RAGNAROK 'n' Roll
RAGNAROK, IN CASE you don’t know your Norse coda, means The End Of All Things. And Things certainly don’t appear to be going well for Thor Odinson right now. When Empire arrives on the set of Thor: Ragnarok at Village Roadshow Studios in Oxenford, Australia, on 20 August 2016, we find the thunder-bending Avenger doing battle with his latest, deadliest foe: Hela, Goddess Of Death. It is fair to say he’s getting his Asgardian arse kicked.
They are fighting, it turns out, amid the swirling, interdimensional turmoil of the Bifrost — that handy, hyper-spacey bridge between worlds. Which is why actors Chris Hemsworth (in leather battle armour, his mighty hammer Mjolnir noticeably missing) and Cate Blanchett (in fractal-decorated mo-cap gear, which allows for an all-cgi Hela outfit that’ll twist, morph and weaponise itself on screen) are both suspended 14 metres above the crash-mat-covered soundstage floor. Each is strapped into a state-of-the-art ‘tuning fork’ rig that enables them to twist in the air like gravity-defying Cirque du Soleil acrobats. A quartet of vertically strobing lighting-rig towers hits them with a storm of flashes, while a wind machine sends Hemsworth’s blond mane whipping wildly out behind his head.
Hemsworth swings at Blanchett but she bats his arm away, rakes furiously at his face and closes a black-fingernailed hand around his throat. Suddenly a voice rings out over the epic fray, its clipped, amiable Kiwi tones amplified by the studio’s god-mic. “Ah, Cate? You’re gonna have to really strangle him, mate,” it says.
“Really?” Blanchett calls back.
“You’re barely touching his neck, m’dear.”
“He keeps moving away,” she mock-complains, but her director is politely insistent:
“I wanna feel scared for Chris.”
It’s not easy to imagine the director of the third stand-alone Thor adventure being scared — or even mildly bothered — by much. A short distance from the furious, fantastical action,
Taika Waititi resides in the Taika Waititi equivalent of a video village. There’s no mere director’s chair perched behind his monitors. Instead, the creator of last year’s joyous indie crowd-pleaser Hunt For The Wilderpeople reclines serenely on a red-and-gold divan, surrounded by colourfully embroidered cushions and beanbags. This is less a monitoring station than a chill-out zone; a cosy oasis plonked right in the middle of the Hollywood blockbuster factory floor. “You gotta make it comfortable,” Waititi says matter-of-factly. “’Cause otherwise you’re just looking at scaffolding and blue-screen all day long.”
Between set-ups, he plays music over the god-mic. This morning, he’s selected The Beatles’ Let It Be and, with uncanny appropriateness, Across
The Universe cues up. As Lennon sings, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” production designer Dan Hennah (veteran of all six Peter Jackson Middleearth movies) chuckles. “It’s refreshing to see this
huge machine isn’t changing his world,” he says, nodding towards Waititi.
The same can hardly be said for Waititi’s lead character. Or for the series which bears his name. For Thor, Ragnarok is all about change. Why else would Marvel Studios hire someone like Waititi?
WHEN EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Brad Winderbaum was considering who he’d most like to see directing the new Thor, he listed the movies he’d enjoyed most during the previous year. At the top was a little mock-doc vampire movie set in Wellington, New Zealand, titled
What We Do In The Shadows. Co-directed by
Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi (who also stars as prissy, lovelorn bloodsucker Viago), it’s a deft, improvisation-driven horror comedy with a sweet centre. Just to be sure, the producer checked out Waititi’s previous movie, a father-son heartwarmer named Boy which features Michael Jackson tributes and — hello — a reference to the Incredible Hulk. That’s when he decided to bring him in.
“We needed a really cool filmmaker to take the franchise in a bold new direction,” says Winderbaum. “When he met with me and Kevin
[Feige, the Marvel Studios boss] it was clear in that room he was our guy.” You could be forgiven for wondering why Waititi would choose to leave his low-budget, New Zealand-rooted comfort zone for high-pressure studio work. Not least to step onto a franchise whose last director found the contents of this particular Marvel chalice rather less than nutritious (Alan Taylor described Thor: The Dark
World as an experience “I hope never to repeat and don’t wish upon anybody else”).
“It’s never been my plan to come and make big studio films,” Waititi admits, pouring Empire a cuppa from a teapot swathed in a lairy woollen cosy. “I was very happy just making my kind of films, ’cause they’re a lot easier and shorter. So this came as a surprise, and I was definitely unsure because I’d watched a lot of these films and enjoyed them, but really had no idea how they were made. On reflection, I realised what fun I could have with the tools and the toys and the cast they were suggesting. I think you can still make art within the studio system. You just have to kind of dress it up in a certain way. And sort of subvert it.”
With the last Thor movie having been less critically well-received than the first, there is a strong sense of a need to change tack and do something that didn’t ping-pong between Earth and Asgard. “Ultimately we’re really happy with The
Dark World,” Winderbaum insists. “But it was exciting for us to try something new and just put Thor off in space in a very linear plot.”
So here we join a Thor who, in the two Earth-years since Age Of Ultron, has been wandering the universe looking for clues about the Infinity Stones, unaware that his crafty, supposedly dead brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has usurped the throne of Asgard. Until, that is, he bounds
back home and falls afoul of an ancient, all-powerful Asgardian who’s taken advantage of Odin’s exile to get back in the Nine Realmsdominating game. Namely, Hela.
“Taika’s really interested in the anarchy to her,” Blanchett tells us at the end of her Hemsworth-throttling day. “I thought a lot about the birth of punk. There’s a bit of that spirit in Hela.” For research, she watched punk documentaries such as Julien Temple’s The
Filth And The Fury. “So many girls were given a voice in that punk universe,” she says, “like Siouxsie Sioux, who came out and had all that energy.” There is certainly a Siouxsie-ness, you’ll notice, to Hela’s heavy eye shadow and south-east London twang.
After losing the aforementioned Bifrost battle, Thor — along with the deposed Loki — is dumped on the psychedelic, wormhole-surrounded planet Sakaar, lorded over by a blingy despot named The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) who promptly enslaves him as a gladiator. “It’s kind of a prison-break, kind of a castaway movie where Thor finds himself trapped on an alien world while Asgard is in turmoil,” Winderbaum explains. With Mjolnir destroyed by Hela and a de-powering “obedience disc” attached, “He’s gotta use his smarts and his charisma and his savvy to navigate his way off this world.”
Hemsworth is relishing the opportunity to freshen up the Thor formula. “It’s nice for the story and the character to be in a different space,” he says. “We get to see a whole different range of colours here.” He’s pleased to be working with Blanchett (“If anyone’s gonna kick your ass…”) and has enjoyed squaring up against
Creed’s Tessa Thompson as warrior goddess Valkyrie (“She’s a badass, tough character who could probably beat the shit out of Thor if she wanted to”). But most of all, he appreciates the chance to do something new with a character he’s already played four times.
Waititi’s first priority was to make-over the “weird Norse rock alien” as he affectionately calls him — and we’re not just talking about that Maximus-esque haircut. “He’s definitely a new man now,” the director says. “He’s got more personality, more depth. Thor’s been on Earth a long time, hanging out with Tony Stark, and he’s picked up the vernacular.”
Hemsworth describes this new Thor as
“not feeling so otherworldly, with more of a contemporary personality and sense of humour. Anything that felt Shakespearean,
Taika just said, ‘Come on, we’ve done that. He doesn’t talk like that anymore.’ There’s a lot of ad lib in this, which there was never really room for before. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on a Marvel film.”
His fellow cast members are similarly impressed. “Taika’s been so respectful to the mythology,” says Tom Hiddleston, back in Loki green-and-gold. “But he’s injected so much humour into it. He’s given every character truly laugh-outloud moments without betraying their integrity.” Jeff Goldblum doesn’t hold back. “I fell in love with him immediately. He’s a loosey-goosey improvisational grandmaster himself, so we hit it
off. He’s a wonderful and stylish and deeply handsome director. I think he’s going to do something special with this.”
NOT THAT WAITITI’S neglecting all the high-stakes spectacle we’ve come to expect of these Marvel movies. Far from it. Hemsworth promises “some of the most visually stunning action and stunt sequences in any of the films”, from a production that’s occupied all nine stages of Village Roadshow Studios — and all of its sprawling backlot, too.
Ragnarok will see Thor battling the demonic Surtur (“a Mafia kingpin-type old-school guy from the age of Odin” says Winderbaum) in the fiery realm of Muspelheim; there will be a sojourn on Earth where, as we saw in a Doctor
Strange post-credits scene, Thor and Loki will enlist the Sorcerer Supreme to help track down the missing All-father. And, of course, we’ll be seeing more of the thunder god’s glistering home.
As Dan Hennah gives Empire a tour around a vast, circular Asgardian plaza constructed on the backlot, he describes the production as “on the scale of one of the Lord Of The Rings films”. Then, just as we’re feeling like we’re on familiar fantasy territory amid this Nordic-style, dragon-decorated architecture, Hennah takes us around a corner and into a different world entirely.
“This is Sakaar,” he says proudly of the neighbouring set-build. We stroll in the shadow of weird structures that appear to have been randomly glommed together with geometrically diverse pressed-metal panels, all in a variety of bright, garish colours that exude a pulp, ’60s sci-fi feel: mustard, aqua, orange, green. Waititi and Hennah were inspired above all by the vivid, unearthly creations of Marvel’s star Silver Age artist Jack Kirby. “It’s fun, it’s colourful, it’s crazy and it’s seriously retro,” says Hennah. “Everything on this planet has fallen out of a wormhole, so it’s made out of debris. It’s a bit like a Brazilian shanty town.”
It’s on Sakaar we’re introduced to Thompson’s Valkyrie, and where she’s spent most of her time during the shoot. “It’s just avant-garde and weird and beautiful,” she says. “All the extras are decked out in a way that makes you feel like you’re in a Björk music video.”
For Waititi, making this movie was essentially a question of: why hold back? “If you’ve got a name like Ragnarok, you’ve got to live up to it,” he reasons. “I was a huge fan of Flash Gordon and this is as close to that as you can get. I’ve been able to put everything, including the kitchen sink, into this film. It’s so eclectic, it’s so weird, and so all over the place. You’ve got creatures made of stone, you’ve got insect aliens, you’ve got gladiators, you’ve got Jeff Goldblum…”
And there’s one other thing he mentions, too. A very big thing. To paraphrase Tony Stark in
2012, he has a Hulk. “That really sealed the deal for me,” says Waititi. “The idea of Thor and Hulk on an alien planet.”
TO CHRIS HEMSWORTH, they’re
Butch and Sundance. To Mark Ruffalo, they’re De Niro and Grodin in Midnight Run. But for
Taika Waititi, the pairing of Hulk and Thor in
Ragnarok is mostly reminiscent of Withnail
And I. Wait, what?
“Hulk is like this strapless horse, and self-destructive as well,” explains Waititi.
“He’s internally very conflicted, an imbalanced character who can flip out at any moment, and the idea of Thor having to be with him reminded me of I trying to deal with Withnail.”
Ruffalo cracks up when Empire mentions this. “Totally! I like that. That’s even better than Midnight Run...” According to the fourthtime-out Bruce Banner, the idea of pairing Thor and his raging, green smashing machine was born while shooting Age Of Ultron, during which he and Hemsworth became the best of bros. “We had a great time. I love the guy so much. Chris was like, ‘Let’s find a movie to do together! We should do a buddy-cop movie or something!’” Later, when paired for interviews during that movie’s publicity tour, they jointly fantasised about a film that would make an odd couple out of Banner and Odinson. “So when they decided to do Thor 3
Chris was like, ‘It should be me and Ruffalo.’
That’s kinda how it happened.”
Ruffalo himself had previously told Kevin Feige that if Marvel Studios ever did another stand-alone Hulk, it should be based on the
2006 Planet Hulk storyline, in which Banner is banished from Earth and winds up as a gladiator on the planet Sakaar. But with Universal still owning the rights to the Hulk movie franchise, that story was instead folded into Ragnarok.
“When we find him, he’s been Hulk for two years,” explains Ruffalo. “And now he’s the gladiator champion of Sakaar, so he’s enjoying quite a bit of fame and adulation. He’s also aware of being hated on Earth and feared by the Avengers, so he has no interest in going back. He’s enjoying himself!” However, Hulk i s the key to Thor’s escape from the Grandmaster’s domain, so he somehow has to tease the longabsent Dr Banner out from beneath all those layers of dominant id.
“Thor needs to achieve his goals, but he’s also dealing with this character who’s very volatile,” says Waititi. “And that to me is what makes this story really interesting. How do you deal with a character who’s complicating things and trying to make your mission harder?” Ruffalo compares Hulk to “a three-year-old child”. But, as we’ve seen in the latest trailer, Hulk doesn’t merely smash in this movie. Hulk talk. “Yeah, he speaks now. Even though it’s somewhat rudimentary. And he can also exist without always being angry. He’s reborn.
And he likes it.”
Despite all the visual effects and performance capture required to transform Ruffalo into the
eight-foot-six Hulk, Waititi encouraged as much improvisation between him and Hemsworth as he did any other actor. “We’ve had such a fun connection,” Hemsworth says. “We bring out something different in each other.” For Ruffalo, the process threw out some “weird, exciting things. There was a lot of experimenting.”
Not that VFX supervisor Jake Morrison minded. “It’s really fun to be able to play with a Hulk that’s not all ‘Hulk smash’,” he insists.
“We have a Hulk that’s a lot more complex, a lot more nuanced. You get to have moments of reflection. It’s a much more studied Hulk.”
And, if the buzz among the two actors’ on-set colleagues is to be believed, the chemistry between them is intoxicating. “Sometimes when we’re watching them, I swear it’s like watching Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon,” Winderbaum says. “It’s like they were born to share the screen. It’s wild. I think you could easily base another movie on the partnership between these two maniacs.”
IT’S MID-JULY 2017, nine months since Ragnarok wrapped and, under normal circumstances, Waititi could very well have made another movie by now. But when Empire catches up with him, he’s still shooting the third Thor. “I’m in Atlanta. We’re doing reshoots,” he says chirpily down the phone. “In New Zealand we call them pick-ups but I’m trying to use the local lingo.
It’s going well.”
Surprisingly, for a filmmaker who’s used to working briskly and on a modest scale, he sounds neither exhausted nor exasperated by the fact he’s back on a cavernous soundstage. He admits shooting certain big stunt sequences proved “laborious” and he doesn’t deny he’s had doubts; “I’ve got a big imagination. I could imagine things. Like having the film taken away and being fired. And then cast out of film society. That’s how big my imagination could get.” But he and Marvel are getting along like a realm on fire, it appears. “I feel really good about the film. Yeah. I think it’s really good. It’s fun and it’s big. It’s everything I was attracted to when they approached me to do it.”
Waititi’s producer is happy, too. Winderbaum feels he’s getting exactly what he wanted from the director of Boy and What We Do In The Shadows.
“This is definitely a Taika movie. If you look at his canon so far, this feels like it would fit right in with the rest of them.” Ruffalo agrees, joyfully describing Planet Waititi as “a very light and bright and airy, quirky world” — not at all a Dark one.
The spirit of Taika’s Thor, he says, “is breaking down barriers and blowing expectations of these characters.” He laughs. “People are either gonna kill us or fête us!”
Ragnarok may mean The End Of All Things. But with Taika Waititi at the helm, it feels much more like a whole new beginning.
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Karl Urban joins the cast as the villainous Skurge.