The film, with an ensemble including the likes of Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa, Mandy Moore and Dennis Quaid, tells the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual battle in the mid-pacific through the eyes of these characters. Splitting the decision-making of the leadership from quotidian bravery or cowardice of the regular soldier, the film’s expansive look at the battle rarely descends into dogma, instead tries through its mix of spectacle and character beats to provide a thrilling film that still feels at its core more than mere escapism.
/Film spoke to Emmerich about this push to provide nuance in the telling of the story, how other productions shaped the long genesis of this production, and what how he feels the creation of these kinds of stories have changed over the last few decades.
Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity
You are a German-American, doing a film about the Pacific war that humanizes both sides of the conflict. Can you talk about your own conflicts and expectations and realizations in this project?
I am German, and heard war stories from my dad, but not constantly. We knew that he was not a party member. He told us, look, there were the Nazis, even we didn’t like them. It was a small group of people who felt totally entitled. Always watch out – when you look at history, don’t believe certain things. 20 years ago I saw a documentary about Midway. I realized the Japanese were this rigid culture and for whatever reason they attacked. It was actually Yamamoto designing the whole thing, but they got unlucky because the aircraftcarriers were gone. Yamamoto just knew that if these aircraft carriers would survive the Japanese would lose the war. The Americans were already building two or three more, while the Japanese had problems with getting metal and oil and stuff. Yamamoto knew that in the long run they cannot win, so it was this whole chess game between Nimitz and the Japanese Navy. I thought it was super interesting story to tell. In the middle of all this are the sailors, the pilots, the radio men and all of these people who just do their jobs. There are brave ones, there are not so brave ones, there are daredevils, there are more reserved guys, so it was just this mix of all of these people in one movie.
Your film reminded me a little bit of Das Boot, how we’re thrust into the centre of what is taking place and we are feeling. Were there other projects that you looked to for inspiration?
My favourite movie is A Bridge Too Far. When the Midway project first discovered, Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star division was really excited about it. I went to actually William Goldman in New York and he wanted to write it. I was super excited about it, but then we learned somebody said at one point, Roland, what do you think this will cost? I said, well, at least, maybe even $150 million. Then everybody said uh oh. John Kelly, who was then running the studio, had to go back to the Japanese and they said categorically no, they weren’t going to spend $150 million a movie where they lose the battle.
The last time there was a major Pearl Harbor film, Michael Bay went out of his way to show that somehow the Americans kinda won at Pearl Harbor. It’s so historically fatuous. Without denigrating a colleague, I’m just wondering if you could talk about the pitfalls you saw on this film to try to avoid?
I did some of them too. But it was just a different time. And they used Spitfires! Why? Because they had some Spitfires. They still have some in Hawaii and they offered them to me and I said they’re wrong. We don’t use Spitfire, we use SPDs, Dauntless, and all of these kinds of things. Because of Pearl Harbor, I had to wait years to make Midway. In Hollywood, you cannot say, oh, somebody’s doing Pearl Harbor, next year comes Midway.
That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career! Don’t talk about it! [laughs].
Ants to Bug’s Life, etc.
Don’t talk about it, really. It’s like depression sets in. I had no idea when I took White House Down that the other film existed.
So you felt greater pressure in 2019 to be more accurate.
I think filmmakers more and more realize when you do something historical, you have to do it absolutely correct.
That being said, you still have to tell a story, and you have to en a story and there’s a balance between being documentary and being truthful.
We still do that. Everything plot-wise that happens and is portrayed in the film really happened. Then what they talk about, the dialogue, that’s a whole different story, because who knows what Dick Best said? Was he laying on the bed with his wife discussing all of this? Who knows?
The fact that you have a character named Dick Best seems preposterous.
Ed Skrein was crying at the very beginning when he read the script. He Googled “Dick Best” and all he got porn sites! [laughs]
Is there something specific you can point to that you know you had to aggrandize for the sake of narrative? Is there stuff that was almost too big that nobody would believe it, but was in the film?
We had a couple of moments where we just cut things a little bit shorter. That thing where the guy rides on a torpedo and stops it with his feet? It just happened exactly that way, but they all returned. There was stuff like that we had to just tone it a little bit down and it worked. But that’s why you always test movies. We have to test movies – there’s no way around it, nobody likes it, but everybody knows it’s necessary. For filmmakers this is always the worst time. You invite like 450 film critics to your movie and say fill something out.
But they’re not critics, per se, they’re general audience. Sometimes, with critics, I think you’d get something different, and not always something better.
Maybe better, most of the time worse, I tell you, this movie tested as well as Independence Day. I’m just saying.
Speaking of Independence Day, that was known for its groundbreaking effects, this huge extravaganza. Midway also feels like an enormous undertaking on that front. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, have you found that the tools have made these films be able to be made in a way, or are you finding that the budgets are now so crazy that you are in some ways limited?
You could not ever make this with models. I mean, yes, they did it for Tora! Tora! Tora!, but it doesn’t hold up. People are so sophisticated these days, they know immediately if this is this or that. When you have a war movie, you’d better have good visual effects, otherwise, you disqualify yourself. But I can tell you one thing, I still miss going into a stage where there are models and you just shoot them and you explode them and there’s a certain magic which is gone. It’s now all on a computer.
Would this have been a 40 million dollar film instead of a 150 million dollar film if you did it with models?
It would have been more expensive. With CGI, when you have once built a carrier and you have figured out the water and everything, you can make all kinds of different lights, different shots. When you do this with models, to get this together with the water and everything, it would have been more complicated and difficult. This was actually Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s problem when they did Pearl Harbor. They had to cut down their budget from $180 to $138 million. And that was only from visual effects. I believe that too many visual effects is also not good for a film anyhow. That said, I’m quite amazed at how we got this movie made and shot in 65 days without any second unit, with no long days. In cash we spent only like 76 or 77 million dollars. But, look at the movie! Everybody else would think this cost $150 or 170 million or so!
Megyn Kelly announced a comeback on Friday, teasing an interview that will be posted on Instagram and YouTube — an interview with a woman who was fired after she was suspected of leaking a video hot mic moment of ABC News' Amy Robach, complaining that the network didn't jump on the Jeffrey Epstein story three years ago.
“We just sat down with her, and we got the full story, and I think you are going to be fascinated by it,” Kelly said in an Instagram post.
The woman, a producer, had since moved to CBS News, but after right-wing site Project Veritas posted the footage, ABC News reportedly informed their rival network of what had happened. Kelly said that the employee was fired because she had “marked” the video of Robach, but they “suspected that she leaked” the video.
Spokespersons for ABC News and CBS News did not immediately return requests for comment.
Inthe video, which was from last summer, Robach says, “I had this interview with Virginia Roberts. We would not put it on the air. First of all, I was told, 'Who's Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story. Then the palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us a million different ways. We were so afraid we wouldn't be able to interview Kate and Will that we, that also quashed the story.”
After the video was posted at Project Veritas, Robach issued a new statement. She said that she was caught “in a private moment of frustration.”
“I was upset that an important interview I had conducted with Virginia Roberts didn't air because we could not obtain sufficient corroborating evidence to meet ABC's editorial standards about her allegations.” she said. “My comments about Prince Andrew and her allegation that she had seen Bill Clinton on Epstein's private island were in reference to what Virginia Roberts said in that interview in 2015. I was referencing her allegations — not what ABC News had verified through our reporting.
“The interview itself, while I was disappointed it didn't air, didn't meet our standards. In the years since no one ever told me or the team to stop reporting on Jeffrey Epstein, and we have continued to aggressively pursue this important story.”
Kelly left NBC in January, after her daytime series Megyn Kelly Today was cancelled. She appeared last month on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight, Kelly's first interview since exiting NBC. She criticized the network for the way it handled the Harvey Weinstein story, which was the subject of Ronan Farrow's book, Catch & Kill.
With The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers has created one of the best, and weirdest, movies of 2019. His follow-up to The Witch is a tale of supernatural New England horror, a dizzying descent into paranoia and debauchery, and a filthy comedy about what it’s like to share a small space with the roommate from hell. You’ve never seen anything quite like it and quite frankly, you probably aren’t prepared for it.
I was able to speak with Eggers on the phone for an all-too-brief interview where we discussed his New England roots, directing the film’s intense performances, and yes, crafting fart jokes.
Pardon the anecdote, but I grew up with a mother from Boston, and her bookshelves were full of ghost stories and tall tales and legends of New England. So I grew up with a vision of New England being a place where everything is terrifying. After The Witch and The Lighthouse and you being born in New Hampshire, I have to imagine you also have an interest in the dark corners of New England. Why does that appeal to you?
laughs There are plenty of people who grew up in New England who are interested in the Red Sox and the Bruins and look at lighthouses on the coast of Maine romantically and are quite normal. But if you are slightly interested in the dark side of life, it’s impossible not to be affected by the New England surroundings. My grandpa lived in a house from 1740. I grew up in a clapboard house surrounded by giant white pines, and I was sure that when I was tromping around in the woods past random family graveyards that had been grown over and crumbling stone walls that were on the boundaries of former generations past, that there were ghosts of Puritans and witches and werewolves in the woods behind my house. It’s a tangible feeling, and any time I’m doing press in New England, people come up to me and describe having similar feelings when they were kids growing up there.
So many of my favorite horror and genre writers are from New England – Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft – at what point did you realize there was an entire genre of weirdness, horror, science fiction, fantasy, that grew out of this region of the United States? What do you think makes it different from the South, which has its own unique ghost stories and tall tales?
Well, the Anglo-Protestant culture that was brought over on the Mayflower gives a certain kind of austerity to New England folklore and New England horror. Southern gothic is something very different, much more romantic. I think that romanticism is what’s different. Poe walked the line between both things, having spent time in the South and the North and having gone to boarding school in England. He gets to incorporate everything. But yeah, when you see Lovecraft become unhinged, you really see how that New England culture can repress people and turn them into real maniacs.
It took me a few minutes to realize how funny The Lighthouse is and that it was OK to laugh. A friend of mine had a compliment that The Lighthouse feels like Kubrick trying to make Step Brothers, so at what point did you realize this was a comedy? Because The Witch, which I love, is not funny at all, so I was expecting something similar. When did you realize, “Oh, this movie’s funny”?
I wanted it to be funny from the beginning. The Witch takes itself very seriously, indeed. It is humorless, aside from a couple moments with the twins. I frankly don’t think it would work without being so self-serious. But there’s something about it that feels a little film school-y to me, in that seriousness. I felt if I was going to explore misery again, I wanted to be able to laugh at misery as well. So it was very early on, when I was taking notes and outlining things, before I was writing it together with my brother, that I was thinking about flatulence making sense in this tight, claustrophobic world of two men living in a giant phallus. And then I realized, OK, the first fart in the movie is the first fart joke in the movie.
I think anybody who has ever had a bad roommate can relate to this. I’ve never lived in a lighthouse, but I’ve had my fair share of really crummy roommates.
Absolutely. Working in the dregs of the New York indie film scene, I definitely had to share some close quarters with flatulent co-workers.
Pattinson and Dafoe look absolutely miserable in this movie. How much of that is performance and how much of that is location?
It’s all location. I mean, Willem Dafoe says you can’t act a red nose. Of course, in this movie you can’t see a red nose, either. laughs But you don’t have to act, but if you’re – spoiler alert – actually being buried alive. You don’t have to act if you’re in gale force winds in the pouring rain and it’s just above or below freezing on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean. You don’t have to act that stuff.
One thing I really like about the filmmaking decisions you make here is that when I first saw footage of it, I was like, “Oh, he’s shooting it like a 1930s film. That’s a cool aesthetic choice.” But when you see it, the narrower frame and amount of close-ups you use really emphasize the claustrophobia and how much these two don’t have any personal space whatsoever. As a director, how do you map out making these aesthetic choices that not only give the film that unique look and feeling, but also really puts you in the shoes of your characters?
It’s instinctual. Certainly it comes from studying other filmmakers and watching a ton of movies and trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work, what turns you on, what excites you, what inspires you. How does it make you feel? How do you understand the perspectives of the character by watching these other movies? But Jarin Blaschke, the DP, and I make our choices having to do with who our protagonist is and whose perspective the scene is being told through. Nearly every moment in this movie, we experience it through Rob’s eyes. Even that is subjective from audience member to audience member, I don’t think they’re always going to experience something through Rob’s eyes. After the two shot of them looking into the camera and Willem walks into the house, we’re basically with Rob for the rest of the movie, aside from a couple moments. Therefore, at that point, if you see a wide shot in the movie, it’s because Rob is experiencing the grandness of the landscape or the power of nature or whatever. It doesn’t turn into narrator mode necessarily. Will the audience perceive it like that? I don’t know. But anytime we decide to make a cut from one shot to another, that’s based on where we are with Rob. That means in the shots that Jarin and I design and the work that I do with Louise Ford, the editor. It all comes from how Rob’s experiencing things.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because my favorite shot in the movie is Willem Dafoe cursing Robert Pattinson and turning and staring right into the camera, and if I remember correctly, it’s in one mostly long, unbroken take that escalates with his performance. I want to know the origin of that speech and that shot, because weeks later I’m still thinking about it.
Thank you. Yeah, I will say that you say it’s mostly unbroken, and the thing is, that the entire thing from beginning to end is one take from Willem. We needed to break it up because we needed to see Rob’s reaction, because as I mentioned, the movie is from Rob’s perspective. But if we omitted those shots of Rob, Dafoe – even as it is – for over two minutes, doesn’t blink. The unbroken version, he never, ever, ever blinked. laughs The dialogue for this film was heavily researched except for that sort of faux-Shakespearean, faux-Miltonian stuff because of The Witch and some other things I’ve written, I just kind of do that now. But it was inspired by Ahab’s more romantic language in Moby Dick. It was also inspired by, I saw a not particularly good stage production of Hamlet when I was early in the writing process on this movie where the only thing that struck me about that particular performance was the actor who played the lead player of the players who come into Elsinore, the lead player was incredible. Shakespeare has a speech about Hecuba that is written in sort of a clunky, old-fashioned style for Shakespeare’s day. The actor who played the player just killed that speech. You really did picture Priam and Hecuba and everything with such clarity when he was giving this really old-fashioned, clunky speech. And I thought, “OK, we should have a sea spell that should do something like that.”
With Doctor Sleep, writer/director Mike Flanagan finds himself serving three masters. First, there’s Stanley King, who penned The Shining and its literary sequel, the subject of this new film. Then there’s Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic 1908 film adaptation of The Shining has legions of fans but remains hated by King himself. And then there’s Flanagan himself, the impressive filmmaker behind The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game, Hush, and more, whose distinctive voice blends chills with honest sentimentality.
I attended an early screening of Doctor Sleep in Estes Park, Colorado, home to the famous Stanley Hotel, the place where a young Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining in the first place. And the real miracle is this: Flanagan has made a movie that is a direct sequel to Kubrick’s film, a loving tribute to King’s original vision, and, most importantly, a proper Mike Flanagan movie through and through.
Shortly before I sat down to interview Flanagan, I learned that he was staying in the famously haunted Room 428 AKA “The Cowboy Room” at the Stanley Hotel, the same room I had stayed in prior to his arrival. Figuring this would be my only chance to talk to a noteworthy horror director about our experiences in the same haunted room, I used that to break the ice.
Maybe a slightly odd question to start with, but I was told you were in Room 428?
I was in there the other night before you arrived. So we have two people who have both been in a famously haunted room. Did you see anything or hear anything or feel anything odd while you were in the infamous Cowboy Room?
I did not see the Cowboy. The biggest thing I noticed was the wind against the window and the wall that night was loud, like a fist punching the wall. Those noises were startling, but no, I didn’t see anything.
I heard movement above me, where there is no place for there to be movement.
That’s messed up! I’ve stayed in there before, though. The first time I ever stayed here, I stayed in that room.
I’m a skeptic by nature, but I believe in ghosts. Where do you fall on this?
I’m a skeptic by nature, and I do not yet believe in ghosts. But I’m wide open. Like any good skeptic, my mind is wide open to the possibility and I actively seek it out. That’s why I ask for rooms like that.
Do you think that’s part of the thrill of being a horror fan? Wanting to find that stuff?
Yeah, nothing would make me happier. Because even if I have a really scary experience, to be able to say with certainty that there is something waiting for us on the other side of this life would be so cool. I’d love to know that. For me, it doesn’t feel knowable, and I haven’t seen it. But I know other people claim to have, and who am I to argue with that?
Interestingly, Doctor Sleep also has a similar viewpoint of “life goes on,” and in the world of Doctor Sleep and lots of Stephen King stories, being a ghost isn’t necessarily a curse. It’s being there to watch and help the people you love.
Can you talk a little bit about finding the optimism in your horror? I feel like you, like Stephen King, are an optimist at heart. I feel like you believe people were persevere.
Yes, I do. I didn’t always used to be this way, either. It’s funny, I look back at some of my early work – when I watch Absentia, for example, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s bleak.’ Oculus is bleak. That optimism has kind of grown in me as I’ve gotten older, and it’s grown in me because I had children and I want to be optimistic for them. I want the world to be OK for them. And it’s because I met my wife and as my life congealed into a really positive thing, for the first time I wanted to believe in those things. I wanted to have faith in the existence, in the universe and purpose and justice. I want to believe all of that. It’s comforting for my kids. I can’t imagine them growing up in a world that is completely indifferent and hopeless. That wrecks me. I can’t let it happen.
It’s interesting, because you also see that in Stephen King’s work. He grows more humanist as work goes on, and even the creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, ended his comic book run recently and wrote an essay in the last issue saying that his original plan was to end it with humanity wiped out, but changed to the opposite ending because over the years he had kids and realized he could not bring himself to do that. Do you agree with me when I say that there’s a wisdom in growing older with horror like that?
Yeah, I think so. I agree with that completely. I think, when you look at what horror is meant to do, it’s a safe space for us to entertain the things that scare us the most. As a kid, I used to look at it as a chance to be brave in short bursts. That making it through a scary movie or reading a scary book, when I didn’t want to look at the screen anymore or hide behind my fingers or a pillow, if I was able to push through that for five minutes, for 90 minutes, whatever it was, that was like exercise. I think even our darkest expressions of the genre are really a wonderful exercise for us to cathartically – they say when you’re really terrified of something happening, [you should try] exposure therapy. Experience it. Realize it isn’t the end of the world. See how you react to it. See how you really are on the other side of an experience like that, because there’s nothing flimsier than untested virtue. I think horror is optimistic, because it basically says that for as dark as this is, as scary as it is, it’s going to end and you’ll still be here. As the viewer, as the reader, you carry on. I think it’s incredible.
You’ve spoken before about how childhood trauma and its effects is like horror to you because you had a good childhood, so that scares you. But my real question, the pressing question, is why are you so afraid of hand trauma?
Because in Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game, my hands hurt so much!
It’s become a running gag now. I have a phobia of fingernail injuries. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I can imagine. In Oculus, we had a scene where Rory [Cochrane] pulls off his thumbnail. I still haven’t been able to watch the whole thing. I can’t. It was a reshoot. It was a last minute addition to the movie. I was against it because I’m so uncomfortable with it and I can’t look at it. But with Hush, Hush was kind of, in a lot of ways, it was me feeling like I was never going to be able to make Gerald’s Game. Kind of riffing on a lot of things that are in that book. The crushing hand injury in that felt right for that story, and it was also kind of Gerald’s Game-y. But I didn’t have a vendetta against hands.
But then with Gerald’s Game, it was like, OK, now it’s starting to feel like a vendetta. And with [The] Haunting [of Hill House], Henry stuck his hand in the fan, he was like, “You’re starting to do this on purpose, aren’t you?” In Doctor Sleep, that’s why happens to her hand in the book. It gets pretty mangled. But I was like, “Here we go again!” At this point, it’s just becoming a dare, like how can I get a really gruesome hand injury in there. Because fuck hands! What do they do for anyone? Nothin’. But yeah, it’s just kind of fun.
I think the strength of gore like that is we don’t know what it’s like to have our face ripped off by a masked killer, but we’ve all stubbed our finger, we’ve all had a hangnail. We all know what that feels like.
Yeah, it’s like when you pull that hangnail just a little too far, and the tiny little tear happens? We all know how that feels. Because we use our hands for so much of our lives, an injury to those? It’s really frightening to me. It’s eyes and hands for me. Having any impediment to sight or being able to manipulate things. It scares me to death.
Doctor Sleep, by returning to many of the ideas and imagery of Stephen King’s original novel The Shining, in addition to being a sequel to Kubrick’s film, feels like a direct response to saying Kubrick’s worldview is “we’re doomed” and Doctor Sleep’s view is “no, we’re not.” So I want to talk about your process of staying true to Kubrick while also putting Stephen King’s proper vision out there in front of millions of people for the first time.
Yeah, and that was one of the things that was so exciting to me about this, was being able to do the ending of The Shining. To do the ending of the novel. But I don’t know if I’d put it all on Kubrick, to say that he’s got this kind of “we’re all doomed” [outlook]. I don’t know that I can speak to his worldview that definitively. What I will say, though, is that The Shining is very much about addiction, which is doom. It’s about annihilation and the destruction of a family. How addition can destroy an individual, and how that destruction can reach out and destroy others around it. I think that’s what King was writing about the most. He always had this note of redemption and sacrifice to it. He had this wish of how it would go, and Kubrick was more interested in the madness. He was more interested in the destruction, for sure.
But I think Doctor Sleep, written by the same author but with decades of sobriety under his belt, Doctor Sleep is about recovery. In the way that addiction feels like doom and annihilation, recovery is rebirth, and recovery is salvation, in a way. I think they’re two sides of the same coin, these stories. I think Kubrick gravitated very naturally toward certain notes of that story. And clearly, Stephen King, I think, desperately wanted the redemption because he needed it for himself and he needed it for his own family. When that wasn’t included in the movie, I think he took that personally, and I understand why he would. But I think that’s why he’s so passionate about it. To finally kind of be able to give him back in this story, it was an honor to be able to do that. I hope, though, that we’re also able to honor Stanley Kubrick and the masterpiece of cinema that he made. Because as many liberties as he took with it, he made a film that has profoundly formed me and has shaped the way I see cinema, and will always. That was the hope. Not to say, “this was right” or “this was wrong” or “this is the real Shining and this isn’t,” it was more to try to pull all of that together and celebrate all of it.
The rest of the interview delves into spoilers and will run on Monday. Prepare for that by checking out Doctor Sleep, which is in theaters now.
Tom Segura is one of the best comedians out there right now. The Cincinnati native released his first Netflix special, Completely Normal, back in 2014, and in the five years since, his skills as a storyteller have only sharpened. Segura’s jokes continue to grow longer and funnier, making for some of the most consistently funny Netflix comedy specials available. You can often find him at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood and, most recently, all over the country and Europe for his recent tour, “Take It Down.” If you didn’t get a chance to see him perform on his latest tour, the good news is all his new material will be available this month in a new special.
Segura can also be seen in the new horror movie, Countdown, which is produced by director Sean Anders. The two worked together on Instant Family, which gave the comedian his first prominent role in a major studio comedy to date. Segura isn’t only interested in acting in comedies, though, as he told us.
During a recent conversation with the comedian, actor, and co-host of Your Mom’s House podcast, he told us about his hope to see in all kinds of movies and what’s different about his new material.
How’s your new material playing?
It’s been doing well. I’ve actually been touring with it for quite a while. I have a new special coming up, so this [tour] is kind of winding down.
Even though it’s winding down and you’re about to leave for Europe, are you still tweaking material or, at a certain point, is it complete?
In my experience traveling in different countries, it’s best to not overthink it, just do it, and see how it goes. I think we tend to get in our heads about it, but if it works in most places, it probably works in other places. I’ll just do it and see what happens. I feel like most of it will translate. Some of it is real specific, you know, like a reference to a story or city people might not know, and you might have to explain that reference, but other than that, it’s fine.
I can’t think of too much from your specials that wouldn’t translate. It’s mostly universal material.
I think so, I think so. I mean, especially if you’re telling stories about relationships, your kids, parents, or someone you ran into. All those kinds of usually make sense.
For Countdown, since you had worked with Sean Anders, was it just a phone call you got for the part or did you have to go through auditions?
No. I got lucky because they just called me. Initially, they offered me another part, but when I read the script, the Derek stuff just made me laugh. When I said I wanted to play that role, they said, “Are you serious? You want to play that?” I thought it’d be funny, so I was excited to play that part.
I just like the idea of you playing a part in a demon movie. What people know about your stand up, was it also just a funny idea to you?
It is. When you think about it in terms of the catalog of your film career, it excites me to be in all types of films, you know what I mean? I would want to do children movies, a thriller, or a really physical comedy. Doing all types of stuff is exciting. I feel like it would be fun to mix it up. When I was on set and I got to see the demon, I thought, “This is amazing.”
When you’re going out for auditions, is it usually comedy or are you trying out for thrillers and dramas as well?
I’m trying to think. It’s funny, when you’re on tour it’s so demanding. When things start coming in I can’t even… I don’t have time to prepare for auditions. I’m thinking about the last few auditions I did. I did one a week ago for a pretty serious thriller, and then a silly comedy one. I guess I lean a little more comedy, but yeah, it’s a mix of things.
With your experience of performing in theaters, is it not that intimidating auditioning in front of a few people or do you still get nervous for an audition?
I feel like it really depends on the day. I mean, auditions can be super intimidating, but it is like performing live in that, day-to-day, it can vary. You’re not always the same every day. You can do a show and feel a certain confidence and calmness, but then there are days where you’re all worked up about it. I think auditioning is like that. The best auditions are when you’re relaxed and dialed in. I feel like I get that sometimes, and sometimes I don’t. I don’t like auditioning, I’ll say that.
[Laughs] I feel like few people say they like it.
I’ve heard a few people say they don’t mind. I’m like, are you serious? “Yeah, no, I don’t mind. The process is fine.” I think the biggest turnoff of acting is the auditioning. It usually feels awful, man. It really feels awful. It’s weird, too, because hands down the best I’ve auditioned, you don’t hear anything. I’ll think, “I nailed that,” and then you don’t hear nothing. Then when you feel like you’ve stumbled through it you’ll hear, “Yeah, they want to see you again.” What?
It’s funny, I did a podcast a week ago with Judd Apatow, which hasn’t come out yet, but we were talking about picking talent, like selecting talent to play different parts. We’d look at Internet videos of weird people and he’d say, “Oh, I’d cast this guy, I’d cast that guy.” I was like, “Would you really cast them?” And he went, “Yeah, because there’s so much charisma.” Then I asked him, “When you’re looking for potential actors for a part, do you look more for charisma than auditioning well, knowing your lines?” He said, “100%. For comedy, if I see a spark in their personality, I’m going to cast that person.” I just thought it was interesting, you know? Sometimes I do think, “How did I not get a callback for that? I did it so well.” It just happens.
It could be them, not you, but when you leave auditions do you ever think, “Screw it, I’ll just go work on material for myself”? Do you write many scripts for yourself?
Totally. I think like that all the time. I just wrote, directed, and acted in this sketch we’re going to release on my podcast youtube channel. I do it for that reason, like, I just gotta make stuff, man. The other thing is, too, they’ll let you know if they’re moving on [with someone else]. Most of the time you’re like, “What did they say?” And you hear, “I don’t know, man. They said you were great, but…” It’s a very unfulfilling and unsatisfying feeling. It’s not my primary career, but if I want to act in something, I’ll just go make something and shoot it.
Plus, being a stand-up, you could easily walk away from auditioning one day.
Oh yeah, I would say I primarily do that [Laughs]. I shot four movies in the last year, and they were all from phone calls. People called me, like, “Hey man, you want to be in this movie?” “Sure.” I did audition for Sean for Instant Family because he requested I audition, but even he said, “Yeah, it wasn’t a very good audition, so…” [Laughs]
[Laughs] One of my favorite characters of the last few years is DJ Dad Mouth.
Do you have more characters like that in mind you could do as a movie or show one day?
Yeah, there are different ones. There’s one that I can’t tell you about that’s coming out, which I shot. You are going to shit your pants. I’m telling you, dude, you should hit me up after. It’ll be on my personal youtube channel, Twitter, and Instagram. I shot it in a 14-hour day with an unbelievable level of production. I think you’ll go, “Oh my God.”
I look forward to it. You have such a strong voice as a comedian. I was wondering, do comedians have that a-ha moment of, “I’ve found my voice,” or is it just a natural progression?
I think it’s a progression thing. In a way, you knew it was there all along, but it wasn’t developed. It’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s who I am.” You just didn’t realize it, you know? It’s when you realize how you present it to people. It’s finally developed when people anticipate it, like, yeah, they know who I am. They know you’re going to have an opinion, and they might not know the words, but they know how you’re going to feel about this, and that’s when you feel like a developed comic, I think.
With the recent tour and the new special, what were some new things you wanted to try as a performer?
You’re always trying to improve. I’m always trying to be a better comic. I feel like the one thing I tried, and I’ve heard some people acknowledge it, is being a little more physical and a little more animated. You know, a part of it was deliberate. Another part of it is being uncomfortable being animated. When I say physical, don’t picture Jim Carrey, you know what I mean?
[Laughs] That’d be cool to see, though.
[Laughs] Yeah. For me, I’m feeling a little more versatile.
That’s interesting because to me, you’re such a less is more comic.
Yeah, yeah. I think that’s always my wheelhouse, but it’s moments where you’re more animated with the expressions. For me, movements are three steps this way, three steps that way. It’s not pacing the stage. Those little things, for me, usually involve just standing still.
There is so much more we’re going to learn about New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the coming years. With each new role, we see her abilities tested and our expectations exceeded. After a small role in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when she was barely even a teenager, she continued working in shorts and local television series, until her breakthrough role in 2018 in Debra Granik’s much acclaimed Leave No Trace, opposite Ben Foster.
Not surprisingly, the offers and work came in rapidly, and in 2019, she can be seen in the just released Netflix feature The King, directed by David Michôd and co-starring Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, in which she plays Henry V’s sister Philippa. At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, she also starred in the Australian biographical crime drama True History of the Kelly Gang, which presumably will open stateside in 2020. And in September 2020, she’ll be seen in director Edgar Wright’s latest work, Last Night in Soho.
But it’s her current remarkable take as the Jewish teenager Elsa in writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit that is garnering her significant notices in this World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo Roman Griffin Davis whose world view is turned upside-down when he discovers his mother Scarlett Johansson is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic.
/Film spoke with McKenzie in Chicago during the recent Chicago International Film Festival, and she discussed the responsibility of playing the only Jewish character in a film set during World War II in Germany, the benefits of shooting chronologically, and why she thinks it’s important this story be told today. Jojo Rabbit is in limited release, opening wider in the coming weeks.
Each time Jojo comes back to Elsa during the course of the film, our knowledge about her history, her personality, and how she ended up in the house grows. For a large part of the movie, you were shooting in a single location, were you able to shoot chronologically to make it more natural to show that growth? I know that’s not how films are usually made.
We actually did shoot Leave No Trace chronologically, and for this film, I think we did film those scenes more or less in order. We weren’t filming the end at the beginning.
As an actor, that’s got to be useful—almost like doing a play and the progression makes more sense.
Definitely. With filming Leave No Trace, it almost felt like we weren’t filming anything. I knew we were working, but it felt like we were just doing it and living it. I was inhabiting this person’s life for the period of the shoot. It wasn’t like a meta performance or anything. I did a film this year [Last Night in Soho] where we very much did not shoot in chronological order, and it does take a lot of planning. I ended up having to write up a timeline for all the scenes and refer back to it and go. “We’re here now, and I filmed that moment already. But I haven’t filmed that yet, so I don’t know that has happened.” It was a bit of a mind game.
When we were filming Jojo Rabbit, I was still figuring out who Elsa was. At the beginning, in the very first scene we shot was the very first scene you see Elsa in. And when I started that day, I had one idea of Elsa, but I ended it with a completely different idea of who she was. It definitely helps to film in chronological order because as the shoot goes on, you learn more things about your character and grow with them. Like with Leave No Trace, it was weird watching it back because I was watching myself getting older. My hair was growing, my features were getting darker somehow. I could see these changes happening as the story developed.
When you first read Taika’s screenplay, what do you remember about Elsa and her story that hooked you?
I think it was her strength. This story has been told a lot of times in a lot of different ways, and there have been a lot of similar variations of Elsa, who’s something of an Anne Frank character. What I liked about Elsa in Jojo Rabbit is that you really see her strength, and you get to understand that she isn’t just a victim, but she is a victim, of course, but that’s not what define her—she’s so many other things, which isn’t something you always get to see in this kind of character in a World War II film.
Her being the only Jewish character in the film, were you more aware of the representative nature of her, that she was representing this event and an entire people? Tell me about the weight of responsibility that puts on you and what you did to make sure you understood that in the performance.
Yes, totally. That’s something I thought about even before I had the role. I was thinking that this was a big responsibility, and you’re representing a lot of people, and it’s not something you can take lightly. This community of people has been through so much—their history is not a joke, so that was definitely something that was on my mind for the entire shoot, even now. In preparation, that was my main priority, to make sure I know the facts and had some understanding of their history of what they went through. I could never fully understand it; no one who didn’t go through what they went through could. But I wanted to know as much as I could, so I did a lot of research.
I always approach new roles with research—that’s one of my favorite parts of the process, the research. But with one, it was to a whole new level. From the get go and throughout the entire shoot, I was researching and reading books like The Diary of Anne Frank and about four other books about young Jewish girls living through the Holocaust. I used our modern-day tool, the internet, and I watched Schindler’s List. When I was in New Zealand, I went to museums. Interestingly, New Zealand was the first country to declare war on Germany in World War II because of the time difference—so for a few hours, it was New Zealand vs. Germany.
And once I arrived in Prague, I spent a lot of time going to different cemeteries, including the Jewish cemetery with my manager, who is Jewish herself. I went to the Old-New Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue, also to the Jewish Quarter, which has been really well preserved. I worked with a historian who told me the Nazis had a plan to use the Jewish Quarter in Prague as a museum for an extinct race, which is makes you sick to think about.
I was going to ask about Prague, because it does still have an old-European feel to it. Did that make shooting there make you feel like you were going back in time?
Yeah, you really do. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on location in the different sites where they filmed, but Roman does talk during the Q&As about when he was filming those scenes in the town, he really did feel like he was there in 1944.
I read somewhere that Taiki wanted you to watch Mean Girls and Heathers before shooting this, because he thought Elsa might have been something of a bully in school. What did that add to the character for you?
That definitely did change my view of Elsa. When I first met Taiki, I went into that meeting with all of this research I had done and I had this certain kind of confidence because I wanted him to know that I’d done the work. So I told him all of this, and he went “Oh, yeah. Cool. Go watch Mean Girls and Heathers.” [laughs] And I’m so happy he did that because it really did change my perception of Elsa. Had he not told me to watch those things, I would have played her as where we would have seen less of her strength, and she would have been different. But watching those films made me realize that she lived a whole life before the war, and she’s got so many layers, so many experiences, and she wasn’t always looked at as being a monster. So that’s something that I needed to think about in this performance.
Anytime a filmmakers makes a movie set in a specific period, you wonder why is now the time to tell this story. Why do you think this story is important to tell today?
Everyone knows there’s a lot of anger going on in the world at the moment, and people with hateful ideas being encouraged to express those beliefs on a bigger scale—or maybe similar scale. Those thoughts have always been around, kept underground, maybe not so noticed. But now they are coming out into the open, and hateful people have a certain level of confidence these days. I think it’s important to those people and every kind of people, of all ages, to see this film and be reminded to think of our past, and be reminded what led to World War II, what were the causes of the Holocaust. There are some similarities between what caused World War II and how we got to that place of anger, and how things seem to be escalating today.
I know there has been a lot of talk about the use of human here and whether it’s appropriate to have laughter around the subject at all. But I think it deepens the emotions. I’ll admit, I was not prepared for how deeply emotional I felt throughout the film. Watching Taiki work, could you spot him adjusting the humor at different places?
Yeah, and I think a lot of that process was in the edit as well. They tested Jojo Rabbit 15 different times on different audiences, and from that, they knew at what points in the film humor might have been too much or too little, and they were able to adjust based on those test screenings. That’s definitely something Taiki worked on a lot. Like you said, you definitely go into this film without expecting to be so emotionally moved, and Taiki says that’s because you’re going into a comedy and not with your arms crossed expecting to be told to listen. You’re open and receptive to the emotions. When you’re watching it, you’re really on a rollercoaster. I remember at the premiere in Toronto, where I watched it for the first time with a big crowd, we felt like everyone was going through this together and all feeling exactly the same thing at the same time. I don’t think it would have been at that scale if it has been a straight drama; I think that the comedy has opened people up to this film.
I want to ask you about a specific scene, the one with Stephen Merchant, where he’s looking through that book that Jojo has put together with all of the hurtful Jewish myths. That’s a defining scene for your character because she has to fake ownership of something so hateful to her people in order to stay hidden. Tell me about the importance of that scene to you.
For that scene, we see Elsa walk into a room full of Nazis and people who have called her family and friends disgusting thing like vermin and a monster and told so many lies about her and her people. And we see her walk into that room and say “What you say about me is not true. Here I am. I’m still standing, and you have no idea that I’m a Jewish person, but you’ve created this whole image of me.” There’s so much strength in Elsa in that scene, which is incredibly moving to see. When she has to say “Heil Hitler” as well, it’s rough. And in the second half of that scene, we really see her unsure and off balance for the first time, because before that she held so much power and confidence over Roman, and in that scene, she’s got no idea what to do because she’s doesn’t know if she’s going to get caught.