[Interview] Cinematographer commits to seat-of-your pants filming of ‘JOJO RABBIT’

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Just over three months ago, a movie that could have easily rolled away with its goofball humor defied the odds. Jojo Rabbit became one of 2019’s most beloved films.

The story — sprung from the eccentric mind of New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) — centers on the titular boy (Roman Griffith Davis), an enthusiastic 10-year-old who’s a Hitler Youth member and discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie). Waititi’s signature comedic spice comes in many flavors, but one of the more notable ones stems from his acting turn as the boy’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.

Jojo Rabbit garnered six Academy Award nominations last month, including best picture and adapted screenplay – the latter of which it took the golden statue for. Loosely based on the 2004 novel Caging Skies, the tale set during World War II disarmed audiences by incorporating warmth and laughter into a package that delivers a timely message about extreme nationalism and hate. Through Waititi’s left-of-center storytelling, viewers are able to experience a different perspective of a dark chapter in history.

To help Waititi convey his vision, Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. brought forward his expertise and unique framing.

Mihai Malaimare Jr. on set of ‘JOJO RABBIT.’ Courtesy photo.

Malaimare has worked on such acclaimed titles as Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master and 2018’s heartbreakingly topical drama The Hate U Give. Between his short- and long-form projects, however, one cannot uncover a common thread that holds his filmography together. The pattern of his cinematic efforts isn’t as crystal-clear as some of his colleagues’. To Malaimare, it’s essential to seek new challenges constantly — and that’s found in Jojo Rabbit.

In a recent phone interview to promote the film’s awards nominations and disc release, Malaimare shared that his greatest fear as a storyteller is to be placed in a box.

“Cinematographers are often categorized and told they are best at making a certain kind of film. I liked to be challenged,” Malaimare said. “I am attracted to stories that I have never done before.”

Waititi’s crop of films — and the offbeat and humorous spin that he puts on them — served as an avenue for Malaimare to further push his creativity and test his photography skills. Whether it was capturing an intimate moment between two friends or a battle in a town square, it was vital for both Waititi and Malaimare to plan but also allow happy accidents and last-minute changes improve the story.

“I’ve worked with many directors [like Anderson and Francis Ford Coppola], but it’s interesting when you can find similarities between them. Taika likes to be prepared but not over-prepared, because he likes to improvise as well,” both as an actor and director, Malaimare said. “You may get an idea the night before shooting a scene, even if it means changing everything. That can be a nightmare for all the other departments of filmmaking, but sometimes that is a risk worth taking.”

Malaimare storyboarded certain scenes, like the battle sequence toward the film’s end. Waititi wanted to be prepared because there were so many moving parts to consider, such as the explosions on set and visual effects that would be added later. Malaimare explained that scenes like the battle would take 30 minutes to reset because of safety measures that have to be taken into account.

Courtesy photo.

But what makes Jojo Rabbit a more impressive achievement from a visual standpoint is how quickly it had to come together. Four days after completing reshoots on The Hate U Give, Malaimare flew over to Prague in the Czech Republic to start the planning with Waititi.

“We were full speed ahead. We wanted to make our way through camera tests and lens testing,” Malaimare said. “Naturally, when you read a script, you have your own movie in your mind. The biggest challenge for me was to try to understand what Taika wanted to illustrate on-screen. Due to the shooting schedule, I didn’t have that much time to see things out. I planned with Taika’s other movies in mind and immediately jumped straight into prep.”

Compared to Malaimare’s other films, he wasn’t able to have a lot of time to visualize the scenes. The short window between projects limited his personal exploration. As stressful as this may sound, Malaimare found that it kept him from overthinking scenes and allowed them to flow more organically.

One scene essential to the story’s emotional arc is a scene in which the Gestapo arrive to inspect Jojo’s house. They enter and search his room. To Jojo and the audience’s surprise, the Jewish girl, Elsa, appears to pose as Jojo’s sister. During their routine, the Gestapo discover a book made by Jojo that comically exaggerates the origin of Jewish culture and how the Nazis can defeat the Jews.

Waititi’s script, and the way the uniformed actors play the scene, highlight the comedic side of the moment while McKenzie’s tear-filled performance as Elsa and Malaimare’s camera-push home in on the underlying emotions.

When asked about his process for creating a seamless marriage between the comedy and drama of the scene, the cinematographer said he put his complete trust in Waititi.

Courtesy photo.

“It’s a tremendous amount of teamwork, of course. It’s funny because, especially for that scene, I remember that it was one of those moments where we had to change our approach. I remember getting a call from a producer the night before shooting that scene about how Taika wanted to visually lean into the comedy by having the Gestapo wear black and glasses,” Malaimare said. “It altered almost everything of what I had in my head.”

He said they needed to shoot in script order, and everyone was getting stressed by the lack of time.

“Despite the conditions, it led to some of the most amazing moments,” he said. “How Taika shifted from comedy and drama in the snap of a finger, we didn’t prepare for that. It was a matter of trusting him.”

Malaimare analyzed other scenes, including the high-frame rate tracking shots of Hitler dancing in the woods, and one particular scene involving a character’s shoes. But ultimately, through it all, what appealed most was Malaimare’s recognition in the power of a love story.

“I think about Jojo as more of a love story. It, of course, addresses a very tough subject,” he said. “But it’s astonishing how your world can be turned upside down when you watch a love story unfold. It can make you a better person.”

Jojo Rabbit is now available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital HD.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.