Christine Leunens with her book Caging Skies which Taika Waititi's latest film is based on. Photo: Supplied.

Nelson author Christine Leunens behind Taika Waititi’s new movie


The first time Christine Leunens met Taika Waititi was in a Wellington office with a view over the city.

Taika, then an emerging film director, came in, sat down, put his feet up on the desk and took in the scene. It was an icebreaker that Christine was relieved at.

“I found him extremely nice and easy,” she says from her Atawhai home. “We just looked at each other, hugged, laughed and we have had a great experience ever since.”

That was 2009, a year after Christine’s novel Caging Skies was released.

They were there to discuss a transaction – the novel had caught Taika’s attention. Before he directed the big budget superhero spectacular Thor: Ragnarok, he wanted to adapt it for the big screen.

Caging Skies tells the story of a German boy who has embraced the Hitler Youth in wartime Austria. He lives with his parents, but the youngster’s views are challenged when he meets a young Jewish girl who his parents have been hiding in the walls.

Christine says Taika loved the idea of a child growing up in a surreal world that adults provide to them and felt like he could bring a fresh voice to the story.

That was almost 10 years ago. Since then there has been discussions, delays and finally, in 2012, the project was green lit – which will be called Jojo Rabbit. “We all thought it was going to go very fast from there.”

But, as a novelist, Christine is used to patience, often taking years to finish her books. She moved to Nelson with her family several years ago and, after four years, has just finished off the draft of her latest story – a meticulously researched historical novel set against the backdrop of the Rainbow Warrior saga.

But after Thor, Taika had people asking him to direct all sorts of movies, which may have delayed Jojo Rabbit again.

“But he is not that kind of person,” says Christine. “He said he was going to do this.”

When he finished the script, he told Christine that the story was still “her baby, but he had just put different clothes on it”.

After watching his Oscar-nominated short film, Two Cars One Night, she knew she could trust him with it. Then again, after watching Hunt for the Wilderpeople, she knew that Taika would do Caging Skies justice.

“He knows how to take all the story and the depth, but also to put in the pinch of entertainment,” she says.

Christine is not sure if she will go to the film set in Prague as she hates the idea of awkwardly standing around.

But then again, how often does the opportunity come to see Scarlett Johannsson play a character she dreamed up in her head?

“So maybe I will go.”

The film could be ready at the end of the year or early next year.

“It’s exciting,” she says.

And Taika is also excited.

“I’m stoked to begin shooting my anti-war satire,” he said in a statement. “We’ve assembled an incredible cast and I couldn’t be more excited to finally ridicule Nazis and their beliefs. This film is going to piss off a lot of racists and that makes me very happy.”

The original book is now published in 15 languages and there has been recent interest from countries who have experienced recent conflict.

Christine says she started writing very young and would send 16-page letters to her grandfather. She then began writing for film scripts and plays. But then she decided to make the leap into writing novels.

“It was a bit of a danger, to do a novel you have no safety net. Looking back, I’m proud, but it was kind of crazy.”

She will take a cut of the royalties for the film, which will be welcome.

“Sometimes when you are writing you are thinking ‘gosh, this is hard’ but you have to have some faith.”

It will still be a journey yet.

“It will be really moving when I see the film, it is a bit of a dream just to see these characters brought to life.”