Even when your job is to dream up the interplanetary adventures of a Norse god, you might still want to run off and play pirates.
So during the weeks he was editing “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the Marvel movie that opens on July 8, Taika Waititi, its director and co-writer, would occasionally take weekends off for a different journey.
He would get outfitted in a flowing gray wig, matching facial hair and temporary tattoos, and don deliciously fetishistic leather gear to portray Blackbeard, the swashbuckling, loin-kindling buccaneer of the HBO Max comedy series “Our Flag Means Death.”
This is admittedly not a bad way to spend your spare time, though Waititi did occasionally fret over the trade-offs. As he explained recently, “Sometimes you’re pissed off at life and you’re like, ‘Why did I say yes to everything? I don’t have a social life — I’m just working.’ But then the thing comes out, you see where the hard work goes and it’s really worth it.”
On TV, Waititi, 46, has had a hand in the FX comedies “Reservation Dogs” (as a co-creator) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (a series based on a movie he co-wrote and co-directed), as well as a “Shadows” spinoff, “Wellington Paranormal.” At the movies, you can hear him voice a good guy in “Lightyear” or see him play a bad guy in “Free Guy.”
Waititi is also editing “Next Goal Wins,” a soccer comedy-drama that he co-wrote and directed forSearchlight. He’s writing a new “Star Wars” movie for Lucasfilm, a “Time Bandits” series for Apple TV+. He’s preparing two Roald Dahl projects for Netflix and adapting a graphic novel by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius for a feature film.
“All my films are about underdogs,” Waititi said. “Not being able to choose your family and sometimes that’s not your blood family, it’s just who you end up gravitating towards.”Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times
If that isn’t enough, consider that it’s taken this many paragraphs to acknowledge that in 2020 Waititi won an Academy Award for the adapted screenplay of his World War II comedy-drama “Jojo Rabbit,” in which he played — in his own words — “a lovable, quirky, whimsical Hitler.”
From this inventory alone (“not even mentioning the five other things that haven’t been reported on yet,” Waititi said), you can gauge how highly desired his services are. In just a few years, he has become one of the industry’s most ingenious and reliable purveyors of escapist fare while devising for himself some fulfilling escape routes from those escapes. And his filmmaking style is distinctive enough that it still shines through on monolithic and increasingly familiar Marvel movies.
But his runaway résumé is also a sign of how difficult Waititi finds it to say no. And if you wonder how anyone can possibly balance so many demanding projects, rest assured Waititi is asking himself these same questions.
“Sometimes I’ll wake up and be like, Am I having a midlife crisis?” he said. “Should I even be a filmmaker? Maybe I should have been a carpenter. Maybe I should just be a gardener.”
Waititi’s estimable career isn’t necessarily the one he imagined for himself while growing up in New Zealand — half a world away from Hollywood and wondering how to gain its attention. “It was never my dream to do this,” he explained. “I would much rather have been a fighter pilot or a fireman, but then it appeared that you’ve got to be actually quite smart to be a pilot.”
He added, more sincerely, that he didn’t start making films until his late 20s, at which point he’d already been a graphic artist, a musician and a comedian. “I don’t know if I’ve ever chased any of my dreams,” Waititi said. “My dreams have sort of developed through being part of the dream.”
Though he fell in love with film, he calls it “an arranged marriage.” And the solution he has found for managing his workload is, essentially, not to think too much about it and never to stand in one place for too long.
“Because if I was to step back and look at all of the things I’m doing, I’d probably have a panic attack,” he said. “I know there’s too many things. I know I’m doing a lot. I just have to keep pivoting every couple of hours.”
Earlier this month, Waititi kept stationary long enough to savor a plate of smoked trout and avocado toast in the lobby of a Midtown Manhattan hotel. Wearing loosefitting clothes in pastel colors and a neatly trimmed mustache, he carried himself like all of the Marx Brothers rolled into one: He could be suave, sheepish or scheming, and was always ready with a self-deprecating quip.
For example: “New Zealanders hate compliments,” Waititi said. “I think it’s because of our moms. Our moms are the ones who go, ‘Don’t worry — I still liked it.’ That’s the kind of support you’ll get.”
Waititi was not the most obvious candidate to join the Marvel roster when the studio began to consider him in 2015. At the time, his directorial efforts included intimate short films (including the Oscar-nominated “Two Cars, One Night”) and features like “Boy,” an affectionate, coming-of-age tribute to his upbringing in a rural Maori community, about a child enthralled by his charmingly reprobate father (played by Waititi, of course).
Before that, Waititi was a theater student at Victoria University of Wellington, where he befriended future collaborators like Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (who would form the satirical rock duo Flight of the Conchords), obsessed over Monty Python and yearned for outlets for his wry comic voice.
“In those days, you’re like, I wish I had something to work on,” Waititi said. “I would just make lists of things I would like to do.”
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But others from that era regarded Waititi as highly motivated and likely to fulfill his ambitions.
“I still see within Taika the same cheeky alternative comic from the 1990s,” said Rhys Darby, a longtime friend and a co-star on “Our Flag Means Death.”
“He found that creating behind the camera was more viable than being in front of it,” Darby explained. “But even when he directs, he’ll get in front of the camera and show the actors what he wants them to do. He gets them to mimic him. That’s why he always ends up in his own films. Because he’s trying to control everything.”
At Marvel, the studio knew it needed a comprehensive reinvention of “Thor.” That film’s sluggish 2013 sequel, “The Dark World,” remains no one’s favorite entry in the franchise.
“We were waning, as far as support for the character,” said Chris Hemsworth, who has played Thor since 2011. “I felt fatigued and there was an audience fatigue, too. If we didn’t do something different and change it up, I wasn’t convinced we were going to bring back an audience.”
The comic-book literate Waititi was no fan of the annoyingly flawless Thor, whom he described as “a rich kid from outer space who’s trapped in the ghetto.” But as he reflected further, Waititi wanted to understand his own resistance to the hero and see if he could make a movie that acknowledged and embraced those traits.
Moreover, Waititi wanted to know if he could handle making movies at a mammoth scale. Addressing himself, he said, “You’ve always been scared of working with studios, worried about working in America and what it might do to you. But why not go straight into the deep end and see how that goes?”
The result was the wildly successful “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), in which the Viking deity is stripped of his magical hammer and shorn of his flowing locks but overcomes his villainous sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), and the flamboyant Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).
Why do so many in Hollywood try to hire Waititi? “He gives you his cachet, and he puts himself 100 percent behind your ideas,” said David Jenkins, creator of “Our Flag Means Death.”Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times
Directed by Waititi (from a screenplay credited to Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost), “Ragnarok” featured plenty of his personal flair — like two different battle sequences set to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — while allowing him to play the soft-spoken stone warrior Korg. (It was well-reviewed and sold more than $853 million in tickets worldwide, outstripping its predecessors.)
Almost immediately, Waititi and Marvel began devising a follow-up, but getting him back in the director’s chair was not so simple. Within weeks of his Oscar victory, the pandemic hit.
“Painting, learning a language, exercising — you think I did any of them?” he said. “No, I didn’t. What I wanted to do was sleep for a month and then I got to sleep for six months.”
Then he launched into projects he had been neglecting. By this point, Marvel had become accustomed to sharing Waititi.
As Kevin Feige, the studio’s president, explained, “On ‘Ragnarok,’ it was, ‘I’m just finishing this little thing.’” That turned out to be Waititi’s 2016 comedy-drama “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” “While we were writing and developing this movie, it was, ‘I’m just going to do this other thing in Manhattan Beach.’” That was Waititi’s work on the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” for which he directed an episode and voiced the robot bounty hunter IG-11. “‘I’m just going to Hawaii for a few weeks.’ Oh, I guess family vacation?” Feige recalled. Actually, he was filming “Next Goal Wins.”
Even after the “Thor: Love and Thunder” shoot ended in Australia last summer and postproduction began in Los Angeles, Feige said, “we were always on alert for Taika being spread too thin. We were very ready to be like, We’re in the cutting room, it’s 8 p.m., where is he? But he was always sitting right next to us.”
Hemsworth said that Waititi’s numerous extracurricular activities are not diversions, but intellectual necessities. “If he isn’t continually creating, he would become stagnant,” Hemsworth said. “Most of us would fall flat on our asses from exhaustion. That’s what fuels him, in a strange way.”
Waititi’s to-do list included “Our Flag Means Death,” whose creator, David Jenkins, spent three years wooing Waititi — first to serve as an executive producer and director of the pilot, and then to play Blackbeard.
“It’s like writing a song for Prince,” said Jenkins, who got Disney and Marvel’s permission to borrow Waititi on weekends. “He gives you his cachet, and he puts himself 100 percent behind your ideas.”
Waititi said he did not need much persuading to play Blackbeard once Jenkins suggested he was right for the part. “This is what I needed to hear,” Waititi said. “My ego loves that.”
But “Our Flag Means Death” offered Waititi more than just a morale boost. (Here there be spoilers, me hearties.) While the series told the comic tale of Stede Bonnet (Darby), a befuddled but well-meaning aristocrat trying to make it as a pirate, it did not simply dangle Blackbeard as an unlikely mentor to Bonnet and a source of will-they-or-won’t-they, bro-ho-ho innuendo.
In the first season’s penultimate episode, Bonnet and Blackbeard realized they loved each other and shared a tender kiss. Their romance has become integral to the series going forward, and the inspiration for countless works of fan art that Waititi keeps saved on his phone.
As much as he understands the cultural fascination with Stede and Blackbeard’s kiss, Waititi said he wished it wasn’t remarkable for its rarity: “It needs to be normalized.”
It is a wish that Waititi understands he cannot necessarily fulfill in a Marvel movie, despite some of the wink-wink repartee shared by Thor and his hunky ally Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) in a “Love and Thunder” teaser trailer.
“No one talks about Tom Cruise hooking up with Jennifer Connelly in ‘Top Gun,’” he said. But in “Our Flag Means Death, “it’s a massive talking point that two dudes kiss on the beach. I’m cool with talking about it because I’m really proud of the moment. But my dream is to be like the world of the pirates, where no one bats an eye.”
The new “Thor” is partly concerned with expanding the Marvel empire to include Russell Crowe as the vainglorious Greek god Zeus and Christian Bale as the nefarious Gorr the God Butcher. But as the title implies, the movie is also a romance, one that continues Thor’s journey from “Avengers: Endgame” (2019).
Looking at the character there, Waititi said he asked himself, “What is he missing most in his life?” And the answer: “It was love. It was a partner. For people who are larger than life, what completes them? I think a lot of superheroes, when you look at them, they’re just lonely.”
The story line provided the opportunity to bring back Natalie Portman, who played Thor’s love interest Jane Foster in the first two films but did not appear in “Ragnarok.”
Portman, who gets to wield Thor’s mighty hammer in the new film, said that she had seen “Ragnarok” and was excited that Waititi’s style was “so free and creative.”
“His other work, too, has impressed me so much over the years and how he’s able to blend the silly and the profound, all with a distinctive visual style,” Portman said. “Everything in his films always feels spontaneous and hilarious and full of heart.”
The idea of yearning for companionship is particularly prevalent in this “Thor,” and one could speculate about why it appeals so strongly to Waititi. His parents separated when he was young, and he is divorced from the film producer Chelsea Winstanley, with whom he has two daughters.
But as we talked about the strands that tie his work together, Waititi preferred to point to broader themes.
“All my films are about underdogs,” he said. “Not being able to choose your family and sometimes that’s not your blood family, it’s just who you end up gravitating towards. You’re like, How did I end up with these weirdos? What is it about these guys?”
Without quite naming himself, Waititi spun an extemporaneous monologue about why certain people — whoever they might be — can never see themselves as being successful or having made it.
“What drives people is this idea of, I’ll show you,” he said. “Sometimes it’s an ill-perceived, false idea that people don’t believe in you. You still carry that around and people will be like, ‘You can stop now — you’ve proven your point.’”
His voice rose to a comic volume as he continued: “No, there’s still some dead people I need to show! My dead dad, he needs to see!” Then in a softer, more sincere tone he added, “It’s a weird infatuation.”
Once this “Thor” has been safely launched into the world, more work awaits Waititi. “I’m trying to write the ‘Star Wars’ idea at the moment,” he said. “I’ve got to see how that goes, because once I submit it, that might determine when it gets made or if it gets made, even.”
But then again, “I am cool as well to take six months off and just go hang out with my kids.”
I asked him if he was starting to feel like Leonardo DiCaprio in “Inception,” just desperate to walk through the front door and have his children embrace him, and Waititi did not dismiss the comparison. “They’re in New Zealand,” he said. “I mean, they couldn’t be further away.”
For now, Waititi takes solace in the fact that he tried to have his daughters on the set of “Thor” as much as possible and provided them with experiences that would someday be meaningful to them.
“I know in the future, they’ll look back and go, ‘Wow, we were on set with Christian Bale,’” he said. “‘And we were rude to him and ignored him.’”