At no point could the producers governing the “Thor” franchise be accused of going for the obvious. Oscar-nominated English classicist Kenneth Branagh was about the last person you might have thought of to direct a superhero blockbuster, but the counterintuitive gamble paid off: Branagh's grounding in Shakespeare gave the 2011 film a literate weight and wit, and we can thank him for giving us the then little-known Tom Hiddleston as Loki.
In picking Branagh's successor for “Thor: The Dark World,” Marvel were obviously determined to think outside the box again “Monster” director Patty Jenkins was attached at one point, but the man who eventually got the gig was similarly unexpected, and not only because he hasn't directed a feature film in 10 years. Instead, Alan Taylor has been one of HBO's most invaluable properties: a stylish, versatile director of episodes from virtually every one of the network's celebrated shows, from “Sex and the City” to “Deadwood” to “Boardwalk Empire.” He won an Emmy for “The Sopranos” and has been nominated “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.”
It's his work on the latter, presumably, that caught Marvel's eye, and Taylor himself regards the epic fantasy series as having provided suitable training for his arrival in Asgard. Speaking to us on the London set of the film in October last year, he says: “'Game of Thrones' was the first fantasy thing I've done, and like a lot of people who now enjoy the show, I didn't expect to respond to that world. But when I started doing it, I really started to love it. I started to realize that some of the things I'm naturally drawn to – a kind of epic-scale imagery – is also grounded in these new relationships. That's sort of what you can find in 'Thor' as well.”
Taylor, who jokingly describes himself as a “recovering TV director,” found the experience of joining an existing film franchise not unlike coming on board an established TV series. “There is an episodic quality to it,” he says, “because it's Volume Two of something that's already been established. And like in television, I try and put my stamp on what's already been established, and see what I can do to give it my sensibility.”
That involved making some changes to Kenneth Branagh's vision for “Thor” – which, much as Taylor respected it, didn't match what he had in mind for that story world. He explains: “The Branagh movie was very successful. He brought together an amazing cast and focused what could have been a huge rambling mythology on varying intimate family relations: brother versus brother, father and son. That was all brilliant.
“The only qualm I had with his movie was the look of it: to me, it felt too shiny and brand new. I understand the choice: it's basically because the Asgardians were very much a futuristic alien race that we mistook for gods. But when I came in, I was in love with the Norse mythology. I was in love with grounding it more into a Viking or medieval look, with a sense of history and weight.”
Marvel was in favour of the shift, which again tapped into Taylor's experience on “Game of Thrones.” “We enjoyed combining fantasy with some sense of three-dimensionality and real life [on 'Thrones'], so that's what I tried to bring in here,” he says. “It's a funny balancing act. You have to be funny, in the way that Marvel's funny, and you have to be true to some pretty absurd things, like elves in spaceships. And then try to make that all relatable and real and textured.
“For example, we're seeing the back streets of Asgard rather than the shiny, golden palace. We do go into some shiny palace rooms, but we tend to blow them up this time. And on Earth, we're trying to capture contemporary London. So, ideally, you'll have all the pleasures of something that feels real, but also all of the joys that go with a Marvel movie. We'll see whether we're pulling off this combination or not.”
Having also worked on “Deadwood” and “Rome,” Taylor admits to being fascinated by projects with a degree of historical context: “I was going to be a history professor before I sold out and went into TV, so things that evoke that are really exciting to me. And Thor, even though he's a Marvel character, is also obviously deeply rooted in Norse mythology. And you can see the look of our sets is deeply embedded or drawn from numerous sources and Celtic sources. I love drawing on past cultures. That's a thrill to me.”
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