ALBUQUERQUE, NM – The Santa Fe Railway Shops, a collection of mammoth warehouses, were designed to service the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Once the city’s largest employer, trains haven’t run through the Santa Fe Railway Shops since 1970.
It’s a tremendously evocative physical space that has become one of the centerpieces of Albuquerque’s film production infrastructure.
Unused rail lines going nowhere approach the building, with its multiple stories of mismatched glass window panes, some green, some gray, some missing entirely, all lending the inside light a broken quality, at once artistic and derelict. That light is laden with particulates that are probably a mixture of soot, sawdust, regular dust and airborne rust from the crisscrossing steel girders supporting the building and the lines of precariously perched walkways and beams designed to allow for easy access to all parts of the locomotive in years long since past.
You could pay the best art directors in the world budgets of untold millions and they would never be able to replicate the vastness, authenticity and ingrained character of the indoor area, which has become so disconnected from its original purpose and its original purpose so disconnected from our contemporary frame of reference that it could be anything or anywhere.
On a warm June day in 2011, “anywhere” is “Grand Central Station.”
Thanks to “The Avengers,” one of the buildings of the Santa Fe Railway Shops has been transformed into a block of New York City, but it’s immediately clear that something horrible has happened.
Urban detritus stretches as far as the eye can see. The concrete has been torn apart. Overturned cabs are everywhere. A city bus advertising a show from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company is laying on its side, roof crumpled. , Something has dismembered whole automobiles with the callous ease of a child picking apart an insect, bumpers tossed here, car doors wrenched from their frames and cast aside there. Much of the street is covered in a layer of soot, but some of the cars are still burning, with gouts of flames erupting at random intervals.
Did I mention that it’s June? In Albuquerque? The Santa Fe Railway Shops can be described in may ways, but one would never call them “well-ventilated.” There’s a giant fan that could probably send a grown man flying when turned up all the way, but in this cavernous, stuffy hive of production activity, it has all the cooling power of a single haphazardly applied ice cube.
Jeremy Renner is unfazed.
Clad in a black-and-maroon sleeveless leather vest, Renner is fighting off a horde of an unidentified invaders, or at least his “Avengers” character, Hawkeye, is.
Over and over, Renner executes an elaborately choreographed series of moves, firing imaginary arrow after imaginary arrow at bad guys in motley motion capture suits. There’s twisting and turning, ducking and bending required as Hawkeye fends off the invaders, who presumably were responsible for the decimation of this block of Gotham. Go Hawkeye! In the short-term, Hawkeye even seems to be winning, albeit through sheer repetition.
The heat is intense and that’s even true for reporters standing way off to the side doing absolutely nothing. Renner is required to be at the absolutely nexus of smoldering vehicles, plus the trappings of a full film production. Lights glare down on him, with bounce sheers aiming the beams in his direction, taunting him, Multiple cameras are running at all time, requiring multiple hovering operators. The air is thick and hard to breath and it stings your eyes. Much of the crew surrounding Renner, including the guys in their mo-cap suits, gets to wear masks. He does not. The only accommodation he receives is the assistant who scurries over between takes to blot his sweat, a task that’s nothing less than Sisyphean, under the circumstances.
The scene is being handled entirely by John Mahaffie, Joss Whedon’s second unit director on the production and it requires the usual endless variations on the theme. Before each shot, Renner stretches elaborately — What Hawkeye lacks in superpowers, he makes up for in flexibility and not pulling muscles — and after each shot, the exertion is so great that the two-time Oscar nominee is very vocal, especially when the sequence doesn’t go right. He isn’t projecting the grunts or shouts at anybody. This just isn’t easy.
Renner is also missing his partner-in-crime. Black Widow is in the shot with him, but it isn’t Scarlett Johansson poured into her black leather suit. For this sequence or this one angle, it’s a Black Widow double assisting Hawkeye with the mo-cap baddies. Off to the side, Renner’s own double — a far closer approximation than the Johansson stand-in — is glancing at a monitor and shadow-dancing his own way through Hawkeye’s archery ballet-of-death, just waiting for his not-close-up. Maybe when Real Scarlett comes out in her suit, Fake Jeremy will get his chance, just off to the right or left of the spotlight.
An hour earlier, Renner and Johansson were at a loss to explain, in non-spoilery terms, just what was unfolding.
“I can’t tell you anything of what’s happening in there,” Renner told a small group of reporters.
Johansson turned the question on the reporters by asking, “What do you think is happening in there?”
At that moment, between shots, what was happening involved the proper positioning of a ground-to-ceiling green screen, a process that involved cranes, pulleys and lots and lots of noise. The Santa Fe Railway Shops was designed with floors that look almost like cobblestones, only with wooden blocks designed to dampen sound. Nobody’s replaced those wooden bricks since the yards ceased operation and it’s possible that in their current rotting, cracking condition, they’ve lost their silencing power.
It’s OK, because over the cacophony, Renner and Johannson were avoiding giving straight answers.
“We’re avenging something,” Renner finally admitted. He adds, “We’re fighting, I can tell you that, so it’s hot and sweaty.”
Sitting next to Renner, who was in full costume, Johansson was going casual, wearing a gray Motley Crue t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
“There’s always this plan that as soon as everything is cut, everything comes off,” Johansson said of the Avengers garb. “All our costumes are unzipped, some air conditioning venting unit goes in. Someone is having a wig removed. We all have our various things that we have to do to get comfortable. Everybody looks incredibly uncomfortable until the cameras are rolling and then we all look f***ing badass. Then ‘Cut!’ and we’re all like ‘Aarrrgh… God, this thing, get it off me, it’s awful!!'”
Which actors have it easiest, costume-wise?
This dialogue ensued:
Renner: We definitely have it the easiest I think.
Johansson: Speak for yourself!
Renner: I was going to say that I have it easier than you because of your f***ing hair.
Johansson: Nope. My hair? What about my hair?
Renner: You have to do hair every day.
Johansson: That’s a girl thing. That has nothing to do with being a superhero.
Renner: Still. That’s part of your deal.
Johansson: Please. Please, talk about that it’s like 800 degrees in my costume… and it’s a unitard, and I have nothing underneath it!
Renner: But that might be nice for people. I think it’s easy.
Johansson: All these boys in their muscle suits.
Renner: Watching her is really easy.
Johansson: Yeah, thanks.
Here are some more highlights from the Q&A with Johansson and Renner before they rushed off to… avenge.
Question: Because of previous movies, you were all signed before even seeing a script. What was your reaction to reading the script for the first time?
Johansson: Well, the nice thing about our cast is that there’s a silent oath, kinda a support system in some way and all of us are really looking out for one another’s best interests and more when the first drafts came in. I remember going to Comic-Con last year and flying back with everybody and we were all like, “We’re in it together!” We had assembled on the plane. So reading the first draft, it’s a huge story with a lot of storylines. The first draft to me was still very much a work in progress and Joss wanted everybody’s notes and got all of them, and we all met separately and together and talked about it. Joss was like pulling his hair out, doing these insane drafts on a time crunch, but I think with everybody’s notes and all of us kind of looking out for each other, really streamlined it to something that is very coherent. The first draft to me was a little bit like “Wah?!? What are all these storylines?” I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It very much felt like an assemblage of a lot of different storylines together, but I think that’s all part of the screenwriting process, anyways, streamline.
Renner: Yeah, there’s no bigger fan than Joss of this world and he’s a really good writer and he had a massive task to write this movie and direct it, massive. I don’t know anybody who could really write this and really put in all the stuff that he really wanted to put in, cause he honors all these characters so much. So people will ask about backstory and all these other things, he’s like, “Well, there’s a lot going on in this movie.” We won’t have a lot of the time that he wanted to put into each and every character. There are so many different versions of the stuff that sometimes I even liked it better, because it had such a good sense of humor at some points, even though the movie still does. Somehow, someway, he pulled it off.
Question: Scarlett, you did a lot of hand-to-hand combat in “Iron Man 2.” Do you up that or do you take on any weapons in this film?
Johansson: Yeah, there’s a combination of all that stuff. There’s definitely a lot of hand-to-hand combat still, and combination of different fighting styles: Gymnastics, Muy Thai, boxing, kick-boxing, all of that.
Renner: You do all that?
Johansson: You know I do all that. We use all kinds of stuff: knives, guns, all sorts of things. Yeah.
Question: After this experience, are you guys championing your own solo films?
Johansson: I think the whole idea is that you want the audience to be as enthusiastic as you are about the characters and in that, you hope that you’ll be able to take the character farther. It’s certainly a process to zip up the suit every time and it gets harder with each passing year, but I mean, if it was badass and it incorporated the darker side of the character and got to the nitty-gritty of who she is, I would like to see that movie.
Question: And Jeremy, are you worried about the overlap you’ll have, schedule-wise, with all of the other franchises you’re attached to now?
Renner: Yeah, well you’re assuming a lot here, that they’re going to succeed. They’re expensive movies to shoot, franchise movies, so it’s gotta to do very very well in order for them to do another one. I worry about that movie and that movie only, because a franchise is only a movie that if does well and has the possibility of making another one, which separates itself from a movie that’s just a one-off. So there’s no guarantee by any means that there will be any other movies at Marvel, let alone from any of those “Mission” or “Bourne” or whatever it might be, to “Hansel and Gretel.” So we’ll see.
Question: [To the two actors] Is this the romance in the movie?
Johansson: There’s no time for romance. We’ve got s*** to avenge.
Why on Earth is that not the tag line for the entire movie?
“The Avengers” opens on May 4.