Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. My biggest takeaway from my time on the set of Thor: The Dark World was that director Alan Taylor was bound and determined to give his film a grounded reality that Kenneth Branagh eschewed in favor of an operatic fantasy feel. That's not totally a surprise given Taylor's history with HBO's Game of Thrones, but it's something that hit me pretty hard when we first stepped onto the Asgard set in London.
You see, we weren't in a grand palace covered with gold and platinum. Our first stop wasn't a throne room or a crazy sci-fi fantasy space, but a pub. A dirty, rustic drinking tavern where the warriors of this tale go to drink mead and share stories of glorious battle, mourn their fallen and celebrate their victories.
This set was built on a backlot space and as such wasn't closed in. The tavern had open walls that spilled out onto a large courtyard with stone flooring and walled with trees adorned with fall colored leaves. On the other side the tavern gave way to stone archways of the grittier side of Asgard. We would come to find out that the “other side of the tracks” section of Asgard appealed greatly to Taylor and he wanted to highlight it whenever he could. We were told finding out what the community of Asgard was important, not just what the royals are doing all the time.
The set was impressive and it should be since they spent four months building it. Massive columns (easily 20 feet in circumference) and stone walls rose up a good 18-20 feet then ended as if some giant samurai sliced the top of everything off. The rest will be added via CGI, which is the norm now and that combination of techniques is my preferred use of modern cinema wizardry. I've said it before, but effects in movies are magic tricks. If you know exactly how they pull it off the illusion is somewhat shattered, which is why I love these combos where you're not exactly sure where the seam between practical and digital is.
In stark contrast to the rustic Nordic influence of the tavern was the next set we visited, a complete interior set that had a distinct sci-fi feel. The second unit was picking up some shots of a jailbreak of some sort here. Think long dark hallways with cells lining the length. Instead of bars or Hannibal Lector-like plexiglass, force fields will be keeping the bad guys at bay here.
You've seen a bit of this in the trailer. Loki is here, but he wasn't in this shot. I'm assuming he's teamed up with Thor by this point in the story, but there was a bad guy whom I referred to as “Skyrim” in my notes because he was wearing a helmet with horn tusks jutting out from it that was the focus of this sequence.
There were cells filled with bad guys, orc-looking marauders, and Skyrim approached one of these cells and punched at the forcefield (to be CGI'd in later). Lights flashed in the cell to sell the fact that the force field couldn't hold up to the might of Mr. Skyrim.
Asgardian guards (Asguardians? Sorry, I had to) in silver and gold armor fought a bit with these leatherclad monster-faced marauders as Skyrim walks calmly among them.
We left second unit and went to an outdoor set. A battle was going on from later in the film. We weren't allowed to watch it happen, but I know Thor and Loki were both involved. We were relegated to a tent onsite and waited for Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston to pop in and give us a little interview time. I've already published the useable tidbits from the Chris Hemsworth interview, but there was still Mr. Hiddleston, so here's what he had to say about what's going on with the sequel:
- One interesting thing about Loki returning to Asgard is seeing the wide and varying opinions of his fellow Asgardians re: his attempt to destroy New York.
- A benefit of being a sequel and having the chance to firmly establish these characters in both Thor and The Avengers is that they can paint in darker, more detailed shades with this movie. Hiddleston kept stressing the added dimension Loki has by the end of this film.
- Hiddleston talks about the darker tone and darker characters having a real influence on picking the subtitle for the film. The Dark World reflects the heroes, the anti-heroes and the villains. Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston) is a dark elf. The film is about “accepting responsibility no matter who you are. Whether you are a crowned king, a king in waiting or a shamed prisoner. Accepting responsibility and growing up is dark. It’s a dark experience.”
- Hiddleston also talked about his own personal feelings about Loki. He said he likes him and has figured out why, but he keeps it in a “suitcase of pain” that he unpacks mentally when getting back into the character.
- “He's having a good time teasing everybody and playing everyone else off each other like a chess master. Now I really feel like I'm the God of Mischief. Playing that mischievous element in all its unpredictability is really, really fun.”
- He also spoke of a “mutual recognition” between Loki and Malekith.
The overall sense I got from this conversation was Hiddleston's love for the character. He feels ownership of Loki and definitely isn't tired of the association. He talked quite a bit about adding creative ideas that made it into this sequel, citing “I'm the only person who has played him. Other people have written him, other people have shot him, other people have framed him, but I know who he is inside.”
Hiddleston's always a pleasure to talk to. The studio wouldn't let us bring our own recorders and insisted on sending us the transcripts or else there'd be more to the above conversation. It was a bit of a nightmare going through the transcript, which was filled with typos (apparently “Chris Helmsworth” is in the movie and “Kevin Fidey” produced it and a guy named “Joseph Readon” directed The Avengers), [unintelligible] omissions that I'm sure were actually perfectly intelligible and every single um, ah, eh uttered... Blogger bitching, I know, but it's really taken a good conversation and made it near impossible to convey here. I just hope the next time they let us transcribe our own stuff. It makes for much better stories.
Anyway, that was the end of our first day. Day Two was packed to the gills! We saw more filming, visited the armory, chatted with a dude named Kurse, snooped around Natalie Portman's apartment and got to pry some more info from Marvel's Craig Kyle. Let's go ahead and dive into that stuff, shall we?
Craig Kyle greeted us wearing a Flynn's Arcade tee-shirt... playing to his visiting guests or true blue geek? Knowing the Marvel dudes in the limited way that I do I'd lean towards the latter.
Kyle let us in on a few details. The sequel takes place about one and a half years after the first Thor. We will get to see Stellan Skarsgard's Dr. Selvig again and that “having a god in your head isn't good for your psyche” and that we will have more of an understanding on how Thor got back to Earth for The Avengers.
Dark Elves were also discussed. Apparently they were thought to have been wiped out sometime back in Odin's childhood, but have come back in spiky metal ships and are going from realm to realm pilfering all they can. Odin takes this very seriously and apparently spends most of this film in Warrior Mode, acting more as General of Asgard's armies than King.
The Dark Elves aren't alone. Marauders (read: space pirates), Vanir (big warrior fuckers) and even a Stone Man from Saturn, a throwback to early Thor story, are joining in on the chaos. You've seen the Stone Man already in that first Thor trailer.
The Observatory is in the process of being rebuilt, Idris Elba's Heimdall will have a bigger role in this story (yay!) and on Earth Stonehenge has some part to play in the film as well. Earth is being hit by anomalies, something Kyle described as a “flex in the universe” causing singularities on Earth, certainly a sign of the more cosmic-centric Marvel movies to come.
Next stop on the big tour of Thor: The Dark World (Or The Mighty as it was cleverly titled on all the official documents) was Frigga's Chambers. We were led around by production designer Charles Wood, who talked about the various influences for the film, including Norse, Islamic and Chinese design flourishes and shapes inspired by the one and only Jack Kirby.
Frigga is played by Rene Russo and her chambers was a massive set (according to Wood 3/4ths of the stages at Shepperton were taken up by Thor 2) that had a bathing chamber in the middle of a giant dome and various ante-chambers shooting off from there, like spokes. High, domed ceilings, lots of glass decorations and steps leading from the tub to an open balcony that will have a hell of a view of Asgard, we were told. Does that mean naked balcony watching? Don't know why there are steps from the tub to the open balcony, but hey... I'm not Rene Russo. Don't ask me.
Wood also discussed constructing the Tree of Life (Yggdrasil), which plays a big part in the story. Apparently Frigga's Chambers would be refitted to the Hall of Science, which is where the Tree of Life is housed.
In dire contrast to this set was Jane Foster's London apartment. Like Frigga's Chambers, the flat has a grand view except this one's a rooftop that triggered happy Mary Poppins memories in my geek brain. The apartment itself actually struck me as exactly what I'd imagine a Natalie Portman apartment to look like. Neat, a little vintage/modern mix throughout and with some geeky little nods in the details, which might or might not ever find itself on-camera.
Here are some of my favorites: Newspaper clippings on the fridge with titles like “Citizen Narrowly Escapes Death on the Streets of New York” with the image a fuzzy shot of Thor taken through a car window and a “Blurry Phone Image Captures Epic Battle At Stark Tower” article with a phone pic of Thor hitting a car with his hammer, sending it flying. By the way, they also had those magnetic fridge alphabet things and I displayed great restraint in not spelling out a dirty word, hoping they wouldn't catch it and it'd make it into the movie.
Jane's apartment also had a piano and the sheet music titled “Thor, the Thunder God.” I think she's a little taken with that guy...
Next stop, costumes!
We learned a few tiny tidbits here and got an up-close look at the actual Thor and Odin outfits. First thing that caught my attention was when costume and armor supervisor Simon Brindle said that Thor will not wear his helmet during the movie (boo). Also found out they made 50 sets of the Thor costume in various conditions. Marvel Movie Trivia!
The armory was next and this was pretty rad. Not only was Mjolnir on display (I might have maybe taken a picture with it), but also the vast arsenal of the space pirates, Stone Men and Dark Elves. Lots of guns, actually, including a massive 9 foot long gatling gun/sniper rifle thing based off an Indian rampart gun.
Prop Master Barry Gibbs was quick to point out that while there are a lot of guns, they're not ballistic, most of them shooting electricity/energy rounds. So, more space guns. Blasters instead of pistols, etc.
The Dark Elves prefer these massive weird guns that their arms go into. The gun itself hooks onto the shoulder. Malekith himself has a bladed weapon.
After shamelessly posing with Mjolnir, I was told that the biggest problem with that as a prop was the stone was so big the head kept breaking off, even on the soft stunt versions, so there are a ton on hand to make sure there's always a replacement.
One of the best chats of the trip was with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who plays Malekith's right hand man, Algrim. I'm not super well versed in Thor comics, but it was clear right away that Algrim undergoes a transformation at some point. He starts Algrim, a dark elf, and ends up becoming the more monstrous Kurse.
Ade talked at length about differentiating the two character. They have crafted a certain accent for Algrim and then another, darker, accent for Kurse.
He just seemed to be having the time of his life, enthusiastic about the very nature of this dual character meant he got to have great scenes with most of the leads, including Hemsworth and Hiddleston.
Algrim spends most of his time with Malekith and Ade said that the history these two have meant for more than your average sidekick/henchmen role. Alrgim would lay his life on the line for Malekith. They've fought and survived together for years. They've won and lost together. Over time that has built up a loyalty in Algrim.
There was a worry that the Kurse version would be too much of a thoughtless brute, so the decision was made early on that despite the rage that fuels this creature Algrim would always still exist underneath.
As far as the makeup was concerned, the pre-monster Dark Elf was actually more time-intensive. For Algrim Ade would have to spend about two and a half to three hours in the makeup chair. For Kurse it was more like an hour and a half. Sometimes Ade would have to play both in the same day and those days meant more than 5 hours in the makeup chair to apply and remove the prosthetics.
Speaking of prosthetics, we should jump over to the prosthetics department leg of the tour! By now you've seen the creepy blank face armor of the dark elves. Up close they're even weirder, having a bone-like shell look.
Much like Ade, prosthetics designer David White seemed giddy to show off his work. It's not often one gets asked to create an entire race and that's what White was tasked to do with the Dark Elves. White and his team designed and created over 40 individual characters with the mindset that everything they have was repurposed over the years. White and his crew made all the gloves, boots and outfit pieces from scratch.
The silicone prosthetics made for Eccleston's Malekith was the biggest task, though. Each prosthetic had 350 hand-punched eyebrow hairs. Keep in mind they can't reuse these things, so every day a new set of prosthetics are used, each one with those 350 hand-punched eyebrow hairs.
I love this kind of stuff, so I had my nose into everything in this room, from the various prosthetics to the 1:1 size Stone Man torso they built for reference (the one in the movie is 100% CG).
The tour ended with all of us geeks in a room next to S Stage where they were filming a scene with Malekith. This particular group was so big that we all couldn't fit on the cramped stage to watch filming so they brought us down in smaller groups of 4 or 5 to watch the scene being shot.
The scene was Malekith dropping off of a hook mechanism on his ship (kinda reminded me a little of the Borg Queen rig except Malekith was a whole body), feet hitting the floor as he speaks some sort of Elvan dialogue.
He seemed hurt or weak outside of his armor/hook mechanism. They got a shot of him limping towards an oval doorway and having to support himself with the wall. This shot started off as a slow dolly as Malekith walks past camera and then catches himself on the edge of the doorway.
Malekith speaks with Algrim, all in their Dark Elf dialect, so I have no idea what they were saying to each other, but the scene ends with Ade handing Malekith his mask.
Before each take big, sweeping, pounding classical music was pumped through the set's speakers, I assume to get Eccleston in character.
When this series of shots was complete we all returned to our little off-site room for a little chat with director Alan Taylor. Below are my favorite tidbits from that chat.
- Taylor said there were a lot of parallels between doing a Marvel film and doing a big show like Game of Thrones. He cited an episodic quality to these movies as being something he's comfortable with.
- On grounding the more fantastic elements of this story: “It's a funny balancing act, because you have to be funny, in the way that Marvel's funny, and you have to be true to some pretty absurd things, like you guys saw elves in spaceships. (laughs) But then to try to make that relatable and real and textured and rich and stuff. So, in Asgard, for example, you know, we're seeing the back streets of Asgard rather than the shiny, golden palace, and we go into some shiny palace rooms, but we tend to blow them up this time. ”
- Taylor said HBO and Marvel aren't that different to work for. Both are spending big money, but in an independent way. There's not a board to appease, just a small room of people who call the shots.
- He did cite some stress at just how massive the Marvel Universe is and how many parts are out of his control. “There is a Marvel process where the script is sort of the last thing that you get. Where I come from, a writer-driven medium, the script is the first thing you get, and then you get to do all of your directing after that. In this one, they seemed pretty comfortable with the script being the last thing to fall into place. So that's been the source of stress.”
- Taylor is not a fan of 3D, saying it isn't a “language” he knows as a storyteller, so he approached this as a 2D movie with the post-conversion 3D being a likely reality.
- The script was in constant flux up to the start of production, although some overall arcs were locked in stone from the beginning. When asked if Joss Whedon had taken a pass at the script, Taylor said they all hoped he would do something for them “under the table” but that didn't happen. Whedon did read it and gave it his seal of approval, but that's about it.
- Taylor was going to be a history professor before “selling out to TV” (his words), so it's no wonder he's attracted to stuff like Deadwood, Rome, Game of Thrones and now Thor, which despite being a Marvel comic character has real roots in Norse Mythology.
- Taylor compared Malekith's righteous fury to that of Roy Batty.
- The Malekith/Algrim relationship was designed as a mirror of Thor/Loki. He cited a common brotherly love.
And with that, Mr. Taylor left us to go back to work and we began the process of leaving Asgard and Shepperton behind us.
My overall impressions are limited considering we didn't see much actual filming, but I can say the tone of this film intrigues me. Comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back were whispered. Some dark stuff is going to happen and it seems like what goes on here will have significant ripple effects throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I guess we'll all know in about 3 weeks how it all turned out, but I hope you enjoyed following along with this report.