Academy award-winner Chloé Zhao is the director of Marvel’s much-anticipated Eternals. In an exclusive Interview, we talk to the Chinese director about the movie and her passion for the genre.
At the 2021 Oscars, Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao became the second woman and the first woman of colour in history to win the coveted Best Director award, for her film Nomadland. Moreover, the neo-Western drama that Zhao also wrote, produced and edited, took home the most prestigious statuette of the night, that for Best Picture.
After capturing global audiences with an in-depth and poetic character study that explores the effects of the Great Recession in the US, in her latest project, Marvel’s superhero film Eternals, Zhao directs a stellar ensemble cast, which includes Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, in an epic story that spans 7,000 years.
One of Marvel Studio’s most ambitious movies to date, the story, which is also co-written by Zhao, is based on the 1976 Eternals Marvel comic books and follows a group of diverse superheroes who defend humanity. We recently talked to Zhao about the movie, the challenges that came with such a big project and her passion for the superhero universe.
In Conversation with Chloé Zhao
In Eternals you’re bringing together different cultures in a multifaceted story. What do you like about this aspect?
When I came into the process, there was a treatment. And in the treatment [a document that presents the story idea of a film], there were stories taking place in Mumbai where Kingo [one of the characters] was a Bollywood star in the present day. I thought that it was so interesting, because we knew Kingo – played by Kumail Nanjiani – was going to be a character who embraces the side of humanity that loves pop culture, storytelling and showmanship. It was interesting to see that the writers and the Marvel team didn’t just make him a Hollywood star but a Bollywood one.
It’s also great that the movie includes a beautiful Bollywood dance sequence. I thought it was incredible to include it in a big Marvel production.
Your resumé doesn’t necessarily scream “superhero movie”, but here you are. What did you think when you were first approached?
I wanted to work with the team at Marvel so badly, because I love their movies. But I also felt as if I had something to offer for this particular story. It’s a story that addresses questions that I have as a human being and I knew the making of it would allow me to grow.
You’re a fan of manga and fantasy movies. How important was the use of your imagination for this project?
I’m not just a fan, you know. I’m a proper fan-girl of the genre. When I was hired, I was able to sit down with the creative team and pull a lot of references. It was a mixed bag of movies that have nothing to do with each other. I think in this film you can see there’s a lot of different types of genres and references. Those conversations really seeped. We showed everything, from The Tree of Life to YuYu Hakusho, and the Harry Potter movies. We just looked at everything — and having a team at Marvel so open to trying crazy things was how we got here today.
What were the main challenges of directing such a big movie?
The lack of sleep. And to be able to prioritise. There are just so many important things, you know, there’s my cast, the camera, there’s building a world, there’s the script and all these things I have to make sure that I give an equal amount of attention to, but also sometimes you do have to prioritise one or another. That balance isn’t easy.
Most of your works are about finding a sense of belonging. Why are you particularly interested in this topic?
Lately I’ve been thinking about us as a species, as humanity. As a species, we’re always trying to leave home and search for something else: gold, opportunities, whatever it is. And then in the end, when we get older, we always end up wanting to go home. I think that that’s such a trend. As I’m getting older, I think about these themes quite a lot. Belonging and home.
What do you like about Marvel’s previous ensemble superhero movies?
I’ve always loved this type of ensemble storytelling. That comes from Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, from my manga obsession growing up. But then I was also a big fan of the X Men movies, the earlier ones, when they came out. There’s something about belonging to a group of people and finding your place within this group that’s not necessarily your blood family. It’s so nice and comforting to watch these people who don’t agree with each other or, you know, come from different walks of life and find commonality, something worth fighting for together. As human beings we like to watch these stories because we hope that we can all find common ground and things that are worth fighting for and that unite us.
You mentioned that you think a lot about belonging and other similar things. Did you fear that things may get lost in translation in such a big pop-culture project?
For every film I make, I worry that things could get lost in translation. You know, I never know. I try not to go there. Because when a film is done, like right now, this movie is more yours than mine. The way Nomadland came out during the pandemic, for example. I had no idea how the film was going to relate to people when I made it.
Do you see yourself developing a sequel or other stories within this universe?
We were really encouraged to make a standalone movie and really make a film outside the main storyline. It does have repercussions for the future. But we got to see how this film interacts with the world and grows, and what shape or form it will take, and then we can make future plans. This film is not finished yet, the making of this film now is left to you guys. I loved working with my team at Marvel and I’d come back and work with them in a second.
Is it hard to direct such huge actors?
People think it might be harder, but it’s also hard to direct someone who’s never acted before, who doesn’t even care if they show up on set or not. What’s beautiful about this cast is that they were chosen because there’s something about who they are, that’s already the character. And, and so right away, they could walk away and build their characters themselves.
In a movie like this, how do you balance storytelling, action and special effects?
It wasn’t hard because I had such a great team. They’d ask me “What do you want?” “What is the thing you’re trying to do?” And then they’d find ways to present me with ideas. What I told everyone from the beginning was that everything has to happen for a reason. Things can’t just happen because they look cool. It has to be related to the story and character driven, both in visual effects and world building. Action also needs to have character development in it. World building has to have a lot of restraint and limitations because everything has to make sense.