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The Superweirdo Behind ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

But in one very obvious way, Waititi doesn’t fit the mold. All those other directors are white; Waititi is Maori, from the Te Whanau-a-Apanui tribe, and so the bet Marvel was making by hiring Waititi was not only on an indie director but also on the first indigenous person ever to be handed the reins of a superhero megamovie. One reason they felt comfortable giving him those reins was that “Boy” and “Wilderpeople,” despite their minuscule American box office, were offbeat crowd-pleasers — indeed, in New Zealand they were blockbusters, the most popular Kiwi films ever made, in part because of the complex way Waititi treated his Maori heritage on-screen.

Marvel asked Waititi to meet in summer 2015. “I didn’t really think this was my cup of tea,” he said. “It’s always nice to be wanted, though.” Given the brief to pitch directing a “Thor” buddy comedy that he would help write, Waititi suggested “ ‘Withnail & I’ in space,” “just these two people who happen to be superheroes making their way across the universe.” (In this formula, the Hulk is the volatile Withnail figure, and Thor must “take care of this time bomb and keep him out of trouble” as they travel from planet to planet.) In their final meeting, Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, asked Waititi why he thought he could handle such a gargantuan project. “Because I’ve been doing it in my head my whole life,” Waititi replied. Feige loved that answer, because he feels that’s how he got his job, too.

Directing a movie like “Thor” requires a daunting set of skills, many of which have little to do with framing a shot: the temperament to manage a set with as many as 1,000 people on it rather than 100; the know-how to oversee complex effects; the canniness to please your bosses; the confidence not to be intimidated by the money, the stars, the vastness of the task. You’re more the captain of a complex, hierarchical aircraft carrier than the solo skipper of a dinghy. At one point, Waititi cheerfully calculated that he was spending the cumulative budget of his previous four films every few weeks on the set of “Thor.”

In the “Thor” universe, “Ragnarok” refers to the apocalyptic cycle of death and rebirth, freely adapted from Norse mythology, and Waititi cheekily nodded to the concept as he finished his coffee and prepared to head to set. “I can either play it safe and do the framing and everything like the way I feel these movies should be made,” he said. “Or — knowing that I can always go back to my small films that I do with my friends — I could approach this in this Ragnarok way, full out, heading for the fire, sprinting full speed toward Armageddon.”

That approach sounded a little scary. Waititi giggled. “It’s terrifying if, like, if you let them see the terror,” he said. “But I hide it really well.”

Waititi grew up splitting time between Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and the East Cape of the North Island, the setting of “Boy.” His father was a Maori painter, his mother a pakeha (white) schoolteacher. After an uninspired run at studying drama in college (one professor said that his only real memory of Waititi was that he didn’t expect him to succeed), he spent a decade performing sketch comedy, often with his Victoria University mates Clement and McKenzie.

In 2005, his short film “Two Cars, One Night” was nominated for an Academy Award. An 11-minute vignette about Maori kids stuck waiting for their parents in the parking lot outside an East Cape bar, the short is less antic than Waititi’s features would be but is a low-key prototype for the kinds of stories he wanted to tell, which he has described as “either comedies with depressing bits or dramas with funny bits.” At the Oscars, as Jeremy Irons introduced the nominees for best live-action short film, Waititi pretended to be asleep in his seat as the camera tracked to him. (He thought his fellow nominees had agreed to the gag, cooked up over drinks one night, but the rest weren’t serious.) “I had no intention of being a filmmaker,” Waititi said, but the short “got a lot of attention, and I didn’t have anything else on.”

He also had a national film commission that was eager to finance his directorial work. Waititi’s first feature, “Eagle vs. Shark,” was an aggressively quirky romance between two misfits, played by Clement and Loren Horsley. He followed it with an expansion of “Two Cars, One Night”: “Boy,” about a Michael Jackson-mad Maori kid called Boy growing up in the East Cape in the 1980s and his ne’er-do-well father, played by Waititi himself. With its wicked humor and unsentimental treatment of Maori life, it was an immediate sensation in New Zealand, becoming the highest-grossing locally produced film of all time. “Boy” featured Waititi-drawn animation and a “Thriller”-meets-Maori-war-dance number, but just as often, Waititi’s directorial flourishes served to deepen and sadden the film. One recurring flashback is a bloody tableau of Boy’s mother lying dead while his weeping aunties cradle his infant brother.

“Essentially it’s a comedy about child neglect,” Waititi said. “I wanted to do something that showed that even living in the poorest area of New Zealand is funny.” Waititi noted that pakehas were the ones most likely to complain about his depiction of Maori life. “They’re usually disappointed that there aren’t, like, more ghosts in the story.” He laughed. “ ‘Shouldn’t he be talking to his dead mother right now?’ No, because that never happens to anyone. Never happened to me. I’ve never been in contact with any of these ghosts or ridden any of these whales.”

After a mockumentary about vampire roommates, “What We Do in the Shadows” — directed with Clement — Waititi made “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” A spirited comedy about a foster kid lost in the bush with his grumpy guardian, “Wilderpeople” grapples with grief and puts its heroes in real emotional and physical danger, transforming into a classic family-adventure story that just happens to center on a juvenile delinquent who names his dog Tupac. As with “Boy,” audiences embraced a story with predominantly Maori characters as archetypically Kiwi. “He welcomed everyone into Maori culture,” says the Maori actor Rachel House, who played a maniacal child-protection officer in “Wilderpeople” and is also in “Ragnarok.” The film surpassed the domestic box-office record set by “Boy” in a month and a half.

In hiring Waititi for “Thor,” Marvel found a director with an anarchic visual aesthetic whose storytelling interests were nonetheless deeply, satisfyingly conventional. “In a lot of my films,” Waititi said, “the biggest theme is family, making families out of those around you.” That theme drives Marvel Studios’ “Guardians of the Galaxy” series, an unexpected hit whose energy the third “Thor” movie seems designed to replicate.


Waititi on the set of “Thor: Ragnarok” with Chris Hemsworth, left, and Tessa Thompson.

Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Thanks to Waititi’s dogged geniality, the 84 days of principal photography for “Thor: Ragnarok” were, according to basically everyone, pretty fun. He opened the shoot with a ceremony featuring ritual dances and greetings from the local Aboriginal tribe, the Bundjalung people, as well as a Maori celebrant. “A set should be like a family, except that you all actually like each other,” Waititi said. “We just play music all day, we dance, we talk.” At times it seemed Waititi — dancing, blasting disco — was putting on a one-man show with unflagging enthusiasm. Waititi’s favorite gag, according to his star, Chris Hemsworth, was to “forget” his set mike was on and then to perform complaints about his leading actor, midtake, for everyone to hear: “Ah, we should’ve got the other Chris. Chris Pine, Chris Pratt, anything but Hemsworth.” Then there’d be a muffled scrabbling, and Waititi would say, “Oh, crap — sorry, guys, sorry.”

Cornel Ozies, an Australian Aboriginal filmmaker who was one of eight native people Waititi invited to shadow him on the “Ragnarok” shoot, characterizes Waititi’s on-set style as specifically indigenous: “If you talk about his Maori heritage, it’s big families. When you have big families, you’re going to have a lot of clashes,” adding, “you pick up the skill set of being a mediator.” For Waititi, the choice to maintain this disposition, which he calls “Happy Taika,” underlies his entire directorial philosophy. “I’ve been on a lot of film sets,” he said, “and I’ve always promised myself I wouldn’t create a set where people dread coming to work.” He made a face like a kid tasting something sour. “Shooting a movie should be fun! It’s not a real job. It can be hard, but at the end of the day we’re dressing up and playing pretend.”

Waititi found that a production this size lessened the responsibility he had to take on, making the job of a director a simpler one. On his earlier films, Waititi often felt he had to do everything. “When it’s low-budget,” he said, “every job you take is one you don’t have to pay someone else to do.” Here there were hundreds of crew members around, which encouraged Waititi to delegate. On those other films too, he knew that any decision he made about lighting, sets, even performances was “basically baked in forever.” On “Thor,” where digital artists waited to paint over every frame, that pressure was lessened. “In some ways,” Waititi observed, “this makes you feel a little lazier. You’re like” — he waved his hand dismissively — “ ‘Ah, I’m sure it’ll be fine later.’ ”

On a set where every action shot was previsualized and every stunt was choreographed, it wasn’t always easy to direct instinctively, as Waititi was used to doing. “Sometimes,” he acknowledged, “it’s just too late to say, ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t it be cool if like a thousand robots came in and Thor fell off a cliff?’ ” But he still found ways to play. One day, while doing the motion-capture for Korg, Waititi rushed into a battle sequence wielding a big prop hammer, then flipped the hammer around and started pretending to shoot it like a gun. “O.K., CGI,” he declared, “I want you to turn that hammer into a gun hammer.” In the finished movie, that dumb idea is a delightful reality.

Pretending at this scale is a lot easier for an indie director, of course, when he’s working inside a system expressly designed to have megamovie training wheels. Waititi was surrounded, the Marvel executive producer Brad Winderbaum noted, with experienced, talented technicians. Once the shoot was over, he had a year of postproduction to hone the story and several weeks of scheduled reshoots to fix anything that went wrong the first time around. “He’s never going to feel out at sea, wondering how he’s going to achieve this,” Winderbaum said, and then with a shrug offered a fittingly superhuman claim of omnipotence: “We know how to achieve everything.”

If Waititi, with his sense of frenetic rhythm, were to depict the long process of navigating security on Disney’s Hollywood lot and finding him in the “Thor: Ragnarok” postproduction suite, it would all zip past in a four-second montage of opening doors. The broad stone gate on Alameda Avenue, mouse ears embedded at the top of its arch, as the barricade swings into the air. The gentle fwoomp of the entrance to the Frank G. Wells building releasing the building’s air-conditioned atmosphere. A publicist’s waving her key card at the security console at a glass door in Marvel Studios headquarters, surveilled by a life-size Iron Man. The laminated sign Scotch-taped to an otherwise-anonymous wooden door as it opens: CREATURE REPORT.

“That’s our code name,” Waititi said in his office with a happy grin. He’s tall and slim, his hair that December day buzzed and gray at the temples, piled pell-mell in a dark Lyle Lovett pouf at the top of his head. It was now 330 days until release. “Hopefully by June, July, the film will actually look somewhat like it should look,” Waititi said. “At the moment it’s basically a blue screen with people in front of it. Its just blue, blue, blue, blue everywhere.” He gestured at an editing bay in the corner, its monitor featuring Goldblum posing before a blue tarp.

“I’m not a massive fan of the postproduction phase,” he said. “I really like being on set and making stuff up.” Nevertheless, here he was, for almost a full year. “I used to really laugh at everyone who was stuck in traffic, driving to the studios in Burbank,” he said. “And now I’m one of those people.”


Waititi on Disney’s studio lot.

Emily Shur for The New York Times

Waititi walked across the hall into a dark, soundproof editing suite, where the editor Joel Negron, a veteran of Michael Bay blow-’em-ups, waited at the Avid terminal. Frozen on a wide-screen TV was the face of Hemsworth’s Thor, his once-flowing blond hair cut spikily short. “Is that a spoiler?” Waititi asked the publicist, pointing to the screen.

“Not by the time the story comes out,” she replied.

“Ah, you can write that down, then,” Waititi said cheerily. “We Ragnaroked Thor’s hair.”

The haircut is a potent symbol of the brand-new Thor that Hemsworth craved. Up to now, Thor has been the most boring of the Marvel movie superheroes. “I just ended up being the straight guy,” Hemsworth told me. “Sort of the guy from another world who the joke was on him half the time. I wanted a little more wit and charm.” In the first two films, Waititi said, Thor is “basically a rich kid from outer space who comes down to Earth and gets to kiss a cute girl.” He laughed. “This is the most human that Thor’s ever been. Luckily this film’s coming out on Earth, and the audience will be predominantly human, so I think they’ll relate to him much more than they have in previous films.”

Asked by the publicist to explain the context of the scene, Waititi thought for a moment. “Hulk has been Hulk since the end of ‘Avengers 2,’ ” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to see Bruce Banner” — his human counterpart, played by Mark Ruffalo — “in this movie.” The scene was loose and funny. “I was Hulk for two years?” Banner asked in dismay. The two heroes were inside a spaceship, an enormous set that was built for “The Avengers” and shipped to Australia at, presumably, astronomical cost. When the scene ended, Negron said, “Three minutes flat.”

“Cool,” Waititi said. “Cut it in half, then it’ll be amazing.” Over the next two hours, Waititi and Negron chipped away, deleting lines they didn’t find funny enough. They watched all 16 takes of Banner’s response, in which Ruffalo’s improvisations ranged from a deadpan “Oh, no” to screaming shock. Waititi by now was sunk deep into the couch. He came upon a tweet from Peyton Reed, director of “Ant-Man.” Looking at his picture, Waititi said, “All these Marvel directors look the same!” He laughed. “Scott Derrickson and James Gunn and Peyton all look like the same person.” He asked to watch the very beginning of the sequence again: “Do we have the other angle, from behind Banner?” Negron opened a folder full of neatly labeled shots, in each of which Ruffalo, enthusiastically pretending to transform from a monster into a human, fell out of frame. Waititi mentioned that he was hoping the camera might pan down with Banner as he shrank; he hadn’t shot it that way back in Australia, but in about two minutes Negron built a rough move inside the editing software, making it so.

“That’s fine for now,” Waititi said. “The VFX team will perfect it later.” One thing Waititi was delighted to discover while shooting a blockbuster is that it isn’t that hard to create a shot he didn’t actually get. “We scan every surface and every part of every set,” he explained, including the entire interior of the bespoke spaceship. “So this all exists inside the computer, and we can move the camera and create moves.”

Around the world, 18 effects houses had started creating the hundreds of shots that would fill in all those blue screens. “I don’t think there’ll be any bits of my particular style, which is, like, purposefully crap,” Waititi said. “I don’t think that’s what Marvel wants. They want purposefully amazing.” He stood and stretched, restless. “How long is it now?” he asked.

“About two,” Negron said.

“Pretty good, guys!” Waititi said. “Cut a minute out of the movie!”

“Couple more to go and we’re there,” Negron said.

Waititi opened the editing-room door with a satisfied flourish. “You’ve got to kill your babies, as they say.”

“Darlings?” Negron asked.

“I wouldn’t say I love them that much,” Waititi replied. “They’re just babies.”

In the summer — right before Waititi, dressed in a crisp pineapple-print shirt-and-shorts combo, delivered a bravura performance at San Diego Comic-Con — the directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go from the “Star Wars” Han Solo film. Sources told The Hollywood Reporter that the directors’ improvisational style didn’t play well with the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan or Lucasfilm executives, who in a news release cited “different creative visions” for the split. A fan suggested on Twitter that Waititi should direct a “Star Wars” movie. “Lolz, I like to complete my films,” Waititi replied. “I’d be fired within a week.”

“That particular franchise seems really hard,” he elaborated in September. “There’s not much room for someone like me.” Through its narrow canon, the tone of “Star Wars” has always been determinedly self-serious, whereas the Marvel movies, like the decades of comics they sprang from, veer wildly from high drama to low comedy. And improvisation has been a tool in every Marvel movie since Robert Downey Jr. riffed his way through “Iron Man.” “Taika’s a really funny actor,” says Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie in “Ragnarok.” “So we had a lot of guidance for the improv. It wasn’t a bunch of, like, ships without rudders slamming into each other.” Indeed, Waititi figures, if it wasn’t for his comedy chops, why would Marvel have hired him in the first place? “They want new voices and different ways of telling stories,” he says. “All the work to do with actors, all the rescripting stuff in the moment — that’s what I want to do, really. I’m always going to leave the CG stuff up to someone else.”

It was 50 days before release. Waititi, hair trimmed short and streaked with gray throughout, absolutely looked a year older. The movie would be delivered in its complete form around the beginning of October. “One day I’ll show up and my key card will stop working, I imagine,” he said wistfully. “That’s good. I’ve pretty much come very close to finishing what I can offer, you know?”

He admitted that the final product doesn’t betray much of his D.I.Y. aesthetic. But his stamp is on the film in other ways: in the way he has framed a superhero movie as a misfit family adventure with gun hammers. In the way he Ragnaroked Valkyrie — white and blond in the comics, but played here by Thompson, an actor of black and Latino descent. In the way the native filmmakers who shadowed Waititi learned that it’s possible for an indigenous artist to dance his way through a $180 million movie.

And in the way he ricocheted around the big Marvel ship, putting on a two-year show, using all the tools they bought for him to make something he likes — “a Taika version of one of these movies,” he said with satisfaction. It’s worth noting that Marvel’s next directors and superheroes also look less like Marvel directors, less like the stereotype of Marvel heroes: Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” arrives in February, and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the writer-director duo behind the 2006 Ryan-Gosling-on-cocaine drama “Half Nelson”) are in preproduction for a movie featuring the superheroine Captain Marvel for 2019. Waititi dressed up and played pretend, and with the help of Marvel’s omnipotence, he can now direct any movie he likes, big or small. As the Marvel ship plows on, churning up piles of money, its superheroes might soon come to resemble the predominantly human audience that watches them on Earth.

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