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How Black Widow's director was influenced by a Coen brothers classic

Cate Shortland talks about making the superheroic Natasha Romanoff feel human and offers insight into Marvel Studios' inner workings.


Black Widow sends Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova on a spy adventure.

Marvel Studios

Superhero fans dived into the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie in two years over the weekend as Black Widow hit theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access. The film was set to come out in May 2020, but the pandemic forced Disney to delay Natasha Romanoff's long-awaited solo adventure multiple times.

Black Widow sends Avenger-on-the-run Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) on an espionage-tinged quest as she unravels a conspiracy linked to her past, in the wake of 2016's Captain America: Civil War.

Black Widow director Cate Shortland's previous movies include the dramas Somersault and Lore, as well as the 2017 thriller Berlin Syndrome. Black Widow is her first MCU project, and I stayed up late in London to talk to her over Zoom as she started her day in Australia.

We steered clear of spoilers, but we touched on the pandemic's impact on production, the collaborative aspects of Marvel Studios  and how a Coen brothers classic influenced Natasha's first encounter with one of the movie's villains.

Here's an edited transcript of our Zoom conversation.

Cate Shortland and David Harbour at SDCC 2019

Cate Shortland and David Harbour talk Black Widow at SDCC 2019.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie -- I didn't want it to end, which I guess is the highest compliment. Did it change at all due to the delay? Or has it been in the can since 2020?
Shortland: It's been in the can. It took longer to finish because we were in separate houses; we couldn't be in the same room. And all the digital effects labs started closing because of COVID, so we were shuffling visual effects around to different people. The whole process took longer because of it. But we finished and we just haven't touched it for a year.

How do you feel about the simultaneous Disney Plus and theatrical release, since that wasn't the original plan?
Ultimately, I want people to watch it in a cinema if they can do it safely. These films are designed to be enjoyed in a cinema with an audience -- a community -- with beautiful sound. That's the ultimate. But because of the situation we find ourselves in, it's great that some people can watch it at home on Disney Plus.


The scene where Taskmaster encounters Natasha for the first time was influenced by No Country For Old Men.

Marvel Studios

Which action movies had the most influence on you as you made Black Widow?
The film that I watched the most was No Country for Old Men, even though it isn't an action movie. But it's so beautiful how the Coen brothers create suspense in stillness and the rhythm of it. That was really influential for the Taskmaster moment when he pulls up on the bridge and he's walking towards her.

I also love [Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Fallout director] Christopher McQuarrie's work, and he was really generous. He spoke to me on the phone when I was in pre-production, about working with choreographers and second-unit directors -- how to make it a team and make sure that everybody's making the same film.

And then some South Korean stuff -- we made montages of different action and fight sequences. Before I started, I cut together 10 minutes of fights I liked from the last 30 years so we could talk to the choreographers about that. 

What was really important to me was that Natasha felt human and fallible, because she's up against these really formidable fighters. So you want to feel the punches. You don't want to be going to put a cup of tea on -- this is a gritty fight to the death that you want to watch.

We get a glimpse of classic James Bond in Black Widow. Why did you choose that one?

That was from Scarlett. And Eric [Pearson], the writer, and Kevin Feige.

What's your favorite movie in that franchise?
Skyfall. I think it's an incredible piece of cinema. 

Dreykov [Black Widow's main villain] has an intense misogynistic streak that I found simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. Why does that work so well here?
I think because he's pragmatic -- he sees women as something he can buy and sell, he doesn't have a problem with it. Rather than getting caught up in the morality of it, he sees it as a business. You have people whose whole lives have been shredded by someone like that, then you put them in the room together and they're still intimidated by him. In a way, Natasha's still under his spell.

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What's it like to work with the Marvel Studios Parliament? That group of names always jumps out at me in the credits, it seems to be a group of executives.
Yeah, that's a really beautiful process -- I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it. But the studio is incredibly collaborative. So you don't feel like you're working with executives, you feel like you're working with filmmakers.

We got some beautiful plot points from people that were involved in other films -- Nate [Moore], who produced Black Panther, or people that were producing other projects would read the script and give feedback to [Black Widow producers] Brian Chapek, Brad Winderbaum and myself.

And it's not just producers. Somebody's 24-year-old assistant would read the script. It's really egalitarian, it's about "best idea wins."