Much has been made of director Alan Taylor's history having directed six episodes of HBO's "Game of Thrones" and how that probably contributed to his getting the gig of directing the latest in the Marvel cinematic universe, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, and it certain makes sense. But what you may not realize about this chapter in the Thor story is that it also has fairly equal parts drama and action. Aside from a rather mature love story, the film also features a great deal of family drama within the Odinson clan, particularly in the ever-fluid relationship between Thor and his adopted brother Loki.
Without giving anything away, they have cause to fight against a mutual enemy in THE DARK WORLD, and such a relationship in the balance requires a steady hand, while the action (much of it hand-to-hand combat with weapons) requires someone with a bit more force. Taylor has both, having also directed many episodes of such series as "Oz," "Homicide: Life on the Streets," "The West Wing," "Deadwood," "Rome," "The Sopranos" (nine episodes), "Mad Men," "Nurse Jackie," "Bored to Death," and "Boardwalk Empire," to name a few. And for those of you who happen to love '90s indie fare, Taylor also directed a solid little movie called PALOOKAVILLE. His last features was the 2003 offering KILL THE POOR; and since then, it's been a steady stream of big-budget television.
I was fortunate enough to have a brief talk with Taylor a couple of weeks ago about preparing and working on a film of this magnitude, one that has so much connective tissue to other films in the Marvel Universe, including one tag that he'd only recently seen and who wasn't aware of who directed it (he's been busy trying to wrap his own film, thank you very much). So here's my chat with THOR: THE DARK WORLD director Alan Taylor, which sadly ended before I was able to ask him anything about (possibly) directing TERMINATOR 5. Boo! But the interview is still quite revealing and funny. Enjoy…
Capone: How are you, Alan?
Alan Taylor: Good, where are you? Are you in Los Angeles?
Capone: I’m in Chicago, actually.
AT: Oh, OK. A city I discovered late in life, but it was wonderful. I didn’t know there was a great city that I didn’t know about.
Capone: I wasn’t born here, but I’ve lived here for like 25-30 years; I love it here. I’m sure you’re getting a lot of this as the interviews happening today, a lot of people are focusing on your background with "Game of Thrones" and how that was one of the main reasons you might have gotten this gig. But, you’ve done just as much, if not more, character-driven dramas and comedies for TV, and I think that explains a lot of about why the film has a warm blooded-ness to it that maybe the first one didn't as much.
AT: That’s good to hear. Wow, that’s great! That’s great.
Capone: Was it your intention to add that element to this film?
AT: You know, it’s like you said, I was very aware of "Game of Thrones-iness" to it that I thought might be appropriate, and I certainly couldn’t have done this job without that warm up. And Marvel never would have hired me in a million years without that warm up. But, it’s great to hear you say that, because that is my main interest in things. When I went to film school, I came out wanting to be Spike Lee or Hal Hartley or something--small movies, character-driven stuff. Most of the work I’ve done, even when it’s set in the exotic world of New Jersey mobsters or Deadwood, North Dakota, it’s absolutely about trying to see interesting things in human behavior. I don’t think I ever thought, “I know, I’ll bring that to THOR”; I think it’s just what I like. And when you’re given a cast as wonderful as this, it’s right there to be enjoyed, for example, the awkwardness at the table between Jane [Foster] and her date.
Capone: That in particular, yes, is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Even the scene with Natalie [Portman] and Renee [Russo] talking and getting to know each other right before all hell breaks loose in Asgard, it doesn’t have to be there but it’s a nice touch to get that bond.
AT: Yeah, that’s good because it, and again this comes out of partly from the HBO experience where it’s always about the small and relatable but slightly heightened emotions in the room. To meet the mother of your boyfriend is always awkward, and we all know what that’s like. So, the fact that it's happening in a castle’s being attacked by dark elves in space ships is secondary [laughs]. You always feel like you’re in a castle being attacked by dark elves and space ships when you’re meeting a mom for the first time. Great, I’m so happy to hear you picked up on that because a lot of people said, “Oh, it’s funnier than I thought,” or “It’s bigger than I thought.” It’s great to hear.
Capone: Oh, it’s definitely funny as well, and not just in the moments with Kat Dennings.
AT: Her, you can count on.
Capone: I think that’s biggest secret that is yet to be revealed about this film is it’s a love story that’s tucked away in this huge adventure story.
AT: Good, good.
Capone: And not to dismiss the "Game of Thrones" angle. I especially love that opening thatbattle at the beginning with all the swords and other weapons.
AT: It is great, but that was sort of a late entry; that was not one of the defining scenes for me, and it wasn’t my first choice to get into the movie. I had a way in where we started at Stonehenge and then went through some pretty elliptical, wondrous, but we didn’t know what was going on beats, and then the movie cranked up from there. I think that was adjusted in post because there’s a tempo to these things where they like to get their movie started quick with a bang, and they like to keep the exposition front loaded so people can enjoy the ride. So, that was one of the adjustments that took place in post. I think that sequence is effective, but I like to sort of sneak into the story ideally.
Capone: With the climactic fight sequence, what is the key to shooting a fight sequence that is literally jumping between realms? I’m guessing timing is a part of it.
AT: Yeah. Timing and also because it’s one of those things where you’re scattered all over the map when you’re shooting it, because second units are doing some elements, and then some elements are you’re on a hill in Iceland, and then you’re back in London. And you’re having to shoot all those things with faith that they'll go together. That was an early idea. I think, there was a version of the script that came down to the mighty army of the elves fighting the mighty army of the Asgardians. I was thinking that’s already been done really, really well by so many people that were better at it than me. What I want to do is try to keep the fight between two individuals that we knew but make the battlefield itself the fun part. And so, that’s when we started evolving the idea that the battlefield can grow out of the portals and turn into a fun, chaotic, surprising mishmash of things. So even though it’s basically two guys punching each other, but it’s got scale.
Capone: You stepped into this universe that’s very well established. When did you sort of first get a sense that this was a part of something bigger than just this film? Did you have to hit certain marks that synch up with the rest of the universe?
AT: Marvel is doing such a good job of keeping several balls in the air and plates spinning at the same time. I think people think there’s a master plan that’s being ticked off. At least in my experience, that’s not what’s being done. They have a basic overview of Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3. They know The Avengers are going to be the hubs for these things, but they are really busy just making the movies they’re making right now.
So, we didn’t know any details about upcoming movies. We didn’t know any of the story details about AVENGERS even. There was one plot point that I can’t remember anymore, but I remember we were told we should probably not do because it would step on AVENGERS. There was one casting thing that I was told I should probably back away from because I might step on AVENGERS. Besides those two elements, it was never like we’d have to dovetail into that parlor game you play where you draw the corpse and turn it over, and then you draw a bit more of it and it turns into one figure. We were not given parameters really beyond that. The main parameters, I thought, were tonal, “You can go off and be dark because it’s the Dark World, and you can be steeped in history because he’s an ancient warrior prince.” This is not being told to me; it’s the voice in my head: “It better be funny, it better fit in the Marvel universe tonally.”
Capone: I have to ask about the first tag. Did James Gunn direct that?
AT: I have been very clear in saying as often as I possibly can, and I'm very happy to give that honor to whoever deserves it. I did not have anything to do with that. I was mixing in L.A., and that was shot very last minute in London on the GUARDIANS set, I guess.
Capone: So James shot it.
AT: I don’t know, my guess is that he’s got his hands ful with his movie, and then some third party--whose identity I don’t know yet, but I hope he gets the credit because I don’t want it--did that scene, which I only saw myself quite recently. I did the stuff at the very end where… [redacted].
Capone: I figured that was yours.
AT: Yeah, yeah. That was my shot; I was proud of that one. But the guy who did the middle scene is very welcome to take full credit. [It was, in fact, directed by James Gunn.]
Capone: You get to introduce a new villain into this universe, which is actually a pretty big deal. Was that one of the more stressful elements of making this movie, getting Malekith right?
AT: Yeah, I think I went into just thinking about it as a character, and then after a while I caught up to the fact these movies frequently stand or fall on how much the villain works. There was a huge amount of work going into just the design, because if you look to the Marvel comics for inspiration, you’re in big trouble frequently [laughs].
Capone: I just got off the phone with Chris [Eccleston, who plays Malekith], and we were talking about the fact that he doesn’t really look like he does in the comic books.
AT: No. He looks like somebody took a lot of acid and was thinking about Harley Quinn or something. But, it’s funny, in the design I always feel like with these things it’s important to have at least one anchor element. So with Thor, whatever you do with costume--we did redo Thor’s uniform because I wanted it to look more historic, but you have to have those six disks on his suit or you’re breaking the canon. With Malekith, I thought it was important that he have the white hair of the original, but we strapped it down so it wasn’t rock star hair. And I thought it was important that he have the half-dark/half-light face. So, we give an origin story, where he gets zapped part way in the movie to give him his famous half face.
Designing the dark elves was a real joy. Some of it’s fallen away; there were more scenes between Malekith and Algrim that I loved where you saw the kind of tragedy of their backstory, you saw the bond between them. They were sort of a rival set of brothers to Thor and Loki. Unfortunately, in the process of piecing this thing up, some of that wonderful stuff has gone away. But in terms of finding a character, Thor is a superhero, but he’s also from an ancient race, so you need to find villains that have the stature of time behind them. The fact that Malekith’s got a grudge that predates the Big Bang seems like a good chip to have on his shoulder.
AT: And also you’ve got another villain in Loki, who is mischievous and enjoys himself, which makes Malekith go to the other extreme; he’s the dark, brooding, vengeful character. Tom Hiddleston once told my daughter, who was about to play Loki in a school play, "Always remember, when you’re playing Loki, Loki is never not having fun.” And the opposite, I think, can be said about Malekith.
Capone: To put it bluntly, it sounds like the script for this thing was fluid, changing a great deal as it was being shot. How do you work like that? Or was it not as chaotic as it sounded at the time?
AT: No, I think it was as chaotic as it sounds, and it’s not my favorite way to work. It made me appreciate all the times that I railed against the writers having too much power in television. I take that all back now, because I love having a locked script. We were up against deadlines and trying to make it better as we were going, and Chris was contributing great ideas, and Tom was contributing great ideas, but it was nerve racking to turn up and not quite know what the scene is that you're supposed to shoot. Luckily, you have superheroes at your disposal, though; Joss Whedon can fly in and write a scene and then fly out again. We have superheros in the Marvel universe, which is good.
Capone: I heard rumors to that, well, I guess they weren’t even rumors about Joss coming in…
AT: It’s funny, I say that quite openly, and I’ll say it again, even though I got in trouble for saying it the first time, and I’ll say it again. I want to be clear, it wasn’t like we had a script that was finished and I’m criticizing the writers by saying Joss came in to save it; that’s not the impression I meant to give. It’s that we were all hands on deck, all doing the best we could to work with the script, and luckily, Joss came in and became part of the all hands on deck and contributed what he could contribute very quickly. So, it was all in the spirit of collaboration, which was how the script was made. It’s a positive thing to see what he does. [Someone at Taylor's end of the conversation is telling him to wrap up.] I’m being given the guillotine gesture.
Capone: Alan, it was great to talk to you. I happen to think the film was really great, by the way.
AT: That’s so good of you to say that. And your specific observation made me really happy, thank you. Talk soon.