For Variety‘s post-Oscars cover story on Chloé Zhao, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, and the impresario behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sang the “Eternals” director’s praises two days before the Oscar ceremony. He also made fun of the idea of doing an interview about something that hadn’t yet happened: Zhao’s widely anticipated Oscar wins for best director and picture for “Nomadland.” (It worked out!)
“I’m excited to answer your questions about the future,” Feige said on Friday. “I’d also like to give you a few quotes about when ‘Eternals’ wins best picture, and when ‘Avengers 5’ is the biggest movie of all time — so let’s bank those quotes as well.”
In 2018, Feige announced that Marvel was developing “Eternals,” based on Jack Kirby’s 1976 comic series about an immortal alien race, into a movie. Later that year, he hired Zhao, a self-professed fan of the MCU, after she’d approached the company herself. She was originally considered for “Black Widow,” according to Feige, but took herself off the list. Eventually, Zhao and Marvel executive Nate Moore began working together on an “Eternals” pitch, and Zhao was hired.
“Eternals,” is part of the MCU’s Phase Four, which kicked off with “WandaVision” on Disney Plus; the first Phase Four film will be “Black Widow” in July. “Eternals,” delayed a year because of COVID-19, is set to be released on Nov. 5, with a large international cast, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Kit Harington, Brian Tyree Henry and Kumail Nanjiani, and featuring the MCU’s first LGBTQ and deaf superheroes.
Though Marvel has never shied away from directors with strong points of view, including Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler, Zhao is arguably the most singular auteur the studio has hired to date. She spoke highly of working with the company to Variety, calling Feige “a great boss,” and saying that they gave her creative freedom.
“It’s just been such an incredible experience working with the team at Marvel,” Zhao said. “I want to be careful saying ‘my vision,’ even though I do want people to know they did support what I wanted to do. I want people to know that. But I also want to make sure they know that I got the support of this incredibly talented team, some of the most talented artists in the world.
“And it really is a village to make this film, but they did let me lead.”
In conversation with Variety, Feige revealed that “Nomadland” wouldn’t have come out last year were it not for “Eternals” being delayed. He also discussed Zhao’s “signature style,” explained why working with Zhao is critical to the longevity of the MCU, and confirmed the actor who is playing what he calls the “lead” character in “Eternals.”
When Chloé approached Marvel to say she’s a fan and wanted to direct a Marvel movie, what was your reaction? And how quickly did you arrive at “Eternals” for her?
Well, my memory of events, which is always colored by our own experiences, of course, is that she first popped up for “Black Widow.” Brad Winderbaum, who is a producer on “Black Widow,” either had an initial meeting with her and then she was going to come back in and do a pitch meeting — but she took herself out of it. She she didn’t have the time, or she wasn’t ready yet, or maybe she was gone off to shoot or prep “Nomadland” — I don’t remember exactly.
These are the kind of filmmakers we want to work with, regardless of the size of the film they’ve done before. Unique voices, with unique things to say. And in her case, which is not always a prerequisite by any means, she was a giant fan, both of the MCU and of the comics fan and of the genre. Which watching her movies you wouldn’t necessarily guess. So it was neat that she let that be known.
And then later, Nate Moore was beginning to put his list together for filmmakers on “Eternals,” and she was been on the list for that reason: because we knew she was in our world. The two of them started working on something that they then brought to me, and it was an absolute spectacular pitch that Chloé put together. A presentation that Chloé put together about a very bold and very ambitious sprawling 7000-year story of humanity and our place in the cosmos.”
Chloé has such a distinct visual style. How will we see that translate into “Eternals”?
You’ll see it very directly. She had shot “Nomadland” before she had come to do “Eternals.” I knew that occasionally she would go by herself in her solar-powered van and drive to South Dakota to make this little movie she was working on. OK! That’s neat; that’s different, but OK.
What she talked about was really fighting for practical locations, for practical elements — yes, in a movie that is full of visual effects and characters with extraordinary powers, but doing as much as possible on far-flung locations. And that starts to reap benefits visually immediately.
We cut a little sample reel together, I remember, to show [Disney higher-ups]. And it was so beautiful, and I had to keep saying, “This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all!” Because it was a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore on this giant cliffside — really, really impressive stuff.
Then seeing “Nomadland” after we had shot “Eternals,” you go, “Oh! That is not just what she wanted to bring to Marvel, to get out of a virtual greenscreen world, which is often the case in our films. This is a signature style.” Of her, of our DP Ben [Davis], and of Josh [James Richards, “Nomadland’s” cinematographer].
“Eternals” expands the MCU in terms of representation, with its large international cast, its first LGBTQ superhero — I know some of those things are baked into the “Eternals,” but how many of those expansive ideas came from Chloé?
Well, the notion of switching up the genders, sexualities and ethnicities of the characters from the comics, was baked in initially — that was part of what Nate Moore was really advocating for in moving “Eternals” to the top of the list for us to start working on. What exactly the makeup was between when Nate put together his internal discussion document, which is how we always start on all of our projects, and what she came in and did, I don’t recall exactly.
When it came to casting, that also did affect it. There were some characters that we change from male to female, there were some characters that we knew how we were altering them from the books. But then also it came down to casting. So for Sersi, for instance — and if there was a lead in this ensemble, it is Sersi, it is Gemma Chan — we looked at and read all sorts of women for that part. And ended up really believing that Gemma was best for it. And thankfully, she’s proven that to be the case in the final movie.
So, of course, Chloé was a big part of that decision, and of every casting decision. Some of it was some of it was done beforehand, and that continued once she was on board as director.
How has Chloé changed how you approach future Marvel projects?
Well, I’m going to make a joke. And I’m sure you know this part: She initially was going to put “Nomadland” on the shelf until after “Eternals” was finished and released, and then come back to it. Because of our COVID shutdown, she decided to get her laptop out and, you know, finish up this little movie she was doing! And so yes, my joke is, let the filmmaker finish their passion projects when you have some downtime from your giant Marvel project, and suddenly they can make history at the Academy Awards. Knock on wood.
The real answer is, frankly, continuing what we’ve learned with all of the different types of filmmakers that we have used. When you get people with unique points of views, regardless of the size of film they’ve done in the past, and empower them and surround them with the great artists and technicians that can bring spectacle, that can bring the visuals that a Marvel movie requires, they can take you to places you’ve never gone before. And I think you’ve seen that with all of the filmmakers that we’ve worked with, and particularly the filmmakers who have done smaller, more personal things before agreeing to come on board the MCU.
And Chloé is probably the best example of that. Not just because of the work that she’s done, but just her entire story, her backstory. And how she looks at the world is very unique, and that’s what you want in your storytellers and your filmmakers as we’re approaching our 30th MCU movie, and we just wrapped our seventh or eighth Disney Plus series.
I’m in my 20-plus years at Marvel. We only want to keep doing this so that we can keep evolving it and changing it and growing it, and doing things we hadn’t done before. And that’s what many filmmakers like Chloé for. Not just for Marvel, by the way, but for the business — and for the theatrical business, and for the quote unquote blockbuster business.
You want those filmmakers coming in and continuing to evolve and adapt what it means for genre film — or certainly for Marvel Studios film.
This interview has been edited and condensed.