The “Thor: Love and Thunder” director can’t say no — to starring in “Our Flag Means Death,” making a soccer movie, writing a “Star Wars” idea, adapting Roald Dahl. For starters.
If he stepped back and considered all of his projects, “I’d probably have a panic attack,” Taika Waititi said. “I know there’s too many things.”Credit…Dana Scruggs for The New York Times
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By Dave Itzkoff
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 for Searchlight. 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.
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).