Although the Australian filmmaker had been working for over 20 years, there was almost nothing about her career that suggested she was the right fit to direct “Black Widow,” the long awaited solo movie for Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger. Shortland’s three theatrical features — 2004’s “Somersault,” 2012’s “Lore” and 2017’s “Berlin Syndrome” — are all centered around a young woman in harrowing circumstances.
But they barely got a domestic release (combined, they’ve earned just $4.2 million worldwide), and they’re about as far from superhero stories as one could find: deliberately paced, intimately scaled and dedicated to exploring the perilous, ordinary humanity of their protagonists.
So she turned Marvel down — or, at least, she tried to. “I told my manager in L.A., ‘There’s no way I can do this movie, and I’m not sure why they’re asking me. It’s crazy, the whole endeavor,'” Shortland says. “And then she never told them no.”
The reason Marvel was asking, it turns out, is because Johansson wanted them to.
“One of the wonderful things about working for Marvel and their track record is a lot of incredible people raise their hand to work on these films,” the actor says. “But it was only Cate for me from the beginning.”
Johansson was particularly enamored with Shortland’s second film, “Lore.” Set in the waning days of World War II, the film follows a teenage German girl who struggles to keep her younger siblings alive while also shedding a lifetime of Nazi indoctrination instilled by her parents. The movie earned Shortland wide acclaim, and was Australia’s submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
“It was very important to me that the person that directed this film had to have made a masterpiece and then some other good movies,” Johansson says with a laugh. “One masterpiece, you know? And I really think ‘Lore’ is really so close to — I mean, it’s a perfect film.”
So Johansson reached out to Shortland to try to woo her — which, given Shortland’s major misgivings, wasn’t easy. “She was very elusive,” Johansson says. “It was very hard to find her.”
Even when the two finally did connect, the topic of directing “Black Widow” was deftly avoided.
“We were quite tentative with each other,” Shortland says. “She told me how much she had liked some of my movies, and then I told her how much I have liked some of her performances. It was like a courtship. We made lists of, like, our top 20 favorite songs, and our top 20 favorite movies, and our top 20 favorite things, and we sent them to each other. And I remember the first time we Zoomed, my daughter was in the house. I was like, ‘Oh sorry, my daughter is making a lot of noise.’ And Scarlett said, ‘Oh, can I meet your daughter?’ What I got from that was she didn’t change when she spoke to me or my daughter. And that’s where I became very inquisitive about who she was, because that’s a rare thing.”
As Shortland kept thinking about the job, she started watching more Marvel Studios films — she’d seen only “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” — but further exposure to the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe did little to convince Shortland that she should join it.
“It didn’t get less crazy,” she says. “It got more crazy.”
“Black Widow,” however, was by its nature going to be a different kind of Marvel Studios movie. For one, as everyone who’s seen “Avengers: Endgame” knows, Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff dies in that film sacrificing herself for the greater good; “Black Widow” is a prequel set in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” when Natasha is a fugitive. So comparatively speaking, “Black Widow” could exist on its own terms more than most other MCU movies, which have been obligated to help weave a far grander narrative tapestry.
For another, this would be the MCU’s first movie in which the title hero is just a regular person — no super strength, magic hammers, powerful super-suits, vast fortunes or cosmic parentage: just an ex-Russian spy and assassin armed with her wits, guile, and physical prowess.
As hard as it was for Shortland to imagine herself at the helm of a superhero movie, the creative opportunities offered by “Black Widow” ultimately proved too tantalizing for her to let pass by.
“I got hooked on the idea of trying to tell a really personal, intimate story in amongst so much beauty and spectacle,” she says. “When I really decided that I wanted to do it, I decided 150% — like, I never wanted to do anything as much as this, in a way. It was strange.”
Despite being, as she puts it, “really broke,” Shortland paid an editor $10,000 to help her cut together a kind of audition piece of inspiration — drawing from films like “No Country for Old Men” and “Sicario” — for what she envisioned the film could be, which she screened for Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, top executives Louis D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso, and development executives Brad Winderbaum and Brian Chapek.
“It had to be really gritty and dark, because otherwise, if she’s too Teflon coated, I wasn’t going to care about her,” she says. “I really wanted the film to be a fairground ride, but at the same time, I knew we had to honor who she was. And then it became about, okay, who do we bring into this story who’s going to open up those chinks?”
Between Shortland’s pitch and Johansson’s enthusiastic endorsement, Shortland ultimately landed the director’s chair. Amma Asante, Maggie Betts, Melanie Laurent, and Kimberly Peirce also reportedly vied for the position, but Shortland says she wasn’t privy to that part of the process. And she also shakes off a question about Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”), who said in 2018 that she declined to pursue “Black Widow” after she says Marvel execs told her, “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.”
The story only reinforced a persistent perception, fair or not, that Marvel hires directors with little experience in action filmmaking for better control of the final product and to maintain an overall house style. On paper, Shortland would seem to be exactly the kind of filmmaker at risk for that sort of treatment, but she says she had “the opposite” experience.
“I couldn’t have done a movie like that,” she says.
Much like her audition reel, Shortland says that once she did have the job, she cut together a 10-minute sequence “of what we could explore physically” in the action scenes for “Black Widow.” She looked at everything from contemporary dance to scenes where a man was exerting a kind of physical dominance over a woman that is far more commonplace in the real world than has been the case for Natasha Romanoff in the MCU.
“Like where a man would shove a woman into a wall or push a woman onto the ground,” she says. “So that we could make the audience feel something. I was always about how do we make them feel?”
Based on that reel, Shortland worked with Winderbaum and Chapek to hire a second unit director who could match her vision, ultimately deciding on veteran stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott (“Black Panther,” the “John Wick” franchise).
“And then we all collaborated the whole way through,” she says. “Darrin and I were often on set together, and we ended up shooting some of the fights for two weeks. So I would do four days, and then he would do three days.”
Throughout, Shortland pushed for the action to reinforce the visceral nature of Natasha’s world. For the first encounter between Natasha and Taskmaster — the mysterious assassin capable of matching anyone’s fighting style beat for beat — the director gave the stunt team a vivid set of instructions.
“I said I wanted it to feel like she was hitchhiking or she was walking to a train station and she got attacked by a stranger,” she says. “So there’s moments in that fight — because she’s fighting somebody who is so formidable — that, to her, she feels vulnerable. Even though to the outside world, it looks like she can cope, I was trying to find moments for the character in which she was unsure.”
Initially, it was Marvel that was unsure — of Shortland’s raw approach. “It’s a fine line, because you want people to have fun and enjoy it,” she says. “But also you don’t want people to go and put the kettle on when the fight sequence happens because they know what to expect. So I had to fight to make things a little bit uglier.”
What clinched it, she says, was after she sent a rough cut of the fight between Natasha and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), in which both women brutally smash each other’s bodies across a safe house in Budapest.
“Kevin said, ‘Make it more truthful, make it more visceral,'” Shortland says. “As soon as they saw what I was doing, they pushed me to go further. And I think that’s why Kevin is an amazing producer. Because he sees what you try to create, and he encourages you to do it more honestly, I suppose.”
It’s part of what led Shortland to craft the “Black Widow” opening credits sequence that doesn’t shy away from the similarities between Natasha’s childhood — getting ripped away from her family and smuggled into a clandestine world in which she loses control over her own destiny — and the real world plague of child trafficking and sexual exploitation. Again, there was a fine line Shortland had to walk, knowing that parents often bring their children to see Marvel’s movies. Her own 12-year-old daughter and some of her school friends have a cameo in the sequence as other girls captured for the Black Widow program by Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the head of the Red Room.
“I think it works on two levels,” Shortland says. “If a 12-year-old’s watching it, I hope they see he’s choosing the girls for one reason. And adults, I think it might resonate in other areas. Next time we’re watching the news, it makes us perhaps just think a tiny bit extra about some issues.”
The bigger challenge, however, wasn’t the action. “To get that script right was really, really hard,” she says.
Drawing from a story by Jac Schaeffer (“WandaVision”) and Ned Benson (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”) and a screenplay by Eric Pearson (“Thor: Ragnarok”), Shortland had to figure out how to place the audience back to a time before the catastrophic events of “Endgame” while mashing together Natasha’s family story with an international spy thriller.
It’s this — knitting together a bunch of disparate elements into a coherent action spectacular capable of pleasing a global audience — that has been Marvel Studios’ secret sauce for 13 years. It’s also the source of much of the criticism aimed at the MCU, typified by Martin Scorsese’s controversial comments that the franchise “isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
When discussing navigating the challenges of Marvel’s storytelling process, Shortland even evokes that Scorsese critique — with a kind of wonder at how the studio manages to keep pulling it off.
“I kind of think a Marvel script is like when you get a great music producer in and you do a remix and a premix and you’re just sampling all these different things,” she says. “You know, people like Scorsese say, ‘It’s not a movie.’ It’s kind of like it’s not a movie — it’s a different type of thing. Because Kevin talks about how one movie will come in and hit the other movie and crash through it. And I think that is a different way of creating and editing.”
Acclimating herself to the Marvel way took work, but Shortland also found ample space to bring herself into that experience.
“I’m just so happy I did it,” she says. “[It’s been] joyous working with the actors and the producers on bringing out rawness and vulnerability in amongst this massive world.”
Shortland was deep into post-production on “Black Widow” when the COVID-19 pandemic forced Disney to push the film from its May 2020 release date, ultimately landing on July 9, 2021. For practically that entire 14-month period, the film has been locked, and Shortland’s been home in Australia with her family, far away from the MCU.
“That was really good to walk away from it,” she says. She’s been working with “a beautiful journalist” on a screenplay she declined to give specifics about, but otherwise, she’s kept her life largely quiet, playing Uno games with her daughter and taking time to contemplate what she wants to do next. She deftly sidesteps the question of whether that will be with Marvel. But her experience making “Black Widow” has forever cured Shortland of her past doubts about making big canvass, blockbuster movies.
“I really fell in love with action, and just the art of the choreography,” she says. “Just making people fly through the air and smash into things. It’s pretty great.”
Kate Aurthur contributed to this story.