- Director Taika Waititi is known best for his indie movies “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” He talks about the ways he made his Marvel movie the most un-Marvel yet. Waititi also explains how he brought the scene-stealing character he voiced, Korg, to life.
“Thor: Ragnarok” has huge fight scenes (led by the bulging biceps of its lead Chris Hemsworth), and CGI-fueled destruction from the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) – all things we’ve become accustomed to from Marvel movies – but it also has hilarious deadpan humor, and an improvisational feel that’s a refreshing new element to the franchise. And that stuff you can thank director Taika Waititi for.
The New Zealand filmmaker known best for directing episodes of HBO’s “Flight of the Concords,” and indie movies “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” might be the most unlikely director to answer the Marvel call. However, what he’s given “Ragnarok” (opening in theaters November 3) is a new kind of Marvel story that intentionally veers from its conventional “save the world” blueprint, and hypes up the comedy aspects while still telling a thrilling story.
Business Insider spoke to Waititi about being allowed to amp up the weird on a huge blockbuster, why he was convinced Marvel would get fed up with his unconventional style, his decision to voice the movie’s scene-stealing Korg character, and the idea of flashback scenes of Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as kids that didn’t make the cut.
Jason Guerrasio: I love how you describe your work being a mix between comedy, drama, and “the clumsiness of humanity.” Is that formula easier or harder to pull off in a superhero movie?
Taika Waititi: I actually feel like it’s harder because you just have to spend more time figuring out what those clumsy elements are in these larger than life characters. How to make the characters more relatable to the audience. Really, when I look at the story of Thor, how I kind of get myself in there and figure out I can tell the story, is actually looking at it in terms of an indie film. It’s about a guy trying to get home because there’s someone in his house, and he’s got to sort that out. And along the way he’s got his annoying brother, a drunk chick, and some bipolar kid with him. [Laughs.] And he’s just trying to get home. So that’s the way into the story, and then it’s how do I apply those things into spaceships and explosions.
Guerrasio: Take that indie idea and then go really big with it.
Guerrasio: So when you had the early talks with Marvel about the project, did you lay all the cards on the table and say that you weren’t interested in making the typical Marvel franchise movie?
Waititi: Yeah. But they knew that as well. They said that. “We know this isn’t going to be very fulfilling for you to come in and continue with what we’ve done. And we don’t want to continue with what we’ve done. We want to do something very fresh and new.”
Guerrasio: And that must have been music to your ears.
Waititi: It was.
Guerrasio: Was there a moment through all this when you said to yourself, “Wow, they are really letting me do this the way I want to do it!”
Waititi: Within reason. There were moments when you’re like, “Wow, this is something that I never thought I’d be allowed to put into a superhero movie.” But I came in knowing I’d bring character, tone, and dialogue – those are my strengths. Marvel’s job really is just to keep me in my lane and make sure I’m not crashing the car. Derailing the Avengers. [Laughs.]
Guerrasio: That being said, did you ever get told by Marvel after they looked at the dailies to tone it down?
Waititi: No. There was never a moment like that, which was both surprising and also disconcerting. “Wow, man, are they even watching the dailies?” We were doing stuff that was so different. I remember after a couple of days working with Chris [Hemsworth] and Mark [Ruffalo], Mark came up to me and said, “I’ll be surprised if you and I are back here on Monday. I have a feeling like we’re breaking this. They are going to get rid of us.” We were just doing whatever we felt we wanted to see in the film. That includes a scene with Hulk and Thor sitting on a bed talking about their emotions and apologizing to each other after an argument. Which is not something I felt I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.
Guerrasio: But strangely, those lighthearted “real” scenes are what I remember most from this movie.
Waititi: Totally. And I feel that is the point of difference that I’ve managed to bring. What would everyone expect from this and let’s do the opposite. That’s what we were saying to each other often when we were shooting. “Does this feel like we’ve seen it before? And if so, how do we change it?” I’ve seen the hero in a movie getting beaten up by a bunch of people, and then a mysterious figure comes in and saves them, and the person takes off their mask and it’s the love interest. How about we make that love interest (the Valkyrie character played by Tessa Thompson) more like Han Solo and she’s a drunk, gambling mercenary who in her introductory scene falls off the ramp of her spaceship.
Guerrasio: I read that in your sizzle reel to Marvel you had scenes from “Sixteen Candles” because there was a time when you were planning to do flashback scenes of Thor as a kid.
Waititi: Yeah. I did.
Guerrasio: How long did you play around with that flashback idea?
Waititi: It was in the first couple months of storylining. We always wondered, could we put in these flashbacks and make them work. To me it still feels like a great idea, but it was one element too many. It was very hard to justify doing. It would have felt like just this one-off little flashback and it needed more. We could have done it when Thor talks about one of the times Loki tried to kill him.
Guerrasio: Instead of Thor describing it in that scene there could have been a jump to a flashback?
Waititi: Yeah. But it’s actually better that we didn’t flashback because it’s funnier him just telling the story.
Guerrasio: It’s funny, but I don’t know, watching a teen Thor and Loki in a flashback scene would have been really great.
Waititi: It would have been funnier if it was this ongoing thing where we had more and more of those stories through the movie.
Waititi: But just a one-off would have just thrown people off too much.
Guerrasio: The one thing I’m kind of bummed about was that the trailer revealed that Hulk is Thor’s opponent in their fight on Sakaar. The buildup is so great. Are you disappointed that was used in the trailer?
Waititi: Not necessarily. I felt like it was something everyone knew was going to happen because Mark was in the movie. It’s very hard to keep any of that stuff under wraps. Marvel knows in many ways with something like that you have to give it out.
Guerrasio: How early on did you want to do the Korg character?
Waititi: That was definitely in the script early on, but we didn’t end up doing a huge amount with it until much later on in prep. There were many other story points we had to worry about, we knew this character was going to be in at least one or two scenes as a kind of information giver. I knew I was going to play something in the film because I always put myself in my films but I didn’t know what. And he was one of the few minor characters that hadn’t been cast yet so I decided to do that one. Also, it was small enough that it wouldn’t infringe on my concentration with directing the film. Which was the priority. The more I found the voice through the read-through the more funny we found it. The more jokes came out of those reads.
Guerrasio: How did you find the voice?
Waititi: Just through reading the script through with Chris. We would start getting into those scenes and I would play with the voice and we thought wouldn’t it be funny if this big hulking rock guy had this very delicate voice? I kind of based it on people I remember from home. So it’s a strange combination of a big guy with a gentle-natured presence. Chris was loving that when we started doing those scenes, and we started shooting some stuff, and Marvel thought it was really funny and I really enjoyed doing it. Chris wanted to do more, so we injected him into more and more scenes and before you know it he was all over the movie.
Guerrasio: Before I go, what’s the latest on the Bubbles the Chimp stop-motion movie you’re doing for Netflix.
Waititi: I’m excited about it. We are in very early stages. Early development with design and trying to figure out the schedule. I think all the work I would be doing is the up-front design and recording and see those guys off and let them do their thing.