Given the amount of high-profile projects he’s currently linked to — an unnamed Star Wars film, Thor: Love and Thunder, and an Akira live-action remake, to name just a few — the idea of Taika Waititi being anything other than one of the most in-demand directors on the planet may seem a little alien.
But that was the case back in February 2012, when an early script for Jojo Rabbit — currently in the race for best picture and best adapted screenplay at the Oscars — was just one of 36 projects being pitched to producers at CineMart, the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s co-production market.
The 2012 edition of the festival landed less than two years after the release of Waititi’s debut feature Boy but before he had broken out globally with 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows and 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople and then became a Hollywood hot property thanks to Thor: Ragnorok in 2017. The inclusion of Jojo Rabbit barely hit the trade press at the time, with projects by Kelly Reichardt and Ruben Ostlund grabbing the lion’s share of media attention.
Jojo Rabbit producer Chelsea Winstanley (married to Waititi since 2011) says she was invited to Rotterdam after attending the EAVE (European Audio Visual Entrepreneurs) producers workshop in late 2011, where she first pitched the film and met Sonja Heinen, then head of the Berlinale co-production market. At the time, Berlin and Rotterdam had teamed to form the “Rotterdam-Berlinale Express,” helping projects get presented in both markets almost back-to-back, and Winstanley was urged to submit Jojo.
“They were like, ‘Er, excuse me, this should be coming, please, please, please put it in, we’d love to have this project,’” she says. “It was kind of a quick turnaround, but we did it.”
And so, amid the generally more serious and austere fare of both Rotterdam and Berlin’s pitching sessions, in early 2012 there arrived a farcical Nazi satire about a young boy whose imaginary friend just happened to be Adolf Hitler.
“That’s probably the perfect thing about CineMart, you can take a project like that and people aren’t going to go, ‘Er, excuse me,’” she says. “I mean, our schedule was full of meetings. People were really just genuinely interested.”
While Winstanley claims there weren’t any specific financial goals in mind, given Jojo Rabbit’s setting in WWII Germany, they thought they “needed some partners” in that part of the world.
“That was the idea. We were looking for interest from people in Europe and really just to test out what people’s reaction would be,” she says, adding that the response was incredible. “We were so surprised that people actually got it.”
There was one major difference, however, between the Jojo Rabbit that was pitched in 2012 and the one released this year: Waititi wasn’t originally down to play Hitler.
“God no, imagine that!” Winstanley says, claiming that they had originally been telling potential co-producers that they would be getting “big A-listers to play this crazy character Hitler” – although she wouldn’t say who was in their sights.
Jojo Rabbit may not have left Rotterdam or Berlin with the funds or partners in place to get the wheels rolling immediately (it would be a few years before Fox Searchlight came on board, after Waititi had his major hits), but Winstanley – who recently launched her own production banner, This Too Shall Pass – says the trip to CineMart was incredibly worthwhile and certainly helped the film take shape.
“It’s really interesting simply to test out the market in terms of response. Is it something that makes people cock their head and go, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting’?” she says. “We definitely got a lot of follow-ups and contacts. People were very keen. And then it was a matter of looking at the whole jigsaw puzzle and working out how you put things together.”