Interview: Alan Taylor Blends Sci-Fi and Fantasy For ‘Thor: The Dark World’

By  · Published on November 7th, 2013

Thor: The Dark World may be director Alan Taylor’s first feature film, but this isn’t his first rodeo behind the camera. Far from it, actually. Taylor has directed episodes for some of your favorite television shows: Mad Men, Deadwood, Rome, Bored to Death, and The Sopranos. Taylor brought those series to real highs. For The Sopranos, he helmed the episode where Tony killed his nephew Christopher ‐ one of the most dramatic moments of that series.

But it was Taylor’s time on Game of Thrones that landed him Thor: The Dark World. The first Thor often felt like more of a cartoon than a movie, and Marvel wanted to ground those rainbow bridges for the sequel. That doesn’t mean Thor: The Dark World is a gritty, humorless experience, but has a “dirt” to it, which is how Alan Taylor describes the style of the film.

Speaking with Taylor from the London junket, he went into the differences between television and film, directing his first feature, and Marvel’s Kevin Feige.

Enjoying London?

It’s great to be back, because we shot here and I love this place. It just made me realize how damn long I’ve been on this movie. My goodness, it’s been a while. We shot here last year and finished at Christmas. Now, I’m back promoting the film.

Directing for television isn’t as big of a commitment. With how long a film like Thor: The Dark World takes, is that why we’re only now seeing your first feature?

Yeah. It’s been a twisty-turny path for me. I was studying to be a history professor, and then I left that, went to film school, and tried to be like my heroes, like, Spike Lee and Hal Hartly. Then I came out and was around when the golden age of television started to creep up. I had been trying to make movies, but they were really hard to get made. TV wound up, by surprise, a much for fulfilling place to work. That said, I’ve always been drawn to make movies. There’s a way in which filmmaking is a director’s medium and television is a writer’s medium, so even as TV gets more cinematic, it’s still guided by the writer. Now that I’ve experienced a big movie like this I see the virtues of both. I would hope to go back and forth between the two.

The biggest difference is how much the script drives television, whereas here there’s a lot of things driving the train, and the script is just one of them. That’s a process we have to get used to.

For television, you’re shooting for the small screen. When you make a film, does the way you think visually have to change?

I don’t [change], but I think it’s because when I got into television there was already a pretty cinematic approach. When doing Rome, Deadwood, The Sopranos, and the pilot for Mad Men, we were very image conscious. We didn’t feel the need to fallback on what television usually does: short cross-cutting close-ups. It felt like a more cinematic band on television, even though it was to be seen on the small screen. I love staging action and wide-shots, not necessarily going to close-ups. The approach isn’t much different than what I brought to this one. I don’t know…you’re asking me questions that are actually having me think.

Well, sorry. I’ll stop.

Yeah, stop! No, it’s funny, because on the one hand I do think television has gotten more cinematic, but on the other hand there is a basic language in television which is standard coverage of medium shot, close-up, medium shot, close-up, and close-up. That’s the basic method for a lot of stuff, and that’s very common in movies these days. I’m always very thrilled when I see filmmakers who are not tied to that style of shooting. Paul Thomas Anderson does entire scenes in one-take and we just all had our minds blown by Gravity where you can’t even describe the shots.

Visually speaking this sequel departs from the first film. When you were approached, was there already the idea of grounding Asgard or did you pitch that aesthetic?

I would say both. It’s not like I walked in and said, “This is what I want!” You’re still auditioning when you go in. I only had one meeting with Marvel and I said I loved the mythology and opportunity. I said, “If I did it, I’d want to make the world seem real, go on location, make the Earth portions seem contemporary, and make everything feel lived in.” On the other side, I think they came to that decision themselves as well.

I was not the only director from Game of Thrones they were looking at. There were two other guys they were considering, and I think it’s because they were trying to find ways to dirty it up a little bit. I think it was a mutual decision, but it was an idea I had about darkening it a bit. Halfway through shooting Disney called it “The Dark World,” so it all made sense. I did think, “Oh wait, I’m darkening it and dirtying it, but this is the Marvel universe. I better make sure it’s funny too.”

Before working on a tentpole film, you likely had preconceptions. What expectations did you have and were they met?

Well, they were and they weren’t, for better and for worse. I think my wife would attest I can see the negatives in almost anything, so going into it, I had the worst possible expectations. I had a friend who had recently done his first studio movie and he emailed me saying, “You have no idea. Nobody here gives a flying fuck what I think.” [Laughs] I thought, “Okay, great! That’s what it’s like making a studio movie, in particular a sequel in a franchise owned by an even bigger corporation.” I went in with the worst expectations, but I was completely unprepared I’d have so much input, being treated like a director when it came to the design, and I had more freedom than ever before shooting it. Then there was an inverse surprise that came later in the post-production period. There was a lot of shifting things around, condensing, and stuff that…that was, you know, hard to get through.

In a way, I came in expecting the worst, but I was surprised by the reality of making of a movie of this scale with a lot of collaboration. The great thing about Marvel ‐ and the most surprising thing ‐ is, despite being a huge operation with movies that make a lot of money, it’s a very tiny, tiny operation. There’s one very smart guy, Kevin Feige, who you’re collaborating with ‐ it’s really one guy. If you’re in a room with him, you work it out together.

Even though they’ve been wildly successful, they’re still a young studio. Is there a confidence there or are they still cautious?

I think they’re very aware they’re young, scrappy, and lucky [Laughs]. They don’t take anything for granted and they push themselves very hard. When I say themselves, I almost mean entirely Kevin. He’s always looking for ways to make a movie more satisfying for an audience. You know, as the bar gets raised and expectations are exceeded, he keeps raising the bar on himself. I think they know they’re doing something right, but they’re not cutting themselves any slack either. They tend to work long, hard hours.

Thor: The Dark World is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.