The USC Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre was host to a screening of Marvel’s “Eternals” and its director, Chloé Zhao, who was also the director of “Nomadland” and the first Asian-American woman to be awarded with an Academy Award for Best Director.
On Nov. 18, the theatre was surrounded by a long line of eager fans and Marvel enthusiasts. By sunset, the building was at capacity, holding an audience of over 340 students, faculty and guests.
The screening and Q&A session were a part of the School of Cinematic Art’s Theatrical Film Symposium class, taught by professor Leonard Maltin, a long-time film critic and former president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The Q&A with Zhao was conducted by Maltin and is transcribed (edited for time and clarity) below.
Leonard Maltin: Did you have any hesitation when jumping into this project?
Chloé Zhao: I would have paid them to hire me. I think I had tried to when I was pitching [the story].
LM: Can you identify what made your treatment or your pitch the one [Marvel] went for?
CZ: Well, I walked in and I started to, um, I put some images - macro images of sand onto the screen, and I started to cite a William Blake poem to Kevin. I think he was confused. That’s how I got the job [joking]. I think they...I think they really were at a stage where they felt that they had to switch things up in a way that’s going to shake things up. To a point where no one can stand still. I think they felt that way after the infinity saga. And again, it’s always healthy to step aside from things that you’re so used to. The popular narrative in society or in a comic book franchise, and then just challenge some of the fundamental principles that this whole genre is born out of. Every genre enters a revisionist stage at some point, you know, I think we’re dancing on the edge for this genre - challenging a lot of those fundamental principles.
LM: What did you find in Jack Kirby’s original comics that wasn’t perhaps in the adaptation and the treatment?
CZ: There were many, many, many ones we touched. You know what, it’s interesting that the Neil Gaiman one is also represented here. I think what interests me when he comes to the adaptation, which I dealt with in Nomadland as well - If you’d read the book, Nomadland, the stories are just so far and wide and it’s very much about what’s the deepest thing you can find on the page, underneath the ink. You know, what is that thing that’s not specific, but universal, that links all these stories together. For Nomadland, it was a collective sense of loss and grief. So I can focus on that. And for Eternals, again, it’s about stepping aside. I know I already said this, but it’s about creating a group of people who only exist on the periphery and are watching. They’re not always acting, you know, they’re watching and they come to this planet as a blank canvas and 7,000 years later, it is an opportunity for us to examine humanity through these characters. And just to go back to mythology again, which this genre is born out of.
LM: How involved were you in casting?
CZ: I was involved as much as I am involved in casting in Nomadland, you know, so our casting director, Sarah Finn, who’s done all the Marvel films at the beginning. She said, how would you like to cast them? And we said, let’s find people who already embody and carry something that’s already in the characters we wrote. Because that’s how I like to work and what excites me. And if not, they’re unique individuals that we want to bring you in to make these characters interesting. Like Barry Keoghan, for example, Druig was not like that on the page. He was, doesn’t really quite have a personality, but when Barry came in, we basically rewrote for him, which is something we did with my previous films as well.
LM: Your first films really rely on non-professional actors and so you have refined a very rare skill at bringing something out of them that perhaps they don’t even know is in them to give. How do you instill confidence in those people?
CZ: I don’t think it did. I think I pick people who are very much in their body. And I find that way in places where young people, people in general who work closer to nature, look at themselves a bit less. They just don’t have as much self-consciousness and, uh, and then because they work the horses all the time, they’re always in their body and they don’t overthink. It’s like after you meditate for two months and you know, you can only really be present. And that’s what you want from your actor - be present. And when you work with someone who’s trained, but not great, that’s the toughest because they’re not being present...So you want, you want your actor, professional or non-professional, who’s willing to be present and actually connect with the human being in front of them and not let their ego get in the way of, they think their performance should be. And that’s when you capture the truth.