When production designer Ra Vincent met with Taika Waititi about his ‘anti-hate’ satire Jojo Rabbit, he was surprised to learn that the director wanted to craft a World War II film unlike any seen before.
“Taika was keen to make a Second World War film that had a stronger sense of design about it. The natural default is to go for a muted palette, and most of our references are sepia-toned or black-and-white photographs,” Vincent tells Deadline, “but we had an opportunity to represent the world in a brighter, more optimistic fashion.”
For the collaborators, much of this decision came down to the fact that the story was being told from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy. Based on a novel by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit centers on Jojo Betzler, an avid member of the Hitler Youth who is joined everywhere he goes by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Discovering that his mother Rosie is hiding Elsa, a young Jewish girl in the attic, Jojo is furious, and is ultimately forced to make a choice between love and hate.
Nowhere is the aesthetic of Waititi’s latest more clear than in the home of the Betzlers. “Rosie is a very stylish woman, who maybe has had an opportunity to live a life that is a little bit more generous than most people. We figured that perhaps her home was an up-to-date, stylish, renovated, baroque house that fits with that 1930s theme,” the production designer says. “So, there was an opportunity to explore all the art deco nuance of that moment for art, furniture and color.
“That helped reinforce this idea that the world wasn’t just a black-and-white, dusty, old place. It was actually a really strong time to be involved in the arts and culture in Germany. The German aesthetic, with the Bauhaus movement, was at its sort of zenith, in terms of self-expression and arts and culture, so we really wanted to look after that,” Vincent adds. “And because Jojo’s world hasn’t been influenced by the war so much yet, we could keep his innocent perspective of the world and hold onto some of that, especially through his mother.”
In pre-production, Vincent scouted a number of locations around the borders of the Czech Republic, looking for a house that he could transform into Jojo’s. “A lot of the little hamlets and villages around the edges of the Czech Republic are caught in a kind of time capsule,” the designer notes. “By doing that search, I got to experience a bunch of art deco interiors. We found bits and pieces in individual buildings in and around Prague, and some other parts of the Czech Republic, but nothing that really embodied the whole house in one.”
Thus, Vincent decided to build a standing set at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, taking over a 7,000 square-foot soundstage with his build of the Betzler home, over the course of eight weeks of principal photography. In this way, he could take all of the design influences he’d accrued in his scouting process, and build them into an environment that was custom-built for telling the story of Jojo Rabbit.
On the soundstage, the designer decided to build the two floors of the Betzler home side by side. “By having all the rooms interconnecting as a complete house, we could follow the performance. If our talent wanted to walk from one room to another, there was a cohesiveness in the set design that allowed them, after it was pre-lit, to chase actors through the house, if need be,” Vincent explains. “That was never written in the script, but the way it was designed helped allow flexibility for performance, and for Taika to dream up new things.”
At the Betzlers’, there were two key locations that required their own distinct designs, set against the rest of the house, one being the bedroom of Jojo’s late sister, Inge. “The idea behind that was to give a little bit of a neutral staging area for Elsa and Jojo’s relationship to bond. The decoration and the color treatments were targeting another period, and we came up with a loose Victorian style for that bedroom, just to make it feel like it was from a different time. Not necessarily a Victorian one, but a time that predates our story,” Vincent says. “Also, with the slightly muted colors and the whimsical paintings on the walls, it offered a melancholic kind of vibe. When we’re first introduced to it, we realize Jojo had lost a sister, and that this is kind of like a shrine to her. It’s a sacred place for the family, and the intention was to make it feel special and a little bit sad.”
The other location with its own specifications was Elsa’s attic hideaway. “Elsa’s hideout needed to feel like it wasn’t manufactured,” Vincent says. “This had to become part of the house.”
For the designer, a look for the space emerged naturally from an investigation into 1930s German architecture. “Elsa’s room has a slanting roof and a short wall, and naturally that offers up an opportunity to use the soffit area. The soffit on those German buildings can be quite deep; there’s often a false wall put in, because you can’t use that triangular space when you’re living in the loft of a German house. And those baroque houses have huge, pitched roofs, not only for insulation, but also to let the snow slide off them. So, the roof space is quite often an area that will be renovated later,” Vincent shares. “During the Second World War, for expanding families, there were new forms of insulation, and that meant that you could build up into your attic. That provided an excuse, then, to put Elsa’s hideout in an obvious, but not-so-obvious place in the house.”
Dressing Jojo Rabbit’s primary location with real “period antiquities”—props and furniture sourced from the Czech Republic—Vincent then embarked on a quest after the perfect period exterior for Jojo’s street, one that would match the interior set he had already built.
“We were fortunate enough in our travels to come across Úštěk, a tiny, little town that was almost perfectly camera ready. Úštěk had these really beautiful, old, traditional village cottages, and the worst house on the street, we decided should become Jojo’s exterior,” the designer recalls. “Because if we were going to fix anything about that little town, it was this one dodgy house.”
Putting a brand new façade onto the building, Vincent found his design embraced not only by the Jojo Rabbit team, but also by their neighbors in the town of Úštěk. “I think the locals were quite sad when we took the set piece away,” he says, “because we had transformed the village back into its former glory days, when it was a beautifully unsullied town.”
This season, Vincent received his third nomination from the Art Directors Guild, for Excellence in Production Design. But as Jojo Rabbit continues on its path down the award circuit, the designer has already moved on to Oahu, to shoot Waititi’s next film. Based on a 2014 documentary about the national football team of American Samoa, Next Goal Wins will explore a team trying to build itself up from its position as one of the weakest in the world, the goal being to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
“It’s nice to be able to jump from World War II, into outer space, and then into contemporary sports films,” Vincent reflects. “Maybe there’s a musical in the works somewhere.”