'Thor: Ragnarok' Director Taika Waititi May Have Figured Out What's Wrong With Bad Superhero Movies [Interview]

When we sat down to talk with Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi on the set of the Marvel Studios sequel in Brisbane, Australia in September of 2016, one of the first things he playfully said while holding a prop weapon from the movie was "I liken the filmmaking process to going into battle."

If that's the case, Taika Waititi must be one cool customer in the face of danger, and he's not beyond dressing snappily while he's in battle either. I joined a group of reporters to chat with the filmmaker in between takes during a climactic scene from Thor: Ragnarok (don't worry, we don't spoil that in the interview), and we asked him about his approach to Thor, striking a balance between his own style and the mandates of a corporate-owned movies studio, improvising with the actors, learning lessons from superhero movies, and much more.

Read our full Thor Ragnarok Taika Waititi interview below.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk a little bit about just striking a balance between putting your own personal stamp on this and serving a larger corporate beast.

Taika Waititi: There's definitely a challenge with wanting be true to what the fans want, and to the universe itself. But also, I have to keep reminding myself that I was hired for a reason, and I think one of those reasons is because of the kind of stories I tell, and the kind of films that I've made previously. Obviously it has to be me trying to unify my type of storytelling with this kind of content, and hopefully it all comes out really nicely in the end.

But also, I don't want to make an episode of some other larger thing. I know that it will lead [to other things] and all the pieces will fit together. But it's not my job to make sure they fit together. It's not my job to make sure that all this makes sense three movies down the tracks for one of the other franchises. My job is to make a film that can sit alone as a standalone piece, that obviously I'll be proud of. But if it's the only Marvel film you see that it's also a great film [in general].

And it's a great story in and of itself. The lucky thing is that there are a bunch of geniuses who run Marvel who make sure that, even if it's a standalone piece, it is part of a great big jigsaw puzzle that could be appreciated as a whole as well.

How much did the story change once you came on board?

TW: Well, there are already story ideas when I came on board. That changed over the first three or four months. Right from the beginning, they had wanted to lighten it a little bit, and to embrace it more of the adventure aspect of it. The last two films, or definitely the last film, is a little darker. Personally I feel like, if the movie's called Thor, then Thor should be the best character. My main focus was making him cool, and funny when he needs to be, heroic when he needs to be. Oviously there'll be a certain degree of pathos and emotionality to it as well. If you've seen my other films, there's always a balance between some comedy, and some drama, and I think that's a satisfying story to watch. That's always been my focus with this whole thing, to make it really entertaining and poignant and profound when it needs to be. But also adventurous when it needs to be and funny when it needs to be.

Talking about that balance, do you find that in the script?  Do you find it here on set?  Do you find that in the editing room? Where does that come in?

TW: Everything, really. I've always found the script to be more of a skeleton, the template. Most scenes we'll improvise some stuff.  I'll be next to actors and yell suggestions at them all the time. Everyone, including Cate [Blanchett] and [Anthony Hopkins] they're all okay with that luckily. It's coming from a place where I'm used to doing that with my friends, yelling at each other throughout takes. It's messy, but I think from that messiness comes great spur of the moment stuff.

The main balance found on the editing. So with most takes, I would do stuff that's way over the top, and then bring it down to get something a bit slow. Exactly what's on the page, and then something that's a nice sort of middle balance where the tone is, I don't want to say believable, but probably a little more natural.

What kind of Thor do we meet in this movie compared to the previous films?

TW: Well, he's a lot grubbier. That's been one of my main things. I think everyone a bit too shiny and clean in the other films. I love heroes that really go through ordeals, and they come out the other end completely changed. Not just, "Oh, I've got a girlfriend now." They come out the other side, and they've been through the ringer. We do a lot to this character in this film.

A lot of people have been wanting to see this idea of Ragnarok, and a lot of people are excited by the idea of what Ragnarock means. But to me it means the stripping down of the establishment, of what's already there, and then building it up in a new way.  Which is almost like this cyclic idea of Ragnarok. So my own personal idea of Ragnarok is what we're doing to the character and to the franchise, and to the story. But in a way where what comes out the other end is way more exciting and interesting, in a way that you can never go back from that.

It seems like you're really influenced by Jack Kirby and some of the more recent Jason Aaron comic books, and obviously Planet Hulk. Why were those the comics you pulled from, and is there anything else you're using as inspiration?

TW: Yeah, we pulled a bit from Planet Hulk and God of Thunder, and some of the Gorr runs. I just looked at all the stuff that I personally feel is the coolest stuff in the comics and said, "We should have that. We should have that." Because you can stay true to the comics, but I think you can ruin things by staying too true. With every comic run there's always a retelling. You see that with all the main characters.  There's rebirths, there's alternate universes. Why not just take all the best parts? This film is so crazy and so eclectic, and there's so many amazing characters.

Think about the characters. Hulk and a new style of banner that we've never seen before. New Thor. Hela. Loki is in there obviously. Then The Grandmaster. It really is, in my mind, the craziest of the Marvel films, in a good way.

Thor Ragnarok Set Photo

What are some of the challenges of continuing the Thor franchise specifically?

TW: The main challenge was actually working at getting away from the other two films. Yes, the other films are there, it's great to watch them. I think they're good films, but I don't mind if people start with this film. For me, this is my Thor 1. I've seen the other films and I respect them a lot, but I can't spend too much time thinking about this as a threequel. Because then I get tied up too much in respecting what went before and respecting what's gonna come after. For me, it has to be a standalone thing. This could be the only time I do this, so I just want to make a Marvel film in the best way possible.

You're known for having a recurring ensemble of actors. We know that Rachel House is coming back, but is there anybody else appearing who has been in your other films?

TW: Yeah, Cohen Holloway, who's in all of my other films, he plays one of the werewolves in What We Do in the Shadows, and he's in Boy. He's been in all my films. I'm in it. I'm in all my films, I can't help it. I just jam myself in there if there's a space. That's it.

Can you talk about the character you're playing?

TW: I'm playing one of the Planet Hulk characters named Korg, who's a Kronan. He's a bit bigger than me, so that's all mocap. For me it's really fun. Often I'll jump in [for other mocap stuff]. Mark [Ruffalo] is no longer here so I'll jump in for Hulk's stuff. We have stand-ins, but they're not actors, and they don't have timing and stuff. So I'll jump in for those things every now and then. I did Surtur as well, but he'll probably be voiced by someone else.

Just looking at Chris Hemsworth on set, it's clear that this might be the first time that a Thor adventure marks him. How do you look at the character and say this is going to be a really fun, enjoyable adventure when it might not be for Thor?

TW: Right. Well, I think part of it is what we do with his personality. Thor spent two years on Earth hanging out with Robert Downey Jr., so he got some sass. He knows a little more about irony and sarcasm now. He's got a little bit of Earth humor. He's like a rich kid from outer space who spent some time slumming it for a bit. So he's instantly become a bit more interesting. But because he's in different parts of the cosmos, he's still learning as he goes on.

When I came to this project, I always imagined Thor being a bit like Jack Burton [from Big Trouble in Little China]. What's the version of Thor just wanting to get his truck back and then being pulled into this crazy adventure? Jack Burton's a great hero. He's making his way through the adventure. This a bit different since Thor is the protagonist and he's driving it.

Chris Hemsworth said he's doing it because he has no choice.

TW: Yeah, he's the only person who can, exactly. I thought you meant Chris making the movie. That's also true.

Thor Ragnarok Set Photo

Can you talk about working with the actors a little bit on a project like this, especially those new to the superhero genre, and as an actor yourself?

TW: The thing that has surprised me about all the actors is, including Anthony Hopkins, is just how far they can push it if they're given permission to not do what everyone knows them for. That goes especially for Hopkins. I think you can tell when actors are like, "Okay, they want me to do Tony Hopkins saying words." I think with everyone, including Cate Blanchett, we gave them permission to be funny, to destroy what's come before and recreate it.

Do you think it takes someone like you, with acting experience, to get that trust out of an actor like Anthony Hopkins or an actress like Cate Blanchett?

TW: Maybe. I think a lot of people are very scared to talk to actors whereas I don't care. I think something that every actor wants, whether they've done four movies or forty movies, is they want to find the work interesting. You want to come to work and think this is going to be a challenge. I think for all of these actors, it has been interesting.

When I first met Cate, one of the first things she said to me was, "You know, I just want to punch people. I just want to do something where I get to have fun, and my kids are gonna enjoy watching me in action.

How is this challenging or pushing you as a filmmaker in terms of going to the bigger canvas with way more effects, where everything is bigger than you've done previously?

TW: I don't think it's changing me. It may have spoiled me. When I go back to my smaller films, which I will do, I might be like, "Where's those nice, ice coffee things they are handing out before? Why are we eating carrot sticks again?" At first I was a little apprehensive, but I've done a lot of commercials and I've been on big sets before, so I was okay with how that runs.

It's more that I didn't realize until after a few months that what we're doing is essentially the exact same thing as all my other films. At the end of the day, when you call action, the lens is pointed at two or three people who are trying to remember lines and say them to each other in a convincing way. From Eagle vs Shark all the way through this, it's the exact same experience. And all the rest of this is all shut out when you're looking at the rectangle screen. The experience is completely the same other than we have to do a lot more effects passes and balls and charts and all that stuff. I don't get annoyed by how long that stuff takes because I've seen all these other films and I know how good it can look and it takes time to get that stuff right.

Are you guys building a new Sanctum Santorum set for the Doctor Strange or are you going out to London to shoot that? Did you already complete that scene?

TW: What am I allowed to say? You've seen the concept art and stuff. All right, cool. Yeah, we did that.

You rebuilt the set here in Australia?

TW: Someone tell me what I'm allowed to say!

Thor Ragnarok Set Photo

We've heard that you like to use music on set when it's called for to create a certain vibe while shooting, and you also gave Tessa Thompson some music to listen to as a way to inspired her performance. What kind of music have you been using and how does that influence the actors?

[During this part of the interview, one of the crew members comes over to get approval on a shot they're framing for the next scene, so Taika Waititi is a little distracted]

TW: I play music all the time because silence freaks me out. I was trying to have a very relaxed set. It's just more of a family feel. We've got kids running around all the time. Chris Hemsworth's kids are here. Music is just a good way to keep the crew going. It's motivational and makes you relaxed.

Were you blasting Goblin? I thought I heard that.

TW: Yeah. Suspiria.

Can we talk about the villains? Because not only do you have the first female Marvel villain, but you also have Loki who is far and away the MCU's biggest star when it comes to villains. So we're curious as to what your take on villains is in this film.

TW: Yeah, Cate is the first female villain, and for me, the most interesting villain. She is multidimensional. She's layered. She's troubled. She's really funny. It's not just, "Ohhh, If I can finally get the thing, uh, then this will happen!" There's a little bit of that, but there are so many other things going on for her. I think it's going to be really satisfying to people.

And she's fucking amazing. Her character, she's very tough. She is Hela. Amazing powers. She wears the cowl, and she has the antlers, and she looks amazing in the concept art and stuff. In the films, Thor has never fought anyone tougher than this lady.

You had a supporting role in Green Lantern. Were there any lessons you learned from that experience that helped you with this project?

TW: Not necessarily that film. I was just determined to try and do a good job [as an actor]. I spent a lot of time just sitting around on set, as you do. But I would watch a lot about how [director Martin Campbell] runs a set. He's runs a set very well, very efficient, but very different to the way I do things. I think I probably learned more watching a lot of other superhero movies, and a lot of big budget studio films to where I said, "I think I know what's going wrong with some of these films." And usually it comes down to story.

I don't want to speak to that too much, but story is still king in my mind. We work a lot on the script. We've stopped for an hour to just keep working on a scene to make sure we got it right, made sure it makes sense. So you can bust on through and make your day by getting stuff in the can, but it's basically worthless when you come to edit. We wanted to take the time to make sure we get stuff right. All these actors are great at that. Chris Hemsworth is especially very smart and very savvy when it comes to story. I think he's learned on a lot of films he's done, you have to discuss it. You've got to make sure you get it right the first time. So we spent a lot of time doing that.