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Chloe Zhao on the ‘Eternals’ Sequel, Including a Sex Scene, and Superhero Movie Criticism

Eternals may be a movie about superheros with unfathomable powers, but really, humanity is at the center of the story. Not only because the fate of the human race lies in their hands, but also because these beings are quite human themselves. They get into petty arguments, they fall in love, they’re selfish, they crave connection. When they cry, they don’t shed a stoic tear; they sob. They party, they flirt, and they have sex.

Chloe Zhao’s Marvel epic, now playing in theaters, contains the first sex scene in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man in 2008 (and the first-ever one with nudity, albeit from the shoulders up). But unlike Tony Stark’s sleazy one-night stand with a female reporter which underscored his playboy image at the time, this is an intimate moment between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), two equals and fellow Eternals who’ve been in love for thousands of years. They sleep together in a secret canyon at sunset, lying on the sand. Through the years, critics have pointed out the sexlessness of the MCU. (Are Avengers really above sexual desire? Should they be?) According to Zhao, even Chan and Madden have noted that sex and nudity are rare for the genre.

“You don’t see superheroes do things like this, usually,” the director tells ELLE.com over Zoom from L.A. “And it’s one of the most fundamental things we do as human beings. So to see that, [and] take that stigma out, I think it’s a really, really powerful thing.”

Despite the grandiosity of the Eternals story, Zhao made it a little more grounded, a little more real, whether through filming on location around the world rather than relying on CGI settings, showing visible physical struggle in combat, or including sexual tension so palpable you’ll blush in your seat. (Someone should have warned me about Druig and Makkari!) Perhaps past Marvel movies have been so devoid of these things that finally seeing them feels refreshing. Perhaps those details are what we should expect from the history-making, Oscar-winning director who made the heartbreaking Nomadland or the modern Western The Rider. While the reviews on Eternals have been mixed, one thing is certain: Chloe Zhao’s imprint is on this film.

Here, the filmmaker discusses that “poetic” sex scene, the possibility of an Eternals sequel, and her response to superhero movie criticism.

I think what struck me the most in Eternals was the display of human emotion from these superhuman characters. What were some of the directions you gave the actors to let the humanity shine through in their performances?

I think for me, casting is about 60 percent of the job done, and that’s how I worked previously in my films. I worked with my cast quite similarly to how I worked with the professional actors in my previous films: We’ll set a sandbox… and then ask them to go away and do their own thing and then come back and show me who that character is. And my job is to adjust what works, what doesn’t, and make sure that I write into the script and make sure that we get the coverage so those things they offer and surprise us [with] can make it into the film. That’s why I rewrote every day. Every morning we had new pages.


Don Lee as Gilgamesh and Angelina Jolie as Thena in Eternals.

©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

When it came to cultivating the chemistry between the characters—especially Angelina Jolie and Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan, and Gemma Chan and Richard Madden—were there any bonding moments or exercises that helped you foster those relationships onscreen?

Not so much, cause I’m not really a rehearsal director, but I wish I had—I would like to do more. I didn’t really have the time, but again, casting is so much of it. I always try to see, if I cast someone, is there someone from their life that I can bring in? That’s how I cast Nomadland. So for Sersi, for example, we searched, we’d auditioned so many women, and we couldn’t really make a decision. And then once we cast Richard, he said, “Oh, have you read my friend, Gemma Chan?” I thought, Wow, they’d been friends for so long. That’s Sersi and Ikaris. That’s just how I think. So we brought Gemma in to read her alone and also with Richard. Right away, all of us go, “Wow, that’s our Sersi.” I love this way of working. And Angie and Don, they just have so much respect for each other. They’re big stars. They have so much respect for each other in real life, and that shines through. And Lauren and Barry, these two characters were not supposed to have this flirting thing going on. And I met them, those two sat down right away, [and] started to have this banter. And I said, “We’ve got to put that into the film.”

So that was something that you added in after you saw how they interacted.

Oh yeah. I will say Brian and Salma brought so much personality to their characters. They’re just concepts on the page, and they brought special personalities. And then Kumail, I mean, what else can I say? [Laughs.] He made Kingo. And his relationship with Leah—like when we say “cut,” Leah will be making fun of Kumail, giving him a hard time—exactly what Sprite does to Kingo.


Lauren Ridloff as Makkari and Barry Keoghan as Druig.

©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

You’ve said before that at the center of this is an epic romance, and that really is true. I want to hear a little more about what it was like working with Gemma and Richard together. I love that their friendship informed their onscreen chemistry.

The two of them knew each other for so long, and it’s great to know that, in the conception of this romance, those two have got their own thing going. They don’t always tell the rest of the family where they’re going. Sometimes they disappear. They’re the lovers of the family. They’ve got their canyon and no one else knew that space existed. So, for Gemma and Richard to have shared a life that we don’t always know what it is, the camera doesn’t lie. It’s there, and they feel safe with each other. And beyond that, Sersi and Ikaris aren’t just lovers; they’re soulmates. Sersi is in love with someone else in present day, but it does not mean her love for Ikaris stops. So their friendship is actually equally as important as the romantic chemistry.

I love that you mentioned the canyon scenes. I thought it was really interesting to include an intimate scene where we have two larger-than-life heroes in a sexual relationship, which is pretty rare. Why was it important for you to keep it, and did you meet any resistance when it came to including that in the film?

Well, those elements were in the treatment that I read, and made it into the script [that] everyone at Marvel and Disney had read. We’re telling a love story that would define the fate of a planet. So, to show that they don’t just love each other emotionally, intellectually, but also physically in the most gentle and loving and giving way, was very important. And we’re very lucky; I spoke with Gemma and Richard about this, ‘cause it’s very rare in a film like this, and they were excited. They were like, “Wow, we get to humanize that aspect.”


Richard Madden (Ikaris) and Gemma Chan (Sersi) were eager to “humanize” their characters with an intimacy scene.

©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Did you work with an intimacy coordinator, or since it was a shorter scene—

[Shakes her head] Because we were shooting it also in the last light of the day, I mean, there was one take. It was, like, one take. That’s the true magic hour. It’s the blue hour. It’s about less than 25 minutes. I think because it’s so tame, and it’s really just about two people being with each other, it’s not that kind of thing. It’s more poetic, let’s put it that way.

Humanity is really at the root of this story. Even though we’re working with superheroes, it explores what it means to love humanity and to fight for people you don’t even know against destruction. Why do you feel like we need this message right now?

I have a lot of opinions, and strong ones, on my own. And I try to make films that don’t carry that. I tried to make films that have a lot of space for someone like you and the person next to you to take away what you need. But having said that, there’s one aspect of the film that moved me, that I might not have seen from the very beginning: the idea of leading with love. Love in leadership. And I think Ajak chose Sersi for a reason. She might not have the same kind of power or strength. But she has one of the hardest things to do in the world, which is to have compassion for all beings. Not only the people that agree with her, but also with people that wronged her. She forgives them and she offers love. By doing that, she’s able to take down the most powerful being ever, because she made him feel love.

The way that the film wraps up, there’s a bit of open-endedness to the ending. You kind of set it up for a sequel. Is that something that you’re interested in, or are already making plans for?

You know, I was very encouraged to make a good standalone film and nothing further. With this specific film, let’s put everything on the table and see what happens. I don’t think I’ve ever said this publicly, but there was a time, in the script, [when] it was a very sort of nice ending. It was wrapped up. Like, the world is saved, happy-happy, but Kevin was not satisfied with that. Deep inside, I wasn’t either. And he really challenged me. This was actually his idea. He challenged me to think about: There are consequences to our actions, even the heroic ones. So maybe, a decision this big, the third act, something this big happened, there’s gotta be consequences. It can’t just be like, “Oh, we saved humans, therefore nothing we do should ever be a problem.” That kind of defeats the whole complexity that we tried to achieve with this film. So yeah, that ending was born out of that.


Richard Madden on set with Chloe Zhao while filming Eternals.

Sophie Mutevelian/©Marvel Studios 2021

There’s sometimes a stigma against superhero films. As somebody who’s directed indies, won an Oscar, and now has directed a Marvel movie, how do you respond to that kind of criticism?

I feel like I can always understand where those criticisms come from because I have played in both worlds. But at the same time, from my experience, if we think about it, those two worlds were not as divided once upon a time. Because distribution models changed and things changed, we were separated for very logistical reasons. And just like any kind of division that we think exists, it really isn’t that much. What I learned from my experience immersed in both worlds is that there’s a genuine curiosity about the other side. And of that curiosity, there is a level of fear because of the unknown. I find the genuine desire from Marvel Studios to learn and to hear what I have to offer from the films that I’ve done… I had the same feeling about them. And as a result, it was a very beautiful collaboration.

I really, really hope more of that collaboration could happen because I do believe cinema is for everyone. Marvel Studios was able to not only give a great contribution to keeping the theaters alive, [but also] give heartfelt stories to people all over the world, from all walks of life. In independent films, we do tend to have an emphasis on really human stories. To have these combined together I think is so powerful and important for the future of cinema. So I hope more and more connections can happen.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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