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How an obscure New Zealand comedy director transformed the 'Thor' franchise

Taika Waititi directs Chris Hemsworth in "Thor: Ragnarok."

DISNEY-MARVEL STUDIOS

By MICHAEL CAVNA | The Washington Post | Published: November 3, 2017

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" (opening Friday) 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," says 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," continues 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 says, 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," says 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," co-starring and co-created by friend Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords," "Moana"), one of his comedy-troupe partners dating back two decades to their days at Victoria University of Wellington.

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 overseas in just its opening hours. ("Ragnarok" has already grossed more than $109 million in foreign markets, where it opened early.)

Yet Waititi says he puts a similar trust in his sense of storytelling, even as such executives as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige oversee the latest step in the decade-long unfolding of this cinematic universe.

The trick to gaining creative latitudefrom the suits, Waititi jokes, is that "you make the film in Australia, which is just so far away that they don’t even come down." He says Team Feige also told him: "Look, do whatever you want -- we know we can fix it."

"They gave me a lot of freedom on set to do stuff," he says. "They got it -- where I was coming from. We were very lucky."

His background helped him use humor to balance against the superhero action with generous helpings of humor. Having flashed his comic timing on "Saturday Night Live" and in last year’s "Ghostbusters," Chris Hemsworth takes up the hammer yet again for "Ragnarok," but he’s now 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 says, "and he’s really taken ownership of the character."

The result with "Ragnarok," following the summer success of Marvel’s humor-heavy "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," is a comedy that is the MCU’s best-reviewed movie yet.

So how did he do it? Well, in getting the screen punch lines to land, Waititi shares another technique: "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" - leaving a line here and there out of the script.

"I don’t necessarily (think) about making the stuff funny in the script," Waititi says. "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."

As an accomplished comic actor, Waititi also gets to deliver some of those crack laugh lines, voicing Korg, a CGI mass of fighting rock and stone.

The motion-capture performance, he says, "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.

It’s the happiest of "mistakes."

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