There are three words that are often repeated on the Black Widow set: Grounded, gritty, and real.
Everyone you speak to, from writer Eric Pearson and co-producer Brian Chapek to stunt co-ordinator Rob Inch and costume supervisor Dan Grace, they’re the watchwords of the day.
And it’s usually followed by one name: Cate Shortland.
For the first time in 24 movies, Australian director Shortland is the first woman to solo-helm a Marvel production, reportedly hand-picked by star and executive producer Scarlett Johansson.
Shortland doesn’t seem like a natural pick for the Marvel machine. Her feature debut was tender coming-of-age drama Somersault, which she followed up with historical film Lore and then thriller Berlin Syndrome.
That’s not the resume of someone that immediately screams superhero action epic.
So, we get back to those three words again – grounded, gritty, and real.
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Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are as likely to be a wild space adventure such as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok as they are to be something Earth-bound.
For Black Widow, the powers-that-be wanted the Johansson vehicle to be as authentic as a superhero movie could be. This is a movie that was to emphasis the character’s emotional journey as much as it would fisticuffs.
“If I put Cate’s name down next to a Marvel movie, I would never have assumed that would ever happen,” English actor Florence Pugh, who plays Yelena in Black Widow, said on set during production.
“I’ve been very impressed by Cate making as sensitive and as beautiful and as honest as a movie as probably one of her films ever has been.
“And that’s been really nice because having her way of looking at people and then also having these mega Marvel characters and seeing that crossover, it’s special.”
Set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow is a movie that redresses a gap in Natasha Romanoff’s 11-year character history – a better sense of who she actually is after being underserved in large ensemble movies and who sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame.
“She was created as this kind of femme fatale, but she was coming through massive trauma,” Shortland told news.com.au. “She’s incredibly complex and contradictory and she’s full of secrets.
“For me, the joy of working with Scarlett was we got to unpack a lot of that. We wanted to make something kind of transcendent so that what happens to her in Endgame makes sense. That we see a character that’s fully acknowledged all the different parts of her within this film.”
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Like many big budget blockbusters, a Marvel production is an absolute beast. There are hundreds of crew members working across a dozen departments and they all work to a director’s vision – Shortland’s vision.
“Cate brings such a distinct vision to this film and when we brought her in, she showed us her pitch reel and she said the most important thing is that we show Natasha as a human being,” co-producer Brian Chapek said, standing in a production office on Black Widow’s London set, the walls covered in concept drawings and photos.
“What we wanted to do is retrospectively tell a story who she was as a human being. Who are these characters that we’re being introduced to and what is this ‘red’ in her ledger,” referencing a famous Natasha line from The Avengers.
“[Cate] is always making sure that we’re seeing the movie from our characters’ perspective. It was important to ground [Natasha].
“Knowing where she ended in Endgame, it was really important to that we tell her story in the right way.”
To that end, there are scenes in Black Widow that haven’t been a feature in previous Marvel films, including many dialogue scenes shot in intimate close-ups.
It helps to have dramatic actors of the calibre of Johansson, Pugh, and Rachel Weisz in the hands of a filmmaker like Shortland who can elicit those performances so that they’re authentic and not overwrought.
Shortland is more modest about her part in the accomplishment.
“You give actors space and they’re going to create those moments,” she said. “And then it was about, with my cinematographer Gabby [Beristain], capturing them. Often, we would shoot it like a documentary.
“It was a mix of really gritty filmmaking with the use of huge technology.”
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That commitment to grounded, gritty and real wasn’t only thematic, it permeated into every department.
Costume supervisor Dan Grace’s team made thousands of outfits for the film and each had to be realistic, as if they really would be worn by people who worked in covert ops or was walking down the street.
“Cate wanted these guys to be credible, to be real,” he said. “And look like people that could function and not seem like some sort of fantastical thing.”
Stunt co-ordinator Rob Inch said the same thing. “I always want to make the stunts a bit more grounded and real, but it was also a direction from Cate.
“We always try to stretch the imagination a little bit more and make the stunts as big and wide as we can but still feel like, as an audience, you can achieve it. That was part of the fun.
“When you see a superhero fight, it just becomes gratuitous violence. How many times can Hulk throw someone against a wall?
“[The fights in Black Widow] has purpose and meaning so when somebody really gets slammed against a wall, they get hurt and the idea is that you physically have to see them recover from that, and then you’re more invested in the character.”
Writer Eric Pearson called it a “deep and personal movie” and that Shortland “challenged” him in many ways.
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It’s certainly no small feat to jump from lesser-known independent productions into a huge undertaking like a Marvel movie, but Shortland has introduced a different side to a cinematic universe now 24 movies deep.
Chapek, throwing that word, “grounded”, in again, added: “We want all of our movies to push the tonal boundaries of what we’ve done before, we never want to feel like we’re duplicating anything we’ve done. Ultimately, [Black Widow] needed to be more of a grounded film.”
But perhaps the greatest praise for Shortland’s approach comes from Johansson, who, by now, has worked with five other directors in the MCU.
“Having Cate make this film, she has such a strong female presence – whatever that means,” Johansson said on set while taking a break from an action scene. “There’s a sort of depth and forgiveness to her work, even in brutal circumstances.
“She’s very emotionally brave and that can be a female quality, that emotional vulnerability.”
Black Widow is cinemas now and on Disney+’s Premier Access ($34.99)
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The writer travelled to London as a guest of Disney