Sun. Dec 15th, 2019

Interview: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. on visualizing satire and shooting Hitler

Cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare has worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs, including Francis Ford Coppola in 2007’s Youth Without Youth, and Paul Thomas Anderson in 2012’s The Master, for which Mălaimare’s brilliant cinematography garnered several critics awards, including Boston and  Chicago Critics groups and the prestigious National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography. 

The Romanian-born Mălaimare has also worked on many short films and documentaries and he shot last year’s critically-acclaimed feature The Hate U Give for director George Tillman, Jr.  Mălaimare most recently teamed up with Taiki Waititi for his highly-acclaimed and TIFF Audience Award-winning inventive dark comedy, Jojo Rabbit. I talked with Mălaimare about what it was like working with the quirky New Zealand writer/director and the challenges of delivering his unique vision of World War II to the big screen.  [Some minor spoilers ahead]

AW:  Jojo Rabbit is such a bold vision and so fresh and different.  Just when you thought there were no more ways to look at World War II, there’s this movie.  This was such a fresh way of approaching it: from through the eyes of a child.  How did you approach the challenge of delivering Taika’s [Waititi] very unique vision?

MM:  We had a lot of conversations about it.  When I read the script, I pretty much knew all the other movies that Taika had made—it wasn’t necessarily something new, but I was really curious as to how he was going to get such amazing performances from such young actors, generally.  He has a really interesting process.  I thought, at the beginning, before meeting Taika, that it was based on precision and planning, but it turned out to be quite the opposite, a lot of improv, pretty much giving the actors the freedom that they might need.  We spoke a lot about how we should approach this.  The script was not only very well-written, but it had a lot of visuals in it already, so just reading about the POV at the beginning after he throws the hand grenade, I was wondering if we would do more of that, but then we realized with so many more elements, and after meeting Roman and doing rehearsal, we can’t afford to do too many of those and by just placing the camera a little lower—from Roman’s height—it could give us the same idea.   When we were in prep we found out all the departments pretty much had the same idea.  Back, like 10 years ago, I think, when I was shooting Youth Without Youth, I was doing some research and I saw a BBC documentary that had color footage from World War II and I remember how shocked I was—we are so used to black-and-white images from World War II and most of the movies from that period, they tend to have a more desaturated approach, so I had that in my mind, and it turns out Taika had the same thing in mind as well, and seeing the art sketches from Ra [Vincent], the production designer, and seeing costume samples from Mayes [C. Rubio], the costume designer, it turned out we were all thinking the same thing without talking to each other.  The idea was we wanted to create this saturated color world that was perfect for the beginning of the film, for showing Jojo’s world.  And we all realized that worked really well for Jojo’s story.  We realized it gave us the opportunity to shift the tone towards at the end of the movie toward a more cooler palate.

AW:  That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you about.  It really is so bright at the beginning and colorful and then there is the shift in tone.  What is so brilliant about the film are the shifts in tone and it manages to shift and maneuver through them so quickly.  How do you do that while still being palatable to the audience and getting the story across?

MM:  One of the first things we spoke about was that it needs to show the passage of time and the fact that most of the war scenes at the end of the movie happen in the winter and that gives us the idea that we can shoot them in much more monochromatic style and color at the end and it works well for the story, if you think about it, his whole world turns upside down, which was a great approach.  A lot of times, it’s great when you get the idea from reality.  If you think about it, the amount of smoke from the explosions —the colder season will kind of give you that no matter what, which is why I think it works so well because the audience will never question the look of it, but they will feel the contrast from the beginning to the end.

AW: It really was effective.  Have you ever shot war scenes before?

MM: I did a few small things, but never anything at that scale.

AW:  I wanted to talk about such a key moment in the film, and I want to avoid spoilers if we can, but if we have to post a spoiler alert, we can…

MM:  Yeah [laughing]

AW:  But there is a visual moment in the film that has a callback to a previous visual moment that is the pivotal emotional moment in the film.  It’s so brilliantly done with such subtlety.  Can you talk about that without giving too much away?

MM:  What’s interesting about it is that was actually in the script—we definitely needed to make the audience aware of Rosie’s shoes.  When you read it in the script, it’s one thing, but when you are working on it in prep, we realized it’s not as easy as just putting the camera down on the ground and shooting shoes.  We realized that won’t work and won’t be as effective, so we immediately started to search for locations that allowed us to put us in situations where that would happen naturally, like finding a ledge where she can dance on, at the pool and by the river.  We really wanted to make sure that the audience not only has that visual, but that those are Rosie’s shoes and there wouldn’t be any question.  It’s interesting, because I think it’s a matter of knowing exactly what the shifting tone would be and I think that worked really well.

AW:  It really did.  His vision is so bold.  Were there any challenges to giving him what he wanted? 

MM:  The biggest thing I try to do when I start a new collaboration is to make sure I’m on the same page as the director and when that happens and you do your homework in prep, everything else, even if it seems like a challenge or a crazy idea becomes so natural.  We kind of embraced all the challenges and there were quite a few because we only storyboarded the war scenes.  The only reason we did that was we had to work with more than two cameras and it was more about being efficient, but everything else was based on a lot of improv.  Our main approach was, let’s rehearse it and then block it and we’ll figure out how to shoot it.  That’s how Taika gets the amazing performances from the young actors and from everybody because he gives the actors all the freedom in the world and it gives you lots of ideas. It’s one thing to go into an empty space with a director and try to figure out the interesting angles and it’s another thing when you see the actors actually dong the scene—where do they go in the space and all that.  What that means is you have to react to every single moment and there is a lot of improv and a lot of ideas thrown out, but you end up getting so many more interesting things than you had planned for!  There were a lot of those moments, but I think that’s how we got the amazing performances and the interesting angles, which came from where they were and what they were doing in rehearsal.

AW: I’ve seen in interviews that they encouraged them to play and to do that improvisation.  You have to work with that on the spur of the moment.

MM:  Yeah, I think if you embrace it, the most terrifying idea and the most challenging idea can turn into the most amazing thing.  I remember, the Gestapo scene was really interesting, when they come to Jojo’s house.  Reading it, it’s one thing, it’s funny and strange, but going into a space you all of a sudden realize, wait, there are a lot of people I have to fit into this room.  Even if we build the whole house on the stage, if you have more than 5 people in the same room, it’s challenging.  The night before shooting that scene, I get a call from Carthew [Neal], our producer, that Taika has a crazy idea:  they will all be dressed in black and all wearing glasses!  For any cinematographer, that can be a nightmare!

But I remember laughing and saying ok, we’ll figure it out.  It was funny but terrifying at the same time.  And it worked so well.

AW:  And it really did.  And shooting in the small closet where she was hiding, that must have been challenging as well. 

MM:  When you have the luxury of building the whole house on the stage, you can come up with those sorts of spaces.  But it definitely felt that the hiding place has to be not like a real attic, it could just be a tiny part of the attic.  It all breaks down to limitation.  When you have limitations like this in the spaces, where it is tiny but big enough to fit two actors and one camera, then we can come up with all sorts of ideas.  I remember one of the discussions was about how the light would be there and how we would know if it’s daytime or nighttime.  We came up with this interesting position where Ra built these vents at the bottom of the roof, so we were able to put some light there, some reflective light, and so you can kind of know when it’s daytime, but even in daytime it would be really dark.  And you had to figure out what she would use in that space at night.  We definitely realized a bare bulb or lamp wouldn’t be appropriate, so we came up with this idea that a candle or a petrol lamp, which was kind of our crazy tribute to Berlin.  And that was what was so great with working with Taika, because you get all these crazy ideas, they make you come back with even crazier ones!  We got a special set of lenses just for those night scenes between Rosie and Elsa in the hiding place and those would allow us to shoot pretty much like Berlin style, with the petrol lamp and the candle as the main light source there.  That was pretty challenging, but it has a certain look…you can actually feel when the wind is blowing the flame a little bit, there is a little bit of light movement on their faces.

AW:  It worked in every possible way.  I know we’re almost out of time, but I had this bizarre question for you.  Were there any challenges in filming Hitler as a character and the sensitivities to that?

MM:  There were at the beginning because I didn’t know how real this character needed to be, and after talking to Taika, I realized that, no it needs to be as real as it can be.  Again, all the elements combined—Taika’s acting, how he reacts to things, that makes for a really interesting character and pretty much based on how much a 10-year old would know.  It was more effective than having a really fantastic character.

AW:  It’s not so much a satire, but a point-of-view:  it’s how a 10-year old boy would see the world.  It’s very powerful and you go through so many emotions.  It’s a beautiful film.  I thank you for you taking the time to talk to me. 

MM:  Thank you so much.

Jojo Rabbit is currently in theaters from Fox Searchligth.

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