‘I enjoy how sexy she is, as long as she’s in control’: Black Widow’s Cate Shortland on Scarlett Johansson


 

 

The mood is intense, hear-a-pin-drop silent; then, a disembodied voice pipes up over the sound system, softly spoken, with an Australian accent. It is the director, Cate Shortland. “At the beginning, just make sure you’re all moving in slowly … Thank you!”

I’ve been on enough blockbuster film sets to know that this is not normal. The voice you expect to hear – usually an ᴀssistant director – is male, bellowing commands like a drill sergeant.

This movie is a big deal for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It is the long-awaited solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, the ex-KGB ᴀssᴀssin who defected to the US and became an Avenger. Ever since the character first appeared 11 years ago in Iron Man 2, fans have been asking for a standalone spin-off.


In truth, Natasha has been a thinly sketched character in the franchise. Johansson has called out Iron Man 2 for hyperSєxualising her as a “piece of ᴀss”. She might have been thinking about the scene in which she changed into her superhero togs in the back of a car for no other reason, it would seem, than to give a glimpse of her bra. Or perhaps it was the moment a few minutes earlier when the camera leered at her bottom like a teenage boy as she got out of a limo.

There is none of that in Black Widow, sH๏τ through the gaze of Shortland, who was picked by studio bosses over 70 other directors after a search lasting a year and a half. Shortland previously directed three indie films, beginning with Somersault in 2004. When she took on the job, she watched all the Black Widow films back to back, looking at how the character moved and what she wore. The Sєxualisation, she says, stems from Black Widow’s origins as a comic-book femme fatale. Her intention was to strip that all away. “I really fought to start Black Widow where she’s by herself, because then you’re not seeing her in relation to anyone else.” The movie opens with Johansson’s character hiding out alone in a static caravan in Norway, slobbing on the sofa with a beer, watching old Bond movies.

Shortland says she tried to keep in one Sєxy Johansson scene. “It was a beautiful sH๏τ. She got off the bed and she was in just in a pair of undies and a T-shirt. And I was adamant to all my male producers: ‘We’ve got to keep the sH๏τ in the film. It’s so goddam H๏τ.’” But at an early test screening, fans were outraged. “They were like: ‘This is just the male gaze.’” Actually, she says, it was Shortland thinking that Johansson is really H๏τ: “I enjoy how Sєxy she is, as long as she’s in control.”

Being in control is precisely what Black Widow is about. A blast from the past drags Natasha back into her early life as a child ᴀssᴀssin in the Red Room, a trafficking organisation that kidnaps girls and trains them up as killers – they are the black widows. In one grim scene, Dreykov explains that girls are a natural resource: there is an endless supply of them to exploit. The child widows are brainwashed, taught to fight and forcibly sterilised. Shortland says what interested her was opening the Pandora’s box of the character’s past. “She’s a survivor and I think that’s what inspires others. She’s the only Avenger that doesn’t have these superpowers. But she uses her intelligence, her training.”


In the film, Natasha hooks up with a non-biological family unit from a mission in her past. Florence Pugh is hilarious as her “sister”, Yelena Belova, and Rachel Weisz plays an older widow, Melina Vostokoff. This trio of women take on the man who subjugated and oppressed them. It is not about one woman kicking ʙuтт to take down a patriarchal system, but a group of women, more powerful together.

Is it a direct comment on #MeToo, I ask Shortland. “No,” she says, carefully. “Scarlett and I began speaking before #MeToo. We spoke about experiences that we’d had, and other women had had, and that the character Natasha was having.” In work or personal lives? “In our personal lives. I don’t think you have to scratch the surface with many women before you get stories about control, or being made to feel uncomfortable because your power is somehow being taken or you feel you don’t have a voice.”

Where the film does directly borrow from feminism now is that change is driven by Pugh’s younger ᴀssᴀssin. “I’m in my early 50s and Scarlett is in her mid-30s and then Florence is in her 20s. And even within that time span, there’s a real difference in how we deal with some of the issues around Sєxism. Florence just speaks out. Her generation just speaks out. Whereas Scarlett has talked about the fact she feels she can’t speak out at times. Even Scarlett Johansson has felt that. So I think that is reflected, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about Florence’s character. She does speak to the younger generation.” On a lighter note, the widows will no doubt start a trend for badᴀss babushka braiding with their plaits.

 


Shortland is the last low-budget indie film-maker I would have predicted flipping to make a megamillion-dollar movie. After directing Somersault, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to make films any more. She moved to South Africa, where her husband, the director and screenwriter Tony Krawitz, was working on a script and where the couple adopted their two kids. (The family has been peripatetic: they moved to Australia and then Berlin, living in London while Shortland sH๏τ Black Widow and in Los Angeles for the film’s post-production.)

One of the main factors that made her want to quit, she says, was being in the limelight: “I found doing the media really hard when I was younger. I don’t like getting my pH๏τograph taken and being on camera, because I’m quite a shy person.” One of the female executives at Marvel always tells her that it is important her voice is heard, “because it allows younger women to feel like they have a place at the table. That makes me want to speak more.” Of course, she changed her mind about quitting. Her second film, the German-language second world war drama Lore, was Australia’s entry for the best foreign Oscar in 2013. But Shortland’s output – four films in 15 years or so – is indicative of someone balancing work with life and family.

Johansson, a big admirer of Lore, reportedly played a key role in persuading Shortland to take the Black Widow gig – and thus in her becoming the first solo female director of a Marvel film. (Anna Boden directed 2019’s Captain Marvel alongside Ryan Fleck.) Shortland says that she didn’t really know the MCU before Skyping with bosses: “I knew that it existed. But I wasn’t really viewing those movies.” She did, however, love Black Panther. “My kids are black, and it meant a lot to our family – it meant a lot to a lot of people,” she says.

When we first speak, it is only a handful of weeks after the death of that film’s star, Chadwick Boseman, from cancer at 43. Shortland sounds shaken when I bring it up. “It’s tragic. He was private; I don’t think anyone realised exactly how soon or how serious it was.” They hadn’t met, but a few times in our conversation she tells me that Black Panther was a big reason for her wanting to direct Black Widow. “Ryan Coogler [the director and co-screenwriter] told the story with such heart and such truth. It just made us feel really inspired.”


 

 

On set at Pinewood, the buzzwords among the crew were “gritty” and “grounded”. It is a film with a bit of a Bourne conspiracy-thriller feel, location-hopping from Norway to Budapest to Morocco, and never takes off into space. Shortland tells me she asked for the action scenes to feel truthful. “I said to the fight choreographer that I wanted it to feel like these are real fights. I didn’t want it to be a wrestling match.” The female characters that she looked to were Ripley in Alien and Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies, as well as Thelma and Louise. She mentions a scene in The Silence of the Lambs that she likes, in which Jodie Foster held up a gun, terrified: “What we saw was so beautiful; it was a woman holding up a gun and her hand is shaking. And so moments like that, when the audience is allowed in and they identify with her, they put themselves in her position.”

What were her biggest fears in taking on the job? “That I could remain true to myself, that I could make something that was fun and had meaning.” She tells me that Marvel’s boss, Kevin Feige, repeatedly told her to put herself into the film. “I thought I was going to a place where people have big egos,” she says about working with the studio. “Actually, it’s a director-led environment. Because they hate bullsнιт.” Her stamp is all over the film. It manages to pull off real-world allusions to child trafficking and #MeToo that don’t clang or feel gimmicky.

Speaking to Shortland takes me back to that moment on set: hearing her soft-spoken voice in the ether. I ask her if anyone has mistaken that gentleness for a lack of authority. “Absolutely,’ she says, then repeats herself, stressing each syllable: “Ab-so-lute-ly. When I was in Britain [filming Black Widow], I was being told constantly: ‘You need to be tougher.’ I suppose it’s: ‘You have to have more authority in the traditional male sense.’” But what she loves about film-making is the collaboration; giving the people around her a voice to get the best out of them.


 

What difference did it make being outnumbered? Shortland answers in measured tones: “What sometimes happens when you’re in a room of men is that when things start to be talked about, they’ll constantly look at each other, because there’s a trust that there’s an intellectual rigour, that perhaps we [women] don’t have. After a while, that did get quite wearing.” She says that Johansson had her back. “She would come on to set and just scream out: ‘Cate Shortland!’ She sent me flowers a lot and she still texts me all the time. She’s the full package.” Her bosses at Marvel, too, were behind her. “As soon as you get into post[-production], it falls away; it was really on set that it was difficult.”

I read an interview from a few years ago in which she said that the best advice she had been given was to leave tears at home. On the set of Black Widow, her tactic was to stay focused. “If you dwell on [the difficulties], you don’t want to get up and go to work. And we have to make sure that there’s a path for younger women to follow and it doesn’t happen to them.”

They were close to finishing the film when the pandemic hit. Shortland finished the edit in her front room in LA on a desk she pulled out of the garage. Her husband had bagsied the study and her 12-year-old daughter was working in the kitchen. “That’s everybody’s life at the moment. My life is not that different to a lot of people’s, except I’m working on a film.”

 


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