Uncaging Jojo

Award-winning movie Jojo Rabbit was written and directed by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington alumnus Taika Waititi, but it began with a book called Caging Skies, written by alumna Dr Christine Leunens.

one woman between two men at opening of film Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens and Carthew Neal at the premiere of Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight)

While Dr Leunens was studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), she received a call from Taika, who had been inspired by his mother Robin Cohen to read Caging Skies.

Taika wanted to make her book into a screenplay. This became the 2019 movie Jojo Rabbit, which has grossed US$24m worldwide to date, and is nominated for two awards in the 2020 Golden Globes.

“I shared the second draft of the screenplay with Christine,” says Taika, “which she read and gave some good notes on, which was helpful because she had done so much historical research. She was able to tell me about the intricacies of life in Germany at the time.”

Dr Leunens adds, “When I read the script, I thought it was just fabulous. The same script I saw was on The Black List in 2012, the list of the top screenplays that producers have their eyes on in Hollywood.”

Before meeting Taika in former IIML director Bill Manhire’s office in 2010, Dr Leunens had done some research, waching his short films Tama Tū and Two Cars, One Night. “I really loved what he did, and I thought to myself that we belong here, and we both like that fine line between drama and comedy. I would say that I’m a bit further towards drama than comedy, and he leans a little more towards comedy. But despite the comedy, his laughs aren’t free. There is a sadness underneath.”

She believes that the reason that Taika and her worlds worked well together was that both creators knew how to use a child’s eye to highlight the absurdity of an adult world. Taika agrees, saying, “Kids hold a mirror up to society, to us as adults. I think it’s quite humbling a lot of the time, and quite confronting, because children speak quite truthfully because they don’t have much of a filter. There’s something really simple about the way they operate, and they don’t clutter things with over-thinking.

“Like, Boy is a simple story about child abandonment and neglect through the eyes of a child who has a very vivid imagination, and that’s why it’s entertaining, because it’s not necessarily a comedy and it’s not necessarily a drama. I want my films to be a mixture of lightness and darkness. Because I think that’s what life is.”

In Dr Leunens’ Caging Skies, her comedy was derived from having a grandmother character in her story, which was removed from Jojo. But she  says she wasn’t concerned when Taika didn’t include some of her characters. “My major worry was that the film would be too faithful to the book, and with voiceover or something, end up boring. With an 108-minute film, everything has to be right there. You have to respect the pulse.”

Dr Leunens sees her book as a classical painting, and Jojo Rabbit as a Picasso version of it.

“When I first read it,” says Taika, “I saw the potential in the story, then for about a year or so I was trying to come up with what it was about the story that I wanted to translate into a screen experience, and that’s when I came up with this idea of stripping back a lot of the stuff around Jojo’s family life. In the book his grandmother’s still alive, but I wanted him to be a loner and not have many friends, and be craving some sort of companionship, craving a father, and being mystified by his mother, all these elements that make an interesting character, and then try and manifest these wants and needs in an imaginary friend character.”

Dr Leunens finds the way in which the themes of the book have become relevant again quite frightening. “It wasn’t a book that took off and became an instant bestseller, it just slowly went from one country to another, then with all the migration that started to happen a few years back, all of these European countries started to take it on because it was very relevant.”

Taika was drawn to it in part because the perspective was that of an ordinary German kid. “In Jojo Rabbit, we are thrust into this world where Hitler is basically a rock star, and all the kids have posters of him on their walls. That’s a confronting thing, to have that footage with the Beatles song, with the screaming crowds, women at the front, the reaction to Hitler reflects Beatlemania 100 percent. It was a constant barrage of imagery and lies, and they just worked overtime giving people messages and manipulating them emotionally and mentally.”

“So many of the Germans were so confused by the end of the war,” he adds, “they knew they were fighting, and while a lot of them didn’t know about the camps, I’m sure a lot of them did. If you’re just a solo mum who’s just trying to protect her kid from these ideas, and you don’t want them to grow up to be one of these people, the environment for that must be impossible.”

Dr Leunens credits the IIML with stretching her in her writing, with her third book emerging from it. “It was the first time I had ever had company while I was writing, it was the first time that I got to meet with others and have discussions. They were very special years for me, and by the time I completed the third book, I felt I had found myself. I now know what I like to write, I found what makes me want to sit for a couple of years at my desk. I know now that historical elements are important to me, and to be able to take a voice and include collective themes and interweave them.”

She believes writers need to change because of the division of attention that comes with modern life. ”You need to have more of that pulse for a page-turner now, because you’re competing a lot of things, and competing against the screen. There are some kinds of novels that I wouldn’t necessarily write today. For instance, To the Light, by Virginia Woolf and Portrait of a Young Artist, by James Joyce—they’re great works of literature, but people don’t have the time and the patience for things like that.”

Her fourth book, is set in New Zealand as the Rainbow Warrior is sunk. It has just entered the works, she confirms, to potentially become a movie. “It has a plot that’s very powerful from beginning to end this time, lending itself to adaptation. It’s likely to be published in 2020.”