Director Alan Taylor Talks Thor: The Dark World, in theaters this Friday
(From contributing writer Bo Bory)
Alan Taylor is no stranger when it comes to directing. His credits include many episodes of highly successful network TV shows, such as Lost and The West Wing, as well as several episodes of your favorite HBO shows. It's a long, extensive, and truly impressive list, to be certain. Alan Taylor has helmed everything from Oz , Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood...To Rome, Big Love, Mad Men (which he won a Director's Guild Award for), Boardwalk Empire, and most recently, Game of Thrones. In fact, it was the Emmy award-winning director's work on Game of Thrones that landed him his latest, and most ambitious, project to date... Marvel Studios' big-budgeted, epic, sci-fi, fantasy sequel, Thor: The Dark World.
Of course, with a resume that stellar and varied, it's easy to see why Kevin Feige, President of Production for Marvel Studios, would choose Taylor for the enormous task of bringing the mythical God of Thunder back to life again on the big screen. The director's bleak, brooding, and realistic depiction of the Night's Watch in several key episodes of Game of Thrones was the perfect experience Feige was looking for when he picked Taylor to re-imagine the Nine Realms for the second installment of Thor. After all, Taylor had shot on location in Iceland, brought dragons to life, slaughtered armies in the dead of winter, and filmed several scenes in which actors spoke an entirely made-up language, all skills that would come in handy for The Dark World.
Yet, it was not only Alan Taylor's mastery of the grand scale and fantastical sequences that worked so effectively in the The Dark World, but it was also his ability to find the human elements in his larger-than-life characters that truly proved to be the greatest weapon in the director's arsenal. That sense of emotional depth and humor, even in the face of danger, was something that definitely stood out in this latest film, and made for a much more rewarding and entertaining experience.
And so as I sat down with the cool and collected, award-winning director in a hotel room in London to talk about the process of making such a massive, big budget film like Thor: The Dark World, with all of its moving parts, and enormous sets, and CGI effects...I was able to get Alan Taylor to open up to me about the importance of finding that delicate balance of humor, emotion, and heart, in a two-hour thrill ride of 3D special effects, and nail-biting action.
I was also surprised to find out what caused the director so much anxiety during the filming of the movie...After all, this was a guy that had directed everything from ruthless mobsters, to flying dragons and mysterious island monsters, to the sex lives of Manhattan socialites, and drunk, adulterous, ad-executives...What can't he handle?
Yet Alan Taylor's biggest stress during the making of Thor: The Dark World wasn't getting the details of the lavish set designs of Asgard just right, or plotting out complicated explosion sequences for the epic battle scenes on Svartalfheim...In fact, Alan Taylor's biggest stress wasn't in the script at all...And that was the problem.
Even though the movie was darker and grittier in scope, there were still some really funny, laugh-out-loud moments in the film that struck a great balance between superhero/sci-fi action movie and a playful nod to the comic book... was that a conscious decision from the beginning?
Alan Taylor: Oh yes, it was probably my second conscious decision... because the first decision was that I didn't want the movie to be shiny and clean like the first one was, so I thought... ok, my job is to come here and dirty it up and to darken it. And then halfway through shooting, Disney decided to call it the The Dark World... so I thought; Ok...That's what we are doing. But then the very next thought was, uh-oh... if we are going to do that and live in the Marvel universe we better make darn sure that it is funny... because if you're gonna kill people, which we occasionally do... and even kill people you care about, then we have to make sure we are holding up the other end of the Marvel tome spectrum. So, I wasn't really sure... but I'm really glad to hear that it is being perceived as funny.
Yeah, the reaction from the audience at the screening last night was one of genuine laughter...
Alan Taylor: Oh that's great! Perfect.
Which is definitely a delicate balance to pull off ...
Alan Taylor: Yeah, it's a weird spectrum to try and bridge. You know, the funny thing is... all of my favorite movies have always been dark and funny. Scorsese was one of my heroes and he is always funny even though he is always so viscerally dark... so that has always been my favorite combination of tones. But Marvel has their own version of that, where you have to really care and you have to be on the edge of your seat, and then you laugh and then you think its ridiculous... so it's a wonderful balance. And if you go to a movie these days that doesn't have that spectrum... it feels pretty flat. There was an action movie that I saw recently that was all SERIOUS and I just thought, you know... we are all getting too sophisticated to take this too seriously.
So I read that you were still shooting and writing new scenes up until the last possible moments of pre-production...
Alan Taylor: Yeah, that seems to be the Marvel process... I mean, I knew that when we were shooting they were kind of sequestering a portion of the budget for later things and I wasn't sure what that meant. And then when we got into post (production), I found out what that meant... which is that they continue to be creative until the film gets pried out of their hands. It's funny because you have all of these effects people going bananas because they have to start locking down shots but Kevin Feige will keep trying to find ways to up it.
And what was the nature of the additional scenes... did they mostly involve Loki?
Alan Taylor: Yeah, I guess most of what we added later tended to be Loki-centric, and that was partly because we realized how well he was playing in the movie and how much the audience had warmed to him.
Yes, Loki had some really funny scenes in this new film.
Alan Taylor: Well there were those funny scenes where he is kind of shape shifting, which was a very late addition and is one of my favorite things. But there were also some connective tissue kind of explaining why he was in prison that was shot very late too.
So you said that this was more of a Marvel thing, shooting last minute... is that something you were used to?
Alan Taylor: Well this was my first big Hollywood thing and obviously there are movies like World War Z where there was a tremendous amount of shooting after the fact and then manages to sort of find itself in that process... but my favorite version is where you get a script and then you go out and make a movie, and then you make it a little better, and then you're done. This process is very much you make a movie, and then you start adding stuff to it, and then the movie kind of changes and becomes a different thing.
That seems to be a very inspired and organic way of making films... but it could also be stressful at the same time... Did you feel any of that?
Alan Taylor: A lot of stress! (laughing). Because I came out of TV where the script is set, and you shoot fast, and there is no time to sort of re-think anything. So for me to go in with a script that was in flux was HIGHLY STRESSFUL... and to be re-shaping the movie in post was very stressful too. But... it's also interesting to watch Marvel do what it does because they are so good at it.
Well you mentioned your work on TV and so much has been said about this movie having a more gritty and realistic feel to it, especially in the Nine Realms... how much of your experience on Game of Thrones prepared you for this film?
Alan Taylor: Yeah I think that came through on two ends... having done Game of Thrones was the homework I needed... to be on location, to be doing a fantastical story but yet make it feel grounded and real was really what we were striving to do everyday, so that was my homework. And then on the other side, from Marvel, I think they were admiring Game of Thrones so they wanted to sort of pull that in, so we were able to meet in the middle and agree on that tonal shift... you know, that it was going to be a little dirtier, that we were going to shoot on location more, and get out of the green screen box... so that we went to Iceland and shot around real places in London rather than sets.
So how does that impact the movie, as far as performances and production value?
Alan Taylor: Yeah... definitely in the areas you would think. You know, what really drove it home for me was we were in Iceland for the winter for Game of Thrones shooting the Night's Watch scenes where they were afraid that they were going to die in the frozen waste, and the actors almost had to do no work at all because it was so cold, they were dying and freezing, literally... (laughing). I remember there was rock that we wanted to stage an event around but when we got there, there was no rock because it was buried under 14ft of snow, so we had to change our plans. But then there are other times, like when we wanted to shoot at the edge of a lagoon and when we got there the lagoon had frozen over, and it was the most exciting thing because we went out and actually shot on the ice amongst the iceberg... So it's a tremendous creative inspiration. And also I just find, you know... the image is really important to me, so being able to frame with reality there instead of... ok, I think there is going to be a thing there, so just look at this stick.
And the film is so expansive because of it... Where there any scenes or sequences that was more difficult to shoot, because the movie is so epic?
Alan Taylor: Yeah... you know I like epic... I feel not that uncomfortable with epic. What I find awkward and challenging was the process sometimes in which that is achieved. Not in Game of Thrones because we just shoot it. But here you shoot the wide shots in Iceland, then you come back to a parking lot in London and shoot the medium shots, and then two months later you shoot the close ups... and one of the actors was not available, so you green screen that person in... so that concoction is a process I find definitely weird. But the scale of it, you know, its great... mountains, horses, fire, things blowing up... that's not the hard part.
And how long of a process has this been from the time you signed on?
Alan Taylor: Well, I still can't believe it. It's been a two-year process from the time I signed on, living in London, and then up until now. Amazing...
And were you fairly familiar with Thor before you took on the project?
Alan Taylor: Well, we all were familiar with Thor, both as the God of Thunder and as a Marvel character... but that's about it. I mean I'd seen the images of him and never really read any of his stuff. And so when I first turned up they presented me with the full collected works, which were huge and insane. I don't know if you have ever seen the one where Loki is a girl and Thor is a frog?
No, I can't say I have...
Alan Taylor: Yeah, so I sort of caught up on some of that. But what I really love was reading the sagas and looking at Viking imagery and Celtic imagery and stuff like that... that was some of the homework I really loved.
So what is next for you? Can you say a little something about the new Terminator?
Alan Taylor: Ha-ha.. Yeah, I know it's funny... that rumor came out really early in the process; I think I had one phone conversation about it so I don't know who ratted me out. (Pause) Yeah, I probably shouldn't say anything about it... I'll just say it's still a rumor. (wink, wink).