By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—A press conference for the highly anticipated “Thor: Ragnarok” begins to resemble an episode of “The Price is Right” game show, with press and bloggers assigned numbers to enter a hotel ballroom to interview—or at least gaze upon and record—cast members as well as the filmmakers for roughly 40 minutes. At the appointed time, a Disney publicist calls out the numbers in a “come on down” fashion. Once the 100+ invitees are seated, an emcee (not Drew Carey) announces the participants, beginning with Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige, followed by new and returning cast members to the popular “Avengers” spinoff franchise. The familiar faces include Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) and Chris Hemsworth, who plays the title character. They are joined by newcomers to the popular comic book franchise: Jeff Goldblum (a grandiose figure called the Grandmaster), Rachel House (Topaz, the Grandmaster’s bodyguard), Karl Urban (Skurge, an Asgardian turncoat), Tessa Thompson (a Valkyrie) and the two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, who plays the nefarious Hela in the action-packed fantasy adventure.
Helming this third “Thor” film (and bringing up the rear to this assemblage) is New Zealander Taika Waititi, who also has a bit part in the film.
While previous Marvel Studios installments have incorporated humor, this third Thor marks the first time in the company’s established franchises in which it devotes as much time to comedy as it does to dramatic storytelling and action.
Director Waititi and screenwriter Eric Pearson (working from a story by Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost) toss out many of the franchise’s beloved toys early on in the film including Thor’s luscious golden locks, his signature indestructible hammer, which is destroyed by a foe, and even his girlfriend, Jane Foster (played in previous Thor films by Natalie Portman), who never appears onscreen in this outing.
The film also stars Idris Elba as a former Rainbow Bridge dispatcher and current hero-in-hiding Heimdall and Benedict Cumberbatch plays the sorcerer Dr. Strange, but they’re not here today (perhaps because there’s no room left on the stage’s couches).
In addition to helming the franchise, Waititi (whose previous film were small independent fare including last year’s acclaimed kiwi drama “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and Australian/New Zealand TV shows) provides the voice of the mild-mannered arena fighter Korg, a large rock-skinned alien who befriends Thor when he is captured and forced to fight in a gladiator-style death match.
The movie’s quirky videogame-like score is by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (not present) and the a battle scenes is choreographed to Led Zeppelin’s relentless “Immigrant Song” (with its reference to “the hammer of the gods”).
The emcee asks a few questions to each of the panelists and then tosses it out to the assembled press and bloggers present.
Q: Chris, what makes this “Thor” film different from the others?
Hemsworth: (Director) Taika Waititi, basically. We all had a, a vision, and an idea, and a want to do something vastly different than what we’d done before, and take it to a different place. And that meant kind of doing away with what we knew, and just reinventing it, and it all came from his crazy, wonderful brain, and his inspiration, and him pushing us every day on set, and constantly encouraging us to improvise, and explore, and take risks. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had on a set, and a film that I feel the proudest of, just because of this whole team, the collaboration and the fun we had.
Q: Chris, did you miss at all having your hammer because actors are known to love props?
Blanchett: (to Hemsworth) Yeah, what do you do with your hands?
Hemsworth: That’s right. Where to put them. It was sort of good. It just helped kind of shed anything too familiar. I feel like holding the hammer, or even (wearing) the wig and the previous costume, certainly just put me in a place, and set me on a path of what I already knew. And I wanted (this experience) to be unfamiliar, and so everything from the hammer to the costume to the hair allowed me to move differently, and forced me to move differently. That was a great thing so I don’t really miss it. I’ve got one at home. It’s in the toilet, actually.
Q: Taika, you brought an independent sensibility to this film, and gave it humor and a little more heart. What was the process like for you?
Waititi: When they first asked me to come and to them about making this film, I thought that Marvel had lost their minds, so they’re just hiring anyone now. But I came in, and I guess I knew what my strengths were: tone, character, relationships and things. I had to ignore the scale of this monster, this beast, you know it’s s a huge film. What can be distracting on set is if you look over your shoulder, and you see 300 people standing there. I just had to keep reminding myself what’s more important is what’s inside the rectangle, and usually, it’s two or three people trying to remember their lines. It doesn’t matter the scale of the film. So, I just focused down on what I was used to, which was what’s in front of the camera.
Q: Kevin, people are invested in these franchises, and they love these characters. So, what made Taika and everybody here the right fit?
Feige: Chris sort of said it. We wanted a new sensibility. If you look at everything Chris has done as this character, there have been moments of humor throughout. We wanted to build on that. If you look at the movie, it’s got the epic action. It’s got Thor, arguably more powerful than he’s ever been in any of the films, with his powers going up against the Hulk, but at the same time embracing what Mr. Hemsworth does better than anyone up until now has ever been able to see, which is his acting chops expands to comedy in an amazing way. And Taika giving them the confidence to explore that, to try things. Most of that is in the movie, because it was on story, and yet at the same time expanded each of their characters.
Q: Rachel, you worked with Taika on “The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” So, what’s the difference between making this “big movie” and that “little movie?”
House: (quips) He’s a lot better dressed (on “Thor”). We’re usually running around in the mud, and the snow and the rain. So, it was wonderful to come in each day and see Taika in a suit, and Italian leather shoes.
Waititi: (quips) I didn’t have to make lunch for the crew on this one.
House: It’s been wonderful to see Taika so calmly and easily step into the helm of such a big, awesome film.
Q: Taika, almost every shot in the movie could have been a heavy metal album cover. What was your thought-process, and how did Kevin Feige react when you told him you wanted “Thor: Ragnarok” to look like a heavy metal album cover?”
Waititi: (Marvel) was very supportive right from the beginning. they supported me in this. If you look at all the elements in the film, it’s pretty crazy. If you would describe all of the characters in this film to someone, it deserves to have all of that color, and all of those crazy, curvy designs. It’s a bombastic concept that you can’t hold back from, this thing. It’s either all-in, or nothing.
Q: Who decided to use Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song?”
Feige: Filmmakers sometimes will use clips of other movies, (to show what they have in mind). And sometimes (those ideas are) not good. Most of the time, they’re okay. His was amazing, and was scored to that Led Zeppelin song. So, from the beginning, that song kind of defined what Taika was going to do with this. It’s in the trailer and it’s in the film — all from that first meeting, and from one of his first instincts of this movie, which is very impressive.
Q: Mark, are you interested in all in doing a full Hulk movie? This is the first (“Avengers”) film where we’ve seen the Hulk this much. And, if so, what aspect of the character would be most interested in exploring?
Ruffalo: I would love to do a Hulk movie. I think we all would love to do one. But, well over a year ago, before I even had this part, Kevin had asked me to come over and have a script meeting. Basically, he sat me down and he said, “What would you like to do if you had a stand-alone Hulk movie?’” And I (told him), “this, this and this.” And he’s like, ‘I love that. Let’s do that over the next three movies, starting with “Thor 3” and carry it on through “Avengers 3” and” Avengers 4.” And so that’s my stand-alone Hulk movie. Taika is going to take all three of those movies and cut it into one movie. That’ll be on the DVD, and me and Taika can own that.
Feige: A stand-alone would be great, but for the time being, his character arc over these three movies is super-exciting.
Q: Tessa, how did it feel playing a character that was white in the comics, and bringing her to life? Did you feel pressure about that?
Thompson: No, I didn’t. The things that I thought about the particulars of Valkyrie had more to do with (her) mass and size. I thought, “Oh, I’m short,” or “I’m not buff enough,” or how she’s arguably as strong as Thor. (I wondered) “How do I stand next to a person like Chris Hemsworth and feel like that’s true.” So, I didn’t think so much about (playing a white character. I thought about) satisfying Norse mythology. It’s mystifying, fantastical, glorious and also very confusing and doesn’t make a lot of sense. I remember someone online saying something like, “Tessa Thompson playing Valkyrie is white genocide,” which is just as mystifying as Norse mythology.
I just figured as I’m tasked to do with any character that has its own iconography, which is to capture the spirit of the character, and the spirit of all of us, at the risk of sounding cheesy. It has very little to do with what color we are. So, I just didn’t really invest in that.
Q: Jeff, what was it like to come into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Goldblum: I like the character and the opportunities in the character. Joining a cast like this is a dream come true. Working with Taika was my first connection point to the movie. We had a meeting, and hit it off. He said here’s what we were going to do—improvise and have fun. The whole upper tier of creative leaders, do something unique. They know how to make these epic productions, these popular movies and they want to make good movies. They somehow uniquely know how to do them. It feels like an actorly, workshop-y, character-y, improvisatory, delightful experience. I’m overwhelmingly grateful.
Q: Cate, how was it fighting Chris?
Blanchett: I didn’t do enough of it. I kept wanting to do more.
Hemsworth: (to Blanchett) You wanted to hit me.
Blanchett: It was hugely enjoyable for me. Apart from working with these guys, obviously, the chance to finally, in my deep middle-age, to get fit and to wear that much Lycra was really exciting for me. I worked with Chris’ trainer, Zahki for 20 minutes a day, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was intense. When I started, I had to manifest these weapons out (that were added later as special effects). I had to throw them, and I could see Taika’s disappointment as I threw it and said, “Ahhh.” I had to stop making the noises, and so I had to close my mouth. Eventually, Zoey Bell, my stunt double, suggested that I put some sugar packets in my hand so at least I could throw something and be real. She helped me with little things like that. She was a great action director. So, I moved from the humiliating to the exhilarating in a matter of five days.
Q: Have you ever played Shakespeare’s Goneril (from “King Lear”)? Do you think Hela would qualify as that style of character?
Blanchett: That’s quite a good comparison. I didn’t think about Shakespeare very much on this one. No, but it was great to, on a prosaic level, that the language had shifted enormously in this. It was just, texturally, a huge departure and, as Jeff (Goldblum) was saying, how much improvisation there was. Taika would just keep throwing lines.
I went back to two things, primarily. I went back to the extraordinary images that are there in the original comics, and then I went to the fan base, because there’s all these Hela fan girls who are doing these extraordinary make-up (tutorials) online. When we were thinking about what she’d look like visually, I went to that. So, I started with the visual, rather than the textual.
Q: Karl, did you work out intensely as Cate did?
Urban: It was intense. In fact, Taika came to me and said, “Listen, you need to tone it down. You can’t be bigger than Chris, okay?” So, I did. I just had the most amazing time working on this film. Building on what Jeff said, I feel very blessed to be a part of this family, and to have had the opportunity to work with Taika, and for him to be so well-supported by the team at Marvel, and for them to have the courage and the bravery to allow him to just do his thing. It was a real rarity. I really appreciated the environment that Taika created on the set. It was fun; it was focused. He would often play music. There was nothing sacrilegious about a take. Quite often, you’d be in the middle of a take and he’d go, “Oh, try this,” or “Try that.” It was just wonderful to feel like everybody had your back, and we had fun.
Q: What was it like having Hulk speak?
Hemsworth: I loved it. This is my favorite version of the Hulk because we actually got to act together. We’d only really fought one another on screen in the previous films. This time around, we got to just sort of improvise our way through it, and sort of invent this chemistry we hadn’t explored before, and sort of build this new version of the Hulk, which was a little bit more articulate and vocal than he had been prior. There’s just so much more room for the humor and fun that the character then embodies. It’s fantastic. I loved it.
Ruffalo: I did, too.
Q: Tom, there has been a change in Thor. Could there be a change in Loki, also?
Hiddleston: (quips) I did ask Taika if I could get a haircut, as well. His answer was “No.” In a way, in this film, it’s about the development of the relationship between Thor and Loki. Thor has evolved, grown and matured; and Loki, in a way, is stuck in his struggles of the past. That’s the challenge for Loki in this. He’s got to confront the fact that time is moving on, and people change. So, we’ll see. There’s room to grow, and I’m still here. We’ll see where he goes next. I’m not going to spoil anything.
Q: Taika, what was the most difficult part of making this film for you? Was there anything that you struggled with?
Waititi: The main thing was there were so many options. Actually, keeping my energy up, creatively. My shoots are usually very short, and I like to work super-fast. My previous shoot were about 25-28 days. By Day 30 on this, I was like, “Well, no more ideas. I’m done,” and we had 55 more days to go. So, I had to do some meditation and tried to chill out to keep my creative energy going throughout the whole length of time. The amount of stress, the exhaustion really does take its toll, and you don’t realize it’s happening until it’s too late, and then you can’t feel your legs.
Q: Can you talk about the synth-like score?
Waititi: Mark Mothersbaugh—we were extremely to get him to do the score. It was like kind of just good fantasy music with synthesizers, and arpeggiated rhythms. Mark is amazing at that. He comes in and does all that stuff. We played a lot of music even through the scenes. There’s a lot of stuff where another artist from Nigeria, William Onyeabor, a great African funk, pop artist, and so we played him. We played it probably 50 times throughout these scenes. There’s all that just very eclectic mix of sounds, rhythms and stuff.