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Hawkeye director Rhys Thomas made his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe late on a Friday night in 2014. Thomas had a short window to film with Chris Pratt, that week’s host of Saturday Night Live, where Thomas was a director. The whirlwind shoot resulted in a Guardians of the Galaxy parody trailer, the conceit being that audiences would show up no matter what Marvel did (including making a film centered on a random woman named Pam).
Seven years later, the parody feels almost prescient, with Marvel reaching new heights in the years since, and Thomas finding himself bringing Hawkeye to the small screen with his first two episodes debuting Nov. 24 on Disney+. The series stars Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye and introduces Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), an aspiring young hero whose life becomes embroiled with that of her favorite Avenger.
Thomas, an executive producer who also directs the sixth and final episode, and his team took big swings with the series, including mounting a musical number based on the life of Steve Rogers, something that began as a small reference in the script and evolved to a key piece of the premiere. He contended with filming in the streets of New York, a place where it’s challenging to keep Marvel’s secrets from prying eyes. And he had the challenge of filming across the series on any given day, shooting Hawkeye more like a feature than a TV show.
Growing up far away from Hollywood in Wales, Thomas dreamed of working at his local video store so he could get movies early. He obsessed over Star Wars and for a time considered working in special effects. As a young adult, he moved to New York, where he got a job managing a Cold Stone Creamery while taking Craigslist film gigs on the side for no pay. A chance meeting with an SNL director landed him a job as an assistant for the 2003-04 season. He worked his way up to line producer and then director, where he parodied Wes Anderson and the British gangster films of folks such as Guy Richie. Working at a breakneck pace, he tried to over-deliver on what could be accomplished in just a few days. All along, he did so with care, never wanting it to seem he was mocking the filmmakers he revered. He went on to team with SNL collaborators on Documentary Now! and directed former SNL writer John Mulaney’s Netflix special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch.
Now he finds himself on the biggest stage of his career to date with Hawkeye. In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Thomas reflects on his first talks with Renner and Steinfeld, reveals what it was like working with a dog to create a breakout character, and the time he learned Black Widow would be giving his show a nod.
You did a Marvel parody for SNL. What do you remember about that?
I remember it was a late Friday night. I think we could only get him after he had rehearsed the live show. I don’t think we started until midnight. I think we had three hours to do the whole thing. It was fun. Guardians of the Galaxy was such a fun turning point in the MCU, tonally. I always felt like a cheat — or an imposter — that you got to re-create these things. I hated the idea that it seemed like we were making fun of them because I always held these things in such high esteem. Taking on Wes Anderson, taking on Tarantino. “Who am I to do this?” And then when you are with the actual actors from the actual thing, it just adds this other layer of, “We have to try to match that standard as best we can in this short time frame.”
So years later you are called into Marvel for a general meeting and asked which character you really identified with. Who was that meeting with?
Coincidentally it was Trinh Tran, who was the executive on Hawkeye. She was talking about the shows in general and explaining it to me. And asked me that question, and I said, “Hawkeye.” She kind of reacted with surprise, because I feel like no one expects anyone to say Hawkeye. I genuinely didn’t know that was the show she was specifically doing. You kind of hit the jackpot a little bit on that one.
How long is it before you officially get the job?
It was a while. It was a long, evolving conversation. Trinh shared outlines with me and I started firing off notes and thoughts and ideas. The conversation kept happening and I kept wondering, “Well, this seems like it’s a good sign that she’s still talking to me.” By the time I came to meet with Kevin [Feige] and the team and pitch for it, Trinh had been so helpful in preparing me for that. I felt very comfortable with her. I felt like I had support
When did you meet Jeremy and Hailee?
I had a call with Jeremy not long after I officially started on the show. Which was intimidating, but he’s great. And Hailee, I think once I was on the show, I can’t remember if she was officially on or not. Whenever it was confirmed, we had a call and started emailing and she was amazing, had so many questions and wanted to understand this character and talk about it. We didn’t’ meet in person until I was in Atlanta and they were arriving to start getting ready and training.
When you are filming outside in New York there’s only so much you can do to prevent people on the street snapping photos, and some of those wound up online. How much stress does that add?
You have a meeting with the head of security for Marvel and they give you the rundown of how seriously they take protecting the show, and the characters and all of that stuff. I was hyper-vigilant all the way through, literally in [my home office], I had concept things. It’s my house. No one is around. But I would close curtains. I didn’t tell my family. Then suddenly we are out in New York in the middle of Time’s Square and people were taking pictures. “Oh God, what are we going to do?” People start guessing what’s going on. Then you realize, they knew this was going to happen. Don’t worry about it. it’s not your responsibility. It’s not my fault. You do, [you think], “Did I pick the wrong location?”
Rogers: The Musical will undoubtedly be a standout from this series. What was filming that like?
In one of the drafts there was a mention of a bus driving by with an ad for Rogers: The Musical. That was there. “Huh, that’s a funny thing that’s there,” but it never came up in the show. When I came on and we were working with the writers and we were brainstorming where is Clint at? How do we show where his head’s at? Is he in New York? Is he at home with his family? If he is at home with his family, how do we get him to New York? That was a big challenge. I had this image of Jeremy’s grumpy face sitting in a darkened theater, watching a musical about himself and that made me laugh. I put together some notes and thoughts on it and pitched it to Kevin and the guys. Just like, “Hey, this might be stupid. But what if we actually do the musical and that’s where he is?” Kevin kind of seized on it, much to my surprise. Then I started backtracking. Suddenly it was like, “Shit. What is a musical in the MCU and what are fans going to expect? How do we do it?” Kevin wouldn’t let go of it. “It’s going to be good.” That’s when you go, “OK, who am I going to do this with?” It being Marvel, Marc Shaiman picked up the call, and Scott Wittman. Together we figured it out.
In the musical, the actor playing Steve Rogers belts out, “I can do this all day.” That got me thinking, how do the writers of the musical know Steve ever said that? In the MCU, is there a biography of Steve Rogers where that anecdote was reported? It’s fun to think about what details from the films are known to the general public in the MCU.
Part of the appeal of this show is we are seeing the MCU somewhat through the eyes of civilians. We don’t come in on a big world-ending plot. We are entering through young Kate’s eyes. She’s a fan of Hawkeye. You realize these guys are celebrities in this world. Obviously, people know who they are. What does that mean? Part of the fun of the musical is you are getting to see this theatrical representation of them and portraying the same traumatic moment from [the Battle of New York in 2012’s Avengers] and seeing how over time it becomes sort of Disney-fied.
Black Widow screenwriter Eric Pearson felt guilty about writing the post-credits scene in which Yelena (Florence Pugh) is sent after Clint, because he hoped the team working on the next chapter would be OK with it. Is it safe to say he has nothing to feel guilty about?
No, not at all. The joy of Marvel is seeing the way these things interconnect. I was working on this, and actually I didn’t know about that tag initially. It was revealed to me. “The thing I’m working on is getting acknowledged in this big movie.” I can’t speak to what happens with that tag or how it plays out, but it’s a good springboard for the show. Eric Pearson should not feel bad.
In the pre-pandemic days, Marvel directors would be in Burbank working on their films. Is that not the case now? Where are you as you edit this?
I did get to go in and work with the team in person for a while, with distance and masks and all that kind of stuff. When I started the project, for the first month, I was just sitting here [at home] going from meeting to meeting, with concept artists and pre-vis people, and Kevin and Lou [D’Esposito] and Victoria [Alonso] and Trịnh. I would wake up and come down and roll through meetings.
Did you film this like a movie, shooting across the series rather than episode by episode?
It was a bit more like a movie. Because of the scale of it, there was no way we could set it up in a way where you could shoot sequentially or silo off my episodes from [fellow Hawkeye directors Bert & Bertie] ‘s episodes. Our characters get injured. So you might need to be doing a scene from episode one and a scene from episode six on the same day, but we hadn’t yet shot the intervening moments or fights. “I don’t specifically know yet where this injury is from.” Trying to guess, “OK, let’s remember.” That was somewhat tricky.
What was it like working with Jolt, the dog who plays Lucky the Pizza Dog? Do you delegate that work to a trainer?
Yeah, Greg Tresan. With Jolt, we had an audition process with our dogs. Jolt did an amazing job. There are very specific things the dog needs to do. She was great. I was definitely dubious, and I had images of a CG dog. Genuinely, I can’t think of a moment we lost time because of Jolt. She was on it.
Did she wear a green patch to remove her eye in post?
No, I asked that same question. I was informed she would probably walk around in circles if we obscured her eye. Those wizards — we would shoot a scene with Jolt, and the visual effects team would come in and take all of the lighting references and everything they needed from each camera setup and go in and track this different eye after the fact. It’s a painstaking process where you have to track this thing, frame by frame.
Did you talk with Matt Fraction, who wrote the run that influenced your show?
Matt Fraction is friends with Seth Meyers, who I do Documentary Now! with and I’ve known from SNL. Seth is a comic book fan, too. When I got on to Hawkeye, Seth was like, “I’m friends with Matt Fraction. You guys should meet. You would really like each other.” I’ve had the joy of getting to know Matt and to be able to bounce ideas off of him. I considered that run a genius run.
How much work do you have left on the series?
We are still working on the finale. Greg Steele, who is such a lynchpin of the show, our visual effects supervisor, he was there last night [at the Nov. 17 Hawkeye premiere in Hollywood]. I got to see the terror in his eyes. He said we are 93 percent of the way there with the visual effects shots. It’s a race. The schedule on this show has been tight, even by Marvel standards, because of the Christmas window. Sometimes they move things around if they need to, but this one, “No, this is where it is.” My hat’s off to our team on all sides, editorial and visual effects. This has been a huge challenge, and they are really going around the clock.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Hawkeye premieres on Disney+ Nov. 24.
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