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[The following interview contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.]
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was quite the foray into blockbuster filmmaking for writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton. Shortly after he directed a scene from the hospital room of his newborn baby, Cretton went into self-isolation due to a Covid-19 scare. (Fortunately, he tested negative.) Once production resumed five months later in August 2020, Cretton approached the experience with a whole new perspective, and the fruits of his labor are now evident thanks to rave reviews from critics and audiences (92 percent and 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes scores, respectively).
Cretton — who first became known around the industry thanks to his 2013 festival darling, Short Term 12 — is also grateful for the community of Marvel directors who share a similar path as him.
“There is something so special about making a movie alongside peers that I really look up to, who I know understand what it’s like to make a movie for no money and then to make a movie for a lot of money,” Cretton tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And trying to find a way to keep the same creative juices flowing in both scenarios is definitely a learning experience, and having colleagues like Chloé [Zhao], Ryan [Coogler] and Taika [Waititi] to just talk through experiences and share some insight has been really helpful.”
In the film’s first of two post-credit scenes, Cretton reunites with Brie Larson, whom he’s worked with on his last three films including 2019’s Just Mercy, 2017’s The Glass Castle and the aforementioned Short Term 12. While Captain Marvel’s presence in the scene made narrative sense, Cretton admits that keeping their collaborative streak alive was also a factor.
“We’re all a part of every conversation about who should show up in what scenes,” Cretton says. “But it happened to make sense, and nothing makes me happier than to include people that I love in the movies that I’m making.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Cretton also discusses working with his celebrated stunt coordinator, Brad Allan, who recently passed away. Then he explains the many benefits of working with The Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope.
Going into this, I’m sure you had expectations of what making a Marvel movie would be like. So how did your experience compare to those initial expectations?
My initial expectations were stress, pressure and fear. (Laughs.) Initially, there was a lot of fear to even attempt to do it, but what I found was the opposite. I found the experience to be one of the more creatively freeing experiences that I’ve had with an extremely supportive team and an environment where exploration and taking risks was the norm. So that was really exciting to do on a level this big.
Between Nobody and Shang-Chi, it’s been a heck of a year for bus fights. Can you take me through the conception of your own remarkable sequence?
The bus fight was part of my initial pitch, which was really just a what-if scenario. As part of my pitch, I was explaining the type of fight sequences that I enjoy, ones where the stakes just keep rising as the fight continues. And my what-if scenario was instead of two guys fighting in a park, what if they were on a bus that loses its brakes and is careening down the hills of San Francisco? And our hero has to fight while trying to drive. That initial idea I never thought would ever actually make it into the movie, but we took that idea and handed it over to Brad Allan and his incredible team. That fight in itself was perfect for them because they were trained on Jackie Chan’s stunt team. That style of Buster Keaton-like physical comedy, mixed with setups and payoffs, and stakes rising and rising to almost ridiculous levels, was something that was perfect for them. I had so much fun developing it, going back and forth, and turning it into what it became.
(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s a little 7-minute long short.
You mentioned [supervising stunt coordinator and second unit director] Brad Allan, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago, and it’s such a shame that he won’t be able to hear the warm reception to the film’s action sequences. So can you talk a bit more about your collaboration?
The thing that I found unique and special about Brad, which I know he talked about learning in Jackie Chan’s camp, is that the team was not just trained to be martial artists. They’re not trained to fight and punch and do backflips and crazy stunts; they’re trained to be filmmakers. So they come in knowing that story is the most important thing to a fight sequence. I typically tune out in action movies because explosions don’t do anything for me and just a bunch of kicking and punching doesn’t do anything for me. But the storytelling that Brad Allan was constantly striving for was exactly what this movie needed. What are the character beats? How does every punch, kick or twirl move our character forward or tell us something about the conflict between two characters? So that was always the most important thing that Brad was asking, striving for and trying to create. And it was really such a joy to watch him work and to see the amazing fight sequences that he created for us.
This adjective is often used to describe Jackie Chan’s work, but there’s such a “kinetic” quality to your fight sequences. Can a lot of that be chalked up to Bill Pope’s camera movements?
Yes, we were very lucky to have [cinematographer] Bill Pope work with us on this movie. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Bill Pope shot the original [The] Matrix and the entire Matrix trilogy. He’s also worked on a lot of Edgar Wright’s movies, including Scott Pilgrim [vs. The World], which is one of my favorite movies. He’s a master of camera and lighting, but what I also love about Bill Pope is that he’s a master of intimate shots and action sequences. And he shoots them in a way that is so unique. So that was a huge learning experience for me to see how countermoves affect the way that a kick will happen and how certain frames will really help the action feel more visceral. So it was really wonderful to learn all that.
Since Marvel tends to provide a list of characters that you can play with, how did you arrive at Abomination (Tim Roth) for the fight club sequence with Wong (Benedict Wong)?
How we arrive at ideas is so hard to trace back to where they began. Abomination was just a result of twenty-to-thirty what-ifs. And then we landed on a pairing that felt really great, but it was also a pairing that made sense to what’s happening in the MCU around the time of our movie. So there are definite links happening that you will pick up on if you’re involved with everything else that’s happening in the MCU.
Did any other pairings stick for a while?
Everything else was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know, and then it clicked.”
Is it true that Tim Roth was involved in some capacity?
Tim laid down the voice of Abomination, yes.
I saw footage of you and Chloé Zhao on the red carpet recently. Have the two of you been sounding boards for each other throughout the production of your Marvel films?
That was the second time that I was able to hang out with Chloé, who is so lovely. It was actually the first time I was able to share my huge admiration for Nomadland, which just rocked me when I watched it. But there is something so special about making a movie alongside peers that I really look up to, who I know understand what it’s like to make a movie for no money and then to make a movie for a lot of money. And trying to find a way to keep the same creative juices flowing in both scenarios is definitely a learning experience, and having colleagues like Chloé, Ryan [Coogler] and Taika [Waititi] to just talk through experiences and share some insight has been really helpful.
Even though we learn a lot about them in the film, did you withhold some aspects of the rings for future stories?
Yeah, but isn’t that what Marvel always does? (Laughs.) There’s a lot of things purposefully withheld in the chamber for some exciting things in the future.
When directors spend two-to-three years of their life on a project like this, it’s essential that they find a way into the material. So what aspects of the film are most personal to you? What did you inject from your own life?
I inject myself into every movie that I work on. I use movies to explore themes that I’m exploring already in my everyday life. In Shang-Chi, they’re Shang-Chi’s personal journey of looking inside himself, the things he went through as a kid and the pain that he is avoiding or running from, and the good parts that are also being smothered because of that pain. So watching him open that up and look at it all, and say, “I’m OK,” which is what he needs to step into his superhuman strength, is a journey that I find extremely relatable.
Which sequence kept you up at night?
The entire third-act battle was definitely a beast to tackle. There’s so many big, giant set pieces happening simultaneously with a lot of emotional wrap-up and closure that needed to happen very intimately between these characters. So the third act has a lot of emotional payoffs that are happening simultaneously, along with some of the biggest spectacle of the movie. So it was a lot to juggle, but I feel really happy with the emotional ride that people will go on.
Were you consistently gobsmacked by Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung?
(Laughs.) When you meet childhood legends, they can sometimes be humanized in a way that maybe they aren’t as legendary. But when I met and worked with Tony and Michelle, it’s like they became more legendary. They are so classy, fun, open, silly and able to really tap into the childlike creativity that we all need in order to remember that we’re really just playing make-believe in front of a camera. And to be able to watch these legends play from two feet away felt like such a gift to be a part of.
The water map scene is gorgeous. Can you take me through the design process?
I love that you say that because we were so worried about that scene. Chris Townsend, our incredible VFX supervisor, has done so many expository scenes for Marvel. He’s worked with them since Captain America: The First Avenger; he’s done so many Marvel movies. When we told him the scene that we were making, he said, “Can we please just not make it a hologram? I’ve done too many holograms.” (Laughs.) And he went through so many ideas before landing on this really beautiful visual of that water map, which was just perfectly connected to the story of our characters. So it turned out to be such a visually beautiful scene.
[The next two questions allude to post-credit scene spoilers.]
A certain streak of yours was upheld thanks to a particular actor’s appearance in a post-credit scene. I presume you were instrumental in that casting?
(Laughs.) We’re all a part of every conversation about who should show up in what scenes. But it happened to make sense, and nothing makes me happier than to include people that I love in the movies that I’m making.
So you weren’t necessarily trying to keep the streak alive?
No. Well, maybe. (Laughs.)
Well, Destin, I’m sure I’m the 50th person to say this to you today, but welcome to the circus.
Oh, nice! You’re actually the first!
You’re kidding! It’s right there for the taking.
That’s pretty good. You got me.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing exclusively in theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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