Speaking to director Taika Waititi – whose Thor: Ragnarok hits theaters this week – is a lot like watching one of his movies: it’s hard not to be immediately charmed before being hit with incredibly well timed, dry, deadpan responses. Then again, it’s also incredibly odd that Waititi – best known for smaller, unusual comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and 2016’s indie hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople – directed a Thor movie in the first place.
It’s not uncommon for indie directors to jump to mainstream blockbusters of late, but it’s usually at least a little obvious that there’s a career path in place. Waititi’s movies are different: there’s nothing about them that scream, “please let me make a Thor movie someday.” In 15 years, when looking back on Waititi’s filmography, there’s a very good chance that his Thor movie will be the outlier. Look, this is the director who tweeted publicly about the possibility of directing a Star Wars movie, “Lolz. I like to complete my films.”
Thor: Ragnarok could almost be described as a pure comedy. It’s certainly up there as one of the most unusual Marvel movies to date, if not the most unusual. Thor isn’t the easiest Marvel character for movies to crack, and Waititi just went for something different – and, to date, that’s paid off with, as of this writing, a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And if that holds, that would put it at number one as the most critically well-received Marvel movie to date. Which is all pretty impressive coming from a director who still can’t believe he agreed to make a Marvel movie in the first place.
Ahead, we try to get to the bottom of why Waititi agreed to make Thor: Ragnarok, even though I’m not convinced he even knows for sure. Waititi also discusses Tessa Thomson’s revelation that her character, Valkyrie, is bisexual. He also discusses his experiences as an actor on Green Lantern, what he learned from that, and if he thinks he’ll ever make a movie on this scale again. Finally, Waititi also discusses playing Korg, a brutish looking rock monster of a beast who, surprisingly, has a sweet, high-pitched thick New Zealand accent. (People are going to like Korg.)
The world needs more quotes from you on the internet.
Though I couldn’t find if you’re a fan of Duran Duran’s Rio or not? Bruce Banner wears a Rio t-shirt in the movie that Tony Stark had left behind.
I am, too.
It’s an exclusive club.
I was hoping a song would play.
People were wondering if we were trying to say something with this, it was just Tony Stark would probably have this t-shirt lying around.
I cannot get over the fact you directed a Thor movie.
As an admirer of your movies, when it was announced, it was strange combination of excitement and…
Yes. But not that they would want you, but that you would want to do it.
Yeah, I was surprised that I said yes.
How did they get you to say yes?
Actually, the pitch – and I haven’t done many pitches – I finally realized pitching is more than trying to pitch a story, it’s really testing out of you can work with each other for two years and whether or not your personalities align. It’s really just gauging the people you could be potentially involved with for quite a long time. I like all of them and I think they like me.
Of the characters in this universe, would Thor have been your first choice?
I’ve honestly never thought about it – thought about directing one of these things or what it would take to do it. I enjoyed watching the movies. But it’s something that never really crossed my mind. In hindsight, when I first heard it was Thor, I probably thought, “Huh, I’m not sure about this.” But then I had no real idea about the other franchises and how they interlocked and related to each other. But I love Chris and really wanted to work with him, but also I felt Thor was the franchise that had the most potential to be something different. Because the other ones are so well established and had such a clear voice, and they are their own things. I felt like I wouldn’t really fit into the other franchises coming in as a fourth-time director. This one just felt like, for me, it had the most going for it.
They probably wouldn’t let you do a Hulk penis joke in a Captain America movie.
Correct. That is correct.
Thor feels like a tough character to make a movie out of. But I’m guessing that comes with the most leeway?
Yeah, exactly. It felt like that. And everyone was happy with the other films and I really like the other films. But I did feel like at the end of The Dark World and the end of Age of Ultron when Thor goes off to search for the Infinity Stones and stuff, it just felt so open-ended, you could approach this third Thor film with anything. He could have gone anywhere in the last two years. So that was a nice launching pad for the film, that we had two years without Thor and it gave us leeway to change his personality a bit and to make him a little more colloquial. So, to me, it just felt like we had far more scope and creative freedom.
Coming from your past films, do you go into Thor with the attitude of just doing what you’ve been doing, or do you have to adapt somewhat?
I think there was a small amount of adapting I had to do. Just figuring out my place in this larger cinematic universe and how I would handle it with so many more people and for such a long time. My other movies become like a small family affair. So my thing, really, was how to recreate that on the larger scale. And I knew the only tools I could come with what I’m good at, which is character and dialogue and tone. And that Marvel would keep me on the right path in terms of making a Marvel film. But they were very much into making a Marvel type of film, but also supportive of me keeping my voice within the film. And I think we managed to do that. When I see the film, it feels like my film. But also I can see it, definitely, as something that fits in the cinematic universe.
And Thor: Ragnarok feels like the most “voice-y” Marvel movie yet. Was that a surprise to you that you got to keep that voice?
It was a surprise. It was, yeah. I was very surprised with what they allowed me to keep in the film with the humor and some of the stranger tangential humor that’s in the film. Because, yeah, that’s really what I do! [Laughs.] Also, they encouraged it. When I thought, “This is too weird for the film,” they were like, “No, no, we want that.”
What’s an example?
Well, I think most of the stuff that Korg says. But it was something where it took them to say, “Yeah, this is okay.”
I still can’t figure out of you like making these types of movies and want to make more or not.
Well, I’m not sure how I’d feel doing it at other studios because I had such a good experience with these guys. You know, I have friends that have done other films and they were getting notes from 30 different people who they had never met before. So, for me, this was about as close to the landscape of my normal films where there aren’t that many people involved and there aren’t a lot of voices. And sure, having made the film I wanted to make and having the validation from fans and critics, I’m glad I did it and it definitely feels like something I’d do again.
Lolz. I like to complete my films. https://t.co/Uj6RgKbo9V
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) September 6, 2017
Speaking of other franchises, you had your infamous Star Wars tweet.
Why is it infamous? I was just saying I’d be scared I’d be fired.
“Infamous” is maybe a strong word. Let’s say “popular,” because a lot of people paid attention to it…
Look, I’m not an idiot. Who would actually say no to Star Wars? Of course, I didn’t send that idea very seriously, it’s more that in light of all the things that were happening over the last couple of months, it would make me a little nervous.
And that’s fair, it had happened several times already when you tweeted that…
But I see both sides of it. It’s such a strong, established property – you recognize it and you recognize the tone with every one of those films. So I can kind of get why, on the studio side, why they feel they have a duty to keep it a certain way. And I’ve been lucky with Thor and Marvel that they can go off in any direction they want really.
I just can’t figure out if in like 15 years when discussing your filmography if it’s going to be like, “Remember when he made a Thor movie? That was weird.”
Or, “He never made another movie again.”
Well, in reality, you’re going to have, or already have, a lot of offers and I can’t figure out what you’re going to do. You’re an enigma.
Well, I think it’s been a strength for me – and it’s also how I see myself – but this is probably the strangest move for me to do this. But it feels like the perfect move because I wanted to be challenged and I was scared of repeating myself with my smaller films. So this felt like, oh, here’s something that no one would expect, the least of all me.
When you were in Green Lantern, was that a situation where you could tell it wasn’t going well? Was there something to learn from that?
I couldn’t tell anything. I wasn’t paying attention to that part of things. I was just fascinated by being on a big movie set and watching how things work – and watching Martin Campbell and watching the crew. I was just kind of absorbing it and seeing how the different departments work. So it was more, oh, here’s a chance to hang out on a movie set for three or four months and absorb everything that’s going on and hopefully learn from that. Because I’ve learned everything from just being on set and experiencing it first hand, or hanging out in the corner and observing. Because I didn’t go to film school or anything like that, so I learned from watching movies and watching people make movies.
Tessa Thompson mentioned that Valkyrie is bisexual, though it’s not really explored in the film.
Well, it felt like she is who she is and we didn’t feel like, oh, we really must reference this or acknowledge it or anything. It just felt like there’s so much going on in the film and there’s so much to get through, sometimes I feel like adding more of that stuff makes it kind of complicated. If we would have, it would be such a huge talking point and it doesn’t really need to be because it’s cool if she is, it’s cool if she isn’t. I feel sometimes the problem might just be that people think you’re trying to make a gigantic statement, when all is it is a beautiful piece of texture to another kind of cool layer to something. And I feel if Tessa used that and that was part of the character for her, then sweet, I love it. That’s a great layer to have and it probably does come through. I just know that we talked about it and we said, yeah, she is.
Remember when they made those Marvel One Shots? I’d watch one about Korg.
Oh, yeah, yeah. We talked about that, that would be funny.
He’s so delightful.
Yeah, and I think you need that in a movie that has all these crazy characters and monsters and over-the-top elements. Sometimes you just need a character who is gentle and kind – a little bit of a calm within the storm of this crazy mix.
Is it fun for you to watch an audience reaction to him?
At first, I was really concerned that no one would understand what the hell he was saying because it’s such a thick New Zealand accent. And people can barely understand me in my normal, day-to-day conversations. I mean, now it’s fine because people can understand him. But when I first did him, people were like, “Come on, man. New Zealanders can’t even understand him.”
If they came tomorrow and said, “Let’s do Thor 4,” do you say yes? I honestly have no idea what you’d say. Again, you’re an enigma.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I want to keep this mysterious. “Oh, I’m not sure.” But, yeah, probably.
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