Mihai Malaimare Jr got his start in cinematography in his native Romania early in the 2000s. Like most filmmakers do, he honed his skills on short films and music videos before working his way into features. His work with Paul Thomas Anderson on the 2012 film, “The Master,” raised his profile in the industry and earned him several regional awards that year.
Since then, his work has been an ever-shifting collection of projects. Last year, he photographed the beautiful and overlooked book adaptation, “The Hate U Give,” bringing beauty to a tragic and hopeful story.
While very different in tone and style, his work this year on “Jojo Rabbit“ similarly brings beauty to the tragedy and hope of a young boy in 1940s Germany. For this project, he teamed up with director Taika Waititi to bring to life Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old member of Hitler’s Youth whose imaginary friend is the Fuhrer himself. Jojo’s life is thrown into further chaos when he learns his mother (Scarlett Johansson), the center of his world, is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) inside their home.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Mihai to talk about his work on “Jojo Rabbit,” and what the experience meant to him.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Where do we even start with “Jojo Rabbit?” This movie is crazy! It’s my favorite movie of the year, I’m just going to say that right now.
Mihai Malaimare Jr: Thank you so much.
KP: How did you get involved?
MM: What’s interesting about this is that it happened so fast. I was actually in Atlanta doing the reshoots for “The Hate U Give.” I received the script from my agent and I read it overnight and then I had a quick Skype with Taika the next day and I think when I probably had one more day of the reshoots of “The Hate U Give,” I had another Skype and then I think I had to come back to LA for four days and then flew to Prague. So it happened really, really fast.
I know all the other movies Taika did and reading the script was such a pleasure, I really wanted to do it. It was better that I had almost no time off in my head to jump straight into it.
KP: Those are two very, very different types of films.
MM: That’s true. But I did enjoy doing different things and trying not to get locked into a specific genre. And again I enjoyed “Boy” so much and “What We Do in the Shadows” and pretty much all Taika’s movies.
KP: What were those first conversations like when you started talking with him about “Jojo Rabbit?”
MM: You hope this for every collaboration, but it was amazing because he’s such a collaborative director and everything was so great from the beginning. Sometimes you have to spend almost a month to know somebody and to be on the same page, but with Taika, somehow, it happens from the beginning. It was exactly what I was hoping for.
KP: There is a really unique look to this film. It’s set in a time period we’ve seen in a lot of movies and it’s covering themes and circumstances we’ve seen before, but in a different way.
MM: What was really interesting, I think right before, discussing it, all of us had the same idea. Meaning costume department, production design, everybody came with examples that were showing the same thing. I remember when I saw for the first time the color footage or color stills from World War II I was shocked because, for me, they were more toned down or black and white. But actually, no, they had such vivid colors. When we saw the samples from the costumes or the art concepts, and I started printing reference stills, we all realized yeah, we should go for color and not try to shy away from it. And of course, towards the end of the movie when they switch to the battle scene, those are more toned down and cooler. But to start with, not only is it about a child, but we realized going for more color would actually help us.
And then we did a lot of camera tests because it took awhile for us to decide the aspect ratio. We everything that was ever done. We started at 1.3:3 and 1.6:8, 1.85, anamorphic, widescreen. And for some reason we narrowed down to 1.3:3 and 1.85, but the 1,85 seemed really appropriate for telling the story and being able to frame two people in a small room. But we really wanted to keep the morphic look that those anamorphic lenses do such an amazing job with. They tend to create a velvet look, which we wanted. We went for a technique that I wanted to do but I never got the chance. So we actually used 1.3:3 anamorphic lenses and those will give you an anamorphic very close to 1.85. I think it was done before by Gus Van Sant in “Promiseland.” What that does is keep all the characteristics of an anamorphic lens, the flares, a nice close up, but being able to still use 1.85. It’s our secret sauce!
Luckily we had enough time to test and play with all these tools. That’s really important because sometimes we barely have time to see all the locations.
KP: What were some of the trickiest locations to shoot?
MM: We were lucky because Jojo’s house was all a stage except the exterior. But the exteriors were so amazing. There are two little towns outside Prague. The architecture, I’m familiar with it, being from Romania. You can find that architecture in Romania, Hungary, Poland. The only problem is the nice parts of those little towns is, I don’t know why, but they’re very careful about not putting giant TV antennas or dishes or air conditioning. So for some reason, just moving the cars away in the streets, they look still like 1940s. It’s always tricky to shoot a period movie on location because there’s always the motorcars or something. But other than that, the background was so great there.
KP: Something that really struck me, particularly with Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), you capture his innocence so well. His bright blue eyes and this sweet boy that is part of this very hateful movement and is so entrenched in this world. How did you and Taika work to make sure to bring out his innocence?
MM: I think what struck me and I realized Roman, a lot of times when you work with such young kids you’re just hoping for the best and see what you end up getting. But with him, we never had a problem with him being uncomfortable around big cameras or things like that. I think it was so much his personality, but also his experiences even though he’s so young.
What was great about the whole process is that we did some storyboards for the battle scenes, but nothing for the more intimate scenes for Jojo’s house. Our approach was just jump into rehearsals and see where we are. I think it’s more constructive because you end up seeing what’s working in the space. You end up making it a more collaborative process with the actors. Seeing what he was doing in that space. I think allowing them that freedom instead of telling them, “Oh you need to hit your mark here, I think that’s how you get there.” That’s how you pull it off.
KP: There are such great performances. This movie is really special.
KP: Was there a scene that, while you were filming it, really moved you?
MM: I would say probably the scene between Sam [Rockwell] and Roman at the end. Just watching their performances and that process in the middle of that whole craziness. Because we shot a few other battle sequences that same day. When we were in the house, of course, there’s so many great moments with Roman and Thomasin, even in Elsa’s hideout, which is such a tight space. But for some reason, that day when we were getting happy to finish we had to shoot that scene in a few hours between Sam and Roman and that was so emotional for everybody on the set.
KP: There are so many great moments. Roman and Archie are so cute. Everything with Scarlett is just beautiful.
KP: What was it like, not even when the cameras were rolling, but what was it like being on the set everyday?
MM: It was great. I think there were two things that, when you think about it they didn’t seem like a big deal, but for me I think it was the best. Taika had this rule, no cell phones on the set. It was great because, imagine being an actor and there are downtimes for certain people and you don’t have to do anything in the moment. But for an actor, someone’s online or something when they’re trying to work. So it created an environment where everybody was watching and paying attention and dedicated to doing whatever needed to be done.
There was one other thing and it was such a great idea, I wish that rule would be for every single shoot, which was projecting dailies. We cannot do it every day, but we were trying to do it at least twice a week. And all the crew was invited. There’s nothing better than watching the way it will be presented on a big screen and watching with your crew so if something goes wrong, you know when you regroup for the next day or you were like cheering a great scene. Just those two things I think that’s what created a really great atmosphere.
KP: When you got to see the finished film, what was one of your favorite moments?
MM: It’s so hard for me because I got to watch it so many times, being part of the color correction. But even then, there were so many things that surprised me. When the two kids are in the tent. Roman and Archie are in the tent. I never understood what Archie was doing while Roman was talking and then you see it. There are so many moments you never really paid attention to and you see these strange reactions that the kids had. It’s funny.