Bringing the God of Thunder to the big screen was a challenging experience, and the film – which hits theaters May 6 – went through years of development. And though director Kenneth Branagh might seem an odd fit, the film’s power struggles between gods are not dissimilar from the struggles of Henry V – an adaptation that made Branagh’s directorial career. For the press conference Branagh was joined by Marvel‘s Kevin Fiege, and screenwriters Don Payne, Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz. Check it out…
Mr. Branagh, when the news was announced that you were directing the film there was some discussion that you felt like perhaps a less likely choice. I’m wondering if during filming you ever felt like a less likely choice to direct this film.
Kenneth Branagh: The scale of the undertaking couldn’t help but make you feel that it was very challenging, but that was what was attractive. And people ask me, “Well how did you do it?” And I say, “Have you seen the credits at the end, there’s seven minutes of ‘em. You see all of those names? That’s how I did it.” And when you walked on day one and there are frost giants and there’s green screen and there’s real mist and rain and there are six principals in their new costumes for the first time and all of that and four camera crews and hundreds of people, frankly these are the kinds of people you go and squeeze and say, “What do I do next?” In fact, day one I said, “So what should I do first, the first day at school. Should I go to visual effects? Should I go to 3-D, all the places I don’t know?” And Kevin (Feige) said, “The one thing you need to do right now and until it’s finished is cast Thor. That’s it, just cast Thor.” And every time I watch the movie and I see Tad Asano later in the movie responding to a bit of the story and he says “We must find Thor! We must find Thor!” So we did.
Can you walk us through the casting process a little bit more and then once you were on set what Anthony and Chris’s relationship was like?
KB: From what the boys were saying, finding that sort of character arc for Thor was key and we were doing that all the way through the early process of finding Thor. So it’s true to say that Chris Hemsworth came in early on and I think that we weren’t fully on the page with what we were developing for him. We became pretty ambitious with what was clearly going to be a character journey. Somebody who definitely changed from the beginning of the movie to the end, so we realized it wouldn’t only rely on brawn, it would need some sort of acting brains and some emotion and some fun and that the character could take it and the story seemed to want it. And so we’re looking a lot tied up in bundle. And then at some point we said, “Well, we should go back and meet that very handsome Australian lad who came in when our story wasn’t really on the page. And when he came back and he did a number of things, he read and he did workshops and he read with actors, with actresses. And then on one day when he nailed it he told a story of Thor’s kind of deeds like a warrior retelling some story of a great battle and the mixture of arrogance that he needed to have still was done with such charm that it seemed he nailed it. It required a quality of an innate charming confidence that did not spill over into arrogance or overconfidence that meant that he would stand up in a scene with Tony Hopkins, you know? And then when he takes his shirt off there’s also a wow factor that cannot be denied. As Louis D’Esposito, co-president of Marvel, said when we looked at it a few weeks ago when we were finishing it off he said, “My god, he looks good in Three-D!”
I would imagine the casting of Loki character was tough, because that character has gotta be so passive-aggressive.
KB: From the performance point of view we needed somebody who was complex and could remain intelligent. And there was a constant conversation between us if it’s a good thing to keep the question mark over Loki’s character throughout. Is he bad, does he have a plan, does he love his brother, does he hate his brother, hate his father, is this happening before our very eyes, how does he truly react to the secrets and lies that emerge in the course of the story? So you needed someone who could be adept at putting on all those masks and make it seem seamless, so that you were in the scene with the other character who when he visits Thor on Earth and does something appalling in terms of what he passes on. It’s a beautiful scene, acted well by the pair of them. That level of shocking skill as an actor in life was what we were after. Tom, I’d worked with in England in the UK on television and theater and knew that he was energized, bright, adroit quick-thinking. That’s what we wanted from the performance, but in terms of the character….
Zack Stentz: What I love about Loki too as a character is just that if you asked him, he would say that he is the hero of that movie and it’s interesting putting yourself in the mindset of someone who from his perspective is completely right in what he’s doing. And that’s kind of the gold standard of a villain, a great villain in some ways.
Kevin Fiege: And the movie very much is an origin of Loki almost as much as it is an origin of Thor and that’s something we had to ride that balance. You know, there were drafts where Thor took over too much or there were certainly drafts where Loki became too prominent, and I think we found a nice balance that is clearly the origin of both of those characters. And Tom is a great actor, there’s no doubt about it, but make no mistake–Tom like Loki, wants to be Thor. He actually auditioned for Thor right?
KB: He did, yes.
KF: Hiddleston’s talked about that and he gained all sorts of weight and he did his audition and we went, “You’re Loki.”
Do you think that your experience in other effects movies like Potter as an actor make you comfortable in terms of making this big effects laden film as a director?
KB: Yes, although my experience was that the quality of the technology changes. The advances in the technology change so much that on a daily basis it’s advancing. I did the Harry Potter quite some time ago and as brilliant as they are, Marvel’s on the cutting edge of things. The whole of the process from day one to the end was an expanding possibility with visual effects. It was a bit of preparation, but new opportunities every day.
How challenging was it for you to direct the movie based on the comics compared with the Shakespeare films? Which one is harder?
KB: Ah, it’s the scale thing, that is tricky. I’m inside out.
KF: All the characters have their own challenges; Thor, being a particular challenge because he’s from another world. We don’t have a Superman-type character from other worlds – in our cosmic-side of the universe we do, but in terms of the primary characters Thor is unique in that regard. He also is unique in that he is based in part on Norse mythology, so you have a big melting pot of a lot of different ideas, which 45-plus years ago Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together into our mythology. And now we’re 600-plus issues into it now and we sat with 600 issues and said, “What story do we tell?” And frankly the writers had a big challenge and we’ve been working on the movie for many years and there were a lot of different incarnations. Sort of trial and error, but figuring out we’re gonna introduce the story that starts on Earth, present day, and just basically throw ‘em into these other worlds and then bring them back to Earth. So we have a little bit of an idea of where Thor is from and why he’s reacting the way he is was probably structurally the biggest challenge.
It’s very Shakespearian in a way, this family. Did all of your work with Shakespeare help you with that, and also is there an origin story where he finds the mallet and he becomes Thor for the first time? Why you didn’t maybe choose to do that?
KB: Well, to answer the first one, we’ve just seen about two billion people watch a royal family at work. And so I would say that it is Shakespearian, but it’s global. We’re interested in what goes on in the corridors of power whether it’s the White House or Buckingham Palace. Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose. And I think Stan Lee went to the myths that Shakespeare hadn’t used. All of them recognizing that they contain briefly told, very condensed stories that I think are very universal in their application. I think the connection, if there is one, is that the stakes are high. So in something like Henry IV or Henry V it’s a reckless man falling into bad company, could that person be the king? Is he the right man for the job? Our flawed hero who must earn the right to be king, is in our piece, but I think what’s key is the stakes. There it’s Europe and England in power and here it’s the universe. It’s when that family has problems everybody else is affected, so if Thor throws a fit and is yelling at his father and is banished, suddenly the worlds are unstable. And what it means is if the actors take those stakes seriously it is passionate and intense. And I suppose that kind of a observation of ordinary human – although they’re gods – frailties’ in people in positions of power is an obsession of great storytellers including Shakespeare and including the Marvel universe.
It seems like there are few adaptations more daunting than five decades of material as well as mythology that’s thousands of years old. Where do you begin to pull the story together?
Ashley Miller: Terror. No, honestly the first place you start is with Kevin and with Ken and getting a sense of the story that they want to tell. And if the story that they want to tell is about the god king who is cast down to earth and has to learn humility before he can return home, that’s the story. You figure out what that structure is and more importantly you figure out who the human being is. It’s the first rule that you apply to any other writing effort, you find the person in the middle of the story, you figure out what their story is and you tell it. In this case it was Thor and it was also Loki and Odin in between them and the rest comes out of that inherent conflict.
Don Payne: I do want to mention the other writers who aren’t here today too, who have story credit: Mark Protosevich and J. Michael Straczynski helped craft the story early on. That’s why they have story credit but we built on a foundation of all those years of comics and we were able to select the best moments and that’s thanks to Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson. And so I think we all have our favorite moments and I think we build from that.
The Marvel Playground
This is now the fourth film in the Marvel cannon line, but for this film did you feel limited in any way or because it was the first story for this character did you feel free?
KB: Kevin and the rest of my colleagues at Marvel were completely – and to me invisibly – the architects of the larger universe. All I have to do is try. And that’s enough, because it’s about “how do you introduce this character?” The process may affect other things. As a viewer I’m intrigued by the interweaving of the Marvel universe. But it’s a collaboration partnership. We talk, you do it, the freedom-shmeedom doesn’t come into it, when you’re just making a film.
Aside from the Avengers will we be seeing Thor return in maybe some sequels; do you have a trilogy planned? And will you be returning to direct?
KF: When we embark on this we’ve got 600 plus issues, we’ve got a thousand years of mythology, and we have other stories we’d like to tell. The audience will tell us whether they want to see those other stories, but we have to be prepared for that if that–if we should get the call. So Don Payne is working on story ideas for a Part Two, we’ve got various options with Ken to discuss coming, but right now the focus is on the first one. Don is slowly but surely thinking about where to take the character next.
KB: Kevin and I share a deep Irish-Celtic superstition of taking anything for granted, and the Marvel world is a world of non-assumption. When I first just started in the film business – but please forgive the language I’m about to us – a producer said to me, “Young man, assumption is the mother of all fuckups.” So we are assuming nothing, we are offering the film out to the world and we shall listen, is what will happen.
Mr. Feige, you’re thinking of the next eight films Marvel wants to make while you gentlemen are trying to make one very good film. Did you ever butt heads between your desire to make one film and your desire to empire build?
DP: We were all fans. We love the Easter eggs as long as they don’t take over the film, you know? It’s gotta be its own Thor story, but everyone was on board with that from the beginning. That Thor is its own stand-alone tale and it’s part of the Marvel cinematic universe and Easter eggs are fun, but it’s gotta stand on its own and I think everyone had the same viewpoint about that.
The inclusion of S.H.I.E.L.D. was really apparent in this film more so than the Iron Man films. Can you talk about maybe folding that in more with this particular script as well as making S.H.I.E.L.D almost look over their heads? Like they’re, “We’re out of our element here, ‘cause we don’t know what to do.”
ZS: What was great about S.H.I.E.L.D is that Thor needs a force of opposition through the entire film and obviously when he’s in Asgard or when he’s in Jotunheim there are, you know, frost giants and monsters and his brother and things like that, but once he gets down to Earth he needs obstacles. He needs obstacles in the way of, you know, getting back his hammer and S.H.I.E.L.D was a way–you know, making S.H.I.E.L.D prominent in that way was just a great way to give something that could push back against Thor especially when he didn’t have his powers.
AM: And especially when you’ve got Clark Gregg who is just awesome and just the perfect foil for that.
DP: I love Clark Gregg and I just think ever since Iron Man something about his smirk – you know there’s so much more going on underneath the surface, there’s something menacing about that smirk and S.H.I.E.L.D was this heroic organization in the Iron Man films. And it’s still scary how easily you can transition that to a shadowy government organization for Thor.
Thor Opens May 6.