Director Kari Skogland has long been a master of tonally complex television, having helmed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and many other beloved series; she also executive produced and directed several episodes of one of the best limited series of the last ten years, the Showtime Roger Ailes drama The Loudest Voice. Yet the best work of her career is her most recent, as the director of all six episodes of Marvel’s Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. An extraordinarily ambitious expansion of the Marvel universe that takes full advantage of the opportunities television provides to deepen and broaden its characters and themes beyond what’s possible in a two- to three-hour running time, Falcon delivers all the satisfactions of a Marvel feature but goes much, much further, asking profound questions about what it really means to be a hero in 2021—and what it means to be a Black hero specifically. As star Anthony Mackie put it when discussing his character’s reservations about taking on the Captain America persona, “How does a Black man represent a country that doesn’t represent him?”
Skogland, head writer and creator Malcom Spellman and the rest of their team explore this idea and many others with intelligence and rigor, never losing sight of the fact that Falcon is at its heart a six-hour action movie. Skogland’s direction of the chase and fight sequences is as dynamic and expressive as anything in Marvel’s history, combining elegant choreography with an innate sense of how to convey character through action—the set pieces here work like song and dance numbers in a musical, moving the story forward while also providing the requisite spectacle. That said, where The Falcon and the Winter Soldier really distinguishes itself is in the scenes between the thrills, in which the actors are able to dig deep in a way that has never been possible in Marvel’s features. Skogland’s command of widescreen composition and her unerring ability to choose just the right focal length for every shot places the audience firmly in the characters’ perspectives, resulting in an action epic as moving as it is rousing. I spoke to Skogland via Zoom about her intentions for the series, and the methods she employed to realize them so fully.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the origins of your involvement with the series. Was it something that was offered to you or did you have to go in and pitch yourself for the job?
Kari Skogland: Oh, you absolutely have to pitch. It’s very competitive because lots of people, myself included, want to work with Marvel—particularly on this project, because it had so much going on in terms of the themes and the combination of gravitas and fun at its core. I was excited about the fact that it was the first Black Captain America and that there was a chance to really look at what makes a hero. The original Captain America that the comics presented back in the ’30s and ’40s was born of two world wars and was a soldier-warrior coming out of an anti-fascist paradigm; this one was more informed by modern events, which meant that he needed to be expanded into a first responder or frontline worker. That makes [Mackie’s character] Sam Wilson a different kind of hero. So, I did a full-on presentation about my ideas on these themes and topics that I was interested in, riffing on the very, very broad stroke paragraph version they give you of what the series might be.
Filmmaker: That combination of gravitas and fun that you mentioned is one of the great things about the series—that it contains serious examinations of race and nationalism and other big themes but then shifts gears to become a buddy comedy and back again. I would imagine it’s very challenging for a director, maintaining the tonal control over the course of six hours.
Skogland: Well, one of the most significant things about working with Marvel is that they have a tremendously supportive team. My executives, Zoie Nagelhout and Nate Moore, were very helpful about making sure that the ship didn’t get too far off course, but they’re also really, really supportive of you making it your own movie. And the Marvel paradigm is to come at it like a movie—we shot it like a movie, the whole structure was like a movie, and that gave me some authorship. You’re able to play a little bit because you aren’t shooting episodically, you’re block shooting. We shot the final shot of the series on day three, and I didn’t know that it would stick. I thought, well, there’s a great opportunity in front of us with this beautiful sunset and environment, let’s just see…and we never moved it. But in order to do that you have to keep your eye on the prize; you’ve got the lanes that you’ve chosen for the characters, and you make sure that they’re never competing for the same space. And you try not to clamp them into a box—there’s a lot of ad-lib, particularly between Sebastian and Anthony. You let them take a scene and riff, just play with it, with the promise that if it sucks it will never be in the movie. Out of that safe space where you can play comes genuine discovery, which I think you can feel on the screen—if it’s a genuine moment that hasn’t been overly scripted or polished, you sort of feel that in your DNA. I always have a plan, but I always hope that what happens when I mix it up is a lot better than my plan.
Filmmaker: There does seem to be a real spontaneity and genuine quality between Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan. Did knowing it was those actors inform how you and the writers conceived the characters when you were in the initial stages of planning the series?
Skogland: Oh, totally. We watched a lot of their interviews to see their natural rhythms and who they were outside of the roles; one of the exciting things for all of us was that because it was six hours, we got to go home with the characters. Marvel had never done that before, not meaningfully. The story isn’t solely driven down the action path to save the world; you’re able to go around a few cul-de-sacs and discover who these characters are and invest in them a little bit. We watched not only their interviews but their movies to see all the different roles they played, because I wanted to be prepped on what to expect. Every actor has their favorite little niches that they fall into, just like every director does. I wanted to know what those were, so I could either capitalize on them or steer the actors away from them, depending on whatever was going to work for the scenes. And then of course, workshopping the scenes with them, they weigh in and sometimes it’s as simple as the syntax of how difficult the sentence is to say in the moment, the rhythm of it. We tried to work on the scenes in such a way that by the time we were shooting them, the history was already baked into their camaraderie.
Filmmaker: Yeah, one of the things that surprised me about the show was how much I loved the scenes of guys just sitting around talking—I actually found that stuff even more compelling than the enormous action sequences. How do you approach those character-based scenes in terms of the camera?
Skogland: As much as possible—and I’m not sure I was always successful—in every scene I wanted to make a careful decision about whose perspective I was in, then choose where to put the audience’s eyes so that the focal plane would be with that character. I was rarely objective, it was more about viscerally feeling the emotional space the character was in. Sometimes that means you throw the focal plane to just an ear, or a jaw line; it also plays into choosing when and how the camera moves, or doesn’t move. For example, in the therapist scene that’s a two-hander that started out being seven pages, I wanted to feel the claustrophobia of the character’s situation; even though the therapist is talking, she’s way across the room and the camera is right up against [Sebastian Stan’s character] Bucky’s head because I want to be with him during those words, and I didn’t want to get into ping-pong editing between the two of them. In those situations I tell the camera operator and the focus puller, “Guys, you need to feel this. I can’t cover it. This is organic coverage. You have to feel where you want to be in the scene.” By contrast, when we go to Sam Wilson in Louisiana—which is expansive with the ocean, his family—the camera was moving, we were with him, it was more handheld. We immediately experience his life differently than Bucky’s life. So, that was the set up at the beginning, and I tried to continue with that paradigm, then shift when I felt the characters were shifting here and there.
Filmmaker: And then the show broadens out to include a truly international, multi-character perspective, which gets at what you were saying about nationalism earlier.
Skogland: Very much so. We really wanted to tackle nationalism, elitism—we were looking for all the -isms [laughs]—and also radicalism. How does someone become radicalized and go down the wrong path? I’ve done a fair bit of work with extremism as a theme, and it’s a slippery slope, because often the initial ideas and message are not inherently bad. It’s how they’re realized and actualized. Telling the story internationally, we could look at that from the outside in. I think a really interesting moment is in the cyber cafe, when John Walker [a transitional Captain America character] says, “Do you know who I am?” and the guy says, “Yeah, but I don’t care.” That’s a pivotal statement, because why should he care? Then there are these themes of xenophobia and closing borders and trying to move the clock back to how it was before the Blip—which, of course we couldn’t have predicted the pandemic, but it echoed very much the xenophobia that was going on worldwide at the time. And one of the things that we wanted to do was leave it open, which Anthony and Malcolm did an amazing job of in that end speech. We didn’t say, “Okay. Wow. We saved the world. It’s all good.” It was, “We can do better. What are you going to do with that power? You have it. What are you going to do with it? How are you going to be better?”
Filmmaker: That whole meditation on heroism and what it means and how it changes is explored really interestingly with the John Walker character played by Wyatt Russell. One of my favorite images in the series is him holding the Captain America shield while blood drips off it. What kinds of factors go into creating an iconic shot like that?
Skogland: I try to feed my brain with a lot of imagery that will inspire me, then just sit in a bubble and imagine how to portray this heinous act—we were literally destroying the shield, which is a metaphor for the flag. We were putting blood on it and tearing it apart before building it back up into something new, so I used a Phantom to sort of stop the moment in time. I wanted to be in John Walker’s perspective as he’s losing his mind, to be with him in that moment, so that when we see the final shot where the shield is in a foreground heroic angle, we now have a tainted hero—if we can even call him that at this point, really he’s a criminal. So what could that look like? In that case there was very little path of discovery —you use storyboard artists and really dig into those images so that you know what you’re shooting, and the shot is quite designed so you know where to head with it.
Filmmaker: And how does this idea of sharing the characters’ perspectives extend to the stunts and action sequences?
Skogland: I had done a lot of action before this, but it was scrappier, street-level stuff—I was a bit uninformed when it came to this kind of superhero action, which is a particular kind of skill. Yet this isn’t a superhero movie in the traditional way; it’s more grounded, even though some of the characters have extraordinary ability. So what does that look like? As you say, we wanted to be experiential wherever we could. I watched a lot of extreme sports videos to think about where to put the cameras, because I wanted not to rely on visual effects so much—we actually pushed people out of the plane in squirrel suits. Again, with the fight sequences, the camerawork is about figuring out the perspective of it, getting the audience more organically involved with the fighting as opposed to sitting back from an objective place watching it. There were probably ten big set pieces, of which six were ginormous and four were not as big, but all had to come from character—who won, who lost, what were the emotional stakes? We looked at each one of them like its own little episode with its own arc. The stunt team was really terrific at taking that in and coming back with really interesting ideas, and everyone had to be really malleable because we rehearsed some of this stuff here but had to pivot when we got to Europe and adapt to the locations. We would get to a place and have to deal with its surprises, and I think that’s why it comes across as more organic and sudden and surprising. It was a blast.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.