Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes and everything in between. Today I’m joined by Taika Waititi, the writer, director and star of the film Jojo Rabbit and the producer of the TV adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows. Both of which have earned him Writers Guild Awards nominations this year. Before Jojo Rabbit Taika wrote and directed films like Sundance favorite Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok. We’ll chat about why he wrote a Nazi satire using fear as a creative motivator and how he engages with the indigenous filmmaking community. Taika join me via phone.
Kaitlin Fontana: Hi Taika. Thank you for joining us.
Taika Waititi: Oh, hello. Thank you for having me.
Kaitlin Fontana: So congratulations on your WGA award nominations for both Jojo Rabbit and What We Do in the Shadows.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, one of which does the actual writing on the other one all is minuscule amounts of [inaudible 00:01:09]
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. But from a piece of IP that you had a hand in creating in the first place.
Taika Waititi: Yes, yes. I’ll take that.
Kaitlin Fontana: So let’s first talk about Jojo Rabbit ’cause you’re in this place in your career where you could make anything from a quiet indie to a Marvel movie. So what made you choose and Nazi satire? How did this story get to you in the first place?
Taika Waititi: Well, at the time I was in no position to be making really anything, and when I wrote this in 2011, 2012 and I’ve made two features. So in the very New Zealand film and I was very much in the position of not being able to pick and choose my projects because there’s not that much money for New Zealand. Although I guess I had freedom to choose what I wanted to do because no one was listening.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, I guess, I could have made anything unless it, I really loved the idea of doing something out of my second film Boy, doing this film set in Nazi Germany. Even then it felt like a very weird move for me to do and it just so happened that I got financing to make What We Do in the Shadows with Jemaine and so I’d put the script aside and went up and made that and got distracted with that for two years, and then I got distracted with him for the Wilderpeople for another year and then got distracted with Thor for another few years and because then by the time I finally got out of Thor, I’ve kind of remembered that I had the script and I thought, Oh okay, well I’ll guess I’ll really try and make this now. And so it was always in my intention, but I guess after Thor, I just put more effort into doing it.
Kaitlin Fontana: So was there something about it came back to you, what was it that kept it in the back of your mind? ‘Cause you know, a lot of people will have scripts or projects that they, they want to make, but as other projects come up, they’ll have to let them go for one reason or another. So what was it about this in particular that kept coming back to you again and again?
Taika Waititi: I think the thing was that it was the best screenplay I’d written. I felt like, and even back in 2012 which goes to show how many things I’ve written even back then I thought what was the best thing that I’d written and then six years later, I still felt like that I felt I guess that I needed to make it because everything else after that might be worse. I wanted to give myself a shot at doing this film and I didn’t really know how it would turn out. I’ve never seen it as like a massively challenging thing or even a dangerous thing, I mean it felt dangerous in that if people didn’t like it, or this could have been the end of the road for my film career, but I had never seen, the film is like a really daring, daring thing. It’s more just, it felt like a challenge to make and I felt like it would have put me in a position where it would be very uncomfortable and I wouldn’t really know the outcome. That was a good thing.
Taika Waititi: I just get out of my comfort zone and that what I try and do in much of my films, do things where I feel like could be the end. And when I feel like that, then I feel like I’m, I’m going to put more of an effort to try and save myself. So going into it that was the feeling that I had to try and do the thing and do the best that I can, because it’s not very obvious movies even as a second film or even after doing Thor, it’s not a very obvious move to do something like this and I think that’s why I was attracted to it.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. And I, I guess that fear motivator is, is something that kind of keeps you on your toes as a director too as you move through it.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, absolutely otherwise, it feels kind of pointless if it feels really easy in like, like I just finished shooting it in Hawaii about soccer and kind of going back to my roots in terms of the style of shooting. It’s really short shoot 30 days and sort of making it all up as we go along. And that’s my comfort zone in a way but it’s sports, it’s about soccer and I’ve never done a sports film and also it’s about a sport that I know nothing about nor care about. So for me it was, again, it felt dangerous and I felt like, yeah, I can’t believe I’m going to be going out on a soccer film that I’m fraud and they know they take us all away from me. It’s going to be because of the sport I don’t even care about.
Kaitlin Fontana: So it’s sort of that combination of, of the fear of the, of the content and also the fear of the outcome in terms of you and your career combined.
Taika Waititi: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Exactly that. Other questions, very popular things to talk about. You’ve actually just been faking it from time to time and then someone’s going to find out.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. I think a lot of people are surprised when they hear someone like you talk about that, that notion of imposter syndrome, because I think a lot of us assume that you get to a certain point in your career and you don’t feel that anymore. But I, what I’m hearing you say is you feel it more acutely perhaps as time goes on.
Taika Waititi: I think as time goes on, exactly. It becomes more and more becomes a bigger thing. I think people, I think they might think that the people who’ve been doing it for longer time or are in a position in their career, that it doesn’t exist for them. I think they think that it doesn’t exist because, they feel well sure you’d be confident. At this stage, I feel like it’s just age and that eventually you feel like, I don’t really care anymore.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right.
Taika Waititi: [inaudible 00:07:26]
Taika Waititi: I feel I like have gotten away with it so long that you know, the stage do make really weird decisions with, what their going to do next, to try and write that and you’re them to come and find you.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. I mean, I can’t wait to be one of those old ladies who just like shouts into her phone on the streets of New York and doesn’t care that anyone’s listening. I’m, I’m really excited about that phase of my life and career.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah.
Taika Waititi: Right.
Kaitlin Fontana: So tell me a bit about the process of, of sitting with a story when you’re starting out. So whether it’s something like boy, which is obviously all you and your brain, or something like Jojo Rabbit, which is adapted, how do you sit with a story? Where do you start on a process level and, and when you’re writing the script, how do you personally dig in and get to the heart of a story?
Taika Waititi: I guess I sit with it without typing try to sit with it for a long time. All of my films have taken four or five years. They have a minimum, how long they take me to make. Probably the longest one I think might’ve been Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which would’ve been eight years. And I really believe in writing and then leaving the script for a long time and then coming back to it later. Yeah, I’d say probably took the shortest amount of time that was filmed that really didn’t sit with for a really long time because I just knew I wanted to do something that was like really spontaneous and a little clumsy and something that reflected kind of how the characters existed. This was something that was like just weird and in the moment.
Taika Waititi: The amount of time I’ll have the idea and I’ll think of the character or it’s been too much time, writing character descriptions and I never do that. I don’t do any research other than procrastination and the internet that’s what I would call research. Like I would write something, what car would this character drive?
Taika Waititi: The Magnum PI Ferrari and then I’ll spend four hours looking at Ferrari’s on the internet and then I’ll just wind up maybe another Ferrari, maybe it’s like a Toyota Camry and then I’ll spend two hours looking at Camry’s and then I’ll buy one and then eventually of the five that he’s just run apart so that the debugger research one and then I will, I will spend a long time wandering around, pacing sitting around in restaurants or hanging out with friends, waiting for something to happen, sometimes I’ll carry a notebook which usually ends up empty at the end of the project, or I’ll do some drawings in it. Eventually if I sit long enough, I’ll just start writing and it’ll hopefully start flying.
Taika Waititi: I’ve never written anything, you know, in order when I go to write, except for Jojo. Was the only script that I’d ever done as far as running from the beginning and I went all the way through to the end. [inaudible 00:11:01] Putting it all down on paper and I can’t really explain why, because I’ve never written like that how I’ve always written, I’ll start, it was the first thing or the last thing and I’ll move on to a few things in the middle.
Taika Waititi: Basically I’ll just write down the moments in the film that I can see or that I want to see in the movie, and then eventually if I have enough of them, then I’ll try to connect them all with some other glue things, I call them, find a little connecting pieces between these things and then hopefully it’ll feel like a movie. So you look at any of my scripts, there not great on structure because of that very reason I will [inaudible 00:11:48] out of this by written all the things we want to see in the movie and then I’ll figure out how to connect them.
Kaitlin Fontana: So your kind of putting puzzle pieces together. You’re seeing scene by scene or moment by moment and then putting those into place after the fact.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, its like getting a puzzle and then getting people from a different puzzle and then getting a hammer and just smashing them into a whole.
Kaitlin Fontana: I mean, I think you’ve got a method here. Everything from the deep dives on Corollas to smashing puzzle pieces with a hammer. I think you could write like a new version of the artist’s way that is like the Taika Waititi method.
Taika Waititi: Yes, yes. That’s right. I’m going to rewrite everyone else’s but just put my own little pieces that I want to read each other’s books and then screw all the other pages.
Kaitlin Fontana: So, so that’s the writing process. Rewriting obviously is another part of the puzzle so to speak. So do you have a specific approach when you’re rewriting or does it vary depending on the project?
Taika Waititi: So, what I usually do is I’ll write a script and then I’ll put a side and use your force to keep copy on online or my email and try to get rid of every other copy of it or any other proof that exists.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right.
Taika Waititi: But then I’ll go off and then I’ll move on to some other project and hopefully if I can like last a year or two, come back to it. And what’s been good for me is I’ve always had other projects going on. I can get distracted quite easily and I can move on to other projects. And usually what happens is like after a year or two I’ll come back to the script and I’ll read it and then I’ll throw that away, I’ll get rid of it. I mean I’ll definitely keep some copies on a hard drive or I keep it in the cloud, but then I’ll delete it. So I don’t look at it again I don’t reference it and I’ll try and rewrite the whole thing from scratch based on the latest reading of that old script. I think what happens, what’s good is that your 120 page script suddenly becomes 70 pages and because you’re writing from memory and it feels like you’re writing from memory of a script that someone else wrote.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.
Taika Waititi: The two years distant you’re no longer precious about you no longer, you don’t think you’re a genius anymore. The first draft that you wrote, with distance you read it and you’re like, Oh my God, I was an idiot.
Taika Waititi: I thought I was cooler and you become a different person because you read it and you can see that you were wrong and you know you can see the things that you thought you were trying to do and you can see the things that you think were great. That usually 80% of it you think, I can clearly see what I thought I was doing, but I wasn’t doing it. Then I feel like I have a better vision of the script. Very, very streamlined and very slim, and then I’ll put all of that. Then once I’ve got that, then I might open up the old draft again and look at it again and go okay, where there any other little bits of in here that I think were good and it might be like a joke or might be like just some things that kind of give it a little spice and try put that back in and that’ll add another 15, 20 pages. But usually by the end of the 100 page script it feels pretty good at that point.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. That’s very interesting. I’ve never heard, I mean obviously putting a script away is so important to be able to give yourself some distance as you say, but that is, that is an incredible amount of distance to get to the point where you have forgotten essentially who you were when you wrote that script.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, yeah. Every one of my scripts, every one of them I had at least three years on every single one where I didn’t look at them and well, Thor isn’t really one, of my scripts, but all the rest of them. Jojo I wrote in [inaudible 00:16:08] and I didn’t make until 2018. What We Do in the Shadows we started writing in 2005 didn’t make until 2012, Boy I was writing in 2004, no 2003 and started shooting in 2009, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople I started writing in 2004 and then didn’t shoot until 2014.
Kaitlin Fontana: Amazing, I mean that is sort of the way of feature filmmaking as we all know, but that requires an incredible amount of patience on your part I think too to be able to stick with a story or stick with characters that long and want to be able to come back to them in a way, where I feel like some writers wouldn’t be able to do that.
Taika Waititi: Well I think the problem is people write they have one thing and then that’s all they depend everything on one script that they’ve got. Where I’ve always had 10 and then TV things or so many other projects I don’t really care but like for instance Hunt for the Wilderpeople the first draft for that was so dramatic there wasn’t a single joke in it and at the end, Sam Neill’s character gets shot to death by the cops. Then after that Ricky Baker goes into foster care and he comes out and he lives on the streets and the whole thing ends with him living in a park eating out of the garbage can.
Kaitlin Fontana: Jesus. Yeah. Very different, a different film.
Taika Waititi: Well obviously [crosstalk 00:17:33] and devoid of hope, but that was who I was, that was the writer I was trying to be, in 2004 and thank God I left that script alone.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. Well that brings up an interesting point which is comedy writing, because I feel like, you have a specific set of rhythms that are very identifiable at least to people who have seen your films. To me at least I feel like there is a Taika Waititi way of writing and I wonder if you have a philosophy that you follow when were talking about comedy or joke structure or even just the comedic underpinnings of a film. Do you have a way of thinking about comedy that you apply when you’re writing or rewriting?
Taika Waititi: Not really, but it was, I don’t have any rules or a structure or anything other than just how I would like to see it a conversation happened and my favorite thing is writing dialogue, so that’s really what I say, if I say that I’m a writer of any kind, it’s usually just because I enjoy the dialogue and sometimes it would be based on conversations I’ve had and it was the awkwardness of conversation and I find that stuff really, really funny. Being at a party and trying to talk to someone and the awkwardness of you both knowing that there’s zero percent chance of this conversation going any further and make successful any kind of shuffle there on the spot thinking, am I going to be the one that will walk away, how do I get out of this, that’s what I find really, really funny.
Taika Waititi: I love that. Yeah. I kind of, that’s right, we’ll talk about I’m about to start writing and I’m looking for a writer and I was trying very hard to find other writers with my sensibility or who I feel comfortable with because I think when people, a scheme that you’ll, you want a comedy writer, the differences that the comedy writers in the States or most places they write comedy and I don’t think I write as a comedy writer, I think I write like somebody that makes dramas like really uncomfortable moments of drama that make you so uncomfortable you want to laugh. So yeah, because comedy writers change into a sketch, but then they smoke a joint then they just like talk about stuff. Yes, there’s very different styles of comedy, which I can’t write. I can’t write on any of these really successful big broad comedies [crosstalk 00:20:25] I actually don’t particularly I’m not attracted to comedy writing.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. [crosstalk 00:20:38]
Taika Waititi: I used to ride sketches with Jemaine and get them done but you would never see those sketches in my films.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. So it’s sort of the difference between a capital C comedy writing versus finding the inherent comedy in how people interact with each other.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. And is it all about interactions. Yeah. So, that like how [inaudible] human behavior.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right. And how much do you think being an actor yourself plays into that? Because I feel like a lot of actor writers or actor, writer, directors, like you sort of have that ear attuned more acutely because you have been on the other side of it.
Taika Waititi: I mean it don’t play a huge matter of it because I feel like I’ve got to, I mean I’m going to sound it all out while I’m writing it, so I have to try to how it happens, to steer the conversation, so I’ll be saying the voices a lot, like with Jojo I will be sounding off all the dialogue between Jojo and Hitler because I wasn’t really sure how this thing would sound in Germany and I used to understand the way that it is, the way that they, they interact when they have conversations in English. So I would play around with the characters quite a lot.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, yeah. You know Jojo rabbit included. One interesting thread I sort of see through your films is there are these sort of solo kind of lonely boys who are slowly kind of shown the true nature of adulthood by the adults around them. Usually the male adults around them.
Taika Waititi: Are you saying particular you want a story?
Kaitlin Fontana: I mean, I’m not saying that’s the only trick. I’m saying [crosstalk 00:22:34]
Taika Waititi: Weird isn’t it all my stories are about lonely little boys with no friends looking to father figures.
Kaitlin Fontana: If you want to talk about your daddy stuff, Taika I’m here. You can tell me anything.
Taika Waititi: Me talking about my dad stuff.
Kaitlin Fontana: Is that the unifying theory of it?
Taika Waititi: Very expensive therapy.
Kaitlin Fontana: Even more expensive than usual therapy.
Taika Waititi: Really millions of dollars of other people’s money. I do love families stuff though like Jojo is not for me is not really about dad’s it’s about mums. Jojo to me it’s really a to mothers, especially solo mothers. I was raised by a solo mother don’t realize how much she was doing for me, until I became a grown up, I just thought she was bearing, overpowering demanding all through my life. And so I was like, really, yeah it was like Scarlett’s character I base a lot on Ellen Burstyn and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Kaitlin Fontana: Oh wow.
Taika Waititi: I think is the greatest solid mother committed to screen. And so yeah, it’s definitely family stuff. [inaudible 00:23:50] Thor is about families. It’s really, it’s like it’s not a big leap. I think you’d see it right from the beginning probably in the comic books. There was always mum and dad and his brother. But yeah, it’s always about family because I think it was that it was talking about going to a party and there’s awkward conversation it’s unseen, even more so I think that family stuff.
Taika Waititi: The family dynamic you’ve got heroes, villains you’ve got, the protective, you’ve got the sensitive, you’ve got, all the different archetypes you can see within, around the Christmas dinner table. And I, that was, I would consistently go back to families because they are a constant source of interesting characters and interesting storylines. And then in there it’s really like all of humanity to get condensed down to the small time that group. And that whenever I’m with my family and works in the family, that’s where I spend most of my time sitting in the corner. Just watching.
Taika Waititi: And taking notes. Taking mental notes.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. I wanted to say that at TIFF a few years back, you on the red carpet, you shouted out an indigenous Canadian film. I loved growing up called Smoke Signals and I wondered, it got me thinking about the community of indigenous filmmakers, not just in New Zealand or in Canada where I grew up, but sort of worldwide and I wonder how much responsibility you feel to that community and whether how you engage with it now given that your work sort of doesn’t necessarily directly engage with indigenous issues anymore.
Taika Waititi: For right now I’ve cut them all loose. Left them all behind, that’s a part of life. No, I’m always in touch with every one and they’re still all my best friends and we still all support each other are still hard going home and on trying to make this TV shows, Reservation Dogs and yeah, it’s just, I guess that one did Thor, you know what I mean? In reality, I only did two films, four features as part of that world before that. I mean I’ve gone back I guess with this soccer film going back because I get to make a film in Polynesia. It’s 99% brown and just a real island film lot people from New Zealand and Samoa and one white guy.
Taika Waititi: I mean it’s great, it’s going back to my roots and it’s very much another indigenous film, and also I think Thor is a very indigenous film, there’s a lot of stuff in there, [inaudible 00:26:57] aboriginals that you will recognize, classism through that film like the spaceship that they escaped from Sakaar and we took the Aboriginal flag and then chopped it up and then skinned the spaceship was that, it was they survived. It’s like red, black and yellow and even outside of the story like we would wherever we’d go try [inaudible 00:27:26] what the local tribes are and get as many indigenous youth problems as possible to get experience and to, you know what departments they might be interested in. Yeah. Try to get as much local source as much local labor as possible.
Taika Waititi: Growing up, for me there wasn’t much of a film industry. So then you’d grow up dreaming, Oh, I was going, but now there’s so many it’s not as far fetched dream and we’re very determined they will make them to try and get the idea for kids come in and see if its the career they might be interested in.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s great. Well thank you so much Taika for taking the time today and I wish you luck at the Writers Guild Awards and with your new film, maybe you will grow to love soccer through this process.
Taika Waititi: Thank you. I’ll try.
Kaitlin Fontana: Thanks so much Taika.
Taika Waititi: Take care, see you.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode on writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East, tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East, online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the Guild on social media at WGA East and you can follow me on Twitter at Kaitlin Fontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Right on.