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Close-Ups

Comedy and Controversy: Tom Eagles, Editor of Jojo Rabbit

New Zealand, Prague, Los Angeles, and beyond — cutting around the world with the award-winning editor

February 11, 2020

Tom Eagles, Oscar-nominated editor of Jojo Rabbit. Image courtesy of Peter Zakhary.

Who would’ve thought that a satire about a little boy with an imaginary friend (who happens to be Adolf Hitler) would ever see the light of day, let alone be a critical and box office hit? While the premise of Jojo Rabbit might seem risky for Academy voters, at the time of writing, the film has garnered six Academy Award nominations including Best Film Editing for Tom Eagles, who recently picked up an American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy or Musical.

Based in New Zealand, Eagles has had a long-running partnership with writer/director Taika Waititi, another prolific kiwi who directed Thor: Ragnarok. In addition to Jojo Rabbit, the two worked together on 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the 2018 series Wellington Paranormal on TVNZ 2, and What We Do in the Shadows, both the 2014 movie and the current series on FX.

When I spoke with Eagles, he was vacationing with family, trying to not think too hard about all the awards mayhem.

Rabbits and Eagles

“New Zealand is kind of a small town,” Eagles says, recounting the day he first met Waititi. “I woke up one day, and he was crashing on my couch.”

Eagles’s wife Dannelle Satherley was the hair and makeup designer on Waititi’s second feature, 2010’s Boy and, as can happen on a low-budget indie, the director needed a place to stay after a long day of filming. Eagles and Waititi hit it off right away.

“I asked him what was next, and Jojo was the next thing way back then. That’s what he was writing. It sounded absolutely bonkers,” says Eagles, who hoped to start collaborating with the director. “When I got the call for What We Do in the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I half expected to be talking about this weird Nazi comedy he’d written. But I guess it kept getting pushed.”

Turns out financing a comedy featuring children and Adolf Hitler is kind of a heavy lift.

Finally, Eagles’s phone rang in early 2018. “I got a call saying that the film was up and running, and they’re already in pre-pro. Taika was in Prague at that point,” he remembers. After years of anticipation, Eagles immediately flew out to meet Waititi to start cutting Jojo Rabbit.

Alone in Prague

While Waititi was shooting at Prague’s famed Barrandov Studios, Eagles was ingesting dailies and assembling scenes at UPP, a local VFX and post-production house on the other side of town. “I do tend to try and keep away from the set itself,” Eagles says. “I don’t want to be influenced by how hard a shot was to set up, or how difficult someone was to deal with, or any of that.”

Director Taika Waititi on the set of the film Jojo RabbitDirector, writer, and actor Taika Waititi on the set of Jojo Rabbit. Credit: Larry Horricks

Production may want him to be in the same city to allow for collaboration with the director, but in the thick of production, there’s very limited time or energy for most directors to worry much about post. That goes triple for a multi-hyphenate like Waititi. “Taika was able to come over some evenings, but he’s pretty exhausted from all the work he was doing directing, writing, and acting,” explains Eagles.

Given that, the only editorial decisions Eagles asked Waititi about during the shoot was when he worried about needing coverage or an insert. “Otherwise,” he says, “everyone’s pretty happy to defer those decisions till later.”

Ready for anything

Once dailies from the previous day’s filming were synched and ready to go thanks to Prague assistants Martin Hubacek and Amanda Ekelund, Eagles watched them all down, making notes as minimally as possible. “I don’t try to corral the process or come at it with too much of a game plan, especially when there’s a lot of improv and surprising performances. At that stage, it’s all about responding to what I’m seeing,” Eagles says. “The greatest thing for me is to be surprised by what I see, to have a genuine audience reaction to it. That's what I’m looking for in the dailies: something that really hits me, or connects with me, or seems really genuine or very funny.”

“I don’t try to corral the process or come at it with too much of a game plan, especially when there’s a lot of improv and surprising performances.”

 

That’s especially important when working with child actors. “With kids, there’ll be some little moment that was magic that only happened once,” says Eagles.

Because they aren’t as experienced as older actors, younger actors may not be able to reproduce the same magical moment take after take. Eagles only needs one. “That’ll give you a fulcrum around which to build the scene, reverse-engineering that moment off of them,” he says.

Staying open for that first watch is important, but Eagles notes that he goes back to the dailies frequently throughout the process, usually with different goals in mind: “Quite late in the shoot, I might decide that the objectives of the scene have changed, or the performance that we want is different, so I’ll go back to the dailies to re-screen them all again.”

For the initial viewing, though, Eagles says he’s “just throwing stuff into a timeline in a rough order. By that stage, I’ll probably already have an idea of where the gold is.” Once he has his selects, he’ll spend the afternoon “just cutting scenes and trying to make them as sophisticated as I can,” he says.

“That's what I’m looking for in the dailies: something that really hits me, or connects with me, or seems really genuine or very funny.”

 

Some directors want their editors to assemble exactly what’s written in the script, but Waititi gives Eagles space to see what he’ll come up with. Given how much the director uses improvisation in his scenes, it’s only fair for him to let his editor do the same. Eagles says he reads the script several times in pre-production, “and then I break it down to music and get to know the rhythms of it, and then I put it aside.” After that, he says he’s “just trying to be true to the objectives and tone of the script without necessarily being religious about the letter.”

The script isn’t completely jettisoned from Eagles’s edit bay, however. If something’s not feeling quite right, “you can always go back later,” he says, “and look at the wording in the script, and you realize that the grammar or the syntax is actually more crucial than you thought it was.”

An editor edits

One joy of editing for Eagles happens during the shoot when he goes into work, opens up a new bin, and is surprised by everything shot the previous day. “That’s pretty exciting: just opening up those bins and pressing play,” Eagles says, “especially with comedy, because when something makes you laugh genuinely in the moment, you know it’s good.”

A more challenging aspect is what he describes as the dance between control and spontaneity — “constantly floating between trying to wrestle the footage to your idea of what it needs to be, and there is a lot of that, but also being free enough to respond to what you’re seeing or random accidents,” Eagles says.

He laughs: “I guess I'm always trying to moderate my own instinct towards being a control freak!”

The Waititi-Eagles workflow

After two months in Prague, filming wrapped and post moved to Los Angeles. Waititi took a much needed break to decompress, giving Eagles time to finish his assembly — now aided by L.A.-based 1st assistant editor Daniel Nussbaum — adding sound effects and music so that it felt as close to a completed movie as possible.

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Two weeks later, Waititi returned to screen the assembled film for the very first time. Eagles had been cutting on his own for two and a half months, and he welcomed the director’s new perspective. After discussing a ton of notes and ideas based on Eagles’s assembly, Waititi left again so Eagles could address everything they discussed. The director came back weeks later with thoughts on the editor’s revisions, along with a bunch of new ideas to try out. Rinse and repeat that cycle, and you have the Waititi-Eagles/director-editor workflow.

The edit, by the way, took a year, “which is quite a long time,” Eagles admits, “but that’s typical of Taika. He takes his time, always trying to get away from it, to then come back and view it with fresh eyes.“

For Eagles, the extended edit schedule was essential: “If we put Jojo out at the end of twelve weeks, it would have been a professional cut of the movie, but it wouldn’t have had the magic that slowly came out over a longer period of time.”

Hitlermania

Jojo Rabbit opens with an unforgettable title sequence that really sets the tone for the film. Swapping Beatlemania for “Hitlermania,” archival black-and-white footage of German citizens and soldiers clamor not for the Fab Four, but for the real Adolf Hitler. Under the footage, a German-language version of The Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” plays, creating a viewing experience that’s flawlessly edited and profoundly unsettling.

Title sequences are often farmed-out to creative design houses but not this time. In the short pre-production period, Eagles and his team dug up as much archival material as they could. He says they were “trying to decontextualize the images of a scene to see how they could be reworked into this crazy kind of Beatlemania. Finding bits of Nazis that you could turn into them singing along to the Beatles or clapping or playing instruments was really fun and also totally horrifying.”

Eagles found that focusing on the hands was not just a literal take on the lyrics; it also helped to communicate the hysteria of the time. “Not just people doing the Hitler salute, but people reaching out and trying to touch him. There was this fever pitch excitement about him. A lot of Germans really loved him and looked to him as a kind of father figure. I think it really helps to explain where a character like Jojo was coming from,” says Eagles.

Dinner theater

Eagles is particularly fond of the dinner scene with Jojo and his mother, Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson. In the scene, Rosie winds up impersonating Jojo’s absent father. “You see for the first time the void in Jojo’s life, the empty space that Adolf fills. You can see how he would be susceptible to this bogus father figure that Taika’s Adolf creates for him,” Eagles says, adding that, as Rosie performs for Jojo, “There’s something a bit unhinged about it. It feels like a psychotic break almost, and she loses control a little bit.”

Film still of Jojo Rabbit dinner scene featuring Roman Griffin Davis,  Taika Waititi, and Scarlett JohanssonJojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has dinner with his imaginary friend Adolf (Taika Waititi) and mother (Scarlett Johansson). Credit:  Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Rosie is constantly performing a balancing act for her son, Eagles says, “trying to keep him safe, but at the same time trying to pull him back from the brink of radicalism, and in that scene, you see the toll that takes on her.”

Waititi’s Adolf is in the scene too. They decided to have him make a quick exit at the top but not for lack of material. “Whenever Taika was performing, he was always improvising, and everything was always changing, so I had a dozen different options for how much to play him, what kind of stuff to play, and where we exit him from the scene,” Eagles says.

When working with improv, there’s always a conundrum, explains Eagles. “Someone might give you a real gem of a performance,” he says, “but if it doesn’t fold into the overall story, it doesn’t serve the scene or the character, or you don’t have both sides [of the interaction], it’s not necessarily going to work.”

His secret to cutting improv? Personal experience. “I’ve done quite a lot of improv comedy work, so that’s laid a good foundation for making those choices and trying to see the road ahead,” he says.

High-highs, low-lows

Eagles worked hard to find the equilibrium between comedy and drama. It’s a high-wire act on a movie like Jojo Rabbit, and everyone had their own opinion on what that balance should be.

The film opens with Jojo at camp, “a good, you know, 10, 15 minutes of fun,” Eagles says. But then Jojo and Rosie walk past a gallows in the town square, bodies hanging lifeless after a public execution. Jojo’s unfazed. Eagles continues, “Some people felt that, after all the comedy, it was jarring to have that scene and wanted to delay it. But for me, it felt important to counterweight all the joyful, lighthearted stuff and go ‘Okay, well, this really is Nazi Germany, and this is what Nazis do. It signals where the film is going.’”

As the film slides from straight comedy to more of an emotional drama, Eagles sought to maintain tonal balance. He recalls he and Waititi receiving notes that suggested “once we had transitioned into a more dramatic film, we should stay in that mode.”

But, Eagles says, “I always felt like it was a disservice to the viewer to not leave them with that same light, joyful feeling by the end of the movie. Which is what the movie is about, in a way: people dancing in the face of death.”

Music first

Music plays an outsized role for Eagles, and during pre-production, he spends much of his time reading through the script and thinking about it musically. It gives him an idea of what the movements of the script are and what the likely sequences will be, helping clarify the movie‘s overall tone. He also builds a big library of music to use when he starts cutting, so when Waititi wants to try something else, Eagles has plenty of options on hand.

On this film, Waititi threw him a musical curveball, however. “Taika didn’t want this to sound like other movies on the subject or about the period,” Eagles recalls. “He wanted it to be in a family with his earlier films, but if you listen to his earlier films, it’s sort of acoustic guitar and a drum machine.” That didn’t feel quite right for Eagles, so he set off on a wide-ranging search for the best music for Jojo Rabbit.

He found it in Carl Orff, a German composer best known for his cantata Carmina Burana but who also created a music curriculum for children in the 1920s using his own quirky compositions still taught throughout the world today. When Eagles found videos of children performing Orff’s compositions, he was hooked. “They had this wonky innocence that felt like it echoed Jojo’s point of view. A little bit off,” he says.

Eagles also found percussive compositions from the 1950s of experimental pianist John Cage for when things start getting weird in the film. “It was all roughly period music, but very little of it was score from other movies. It was all odd bits and pieces, and that takes quite a while to build up that library,” Eagles says.

All the music research Eagles does in pre-production and shooting is conducted, for the most part, with no input from Waititi. “There are so many bigger things that he has to worry about. Million-dollar questions. So usually the first time he’ll hear it is when I show him the cut,” Eagles says.

Their long-running relationship gives him insight into what Waititi might like. One benefit to waiting, Eagles explains, is that “sometimes it’s hard to communicate what I’m thinking. It’s easier just to show him the cut, and even if it’s a little rough, he’s pretty good at picking up on where you’re going with something.”

In other words, if Eagles brings up music too soon, he might be shot down before he even has the chance to fully make his case.

We can be “Helden”

Jojo Rabbit features a number of English-language pop songs that the original artists sang in German, including tracks by The Beatles, Roy Orbison, and, at the end of the movie, David Bowie’s “Heroes” (“Helden” in German). Eagles says, “working with the Bowie music was fun because we had to create a longer, more atmospheric intro to ‘Heroes.’ If you listen to the original, it’s just a fade up.”

Relying heavily on isolated instrument stems from the 70s allowed Eagles to “pull out the Brian Eno synths and Robert Fripp’s guitar line and build those into an atmospheric piece that suggests ‘Heroes,’” he recalls. The music he built forms an emotional bridge between Michael Giacchino’s score and Bowie’s full “Heroes”/ ”Helden” track.

Nominations and awards

Eagles tries hard not to think about nominations and awards, but the buzz around Jojo Rabbit has made it harder than usual. “The script had been on The Black List, and it’s a Searchlight film with Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. The kind of films I’ve done in the past hadn’t had the reach in terms of distribution. It is a different beast when you have more of the machine behind you,” he says.

Featured image_Tom Eagles_Taika WaititiEditor Tom Eagles and director, writer, and actor Taika Waititi at the ACE Eddie Awards. Credit: Peter Zachary

Even before Jojo Rabbit was completed, people began sending him news articles, saying “’This movie’s happening, and we’re really excited about it,’” Eagles says. “It’s a little bit terrifying having that kind of attention, because all that said to me was ‘Don’t fuck it up.’”

The truth is, a film like Jojo Rabbit, he says, “is a very easy movie to screw up and upset a lot of people. You’re never going to please everyone. Some people are always gonna be pissed off, and that’s OK. I get that. But you just don’t want to fail miserably.”

What, exactly, would an Academy Award win mean to him? “I have no idea,” Eagles admits. “I sort of don’t even want to think about it, because it’s potentially too big, and it’s out of my control.”

On his ACE Eddie win, however, he’s more direct: “It’s very nice because they’re my peers and people who know how hard the job can be. So I’m really happy with that.”

Eagles is currently wrapping up a VFX-heavy feature in New Zealand called Shadow in the Cloud, which was directed by an old college friend of his, Roseanne Liang. Beyond that? Eagles says he doesn’t know. Whatever it is, he’s going to stay open to what comes next . . . and try to be surprised.

Jim McMahon is a freelance writer and producer based in Los Angeles. Previously, he was an executive producer at SundanceTV in New York, where he oversaw the channel’s on-air promotion for award-winning series including The Staircase, Top of the Lake, and Rectify. Before that, he worked as a graphics producer at Buster Design, post-supervisor at The Annenberg Space for Photography and Stun Creative, and visual effects coordinator at Rhythm+Hues. Jim is also a short form writer-producer-director and has produced two narrative features including director Yen Tan’s film Ciao, which was nominated for the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
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