Taika Waititi Talks Thor Ragnarok

The director of Thor Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, was a guest on The Empire Film Podcast to talk about his journey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and his time making the third film in the Thor trilogy. Taika discussed; an early idea for the film to be set in Valhalla instead of Asgard; an early idea that it would be a Doctor Strange/Thor pairing instead of Hulk; scenes that were cut including a callback to the first Avengers; jokes and scenes he was surprised he could do and a whole bunch more.

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Ragnarok, Asgard and Valhalla
There was a little bit of talk in the beginning about is it too much to destroy Asgard. Is it too much to go the whole way. But no, it’s not too much obviously, the more spectacle the better. I think it’s what a lot of the fans wanted, they wanted to see the culmination of all that stuff with Surtur bursting through and fulfilling the mythological idea of the death of Asgard. (Were there moments where you had Thor saving the day?) A couple of moments. There were versions of the story in the very beginning were we weren’t even on Asgard, we would spend a lot of time in Valhalla. Actually went to Valahalla and had this big showdown there but that idea only lasted a couple of weeks. I wasn’t really that keen on what Asgard looks like. Seems like quite a privileged place to live. It’s completely made of gold, it’s just full of nerds and scholars. Doesn’t seem like a party town, doesn’t seem like my kind of party town. Seems like a lot of people wandering around in robes holding books and talking about lofty ideas. Which is fine, but I don’t want to live on an entire world like that. I’d like to at least think there’s some Asgardian nightclubs but I’ve never seen any in any of the movies. It’s too gilded, it’s too sparkly. I love the idea that this entire empire, this entire world was built on the spoils of other battles. From worlds that they’ve conquered and they’ve siphoned all of the resources up into Asgard and that’s what’s made Asgard great. It’s just like any empire on earth really. 

Doctor Strange
We always wanted to have Strange in there. Before I had even come in, they talked about whether or not it might be Thor and Strange on some kind of journey before they decided on Incredible Hulk. There were probably discussions as to how much he would be involved. I think it’s great as a little cameo, a one-off thing. There had to be a point to the scene, not just “here’s another Marvel character.” I like that he finds Odin for them but also I love just how fun the scene is. Especially with Thor calling the hammer and all the teleporting over the sanctum. Which is all on camera, classic old jump cuts. Hard cutting to Chris doing a little wobble as if he’s just arrived and a little bit of a sound effect. 

Cameos
You’ve got Sam Neill who is an up and coming New Zealand actor who I made famous in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Pretty much every day on set, I would keep asking him, “in the end of Event Horizon, what the fuck happens?” He’s like, “to be honest I don’t know.” Luke Hemsworth plays Thor in the play. We got him through some connections, not entirely sure who had his phone number. The third major one is Matt Damon playing Loki. That was a real last minute find, everybody is just friends of friends really, but that was through Chris. We had asked a couple of other people, but they couldn’t commit to playing Tom Hiddleston within a play within a movie. He didn’t take much convincing at all really. I’m assuming they all worked for not much money. 

A Callback To Avengers That Was Cut
On the bridge at the end, they all land on the bridge next to each other. And it was Thor, then Hulk in the middle and then Loki turns up and they’re all standing there for a second. And then Hulk just smashes Loki, punches him out of the frame, just like in Avengers when he did that at the train station to Thor. Which was a crowd favourite but there’s just so many little things we had to get rid of for time. We had to choose between that and Banner falling on the bridge for the big laugh, which one are we gonna do? Which is fine. 

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A scene similar to this from Avengers was cut from Ragnarok

The Character of Thor
With a character like Thor, he’s essentially a rich kid from outer space isn’t he. He’s had it all. So how do you get an audience to relate to someone like that? You’ve got to strip him down and you’ve gotta take everything away from him like the hammer and his world, eventually his family. I think it’s a really good hero’s journey to find out that everything he’s held dear to him has been a lie and he isn’t the first born and officially, technically, not the next in line for the thrown. Hela really is, technically. I loved that for Thor, thinking he was the favourite son or the favourite child all this time. I loved showing that Hela was the favourite, that Odin had such high hopes for Hela and possibly made that hammer for her and that was just a hand-me-down to Thor. There’s a great moment in the film where he realizes he’s worthy without the hammer and has power without that thing. It’s all in that line, “what are you, you’re not the god of Hammers”. And then there was one part where Odin talks about it, it’s not in the film, but he goes “you know we only gave you that hammer to help you control your powers because you were so useless you kept on blowing up the furniture and electrocuting the staff. You couldn’t control it so we had to give you something to focus it.” I love that image of this little kid, little Thor walking around the palace, like Elsa in Frozen. 

Joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe
I was lucky enough that they (Marvel Studios) didn’t force me to acknowledge things. There was always pressure coming into a film like this. For me, you think, wow 17 films, they’ve done pretty well. Am I the Jenga block? Am I pulling that one Jenga block out that’s going to topple the entire empire? I think early on I just decided, I don’t care. That’s not my problem, I just have to make the best movie possible and hopefully they’ll help me steer the ship. I’m captaining a ship and blindly just steering at whatever sparkly, cool thing I can, not realizing most of those things are icebergs. Marvel really are the ones who are standing behind me with their hands on the wheel going “we’ll just move you over this way, just in between those icebergs, how about that?”. It’s like being a kid when you get your parents to help you do things and you think you’re doing it yourself but really they’re helping you.

The Drastic Change In Direction From Thor 1 & 2
Here’s the thing about me guys, I did not really do my research. I read one issue of Thor as my research. Not even a graphic novel, one of the thin, thin ones. And by the end of it I was like, well we’re not doing that, let’s not really look at those anymore. Cool art, I love the art but I can’t stand the way everyone talks. But that’s to Marvel’s credit, they were very supportive in bringing me in and saying we can’t keep doing the same thing. Let’s go in a wildly new direction, let’s hire a New Zealander to do this for a start, I mean that’s film suicide. They were trying to Ragnarok the whole franchise really and they failed, because the films really popular now. 

The Humor
There are jokes in this movie that have no business being in cinema, let alone in a Thor film. I’m outstanded that they let me put them in. The biggest one for me is the end of the film, the destruction of Asgard; in any of these films it should be the most poignant, emotional and dramatic moment in the film. And my character (Korg), he comments, “The damage is not too bad. We can come back here if the foundations are strong and rebuild this place.” Boom, entire thing blows up. “Ah yeah, no, those foundations are gone, sorry.” The fact they let me put that in just to undercut and undermine the entire thing we built towards, is just an amazing testament to that studio. It feels like they (the jokes) happen hard and fast but at the right moment. (In this one you really seem to let Chris Hemsworth cut loose) I’d like to say there’s some crazy big secret, but all it was was just letting him be more like himself. Because he is that charming, very caring and magnetic person who you want to follow into battle. I was surprised that other filmmakers hadn’t really exploited that and used it because it’s such an asset to a film having his natural sense of humor and charm. He’s very smart as well, he’d come to set and have new ideas like the get help gag, that’s his idea. There’s a lot of things in the film which have come straight from his input. 

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Loki Turning Into a Snake
Basically we did about 6 different versions of that story. That was just us standing around while the cameras were rolling and I would just feed them lines and feed Chris ideas for stories. In this one say, “I was walking through a field and I saw a lovely Turkish rug in the middle of the grass and I love Turkish rugs and I went to stand on it and it was Loki and he turned back into Loki and it was a hole and I fell through the hole and I was impaled on a whole lot of spikes.” He did versions of that and the one with the snake turned out to be the one we used. 

The Hulk
This is the best version of Banner. I think every character in this film are the best versions of themselves we’ve seen. From Hopkins to Ruffalo to Chris. It’s just the most interesting and most well developed and most evolved versions of themselves. I always thought that Banner was super boring in the other movies, just a boring, whinging, nerd. In this one at least he had some dimensions. I just loved the way that we explored the duality of that character, the Incredible Hulk and Banner fighting for the same body and you really see it come to a head in this movie. He’s not completely smart Hulk, but he’s smarter Hulk. I love this version of Hulk. I’m not sure how I feel about Hulk having full sentences and having big long discourses on science. I love that he says things that Banner has said earlier and then Banner says things that Hulk has said in conversations and it really shows that they’re sharing parts of the same brain. And this version of Hulk is just like the most cool 4 year old. One of the best scenes for me, that I was most surprised could be in a Marvel film, is Thor and Hulk sitting on a bed after an argument talking about feelings. That was just an on the spot, spontaneous decision to shoot that part of the scene. When you look at comic book characters we don’t have anything in common with them, especially not with this rich kid space Viking or this bipolar, angry green beast. So you’ve got to bring them into situations that all of us have been in, we’ve all been annoyed about our behavior and felt guilt about that.

The Warriors Three & Rebooting Thor
Obliterated. Within seconds. I think poor Fandral doesn’t even get a line in this film. I can’t really talk about it other than we wanted to get rid of the old and usher in the new. This entire film is what it was. The destruction of Thor 1 and 2 and everything you really felt like you knew from those films and the recreation of this thing which I feel stands alone by itself even though watching the first 2 films gives you some cool little things to reference. But I do feel like, for me at least, it’s like a new Thor 1. It’s like a reboot but without having to recast anyone. A couple of times we were trying to figure out if we could get Lady Sif in there because she was established and everyone loves her and we just couldn’t make it work with Jamie’s TV show. 

Odin’s Death
What we wanted originally was for Thor and Loki to find Odin in New York. To find Odin living on the streets, kind of Fisher King style scenario. There was something really cool and interesting about that. But it was just something about having him there and then dying which definitely made audiences, test screenings, feel too sorry for him, it was such a bummer. Seeing the great King of Asgard stuck in New York and you feel sorry for him and then he dies, it was almost too much. It doesn’t feel really authentic to Odin, to who he was. We liked the idea of him being in this weird, mystical Norse environment overlooking the oceans. Originally the whole sister reveal was later on, and we thought we can’t ever compete with Luke and Darth, which is the greatest reveal, why bother. Let’s get it out of the way early because it’s actually not the most important thing, it’s not the biggest spoiler, it’s something that actually helps us if he (Thor) knows. It’s the first of the secret’s he’s going to encounter. What’s more important is that Asgard was built on lies and that Odin has not only hidden that Thor’s got a sister but he also hasn’t told Thor that he was one of the great brutal conquerors. There’s lots of changes that go on in the edit but I definitely feel like it makes for a better film. 

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