Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

The latest filmmaker to play in the Marvel sandbox is New Zealander Taika Waititi, and he’s made the most out of his opportunity. “Thor: Ragnarok” is by some estimates the most critically acclaimed Marvel movie yet. It’s a vibrant burst of color and imagination and a unique voice in the comic book movie spectrum.

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Some might not know that Waititi is an Oscar nominee. His short film “Two Cars, One Night” was recognized by the film Academy in 2004, launching a completely unintended career.

“I was very flattered but also I wasn’t really planning on being a filmmaker,” Waititi says. “Once that happened, I was encouraged by a lot of people and the pressure was on to become a filmmaker. So it was more like an arranged marriage. I sort of felt forced into it. Luckily I haven’t regretted it, but yeah, I just made that short film to experience making a film, and then the next thing I knew, everybody was calling me a filmmaker. So I had to learn very quick.”

Waititi learned his trade initially like anyone else, watching and admiring films, particularly classics of 1970s American cinema. Movies like “The Graduate,” “Badlands,” and Hal Ashby’s oeuvre spoke to him most, as well as the bold strokes of Korean cinema. With the latest installment of the Marvel thunder god’s odyssey, Waititi saw an opportunity to apply his fingerprints to a sprawling cinematic universe.

“With ‘Thor,’ I felt like that was the one franchise that had the most potential to be shaped into something new, because it didn’t quite know itself as well as the other franchises knew themselves,” Waititi says. “There wasn’t quite a distinct voice there yet, so I thought this was something I could bring a lot of myself and my voice and my style to.”

Among the projects on deck for Waititi is “Bubbles,” from writer Isaac Adamson’s celebrated Black List script. The film tells Michael Jackson’s story through the eyes of his pet chimpanzee, Bubbles, and Waititi plans to make it a stop-motion animated film along with Burbank-based Starburns Industries (“Anomalisa”).

“I’m stoked to be involved with that. It’s almost like a great antidote for what I’ve been doing for two years,” Waititi says. “The subject is amazing to me, the idea of looking at the life of one of my huge heroes through the eyes of one of his pets. It aligns with a lot of my other work very much; we often look at the adult world through the eyes of kids, and this is a similar thing, really. His master, I guess, is as much a prisoner or is living in a cage as much as Bubbles is. I’m keen on exploring that side of it.”

For more, including thoughts on writing initial drafts of Disney’s “Moana” and bringing the world of Jack Kirby to physical life, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Taika Waititi photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety