How Taika Waititi Made Thor: Ragnarok So Damn Funny

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Photo: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios

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It was surprising when Marvel announced that Taika Waititi — a filmmaker from New Zealand known for sweet, offbeat indie comedies — would be tasked with directing Thor: Ragnarok. Even more unusual is that Waititi was able to present the movie, and the very established character, according to his own unique vision. In a genre defined by hunk-gods competing to see who can throw the biggest, toughest punch, Waititi made one about a gentle outsider who was just trying to communicate his feelings. It’s an approach that worked both creatively — earning the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Marvel movie, and an “A” CinemaScore — and commercially, with the movie tallying more than $400 million worldwide at the box office in its first weekend.

A perfect example of how Waititi made Thor: Ragnarok so funny is this scene, which in the script consisted only of expository dialogue and a little lame joke.

Waititi came to the set with ideas divorced from whatever hero’s journey was supposed to be going on, opting to instead focus on silly characters and how they could create comedy. One day there were ridiculous-looking weapons on set that he wanted to make fun of, so that became the scene. He improvised.

This scene is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and those who tell them. In the conversation, Waititi (who also voices the character of Korg in the film) talks about how he deliberately deviated from the script, ignoring what it all meant for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and intentionally leaving in moments where Chris Hemsworth broke character. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the talk below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

[Spoiler Alert: There are a couple of light spoilers throughout.]

Considering how much improv there was, did you rehearse at all before production started?
Nope. Nope. All we did was talk about scenes. Then as the film was being written and rewritten by the writer, Eric Pearson, I was also planning other jokes. I had a list of things I thought might be good in the scene, but didn’t try to put it in the script because I knew it’d have to go through five different people to be approved. Often people don’t understand the humor, or how good a joke could be, until they see it. If you try to write some of that stuff, people are just like, “I don’t get it, why is he talking like that?” It’s better just to shoot it and show them.

For a scene such as when Korg and Thor are talking about weapons, what did you go to the set with?
This particular scene, there were no weapons. None of the hammer stuff. It was Korg leading Thor through this area and going off for processing, and then just saying, like, good luck.

That is different.
It was something pretty standard and boring. But I knew Chris had wanted to try this joke about riding the hammer, so we thought we might as well be having a conversation at the top of the scene. Then we got to set and saw all these ridiculous weapons that the art department had made — some of them were so stupid. There was like this corkscrew sword, which was absolutely pointless. So, I started making jokes about how long it would take to kill someone with a corkscrew sword — you’d have to get them to sit still while you wound it in, and then getting it out would be really hard as well. We just started improvising, ad-libbing, and making fun of all these weapons. There’s a really long version of that scene, which cuts backward and forward, where I’m suggesting stuff to him, and he’s suggesting stuff to me. There was one bit where he picks up a hammer from earth and he’s looking at it all sad. He tries to throw it and it never returns. We said, “We know we’re going to get to the point where he sees Valkyrie across the room, but up until then, why don’t we just milk this for everything it’s worth?”

One of the ways you do this is pacing. A lot of the comedy I associate with New Zealand allows more space between lines. American comedy can be people basically talking as soon as possible.
American comedy is often “lists of.” There’s a certain trend which is like, “I’m gonna ad-lib in the scene, but all I’m gonna do is just come up with ten different plays on this word, or ten different puns as quickly as possible.” And it just cuts [makes a sound of fast cuts], and I feel like sometimes it lacks an actual conversation. It’s two cool, really funny people just saying stuff to each other, and you’re like, “You’re really funny. I guess that’s funny what you’re saying, but I don’t know what you guys are talking about.”

Do you deliberately add space?
Yeah, I often will extend frames. That space is really good. I’m a firm believer in making the joke go on and on, until it’s almost not funny, and then pushing it a bit further as well.

Is it hard to have that sort of pace in what is famously a fast-paced genre, the big action movie?
I think it’s great. It’s amazing. Another example of stuff that shouldn’t be in one of those movies, but that successfully works here in this film, is when Thor and Hulk have a bit argument and then the next scene — this is typical of my movies — cuts to them sitting on a bed and talking about emotions, and having an apology like you’re chatting to a 4-year-old. In any other film that would have been completely cut and just gone to the next exciting moment where they fly in space ships.

These scenes get cut because they don’t contribute to the point of the movie, which in a lot of Marvel movies is this hero arc, and the fighting, and so on. The goal isn’t comedy. They essentially just put jokes at the ends of scenes, a little quip. But here, the point is specifically the opposite.
Yeah, this is the opposite. That really is in the approach to shooting the scene. A good example is how the weapon scene was written in the script: There was one joke at the end of the scene exactly how you’re describing. It was like, exposition, exposition, exposition, exposition, and then Thor goes off to do the fight, and Korg says, “Good luck. I know you can win. I’ve got a lot of faith in you,” or whatever, and then he turns to his mates and goes, “I don’t think he’s gonna win.”

That is typical of Hollywood comedies — well, these bigger studio movies in general — when they wanna put a joke in, but you can tell the joke was written a year ago in an office, when people didn’t even know who was cast or where it was gonna be shot. They hadn’t seen the props or the room that it was gonna be shot in, and it’s exactly this one quip that some smart-ass in a conference room came up with and everyone was like, “Aw, yeah, that’s gonna be great,” and then they just left it at that and never thought about it again, and never tried to think deeper about what might be funny. Our way of doing it is, we’ll have that as a suggestion, but we know we’re gonna find something that’s 50 times funnier on the day, so I tell people to come with ideas. Chris is funny, so the stuff with us messing with these weapons was funny. I wanna put the longer version of that scene out.

When I was watching it, I thought, Oh, they must have just went through every single weapon here and made fun of it
Yeah, I basically just went through each one, commenting in front of the art department on how shit the props were.

I was watching the scene, and there are parts where Chris smiles a little bit.
Oh, there are parts all through the movie where he cracks up for real. For real. I think an audience appreciates it. Obviously, you can’t do it in every movie. You can’t do it in 12 Years a Slave or anything, but in films designed to entertain people, where we want people smiling as they leave the cinema, I feel like seeing that the actors are actually enjoying themselves or knowing the filmmakers were enjoying making this thing makes a huge difference. I’m not saying you’ve got to show actors corpsing and breaking character. It doesn’t go that far. It has to be real enough in the moment. Often, they’re improvising, and they’re right there in the moment that you can get away with it. There’s a certain life and vitality to all these scenes because you can tell when the actors are really riffing and firing off each other. They don’t know what the other person is going to say, so you can tell they’re listening.

Rewatching Thor’s appearances, I was struck by how not funny he’s allowed to be. How do you then take a character that audiences know as one thing and shift it into someone so comedic?
We basically just destroyed everything that went before. It’s what Ragnarok is: the death of the world and its rebirth. This film is a rebirthing of all those characters. It’s like a reboot, but we didn’t have to recast. The play scene in the film [in which Thor returns to Asgard to see actors re-creating the scene in Thor: The Dark World when Loki supposedly dies] was meant to be our message to the audience, saying, “Whatever you’ve held on to, whatever you fell in love with in the last films, allow us to respectfully disrespect that stuff.” It was really like that was our good-bye to those films.

Did you have to tell the Russo Brothers, who will be inheriting your Thor?
Oh, I know. I’ve talked to them. We’d show them footage of him because they’d heard we’ve got a really different Thor. I love those guys, but I’m not gonna stress myself out trying to save Thor for the Avengers movies. My plan was just to strip him down and mess him up as much as possible, and then just sort of deliver him to their doorstep: “Here’s this messy version of the character that you thought you were gonna have.”

I was watching the TED Talk you did a few years back, and you said you make movies about outsiders, but other than the fact that Thor’s on a planet that he’s not from, in what way did you feel like you could make Thor an outsider?
To be perfectly honest, he’s a rich kid who lives in a castle in outer space. I don’t know any of those people, but I do know people who come from dysfunctional families. He barely talks to his parents — well, his mom’s dead now — his brother is trying to kill him his entire life, and he’s supposed to be king, and he doesn’t want to be a king. A lot of it is also this father-son relationship stuff of him trying to prove himself, or trying to find his own identity, and I really relate to that. My dad was a very big personality in New Zealand and in our area, and I’ve always been trying to do my own thing to separate from him, while at the same time trying to impress him. Which is the story of pretty much all guys, and probably most girls, who are choosing a parent to impress. That was my way in with him.

In terms of him being an outsider then, I felt like he’s the Benjamin Braddock of this franchise. If you look at The Graduate, you shouldn’t really care about this rich kid, but throughout the film he is an outsider. He’s an outsider in his household because he thinks differently to everyone else. He’s an outsider in society, like that classic scene where all the hippies are dancing and singing and he’s just talking to Elaine in the car. Looking at films like that, that have gone before, where I feel like, yeah, he is marginalized, he is one of the outsiders.

In the scene, there’s the joke at the end about how losing his hammer is comparable to losing a loved one, and you realize, Oh, his dad just died and it’s not processed at all. I was thinking about that in the context of the rest of your work, and there are often these people who are trying to be tough, and as a result, cannot communicate their feelings. 
Mmm. Yeah.

What does it mean to bring that to superheroes, which are created to be these sort of bastions of masculinity?
I really don’t like macho things. There’s something kind of gross about that. Even though I think I’m a pretty good example of a real man — I’m strong and tough, and I can fight and drink — but I’m also very sensitive, like a daffodil. So, I like looking at the feminine side of men, and how it’s not the weak side. That’s a stupid way of thinking about it. It’s the side that’s the more caring side. So, I love seeing this version of Thor who cares about everybody and wants to help everyone, and he acts cool all the time, but beneath it all he’s deeply insecure, because that’s most men that I know. That’s the way that we make this film interesting: What is the weirdest version of this tough space Viking that we can make?

We’re talking a lot about this tone and the comedy, how does it then reconnect to what the plot of the movie is about?
I have no idea. Honestly, I gave it a little bit of thought, but sometimes, often I was like, You know what? I’m gonna let Marvel deal with that. That’s their department. I know how to tell a story, but I’m having so much fun subverting all of this, and like telling weird jokes and making this the weirdest Marvel movie ever. If you’ve seen my movies, you don’t hire me for any reason other than what I’ve done.

So Marvel’s job really is to look after their characters, look after their source material, and make sure I don’t completely break it, or it doesn’t negatively affect the rest of the movies or how they all interweave. I don’t understand that, and I’ve never watched all those movies with the eye of like, Oh, how does this link up? Oh, what year was this when, like, Fury encountered this thing? That’s why it was a good partnership. If I’d written it and been really hung up on my words and the intricacies of the story and the Marvel lore, I probably would have had a worse time and probably would have been controlled a lot more. But as it stood, I focused on things that I think I’m good at, and Marvel gave me so much freedom to run with that and play in that sandbox, knowing that they could just keep me in my lane. The notes that we would get on set would be like, “Kevin doesn’t like that table.”

Why Thor: Ragnarok Is So Damn Funny