When Marvel launched its Thor film franchise in 2011, the studio turned to Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker who could bring the gravitas of Shakespearean drama to the Norse mythology of a comic-book movie. But after two films, it was time to lighten the mood. So who better to draft for “Thor: Ragnarok” than a director of quirky indie comedies who doesn’t even take his own career overly seriously.
“I didn’t want to do any of this,” said Taika Waititi, 42. While growing up in eastern New Zealand, “I was doing acting and art, but it was never my dream as a kid. I’m not one of these people who played around with a camera as a kid.
“I fell into this sort of thing,” continued Waititi, who calls his career “a mistake.”
Just the sort of professional mistake that allows him to proceed with a sense of Zen freedom, he said, because none of this is supposed to be happening.
“Eventually, I made short films that did really well and I was forced to become a filmmaker,” said Waititi, whose 2004 live-action short “Two Cars, One Night” garnered a raft of honors, including an Oscar nomination. “I forced myself to fall in love with it — it was an arranged marriage.”
Waititi delivers those words so evenly that his serious sentiments began to creep toward the deadpan tone that marked his 2014 vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows.” Waititi followed up that film with last year’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” an adventure comedy starring Sam Neill (who has a “Ragnarok” cameo) that won a wave of festival awards.
Now, he pivots from films that gross less than $7 million to a franchise blockbuster that made that much in just its opening hours.
Waititi said that the size of the project doesn’t influence his approach. The trick to gaining creative latitude from “the suits,” he joked, is that “you make the film in Australia, which is just so far away that they don’t even come down.” He said Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told him: “Do whatever you want — we know we can fix it.”
“They gave me a lot of freedom on set to do stuff,” he said. “They got it — where I was coming from. We were very lucky.”
He balanced the superhero action with generous helpings of humor. Having flashed his comic timing on “Saturday Night Live” and in last year’s “Ghostbusters,” star Chris Hemsworth was free to banter for laughs, especially with the “friend from work” Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the villainous Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
“Chris is a really funny guy,” Waititi said, “and he’s really taken ownership of the character.”
In getting the screen punch lines to land, “My trick, really, is just to hold on to the joke as long as possible until we get on set, and then give it a go,” Waititi said.
“I don’t necessarily [think] about making the stuff funny in the script. When things are written in the script six months before we shoot, that’s when things get deleted and they kind of get rejected because people don’t know how to be funny, or why it would be funny.
“It’s easier to say, ‘This is what I meant’ after you’ve shot something rather than try to explain the joke nine months before.”
Waititi also delivers some of those laugh lines, voicing Korg, a CGI mass of fighting rock and stone. The motion-capture performance, he said, “gave me freedom to do my thing and make [the project] mine. It also gave me a bit of a break from directing.”
A break that Waititi likens to a type of creative meditation. It’s another way to keep the project playful, especially as he maintains joy in the career he’s not even supposed to have.