Thor: Ragnarok – director Taika Waititi interview
We chatted to Taika Waititi about Thor: Ragnarok, his inspirations for the movie, and his thoughts on Thor: The Dark World...
Spoilers for Thor: The Dark World lie ahead
Dressed as snappily as ever, Taika Waititi was leaning playfully up against a wall as I entered a swanky London hotel room to chat with him. The writer-director of Boy, Eagle Vs Shark, What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople then led me over to a little table, where he was halfway through drinking some sort of caffeine-based beverage from a martini glass. Pure class.
What followed was a snappy chinwag about Waititi’s new directorial project, Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, which teams Chris Hemsworth’s godly goldilocks with Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, to take on such villains as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Cate Blanchett’s Hela.
Trying to eschew the usual junket questions (What was this actor like? Will you do a sequel? What was this Easter egg about? And so on), I tried to tap into Waititi’s personal journey through the film, from before he came on board right up to the present day. I was expecting 15 minutes rather than 13, though, so we got cut off before I could get onto post-production and the film’s gruelling press tour. Hopefully, though, the resultant transcript will still be interesting to read…
To start way back at the start, what was your relationship like with the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Marvel got in touch with you? Had you seen all the films?
I’d seen some of them. I’d seen some of those things. Erm, I hadn’t seen all of them. I’d enjoyed – very much enjoyed – The Avengers movie, the first one. I had seen the second one by the time that Marvel got in touch with me. Yeah, I’d seen sort of a bunch of those things. I’d loved Iron Man, you know, with a passion. I thought that was the most fresh, cool thing, in terms of superhero movies, that I’d seen in a long time. So, yeah, I hadn’t seen everything.
Then, they got in touch, and said, “Yeah, do you wanna come and pitch on Thor?” – that sort of thing – and I was like, “Suuuuure. Er, I, er… better catch up on those movies.” [Laughs] I’d seen Thor 1 before, I hadn’t seen Thor The Second One. Um, and I actually really loved the second one. Um, some people criticise it, but I thought they did a really great job. And I thought the whole – I don’t know – it just seemed to me to be a very satisfying storyline.
The villainous side of that film comes under a lot of flack, but I thought Christopher Eccleston was fine.
[Nodding] I thought they did fine. And also, I hadn’t heard that until later. So I watched it and I was like, it’s a pretty good story, you know? I get it. I get all the beats. I understand what’s going on, you know? And I’m feeling for the characters, you know, when the mum dies? And, you know, I understood everything that was happening. And, it had a satisfying end. Um, yeah…
I read somewhere that you went in and they showed you like ten ideas they had about what the next Thor film could be. Is that right?
Nah. They didn’t show me any ideas, actually. They talked a little bit about, like, what it could be. Er, and basically what they were saying was like, “Well, we kind of feel like it should be sort of a journey across space”, you know? “We’re a bit tired of, um, you know, this fish-out-of-water thing with Thor on Earth”, you know? Because there’s only so much of that you can deal with, you know? You saw it in Starman, you know? We’ve seen that before, many times before. So why not go towards the direction of the comic books from the seventies and eighties and have Thor on a cosmic adventure, you know?
He used to like astral travel and stuff, and like, they had the craziest ideas in those comic books. You know, I mean, I don’t know what they were smoking when they were writing those storylines, but they had some pretty wacky ideas in those old comic books. I mean, Thor turns into a frog in one of those comics.
I love that you reference that in the film, as well.
Well yeah, yeah! Exactly, yeah. Um, I wished I’d referenced the Creamsicle thing, which a lot of people – the die hard fans – like making fun of.
So then you put together a sizzle, is that right?
I put together a sizzle reel, and that was basically… because there was no storyline, or anything… I don’t really know what I’m going for, so I’ll just get shots from movies I think are cool [laughs] and put together sort of a tone reel. For like, the energy and the colour and sort of what might look cool for this film that no one has any idea about a story for. And so, I did that, and I put Immigrant Song over the top of it, and then played it for them. And they were like, “Oh that’s really cool. That’s a cool song. What’s that?”
I was like, [deadpan] “It’s Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin, one of the most famous songs of all time.” They were like, “Oh cool, never heard it before, very cool.” And I was like, “Oh f—, really worried now.” Er, and then, yeah, when I got the job. But from the start we’d always talked about using Immigrant Song, in the film, because it just makes perfect sense for that character, doesn’t it?
Yeah. And I know Big Trouble In Little China was one of the films.
In the sizzle reel, Big Trouble was one of the films, because my idea of a perfect hero is Kurt Russell, in anything. And, I just feel like, he’s the guy… in Big Trouble In Little China, the thing that people don’t realise about that character is, there’s two things: he’s only got one driving goal, and that is to get his truck back. Despite everything that’s going on, and, you know, Kim Cattrall is super hot and interested in him. He does not care. Because all he wants is his truck.
The second cool thing is that he is the voice of the audience. The entire movie, he’s asking questions that the audience is asking. Like, “What the hell is that? Who’s this guy? What are you? You know, who is that? Who are these guys?” He’s constantly asking questions, which is amazing, because it’s, like, it makes perfect sense, you know, for a film that’s so crazy.
So what I wanted, with Thor, was like, for him to almost be the same thing. For him to be freaked out and asking questions and saying, “What the hell is this? Who are you?” For us, because Sakaar and Jeff Goldblum, all these different elements, are so crazy, that, you need someone in the movie, kind of being your mouthpiece, as an audience member. Because, if it’s all normal to everyone in the movie, then it’s like, “I can’t relate. How am I supposed to feel like I care about anyone?” Um, so our big goal really was to make Thor more relatable and really just more like us.
Do you remember any of the other films that you had on there? Before you even had a story, what the inspirations were?
Well, some of the films I’ve never seen, but they just look cool. I think I had a clip from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I’d never seen it.
What, the recent one?
Yeah, the recent one. I think there was a bit from Due Date, just because I like that it’s just a kind of buddy flick. Two people on the road. Withnail & I, there were some Withnail & I clips in there. Um, there’s… oh, I actually had some clips from like Sixteen Candles in there, because, um, yeah, I had this idea of a flashback to when Thor was a kid, and it was sort of like an eighties version of Thor and his mates.
That would’ve been cool. And so how did it go from there? I’ve been referring to you as ‘writer-director Taika Waititi’ in everything I’ve written about the film, but I just realised today that you’re not one of the credited writers. [Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost are the three credited with writing the script.] But I assume you were involved in that process. So how did that work?
Erm, basically how it works is, you know, you just sort of, er… you just sort of [Laughs]… do some passes on the script. And then, improvise a lot of stuff, you know? Basically. Yeah, the script to me is more of like a kinda suggestion, you know? Sort of like a blueprint. Um, it’s a recipe, but sometimes, you know, recipes call for a bit of improvisation. And, you know, some times you want six eggs instead of four eggs in your cake.
So they had a bunch of people doing the script.
Yeah, a bunch of people offering eggs to the cake, yeah. No, I feel like on these films, there are many writers. Yep.
I spoke to Jon Watts earlier in the year, about Spider-Man: Homecoming, and I think they had three pairs of writers on that one. But, again, the end product was really good. Both times. So I guess it all comes out.
Yeah, totally. Totally. It’s, um, I don’t know… I feel like, um, if I was to do another one of these, I would probably try and write it myself.
So you did the Team Thor: Civil War short film. Was that kind of just before you started shooting? Where did that slot in for you, in terms of the film being made?
Er, that, um, that came in about a month before we started shooting, or something. A few weeks before we started. And that was just something where we wanted to… what was great about that was actually, you know, because no one knew what to expect from this film, or what we were gonna do, so, we ended up… actually, that helped us a lot, by shooting that. It just gave fans the opportunity to see just how irreverent we were gonna be, and just how different we were making Thor, and Banner as well.
And, um, when we put it out, people realised. They thought, ‘Oh, okay. I think I get what they’re doing now.’ Because when I first got the job, people were just unsure. ‘What, this guy that made a vampire documentary is making this movie? What is Marvel doing?’ Like, you know? And, in full disclosure, I kind of felt the same at some points. ‘Man, what are they doing?’ [Laughs] You know? ‘Surely someone else is more qualified than me.’
It was a big leap for you in terms of the budget and the scale. So how did you approach the shoot? Because I was thinking about that great scene from the trailer, the Thor vs Hulk gladiator scene… You must have one unit shooting Thor, and then you’ve got to film the CGI Hulk stuff separately. How did you handle it? How did you kind of rise up to it?
My trick was just to not care. Because, I felt like, I’d seen enough movies of that scale that were terrible that I thought, it’s like, ‘Oh well, there’s some big-shot directors that still can’t get it right, so, surely I can’t do much worse than some of these other films.’ I felt like I knew what I was doing. And also, the, sort of like a confidence thing goes a long way. You often end up, you just sort of end up, um, convincing yourself that you should be there. And, once you’ve done that, then you, kinda, everyone else follows. It’s all really just about convincing the crew that you know what you’re doing. And once you can do that, you know, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. It’s more about making decisions at the right time, um, and convincing yourself, you know, that you’ve got every right to be on that set, doing what you’re doing.
And were you ever worried that you were doing too much of the improvisational stuff, and they were gonna come and kick your door down and tell you to stick to the script?
Sometimes, a little bit. But, as long as we looked at the script and highlighted the things that were important to story, you know? Like, ‘This line’s good, important. This line you need to say. These lines you need to say. And then, it’s like, however you get between these lines is up to you, as long as you say that stuff.’
Then, it’s fine in the end, and they were all fine with that because they knew we’re embracing this new style of performance in these films. Which is, in some ways, it’s not even new. Because Downey and those guys have been working that way for a long time. I kind of just feel that we’ve done more of it than any other film, in this one.
And just before I’m ushered out, what’s the status of the werewolves spin-off/sequel film from What We Do In The Shadows?
The status is the same as probably the same as two years ago, when the last person asked me. [laughs] Which is, we’re still writing the idea. We’re doing the pilot for a US TV version of What We Do In The Shadows, later on in the year. So we’re gonna try and shoot that, and, see where that gets us. We’re not gonna be in it. We’re just doing it. A US version.
And isn’t there a New Zealand TV show, as well?
Yeah, about the police [from What We Do In The Shadows]. That’s gonna shoot, as well. Holy shit, I forgot about that. Actually I’ve sort of got too much work to do. I’ve over-committed myself!
Well, I look forward to seeing it all anyway.
Yeah, me too. [Laughs]
Taika Waititi, thank you very much!
Thor: Ragnarok is in UK cinemas from October 27th.