EXCLUSIVE: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ editor – Tom Eagles – In Conversation

Hello Film Doctor friends.

This week saw the UK release of Taika Waititi’s simultaneously solemn and humorous world war two comedy-drama Jojo Rabbit which following a young Nazi’s journey into realising that his beliefs might be wrong. The film – which features Taika as the child’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler, and Scarlett Johansson as the mother, Rosie – has received Golden Globes nominations for Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actor (for 12-year-old Roman Griffin Davis’s turn as the titular Jojo) in the Musical or Comedy categories.

The Film Doctor team are proud to present our chat with Jojo Rabbit‘s editor, Tom Eagles, who is ACE Eddie award nominated for his work on the project.

Here we discuss Tom’s approach to the film, how Taika likes to work on edits and more with another Film Doctor In Conversation.  

Imaginary Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) in the woods
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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Tell us how you and Taika started working together and what your process is like.
The first time I met Taika, I woke up and he was on my couch. That was in our younger days. He was, for a long time, a starving artist couch surfing around and mine was one of those couches. But I really got to know him through my wife Dannelle, who was Make Up Designer on Boy and the first thing I did for him was trailers for Boy. Then came What We Do in the Shadows, then Hunt for the Wilderpeople and now Jojo Rabbit.

So tell us a bit about the process on Jojo Rabbit. How much research did you do into the period? What conversations did you have?
Taika doesn’t like me to do too much. He likes me to be a clean slate. So I didn’t over-research the period. It’s a period that I’m interested in and have done some reading on anyway but I’m the first audience so I need to come to it fairly clean and not be some sort of historical expert.

In terms of conversations beforehand, we’ve worked together a lot already so tonally I know where his filmmaking sits and he was very clear that he wanted it to be of a piece that goes with his other work. It’s loosely connected to Boy and Wilderpeople. We did talk a little about other films. He’s a huge Hal Ashby fan and he reminded me to watch all those again. We talked about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in terms of the mother character, Rosie. We talked about Elsa being one of the girls from Heathers; kind of cool and cynical on the surface a little detached but you can break that shell if you get to know her.

There was a little bit of talk about other filmmaking. I do remember a conversation about the scene in which Jojo discovers Elsa being a little bit of a horror film from his point of view because he’s been so brainwashed by propaganda that he believes that she’s a monster. The whole film is very much from his point of view. That was something we toyed with from early on; How far could we take it? How scary should it or could it be? We didn’t want to take it too far. It’s still a Taika film. It’s not The Ring.

 

Were you assembling during?
Yes. I was in Prague. I wasn’t on set. I don’t like to be too close and too influenced by what the geography is or what’s going on on set. I was across town, given the dailies every day and cutting things throughout the shoot.

Actually, a little bit before the shoot because we had archive material.

We were cutting through the shoot and then we re-located from Prague to LA and Taika took a little break while we did that. Over about two weeks I made an assembly. He encourages me to kind of put forth any ideas in a relatively tight assembly (it’s still pretty massive) but even from the get-go, he’ll give things a chance. He’ll cut scenes and lines. He’s very open to everybody’s ideas.

 

How close does Taika get to the finer cuts? Does he like to stay away from it and keep fresh?
He does a bit, yeah. He likes to come and go from the edit. He’ll go and work on another project for a little while and try to get a fresh perspective and a bit of distance from it. I get buried in the dailies and he goes off and does something else and comes back to it with a lot of fresh thoughts and new perspectives.

The other thing we do is screen a lot. We screen once every couple of weeks just for friends and family in the edit suite. Then slowly, bigger and bigger, on the Fox lot, and then full on test screenings. I think we had about four with a few hundred people. You learn a lot just by sitting with people watching it together – before even talking to them – and seeing their reactions.

The audience was always vocal – not just the laughs but there’d be gasps too and talking back at the screen. I don’t know whether it’s just that kind of movie but people seem to participate a little bit. So it was a really fun process testing the film.

 

What did you cut it on and how long did you have?
I cut it on Avid. The whole process took about a year but it wasn’t always full time. Like I said, I took a break and worked on What We Do in the Shadows and then we took a long break over Christmas and was a stay-at-home dad for a while while my wife did a job. It’s hard to say. Probably six to nine months of actual editing. It’s a long time but that’s how Taika likes to work. He doesn’t rush it. He wants to try everything and get a lot of perspective and that takes time.

 

Jojo Rabbit actor/writer/director/producer Taika Waititi on set
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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The film follows the de-radicalisation of a child who’s been brainwashed to obsessively hate. You’ve handled the mixture of comedy and raw emotion beautifully. How did you navigate the project sensitively?
It was at the forefront of our minds all the way through; walking that tightrope, re-engaging people with the subject matter.

Humour opens the door for people and allows them to look at things that maybe they don’t want to look at or at things they think they already know. Humour was always important to us but we had to make people feel like they could laugh which was a difficult thing given the subject matter.

One of the things that changed later in the process is that we added Hitler – Jojo’s imaginary idiotic Hitler – to the opening scene. Taika always does pickups and they shot multiple versions of that opening scene to give us options and one of those options included his version of Adolf. One thing it did was give Jojo a sounding board to express his self doubt but it also planted a seed that this is going to be a comedy about Nazis and you’re going to laugh and you might not feel comfortable about that but that’s what it is. It established that right up front.

The other pivotal scene is the hanging scene where Jojo and Rosie come into the square and they see the bodies hanging. That was a moment that said “yes, this is a film about Nazis and that’s what Nazis do.”

It was always a process of balancing those elements. Ultimately through the whole process, it became a slow slide from comedy into something more heartfelt by the end of the film. So, particularly in the third act, we pulled out a lot of humour. We didn’t want to take it all out because we felt it would be a betrayal of what we’d established and we still wanted people to be leaving the cinema uplifted and like they’d seen a comedy but engaged emotionally along the way. 

 

One last thing. The German versions of The Beatles and David Bowie. Was that something decided in the edit or beforehand?
Well, Taika already had in mind, if not on paper, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Heroes for the end – and then I think I discovered the Roy Orbison track through the process of the edit. It felt like it needed one more. We did try a whole lot of others. We went through a whole library of German versions of pop songs usually sung by the original artist. It was a great era where people did that. Three was enough though.

 

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