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Taika Waititi has been tasked with bringing identity to the lost-soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After two movies, the hero of the Thor franchise was still finding his footing amongst the more established members of the MCU. Iron Man was the snarky one, Captain America was the moral one, Black Widow was the requisite lady and Thor was … also there.
Sixteen months before the movie was set to hit theaters, Waititi hit San Diego Comic-Con with a mockumentary that saw Chris Hemsworth as the Asgardian god of thunder hanging out with his new roommate Darryl during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Thor was shown as a lovable and kinda pathetic oaf, fawning over his best friend/hammer and getting ghosted by the other Avengers.
The presentation signaled to fans that Ragnarok would feature a different Thor than the one to which Marvel viewers had grown apathetically accustomed. He would actually be really funny. The tonal shift seems to have paid off. Ragnarok, out today, currently sits at a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and pulled in more than $14 million on it’s Thursday night opening at the box office.
Perhaps it’s due to the director’s background, which lies in character-focused comedies. A contemporary and sometimes collaborator of Flight of the Conchords, his credits are the quirky features Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and, most recently, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
What run of Thor comics were you looking at for inspiration for Ragnarok?
None. I didn’t really read any. I started reading a few but I got too overwhelmed. We looked at Planet Hulk and then the other one was God of Thunder. But we mostly took the visual stuff from comics, going through saying “That looks cool. That looks cool.” I wasn’t taking storyline or characters, because my strength is tone and character and dialogue. I also wanted some ownership over the franchise, in a way that I couldn’t get on the other Marvel franchises. [Thor] is the franchise that has the least amount of identity. Like, it sort of doesn’t know what it is yet. So I came in saying, “Well it could be THIS.” So, I ignored the source material and even the first two films and tried to do my own thing.
How did you decide on your psychedelic color palette?
Basically, I just asked myself what a six-year-old would use to make a movie and then did that. I just did every color we could think of and then tried to balance them. The hard thing was, because we were using Jack Kirby’s designs, which are so crazy and eclectic, it was hard to make sure the characters stood out from the background. The eye doesn’t know where to look.
Was Marvel explicit about looking for a tonal change for the Thor franchise?
They were. They wanted it to be a departure from what they had done before. And Chris had wanted to do something that felt less familiar. The secret weapon to all of this was letting Chris be more himself, because he is very funny and that was the part of Thor was not exploited in the right ways. I know he wanted to do more in the other movies but there are just so many characters. And the other ones, like Iron Man, have already been established a bit stronger.
I am always pleasantly surprised that they let me do these weird jokes. It’s almost like all of the elements individually are so ludicrous — the giant wolf and the zombie army and the fire demon — the idea of sticking all of those things together in one film shouldn’t work but it does. Once again, it was like asking a bunch of six year olds what they wanted in a movie and then just being like, “Okay. Greenlit.”
Did you have room to improvise on the production?
Oh, yeah. We were going: “Here is the scene and we need this information and this line and this plot point and how you get between them is really up to you.” But you can’t just ad-lib for the sake of it. It’s gotta be in pursuit of creating an energy that feels more alive and less staged. The problems with most movies is that you know people are just waiting to say their lines. This one, you see Chris and Mark [Ruffalo] talking at each other, they are actually listening to each other and you can see them enjoying the conversation.
As these franchises are getting into their later installments, what are the biggest obstacles for new filmmakers coming into the fold?
It’s keeping your voice heard throughout the film. For me, it’s all I had. Because I am not a superhero movie director. Well, I guess I am now. But coming in to it all I had was the stuff I had experienced which is scenes where people talk a lot. Luckily for me it wasn’t a fight but the biggest challenge is retaining the stuff that made you the director you are. So, it’s your version or a Marvel film rather than it being being Thor with your name on it.
How did you approach Cate Blanchett to be Marvel’s first female villain?
She was cast early on. She told me she had wanted break from doing acting where she has to cry and overthink dramatic stuff. She wanted to make something her children would like. I am sure that Carol isn’t the first pick for the family movie night. There is a parallel with her and Hela in that they both have seen it all and are confident in themselves and have been in massive battles. There is a cool, nonchalance to them. There was nothing we could have thrown at Cate with this movie that would have freaked her out.
How did you get Jeff Goldblum to agree to a comic book movie?
Well, he was our first choice, and really our only choice. I had a coffee with him and started to talking to him about the movie but when you talk to Jeff, he doesn’t answer any questions. But he does talk about your jacket and who you remind him of and actors that you look like. He ended up being enthusiastic. We had no ego problems on this film which was interesting because we had so many egomaniacs.
Was the premiere the first time you watched the movie with a large audience?
We did test screening but nothing that big. But once any film is done, I know that there is nothing else you can do. I’m a realist. I have tested films enough times to know that if I find something funny then I am fairly certain other people will find it funny. I usually don’t watch my films. Once I am finished with the film I am done with it.
So did you peace out for the screening?
Well, I wanted to, but I was sitting in front of Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios head]. As a director, they stick you right in the middle where the whole audience can see you walk out. And then if they see you, they will say, “Oh does he hate the film?” But I love the film! I just also would love to go to the bar and have a drink.
Kevin Feige has said that Marvel will definitely be working with you in the future. Would you be open to doing another feature?
I would love to make another film. I feel like I rebooted [Thor] so in a way it’s a new thing now. To me, it’s does not feel like Thor 3. It feels like a standalone Thor film.
You have been in talks for the live-action Akira movie. Hollywood has had a bad track record in its attempts to adapt animes and manga. Is there a way to adapt the material for a contemporary film audience but still remain faithful to the source material?
Well, for a start don’t remake animes, do adaptations of the comic books, which is what I would do with this. The original films do not need to be remade. It is its own perfect thing. But there are seven books in Akira and it [the 1988 film] only dealt with two. There are five whole books filled with artwork and stories that haven’t been touched, so that is where the strength of the story would lie. Who wants to see a shot-for-shot remake of the film? Nobody. Also, you have to make it entertaining. I think it’s really dangerous to make these films very serious cyber punk. There was a time and place for that and there may be a time and place for that tone, again, but you have to make fresh takes on things. [Akira artist Katsuhiro] Otomo said, “Please don’t copy my stuff. Don’t copy what I did.”
For now you are set to go back to indie filmmaking, co-directing a stop-motion feature based on Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles. Are you excited to go back to an independent feature?
The thing for me is that Thor was an indie film that just had a few more zeros on the budget. At heart, it is just a simple story about a guy trying to get home to deal with someone who has broken into his house. It’s just After Hours but set in space. If you look at it in a context of being like a film at Sundance, then you just make that. But then you just ad spaceships and monsters. The real question is: Am I ready to go back to eating cucumber slices and carrot sticks for lunch rather than the Marvel smorgasbord? It all comes down to crafty in the end.
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David O. Russell
the banshees of inisherin