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How an eccentric outsider ended up directing Thor: Ragnarok

Film

The substance and style of Taika Waititi

How did an offbeat and fiercely fashionable New Zealander end up helming one of the biggest superhero movies of the year?

Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, whose father is Maori, is the first person of colour to direct a Marvel movie.

Taika Waititi is a stylish man, of that there is no doubt.

The press tour for the director's movie, the all-but-guaranteed cash cow Thor: Ragnarok, is as much about promoting the God of Thunder's latest adventure as it is a wild trip through Waititi's closet. As Team Ragnarok made its way from Sydney to Los Angeles to London, Waititi has caught the eye of red-carpet photographers and wide-eyed fanboys alike with his loud colours, embellished jackets, pineapple-print shirts and funky page-boy caps. His suits are tailored in slim-fitting European cuts and his rompers (yes, rompers) neatly hug his lithe frame.

His is a carefully cultivated look that's impressed everyone from director Ava DuVernay (who called Waititi "the best-dressed helmer") to Ragnarok co-star/living-style-meme Jeff Goldblum ("He had this brown suit and … oh boy … it set my brain on fire").

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There is also – because of course there is – a Twitter account (@taika_fashion) set up solely to document the many belts, shoes, hats, socks and pineapple-printed whatevers of Waititi. (He really loves pineapples.)

So, when interviewing Waititi at a high-end Toronto hotel this week, it's no shock to discover that he's the most fashionable man in one of the city's most fashionable spots. Clad in tight, light-blue khakis, a denim shirt buttoned all the way to the top, a heavy blue jacket patterned with white squares and a smart Remembrance Day poppy pinned to his left breast, Waititi's weekday getup is a delightful brand of confident eccentricity.

Anticipating such peacocking, I tried my best to match, but also not really. I arrived to our interview wearing a slim-fitting black sweater (maybe Banana Republic, but probably Banana Republic Factory Outlet), a grey blazer that could have used an ironing or three, faded jeans that looked fine before I noticed the ink stain below the left thigh (I don't know how it got there, either) and shoes that I can only describe as "um, black?"

If Waititi was offended by my lack of game, he kept the matter politely to himself. And besides, we weren't thrown together by the PR powers-that-be at Disney to talk anyone's lack or mastery of fashion, but instead a different kind of style switch-up, specifically: How did one of New Zealand's more offbeat and fiercely independent filmmakers find himself helming the biggest Hollywood blockbuster of the year?

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in Thor: Ragnarok.

It was only a year ago that the 42-year-old Waititi was best known, if known at all, for his quirky New Zealand comedies, the ultra-low-budget Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows and Boy. (Maybe, if you had HBO, you'd know his work on the wonderful but short-lived Flight of the Conchords, with fellow Kiwis Brett McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.) But then Kevin Feige, president of the Disney-owned Marvel Studios and the man responsible for the past decade of superhero cinema, picked up the phone.

"Marvel thought the humour of something like What We Do in the Shadows could help them on one of these films," Waititi says inside his hotel suite, a late-afternoon martini – three olives – by his side. "They wanted something very different from the first two Thor films. [Star Chris Hemsworth] wanted something different, too, and felt like they were treading water."

So Waititi would be the latest relative outsider to be placed inside Marvel's multibillion-dollar machine – following in the critically proven and financially sound ascents of James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and the Russo brothers (Captain America: Civil War). Yet there was a distinct wrinkle this time around.

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Like all the aforementioned Marvel recruits, Waititi was more accustomed to making films with 97-per-cent fewer funds but 100-per-cent more creative control. Yet his films were also, well, truly strange. From Shadows' socially awkward vampires and clean-cut monsters ("We're werewolves, not swearwolves!") to Wilderpeople 's hip-hop-obsessed latchkey-kid hero and the Terminator-like child-services worker who hunts him down, a Taika Waititi film hums and bops to its own unique comedic rhythm. Like the cinematic equivalent, say, of a pineapple-print button-up.

"The fact that they embraced my ideas and my desire to do some of the more weirder jokes, it is pretty insane," Waititi says. "Marvel was the ones who pushed for it, even when I was thinking, eh, maybe I've gone too far. They were, 'No, no. Keep going.'"

So Waititi got to turn a Thor film into another one of his deadpan comedies, cramming in as much surreality as he could between the obligatory CGI battles and Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity. There are awkward villains and psychedelic digressions. There's a hero who's more self-deprecating than cocksure and a sidekick rock monster named Korg who has terrible luck and worse timing (and is played by Waititi himself). Naturally, everyone is impeccably dressed.

Still, Waititi's sensibilities could just as easily have been swallowed up by the massive budget, the countless demands and the sheer weight of such a franchise.

Waititi says Thor: Ragnarok feels like it fits his style because it’s ‘irreverent, has tangential segues of humour.’

"I thought at the beginning, 'Well, style-wise and tone-wise this might not fit in with my other stuff, but now, man, it does feel like it's one of mine,'" he says, like someone who just got away with the perfect crime. "The tone sustains itself. It's irreverent, has tangential segues of humour and these great weird awkward moments with characters being very human in an almost-too-human way for a superhero movie."

That is no easy feat in any major studio production, let alone one as carefully controlled and fussed over as a Marvel movie. Three writers share credit on Thor: Ragnarok – and Waititi isn't one of them.

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"With the script, there was a lot of leeway. I was heavily involved in the storyline, and I would say the reality of these things, they're written by like 10, 15 people probably," Waititi says. "What I brought to it was taking the script as a kind of blueprint on the set and making it known that we could always improve what's on the page. These films, the jokes are written six months before you start shooting. So on the day, here's the quip we thought was so funny in the writers' room and we do it, and maybe it wasn't as funny as we thought. How can we make this better? Is there a prop in the room? So a lot of the comedy here feels environmental."

That environment, both on Ragnarok and Waititi's previous films, carries a distinct feeling of being trapped in a forgotten eighties movie, one made with little oversight and more than a bit of reckless abandon.

"It was like a mix of old video games, with a sci-fi Flash Gordon thing," Waititi says. "A big touchstone for me was Big Trouble in Little China. It was trying to take all the stuff I've loved as a kid, and twist it and turn it into this modern format. Resurrecting it for the modern age."

Another step in a modern direction – and a long-overdue one – is the fact that Waititi, whose father is Maori, is Marvel's first director of colour. While filming in Australia, Waititi made it a priority to hire aboriginal crew members and invited eight native artists to shadow him on the set.

"That was to give the opportunity to people who wanted to be filmmakers and learn, because it wasn't an opportunity when I was young," Waititi says. "I feel like if you can do it, you should give back to the community you're in."

Although he's still coming around to the idea of being a role model for Indigenous filmmakers, the director realizes he's in a unique position.

"New Zealanders don't like drawing attention to themselves. But I see some of these young people who want to be filmmakers say, 'It's because of you,' and I've started owning that a bit more," Waititi says. "There are a lot of areas of New Zealand that are poor and a lot of people don't come from backgrounds of large opportunity. To give them any inspiration to do better than what's on offer, it's a big deal for me."

The martini almost done, Waititi is now ready to handle the next promotional duty, to upstage the next hotel guest, to provide fodder for the next @taika_fashion tweet.

"After [Ragnarok] hopefully does well, maybe the best thing for Marvel to do is something unexpected again," he says. "Like, just when you think you had them pegged, they hired a New Zealander to direct Thor and make it as crazy as he can."

Somehow, though, I doubt they'll find another filmmaker quite as unexpected as Taika Waititi. Pineapple prints and all.

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