With Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi brings ‘comedy of the mundane’ to Hollywood
Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins and Jeff Goldblum are among the stars in what critics are calling the most fun film to come out of the Marvel Universe
Known mostly for his inventive, low-budget comedies, Taika Waititi joked last year that his deeply affecting and funny adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople was “The Revenant, without any money.”
If that sounds like a stretch, it should be noted that Waititi’s fourth feature went on to become the highest-grossing locally-made release in New Zealand history, smashing his own record for 2010’s Boy.
A year on, New Zealand’s most talked about director since Peter Jackson is on the cusp of releasing his first Hollywood feature, having been trusted with the US$180 million third instalment in Marvel’s Thor trilogy.
“What goes through your head is, ‘OK, well Marvel’s lost their mind and they’re just asking anyone to do movies now’,” says the 42-year-old, recalling the moment the Disney-owned studio came calling.
Early reviews for Thor: Ragnarok have been glowing, with Waititi widely praised for turning what many believe to be Marvel’s dullest Avenger into the wisecracking Cary Grant of the comic book genre.
The script leans much more heavily on Chris Hemsworth’s comic chops, inexplicably overlooked in the previous instalments, particularly in Alan Taylor’s lumbering sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013).
“We knew it was there when we watched Ghostbusters and he had a couple of lines in the other Marvel films,” says Waititi.
“Just from knowing him, I thought, ‘I like you more than the version of Thor that I’ve seen in the other films – I’d much rather hang out with you’.”
Relatability has been the director’s stock-in-trade since he started out in feature films a decade ago, each new film populated with fantastical but disarmingly down-to-earth characters.
In What We Do in the Shadows (2014) murderous vampires divvy up household chores and werewolves worry about ruining a hemline, while in Ragnarok the God of Thunder and the Hulk bicker and make up like any married couple.
“We like to call it comedy of the mundane. It’s like, how do I get all of these actors and these characters who are unique, all very different, on the same level, and where the audience can really relate to them?,” says Waititi.
“And not relate to them like, ‘Oh, I had my heart broken,’ but relate to them like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do the dishes’ – really everyday stuff.”
Waititi, who is of Maori and Russian Jewish heritage, graduated from Victoria University in Wellington and went straight into the industry, winning acclaim and attention on the local awards circuit as an actor.
He eventually moved behind the camera but has appeared in all his films, saving many of the funniest moments in Ragnarok for himself as Korg, an effortlessly charismatic motion-capture alien with a stone-like hide.
On the globetrotting promotional tour, the all-star cast – which includes Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins and Jeff Goldblum – have gone out of their way to remark on the fun atmosphere Waititi encourages.
Blanchett, cast by Waititi as Marvel’s first lead female baddy, describes the 85-day shoot, mainly on Australia’s Gold Coast, as “probably the happiest film set I have ever been on.”
If Waititi’s new celebrity profile has changed him, then the transformation is only cosmetic, says Ragnarok star Rachel House, a fellow Kiwi who has appeared in three of Waititi’s New Zealand films.
“Usually we’re running around in the mud and the snow, and the rain. So it was wonderful to come in each day and see Taika in a suit, and Italian leather shoes,” she says.
Waititi says he has been able to keep his feet on the ground during filming by concentrating on his strengths – tone, character, relationships – and ignoring “the scale of this monster, this beast.”
“It’s a huge, huge film. And what can be distracting on set is if you look over your shoulder, and you see 300 people standing there,” Waititi says.
“I just had to keep reminding myself what’s more important is what’s inside the rectangle and, usually, it’s two or three people trying to remember their lines.”