Though it pains (not really) me to say it, Joss Whedon’s bang up job on The Avengers is responsible for me ever seeing Thor (and Captain America: The First Avenger); watching the films out of sequence wasn’t half bad. Whichever order you happen to choose, Chris Hemsworth’s performances are outstanding—he clearly was born to play an amusing and beefy god. (Hiddleston’s Loki, on the other hand, had a clear progression of character and is probably better appreciated when the movies are seen as intended.) Whatever stuffy impressions you may have had of Branagh should quickly drop away as you watch his thoughtful take on the genre and if you have the DVD, the director’s commentary is interesting and entertaining.
1. Thor is based on Stan Lee’s comic book hero, who is in turn based on the Norse mythological god. Director Kenneth Branagh (Sleuth, Hamlet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Dead Again, Henry V) was the sixth director attached to the film project, after Sam Rami, David S. Goyer, Matthew Vaughn, Guillermo del Toro and D. J. Caruso. The director opened by saying “Everyone calls me Ken, feel free to do so if you want to talk to me during the commentary.”
2. In 2008, Branagh was asked by Marvel to direct and one of the first things he decided was to start the film on Earth, specifically New Mexico. He chose the state for its big sky and sense of immensity, feeling it was “a strong mirror for the epic landscapes off Earth.” Branagh and Federico D’Alessandro (The Avengers, I Am Legend, Captain America: The First Avenger) storyboarded the opening teaser that introduced the Earth characters: Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). The auroras were modeled after real images being seen around the world at the time—Branagh said “Every time someone saw something over Moscow or Finland, we’d talk about, and figure out how closely we could mirror actual events.” The director also wanted to start the movie with “a big bang;” the Earth characters racing and chasing, hitting Thor and then a big question mark—where did he come from? Next he introduced the thematic world of the larger Thor universe, with Scandinavian influences, fjords and Tønsberg, Norway. He used “condensed storytelling” to introduce the Viking element and bring about the Frost Giants’ arrival.
3. The Frost Giants were “technically designed, real actors in make-up, and computer generated images of them. Of Colm Feore (“The Borgias, 24,” Face Off), who played King Laufey, Branagh said he found him “wonderfully charismatic against Hopkins.” It took five to six hours to complete Feore’s full body make-up (by Legacy Effects). “He is an example of the kind of actor who can use the make-up, allow it to inform who he is; his acting comes from down under.” The director called Hopkins “luxury casting; if you’re casting someone who runs the universe, Hopkins is your man.” Young Thor and Loki (Dakota Goyo, Ted Allpress) remarkably “captured the essence of the older actors” and had fun with Hopkins.
4. Branagh strived for “relative reality in a superhero world.” He wanted “…sets with real people so that when they went to an entirely computer generated scene, it still feels real.” The hall, throne and giant crown were (part of a set) built by Bo Welch (Men in Black, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Land of the Lost) and his construction team; “…the golden walls and floor are technologically advanced, but they call back to ancient cultures and weapons. They made a difference for Hemsworth, embodying the space like he owns it.”
Branagh loved the combination of ancient and modern, like Loki wearing a horn helmet inside the “super sci-fi quality world.”
5. Of the director’s first early-on meeting with Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods, Star Trek , Snow White and the Huntsman), Branagh said it was “A little unsuccessful,” noting the actor had a cold. Afterwards, he met with people from all over the world and knew more about who Thor was. They needed the character to change, he couldn’t be just muscle or brute force. Chris was brought back in: “He workshopped, tested and he owned it. He took the part by the scruff of the neck and showed himself to be a natural screen actor…I feel very, very lucky that the film has him at its heart. He is able to carry the movie.” Hemsworth completed “six to nine months of intense work at the gym.” Branagh said he felt funny when he asked the actor if he minded taking off his shirt—Hemsworth replied, “I’ve been doing this nine months, of course I’ll take it off!”
6. Branagh said he enjoyed the shot of the red Crocs in this hospital scene; the film used a color scheme that mirrored Thor’s costume.
The director also said he laughs every time he sees Thor get hit by the van.
7. Specific items were placed in Odin’s vault. Branagh posed questions to discriminating fans: “What are those additional items in the alcove and vault? What else was in the vault?” Wherever he could, Branagh offered “an indication that elements might feature elsewhere.”
(As identified by multiple sources: The Eternal Flame, The Orb of Agamotto, The Tablet of Life and Time, The Infinity Gauntlet, The Warlock’s Eye.)
8. In the comics, the Rainbow Bridge leads from and to Earth. “It took many months to design and perfect. We tried every experiment; the bridge and light change the way people look when they walk on it. We researched modern plastic, quartz, crystals, every kind of fusion with light sources that would play into the story.” Visual Effects Supervisor Wesley Sewell (Iron Man, Gladiator, American Gangster, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger) designed one inch thick plexiglass platforms covered in Mylar sheeting for the actors to walk on; green screens were hung to add colored reflections, and additional visual effects were completed by BUF. Bo Welch built Heimdall’s (Heimdallr) (Idris Elba) observatory.
9. The casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall was controversial among comic book fans, some of whom thought a black man should not be playing a Norse god. Elba called the debate “ridiculous,” adding “We have a man [Thor] who has a flying hammer and wears horns on his head. And yet me being an actor of African descent playing a Norse god is unbelievable? I mean, Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor, and Gandhi was played by Ben Kingsley.” Branagh echoed the actor’s sentiment; “Idris Elba is a fantastic actor—we were lucky to get him. He provides all the characteristics we need from Asgard’s gatekeeper, the man who says, ‘Thou shalt not pass’. When Idris Elba says that, you know you’re gonna have a problem. He’s smart, intelligent, handsome and an absolute joy to work with. If you have a chance to have a great actor in the part, everything else is irrelevant. If you’re going to say the colour of his skin matters in a story like this, look at 50 years of Thor comics to see how many ways great artists have bent alleged ‘rules’. Look at the Norse myths to see the way they confounded and contradicted themselves. That whole ‘controversy’ was a surprising—and daft—moment.”
10. Jotunheim (Jötunheimr), the city of ice and home of the Frost Giants, was part set and part CGI by Digital Domain, supervised by Kelly Port (Lord of the Rings, Titanic, Star Trek , Gran Torino). “The biggest challenge was the environment of Jotunheim. There was a lot of back and forth design wise about getting that balance between rock and ice so that it’s not a pure white environment, and getting the architecture to look decayed enough so that you still see the remnants of a once great civilization. But we ended up creating quite a few buildings and because we’re seeing it in a prologue sequence as well, where it looks pristine, we had to make all those buildings in a few different variations.” (Port)
11. Branagh: “The Frost Beast was created halfway through post-production. We needed an additional element to the thousands of Frost Giants.” Kelly Port: “The Frost Beast is anatomically like a cat but it charges like a rhino. It has fleshy tusks at the head and a big, bulbous head used for crashing through but also talons that it can grip the ice with. We were trying to create a creature that has evolved in this icy environment. Skin-wise, it’s like a rancor beast/rhino.”
12. Academy Award winning Costume Designer, Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Hamlet, Finding Neverland, The Phantom of the Opera) designed Thor’s costume, which was influenced by both comics and Norse myth. Thor’s cape provided the biggest challenge, since Hemsworth needed to be able to be very physical while wearing it; “…people kept saying the cape needed to be added in post-production because a real cape wouldn’t work. The cape needed to look both completely believable and sublimely magical. In the comic books, Kirby used it as a great graphic device for movement, tension and drama. So our cape needed that amount of expression. It also had to frame Chris’s shape and proportion when he’s not moving, and then billow, move and fly with him when he’s fighting. It’s easy to make a cape do all that in a drawing, but not so easy with a piece of fabric.” (Byrne) After experimenting with fabric weights and dyes—“We had a graveyard of capes that didn’t work”—the right combination was finally found. Byrne was nominated for the 2011 Saturn Award for Costume Design (winner to be announced June 12, 2012).
13. Branagh wanted each character to have a signature move and his general philosophy was to put the audience as close to the fights as possible. “Taking your eye off the action for even a second would be dangerous.” The director worked with Second Unit Director Vic Armstrong (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Green Hornet, Salt, I Am Legend, The Golden Compass) and the team to find out what every individual’s gifts were—they did a “boot camp.”
14. The director had previously worked with Tom Hiddleston (Loki) in theater and on television. At the time Branagh got the directing gig, the two were appearing together onstage in Ivanov and Hiddleston “…ran up to Ken’s dressing room holding a massive empty water cooler that I pretended was Thor’s hammer. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t joke, love, you never know.’” Though Hiddleston bulked up and was among the final five, including Chris’s younger brother Liam Hemsworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlie Hunnam and another Swedish actor, he didn’t get the title role. Of Tom’s take on Loki, Branagh said “He brings intellectual complexity, swiftness of thought, sense of humor, (and) enormous research. He got on great with Chris.” Hiddleston worked with daggers and sword-fighting (his “gift”).
15. “Puente Antiguo” was a build on Tom Ford’s Ranch in New Mexico—also featured in Silverado and Appaloosa—Branagh used remodeled frontages and created what he wanted to be a “heightened version of America he’d enjoyed seeing in comics. A vast sea of desert, as Asgard sits in sea of space…Edward Hopperish…an intensely colored, small-town America (that is) immensely attractive. We wanted to have Thor land in a coherent environment and community, so when it’s threatened, it deserves to be saved.” Branagh loved the “Welcome to the home of the Vikings” sign on the water tower. The director wanted “…complete control—not to have to worry about stopping traffic or shutting down a real town.”
16. The director used tilted angles throughout the film because that’s how he remembers comic book frames. “We used wide angled lenses with lots of depth.” 3-D was discussed early on, but Branagh didn’t want to shoot in 3-D, he wanted to work with the actors. “I wasn’t confident.” He later investigated converting in post-production. “At Comic-Con, we worked out how could enhance (the film). You layer out the depth between warriors and the background—it puts you in the picture. We worked on the depth script and found you could avoid the headache-inducing, eye-hurting kind of quality that is a product of rushed 3-D.”
17. Stan Lee, Thor’s creator, appears as the truck driver who asks, “Did it work?” Branagh said fans of the comic book have seen this (men trying to pick up hammer) many times. The director had lunch with Lee before shooting, (He is) “extraordinary, a mixture of energy, intelligence and kindness. His insight and generosity are incredible—he told us to do with the character what we would.”
18. Of shooting the scenes with The Destroyer, Branagh first spoke of the weather being a challenge: “There were four seasons in a day; 50 mph winds, snow, hail, rain. It was difficult to work out when we could shoot. We had to work out how to shoot it all and in what order. It was complicated; when the bombs would go off, when things in road would be buried, when the Second Unit could come in and shoot. Sometimes (the Destroyer was) a complete, replicated model, sometimes (it was) a large pair of lighting clamps with some gaffer tape at top of it to indicate what the Destroyer looked like.” Branagh and the assistant AD would call out across megaphones—over wind—exactly what was happening: “Jamie (Alexander [Sif]), there’s smoke on your left, the destroyer is on your right! The scene was not against green screen; there was actual debris and it was shot live.”
“Clark Greg (Agent Coulson) was very funny reading with Thor. This lays out the possibility of more stories.”
Branagh explained, “Thor is finally a grown up. He’s willing to give up anything, must be able as a great leader, be prepared to sacrifice everything, even his life. He’s doing what has to be done, what a hero would do. (It’s a) High Noon moment. We maintain surprise about how Loki would react to this. We see the symbolic death of who Thor was—he was selfish and had to become worthy in an act of sacrifice. We discussed over and over, emotionally, visually, effectually, how to bring the moment together. The musical key was written three to five times. What could Thor do to trounce the destroyer? Two things needed to happen and needed to happen quickly. We needed an example of the awesome restored power of Thor and he needs to get back home. He had to take care of business, efficiently and spectacularly.”
19. As the credits rolled, Branagh said the question he is most asked is, ‘How on earth do you possibly even start to direct a film like Thor?’ “The answer is unfolding—all of the people in the credits. I was uniquely blessed with talent and kindness of people with whom I worked. Some people have said there are Shakespearean connections…if there are, it’s about fathers and sons.”
The director spoke to Joss (Whedon) just before Whedon did the little Avengers) sneak peak at Thor’s end. Branagh was “especially pleased” to see Dr. Selvig, and was intrigued by it himself.
20. Branagh wanted to put in a simple explanation that Thursday comes from Thor; “Thor’s Day.” Tuesday and Friday are also traced to Norse gods (Tiw/Týr and Fríge), Wednesday to a Germanic god (Wodan) and Saturday, a Roman god (Saturn).