What's better than a group of hot directors gathering to discuss their craft, as well as their upcoming projects? Some things, we imagine, but not many. Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), Drew Goddard (Bad Times at the El Royale), and Simon Kinberg (Dark Phoenix) gathered together at New York Comic Con 2018 to do just that, and it was a highly interesting hour for everyone who attended. But for all of the inspiration and admiration flying around the room faster than Mjolnir, it was Waititi who drew the biggest laughs, applause, and... mayhem, really. In a good way.
Hosted by Entertainment Weekly, the panel began by going over each panelist's most formative pop culture experience. Goddard answered the quickest, saying it was Big Trouble in Little China. They had actually just been discussing that film backstage (like you do), and Goddard said that he must have seen it "6 zillion times" when he was younger. Calling it "insane in every way," he stressed the importance of the "Carpenter aesthetic."
For Kinberg, it was Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. This makes sense for a man who not only worked on Star Wars Rebels but is also still attached to work on one of the upcoming Star Wars stand-alone feature films. He was amazed that a movie could be fun and disturbing at the same time, and also that the ending could be left open. As he said, “At the end of that film, I said, 'I want to do that.' I don’t know if I meant a Jedi or what…”
For Waititi, it was all about Flash Gordon. He called Queen "one of the greatest bands ever," and said he loves "badly made sets and crappy costumes." When thinking about it, you can definitely see the Flash Gordon influence all over Thor: Ragnarok.
In terms of breakthrough moments, Kinberg admitted that his was not his screenwriting on the sequel to xXx, but rather writing Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a script that one of his Columbia professors liked enough to push along. "Obviously, a very big break," he said.
Waititi referenced his short film, 2005's Two Cars, One Night, which received an Oscar nomination, then joked that he fell in love with filmmaking "through being nominated for Oscars." When asked by the moderator if he actually made the trip to the ceremony (from his native New Zealand), he quietly admitted that he had. "We lost, so it was bittersweet," he said, almost mocking up some tears.
Goddard and Kinberg certainly started on the writing end of things, so what brought them into directing? Goddard, who was mentored by Joss Whedon, said that Whedon's approach to writing was always cinematic — they powered the filmmakers in that way, so when it came time for the epic genre subversion of The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard sitting in the director's chair was "a natural part of the process."
It was also a natural progression for Kinberg, who has been involved with almost every X-Men-based film there is. Bryan Singer didn't want to come back, and all of the cast and crew already knew Kinberg well — as he said, "It felt like it was time to direct." After saying that it "had to be the right movie," he was asked about the movie he's directing, Dark Phoenix. He got a big laugh when he said, “I’m sorry for X-Men 3. We tried to tell the 'Dark Phoenix' story and we didn’t do it properly.” This time there will be no cure subplot or anything non-Phoenix-related — it will be hugely cosmic, Jean-centric, and "a character movie that will feel grounded and fun." Jessica Chastain will play an alien, and that's all he would reveal about her character.
When it comes to playing around with genre, Goddard is of the mindset that "you can only do it when you’re a fan.” If you’re not, then audiences can tell. He recounts that Cabin took the "kids in a garage making a movie" approach, almost like a bank robbery, tricking the studio, and that the plug could be pulled any time. He remembers thinking, eh, screw it, “Start squirting blood mer-man!"
Waititi said that he hadn't read much of the Thor comics, "but I tried to," as he said. "I could read." This drew more laughs from the audience, and a long pause from the moderator. Getting serious for a moment, he did say that he mostly fell in love with the original Jack Kirby art, and the cosmic side of things, including the rainbow bridge. He also said that he "made sure the characters were lovable, that the audience would want to be with these characters.” Wanting to include big, lofty ideas as well as life lessons, he definitely aimed to "raise the genre" and to make the audience feel like he did when he originally read the comics.
The conversation then turned to Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth, who both Waititi and Goddard have directed. Goddard cast him in Cabin because of all the guys who came in to audition for his role, Hemsworth was the only one who played the person and not the jock. He said it was definitely one of those "sit up in the chair" moments. Hemsworth reunited with Goddard to film the upcoming Bad Times at the El Royale, which Goddard says started with "a love of crime fiction and crime cinema."
Waititi jumped on the Hemsworth love bridge, saying that they both wanted to take Thor into a new direction. If anything, Waititi wanted to make him more like Hemsworth himself in real life.
Does Waititi want to be a part of Hollywood, or does he like being on the outside in New Zealand? "I like being a part of it, I want to be a part of it, I want to hang out with you guys, don’t shut me out. Also I like where I’m from, I like the distance, perspective... this is kind of a trick question.” He briefly described his new film, called Jojo Rabbit, which features a little boy who, as Taika says, "Wants to be the best Nazi he can be." He sees the spirit of Hitler everywhere (played by Waititi), and unfortunately then finds that his mother (Scarlett Johanssen) is hiding someone in their house. “It’s comedy, there’s some sadness in it too, really selling this, this is my pitch," he said. When Kinberg said that is sounded good, Waititi replied, "No one’s gonna see it.” He then proceeded to talk for two minutes about how he had shaved a few days prior, and why his mustache was looking the way that it was. He invited Kinberg to talk about his beard, but Kinberg did not take the bearded bait.
In terms of the new television show based on his hit film What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi said that he's really just executive-producing, and that he may direct a couple of episodes. The show will be set in New York, and will have a different set of characters — it's the same universe, just a different crew and a different set of vampires. Most exciting of all, Waititi reiterated that the characters from the film still exist in the world of this show, and that “there’s a chance there could be some crossover.” This was met with great enthusiasm from the crowd.
Both Goddard and Kinberg enjoy working in television, with Goddard still involved in The Good Place. Kinberg note that television is bolder, "riskier, and from a storytelling perspective, more diverse." He added that one of his upcoming projects is The Twilight Zone, with Jordan Peele. For him, "TV is the place where you can tell these genre stories and smuggle other kinds of messages in."
Goddard started talking about two books he's currently adapting, one of which Kinberg is producing. Waititi then leaned over and asked if he had a place in it anywhere. Kinberg was quick to remind Waititi that he wanted to cast him as Boba Fett, and Waititi gave everyone a hint of what he would have looked like, covering his face with his hands. The moderator used this opportunity to mention that Waititi is one of the directors on Jon Favreau's live-action Star Wars TV show, The Mandalorian. Waititi did not share any details about that, but he did say, “I don’t need to tell you, I’m very excited.”
When it comes to pleasing everyone vs. pleasing the superfans, Goddard simply said, "Don’t work on things you're not a fan of.” Kinberg agreed, but said that when it's an adaptation of something, different rules apply. You want to be true to the source material, "But you don't want to be literal." Waititi added that he liked reading negative tweets directed at him. He also added once again that it all comes down to story, and everyone agreed.
That's when the subject of easter eggs was brought up, and Waititi decided to take the question head on. “I love easter eggs... holidays in general, chocolate, candy... season of giving, being thankful... just being happy with family, love Christmas, you name it, you name a holiday, I’m there. Next question.”
The audience lost it, and that ended that line of questioning. The moderator tried to get things back on track by asking whether Goddard or Kinberg is active on social media (Goddard is not, Kinberg is a little), but Waititi crashed through again, saying he had Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace. It was then that he told the moderator, “I’m happy to leave if you want me to leave." She didn't want that, and neither did the audience.
In terms of sequels, Waititi said that he's less in favor of them since the panel had taken place. Kinberg said that they had planned on a Mr. and Mrs. Smith sequel at one point: "It seemed like the timing was really, really good... and then the timing wasn’t good.”
When asked about what other artists they liked at the moment (aside from each other), Goddard mentioned Leave No Trace, saying that director Debra Granik was very underrated. Kinberg is a fan of Fleabag and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Waititi said, “I’m trying not to talk too much.”
Finally, the future of superhero movies was addressed. Kinberg said, "It's a renaissance that's been going on for 20 years.” It's the dominant pop culture form, and “It can do any genre." He added that "more and more subgenres are being smuggled in." Waititi said that things should keep going well, as Marvel (the MCU in particular) is always surprising audiences — every time people think they have them pinned, Marvel's one step ahead. Goddard summed it up well when he noted that the movies are like the boxes of comics he'd get on Wednesdays: "A box of 40 different genres."
A fun and festive holiday time was had by all.
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