Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter time travels back to World War II for Jojo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi entered the big leagues a few years back with his first blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and he followed it up in 2019 with his sixth feature film, Jojo Rabbit, which went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards and win for Best Adapted Screenplay. (But yes, his best film remains 2015’s utterly hilarious and eminently rewatchable What We Do In The Shadows.) The World War II-set comedy is beloved by millions and recently came home to Blu-ray/DVD.
The good news is that the film is accompanied by special features including interviews, outtakes, and a commentary track. The bad news? Waititi’s commentary track is among the least informative, entertaining, and essential I’ve ever heard.
So, uh, keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Commentator: Taika Waititi (writer/director/actor)
1. “Hi everyone, I’m Taika Waititi, your favorite New Zealander other than Sam Neill and Cliff Curtis and Peter Jackson.” His failure to mention Melanie Lynskey is duly noted.
2. He correctly points out that a disc’s commentary track is “usually something that people don’t even know exists in the extra features.” Unfortunately, he then proceeds to treat his commentary as if literally no one is listening.
3. The Beatles spent several years in Hamburg, Germany and recorded German versions of their popular songs while they were there, “as did Johnny Cash, as did David Bowie, as did Roy Orbison.”
4. The forest scenes were filmed in the Czech Republic, and it “was full of weird European bugs, and I was in a fat suit for the entire shoot.”
5. He calls Stephen Merchant (who plays Deertz), and when the actor asks what kind of insight he’s looking for Waititi responds “as you know, no one listens to these, so whatever you want to say. Feel free to say it cuz this will be the only time it’s heard.” I’m listening Waititi, I’m listening.
6. Merchant struggles to get Waititi to actually give good commentary, but he seems to get nowhere with his questions until he praises Michael Bay’s commentary track on The Rock (1996). “What Bay gave me, unlike you, was Bay gave me a genuine insight into the filmmaking process.” Waititi responds that no one cares, but Merchant persists. (Thank you Stephen Merchant!)
7. Waititi uses storyboards sporadically. “It really depends. If there’s quite a few actors then I will start boarding everything and figuring it out beforehand, and then if not, if it’s something that’s relatively simple I’ll make it up on the day.”
8. Regarding the visual style, Waititi wanted something bright and colorful as most films covering this period are often desaturated with dull tones. “I wanted to show something that was actually a bit more authentic to the colors of the time. Germany was the height of fashion and design and textiles.”
9. He doesn’t like to give a lot of direction to actors. “I don’t feel it’s necessary if someone knows the words and can say them relatively fast and not maybe feel like they’re ‘acting’.”
10. Merchant had never done accents before as an actor, so he worked with a voice coach until he was confident with his effort. He was still nervous performing, though, until day two of filming when he grew more comfortable with the cast around him.
11. “I don’t like the idea of seeing people hang,” says Waititi, and that’s what led in part to the reveal of Rosie’s (Scarlett Johansson) death without showing her face. He adds that seeing your dead loved one is an intimate thing, and that we didn’t “have permission” to see what Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) saw.
12. Waititi has known Thomasin McKenzie (she plays Elsa) since she was “very, very little” as he’s friends with her parents from New Zealand’s theater scene. He tasked her with watching Heathers (1989) to give her the vibe he was looking for with the character. She’ll next be seen in this year’s Lost Girls and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho.
13. Jojo Rabbit is based on Christine Leunens‘ novel Caging Skies, a book that Waititi’s mom loved before turning him onto it as well. “Imaginary Hitler is not in the book,” he adds, although the rest of the story’s main characters are.
14. Early drafts showed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) as being too proud during his introductory speech, and Waititi changed it as he felt the man should be more disillusioned. He was also originally written to be hung in the end, but Waititi changed it seeing as we had already seen Jojo’s mother hung.
15. Waititi does a pretty enjoyable imitation of Eddie Murphy’s laugh.
16. “There was a lot of time, just me chilling in Prague,” says Rebel Wilson (she plays Fraulein Rahm) who was in the city for a month but only shot for seven days.
17. Wilson suggests that anyone listening to the commentary both loves the film and is excited to hear all the juicy behind the scenes production details. “I’ve basically given no information about anything so far,” adds Waititi, telling no lies.
18. Wilson was driving in Beverly Hills and heading to the Fox studio lot when Waititi called, and as that’s where he’s recording she actually joins him in the recording room for the next 20 minutes of the commentary… all of which they remain silent for.
19. Waititi originally planned on doing the stunt himself when Hitler is kicked through the window, but he instead went with a professional stunt person. We’re one hundred minutes into the movie so it’s probably too late for him to get a professional to do the commentary in his place as well.
20. David Bowie’s “Heroes” was in the script’s ending from the very beginning. “It just felt like an appropriate song to end the film on,” he says adding that in addition to its themes the song also feels right due to it being recorded in Berlin. Elsa’s hiding place in the house was one of the last remnants of Nazi Germany for the film, so her leaving the house signifies her escape, and the song compliments that journey.
21. One of his reasons for making Jojo Rabbit was the realization that after World War II people cried that “we should never forget,” but given the behavior of “certain people in certain parts of the world” it feel to him like we are forgetting.
22. Maybe listen to Michael Bay’s commentary on The Rock instead.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This is my feel-good movie.”
“What can I say about what you’re looking at. There’s a kid. He’s white. He’s got blue eyes.”
“New Zealanders aren’t good at taking compliments, but I’m starting to learn because I live in America, and it’s all they live on over here.”
“A lot of people always say they want to rehearse but then they don’t ever really have time to rehearse.”
“We’ll always have the goulash.”
“If you’re not a little bit smart you probably won’t like this movie.”
“Maybe I’ve run out of things to say.”
Look, Waititi is a funny guy and a talented filmmaker, but good gravy is this Jojo Rabbit commentary track a major disappointment. It’s quite possibly the worst I’ve ever sat through, and that’s due more to his disinterest than to the actual lack of content. Other tracks are boring, but hearing him comically complain that no one listens to commentaries only to then deliver an extremely lackluster one himself is just obnoxious. “Let’s watch this next bit together,” he says repeatedly before disappearing for anywhere from five to ten minutes at a time. This is not how you get people to listen to commentaries Waititi!
It’s most frustrating because he’s shown himself capable of far better — his solo one for Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and his shared one with Jemaine Clement for What We Do in the Shadows (2015) are fantastic listens — but here he’s either too uninterested or too tired to make even the slightest effort. It’s unclear when he recorded it, so maybe it was immediately after production and he was exhausted? Maybe it was far more recently and he was simply tired of talking about his movie? Either way, it’s a damn shame for those of us who dig the peek behind the filmmaking curtain in the form of production details and anecdotes. There are still plenty of people who enjoy listening to commentary tracks, and to all of you, I say you can most definitely and most unfortunately skip this one.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.