Taika Waititi Puts on a Tuxedo

His “Jojo Rabbit” may be the year’s most unlikely Oscar contender: a Nazi comedy. How will the irreverent director fare amid Hollywood’s sacred rituals?

For the Governors Awards, Waititi traded his playful personal style for a more subdued look.
For the Governors Awards, Waititi traded his playful personal style for a more subdued look.Credit...Adam Amengual for The New York Times
Kyle Buchanan

LOS ANGELES — “Do we have an entourage for tonight?” Taika Waititi asked his publicist. It was just a few hours until the Governors Awards on Sunday, a major Oscar-season pit stop where potential contenders go to schmooze and be seen, and Waititi was in his hotel room, wondering if he could still add a few friends to the guest list.

“How many are we talking?” his publicist replied.

Waititi wasn’t sure. He’d never been to the Governors Awards before, but he knew he would be mingling with A-list actors and wondered if he might seem out of his depth. After all, what could a quirky director like Waititi do to compete with the crowds commanded by stars like Leo and J. Lo?

The answer, he decided, was to not take things that seriously. “I want our group to feel more like a gang,” he ultimately declared. “Joaquin and them, they’ll be the cool people. We want to be the rebels!”

In an Oscar season dominated by American masters like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Waititi, a 44-year-old New Zealander, is poised to crash their party with “Jojo Rabbit,” a World War II comedy about a German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler. Waititi cast himself as an awfully goofy führer, and dialed the satire up to 11: The opening-credits sequence equates German nationalism with Beatlemania by playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over footage of Nazi rallies.

Needless to say, these are not the elements that traditional Oscar contenders are made of. “Remember that joke Kate Winslet has in ‘Extras,’ where she says you’d better make a Holocaust film if you want an Oscar?” Waititi said. “People might think that’s kind of true, but there was never in my mind any reality where this film was going to be part of that conversation.”

And yet, that reality has come to pass: At the Toronto International Film Festival, “Jojo Rabbit” took the People’s Choice Award that has previously gone to best-picture winners like “Green Book” and “The King’s Speech,” and Oscar voters keep telling me it’s their favorite film of the fall. This all means that Waititi, whose last movie was the offbeat Marvel blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok,” may soon find his brand of irreverence rewarded on Hollywood’s most reverent night.

When I met up with Waititi before the Governors Awards, where honorary Oscars would be given out to the likes of David Lynch and Geena Davis, his graying curls were tucked under a hat that blared “HELP” in big block letters, and he was wearing a brilliant technicolor dreamcoat. Waititi has become known for a personal style as playful as his filmmaking, and it begged the question: If he goes all the way this Oscar season, will he be forced to trade his pineapple-print rompers for something more conventional?

By way of an answer, he led me to the hotel closet, where his stylist had sent over a black tuxedo from Ermenegildo Zegna, his look for the Governors Awards. “It’s quite nice!” he insisted. I told him I’d expected a bit of subversive sparkle, and he shrugged: The suit might be conservative, but the man wearing it wouldn’t be. “I invented partying,” he told me, grinning.

WAITITI HAS ONLY been to the Oscars once before, but it was a significant invitation: In 2005, his “Two Cars, One Night” was nominated for best live-action short. The night before the ceremony, he went out drinking with his fellow nominees, and Waititi suggested that when their names were read out loud, they should all play dead.

“Everyone laughed: ‘We should totally do that, Taika, ha ha ha,’” he said. “And in the state I was in, I was like, ‘I guess they agreed!’” During the broadcast, no one played along except Waititi, who feigned being asleep, then lost. “In New Zealand, they were very disappointed with me,” he said, but he had felt no obligation to make it a sacred moment: “With a lot of filmmakers, it’s been their dream to make movies since they were kids. It wasn’t my dream until I was 30.”

Raised mostly in the Aro Valley neighborhood of Wellington, New Zealand, by a single mother, a substitute teacher, Waititi joined a comedy troupe in college with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the Flight of the Conchords duo. While working with them, he began to take comedy a bit more seriously and eventually parlayed his Oscar nomination into a career directing features in New Zealand including “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”

It’s clear from Waititi’s comedies that he is still in touch with his mischievous inner child, which served him well when Marvel Studios was looking for a director to reinvigorate the “Thor” franchise for its third entry, “Thor: Ragnarok.” After it became a huge hit, Waititi was offered plenty more: Next year, he’ll direct another “Thor” sequel, and he hopes to soon resume a tabled adaptation of the classic anime “Akira.” But when Fox Searchlight said it would finance “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi leapt at the chance.

He’d been developing the film since 2010, when his mother told him about “Caging Skies,” a novel by Christine Leunens about a Viennese boy during World War II. The story is straightforward drama, but as his mother described it, Waititi began to imagine a more comedic take. The result is a film so front-loaded with jokes that when Jojo turns into someone who can finally see the humanity in the Jews perishing around him, you’re not prepared to find yourself moved.

“I think he’s curious about the complexity of people,” said Scarlett Johansson, who plays Jojo’s mother. “I can’t imagine him writing a one-note character — it wouldn’t be fun for him. It’s kind of like the way he picks out his clothes: He looks at the whole picture.”

Still, a key character presented problems: The half-Maori, half-Jewish Waititi had not originally planned to play Hitler, but Fox Searchlight prevailed upon him to take the role. Casting a celebrity would have unbalanced the movie, Waititi said, and if audiences saw an enthusiastic Polynesian playing Hitler, it would be a big hint that this material wasn’t meant to be played entirely straight.

“Other people would have spent a lot of time studying, taking it serious and trying to ‘become’ Hitler, and I was just like, ‘I’ll put the mustache on and be myself,’” he said. “I had no interest of having a ‘real’ Hitler in there. For the whole film? Ugh!”

The film shocked Oscar pundits, including me, by claiming the People’s Choice Award in Toronto, and Waititi admits he was pleasantly surprised, too: “I’m an ego-based creature,” he said, “so the gears started turning: ‘Oh, I’m pretty special now!’” But before Waititi had any idea that he’d be encouraged to go to award-season parties all winter, he had already set up another movie, a soccer comedy called “Next Goal Wins,” that will shoot in Hawaii for most of November and December. That schedule, Waititi joked, would prevent him from getting “a sore arm from patting myself on the back.”

“I CAN’T DEAL with your fabulousness!” Charlize Theron exclaimed. Waititi had finally made his way to the Governors Awards, which were set to begin in mere minutes, but the path to the ballroom led directly through Theron, and Waititi was all too happy to be stopped. “We have to hang out,” she insisted.

Awards season can exhaust even the hardiest campaigner. Still, Waititi was more than game. “I won’t deny that this is a really awesome experience,” he told me. During the ceremony, he spent most of his time chatting with the Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige, but not long into the after-party, he was a magnet for guests like the “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson and Theron, who’d come back for a second round to introduce Waititi to her entourage.

“I think all filmmakers are just people who want to be liked, and definitely, that’s the case with me,” Waititi said. “When there’s someone you don’t know who knows your name, it’s a good boost, especially after you’ve been working in solitude for two years on something.”

Eventually, the crowd numbered a few dozen. Still, Waititi remained, hopping from clique to clique, a rebuke to the notion that the coolest person at the party ought to spend the least time there. I watched him happily take selfies with anyone who asked.

“I’ve put a lot of effort in my life into being good at parties,” he had told me back at the hotel. “It’s not like I’m trying to get something out of it. I just want everyone to have a good time: ‘Let’s tell some stories and gather around the campfire!’”

And clearly, Waititi had more stories to tell. As the after-party came to an end, a friend of his murmured something about an after-after-party. The pleasantly buzzed Waititi snapped to attention, like a dog promised a treat, and before I knew it, he had escaped through a side door. The last thing I saw was that black tuxedo, escaping into the night.