With the release of the second Captain America solo effort, Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) had become a relic of a bygone era – in both the Marvel-verse and the real world.
“It was never going to be a slam dunk that they would automatically do a second one,” says Stephen McFeely when we spoke with him recently. McFeely co-wrote Winter Soldier and its predecessor, First Avenger with Christopher Markus.
That first film didn’t bring in as much money at the box office as Iron Man or Thor, but studio heads Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito appreciated the “charming period piece” that was Cap’s first solo outing and believed in what the character could be. Most of all, they had faith in the story McFeely and Markus could tell with him – a commentary on the military-industrial complex and the pitfalls of blind patriotism packaged as an ode to ’70s spy thrillers, complete with a Robert Redford heel turn.
“What does it mean to jump Steve in time?” McFeely recalls asking. “We quickly realized there was a need to not just do iPhone jokes. What’s the deeper thing here? Our Cap has missed Vietnam and Nixon and Watergate — all these things that we take for granted and these compromises that we’ve made along the way to get to where we are. So that was what we wanted to talk about. What does it mean to be a soldier and an American in 1945, and what does it mean now?”
To assist in telling that story, Marvel brought in big-screen newcomers Joe and Anthony Russo, a directing duo that had a list of TV credits to their name – think Arrested Development and Community – but no track record when it came to the kind of epic action expected from the MCU.
“We had already written a script before these TV directors had been hired,” McFeely explains. “Kevin [Feige] and Louis [D’Esposito ] said, ‘We’re going to go get these guys.’ We go, ‘What? Why would you do that?’ And then a universe was born.”
The Russos worked with McFeely and Markus for a year, knocking out a script that felt tighter and more structurally complex than any Marvel film before while establishing a creative partnership that has continued to help drive the MCU and, most recently, Netflix’s star-studded thriller The Gray Man. In that film, they once again work with Evans, throwing a series of exploding cars, train chases, and brutal brawls at the screen. But, just a few years ago, the team was cutting their teeth on an action sequence in an elevator that would eventually become one of the more intricate and memorable in MCU history. A throwback powered by practical effects, athleticism, and suspense that would put an exclamation point on Rogers’ all-important transition from a good soldier who always follows orders to a hero that questions authority in the name of the greater good.
Below, UPROXX chats with McFeely, actor Frank Grillo, and stunt choreographer Thomas Robinson Harper on how they crafted that crucial elevator fight, its importance, and if we’ll ever see anything like it in the MCU again in an era of CGI dominance.
Does Anyone Want To Get Out?
The idea to house Winter Soldier’s paranoia-driven mid-point climax in a tightly-confined glass box was sparked by two things: budget constraints and the Russos love of old-school action films. In our conversation, McFeely noted the pair’s affection for director Brian De Palma while referencing the tension in his film, The Untouchables. The Russo’s have credited Die Hard With A Vengeance director John McTiernan as a source of inspiration for their latest film, The Gray Man, and it’s easy to see the parallels between Winter Soldier’s elevator sequence and the one in that third Die Hard film with Bruce Willis in the Federal Reserve Bank elevator. But Winter Soldier ups the ante, packing in dizzying amounts of fight choreography and loads of suspense.
McFeely: [When] he looks Robert Redford’s character in the eye and says, ‘I’m not doing what you’re asking,’ in our various drafts, it then led to a lot of running around that building, trying to figure out a way out. It becomes a big chase sequence initially. But it became clear that meant we’ve got to build a lot [of additional sets]. It was going to take a lot and we just didn’t have it. Joe [Russo] came in and said, ‘I don’t know if we can afford all this, but we can afford an elevator.’
Harper: [Marvel was] pretty tight with money to be honest with you but we had an old-school producer, Michael Grillo. He knew how to get it done.
McFeely: The idea that everyone’s coming for Cap, Cap is smart enough to see it, and we are enjoying him seeing that guy sweat, and that guy’s finger move and then these huge dudes get on. It’s inviting the audience into the deliciousness, and they just can’t wait for it to end or to begin, I guess. That tension makes that scene. Yes, we could’ve spent 90 seconds just beating the hell [out of them], and we do; but my favorite part of it is, of course, the front end, when he asks if anyone wants to get out.
Harper: My brother, who works on my rigging crew, built a whole mock-up of the elevator with exact dimensions and height so we could rehearse it. We just started with two guys and then we added another guy and then we just kept adding and figuring out who was in whose way and how we could use another guy to do something. And so pretty soon we had all 12 of them in there.
Grillo: There were a lot of guys in that elevator. It’s like fighting in a phone booth, as they say. These were big guys in there. Strong guys. So we really had to be cognizant of not really hurting each other. It was like a football play. It was like this guy has to go there, that guy’s got to go there. I’m going to throw the ball over there and then we’re going to fight over there. It was like cause and effect. It was like dominoes.
Harper: Chris Evans was a dancer. He knows choreography so he could remember stuff right out. You’d show it to him once, maybe twice and he goes, ‘Okay, I got it.’ And he would nail it every time because he comes from a dance background. When I worked with Patrick Swayze it was the same. His mom owned a dance studio. In the end fight in the first Point Break, Keanu [Reeves] was sick at the time, so I did that whole fight with Patrick. And Patrick was absolutely one of the best. It was like he had a photographic memory for choreography. But he grew up competition dancing, so it really compliments when you’re going to do choreography for a fight. It really is like a dance.
Grillo: It wasn’t by accident that that thing came together. It was really well choreographed and it really kicked off the movie. It was a big part of what they wanted to do when they were telling the story.
According to Harper, the stunt team had a couple of days to film the elevator fight before moving on to the next big action sequence. He worked with the film’s editors and DPs, teaching them how to pan a camera with a punch, stopping and bringing it back just a little as soon as there’s impact. The result is crisper, cleaner jabs that feel visceral and convince the audience these guys are actually brawling with each other. Sometimes a punch did land, but for the actors, that was part of the fun.
Harper: We had done it so many times that they knew the routine. The first take is always at half speed, then we sneak up on it. A great fight, a full-blown fight, is really at about three-quarter speed of real-time because that’s when it really sells. If you go too fast, you can’t see stuff.
Grillo: The action stuff’s always the easiest. It’s sitting back and waiting for other people to do their thing that’s hard.
Harper: We call it egg on your face, and it’s the worst thing in the world, those chopsocky movies. You see them all standing there dancing around, waiting to fight one guy. I absolutely hate that. I’m like, ‘No, everyone is either incapacitated or dealing with another guy or something.’ I could point out exactly why one guy was laying on the floor and which guys we could get rid of to shoot something at a different angle. There was no ‘flailing around.’
Grillo: It’s very sequential. The pentacle of that fight is me and Chris having the standoff and if one guy is out of sync in that little, tiny space, you have to go again. And listen, a lot of times that’s what happened.
Harper: I like to have the actors do as much as I feel they can. And they are going to get bruised up here and there, but that’s part of it and they’re good with it. Frank’s a boxer, that’s his passion. The only thing with Frank is he would get a little too close. I was going, ‘Frank, you don’t need to be that close. You’re going to hit one of these guys.’
Grillo: We beat the hell out of each other. We were black and blue at the end of it but in every movie I do it ends up that way because you can’t help but hit each other. I like to do that. It’s like playing in the schoolyard again.
Harper: He loves that stuff. I had Frank do so much because it was right in his wheelhouse. He was good at it and he understood it. Chris knew what he wanted to do and what he couldn’t do and he had no problem having his double do it. He’s like, ‘Yeah, nope. I’ll have Sam [Hargrave] do that.’ And that was it. He’s a very professional guy.
Grillo: Dancer boy had to learn to get hit. [laughs] I’m joking. Chris was always game and fun. For all of his machismo — and he is Captain America — he really is a theater geek. I’m like, ‘Keep it down with the musicals, would you, please?’ But I love him. He’s like a brother. We had a lot of input. I’ve done 60-something movies. Half of them are action movies. Not all very expensive or good, either. So I’m forced to do my own stuff otherwise somebody I don’t trust is going to do it and get hurt.
Harper: My job is to give the director everything and more that they want out of the scene, but make sure that everybody goes home every night. It’s very nerve-wracking. I did Waterworld and I had 53 people over four square miles of ocean back in 1995. And I would just say a prayer every day, ‘Please don’t let someone die today.’ We had sharks in the water. I saw a guy on a jet ski get sucked right underneath a 65-foot boat. Thankfully, he didn’t get hit by the propeller. But I’ve had full-blown arguments with actors. That’s why I’ve turned down two Mission Impossible films. I will not work with Tom Cruise. I do not want to be the guy on call when he gets hurt or killed.
The New World Order
Despite the success of Winter Soldier and fan and critical praise for its genre-leaning and affinity for practical effects, epic CGI battle sequences and colorful space adventures have more defined the era of Marvel films that have followed. The very successful films that have followed. That’s less an indictment on Winter Soldier and more a sign of changing times, but while this love letter to throwbacks now feels like a throwback itself, it’s clear that there’s a level of wistfulness and what might have been over an MCU that more mirrored some of the practical wizardry on display in this memorable scene.
Grillo: Winter Soldier to me is the best all-around movie. It’s a smaller part of a big franchise that had such an impact on my career. But back then, they didn’t know what they were doing with all the characters. Crossbones is in the movie for like 12 minutes. But that was a character that was going to be developed. I had signed a multi-picture deal. They locked everybody in but obviously, things went in a different direction. But I’m very proud of being part of something that is at such a high level.
Harper: I was hoping they were going to go keep going in that direction [but] they stayed in the CGI world of it all. Jon Favreau is probably the best director I’ve ever worked with and in Iron Man 2 we came up with a fun thing for Scarlett Johansson to do where she jumps up with her legs around Happy’s throat and spins him around in the boxing ring. Kevin and Louis were like, ‘Oh yeah, but we could do this and CG in this.’ And we’re like, ‘No, no, no. Let’s do this real.’ I kept trying to get more real stuff in there. And they kept fighting me on it.
Grillo: It’s the business. I think they found their lane with these movies that were bigger and there was more CGI and the stories were a little more out there and comic bookish.
McFeely: I’ve been very fortunate to have a bunch of [Marvel] movies made, but [Winter Soldier] is arguably my favorite, because I think it’s the tightest script. There are certainly higher moments in other movies when people pick up hammers, and portals open, and people die that will tug your heartstrings more, but if you’re a cold calculating structuralist, Winter Soldier is a little Swiss watch, I think.
Grillo: Winter Soldier was the one film that stands alone as a filmmaker. As in making movies, not superhero movies. And I don’t know that it’ll ever go back that way.