Ra Vincent has worked in production design and set decoration for the past decade, having worked in art departments for a decade before that. He was nominated for his first Academy Award for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012.
His first collaboration with Taika Waititi was the 2014 breakout hit, “What We Do in the Shadows,” which later spawned a TV series for FX. They worked together again on “Thor: Ragnarok,” and then “Jojo Rabbit,” where Vincent earned his second Oscar nomination.
We recently had the chance to talk about the Oscars, working with one of Hollywood’s most sought after directors, and, of course, “Jojo Rabbit.”
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. That’s very exciting news!
Ra Vincent: I know, isn’t that amazing? I’m pretty blown away. I thoroughly enjoyed working on [“Jojo Rabbit”].
KP: So I’m sure you’ve gotten this question a lot this week, but where were you when you heard the news?
RV: Oddly enough, I was awake in bed. It was 2:00 in the morning when it came through and I blame my wife for being awake and checking the nominations. (laughs) But, no, there was a flurry of text messages and well wishes from lots of my old friends.
KP: I know a lot of people say it’s an honor to be nominated and you don’t do this for the awards. But how are you feeling this week, and what does an Oscar nomination mean to you?
RV: For me, personally, it’s a pretty spectacular offering from my peers as recognition for — what’s so far been all of my working life — has sort of counted towards being as good at my job as I can and to have a little bit of recognition for that, it feels pretty amazing. I mean, I’m absolutely thrilled and honored to be included… Just to be in the same room as some of my favorite film technicians. It means a lot.
KP: “Jojo Rabbit” is such a special film and so unique in a lot of ways. What were some of the early conversations you had with Taika and the rest of the crafts team to find the specific look?
RV: Having worked with Taika before, I knew he wouldn’t just settle for making a regular Second World War film, and though we had never done anything like this together before, we knew it needed to be its own thing. It needed to stand out as something special. I think that my mission from the outset was to find that point of difference. And through conversations with costume and a lot of location scouting in and around the Czech Republic and on the border with Germany, we found some pretty interesting, quirky points of deference in that they’re kind of all bright villages that have a sort of unusual character to them. Which, even though we’re set in 1940s Germany and these villages are over 700 years old, they have a layer of quirky character, which makes them a little different from what I think we’re used to as an audience going through a regular Second World War film.
And we used little influences like the suspicious eyes and lofts in the houses to these slightly kooky color palettes that you find in some of these Czech villages. And we built a style around those key influences. And the story just mushroomed from there.
KP: The windows really do stand out. Were any of those built for the production or were they all found?
RV: We found a lot of those little vignette moments. Whenever we go to the still life of a valley or the sound of a house, we quite often just chose locations and filmed quite a lot of second reel or B-roll material that could be inserted into the film where we needed those bits. And because we were kind of squeezed down to a little budget, those little vignette moments or solitary still life frames became quite important for Tom [Eagles]’ edit and for Taika to put some pause in between the drama and the comedy.
KP: There’s a lot of time spent inside Jojo’s house. Was that a set you built or was that an existing house?
RV: Jojo’s house needed to operate as a big enough, generous enough space that we could spend almost half of the film in there without feeling claustrophobic. And the only way to really do it properly was to build Jojo’s interior onstage at Barrandov Studios in Prague. And what we had done was scouted many interior locations and found that maybe we could have one room from this location and another from another location and try and piece together Jojo’s house. It was a kind of false economy thinking we could get away with using established buildings and chopping up our schedule to make it all fit together.
So we outlaid a little bit of extra money to make a purpose-built house that was camera friendly. So all the walls and ceilings could move and Mihai [Malaimare Jr] would have the space to light as he needed. And the thing about Jojo’s interior was, because they spend quite a lot of the script in there, it was good for us to be able to see through rooms into other rooms and allow the audience to understand the geography of the house because they spend so much time there, it becomes such a character in the film it needed to be understandable.
KP: What about Elsa’s hideout? Was it common to have that much space in between the interior and exterior walls? Or was that an invention for the film?
RV: Elsa’s hideout was inspired by my location hunting. Quite a few of those old stone buildings had very generous loft spaces in them. We theorized that if Rosie and her husband were slightly better off — maybe they ran a manufacturing company or did something that had a little bit more money than usual — they might have done some renovations to the upper floor of that old house. So those renovations at that time, there were a whole lot of materials for insulating the house.
And also quite possibly Rosie and her husband were stylish and contemporary, artistic types and really decorated the house in an art deco fashion. So once you do a renovation on the loft space, you end up with some sloping ceilings and also where the roof — now, old German houses have big, sloping roofs to let the snow fall off them, and this leaves a bit of negative space. You create a wall up against your loft room, you end up with a crawl space and that became Elsa’s hideout.
KP: Which set was the most fun for you to design?
RV: Definitely the house was an amazing challenge. But we spent quite a bit of time in a town called Zatec in the Czech Republic. That town had a beautiful, big town square. And we staged the Allies’ takeover of our fictional town in that town square. That was a pretty fun exercise because we had to gain the confidence of the local homeowners and shop keepers and then go about putting gallows in their town square and hanging swastikas from the light poles. So that had its own little challenges.
And then, fortunately or unfortunately, that particular town had a visit from the Nazi party in the late 30s and they had historical photographs of swastikas hanging in the town square, and quite a few of the people who still lived there have generational memories of the time when the Nazis were in their town.
KP: What did working on “Jojo Rabbit” mean to you?
RV: On a personal level, it’s a journey Taika and I have been on for quite a few years. I read the script back in 2012? 2013? Back then, we planned to make the film in possibly New Zealand with a lot smaller budget. But when Searchlight came on board, we were able to really realize Taika’s writing and made a much better film than we originally thought we could. Just for me, that journey was really rewarding.
But beyond that, Jojo’s experience is a universal message that I think we all understand. It was really nice to be able to tell it through a a real life event, but one that’s generated from fiction. Seeing the world torn apart through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. And seeing his world being manipulated by the grown ups and how that can be absolutely nonsense and how we can be responsible for misleading our youth if we’re not careful.