Inside the Marvel machine with Thor: Ragnarok composer Mark Mothersbaugh

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Nov 6, 2017

Mark Mothersbaugh still isn't quite sure how he got the opportunity to compose the score for Thor: Ragnarok, but he is aware that his hiring was part of a long-in-the-making overhaul for the God of Thunder.

"It was a fortuitous situation where [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige decided to hire a director that I'd been interested in, and had never met or talked to, to do Thor 3," recalls the musician, who is also known as frontman of the legendary alternative rock act Devo. "It's a pretty strong franchise to begin with, and they thought, 'Well let's give somebody who's very creative a shot at it.' Then when they went through their list of composers that they've worked with, they said, 'How about Mark Mothersbaugh?' That was my lucky day, that he wanted me to work on it with him."

"He" was Taika Waititi, the Maori filmmaker whose eccentric indie films like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople somehow made him the ideal director to guide the God of Thunder into a whole new realm: the comedy genre. "We met and he had great ideas," says Mothersbaugh. "I liked his last movie a lot. It impressed me. That was the thing that really drew me in. Then when I saw the script, the script was great. We both agreed that there was some good reason for Marvel to have taken some hits on their scores in the past, and we thought well let's try and broaden the territory a little bit. That became my challenge."

With a list of some 200 credits to his name in film, TV and video games, ranging from the Rugrats TV series to Wes Anderson movies like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums to recent hits like 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie, Mothersbaugh had strangely never had the chance to work on a superhero movie before.

"I was curious what it would be like," he says. "I was curious about Marvel to be honest with you, because I've worked with just about every other studio. Probably I have worked with every other studio in town. Marvel and I just never crossed paths and I hadn't lost any sleep over it, but at the same time, I'd seen a number of Marvel movies with my kids and I'm a comic book fan since I was a kid, so I knew of all the characters. Thor was a character that I'd been interested in in the past, just as a reader of comic books."

Mothersbaugh says that his experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe was "really great," explaining, "I can tell you, having done as many shows as I've done, you can be cynical about this stuff and you go, 'Okay, I understand more about how people make bad movies than how they make good movies,' because you see a lot of people working on films that shouldn't be working on films. But Marvel, I have to say, I came in not knowing anything about it, and left very impressed."

He cites the hands-on work ethic of everyone on the Marvel staff, from the top down, as one of the reasons he came away impressed with the company. "Probably my other closest experience was working at Pixar, where everybody is really invested in the projects they're doing," Mothersbaugh remarks. "At Marvel, you meet Kevin, he's not like some name off in a castle somewhere doing business deals, with no idea what movies are coming out. He would come into our music sessions and he'd listen to my music with me, and we'd talk about music together. It made me appreciate him as someone who is really invested in what his company is, and he's part of it on an aesthetic level and he's really concerned about it on that level."

Well-known for the surreal post-punk futurism of Devo (whose biggest hit remains the classic "Whip It") as well as his irreverent scoring work to date, Mothersbaugh wanted to bring an anarchic rock 'n' roll spirit to Thor: Ragnarok that lined up perfectly with Waititi's goals for the movie. "Taika has some features about him that made me think of him as, early on, before I ever met him, as like a New Zealand Wes Anderson, who I had great experiences making movies with," says Mothersbaugh. "They have this kind of creativity and this way that they look at the world and deal with it artistically that to me is really interesting and is easy to be a collaborator in."

Mothersbaugh also believes that Waititi himself, used to working with much lower budgets and smaller operations, flourished within the larger confines of Marvel. "It was amazing to watch him because you know that every film he did up to now were these things where, after it's shot, it's just him and an editor in a room. Then all of a sudden he's coming into Disney with super high security, and a whole floor with thousands of people in here, with quite a few of them all dedicated to his project. It was the biggest army and the biggest machine he ever was in charge of. he was a little bit intimidated at times, but he loved it, I think.

"I think it was a good experience for him," Mothersbaugh continues. "It was for me. It was great for me to get to watch him come into Marvel, and adjust to him and Kevin working together as artists -- not as an executive telling a director what to do, but more like two guys working together to make something exciting."

For his part, Mothersbaugh -- who last toured with Devo in 2014 and may yet hit the road with them again at some point -- is confident that his work on Thor: Ragnarok isn't quite like any score the studio has featured in its previous 16 efforts.

"We might have upped the ante here on this film," he insists. "That's how I feel about it. I came up with themes for the characters, and in the case of Thor, I think that was one of the first things I did. I started writing just after reading the script the first time, then watching Taika's movie and then watching a couple of other Marvel things, I wrote a theme and did a nine-minute-long suite to play for Kevin and Taika. That's how we got started. I'm super proud of what I got to write because I feel like I got to touch all the bases."

Thor: Ragnarok is out in theaters now, as if you didn't know.