Alan Taylor interview: Thor, Marvel, Terminator, rumours

The director of Thor: The Dark World talks about directing the movie, working with Marvel, Terminator, and more...

SPOILER WARNING: We talk about the Thor: The Dark World mid-credits scene in this interview. We don’t reveal what it is, but it’s clear what film it’s setting the scene for.

Director Alan Taylor arrived at Thor: The Dark World off the back of an extensive list of television credits, which include Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, The West Wing and The Sopranos. There’s also the small matter of his debut feature, Palookaville, and that seemed like a decent place to start…

Can we start with Palookaville?

Yes! Thank you!

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I’m guessing lots of people think you’ve not made a film before! And the interesting thing is that’s a funny film with a big, rich ensemble cast. Your television work too is ensemble driven, and then you come to Thor: The Dark World, which turns out to be ensemble driven, and one of the funniest films of the year.

How have the experiences differed though? Your first film was a contained project that punched above its weight. Television gives you scope to explore. And now you’re back to movies, where you have to take off, soar and land in under two hours…

That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about the difference between a TV experience and a movie experience, and it’s frequently, and surprisingly, not what I would expect. My TV work, I was doing episode stuff, where you give it a shape, a beginning, middle and end, but also there’s a continuity you need to keep an eye on. And here, we assume relationships that were in place before the movie began, so we wanted to have the beginning, middle and end to this thing, but you knew that the story was going to continue before and after. In a way, it wasn’t that different a storytelling experience.

But somebody who comes to episode nine of Game Of Thrones is very different from someone who may casually walk in and watch a Marvel movie?

Yeah. We had to tell the story for people as if this could be the first Marvel movie they see. And I sometimes wonder… to tell you the truth, earlier the script made less of an effort to bring people up to speed. As the script evolved, we made sure that we told people where we left Loki, for instance, bridging scenes in case you didn’t know that.

What happens when you land a Marvel movie like this, then? Do you get the handover notes from Kenneth Branagh, and a PowerPoint presentation from Joss Whedon?

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No, wouldn’t that be great! [Laughs] No you don’t. I’d say that there’s a massive difference with what Branagh did in Thor 1. He had to create it from scratch. I very much had a different experience, I could come in and go okay, you’ve seen your Loki, you’ve seen your Thor. There’s so much that’s already been successfully achieved. So we have to not screw it up and run with the ball. And then I made an effort to change the look of it, and change some of the tone of it. It was very much an enterprise already in motion.

And I met Ken very briefly at a cocktail party, and I wanted to pin him down and have an off the record conversation about the Marvel experience. But he got yanked into Jack Ryan, and we didn’t have a chance to talk again. But his movie was the homework I needed. I don’t know what’s coming next. I’m assuming there will be a Thor 3.

You do have the card at the end, the James Bond touch.

Which card?

At the end of the credits, where it says Thor will return?

Oh really? I didn’t know that! I guess they decided that we did alright. That’s funny!

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I do have to ask – did you direct the mid-credits sequence, or did James Gunn come in to do that?

It’s funny, because I don’t think we’ve had that many post-credits things. We finished the movie, then we have that mid-credits thing, which I’m happy to say I did not direct. I had nothing to do with it. I don’t think it was James Gunn. I think it was someone who came in and did it down and dirty, I believe. It was James Gunn’s cast, and his props and his set I suppose. But it was late in the game, and all I can say with confidence was that I didn’t do it.

Then there’s the post-end credits sequence, with one of my favourite shots in the movie. I did do that.

It did leave me wondering, in terms of your future projects, are you tempted to do an outright comedy? Because it strikes me you have a real touch for this?

Thank you. Because I was so associated with Mad Men, and The Sopranos, I don’t think people knew that that was my appetite.

They didn’t watch Palookaville?

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They didn’t watch Palookaville. They didn’t see my student short, which is probably the most personal thing I’ve ever done. But absolutely. My hero was Scorsese, who was always funny. And on this one, I thought my main job was to darken it, and to dirty it up. But while I was doing that I was thinking that if it’s going to be part of the Marvel universe, I’d better make sure that it’s funny too. Because otherwise we’re screwed. So I’m really happy to hear that the humour is coming across.

Appreciating you dealt with the original points, as and when they came up, the one change going onto a big movie is the level of scrutiny that comes with it. You were caught in the midst of internet rumours on this one…

Oh god, yeah! I remember that one!

Something like you’d fallen out with everyone in the world, you’ve been having arm wrestling competitions…

[Laughs] Yeah!

Is that a frustration, that it’s a distraction you have to deal with?

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Well, you don’t have to deal with it. You can not read it. I would liken it a little bit to winning awards. There’s the Emmys, right? I won once when I was stunned and didn’t think I should’ve. And I lost once when I was stunned and didn’t think I should’ve. Once you realise that there’s no correlation between what you think you deserve and what the world and audience rewarding structure is going to give you…

I remember coming onto this and being stunned that the people online were arguing over whether I was going to be a good director or not. I thought none of them know me, but they’ve all got really strong opinions about whether I’m a complete jerk or really great. And you can’t really take the stuff about being a jerk seriously, because it will murder you. But you shouldn’t take the stuff about being great seriously.

So when I was hearing the rumours [of arguments with Marvel over the final cut], we were already in post. I did feel very strongly about the composer thing [when Carter Burwell was replaced by Brian Tyler], that was the one major unhappy thing between me and Marvel. How we handled the composer issue, and seeing how it blossomed into…

Thermonuclear war!

[Laughs] Yeah!

One specific challenge to this film was you were putting four different worlds on screen.

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Let’s see: we had Vanaheim, Asgard, Midgard, and I think we briefly glimpsed another.

But that’s tricky isn’t it, to put across four distinct worlds?

That’s the fun part though. When I was going to film school, before film school, my hero was David Lynch. He said something that he thought the future of films would be less about storytelling and more about world building. And I loved that idea. I used to play with model trains when I was a kid, and then I used to study history. That was the fun bit. It was important to make those worlds seem real, that’s why I was happy to be led to a thriving, real contemporary city like London, rather than it being seen in a kind of pretend town in New Mexico. I love that we got to go on location, rather than being in a green screen box somewhere. I love that we got to explore the Icelandic volcanic landscape.

You are a weather masochist.

[Laughs] If you have the right clothes, it doesn’t matter! I got such a fancy coat to go there, that was fine.

Can I ask the boring question, but it’s always one that really interests me: did you enjoy it?

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Interesting. Yeah, I did enjoy the making of the movie, the shooting of the movie. There was some agony in prep because of script issues. And there was some agony in post around the composer issue. But the centrepiece of making the movie was the fun. The London crew was amazing. The cast, largely English, was amazing. I loved London, living here was a treat. My DP is a guy I’ve worked with before, and that was a great relationship. So that, and doing it, seeing it, I think coming off Game Of Thrones, I enjoy working on an epic scale… There were some dark moments, but the actual adventure of shooting was fun.

I don’t tend to believe internet rumours until they’re official, or I can look someone in the white of the eyes. So: Terminator. Are you definitely doing it?

I think I’m going to say that it’s still being talked about. I literally had one conversation with Skydance, and the next day, I was apparently doing it! And that was really premature. So I would like to say that it’s premature right now.

Going forward, is it big films that interest you though?

It’s funny, I’ve talked to some of my friends, and we can’t believe I’m doing this. We came out of independent cinema, and my hero was Hal Hartley. I would love to do this for a while. I would love this to be a phase. I’m eager to get back into television, where it’s writer driven, and you have time to explore characters and stuff. It’s a phase. It’s the quintessential American pop medium. It’s like you get to write a rock song or something. So I’m grateful to be here doing this. I’m not sure this is going to be what I do.

Alan Taylor, thank you very much.

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Thor: The Dark World arrives in UK cinemas on October 30th.

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