NFTS students are regularly treated to incredible and highly entertaining masterclasses from top filmmakers but rarely are they in fits of laughter from start to finish. Oscar nominee, actor, director and writer, Taika Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) had the students in stitches throughout a special preview of his new film, Thor: Ragnarok and for the full duration of his brilliant masterclass where he discussed improvisation and the importance of developing and believing in your unique voice as a director.
Thor: Ragnarok has received rave reviews with Nicholas Barber describing it on BBC.com as ‘Marvel’s best yet’ and Thor’s ‘most enjoyable outing so far’ and Little White Lies declaring it as potentially ‘the greatest Marvel movie.’
The session was hosted by NFTS Director, Jon Wardle, who opened by asking Taika about doing the motion capture and the voiceover for one of the characters in the movie, the very funny, giant rock monster, Korg. Taika based Korg on Polynesian bouncers who he describes as “softly spoken, gentle giants.” He continued: “It’s a good reprieve for the audience to have someone gentle like an auntie in an action movie.”
On how an indie filmmaker from New Zealand was chosen to direct a blockbuster Marvel movie, Taika said: “I was editing Hunt for the Wilderpeople in Hawaii, just hanging out there, and Marvel approached me. My first thought was, ‘Marvel’s given up!’”
And on his approach to directing the movie: “My strength isn’t superhero movies. Marvel knows what it’s doing in the superhero department. If you try and reinvent the wheel, that’s when you run into problems. My strengths are people talking about their feelings, tone, character, jokes, dialogue, so I focussed on that and making a good film. It was a risky move to do a Thor movie as an indie director. I didn’t want to be the one to pull a Jenga piece out and collapse the Marvel tower! I felt very confident in my voice after making three films and that gave me the confidence to do a Marvel movie that would be unique. That’s what’s so great about Marvel; they don’t go for the obvious choice.”
Much of Thor: Ragnarok is improvised and Taika likes to foster a celebratory feel on set and enable “a good, creative, open space to adlib.” Improvisation and adlibbing can make things challenging for the crew including the VFX team. Taika said: “I would ask VFX Producer, Jake Morrison, ‘can I put something in the movie’ and he puts a dot somewhere and you have to trust it will look good afterwards. I have huge respect for VFX; you can have anything you want if the lighting is right. The amount done in post-production is mindboggling!”
Taika’s love of improvisation often leads to longer shoots which can make editing a challenge. “No editor likes my editing system! I say to my first editor, I’m going to fire you after four months. Then I hire another and fire them. Then I do some editing myself and then bring back the original editor who finishes it! You get fresh eyes this way and I hate being in a dark room with one person for six months, you go stir crazy.”
The adlibbing meant that the jokes and comedy were done in a different way to Marvel’s standard process. Taika explained: “The usual structure is to write jokes six months before the shoot, whereas I go to set with the script, which I see as a suggestion of a scene and ask ‘how can we make it better? Marvel was very supportive and gave me lots of freedom and the result is that it feels very alive and in the moment.”
On the challenge of working with established characters, Taika said: “We were able to reboot the series and give it a rebirth without having to recast the characters. Chris Hemsworth has great comedic timing but this hadn’t been exploited so far. Marvel asked me to ‘Ragnarok this franchise!’ I put the play featuring Thor, Loki and Odin in the movie as a way of saying everything you remember about the Thor franchise stops here.”
On what’s next, Taika revealed that he was directing a stop motion animation film about the life and times of Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee, Bubbles, but was undecided about whether to do a live action version of anime artist Katsuhiro Otomo’s 6-volume graphic novel, Akira: “I’m not sure about doing Akira, it’s a very hard project to do.”
Before taking the time to pose for several photos with the students, Taika gave the following advice: “Don’t let anyone tell you that something isn’t possible even if they are older. Don’t be arrogant about it, you need to be receptive. Look for collaborators who are fun and who listen.”
Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas now and credits the following NFTS graduates: Environment Technical Director, Zach du Toit; Digital Compositors, Luke Hardisty & Felipe Olid Guerrero; Production Assistant, Suzanne Mayger.