Taika Waititi: ‘I don’t have to be a tortured artist to be interesting, I can just be a f**king weird New Zealander’

On Thor: Ragnarok and the art of preserving one’s voice while on the blockbuster playground

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 10 November 2017 18:02

*WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THOR: RAGNAROK*

Thor: Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi – New Zealander of the Year, blossoming fashion icon, and man of a thousand poses – is swift to launch into a description of Loki, the unbeloved son of Asgard, as, “someone who tries so hard to embody this idea of the tortured artist, this tortured, gothy orphan.”

He’s discussing the character’s emotional arc in the film, one that sees him put away his childish fixations and step up to save his city from obliteration; to put into perspective his petty family squabbles and realise a home is still a home, however you may feel about its inhabitants. Waititi’s Ragnarok may be childishly gleeful, but there’s still a hell of a lot of growing up to do.

The lesson to be learnt, Waititi explains, is simply that all this artifice requires too much effort. “It’s too tiring trying to be like that,” he says. “And, most humans, we get over ourselves, we get to that point where we’re like, ‘man, being a tortured artist is actually, like, a lot of work. Maybe I should just be real and present, and just be me, and I don’t have to be a tortured artist to be interesting, I can just be a f*cking weird New Zealander and that’s enough.’”

It feels like a telling moment. A small, unconscious giveaway that immediately captures him as an artist. Effortlessly, Waititi’s description has managed to slip from Loki to himself. For, even in the world of gods and superheroes, he still finds common ground: to empathise, to see himself reflected to some degree.

Humanity has always anchored his work, in the sense that people, no matter their circumstances, are still bound by the same fears and insecurities – whether foster child (2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople), vampire (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows), or mass of biceps (Thor, obviously). “My world is not spectacle and explosion,” he notes. “It’s two people talking.”

In real terms (and this is a little damning, depending on your attachment to those characters), “Thor and Loki are just two rich kids from outer space and we shouldn’t really give a sh*t about what their problems are.” But in Waititi’s hands: a little bit of a shift here, a little bit of a tease there, and new layers emerge.

Trailer: Thor Ragnarok

Ragnarok is a story, in a way, of letting go: Loki of his façade, Thor of his fixation on his own image as the impenetrable hero, and toward a real sense of leadership. Waititi adds, “You realise that there’s nothing more endearing than people who are desperately trying to be liked or trying to be the hero, you know? Who also probably just need a hug or want to impress their dad?”

The days are long gone, certainly, from when Marvel hired Kenneth Branagh to turn Thor into Shakespearean epic. But filmmaking, as much as life, is a journey. Evolve or die, in other words. While Star Wars is still in its first tender steps for Disney, Marvel’s maturity has seen the necessity to experiment to prevent itself from drying out. There’s a lot to be said for the fact the Han Solo film’s Phil Lord and Christopher Miller can be fired for leaning on improvisation, while Waititi can be hired for it.

“I just had to remind myself that they asked me to do this for a reason,” he muses. “Because of a certain sensibility that I have that they’re interested in. I just did my own thing, let them steer me in the Marvel direction as long as I could keep my Taika-kind-of-voice going through the whole thing. And they were very supportive of that.”

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The director, curiously, is not actually credited as a writer on the film, though he explains: “I was contracted to do a couple of passes on the script, for dialogue and stuff like that and, you know, I didn’t mind not being credited there. A lot of these things are determined almost before you start, because there were also two versions of the script before I turned up as a director.” Best put, Thor: Ragnarok is a Marvel movie recalled in a “Taika-kind-of-voice”.

An MCU base upon which Waititi’s usual trademark touches balance. For example, in the way he’ll undercut an emotional crescendo with a swift joke (take Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s funeral scene, ironically the funniest part of the film).

And so, one of the most essentially tragic moments of the entire franchise, the destruction of Asgard, the home to a whole people, destroyed in front of their eyes, occurs only for Korg (Waititi in a motion-capture suit), forever trying to be helpful, to chime in that “the damage is not too bad” since the foundations are strong enough to rebuild upon. That is, until the foundations blow up, too.

That “Taika-kind-of-voice” is evident also in Ragnarok’s visuals. Though Waititi initially cites a more traditional source, Thor’s original co-creator Jack Kirby, he names Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, too, namely The Holy Mountain and his aborted Dune adaptation, making use of Chris Foss’ concept art for the latter.

“Sometimes we didn’t capture it, but it was definitely on the moodboards a lot,” he notes. “Just that style. Just some of the sets and some of the colours.” Asgard and Hela took inspiration from Gustav Klimt, in all their sparkling elegance.

Subversion and re-examination is at the heart of so much of Waititi’s work, from the superficially comic – What We Do in the Shadows’ vampires in a flatshare – to the more layered, as in the constant questioning of masculine ideals at work within Boy (2010)’s central father/son relationship. With Ragnarok, there’s some subtle, quietly illuminating work at hand in its female characters.

Of course, much has been made of Cate Blanchett’s Hela marking the MCU’s first female (main) villain. However, what makes her work so well as a character isn’t just the fabulous, delicious badassery of a Blanchett unleashed, as promised in the film’s marketing material. As Thor’s sister, the exiled child of Odin, her wrath is, in fact, perfectly justified.

Among Ragnarok’s hijinks, Asgard’s troubled history is revealed, that Odin manipulated Hela’s bloodlust when it suited his conquering ambitions, and discarded her when he wanted to play benevolent ruler. “Where did you think all this gold came from?” Hela so tellingly questions.

As Waititi explains, “I loved the idea that Asgard was built on the spoils of all these wars, and they just sucked all the resources out of these worlds that they conquered and took them back to Asgard, which is very relevant right now. And we see it time and time again.” Indeed, why would Asgard, a kingdom with its monarch, somehow be magically absolved of the evils of imperialism?

“Also, the fact he was so proud of his daughter and gave her this hammer, which is so awesome for Thor to find out that it’s not even his hammer, the hammer’s a hand-me down,” Waititi continues. “It’s almost like a Lucifer complex. You know, just like Lucifer would say: ‘Why did you make me, then, if you knew this was what was going to become of me?’ I can totally empathise. Even though I know what she’s doing is wrong as a villain, I’m totally like, ‘Yeah, girl. You get it.’”

When it comes to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the Asgard warrior who exiled herself after defeat at the hands of Hela, the film jumps into archetype: the Han Solo, the hard drinker, the rogue. The thing is, it’s an archetype almost never applied to female characters. Her introduction sees her both singlehandedly take out an entire gang of scrappers and drunkenly topple off a gangplank.

It was enough of a change that Waititi admits he was nervous as to how she’d be received by audiences. “My fear sometimes is that people’s reactions are, ‘Oh god, a drunk woman? What’s wrong with her?’” he says. “But, if it was a guy, you know, everybody would be like, ‘Ah, awesome, what a cool dude! He loves day drinking!’ Which is so dumb.”

“At some point, I remember, we got one comment in one test screening that was, like, ‘Oh, she’s really violent. That was, like, really full on for her to murder those people.’ But, you know, Han Solo straight up murders a dude and everyone thinks he’s cool,” he adds. “So, I just really wanted that character to have the most layers and, in a way, she is one of the most interesting characters in the film.”

All of Ragnarok’s achievements, however, seem to come down to Waititi asking himself a few simple questions: “What’s the least expected direction we can go in? And most of the time we were shooting, that’s the one thing we kept reminding ourselves of. Do we feel like we’ve seen this before in another Marvel film? Or do we feel like we’ve done this before? If so, what’s the opposite direction we can run in, and instead of running, let’s sprint in that direction.”

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is in cinemas now