Tom Eagles has edited several films for director Taika Waititi. So when he got the call for “Jojo Rabbit,” it was easy to say yes.
“Jojo Rabbit” is adapted from the novel “Caging Skies,” by Christine Luenens. It tells the story of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler, an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth, whose life is thrown into disarray when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.
I recently spoke with EAgles, just hours before he was recognized by his peers with an ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy. He is also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing. It’s a remarkable achievement for the film, which was nominated for six Oscars overall.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Congratulations on your Academy Award nomination for “Jojo Rabbit!”
Tom Eagles: Thank you so much.
KP: How does it feel to hear those words attached to your name?
TE: It’s pretty surreal. I’m still getting used to that. It’s weird.
KP: Where were you when you got the news?
TE: I was in New Zealand, so I didn’t get it until a little later. It was the middle of the night. My wife woke up in the night and there was a text from Taika, so she knew and didn’t wake me, which is one of the reasons I love her. I got a good night’s sleep and then I woke up in the morning to a flood of texts and emails and people wishing me well. Including colleagues that I’ve known for a long time. It was wonderful. Yeah, it was really nice.
KP: It’s so exciting, and it’s for such amazing work. “Jojo Rabbit” has six Academy Award nominations overall and you’re part of that, so congratulations. And you’ve also been nominated for an Eddie. Are you ready for that?
TE: I guess. I mean, I’ve got a suit? Yeah. It will be nice to meet all those people, because I guess if anyone gets how hard the job can be, it’s editors.
KP: You have worked with Taika on several projects. Is it at the point now where he just calls and says “Meet me here” or do you still read the scripts first and decide?
TE: I always read the scripts. I guess I could conceive of a world where I would say no if I didn’t think the script was good enough. It just hasn’t happened. The scripts are always so tight and so beautiful and so funny that it just hasn’t happened that I would read a script and think I would not want to do this movie.
KP: What was it about “Jojo Rabbit” specifically that stood out and made you want to join in?
TE: The concept was kind of bonkers, the way it was described to me originally, which was like a comedy about Hitler — which it’s not. When I read the script, I realized that’s kind of Taika being facetious, and really it’s about Jojo and Elsa and their relationship and this slow de-radicalization that Jojo goes through from ignorance and hate to kind of competition and curiosity, and ultimately friendship and love. So when I read the script and I saw that it had that spine, that core, that’s when I got excited to do it.
KP: This movie goes through a lot of changes in tone and pacing. It feels like a really natural journey. What were some of the things you and Taika had to decide and talk about to keep that tone feeling natural?
TE: Time was always a question, all the way throughout. So on a micro level, what performances we chose, what gags — were we going to have gags in this scene? Some of the improv that came up or not. And then on a bigger level, what scenes and what characters do we include in the edit? So it’s a slow journey from quite high comedy into quite high drama.
After the second act fulcrum, the midpoint of the film, we definitely transitioned into drama. We had all the material to make it a straight comedy if we’d wanted that, but we found that there were certain characters we didn’t want to see at that point in the movie. We didn’t use Rebel [Wilson] so much and we cut a lot of Adolph from that part of the movie and just brought him back at the end. Because it was also important for us that we didn’t just do a u-turn from comedy to drama, that we kept some of those comedic elements throughout. It was important to have the farewell to Adolph and for Jojo to have the opportunity to tell him to “fuck off” and it was also important to keep that kind of lightness and hope. So to end the movie with going out on the dance was really important. We did have versions of the film that we cut where we went on into a montage of archives that shows these things are still happening. We looked at kids in war, from World War II to the current day. It felt a little anachronistic at that point.
I feel worry and fear for them at the end, but I also feel hope.
KP: There’s a very definite turning point, and I don’t want to give it away for people who haven’t seen it yet, but there is a very specific shot. Were there different iterations of that moment, or did it end up the way it was always conceived of? How did you arrive on that turn?
TE: It’s impossible to talk about without being specific, so do you want to do the spoiler?
KP: I’ll put in a spoiler warning, it’s fine!
(This response contains a major spoiler for “Jojo Rabbit.” Proceed with caution.)
TE: You’re talking about the shoes, right? And did we have anything more? We did. We had feedback from a couple of people. We had one filmmaker who we really respect tell us that we had to put gallow space in there because the film is so much from Jojo’s point of view that she wanted to see everything he was seeing. And that’s what we would have done in a different movie, but ultimately it seemed truer to Taika’s tone to suggest that. When we shot that shot, and we did that, it just felt too brutal. Like it was hammering the audience over the head with his grief and confusion.
A general note that I take through this film and what I take through a lot of movies is, what’s the least you can do to get your story across? And it felt like the shoes, when we would screen that for people, for strangers in a big auditorium, there would always be a gasp when they saw those shoes. So everyone always tracked what those shoes mean. Ultimately it felt like enough and anything more felt like too much.
And then there was the question also of making sure those shoes were well established throughout the movie, you knew whose they were. So when you see them you know what Jojo’s thinking.
KP: What was one of the most fun scenes for you to edit?
TE: It was a lot of fun to cut the archives. Getting a whole lot of archive material of Nazis at rallies and recontextualizing them against this Beatle’s tune and getting them to look like they’re singing along and playing the music. That was an interesting process and a really big project because we had to go through so much material to find the shots that worked and that you could sync was a lot of fun and I really enjoy working with music. Taika always gives me an opportunity to do that. So that was a lot of fun.
KP: What was one of the most challenging?
TE: They were all so challenging. One scene that was challenging was Stephen Merchant’s sequence in the film, where he comes to the house. The Gestapo agent. In terms of balancing comedy and drama, that was probably the most… He’s so funny that we needed to keep tension in the same and I think he does an amazing job of doing that. There’s something truly scary about Stephen, just his physical presence. The way he towers over Sam Rockwell in that scene. And his timing. So there was always a challenge. Because, again, we had so much material. Taika’s always throwing lines at the actors and someone like Stephen will bring lines as well. We had a lot of really funny stuff, and so it was just a question of how much to use and what kind of comedy to still be funny, but still scary and maintain that tension? And in a way, Elsa’s the key to that. Elsa and Jojo. Because you know what they’re thinking, every time you cut to them, you undercut the comedy and you’re back in a world of high stakes.
KP: There are also some really funny sight gags, like the German Shepherds, for example. What were some that didn’t make it into the movie?
TE: If we used all of the improv, the movie would have been ten hours long! Any time Taika was on, especially, there’s no one putting the brakes on! No one is going to tell him to stop improv-ing. There were so many gags, which do you use? Which do you not follow? Which were non-sequiturs and which actually take you somewhere? That was always a fun discovery. But something like the German Shepherds, it’s really just a gag. It’s always tempting to take those out because nothing in the movie would suffer for losing them. So sometimes you just had to ask yourself, “Is this funny enough? Does it earn its place to just be a moment that stands alone?” And I guess that one stands.
KP: The clones were also good–
TE: The clones, yeah. I think the clones came up on the day. That’s one of the beauties of working with Taika. Those clones are Roman’s brothers and I’m pretty sure they were called in to just play twins, but then Taika working with Rebel, he started throwing lines at her, various tasks that Jojo could do and one of them was, “You’ve gotta go walk the clones.” It wasn’t in the scripts. And then suddenly, at the end of the day, they’re shooting the boys in various positions to complement the shot and then they shot them again in the battle scene. So sometimes you can work that in.
KP: What’s it like working with someone who is so full of ideas and constantly thinking of new things on the fly? How does that add to the challenge of your job?
TE: It’s great. It’s great for me because it also means he’s open to ideas. Anything you want to come up with, anything you want to try, he’ll give it oxygen. And sometimes it will stay in the edit for months before we decide it’s not working. I think it’s just a very open process and you learn not to get attached to anything. Something that he might have been really attached to, to begin with, he might change his mind. So it’s unpredictable. It makes things exciting and interesting. And it just means that there are no rules. You don’t come to work going, “Okay, I gotta do it this way.” You come in thinking, even six months into the edit, you’re thinking there might be some surprises today. We might recut a scene and change the intention of the performance and go back into the dailies, looking for something. It’s really fun. And I think he’s like that on set as well. He’s just constantly throwing things out there and keeping everyone on their toes.
KP: What did working on “Jojo Rabbit” mean for you personally? I know we talked about what initially drew you to it, but what did the process mean for you?
TE: There were some days it was quite intense. Even with the very heightened tone of the movie, we were always aware that this was real people and real events that we were talking about. And it was important to us to pull that off. I think there was some kind of trepidation. I think I was always kind of afraid of screwing that up. But also, it just gave it an added weight. Even when we’re telling jokes, we always knew what was at stake.
We were in Prague, for example, there’s a scene we cut where we filmed the Gestapo officers. The place we shot that was actually used by the Nazis as a Gestapo office during the war. So we were constantly getting these reminders. At Barrandov Studios where we shot, it wasn’t built by the Nazis, but they took it over and they were planning on making it their Hollywood. That stuff was all around you and it was good for me to have been there and to carry that back with me because we did the rest of the edit in LA. So to always be acknowledged that it kept us true. And maybe that’s what stopped us from making a pure comedy.