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Throughout the process of making Eternals, Chloé Zhao felt supported at every turn. Whether it was Marvel Studios’ brass or her own department heads, the Oscar winner knew that her first foray into blockbuster filmmaking wasn’t going to faze such an experienced team of filmmakers and storytellers. Zhao’s support system also extended beyond the Eternals set as her friend and fellow filmmaker Denis Villeneuve helped point her in the right direction as far as the film’s application of Imax.
“When I was working on Imax for Eternals, I asked [Denis] if it was OK for me to watch Dune. I knew he did incredible things in Imax, so I knew I could learn from him,” Zhao tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He was so generous; he was like, ‘Yes.’ So I actually find a lot of strength in our films coming out at the same time and to have a colleague who I respect and love and to be able to go through this together and to hug each other at Venice [International Film Festival] when Dune came out. He even sent me a message last night, so it all feels very empowering.”
Eternals also features the MCU’s first genuine love scene, between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), and much to her surprise, Zhao seemed to be the scene’s biggest critic.
“That has been in the treatment that I read from the beginning,” Zhao shares. “We knew that to tell a mature love story, a love story that spans thousands of years, to not do any kind of intimate scene felt unnatural to me. And everyone was on the same page. Once we filmed it and edited it together, we did show some folks to see their reactions. And everyone, Disney as well, said, ‘That is a beautiful display of love,’ [regarding] the way our actors played it together and the way it fit into the mood and where it is in the film. So everyone was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ If anything, I was the one who was like, ‘Is it OK? Can we do this?’ But everyone was supportive of that.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Zhao also discussed Eternals’ references to Batman and Superman, as well as shooting with natural light, and looked back at one of Nomadland‘s most powerful scenes.
I love the story of how you used Denis Villeneuve’s footage in your Eternals pitch, and now, in a twist of fate, Eternals is coming out only a couple weeks after his new movie.
(Laughs.) I gotta say that I’m a big fan of Denis; he’s a friend. We got pushed and shifted because of the pandemic. We got pulled apart and now we’re back together again at the same time. Even when I was working on Imax for Eternals, I asked him if it was OK for me to watch Dune. I knew he did incredible things in Imax, so I knew I could learn from him. He was so generous; he was like, “Yes.” He also gave me other references to look at. So I actually find a lot of strength in our films coming out at the same time and to have a colleague who I respect and love and to be able to go through this together and to hug each other at Venice [International Film Festival] when Dune came out. He even sent me a message last night, so it all feels very empowering.
Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) both have coming-of-age arcs in a way as they step into their own power and realize their true potential.
Yeah, and complicated power. Paul’s journey is not just coming of age and now everything is fine. He’s about to step into a very morally complex role, and so is Sersi, not to spoil the film. It is complicated. The type of hero she has to become is not that black and white in terms of morals.
I’m sure you had expectations of what making a movie with Marvel would be like. So how did your experience ultimately compare to those expectations?
I had this feeling being a fan of the MCU and having a good friend in Ryan Coogler and having friends who’ve worked with them. It’s actually a lot smaller of a team than you think it is. There’s about three people I speak to on a daily basis. They make big decisions and are one text away. So most of the time, I felt like I was working with the same 25 department heads as I did on Nomadland. The incredible technicians and artists and the thousands of people who helped make this film really, really protected me from the big world out there. They knew how I work best and then they created a really nice bubble for me. If I wanted to fly and go crazy, they’d let me, but if I fell, I knew they were there to catch me. That’s why I could play so much in this.
Josh James Richards has photographed all of your movies, but on Eternals, he merely operated the camera while Ben Davis served as DP. Since Eternals looks very much like a Chloé Zhao film, is it safe to say that this arrangement worked out rather well?
It was actually Ben’s idea, and I was so grateful that he thought of that. Ben comes from independent filmmaking as well, so we share very similar sensibilities. Right away, once we knew how we wanted to shoot this film, the films that I was pitching and that he was pitching to me were the same list. So not only did Ben understand what I wanted but he was also able to help me transition: “OK, this is how you want it to look, but how can we do this on this bigger scale?” He was the perfect person to help me understand how previs works and how to step away from previs once I went on location and to actually rethink the scene based on the real place, as opposed to following the previs. He was able to create this safety net for me to play within. And because we were shooting so many magic hour scenes and we were on location and the weather is unpredictable, I have a shorthand with Josh as operator. He operated all the films that he shot for me as well, so he also knows me as an editor. I worked with two incredible editors [Craig Wood, Dylan Tichenor] on this film, but Josh understood why I wanted to do something. He knew what extra stuff I needed, and that shorthand helped us save a lot of time. So the combination of Ben and Josh, I’m deeply in debt to both of them to be able to visually tell this story.
You shot the film with mostly natural light, which is your signature, of course. Was Marvel pretty receptive to this approach from the start?
When I pitched the film, we spent half the time talking about what and the other half talking about how. That’s very important to me. Sometimes, we get excited about the what but we don’t talk about how. We knew that this film had to be immersive, and we knew that there had to be a level of realism to everything, from action to the Eternals in historic periods. So we, as the audience, have to actually believe that these immortal aliens have walked the planet for several thousand years. I want the audience to discover these characters and their relationship with this planet. So the camera movement, we decided, is not going to be the hero even though we have all the tools in the world. Ben and Josh, at the beginning, we said, “The camera is going to just drift with the most simple, grounded camera moves. What happens in the frame has to be dramatic, beautiful, immersive and interesting enough for the audience to hold their attention.” So shooting natural light in this situation added to that realism, and we were able to just go into a world and not worry too much about setting up a lot of lights. Our actors could actually interact with this environment, so you can believe them in their outfits and that they actually could have existed in ancient Babylon. We called it “National Geographic”; it’s a more anthropological way of capturing things. That is natural light.
I really appreciated the fact that there’s a love scene in this movie, and I can’t think of another one in the entirety of the MCU. [Writer’s Note: There’s a comedic sex scene in Iron Man.] Overall, sex scenes have mostly disappeared from major studio movies today, but films like The Terminator prove how much value they have to storytelling.
So was there a lot of debate surrounding its inclusion? Did you have to fight for it?
That has been in the treatment that I read from the beginning. It was there. We knew that to tell a mature love story, a love story that spans thousands of years, to not do any kind of intimate scene felt unnatural to me. And everyone was on the same page. Once we filmed it and edited it together, we did show some folks to see their reactions. We wanted to make sure it was going to make sense for this film and for the audience. And everyone, Disney as well, said, “That is a beautiful display of love,” [regarding] the way our actors played it together and the way it fit into the mood and where it is in the film. So everyone was like, “Let’s do it!” If anything, I was the one who was like, “Is it OK? Can we do this?” (Laughs.) But everyone was supportive of that.
There are a couple references to some notable figures in pop culture, Superman being one of them. Did this also require a great deal of discussion?
Not as much, no. For me, any mention of anything in this film is actually my way to pay tribute to characters that have influenced us and that we love so much. Eternals are relatively new, so they are playing archetypes of myths. The mythology of Superman — and what the comics and each of the filmmakers have brought to Superman — are modern interpretations of myths that have existed throughout human history. And Ikaris, in a way, is our interpretation of it as well. It’s kind of friendly bantering as well, but we loved the idea of reminding people that these great characters exist. So it comes from love, but I’m excited about the conversation that people are going to have.
I only have a few seconds left, but I have to tell you how much I loved Nomadland, especially the “Dave’s Song” scene. I probably rewatched it 25 times.
(Laughs.) Thank you! Thank you so much. That was a special moment given to me by the actors, who are father and son in real life [David and Tay Strathairn]. So that was something they did together, and when they showed me that, I was like, “Wow, that tells more about a relationship between father and son than any words I can write.”
Well, Chloé, the highest compliment I can pay you is that you didn’t make a Marvel movie; you made a Chloé Zhao movie. And I’m so, so grateful for that.
And I’m thankful to Marvel for supporting me throughout the whole thing.
Eternals opens exclusively in movie theaters on Nov. 5. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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