In modern, blockbuster-scale moviemaking, secrets are a lot easier to keep than they used to be. Certainly script leaks occur, spy photos unveil information that was meant to be private, and non-disclosure agreements are broken. But even when the most intrepid journalist, carrying the most advanced recording devices commercially available, steps onto the set of a movie like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” there’s precious little certainty they can walk away from the experience with.
The reason? Two simple words: green screens.
In July of 2013, CBR News visited the set of the highly-anticipated sequel, and like our colleagues in attendance, we were aware of the details and descriptions that had already leaked from the production. But after stepping inside a soundstage bathed in green where Anthony Mackie scrambled up and down an elevated, isolated metal walkway, any expectations that we’d soon be privy to the full breadth of the plot — or even a few crumbs of it — were entirely dashed.
Thankfully, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely soon sat down to explain a little bit about “The Winter Soldier,” a follow-up repeatedly branded as a conspiracy thriller by members of the cast and crew. McFeely said that they first eliminated the ideas that they didn’t want to explore before settling on the ones they did.
“We knew what we didn’t want to do, which was the grandpa story of, ‘Oh, my God, I’m in the future! What are these buttons? What do they do?'” the writer asked. “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet. His brain’s been juiced, so he’s not going to be baffled for very long by your iPhone, so you have all those ideas first — and then you’re like, ‘Those are stupid.'”
Markus added, “We very much wanted him to be further down the road of trying to fit in. He’s been working for S.H.I.E.L.D. for however long when you analyze it took between ‘Avengers’ and this movie, and he’s been on a lot of missions. He’s in the midst of a daily life now.”
Rather than dealing with the unfathomable depths of modern technology, Markus said they elected to explore the unfathomable complexities of modern-day politics, which are decidedly more difficult to parse than when he first joined the army some 70 years ago. “The man who once represented America has become, by dinted passage of time, alien to America and alien to the values and the thought systems,” Markus said. “So in order to represent America, he has to get a better understanding of America.
“When you have a monolithic evil like Nazis, your choices are clear,” Markus continued. “It’s not like you’re going to go, ‘Well, maybe I will appease the Nazis for a little while.’ Now, there’s a few examples of evil, but you can almost always find a counter argument in everybody’s human, and it’s all mushy and dirty and much less easy to get a read on who is evil and who is righteous.”
“You open the newspaper: Is it okay to spy on everybody? Are drones okay? You can’t get away from it now and that’s the world he’s in. He would love there to be black and white, but there isn’t anymore.”
Markus indicated that they drew upon many of the classic 1970s political thrillers for inspiration. “‘Three Days of the Condor,’ that was one,” McFeely revealed. “We watched other ones from that period, like ‘Parallax View’ and things like that. ‘Marathon Man’ is great.
“But it’s not like we stole particular things from them,” he clarified. “But there’s that sense of an onion getting peeled away.”
Markus said that Steve Rogers’ naturally idealistic look at the world and the way it “should” work plays heavily into his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D., and especially its director, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). “Nick Fury likes to pretend he’s as cynical as those guys, but clearly as we saw in ‘Avengers,’ he wouldn’t blow up New York,” Markus observed. “So I think he’s got choices to make in terms of, what do I learn from this red, white, and blue guy who showed up here, or, is he just a clown to me? And he’s much too effective to be a clown.”
Scarlett Johansson’s character from “Iron Man 2” and “Avengers,” Black Widow, figures heavily into the plot of “The Winter Soldier,” as much as anything because she represents a methodology that is morally more flexible than the one from which Captain America was born. “We’ve always said he’s our Gary Cooper, and the world shifts to him and it’s his job to tell everybody, ‘Here’s how we ought to be doing this’,” McFeely said. “She’s a lot more flexible in terms of loyalties and how we’re going to get these jobs done. We didn’t pick her out of thin air — she best represented the century and that grey morality.
“She’s also just a great person to poke at his weak spots,” Markus continued. “We know he hasn’t had that much romantic experience — he’s never gotten to dance. We don’t know exactly what he’s up to on his nights off from the Avengers, but probably not that much. So you have this very beautiful, very forward almost deliberately provocative woman who is sort of poking at him to see what his reaction is and it’s just fun to get at his soft underbelly that way.”
Meanwhile, Markus and McFeely eagerly immersed themselves in the mythology of Captain America in order to add a few new characters to his universe. The most conspicuous one — if only by virtue of his appearance in the film’s title — is the Winter Soldier, who gave the filmmakers an incredible platform to highlight the loss that the superhero endured as a result of being frozen for seven decades. “The Winter Soldier allows you to talk about trust, the things he thought he knew that he doesn’t know,” said McFeely.
“By taking his pure memories and warping them, we turned him into a really interesting Shakespearian character, not to put too fine a point on it.”
Conversely, there’s Mackie’s character The Falcon, who despite the ambiguity of what he was doing on set plays a very specific and deliberate role in Cap’s life. “He brings a more obvious fun in the same way that we’re talking about Cap is not glib or outwardly hilarious,” McFeely said. “Falcon is a little funnier. He has a great deal of respect obviously for Steve, but he’s not afraid to be a real 2013 person.”
“He’s definitely not in awe of Captain America,” Markus elaborated. “Which is exactly what Steve wants in a friend and in a fellow soldier, to not have to be Captain America.”
McFeely admitted that notion of fame — of Captain America being an iconic symbol — was one they were eager to interpolate into his struggles. “A superhero would live in a celebrity bubble, so that every person who comes up to them is going to have one of two questions or have one of, ‘You saved my grandfather,’ or, ‘I have your action figure,’ and that doesn’t allow for any actual communication,” he said. “How do you actually become a friend with someone who is a fan? I don’t think you can do that, so if you can make that first meeting break that bubble, then I think there’s an attraction there, like ‘that’s a guy maybe I could talk to more about something more serious or more personal’.”
“That was our goal there, to try to make them have a connection.”
With so many moving parts — and so many left up to brilliant artists and technicians behind computers to bring to life — it was essential for Marvel to enlist not just proficient but truly skilled filmmakers to fit them all together seamlessly. Despite their limited pedigree as directors of big-scale action, McFeely said that Joe and Anthony Russo were unquestionably the right guys for that job. “They know film,” he said. “I mean that’s the thing. It’s not like they were born on MTV or something. They came from film, went to TV, and are coming back. We talked the exact same language.”
It remains to be seen if that language translates easily to audiences, given the film’s unconventional approach to superhero storytelling — not to mention the absence of anything other than a scaffolding to alert visiting press as to what they’ll see in the finished movie. But at the very least, McFeely and Markus seem confident that the Russos know exactly how to turn all of that green into box office gold.
“It’s not like they came in and said, ‘We want to make The Odd Couple’ and we were saying, ‘We want to make “Three Days of the Condor,”‘” McFeely explained. “They are going ‘All right, let’s look at “Marathon Man.”‘ They are good at ensembles. It is a big cast even though it’s not eight people all on the same day necessarily and they are really good at handling the big picture of all of those people.”
“And shockingly, they are really good at action,” Markus said reassuringly. “This movie is going to punch you in the face.”
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens on April 4.