Hollywood loves to celebrate Taika Waititi. By the time he joined the blockbuster ranks with “Thor: Ragnarok,” the New Zealand director was a Sundance darling with a string of charming coming-of-age stories that included “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and the reverence for his silly-sweet style has only grown since then. Now, he’s ubiquitous: After “Ragnarok,” Waititi scored an Oscar for “Jojo Rabbit,” and barely managed to bask in that success before shooting the upcoming soccer comedy “Next Goal Wins,” then co-wrote “Thor: Love and Thunder,” which opens this week. Now, he’s developing a new “Star Wars” movie, while continuing to produce HBO’s “Our Flag Means Death” and FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” both of which are getting second seasons.
Somehow in the midst of all that, Waititi is also finding time to promote his latest release. In “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the director continues to revitalize the Marvel character with the comedic polish that made “Ragnarok” such a treasured entry in the MCU. This time, however, the movie injects a surprising degree of melancholy into the plot, which finds the superhero teaming up with his ex-girlfriend Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) after she manages to wield his old hammer and became a superhero herself.
The result is another polished blockbuster that showcases its director’s unmistakable sensibilities, which remains a rarity in Hollywood. Waititi spoke to IndieWire about how he continues to face that challenge, the personal dimensions of his work, and how he feels about the threat of being overexposed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: When we spoke after you made “Thor: Ragnarok,” you said you “felt like an indie director who managed to not die making a studio film.”
Taika Waititi: Still true.
But when you were writing this time, that feeling must have changed a bit, right?
It still feels like survival. In some ways it was harder on this one because I put everything into “Ragnarok,” thinking that Marvel only makes three films per superhero so there wouldn’t be another one. Then they instantly asked us to do another one. That’s when I had to come up with all these new ideas to try and make something as good if not better than the last one. That was harder because it’s like a second novel. Trying to figure out what to do with this character that feels new, satisfies the fans, but also gives Chris [Hemsworth] something interesting to do with the character. Immediately we thought that we should make him go through a midlife crisis to figure out his path at this time in his life.
And you’re 46, so what you’re saying is…
After “Ragnarok,” you must have felt more confident knowing you could explore the themes you had in mind.
I knew better than to get too comfortable or think that I could get away with whatever I wanted. We had already talked with Kevin Feige about a few ideas for this film, but you can never be sure, because once you get comfortable, that whole section of the film you love so much gets cut out and you have to go in a different direction. That’s the best thing about working with Marvel. They’re always challenging you in that way.
How much do you feel like you understand all the interlocking MCU stories now?
I don’t do any research into all of the threads and storylines of Marvel because there’s too many and I don’t know half the characters. I don’t want to read any of the comics. I just want to do my film, just put the things in, then have them say, “You can’t do that, because that messes with this whole storyline.” There are so many iterations of this film. I would want to take a character and put it in the film, or kill off a character, but it affects all these different things I have no idea about.
It’s been widely reported that Natalie Portman chose to leave this franchise after “Thor: The Dark World” because she was unhappy with the way that movie turned out. How did you convince her to come back?
Oh, it was easy. I just went to her house and said, “You should come back to this, because I have always wanted to work with you, it will be wonderful fun and better than last time, when you were sidelined as Thor’s girlfriend who was a scientist in the desert. You can do lots more things including be a superhero and take Thor’s hammer. It’ll be a fun reunion of those characters after eight years.” Also, the idea of getting to smash stuff — especially as a parent — is very fun. It was the same way with Cate Blanchett [in “Ragnarok”]. She was very into doing something that would make her kids think she’s cool. I would also do stuff for that reason.
This is a breakup movie in superhero disguise. Sorry to get so personal, but you did get divorced a few years ago. How much does this movie stem from your own experiences?
I’m very different in that anyone I’ve broken up with or have had a relationship with in the past — after eight years, I’ve never, ever felt like I’ve wanted to be in a relationship with them again. For me, when it’s done, it’s done. But breakups are fun to play with: Thor and Jane are like two teenagers who are flirting and trying to figure out if the other one is going out with someone. I loved that idea throughout the shooting. Whenever I could I would try to work on those side glances between them, just working on getting that relationship back again. Regardless of what their relationship history is, if you think about the film as the first time they’ve met, that’s relatable for everyone.
There is an extensive sequence in this film shot in black-and-white, which is not usually considered very commercial. How did you get away with that?
We started thinking about what this thing would look like because it’s a moon. This is a depressing place that’s devoid of color. We went back and forth on that part of the film a lot: Is black and white too much for these audiences? Is it going to feel like a Kaufman sketch that will make people start banging their TVs? It helped to have little bits of color here and there on the main characters. Overall, it still felt like a comic book, very graphic, and the high contrast was still in keeping with comic art.
We’ve established that you can get away with ambitious stuff in a Marvel context. But now you’re going to do a “Star Wars” movie, and a lot of directors have have had problems with recent projects there due to creative differences with the studio. What’s your game plan?
I don’t know what any of those other guys’ experiences were or what the relationships were like, but I’m always willing to let something go. I’m OK with it not happening. If something is about to happen and it doesn’t happen, that can be the best thing for me because I can take a break or work on some of the other things that I might be neglecting. I tend to go into these things as open-minded as possible. Not to speak for anyone else, but in this case, I just made sure I wasn’t going in with stories of all these past experiences in my head that could form my relationship with a studio.
If I’d done that on “Ragnarok,” it probably would’ve been a disaster. I went in ready to collaborate and willing to learn something. When I first went in, I wasn’t really sure it would feel like one of my films by the end and I was willing to accept that because it’s a studio film. I obviously didn’t invent Thor or make the first two films. I’m not going to just assume that I’m going to rearrange the system, shake it up, teach them how to make movies. And that’s why it worked out. If you assume you’re going to get screwed over, it’s going to sour the relationship from the start.
On that note, let’s talk about “Our Flag Means Death.” In addition to your starring role as Blackbeard, you’re an executive producer on the show, but even as it had a huge following HBO didn’t renew it right away. Now it’s getting a second season, but the reports are that the budget had to come down. How did you help navigate that outcome?
We just really wanted to make the second season and try our hardest to cut these things down to make it more affordable. Shooting in Los Angeles was so expensive and that’s the reason we’re not going to shoot there again. Until those prices come down for things, they just have to move to other places. So we’re going to New Zealand. I haven’t really looked at the scripts and stuff. They’re still in the story room developing the whole season, but I’m pretty confident that because we’re in New Zealand it’s going to be more affordable. There are more rebates and stuff. It will still have the same scale to it, which you wouldn’t be able to have with a budget cut in Los Angeles.
I know everyone’s been asking you about the fabled kiss on that show…
Oh, it’s been so good. I loved that. It was really exciting when we discussed whether or not that would happen or if we’d just annoy people for many seasons like Mulder and Scully by skirting around it for ages. Finally, we decided, screw that. We’ve got to give them what they want — or what they don’t think they want. Let’s just do it, consummate their relationship right there. It’s cool. For some people, it’s a comedy about pirates and some of them are gay. For me, it’s a love story about two guys who happen to be on this boat. Also, again, it’s another story about a midlife crisis.
Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
Meanwhile, there is a queer character in “Thor: Love and Thunder.” So you seem to be leaning into these opportunities.
What I love about the pirate show is that it’s so normalized. No character ever says, “I can’t believe they’re gay.” They can’t believe those two characters got together, that’s all. Who would’ve believed they’d get together? But it’s just a given that there’s queerness on the high seas. And in this film, more importantly, what we did with my character Korg — who talks about the relationships that the Kronans have — or Valkyrie, who’s bi.
It’s the idea that these things just are, in a Marvel film, in a mainstream film that young, queer people will see. They’ll watch this film and be like, oh, it’s a Thor film about a heterosexual, very Aryan-looking space viking, but there are other characters in there and it’s normalized. No one bats an eyelid and there’s no monologue about it. Nobody ever stands up and says “This is OK!” It just is OK. I think that’s very important. It’s the same thing with the first time people saw a female superhero. It’s just so normal now. It’s so cool because kids can see this stuff and feel like even in these tiny moments in a giant film like this, at least there’s something that’s making them feel seen.
On the representational front, you’ve also been supportive of other indigenous filmmakers like yourself. “Reservation Dogs” is the most prominent example. You helped Sterlin Harjo launch that show and now they’re working on the second season. How much work is there to be done?
I hope it’s a new beginning. If it just stops with “Reservation Dogs,” that’d be a shame. We need to continue to see ourselves but in different ways. It can’t just be shows like “Res Dogs” again and again. There should just be that show, and then we should go have stupid romantic comedies and space adventures with indigenous content. It’s a harder thing to navigate because it’s still being more marginalized and unseen that some of the other things that are getting representation at the moment. But I have high hopes.
In “Thor,” there’s a bunch of stuff you wouldn’t really know, I suppose, unless you were indigenous. I’ve got New Zealand and Maori gods in there. My character is basically a New Zealander who happens to be made of rocks. He’s based on very recognizable Polynesian people from New Zealand. You have a lot of aboriginal stuff within the film as well. It’s very small moments and very small steps. I hope we’re closer to an indigenous superhero. We’ve got Echo, who’s a Native American character, but it would be good to see more.
How do you feel about other representational milestones in the MCU?
The best thing I’ve seen is “Ms. Marvel.” It’s incredible the way they’ve done it. It’s not like, “Oh, she happens to be Muslim” and you never see any of that. It’s all that side of her life, the entire thing.
Among the many projects you have going on right now, the biggest question mark seems to be “Next Goal Wins,” which you originally shot in 2019. When is this actually coming out?
Oh, yeah, I’d love to know what release dates you’ve heard. There was some talk originally about it happening around the World Cup. The film is finished. We’ve just got to go out and DI the thing. The pandemic put it on hold for a year, then I went back and kept working on it at the same time that we were finishing “Thor.” I think that the plan — I’ll probably say it and then it’ll be changed — but the plan right now is early next year.
Do you ever worry about getting overexposed with all the work you’re doing these days on both sides of the camera?
Now and then it comes to mind, but I feel like I’ve strived so much in the past as a filmmaker to have multiple projects going on. I want to work as much as possible in this little moment that I have. For sure in the heat of the moment I’m like, “This is the last one. The last job. Then I’m going to live in New Zealand and take it easy.” But there are too many temptations. I kind of like the feeling of having dodged a bullet, because I do want to be involved in all of these things, and I don’t have to direct everything my name is attached to.
On “Res Dogs,” I’m the EP, I helped create it, but I don’t have any business coming in to say, “This is how you make a Native American show.” That’s their shit and they can run with it. I’ll just sit back and support. People are like, “Oh, you’re making this show!” Sterlin’s making the show. I’m helping in whatever way I can. A lot of these things are not really that much work. I’m only really using a big part of my brain on a few things.
What about vacation?
I plan it! That’s the midlife crisis looming.