplin’s classic or Jojo Rabbit, Hitler would have hated more. The honor still goes to Chaplin, in Waitit’s eye.

Taika Waititi: I still think The Great Dictator.

Stephen Merchant: Most surely.

Moving on, the chat shifted to themes in the movie. While it’s true there are greater themes about society, war and hatred, there is something most every single person on the planet can relate to at its heart. As Waititi explains, for him, it’s about mothers.

Taika Waititi: Well the film really is about mothers. It’s about families but for me mainly mothers. I grew up with a single mother and she did everything she could to protect me from certain prejudices and ideas in the world, and to people. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I really realized the efforts she went to. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is probably the main touchstone for this film. What Ellen Burstyn’s character is in that film to her son… that was a big thing for me.

While this movie will be remembered and talked about for many things, an imaginary Hitler being just one of them, it’s also loaded with great performances. Leading the way is Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo. So how did he come to be in this movie?

Taika Waititi: He’s an incredible kid. A really 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 had done. Enough to know that this guy was a real prick. He ended up being quite emotional when he first saw me dressed like that. And that for me is the key, finding kids who are sensitive and very open. 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 is such a smart and intelligent and very emotionally sensitive kid that it made it a lot easier to tell the story, and it helped a lot with humanizing Jojo. Which is I think one of the dangers. Some people even think that the Nazi kids were just born that way, which is ludicrous. You’ve got kids who are brought up to think like that today. It’s just the way that they were educated and the way that they were brought up.

This is a movie that flips a lot of things on its head, from WWII tropes to the way it handles its characters. Talk shifted to Thomasin McKenzie’s character, Elsa, who is a Jewish girl being harbored by a German family. Waititi opened up a bit about the process of hammering that character down.

Taika Waititi: I didn’t want it to feel, and I hope I did an alright job of this, I didn’t want the film to feel that it was telegraphed and that it was just another film about World War II. You expect the same things from the parents and the same thing from the girl who is living upstairs. But for instance, with Elsa’s character, she was asking if she should go and visit camps and do all of this research. And I said, “Yeah, you should absolutely go and do all of that stuff. But you should also watch Heathers, because that’s how I feel like your character exists in this world. I feel that she was probably the coolest of her group at school and now has been forced to live in some strangers 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 now was to live in this attic with no food. I’d want to get back at these people and I’d want to manipulate this 10-year-old kid to do what I wanted, because it’s about survival. It was about trying to twist the expectations a bit with a film like this. But also not to be too cynical, which is a comedy danger.

Lastly, we discussed Waititi as an actor. Not only does he appear here as Adolf Hitler, but he plays Korg in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was the lead in What We Do in the Shadows and has taken a role in The Suicide Squad. As it happens, Waititi only got into filmmaking so that he could write himself movies to be in.

Taika Waititi: 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 with me.” So I still enjoy it. I enjoy it more now that I get to decide what I get to do. This whole filmmaking thing has just been a very long attempt at becoming an actor. There are easier ways, I’m sure.

Stephen Merchant: Just audition more!

Taika Waititi: I love the idea of doing this character because I have no interest in doing a real depiction of Hitler, because I feel like that would be too stressful. I like this idea of this goofy guy, who is basically a 10-year-old’s version, who is maybe a mixture of his father and other people. There’s no real link to Hitler at all in this, other than the one speech in the kitchen which was one of his speeches that he did.

Jojo Rabbit arrives in theaters on October 18 from Fox Searchlight.