“Reason for your visit?”
“I’m a journalist going to a movie set to observe production.”
“On what movie?”
“I don’t really know that one. And why is ‘Captain America’ shooting in London? You know what superhero movie I really like? ‘Superman 4.'”
The preceding conversation takes place as I pass through Customs at London’s Heathrow Airport in early September 2010. Verbatim. I stand in line at customs for another five minutes as the official explains to me how “Quest for Peace” gets a bad rap.
At that point, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is only half-way through its production, which means that no trailer has been released and the only images from the film are conceptual art and blurry paparazzi shots that websites have analyzed like Zapruder stills, trying to make sense of the heft of Cap’s shield and the cut of his cowl. Even with the character’s nearly 70 years of history, it’s no concern that a British customs agent, even one willing to passionately waylay a journalist for a chat about comic book movies, doesn’t immediately identify Captain America as a favorite.
It’s still a question I pose to Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige the next day in a Shepperton Studios hangar packed with “Captain America” props and vehicles showcased for a group of visiting journalists.
Given the importance of worldwide box office in franchise filmmaking these days, does Marvel have concerns about the way that “Captain America” will play outside of the United States?
“Well, there’s been research that the studios have been working on, the distributors have been working on, that shows it’s not as big a concern as pessimists would think,” Feige says. “I think we’re just being conscious of it. And, frankly, like any of the Marvel characters, it’s about Steve Rogers. It’s the emotion you get when you see that kid, who up til that point in the movie, you will have see as a very scrawny young guy for the first act of the film, coming out of the pod like that, the wish-fulfillment, hopefully identifying with him, regardless of the fact that he’ll be wearing red, white and blue for much of the film.”
The conversation with Feige takes place after we watch a sizzle reel built for retail and promotional partners, a sizzle reel that emphasizes the film’s place within the Marvel universe — it will transition the studio’s feature film efforts into next summer’s “The Avengers” — and also the international flavor of “Captain America,” which isn’t just filming in London, but also largely takes place overseas in and around the European Front. The sizzle reel is followed by a very rough-cut assemblage of the key early scene that follows Steve Rogers’ serum-aided transition from sickly, patriotic youth (Chris Evans with a computer-aided assist) to buff super-soldier (Chris Evans, with a trainer assist).
We’re used to seeing actors bulk up for roles, but the effect of seeing the diminished Steve Rogers/Chris Evans is intriguing, even though the effects still have nearly a year before they’re ready for audiences worldwide.
“Captain America” visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend explains that the team went though a number of different strategies on how to depict Rogers for much of the film’s first act, with possibilities including a fully computer-manipulated character, using a different actor and tweaking that footage to resemble Evans and basically sticking Evans’ head on less-developed body. The eventual choice was a combination of techniques that Townsend describes as “digital plastic surgery,” allowing them to “capture the essence of Chris Evans’ performance” in every frame.
The rough transformation scene is rousingly old-fashioned, which I mean as a compliment. “Captain America” is likely to be an old-fashioned movie, because that’s appropriate for the kind of guy Captain America is.
While Marvel has its share of wisecracking characters, Captain America remained timelessly and aspirationally virtuous and earnest. Those are attributes for a hero, but not always selling points for a movie character.
“It’s earnest when it needs to be,” Feige says of the film’s tone. “I think some of what you saw in there was earnest. But I wouldn’t say it’s overly earnest. On the flip side, I wouldn’t say it’s overly jokey just because we wanna get some zingers in. It doesn’t play like that. Much of the humor from the first half comes from how out-of-place Steve is. There’s a whole sequence between when he’s selected for the program and when he goes into Brooklyn for the procedure and he’s not quite as agile as the other candidates. There’s some humorous moments in that. But this not the Chris Evans being Mr. One-Liner. The script that these guys have written for the past two years, it has humorous moments, has fun where appropriate. A lot of that comes from Bucky and a lot of the Commandos.”
Although it’s bookended in the present day, “Captain America” is predominantly a World War II period piece, though just as Cap himself has been modified to be better-than-the-best soldier, all of the vehicles in the hangar — including a HYDRA tank, the suped up coupe driven by villain Red Skull and several motorcycles — are even-better-than-the-real-thing, or at least better than what the real thing would have been in 1941. That’s another way of saying that just as you wouldn’t hold a G.I. to the physical standards of Captain America — seen perched atop a tank and a moving train in the Alps in concept paintings displayed in the art department — you probably shouldn’t hold “Captain America” to the accuracy standards of a Steven Spielberg World War II tribute.
“We’re not making ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ We’re not making ‘Band of Brothers,'” notes producer Stephen Broussard. “We’re updating the period, but not turning our back on it.”
In that spirit, the motorcycles can all do 70 mph on the road and, should it be required, Red Skull’s coupe is also fully operational, not that we get a demonstration behind the wheel.
The commitment also extends to costuming, where the refusal to cut corners results items like Red Skull’s ultra-slick black leather trenchcoat, which weighs 10 kilos (however much that is) and joins an extensive prosthetic makeup job on co-star Hugo Weaving’s list of discomforts, but costume designer Anna Sheppard explains that compromises weren’t on the agenda.
“I didn’t think it could be made out of plastic, it wouldn’t look the same. You actually need the weight for the coat to hang correctly, and it looks fantastic, the movement,” Sheppard says. “There’s a big fight between him and Cap on the high gantry of Hydra’s factory, and on the back it”s all pleated, and really moves beautifully, and for that you need weight. So I couldn’t cheat on that, it couldn’t be made any lighter, but they”re not easy costumes for actors. Lucky they understand they have to look this way.”
And then, of course, there’s Cap’s famous suit, or Cap’s suits suits. In one warehouse, we see the comical (not comic-al) wool jumper that Steve Rogers wears in his initial USO appearances as Captain America. That one transitions into a second costume, predictably called “the intermediate costume,” which maintains the top from the first outfit, but adds functional military attire, including paratroopers’ pants (or “trousers” as our British colleagues would really prefer you call them) and boots. That leads then into the utilitarian final costume.
Feige observes, “He’s had so many cool outfits in the comics of late, like in ‘Ultimates’ like in the [Bryan] Hitch run, even in modern day, with straps, with pouches, the few things that made it less the foam rubber/spandex of the ’90s. It takes you on a journey from when it establishes the costume at the USO to his very first adventure in it at the Hydra factor to the final version. We wanted to get those looks across. In ‘Avengers’ there will be a fourth.
While maintaining the period setting was one of director Joe Johnston’s passions on the film — for previous evidence, you could check out Johnston’s “The Rocketeer” — there has been an assumption that with the film launching Marvel and Cap into the modern-day “Avengers,” a possible sequel would inevitably keep Captain America” in the 21st Century. This isn’t exactly true, Feige explains.
“This movie takes place over almost three years, two or three years, and we don’t see everything that Cap and Bucky did over that time period. We track very specific missions, HYDRA/Skull-oriented missions, over those two-and-a-half or three years, but you’ll see many, many gaps that could be filled later, specifically so we can go back to this war,” Feige explains. “I love the [Ed] Brubaker [model], the first few pages of one of his comics will be a World War II adventure and inform whatever his present-day adventure is. I think that could be a fun model if we should be so lucky to do two or three of these.”
It’s not a set visit if you don’t see some production underway and on the “Captain America” set, we’re there for a key sequence. It’s the final piece of the film’s climactic fight, the 10th day of shooting on what will end up being only three or four minutes of actual movie time. It’s a fight between Captain America and Red Skull and you’ll forgive me if I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler to tell you that the hero of a summer action movie and the villain of a summer action movie have a fight. I’m not going to tell you what takes place, nor even necessarily where it takes place, other than to say that it’s a mammoth practical set situated on a massive gimbal and that Broussard rightly calls it “epic.”
It’s a good news/bad news proposition to see the filming of a scene this pivotal. The good news is that I can praise the choreography and say that both Evans and Weaving and their respective stand-ins and stunt-doubles were delivering gung-ho intensity in a potentially dauntingly large-scale environment. The bad news is that you don’t really want me telling you anything else, at least not if you’re planning on seeing “Captain America.”
A few other highlights/tidbits from the day at Shepperton:
*** On the Unintentional Comedy scale, it’s hard to beat standing in line for commissary lunch with a full battalion of HYDRA soldiers. HYRDA soldiers, I suspect, were just as uncomfortable to be in line with a group of online journalists, particularly the one soldier who somehow fell behind the reporting party and then didn’t get to eat his meal when he was summoned back. Red Skull is a harsh taskmaster.
*** The other film taking up stages at Shepperton was Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of “Hugo Cabaret.” It turns out that it’s surprisingly difficult to distinguish between props/costumes/vehicles intended for a whimsical film set in the 1930s and a comic book film set in the 1940s.
*** From Feige, responding to the difficulties tying “Captain America” in with the continuity of the Marvel film universe: “Not really, because this is where it all starts. There are a number of things that were ret-conned over the years, like Howard Stark’s participation around that same program that they did in the books, decades later, so it was almost laid out for us. We’ve tied in Skull’s MacGuffin, and given it a cosmic, so to speak, origin, that you don’t necessarily learn in this film, but again most of that is right out of the books. In that sizzle piece we talk about how the movies connect, not that we’ll do that in the marketing at all, of the movies, but to retailers, people who think ‘Iron Man sold on my toy shelves last year, this is connected to that, this’ll sell too. Buy the toys.’ I think all the movies will stand on their own.”
*** I was looking forward to describing for y’all the coolest image we saw in the art room, the Enlist Now poster that inspires Skinny Steve. Naturally, Paramount has already made the picture available for download. It’s this one.
“Captain America” will be in theaters everywhere on July 22.