It’s ridiculous to claim there’s an obvious choice to direct a film in which a displaced Norse god and an irradiated monster fight their way off an alien planet. Until, that is, you consider Taika Waititi, the multi-talented New Zealander whose first feature film, Eagle vs Shark in 2007, announced a versatile directorial voice. Waititi can do action and comedy, and more importantly he can do character – idiosyncratic, memorable people who are more than the sum of their quirks, who carve out their own unique places on Earth… or elsewhere.
So while the director of Kiwi vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows might not seem like the obvious choice to make a Marvel movie, as soon as you consider Thor: Ragnarok as a buddy comedy about mismatched outsiders whose adventures could decorate the side of a 1970s van just as easily as a big screen in 2017, Waititi is actually, obviously perfect.
Ragnarok is, as Waititi admitted at a press conference for the film, “a bombastic concept,” but his talent for finding character even in unexpected situations turned out to be a resilient framework on which the film’s colorful and kooky images could hang.
“I knew my strengths were tone, character, and you know, relationships,” Waititi said, “and I had to ignore the scale of this monster, this beast. It’s a huge film. What can be distracting on set is if you look over your shoulder and you see 300 people standing there.” So the answer to making a big wacky Thor movie work as more than a set of cosmic setpieces was to dial focus in on the small stuff.
“I just had to keep reminding myself what’s more important is what’s inside the rectangle. Usually, it’s two or three people trying to remember their lines.”
Chris Hemsworth points out that the destruction implicit in Ragnarok applied to his approach to the character. “We all had a vision, and a desire to do something vastly different than what we’d done before,” he said, “and that meant doing away with what we knew, and reinventing it.”
One of the items the film does away with is Thor’s hammer – less a source of power than a conceptual crutch, both for the character and for Hemsworth himself.
Destroying the hammer “helped kind of shed anything too familiar.” Hemsworth explains that “holding the hammer, or even the wig in the previous costume, just put me in a place, and set me on a path of what I already knew. And I wanted it to be unfamiliar. So everything from the hammer, to the costume, the hair - [changing it] made me, and allowed me to move differently, and forced me to move differently. That was a great thing.”
The impulse to discard status quo elements of the characters created a scenario in which Waititi was “pushing us every day on set, and constantly encouraging us to improvise, and explore, and take risks.” The creative payoff was significant for the star. “It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had on a set, and a film that I feel the most proud of.”
Marvel President Kevin Feige agrees. “We wanted a new sensibility. If you look at everything Chris has done as this character, there have been moments of humor throughout. And we wanted to build on that.”
The push to do something new also helped get Jeff Goldblum on board. Waititi’s willingness to play loose with Ragnarok’s script was appealing. “We had a meeting, and hit it off,” Golblum recalled. “He said what we were gonna do, and improvise, and have fun.”
Goldblum is earnest and pointed as he describes the creative atmosphere. “They know how to make these epic productions, and popular movies, but they want to make good movies. And they somehow uniquely know how to do them [in a way] that feels to me like an actorly, workshop-y, character-y, improvisatory, delightful experience.”
Karl Urban echoes that feeling. “I really appreciated the environment that Taika created on the set. It was fun; it was focused. He would often play music. And there was nothing sacrilegious about a take.”
That all goes back to Waititi’s core impulse, to focus small on those actors trying to remember their lines — though his own creative habits, like playing loud music during scenes, and encouraging improvisation by throwing out alternate lines in the middle of a take, might be part of each actor’s struggle.
Waititi pitched the movie to Hulk alter-ego Mark Ruffalo as “Withnail and I in space,” riffing on Bruce Robinson’s viciously quotable 1987 comedy about two drunk out-of-work actors trying to get themselves together out in the country. Improvised or not, that movie has an anarchic, off-the-cuff vitality that clearly points towards the efforts Waititi put into Ragnarok.
The two stars banter on stage (CH: “We’ve been improvising a lot.” MR: “It’s really hit or miss.” CH: “Sometimes it’s good.”) as an offshoot of the experience.
“This is my favorite version of the Hulk” Hemsworth says, “because [Mark and I] actually got to act together, you know. We’d only really fought one another on screen in the previous films. This time around, we got to just sort of improvise our way through it, and invent this chemistry that we hadn’t explored before.” So we get a more vocal Hulk, but more importantly we get a Hulk who is present in scenes as a guy who can make his desires known in ways that don’t involve punching things. Or at least in ways that feature some talking after the punching.
Because Waititi focused on creating that two-hander character structure, we get scenes like Thor and the Hulk sitting around Hulk’s room talking about their feelings after a fight. Waititi seems to realize how unusual that is, even in the almost-anything-goes context of a Marvel movie.
“That shouldn’t exist, but it does,” he reflects, “and it works. That’s what, I think, grounds the film a little bit. The audience is going, ‘Yeah, that’s right. Superheroes do have to, you know, make up after arguments, as well.’”
Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters now.