Kari Skogland — the director and executive producer who helmed all six episodes of Marvel’s “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” — frequently uses the word “muscular,” especially when describing projects that, even in the recent past, would have certainly been directed by men. It’s a significant breakthrough that Skogland, an experienced TV director, is the first solo woman director of a Marvel Studios property: “It’s a big milestone. Not just for me, but for such a muscular project — for them to not even blink at the fact that I am of the female gender.”
“Everybody just went on the body of work,” she continued, “and didn’t get into whether I could or couldn’t direct this level of action.”
Skogland certainly has an extensive resumé, having directed episodic television and independent features since the mid-‘90s. She forged her career from Toronto, first as an editor, then as a director of music videos and commercials. She’s directed everything from “Queer as Folk” in the early 2000s to “Boardwalk Empire” to “The Walking Dead” to multiple episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” one of which she received an Emmy nomination for. (She had many other stops along the way as well.) When Skogland first began directing TV, she said, “I had to say pretty much yes to anything that came in my door.” But as she gained momentum, she was able to be more selective, and could choose projects that meant something to her: “I was able to sculpt my career just a little bit more, and make some choices — you can really see the political throughline.”
She also remembers when she realized that the once-vast difference between television and movies had collapsed, as she directed the first of her six episodes of Neil Jordan’s lavish Showtime drama, “The Borgias,” which ran from 2011 to 2013.
“The world went tilted in a lovely way — suddenly, television was no longer television,” Skogland said. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the new world!’ I got to work with horses and cannons, and fight sequences and castles.”
When the #MeToo resurgence in fall 2017 brought industry attention not only to sexual harassment and assault, but to representation behind the camera, Skogland watched in wonder as “titans of the industry” fell. Something shifted in her, she said. “As a female, you’re always terrified that if you blow it, you’ve blown it for your whole gender,” Skogland said, still sounding amazed. “It was the game changer. And more probably more in me than anything.”
Perhaps fittingly, Skogland’s next major project was as director-executive producer of Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” in which Russell Crowe starred as Roger Ailes, the demagogic Fox News founder and serial harasser. It was on that project in 2019 that Marvel, with whom she’d met over the years, approached her about “The Falcon and the Winter Solider.” Though Anna Boden co-directed “Captain Marvel” with Ryan Fleck, and Cate Shortland is the director of the COVID-delayed “Black Widow,” Skogland now has the distinction of being the first woman to direct a Marvel Studios project on her own.
“When Captain America knocks at your door, you answer,” Skogland said with a laugh.
The six-episode Disney Plus series, which premieres Friday, was created by head writer Malcolm Spellman, and tells the story of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), better known as the Falcon, and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who, as the Winter Soldier, has been both hero and villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s both a traditional buddy action story, and a serious rumination on a destabilized world. The story picks up after half the world’s population disappeared at the snap of Thanos’ fingers in “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), and then returned five years later in “Endgame” (2019), in an event known as “the Blip.” Specifically, Sam is wrestling with his friend Steve Rogers’ decision to give Sam his iconic Captain America shield in the final moments of “Endgame.” Bucky, meanwhile, a killing machine for years, has trauma with which to reckon. As with the recently concluded “WandaVision” on Disney Plus, “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” has a lot on its mind.
“It, on the one hand, has a glossy finish,” Skogland said. “But right underneath that are very tough, issue-oriented conversations.”
Skogland, during an hour-long Zoom from her Toronto office, has a lot on her plate right now, and is in active development on two movies she’s written and a TV series she’s created. Her company, Mad Rabbit, has a development deal with Red Arrow, and she hopes to begin filming one of the movies, a thriller currently called “Discarded,” in June. The series is called “William the Bastard,” and tells the story of the Battle of Hastings — yes, it is “muscular,” Skogland said.
Marvel has been reticent with its TV projects to say whether they’re continuous series or one-off events, and Skogland said she doesn’t know either. Would she want to do more of “The Falcon”?
“Oh my gosh, I would be so lucky!” Skogland said. “Like I said, if Marvel knocks on my door, I’m answering the door. Yes — it was a joyful experience across the board.”
How did you become involved in “The Falcon and the Winter Solider”?
I’m not even sure I knew it was Captain America, but I had enough information that I knew it was a whole story of a Black man deciding whether he should pick up the shield, so it was going to be racially charged. The MCU, by definition, has quite a politically charged underpinning. I just felt it ticked every box.
So you were there from the beginning?
The Marvel team said, “We know how to make movies — let’s make a movie. We’ll just make it a six-hour movie.” That suits me just fantastically. These characters have rich backgrounds, but we haven’t really managed to meet them. Certainly not intimately, the way we do. I was in the writers room with Malcolm and the writers, and it was terrific, because then it meant it was inside my DNA as they were off writing and I was prepping.
Not to be tacky, but was it an unlimited budget compared to shows that you’ve worked on before?
Well, it certainly was the most I’ve had to work with — definitely was not unlimited. It’s that old saying, there’s never enough time or money. We, like anybody, had to be very responsible. Them, working in their movie space were used to much more, and I was used to much less. So I was able to help them navigate that.
You began filming in 2019, and then had to shut down last March because of COVID. What happened during that break?
Nobody panicked — we just kind of pivoted, and we went into post. I was editing remotely, and we just continued to edit, and then hone and hone.
We still had 25% left to shoot. And the world, by the way, was doing a good job of changing minute by minute, with the various protests — not to mention the political world that was happening, not only internationally, but in the U.S. So we were able to really sharpen our pencil. We were always telling that story, so it just made it more and more relevant every day that these things were in the news.
When we went back, we were very, very laser focused. We knew exactly what we needed, and what we wanted. Because it was a buddy-cop paradigm, you want to capture the chemistry, and allow the script to live and breathe through the characters’ mouths. Particularly with Sebastian and Anthony, they’re personal friends, so their repartee was a big part of building their characters. They’re also both very thinking actors, so they were able to bring a lot of their ideas. And they had lived with these characters for so long. I like to embrace that process.
Can you share some of the ways that the show was informed by the Black Lives Matter protests, and the looming election and the issues that was bringing up. And the pandemic.
Oh, all of that!
We were always telling a racially charged exploration of what it was for a Black man to pick up the shield. What was particularly important to me was the conversation around defining a hero: What is the modern-day hero? Steve, he was a soldier. And a soldier-warrior had been the classic hero image probably up until 9/11, when the idea of a hero suddenly started to change into a first responder. And more than ever through COVID, first responders, frontline workers started to take on very large heroic roles. And we had to look at that.
It just meant that the world was changing, and we couldn’t believe how parallel we were to what was happening. More than ever, our goal was to open these doors of discussion. Open the debate — let the watercooler-talk take it steps further. Let it resonate through the fanbase, and through the audience. Let them make their own decisions about what we were talking about.
There’s a scene in a bank when Sam and Sarah (Adepero Oduye), his sister, are applying for a loan. Even though the loan officer recognizes him and wants to take a selfie with the Falcon, Sam is obviously a Black man first — his fame doesn’t matter. Can you talk about how you approached that scene?
I wanted it to have this particularly weird innocence on that white guy’s side: that he didn’t even understand his own racism. And, of course, he knew he wasn’t going to give a loan to a Black man. If the same person across the table from him was white, they were more likely to get that loan. And that’s just true.
Sam comes in with his own innocence, thinking, “No, they’re going to recognize me. I’m here to solve our problem.” We see Sam being kind of decimated, and the sister is in the I-told-you-so place. And the white guy is like, “What were you thinking? Of course, my hands are tied.” And he’s not apologetic about it, even if he feels a little bad about it. So everyone stays in their lane, basically. And yet we do it with enough humor that we’re laughing until we’re realizing actually this is incredibly uncomfortable.
There’s a sadness to the Bucky scenes — as he says, he’s finally dealing with 90 years of killing people. How did you approach establishing where he is right now?
What was important to me was that the camera style between the two characters was uniquely different. So, if Sam’s life was family and moving and had lots of love around it, even though it’s complicated and he’s having his struggles, he’s got quite a world. There’s a big world, with a big expanse of visuals: cinema.
Bucky’s world is a prison. And he’s a prisoner in his own brain, so I wanted to really reflect that. It was a very static camera — we didn’t do the same kind of visceral sort of movement and all that. The idea was everything about him was quite measured and tight and harsh. And that we could really read the very, very nuanced performances that Sebastian gave.
It also was really important to embrace mental health — really acknowledging, how does somebody heal? And acknowledging that there’s victims. And I don’t think we do that very often in any kind of entertainment. We love to see people shot. But then we don’t go along with the consequences of what that is. Not on a truly human level. So for Bucky, for us to understand his humanity, I wanted to take us down the road where he had to face the consequences.
The show reckons with the Blip in a very real way. We’re reminded more than once that billions of people disappeared, and then reappeared — and how traumatic that must feel. How did you want to illustrate that?
In those five years, the world changed. And as a result of tremendous international grief, and very personalized grief amongst everybody, you had a different kind of cooperation. Borders shifted: Everyone was democratized, in that the experience was universal, and it affected everybody. In the case of the Blip, every government in the world changed; enemies became allies.
Also, people who weren’t able to succeed in the previous paradigm could potentially succeed. If you alter the rules tremendously, and alter the system of elitism and cronyism and the various barriers, all of a sudden, some people who wouldn’t have excelled, could. Then, Blip, everyone comes back.
The conversation is about turning the clock back: This is how it used to be — the nostalgia for a past that was not perfect at all. Our villains enjoyed the world in a different place. And we can go with them to a point, because they say things that you can buy into, and you can go down that road. But it’s a slippery slope. And there’s a point at which, of course, it becomes toxic.
Yes, how do you see the Flag Smashers, who are the show’s villains, as a political entity? Sam’s new friend, Torres (Danny Ramirez), explains their philosophy a bit — that they don’t want borders, and they’re anti-nationalist, which seems like it could have its upsides in the current day.
I wanted to see that they had an upside. And they’re trying to make sense of this post-Blip world. That was our gateway in — to say, OK, they’re going to make some sense.
Is there enough going on in the first episode without bringing Sam and Bucky together?
We looked at a lot of options as to where we should see them together. And it seemed like taking our time to set the table became more and more important, because it ramps up, and then takes off at a gallop very quickly. You really wanted to get inside these characters, who are known and loved, but really have never had a lot of real estate on screen.
We are telling a very grounded show with very grounded characters, and introducing some big themes that are very important. We have to really understand in order to have it in our DNA so much that when we do take off at a gallop, we know where our characters are coming from. Anytime we looked at altering that construct, it seemed invasive.
We wanted to understand the shield of it, the conundrum that Sam is having a real, deep conversation about what it is going to be for a Black man to pick up that shield: And does he want to do it?
What’s terrific is that Marvel does all of that stuff, which I’m making it sound like it’s so heavy — it’s all a very light touch. And it’s fun. We’re on a ride with them that we’re enjoying, and we’re laughing at the same time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.