Cate Shortland Was Confused When 'Black Widow' Came Calling: "I'm an Arthouse Director"

"They kept talking to me about heart and emotion," she says of her introduction to Marvel

BY Nicholas SokicPublished Jul 2, 2021

When Black Widow director Cate Shortland's agent told her Marvel had come calling, her first reaction was confusion.

"I'm an arthouse director. I've done a lot of stuff in German, and it's quite different. Then I spoke to Scarlett [Johansson] and it made sense, because they wanted to make something about [Black Widow's] journey. They kept talking to me about heart and emotion."

Shortland's initial fear over taking on the project was assuaged by constant conversation with Johansson over email. Of course, they talked about Johansson's character Natasha Romanoff and how she's a "survivor." But they also bonded as friends and collaborators, sharing lists of their favourite songs and movies. What eventually sold Shortland on the character of Black Widow was her journey: she starts off the post-Civil War film "alone and vulnerable" and then is built back up throughout the film.

Surprisingly, Shortland wasn't that bothered by the continuity constraints put on the film via its place in the MCU timeline.

"Everybody who is a Marvel fan had watched [Avengers: Endgame]," said Shortland. "So in a funny way, after a while, that liberated me, because I started to think what the film has to be about is that she's infinite, that she's eternal, that she's part of the universe now."

Through this realization, she started to dig into the visual motifs of the film, like the fireflies, as they signal "the light inside Natasha." Shortland and Johansson were having a tough time with the script, so she had nothing but praise for her screenwriter Eric Pearson, who had previously co-written Thor: Ragnarok and Godzilla vs. Kong. Shortland says he was open to her and Johansson adding their own dialogue and character backstories into the movie.

The arthouse director not only had to deal with continuity this and timeline that, but also the expectations for a character who first debuted 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. Except, according to Shortland, that wasn't really on her mind.

"I think the expectation was that we would make something really dark," she says. "And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to make something that touches on the trauma but is really uplifting. That people can see it and feel when they leave the cinema that they've watched something that's sort of good for them. Nourishing as well as fun."

She also singles out Sarah Finn, Marvel's long-time casting director, who helped her find "idiosyncratic people who could play idiosyncratic characters." Casting these actors, including Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz, led to a lot of improvisation on set, particularly in the dinner scene featuring all four that is briefly glimpsed in the trailer. Shortland calls this scene the heart of the movie — one that, with lesser actors, wouldn't work nearly as well.

According to her, Harbour was the one out of the principal cast who "got beaten up the most in a funny way." Johansson has had plenty of experience with this sort of fight choreography from her Marvel role alone, while Pugh has a background in dance and fit right in with the choreographers and stunt performers.

For a director who isn't accustomed to mega-budget comic book action movies, Shortland is most proud of the fight between Johansson and Pugh's characters in a Moroccan hideout, which you can also glimpse in the trailer. As for the most challenging aspect of production, action or otherwise, she replies only, "Dreykov's office."

Since Marvel Studios has developed something of a stable of behind-the-scenes collaborators in addition to its actors, it makes sense to wonder whether Shortland would ever return to the tights-and-spandex universe. "I think I had fun on this movie," she said. "I really formed great relationships with people. I don't know if it's in the ether. Life is all unknown."

She mentions that her and Johansson are developing more scripts together, so this might not be the last we hear from the team behind Black Widow.

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