In a conference room in London’s Pinewood Studios, the walls are lined with concept art and photos while 3D models of elaborate sets litter the long table.
The sign on the door says Blue Bayou but it’s code for Black Widow, Marvel Studios’ 24th feature.
Starring Scarlett Johansson, the movie tells the story of original Avenger Natasha Romanoff in the time between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, but it also functions as something of an origin story, delving into the trained assassin’s past and the makeshift family she had to leave as a child.
Directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, Black Widow combines the emotional intimacy of a character-driven piece with the grand visual spectacle of a Marvel production.
Black Widow may not go out into the far reaches of the galaxy, but it does trot around the globe, with the production jetsetting off to far-flung locales – and this was in 2019, before the world came to a covid-enforced stop.
And the man responsible for bringing to life the many locations of Black Widow is production designer Charles Wood, a Brit who was also worked on Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Endgame, Guardians of the Galaxy and more.
In Pinewood, Wood revealed the behind-the-scenes secrets of the many locations he and his team created for Black Widow, revelling in the joy of working in real-life locations combined with “five or six big stage builds”.
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“The really nice thing about this film is that it has a lot of international locations, and the studio wanted from the get-go to give it a very global feel,” he said. “We’ve gone to Norway, Tangiers, Budapest and we’ll end up in the US too, all sorts of places.
“What Cate wanted to do on this film is try and build a lot of backstory into not just the written world but also into the environment that these characters go to, so that she’s trying to give them all a past and a place in history.
“It’s all based on real-world locations and real-world environments. It’s a grounded story.”
At the time Wood was speaking – in September 2019 as the production was only weeks out from finishing – what he talked about was still veiled from fans and audiences.
Now that Black Widow has finally been released after a pandemic delay, news.com.au can share what Wood revealed about the work that went into creating the worlds of Black Widow.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BLACK WIDOW
BUDAPEST SAFEHOUSE AND CHASE
The scene: Natasha and Yelena reunite for the first time in decades in a Budapest safehouse, which quickly turns into a down-and-dirty hand-to-hand fight. Their reunion is interrupted by descending Black Widows and the Taskmaster who chase them on the streets of Budapest, Hungary with a tank.
The location: The safehouse was built on set but the chase was filmed on location in Budapest.
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What Charles Wood said: “We built a complex apartment interior which was a turn-of-the-century [style], and in our story it has been used by many assassins in their own time, like a safehouse. That was a lovely set we built.
“Then we did a lot of shooting on the streets of Budapest, this grand chase.
“We had to do some complicated things on the street and the Hungarians were very helpful to us and allowed us to some pretty big things that would be hard to do in any city.
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“And that’s important when you’re trying to put something together like a big car chase because you end up closing down parts of the city. If you don’t have the backing of the city, you can get into trouble quickly.
“Once you start approaching somewhere, you can say, ‘we’re Budapest as Budapest’ and it helps a lot.
“We try very hard to not leave any imprint of ourselves, to be professional and do our jobs properly, so the next film can go in there.
NORWAY BRIDGE FIGHT
The scene: Natasha is approaching a bridge in Norway when her car is attacked by Taskmaster. The two fight before Natasha gets away by jumping off the bridge.
The location: The bridge is based on a real one in Scotland but was recreated on a set in England.
What Charles Wood said: “We built a big, big bridge in Cardington, at the old airship hangars. And then that was sort of tied into a location we have in Scotland.
“We knew at the beginning we need a bridge in Norway. But because of what we’re doing, we know visual effects work best because you can never do a fight on a bridge because you’ll have to close the bridge down and most bridges give you an hour if you’re lucky.
“We needed a bridge for a couple of weeks, so we have to build part of the bridge for this sequence.
“It’s always better if the visual effects crew can go somewhere and photograph, record or scan something that exists. You’ll always have a better result.
“The studio said, ‘well, let’s find a bridge as your base’ and you copy a third of that bridge on the [studio] lot as a build. Then we’ll go to Scotland, and we’ll photograph the bridge and bring the two things together.
“And then you’ve got to put the mountains in from Norway.
“It means that you can have a lot of real-world information rather than having to create everything as a CGI model. We often try to do these things where we can.”
RUSSIAN PRISON BREAKOUT
The scene: Natasha and Yelena plot and aid a prison escape for Alexei.
The location: The prison was built on set with the background based on a real location in Svalbard, Norway.
What Charles Wood said: “It was based on a nuclear reactor core. In the movie, we’re not saying that it’s specifically a prison, it’s more like a place that existed since the Cold War, some facility out there which is then being used to imprison the most dangerous criminals there are.
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“We actually went out to Svalbard and did a lot of aerial photography out there and then came back and built a lot of the interiors.
“Svalbard was for the location plates, a lot of aerial photography. What we did at the beginning of the film is we figured out where we could go, where the snow would be at that time of the year and found this really stunning location.
“Basically, inserting this facility into a pre-existing location and building it up that way.”
OLD SOVIET HELICOPTER
The scene: Yelena is flying an old Soviet helicopter above the prison while Natasha is on the ground fending off prison guards.
The location: The helicopter stuff was filmed on set with the background based on Svalbard, Norway.
What Charles Wood said: “There’s a big sequence with a helicopter so we had to find this big old Russian helicopter. How are you going to do that? And we needed four of them.
“Rather than building all that stuff, which you can do but it’s incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult, we sent a team of people out to Hungary, because there’s a lot of equipment there from eastern Europe.
“We ended up finding some chap, he had a whole field full of Russian helicopters. It’s kind of crazy but you go in and you make some deal with this chap and, lo and behold, about a month later, four enormous helicopters are on the M25.
“Even though you need one plane, you actually need four of them and those four planes have to match perfectly. I’m not talking about the colour or even the seat colour, I’m talking about down to every little dial because you’re cutting from one to another, and one’s a process, one hasn’t got any wings on it, one’s cut in half, and one flies.
“There’s a lot of coordination to making sure you get the continuity of all of it. You ask for it to be identical but it never is.
“You do end up buying a lot of aircraft – except for the flying aircraft – because once you put a film crew all around an aircraft, it wouldn’t be certified anyway.”
OHIO ESCAPE AND CUBA
The scene: In 1995, Natasha, Yelena, Melina and Alexei escape from Ohio when they are exposed as Russian spies, fleeing via a small airfield before landing in Cuba.
The location: The Ohio airstrip was built in old hangars in England while the Cuba landing was also filmed in England with establishing shots filmed over the Bahamas.
What Charles Wood said: “We’ve built this big farm, this American farm environment, at an airfield close to us here, which plays for Ohio.
“Even as a set, it may not be construction but in set dressing, that was a quarter of a mile long and we grew grass fields, we put these poly-tunnel structures up.
“It’s where they get out of the USA and fly off to Cuba.
“For Cuba, we did a lot of aerial photography in the Bahamas because we needed something very specific.
“For the sequence in the Ohio airfield, we had to find 15 American suburban cars [from 1995], which is obviously easy in the States but you’re not going to find them in the UK, so incredibly, we have people all over Europe. We found one here, another here and it takes a lot of organisation to get all this stuff back to the UK and ready for filming.”
Black Widow is in cinemas now and streaming on Disney+’s Premier Access
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The writer travelled to London as a guest of Disney