At no point could the producers governing the “Thor” franchise be accused of going for the obvious. Oscar-nominated English classicist Kenneth Branagh was about the last person you might have thought of to direct a superhero blockbuster, but the counterintuitive gamble paid off: Branagh’s grounding in Shakespeare gave the 2011 film a literate weight and wit, and we can thank him for giving us the then little-known Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
In picking Branagh’s successor for “Thor: The Dark World,” Marvel were obviously determined to think outside the box again “Monster” director Patty Jenkins was attached at one point, but the man who eventually got the gig was similarly unexpected, and not only because he hasn’t directed a feature film in 10 years. Instead, Alan Taylor has been one of HBO’s most invaluable properties: a stylish, versatile director of episodes from virtually every one of the network’s celebrated shows, from “Sex and the City” to “Deadwood” to “Boardwalk Empire.” He won an Emmy for “The Sopranos” and has been nominated “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.”
It’s his work on the latter, presumably, that caught Marvel’s eye, and Taylor himself regards the epic fantasy series as having provided suitable training for his arrival in Asgard. Speaking to us on the London set of the film in October last year, he says: “‘Game of Thrones’ was the first fantasy thing I’ve done, and like a lot of people who now enjoy the show, I didn’t expect to respond to that world. But when I started doing it, I really started to love it. I started to realize that some of the things I’m naturally drawn to – a kind of epic-scale imagery – is also grounded in these new relationships. That’s sort of what you can find in ‘Thor’ as well.”
Taylor, who jokingly describes himself as a “recovering TV director,” found the experience of joining an existing film franchise not unlike coming on board an established TV series. “There is an episodic quality to it,” he says, “because it’s Volume Two of something that’s already been established. And like in television, I try and put my stamp on what’s already been established, and see what I can do to give it my sensibility.”
That involved making some changes to Kenneth Branagh’s vision for “Thor” – which, much as Taylor respected it, didn’t match what he had in mind for that story world. He explains: “The Branagh movie was very successful. He brought together an amazing cast and focused what could have been a huge rambling mythology on varying intimate family relations: brother versus brother, father and son. That was all brilliant.
“The only qualm I had with his movie was the look of it: to me, it felt too shiny and brand new. I understand the choice: it’s basically because the Asgardians were very much a futuristic alien race that we mistook for gods. But when I came in, I was in love with the Norse mythology. I was in love with grounding it more into a Viking or medieval look, with a sense of history and weight.”
Marvel was in favour of the shift, which again tapped into Taylor’s experience on “Game of Thrones.” “We enjoyed combining fantasy with some sense of three-dimensionality and real life [on ‘Thrones’], so that’s what I tried to bring in here,” he says. “It’s a funny balancing act. You have to be funny, in the way that Marvel’s funny, and you have to be true to some pretty absurd things, like elves in spaceships. And then try to make that all relatable and real and textured.
“For example, we’re seeing the back streets of Asgard rather than the shiny, golden palace. We do go into some shiny palace rooms, but we tend to blow them up this time. And on Earth, we’re trying to capture contemporary London. So, ideally, you’ll have all the pleasures of something that feels real, but also all of the joys that go with a Marvel movie. We’ll see whether we’re pulling off this combination or not.”
Having also worked on “Deadwood” and “Rome,” Taylor admits to being fascinated by projects with a degree of historical context: “I was going to be a history professor before I sold out and went into TV, so things that evoke that are really exciting to me. And Thor, even though he’s a Marvel character, is also obviously deeply rooted in Norse mythology. And you can see the look of our sets is deeply embedded or drawn from numerous sources and Celtic sources. I love drawing on past cultures. That’s a thrill to me.”
Though Taylor was initially daunted by the prospect of working for Marvel, he was surprised to find the experience more familiar, in some ways, than he had expected. He elaborates: “HBO feels like a small institution, like we’re making independent movies. There’s respect for the director’s contribution in a way that mainstream television doesn’t really reflect. With Marvel, I came expecting the worst. I had a friend who had done a big, studio movie that was also a sequel. And he e-mailed me at one point and said, ‘You have no idea. Nobody here gives a flying F what I think about it.’ I came in braced for that, but it’s been very, very different.
“Marvel, in its weird way, is also a small institution, so it’s like you’re making an independent movie that just happens to cost multi-millions of dollars. But the creative process is not that different. You’re dealing intimately with the people that you’re making the movie with. I haven’t quite adjusted to the fact that they respect the director more in movies. I’m still used to deferring to somebody! So it’s been liberating and fun to have more fun than I’m used to.”
He also felt a strong kinship with Marvel’s storytelling sensibility: “I saw a rough cut of ‘The Avengers’ around the time that I was getting involved, and loved the balance of tones that Marvel does. They can make you really care, and then they can make you laugh. And then, just when you think, ‘This is ridiculous,’ they let you know it’s ridiculous. That’s a wonderful dance that they do. I saw some other films recently that only had one of those tones, and once you get used to the Marvel thing, you miss the others.”
Which is not to say it’s been an entirely effortless transition. “I have discovered new layers of stress I never knew existed!” he laughs. “I cannot complain about how I have been handled by Marvel. But there is a Marvel process where the script is sort of the last thing you get. And where I come from, a writer-driven medium, the script is the first thing you get, and then you get to do all of your directing after that. So that’s been the source of stress.”
Speaking of the script, Taylor describes it as having been “very much in flux” throughout the process, with a story that has shifted considerably from earlier drafts. “It’s a wild and woolly path. Some things were agreed upon very early: what the arc of Jane’s relationship was going to be, things like that. But there were characters in it now that were not in it, and I was sort of pushing to bring some people back that weren’t originally coming back.”
Was there any move to get Joss Whedon on board, after his spectacular success with “The Avengers?” Taylor explains, “He read a draft, and there was still some hope that he would come in and do some stuff on it for us, sort of under the table. You know, now that he’s the table! But no – though he gave his seal of approval on some things.”
A key decision at script level, of course, was introducing Marvel supervillain Malekith, played by Christopher Eccleston, as the new film’s chief antagonist. “It was clear early on that we were going to be dealing with the Dark Elves, and that Malekith was supposed to be our guy,” Taylor explains. “He’s very much on a mission of vengeance and reclaiming what is rightfully his. That’s not an unfamiliar device. “Early on, I started thinking he’s got something in common with [iconic ‘Blade Runner’ villain] Roy Batty, who had a righteous mission that you sort of sympathized with. He had a kind of humanity, even though he was an evil bastard. So that sort of came along with him. It started getting more personal. And being an American, I found myself bringing some Osama Bin Laden in.
“His mission became grander and grander, and we invented a time scale for where he’s been. Other superheroes can fight bad guys in Gotham City, or in Metropolis or whatever, but Thor is part of this epic thing he’s also got going on. Argolins have been around for 5,000 years. They’ve been pissed off since the Big Bang. So there’s a kind of scale. Odin’s father had to fight them. Again, it’s a history lesson, but it’s important for me to give an intimate relationship, so you feel a kind of brotherly bond: you’ve got Thor and Loki, and you’ve got Algrim and Malekith. So it’s not just mustachioed gods blowing each other up.”
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just the script that was in flux during the production — so was the decision of whether or not the film would be released in 3D. Taylor was against the idea at first, though a course with Sony on the technology succeeded in getting him excited about “the languages that 3D can speak.” He began shooting with the presumption that it’d be a 2D film, though when the word came from the studio that it’d be in 3D after all, it didn’t much affect his shooting process.
“I think we have wonderful imagery,” he says. “One of the great things about the Marvel universe is it gives you a chance to play with big, wonderful imagery, which hopefully will be a pleasure in 3D. But we aren’t throwing spears at the camera any more than we were before.”