Director Chloé Zhao is known for making beautifully humane films that blur the line between reality and fiction, including 2017’s The Rider and last year’s multiple Oscar-winning Nomadland. So she probably wouldn’t be the first person to spring to mind if you were asked to appoint the director of another addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Yet, while she’s still coming to terms with her 2021 Academy Award (she’s only the second woman in history to win the best director prize, after Kathryn Bigelow), Zhao admits she does indeed love a superhero, and was thrilled to take the reins on the hugely ambitious Eternals.
“Oh my goodness, it’s such an honour,” says Zhao, who names two Captain America films, 2014’s The Winter Soldier and 2016’s Civil War, as her favourites from the MCU to date. “But it’s also a lot of pressure, because I did come in as a fan, so you want to make sure you do right by the fans but also move the MCU forward. We’re in a transitional time after the Infinity Saga and you don’t want to play it safe, you want to look at these films and ask, how can we deconstruct and redefine everything we think about them.”
Eternals certainly does that, with some mind-blowing revelations. It’s the tale of the titular superhero team, a race of immortal beings who have been quietly watching over Earth for thousands of years after ridding it of their enemies, the Deviants. Led by Salma Hayek’s healer Ajak, the group also includes Angelina Jolie’s mentally fragile warrior Thena, Richard Madden’s Superman-like Ikaris and Gemma Chan’s empathetic manipulator of matter Sersi, who comes to the fore as the story progresses.
So how does this film link to the others in the MCU? “The story is triggered when half the Earth’s population is brought back in Avengers: Endgame,” says Zhao. “The return of half of the planet is a big ecological event and there are consequences.”
What makes Eternals stand out from other superhero films is its diverse ensemble, with Zhao affectionately branding them a band of “misfits” and as “immigrants from another planet who can’t go home”. Eternals also features both a gay superhero (Brian Tyree Henry’s inventor Phastos) and a deaf superhero (Lauren Ridloff’s lightning-fast Makkari), while it’s the female characters who assume leadership roles. “These individuals are allowed to exist as themselves; they just happen to look a certain way, love a certain way, communicate a certain way. Hopefully you’ll not only see yourself on screen but those who are very different from you, and you’ll relate to that person’s pain, even though you look more like the person standing next to them. It’s a quiet power, but I love that.”
What was it like working with the biggest star of the group, Angelina Jolie? “I was nervous at first, anyone would be. I’d admired her from afar pretty much my whole life,” the 39-year-old Zhao confesses. “But because she makes films herself and they often take place in harsh places in the world, she really understood what I was trying to do. Angie is playing the physically strongest character, but Thena is broken inside and in order to have that vulnerability she shared a lot of who she is and what she’s gone through in life.”
Due to COVID-related delays, Eternals hit cinemas just months after Zhao’s previous film Nomadland, a project that was brought to her by its lead actor Frances McDormand, someone she feels is now a friend for life. McDormand is a legend but seems formidable: how was she to direct? “Like what I was talking about in terms of working with Angie, Fran is so brave,” she says proudly. “These actresses defy some of the Hollywood constraint that’s been put on them. They just let the camera in, they’re not hiding anything, and that’s the strongest thing they can do.”
When asked what it was like to experience such success at the 2021 Academy Awards, where Nomadland picked up three gongs including best picture, there’s a certain amount of surprise in Zhao’s voice, as if she’s looking back on something she can’t quite believe happened. “Because of the pandemic it was the first time we were allowed to be in a space with people for a long time and, because we weren’t allowed to bring anybody, it was just mainly the film-makers, so it was almost like going to a small film festival,” she recalls fondly. “It was incredible. Incredible.”
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Although Eternals was her first time working on a major studio project, Zhao is full of praise for the support she received to deliver her vision and doesn’t necessarily feel her artistic freedom was compromised. “With smaller movies you may have freedom because in some ways you can do whatever you want, but when you wrap at three in the morning and then have to drive your cast home because they don’t have a form of transportation, there are limitations there, too,” she says. “For a film this big, every movement you want to make, hundreds of people have to move with you. So decisions happen a bit slower. However, you also have unlimited resources to make your imagination come true, you can go to places, you have time, there are many other ways to have freedom.”
So what’s been the highlight of this project? “What I’m most proud of are the moments when the Eternals come together. There are a lot of sparks. They’re people who in regular walks of life don’t necessarily belong together, but they manage to find their place within this very dysfunctional family. That, I love most of all.”
If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide. Marvel’s Eternals comes to Disney+ on 12th January, where you can watch most of the MCU movies now – sign up now for £7.99 per month or £79.90 for a full year.