Cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. On His “Classical” Cinematic Approach To The Tonally Complex ‘Jojo Rabbit’

'Jojo Rabbit' cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Todd Williamson/January Images/Shutterstock

On Jojo Rabbit, his first film with Taika Waititi, cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. played an essential part in developing the vibrant aesthetic of a tonally complex piece.

Based on a novel by Christine Leunens, the comedic drama is set in Germany during World War II, finding its focus in Jojo, a charming 10-year-old boy who also happens to be a particularly avid member of the Hitler Youth. Raised by his single mother and routinely visited by his imaginary friend Adolf (portrayed by Waititi himself), Jojo’s life is turned upside down when he discovers a Jewish girl hidden in his attic.

Known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola (Twixt, Tetro, Youth Without Youth), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and George Tillman Jr. (The Hate U Give), Malaimare Jr. was in Atlanta, doing reshoots on the latter film, before he was flung into a singular world of Waititi’s creation.

Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in 'Jojo Rabbit'
Fox Searchlight

Subsequently, in Prague, the DP worked with the director to hit upon the right cinematic language for the film—a look and feel neither too light nor too dark. Ultimately, the pair developed a loose set of rules for the camera. “Our main rule was, ‘Let’s not go handheld at all,’” the DP says. “We had a heavy camera on the dolly the whole time, and that kind of forces you into better choices, I think.”

DEADLINE: Jojo Rabbit marks your first collaboration with Taika Waititi. How did you come to the film, and what was it that excited you about making it?

MIHAI MALAIMARE JR.: For me, it happened really fast. I always admired Taika’s work, I knew all of his other movies, so when I received the script, I knew what I would be getting myself into. [Laughs] But also, I really enjoyed reading it because knowing what Taika is doing in all his movies, it wasn’t a surprise.

I was doing reshoots for The Hate U Give when I got the script, so I had to read it really fast overnight, and then jumped into a Skype call with Taika. After I finished that reshoot, I spent four days in LA, and then flew straight to Prague.

DEADLINE: What were your early conversations with Taika like, in terms of developing an aesthetic for the film?

MALAIMARE JR.: I think one of our first discussions, if I remember correctly, was that we’d try a more classical approach, and try to stay away from handheld. Then slowly, as we were in prep, it was something that kind of came from all the departments, and it was really interesting because we all felt the same way—that we shouldn’t shy away from color saturation.

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in 'Jojo Rabbit'
Fox Searchlight

That’s something that I remember we spoke about, I think a few years back, when I was shooting Youth Without Youth. I think [that] was the first time I saw a lot of color footage from World War II. I told Taika about that, and looking at the sketches from the art department, and the samples from the costume department, they all had really bright colors. We all realized that that would be a really interesting approach, because when we think of period movies—but especially World War II movies—they tend to be more desaturated, or more somber. We all felt that that was not only true to reality, but also appropriate for the beginning of the movie, just to see the world through Jojo’s eyes. But also, we all knew that that would allow us, as time passes in the story, to shift the tone and go more towards a colder palette. So, that was one common factor that I think was great and worked really well.

Then, we did intensive testing, just to be able to choose the right aspect ratio, and I’m glad we did that, because even if I jumped really fast on the project, we still had a lot of time in prep. So, I think we did like five camera tests, without counting the hair and makeup tests, and that allowed us to play with all these formats. We really tried everything, from 1.33, 1.66, 1.85 and 2.40, and towards the end, we nailed down between 1.33 and 1.85. We felt that the widescreen might be too cinematic for our story. I think we were really attracted to 1.33, but we felt we might get a better chance of telling this story in 1.85, just because we had so many scenes with two people in small rooms.

What was interesting about it is that we actually chose something that was done before, but not a lot. The only other project that comes to my mind is Promised Land, Gus Van Sant’s movie, where you can use anamorphic lenses for 1.85 by just cropping to 1.85. That’s not really the best way to go, because you lose the best qualities of an anamorphic lens, but there is a way where, if you use the 1.3 anamorphic lenses, you actually get something very close to 1.85. With minimal cropping, you have the advantage of an anamorphic lens, and also take advantage of all the imperfections that are also good. We felt that for skin tones, they had a quite velvety look, and they would also be an extra tool to help us, along with the color saturation and lighting.

DEADLINE: What informed the decision to shoot Jojo Rabbit on the Arri Alexa SXT?

MALAIMARE JR.: I think that we looked at it from the beginning, before starting all the camera tests, and it felt that it was the right platform to work really well with any of these formats. I really enjoy working with a Panavision DXL, or even with RED cameras for the right projects, but having a camera that starts with a squarish sensor allowed us to do everything we wanted—to test from 1.33 all the way to a 2.40 anamorphic.

DEADLINE: In prep, did you speak about any particular films as visual references? Where did you look for visual inspiration?

MALAIMARE JR.: We briefly spoke about it. I think one of the only scenes we watched together wasn’t necessarily as a visual reference, [but] more about the vibe of the story. There is a scene in Cabaret that we watched, with a young kid that sings, [“Tomorrow Belongs To Me”]. That was the only scene we actually watched together, because another thing we did in prep was printing a lot of stills.

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in 'Jojo Rabbit'
Fox Searchlight

Very often, I feel that stills are a better visual reference than scenes from a movie. We found and printed a lot of photos from World War II with children, and most of the great still photographers we all admire, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau—all these guys who built the Magnum [Photos] agency—had amazing photos with kids during the war. What was really interesting about those is that they were still playing, and they were still doing normal kid stuff. It was just that the closer you look at the photo, and the longer you look, you realize something is wrong—like, “Oh, in this one, they are wearing gas masks,” or “They are playing close to a pile of bomb”—all these situations that we felt were very close to our story.

DEADLINE: Obviously, this film is centered on the perspective of a 10-year-old boy. Were there ways in which this fact influenced the way you approached the shoot?

MALAIMARE JR.: I think we spoke about not overdoing real POV shots. We did a few of them. But most of the time, we talked about the fact that it’s really interesting to just go lower, and look [at] how the world or the set looks from Jojo’s height. That was kind of the only thing. We felt that with all the other tools and the amazing sets we had, we’d be able to solve this puzzle and create the story around Jojo, but we never really wanted to dive too deep into a real point of view.

But the part of the process that was really amazing was that we storyboarded only the war scenes, and that was mainly because we knew we’d be using three or four cameras, and [they] would be very chaotic days. But the way Taika works, which was really great, was allowing enough time for rehearsals and for blocking the scene, and then for us to figure out how we wanted to capture that. That’s how you get really amazing performances. Plus, a lot of times, honestly, we got better ideas from the actors than [from] him and I just going into an empty stage and saying, “Okay, well we want to shoot from here, from here, and from here.” Giving them the liberty of choosing where they wanted to be in the room sometimes gave us so many really interesting ideas.

DEADLINE: What was your approach to composition on Jojo Rabbit?

MALAIMARE JR.: One of the things we realized very early on is that both Taika and I are in love with symmetry and perfect horizons, and sometimes creating strange compositions, where we frame somebody all the way to the left or to the right of the shot. That was something we both enjoyed, and I remember after rehearsals, when we were trying to figure out how to shoot the scene, a lot of times, those were the elements we were looking for. And of course, the sets would help us so much—all those panels in the walls, and the doorway. Things like that, we felt that automatically, they will ask for shots like that, and we both enjoyed that. I think it was great because a lot of times, some people feel that it might not be very real, when you do something like this, and it might get in the way of the story. But I think it helped the story quite a lot.

DEADLINE: Could you give a sense of how you approached lighting?

MALAIMARE JR.: It’s always tricky when you have to shoot so much [in cramped quarters]. But all of Jojo’s house was built on stage, and a lot of times, you had the advantage of moving walls, and finding camera positions that would be very hard to find in a real location. But then, you have to deal with the other aspects of it, and try to figure out how to make it really work—try to figure out what you would see outside the windows, and if it’s okay to not let the windows [be] blown [out], and so on. So, there were a lot of elements involved in all this.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in 'Jojo Rabbit'
Fox Searchlight

Plus, we felt that it was really important for the actors to have as much freedom as possible. I remember at the beginning, we thought we would be trying more dramatic lighting, but then we realized it actually helps the story if they have all the freedom in the world, and they can go wherever they want, and they won’t have to worry about not being lit.

On the other hand, we knew that it cannot be just a flat picture. We were [joking] at one point, because we never really treat it like a comedy, and we never really thought that it has to be too bright. But on the other hand, kind of in conjunction with the color saturation and trying to show Jojo’s childhood, we never really wanted to go too dark, either. So, it was a really interesting balance to find the right approach. But the sets were so amazing that everything developed as we went.

DEADLINE: In the film, Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf repeatedly pops into frame for scenes with the boy, but the ways in which he manifests suddenly on screen are always different. How did you figure out how you were going to deal with this imaginary presence, and his entrances and exits from a scene?

MALAIMARE JR.: One of our conversations was that we shouldn’t try to make this character too fantastic. It’s like, a lot of times, an imaginary friend for a kid is [very] real. We tried a few things, but it’s interesting how in a lot of projects—but specifically in Taika’s movies—scenes are changing and developing as we go. It was funny: There were scenes we didn’t know if he would be in or not, and all of a sudden, we realized, “Oh, he will actually be in that scene.” [Laughs] So, we always had moments where we were like, “Oh man, maybe let’s shoot these few shots without [Hitler], with Jojo alone, even if we have the dialogue and all that.” I think it was kind of a work-in-progress all the way into editorial.

DEADLINE: While Jojo Rabbit feels meticulously constructed and tightly scripted, in the best possible sense, the shoot also featured a great deal of improvisation. How did you keep the camerawork appropriately grounded, while also contending with this kind of unpredictability on set?

MALAIMARE JR.: After the first week, I [realized] how big of a job it would be for Tom [Eagles, editor]. Because for us, we realized the more it evolved, and the more improv we were shooting, that it was getting better and better. Then, it was the challenge of changing our plans to fit that new line, or that new place where they went into. It’s always a challenge, but you would see right away on set how much better a scene can get because of that, and I think there’s nothing better than giving the actors all that freedom, and being able to adapt and change your plans, based on what they’re doing. And I think that shows in the end, in the movie.

DEADLINE: What was your approach to shooting the film’s climactic sequence, which sees Jojo’s quaint German town under siege?

MALAIMARE JR.: What’s interesting about that is that we actually had two, three different locations for that scene, and it took a long time. Also, in winter, when we went back for some reshoots, we finalized that scene. So, there were so many elements.

We knew that we wanted to place Jojo in the middle of all the craziness, and move around him a little bit, but that evolved so nicely—and actually, he’s in three different locations, with a huge gap of time in between, shooting-wise. But I think all the elements, like the background and the bare-bones of the locations, were great.

The first location was like an abandoned factory. The second one, there were some ruins. So, it was always a challenge to keep the lighting consistent, and the level of smoke consistent, and not feel that they’re actually different locations. But I think placing all the elements together, and having Jojo in the middle of everything, and just the idea that we wanted to move around him, that kind of brought that whole thing to life.

DEADLINE: What would you say were the highlights of your experience with Jojo Rabbit? What made this film unique from all others you’d made prior?

MALAIMARE JR.: I knew from all the other movies that Taika did how good he is with young actors, but just watching Roman [Griffin Davis], and then Thomasin [McKenzie] work, that was something that pretty much blew my mind. The level of commitment was amazing for me, and the whole process that Taika has, working with young actors, is really amazing. It’s a unique experience.

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