By now, Hollywood’s affection for plucking up-and-coming filmmakers from the independent arena to helm high-stakes blockbusters is old news. From Cathy Yan to Chloe Zhao, Ryan Coogler to Adam Wingard, Jon Watts to Taika Waititi, big-budget features have become both a regular stepping-stone for Sundance breakouts. But filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck never seemed like the type of creators to make the switch to multi-million-dollar franchise films.
Best known for their debut drama “Half Nelson” — which earned Ryan Gosling his first Oscar nomination — and their sports-centric “Sugar,” the festival regulars spent the first part of their career directing stories about complex characters in somehow off-kilter situations. Fluidity and flexibility rules their partnership, so while they always write their projects together, Fleck may be the only director on one (like “Half Nelson”) or Boden might be on deck to also edit (as she did with their first three films). Each of their films (and, in recent years, more work in the television realm) has gotten steadily bigger in scope and scale, but those elements — character-based storytelling and the desire to collaborate — has marked each of their projects.
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Over a decade into their career, the pair have now brought those same sensibilities to their biggest film yet: the Brie Larson-starring “Captain Marvel,” the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first to center entirely on a female heroine, and the first MCU film to be helmed by a woman. None of that is lost on them, but for Boden and Fleck, the most important pieces are the ones that have always guided their work. First step: the same passion they felt for their earlier films.
“This was not offered to us, this was something that we, after really digging in, ran after,” Boden said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Certainly, our agent had pitched us [bigger] projects before that he thought we should go for, but we knew that we were gonna have to really care about it and love the character to dedicate ourselves to it.”
After premiering their Ben Mendelsohn- and Ryan Reynolds-starring gambling drama “Mississippi Grind” in 2015, the duo turned much of their attention to the small screen, directing episodes of series like “Room 104,” “Billions,” and “The Affair.” Planned film features like an adaptation of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and the ensemble feature “Hate Mail” had fallen through, but they remained positive about their place in a changing industry.
In 2015, Boden told IndieWire, “I think that the world of making movies and how movies get made has certainly changed and evolved over the years. So we’re just trying to keep up with it and keep telling our stories in whatever way we can, by hook or by crook.” To tackle “Captain Marvel,” a long-rumored Marvel film that was officially announced in 2014 and went without an attached director for nearly three years, they had to evolve, too.
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The protracted pitching Marvel process was out of the box enough for the duo, who are used to creating their own material and working with indie-sized budgets. The dog and pony stuff isn’t their strong suit, mainly because Boden and Fleck said they find it hard to feign interest in projects they don’t really want. As Fleck explained with a laugh, “We’re not good at faking.”
“We’re not good pitchers, we are terrible pitchers,” Boden said. “I really want to hear what the hell Kevin [Feige] thought of us when we first came into pitch, because we were so bad. We were just stumbling over ourselves, but I think it’s because we were really, truly enthusiastic about it that we somehow managed to land the job.”
While Marvel Studios head Feige is characteristically a bit tight-lipped — he’s never going to give away anything he doesn’t want to — about the ever-evolving MCU, the producer has always maintained that what intrigued him about Boden and Fleck were the same hallmarks that made their smaller films work. When the duo was hired in April of 2017, Feige told Vulture that it was Boden and Fleck’s ability to build a film around a character’s journey that he wanted to tap into.
“The stories they’ve told have been so diverse, but regardless of the subject matter, they can dive into it and hone in on that character’s journey,” he said at the time.
It was a sentiment he echoed again at the film’s official press conference, held in Los Angeles in late February. “It’s their body of work and it’s their focus on character, and our belief that they wouldn’t have lost the character amongst the spectacle and the fun and the effects,” Feige said. “It was those early meetings and their amazing body of work that made us realize they could bring Carol to life.”
It helped that Boden and Fleck already had a Carol Danvers in mind when they went in for those many meetings. Larson had been tapped for the role a year before Boden and Fleck came on board, with the Oscar-winning actress jumping headfirst into the Marvel milieu in appropriately splashy fashion: she was officially confirmed for the part during an appearance at Comic-Con in 2016. (Later, Boden and Fleck cast Mendelsohn in the film’s other biggest role, a reunion the trio were all thrilled to make happen.)
“The first time Brie Larson was really on our radar as somebody who we wanted to work with was ‘Short Term 12,'” Boden said, referring to her breakout role in the Destin Daniel Cretton-directed drama. “She comes from the same character-driven indie roots as we do. We never expected the first time we’d get to work with her would be on a big superhero movie.”
The challenge with “Captain Marvel,” Fleck said, was to “try to make sure that character is just as complicated and compelling and human as the characters we had in our other movies.” They had to bone up on both the character — who has been a part of Marvel lore in various incarnations since the late ’60’s — but they also had to find their own way into her story.
“We knew a little bit about Carol Danvers, but we certainly hadn’t read all the comics and didn’t know all her history,” Boden said. “But before we started taking the meetings, we read thousands of pages, to try to find what would be our way in, because even though we liked the character and we liked the idea of Brie, we needed to make sure that we had our way in.”
The pair was especially inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of “Captain Marvel” comic books, which spanned two volumes from July 2012 until May 2015. It’s in those books that a contemporary Carol Danvers emerges, laying the groundwork for the version seen in Fleck and Boden’s film, which comes with a script written by the pair and Geneva Robertson-Dworet. (The film even borrows its “Higher. Further. Faster.” tagline from a DeConnick-penned issue.)
“You want the character to keep being able to grow through the process of writing, through the process of filming, and editing, you want to discover things about that character,” Boden said. “You need someone who has real depth, and we really saw it in Kelly Sue’s run. [That’s where] we were like, ‘Yeah, this is someone we could live with for two years.'”
If that “character” thing sounds like it comes up a lot, it does for good reason. Ask anyone who has worked with the pair — and, thanks to the scrappy, DIY needs of indie filmmaking, that’s a lot of people; “Half Nelson” alone has 12 credited producers — and their love of character is inevitably brought up first.
“I think what runs through all of their movies is ultimately character, and that’s what makes their movies work and are relatable and why they have such humanity,” “Half Nelson” and “Mississippi Grind” producer Lynette Howell Taylor told IndieWire. “It makes complete sense why this story would appeal to them.”
While the character-centric stuff might have been old hat to Fleck and Boden, the pair readily admitted that making the jump to a multi-million dollar blockbuster feature came with some growing pains. “We had to learn how to make the kind of movie that we’ve never made before, and really in some ways, we were very much learning on the job,” Boden said. “There were certain aspects of this that we just didn’t have any skillset for.”
Still, they weren’t total neophytes to the more challenging aspects of movie magic. Producer Jeremy Kipp Walker is quick to point to their work with pre-visualization elements on their “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” which included a bridge-set scene that required effects work. “It’s an extension of the same thing, you’ve just got a bigger toolkit,” Walker told IndieWire.
Even when they didn’t yet know how to make something themselves, they knew how to express what they wanted. During early meetings, Fleck said the pair edited together a reel of action sequences they admired from films like “The French Connection” and “The Matrix,” then cut it with cool music cues that showed off their vision of what “Captain Marvel” could look like. (The final film is filled with energetic needle drops, including a butt-kicking action sequence in which Larson gets to show off her skills to the tune of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”)
“Luckily, we were working with a really amazing team of experienced people who didn’t judge us for [our lack of experience], they understood that,” Boden said. “They were excited about what we did have to bring to it, and were really trying to get from us what our ideas were and help us figure out how to achieve them.”
While working with a team as seasoned as the group at Marvel — “Captain Marvel” is populated with plenty of blockbuster regulars, including cinematographer Ben Davis, production designer Andy Nicholson, and costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays, not to mention MCU visual effects stalwarts from LOLA and ILM — might sound daunting, Boden and Fleck embraced the chance to work with creators that would only improve on the final product.
“They’re people that have a strong vision but can equally acknowledge when they can defer to someone still within the framework of that vision,” Walker said. “I can’t imagine them being on a set and just saying, ‘okay, you go do your piece and I’m not gonna worry about it.’ It’s, ‘let’s collaborate in on it together.'”
That Fleck and Boden’s directing philosophy is so rooted in collaboration makes sense — they are, after all, collaborating with each other first and foremost — and is indicative of how the pair was able to move from smaller projects to a machine like Marvel. They couldn’t do what they couldn’t do, but they had team around them that could. “They’re incredibly collaborative,” Taylor said. “They hone in on finding the best people and then really empowering those individuals to bring what it is they do to the table. I feel like that’s the mark of any great director.”
With their biggest project finally put to bed, they are ready to move on from the Marvel universe. Fleck said he’s excited to “go to the theater and watch her in the next movie, and not know anything about it, and just be like, ‘I don’t have to make it or edit it anymore,’ eat my popcorn and just watch it, enjoy it like everyone else.”
While the filmmakers said they don’t have any immediate plans to return to the blockbuster fold, the experience has been formative. Boden herself said that making the film pushed her out of her comfort zone, and for the better. “When we made our first short film together, [we were] at Sundance and we won an award and when we got onstage, I literally, literally hid behind Ryan,” Boden said at the film’s press conference. “I think this whole process has helped me be more confident in my voice and be a little bit more comfortable just being seen.”
Their peers said they have nothing to worry about. “It’s amazing how much of them is in the movie,” Walker said. “You have an element of, when you’re making something at that scale, it’s gonna kind of pump through the machine, but their fingerprints are still all over it in a way that was organic to the story but also equally organic to them.”
And while the spectacle is still very much there — this is, after all, a Marvel movie — fans of Boden and Fleck’s work will find much of their signature narrative techniques in the final film. “When you’re not in the scenes where she’s kicking ass and there’s like spaceships flying around, when you’re in the scenes between people, the truth is, to me, it still feels like a Ryan and Anna film,” Taylor said. “I found myself watching the scenes between various characters and feeling like, yes, this is a Marvel movie, yes, this is a superhero movie, but ultimately I believed that these are real people having these real conversations, and that’s their signature.”
Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios will release “Captain Marvel” in theaters on Friday, March 8.