Published Nov 03, 2017What did indie New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi do the night before shooting began on Marvel's massively high-profile, Thor: Ragnarok? "I had an amazing sleep, I slept very well," says the unflappable director, slouching comfortably on a couch in a downtown Toronto hotel. "I probably had a couple of wines."
Meet Taika Waititi: Zen director, New Zealand's golden boy, and the surprising figure on which Marvel Studios and Disney have gambled a $180 million budget.
You may not have heard of him (yet), since his films so far have been more cult classic than blockbuster: a mockumentary about hipster vampire roommates (What We Do in the Shadows); a manhunt for a precocious kid and his dog (Hunt for the Wilderpeople); a coming-of-age tale of a boy who reimagines moments as Michael Jackson dance sequences (Boy); and a very quirky romantic comedy/revenge tale (Eagle vs Shark).
"My films are… wonderful flights of whimsy," is how Waititi describes his career to Exclaim!
Thor: Ragnarok is the third instalment and our first glimpse of the franchise since 2013's Thor: The Dark World (Chris Hemsworth has appeared as the character in several Marvel films since then). Ragnarok refers to the threat of total destruction of Thor's home planet, Asgard, which Thor spends the film trying to prevent. The term also refers to rebirth, something audiences should keep in mind in the opening scene as they meet a totally altered, wisecracking God of Thunder. What inspired the filmmaker to turn a stoic, slightly dull hero into Mr. Good Times?
"The thing about that character is that he's actually got the most scope!" enthuses Waititi, "If you've ever read the storylines in a lot of the comics, some of them are absolutely insane and they're even crazier than this film." Bear in mind that Ragnarok features a wormhole called the Devil's Anus and the character Korg (voiced by Waititi himself) questioning whether Thor receives erotic stimulation from his hammer.
"It was really about embracing the source material and a lot of those original presentations of Thor in the comics where there's some amazing magical stuff and they are funny," Waititi continues. In fact, this stands as the funniest Marvel film in the franchise so far. Apart from the infusion of humour, a big part of Thor's re-birth is due to screenwriters ditching some elements that have been played out: Thor's stone-faced stiffness, his gee-whiz human entourage (as played by Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgård) and unchanging family dynamics.
"You really see that Thor has given up on trying to save Loki, and doesn't give a shit about him anymore," Waititi reflects in a clipped Kiwi accent that make swearing sound inoffensive. "And once you take away that — which, to be honest, gets pretty boring when you have to listen him say to Loki, 'Oh stop this madness' while Loki's just being a little shit for the entire film — it's nice to turn the tables a bit."
In many ways, the director approached this blockbuster with the same approach as his smaller films, brushing away a question about higher stakes. "This is the fifth movie I've made, so I felt very relaxed most of the time. I am very relaxed most of the time so it just felt normal." Despite the shiny CGI and heavyweight cast (including Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins), Thor: Ragnarok only occasionally loses its irreverence, personal touch and sense of whimsy.
"I wouldn't want to do too many of these films back-to-back," he says of the change in career trajectory. "I want to go back and do some of my smaller things." He speaks with laid-back certainty that indicates that this was never in question. "There [are] a bunch of scripts I've written over the years that I'm still keen to try and make, and they're all of varying budget sizes, and various topics. It's more about me keeping it interesting for myself, rather than them."
Is that 'them' with a capital T?