Chloé Zhao Says She Expected Divisive Reaction to ‘Eternals’: ‘It Made a Lot of People Uncomfortable’

"I think the need for consensus is a hindrance for any authentic creative process," Zhao said.
ETERNALS, from left: Richard Madden, director Chloe Zhao, on set, 2021. ph: Sophie Mutevelian  / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / © Marvel Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection
Chloe Zhao on the set of "Eternals"
Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Oscar winner Chloé Zhao followed up Best Picture breakout “Nomadland” with Marvel’s “Eternals,” but even Zhao knew the film would yield divided opinions.

“‘Eternals’ was planned to be released soon after ‘Endgame,’ and not at a time when everyone is having an existential crisis,” Zhao told Empire magazine. “The film itself is about existential crisis, both for humanity and God. So I think we definitely felt it was coming.”

The gulf between critics and audiences on “Eternals” didn’t necessarily affect its box office: Even in the pandemic, it still earned more than $400 million at the box office. (On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a chilly 47 percent rating from critics versus a much warmer 78 percent rating from audiences.)

Yet Zhao remained unfazed by the critical reception of the mythological ensemble superhero film, starring Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, and more. For many, the ensemble was just too sprawling, with many a clunky backstory and tangled plot twist. (Not to mention a first-of-its-kind Marvel sex scene that left some viewers unstimulated.)

“I think the need for consensus is a hindrance for any authentic creative process, just like it’s a hindrance for living an authentic life as a person,” Zhao continued. “I have been on the receiving end of somewhat consensus, and divisiveness about my work. Neither of them has any real influence on me as an artist, because every time I’m lucky enough to create, I learn from the process. From what I’ve succeeded [at], and what I’ve failed [at]. But that learning process is a very intimate affair. Anything beyond that, for me, it’s just a part of the ecosystem that exists because of the nature of the industry we’re in. Like a flower or a rock, I acknowledge and appreciate their presence. But that’s as far as it goes.”

“Eternals” marked Zhao’s first foray into the world of studio filmmaking, but certainly not her last, as she is next set to take on a “Dracula” monster movie for Universal Pictures.

Zhao added, “So I completely understand the divisiveness coming from critics and the fans. Because when you take this to extremes that are seen as opposition — the world I come from and the world of Marvel, that has been divided in a way that’s so unfair and unfortunate – and to merge the way we did, I actually see the reaction as a testament to how much we had merged with each other, how uncomfortable that might make people feel…The truth is that nobody is one layer. In this case, we truly stepped out of the box that I think the world put us in, and met in the middle because of our shared interests. And by truly doing that, it made a lot of people uncomfortable on both sides.”

The “Nomadland” filmmaker explained that she understands why people “need to put order into things,” and how “Eternals,” for many casual viewers and Marvel fans alike, defied that order. And some may also have been thrown off by Zhao’s veer into tentpole-making after quiet indies “The Rider” and “Nomadland.”

“It is not about us, it is about them. And I say that lovingly, because they have a level of comfort [with] how their entertainment and their world – their beloved Marvel, or their beloved indie filmmaker – functions,” Zhao said. “That’s the order of the logic of their world that’s being disturbed. So I appreciate their passion, to try to make sense of it.”

Zhao previously told IndieWire that the assumption that creative control on “Eternals” was entirely in the hands of Marvel was false.

“From day one, Marvel said, ‘Here are the tools we use. We need your version. We don’t want three different movies, we want your movie,’” Zhao said. “They would be there to help me because I’ve never used these tools.”

Like Zhao told her star-studded cast, she similarly approached the Marvel collaboration with the same sentiment: “I very much said, ‘Here are the edges, here is the sandbox, play inside and please show me who the characters are.'”

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