By now, the saga of “Thor: Ragnarok” has been widely recounted, with co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth singling out Waitit’s warm, communal set as career highlights and many singing the praises of the director’s ability to bring a Maori presence. To hear Waititi tell it, his experience was more schizophrenic: a flashy CGI Marvel spectacle like so many before it, and his own idiosyncratic buddy comedy about a beefy Norse god and his pal the Hulk. Marvel did offer notes and guidance, but unlike so many cautionary tales about head-butting over “creative differences,” Waititi just rolled with it.
“They know how to make films for their audience,” he said “They’ve had a lot of past successes, and it’s not because of me. I just thought I’d stick to what I’m good at — character, dialogue, humor — and those will be my focuses. Hopefully, those guys will be able to incorporate that into the source material and the kind of film they want to put out there.”
To date, the movie’s on track to make $100 million on opening weekend, far more than the budgets for all of Waititi’s previous films combined. He spent a long time preparing himself for the head trip to come. “My idea of success was not getting a lot of money,” he said in a 2010 keynote speech at the TEDxDoha conference. “That’s not why we’re here.” He cited a Maori expression, tena koe, which literally means “hello,” but is used colloquially to mean “There you are.” Waititi elaborated for the room: “The fact that we’re here is success itself.”
Even as Waititi’s profile grew, he maintained an inner circle of filmmakers whose fusion of international backgrounds and marginalized sensibilities reflected his own. These include Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton (“Sampson and Delilah”) as well as Native American directors Blackhorse Lowe and Sterlin Harjo. They regularly share notes on scripts and rough cuts. “It’s quite a broad group of people from different countries,” Waititi said. “People are just now starting to realize how many amazing voices are out there if you go further than the most obvious choices. As long as we’re all supportive of each other’s work, give each other notes and stuff, I feel like there’s real strength there.”
On the festival circuit, he bonded with Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, whose expressionistic black-and-white vampire drama “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” premiered at Sundance’s NEXT section the same year that “Shadows” screened at midnight. She said they connected over “that automatic kinship when you both make alterna-culture vampire movies at the same time.” In the midst of the Sundance insanity, they found a way through. “Taika absolutely reeks of authenticity,” Amirpour told me. “He’s so fucking funny and has this levity people love… this positive and relentless force of energy. That’s the type of artist I’m inspired by, the one who maintains his identity in this crazy fucking business.”
Waititi’s likability has also been a key business asset. “He’s both a filmmaker and frontman for his films,” said Urman, who worked with Waititi on guiding “Shadows” to an impressive $6.9 million domestic gross in limited release. “Watching Taika in action, in life or or on screen, it’s impossible not to love him. He’s part imp and part matinee idol, daffy and debonair at the same time.”
By now, everyone knows the horror tales about inexperienced or idealistic filmmakers fired from “Star Wars” spin-offs or other massive ventures once studio bosses grew impatient. “You hear those stories about studios getting way too involved, people leaving projects,” Waititi said. “I don’t feel that I’m attached to my voice or style, where I’d feel like I have to protect that at all costs.”
Marvel doesn’t take kindly to letting directors inject their own visions, but it wanted a loose comedic quality for “Ragnarok” anyway. “We let him experiment on the set, improv with actors,” Marvel’s Kevin Feige said. “Taika is very good at improv, because he doesn’t just improv off into oblivion, he improvs on story… So if there are three story ideas you have to hit in the theme, he’s be able to get the cast to improv, but hit all those beats. And that’s the only way something is going to end up in a movie.”
It’s a roundabout way of saying that Waititi cracked the studio equation by sneaking his own process into the machine. Now, of course, it wants more from him. He’s attached to the Netflix-produced animated feature “Bubbles,” the story of Michael Jackson’s fabled chimp, as well as a live-action adaptation of “Akira.” However, he insisted he planned to head back to New Zealand for an original project next. “I have more that I want to make,” he said. “I’m going to back to one of my own things. Then, who knows?” (There are rumblings of a werewolf-focused sequel to “Shadows” called “We’re Wolves,” but no timeline confirmed.)
For now, Waititi’s been swept up by an industry keen on pointing out every time it hires a non-white director. He sees the diversity push in broader terms. “There are so many perspectives and points of views that mainstream Hollywood never considered as existing,” he said. “For me, it’s not a question of whitewashing. It’s a question of becoming really boring and pedestrian in terms of the type of storytelling that exists in Hollywood. I don’t feel like it has to do with color. It just needs to be different.”
That’s not quite “Thor: Ragnarok,” an eager-to-please revitalization of the “Thor” mythos but nothing groundbreaking. However, it’s liberated by a wondrously offbeat middle section: the freewheeling saga of Thor and Hulk, trapped on a planet ruled by flamboyant alien dictator played to great comic effect by Jeff Goldblum. Waititi manages to steer the material into a vibrant riff on Flash Gordon with a goofy comic timing all his own, at least until the inevitable crash-and-burn battle scenes of the closing act, and a thankless villain role for Cate Blanchett takes charge. “Thor: Ragnarok” doesn’t change the game; it just plays it reasonably well. Waititi’s laid-back, anything-goes demeanor was a secret weapon that helped him make his way through a studio machine that often demolishes vulnerable, inexperienced filmmakers undone by naive ambition.
“I actually really like the idea of being pushed in different directions, within reason,” he said. “I definitely feel like an indie director who managed to successfully not die making a studio film.” He laughed — but, as with his movies, the humor carried a whiff of truth.