How director Chloé Zhao made ‘Eternals’ epic, intimate and unlike anything else in the MCU

A woman, right, speaking to a man in a forest.
Richard Madden and director Chloé Zhao on the set of Marvel’s “Eternals.”
(Sophie Mutevelian / Marvel Studios)

Marvel’s “Eternals” is an action-packed superhero epic about cosmic beings that repeatedly save humanity from vicious, mutating monsters over the span of thousands of years.

It’s also a delicate tapestry of love, friendship, grief and betrayal woven with quiet and passionate interpersonal moments — including, for example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first-ever sex scene — among its crowded cast of characters.

“We knew, to make this film in a way that you believe these immortal people have walked Earth for 7,000 years, it has to be a very immersive experience, visually,” director Chloé Zhao told the Los Angeles Times at the movie’s Hollywood premiere last month.


“I had this idea that we were able to capture the most grand, epic, cosmic moments — but also the tiniest, intimate moments on Earth. And that juxtaposition allows audiences to explore our relationship with the cosmos and our planet.”

The cast and creatives of “Eternals” credit Zhao and her indie filmmaking background with creating a cinematic experience that is simultaneously out of this world and remarkably down to Earth — for a Marvel movie, at least.

“This is a big blockbuster ... and [Marvel has] a formula that works,” said Lauren Ridloff, who stars in “Eternals” as Makkari, the MCU’s first Deaf superhero.

“But Chloé somehow merges that formula [with] her own touch and influence. And ... she actually treats all the cast as equals. I worked with veterans in this industry, and I still felt like we all had something of value to contribute to the film.”

A woman in a blue jacket, right, talks to a woman in a green superhero suit on a beach.
Gemma Chan, left, and director Chloé Zhao on the set of Marvel’s “Eternals.”
(Sophie Mutevelian / Marvel Studios)

The latest MCU tentpole is Zhao’s highly anticipated follow-up to “Nomadland,” which won the Oscar this year for best picture and is, in many respects, the antithesis of “Eternals.”

Other than reigning lead actress Frances McDormand, the gritty wanderlust drama features an ensemble of mostly nonactors playing fictionalized versions of themselves against the often harsh American outback — devoid of any semblance of Disney magic or computer-generated imagery.

By stark contrast, “Eternals” is a glossy, globe- and century-trotting fantasy teeming with A-list actors (from Salma Hayek to Angelina Jolie) portraying ethereal superheroes digitally enhanced by heavy, Marvel-size doses of CGI.

The stars of Chloé Zhao’s critically acclaimed films, including Oscar frontrunner ‘Nomadland,’ discuss her process of dramatizing real lives.

One key element they share, though — in addition raw glimpses of humanity — is Zhao’s visual stamp: sweeping, picturesque landscapes that can’t be rendered via green screen. (“Nomadland” was shot across Nevada, California, South Dakota and Nebraska, while “Eternals” was filmed all over, from London to the Canary Islands.)

“Visually, to be immersive and shooting on location and capturing these small moments — and big — is something, hopefully, I have brought to the journey,” Zhao told The Times.

“Chloé’s cinematic language is so finely tuned to her own unique vision that anything she touches is going to feel like a Chloé Zhao movie,” added “Eternals” co-writer Ryan Firpo.

A woman in a blue jacket and sunglasses, right, talks to a man in a blue superhero suit.
Richard Madden, left, and director Chloé Zhao on the set of Marvel’s “Eternals.”
(Sophie Mutevelian / Marvel Studios)

With “Eternals,” the Chinese auteur joins a growing club of esteemed indie filmmakers plucked by Marvel to helm massive-budget projects yielding critical acclaim and blockbuster box office returns.

New Zealand’s Taika Waititi, for instance, was known for beloved indie flicks such as “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows” before commanding Marvel’s “Thor: Ragnarok.” And Oakland’s Ryan Coogler made his feature directorial debut with “Fruitvale Station” — which dramatized the 2009 police killing of Oscar Grant — before helming Marvel’s seminal “Black Panther.”

“I think that Chloé — like Ryan, like Taika — [finds] a personal stake in these films in a way that some filmmakers maybe wouldn’t because they see the size of the movie as the attraction and not the story of the movie,” said “Eternals” co-producer Nate Moore, a Marvel Studios veteran who also worked on “Black Panther” and the “Captain America” pictures.

“Chloé is a character-first filmmaker, and I think that’s important, because it’s very easy to get lost in the bells and whistles of visual effects and fights. But she is very much grounded in the experience of her characters — as she did in ‘Nomadland’ and ‘The Rider’ and ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ — and this is the same.”

‘Eternals’ boasts the most diverse cast in Marvel history — including Lauren Ridloff, a Deaf actor who plays the franchise’s first Deaf superhero.

For screenwriting duo Ryan and Kaz Firpo, who also got their start on the indie film circuit, the connection with Zhao was instant. In fact, one of their first conversations with their co-writer and director was about “finding that perspective” that transcends the surface-level appeal of the “loudest” and “biggest explosions.”

“Chloé is bringing a very unique perspective as someone who was born abroad, raised in London, came to America for school,” Kaz Firpo said.

“She’s an international citizen just like we’re citizens of the world — my father’s French, my mother’s Japanese — and so, you bring all these different cultures to bear, and I think what Marvel’s really looking for is the truth. They’re looking for authenticity. You can only blow up so many cars before it gets boring.”

As “Eternals” co-writer Patrick Burleigh points out, visionary MCU adaptations begin with the filmmakers’ respective interpretations of the comic-book source material. Zhao’s MCU debut brings at least 10 new heroes from the page to the screen — plus some bonus Easter eggs catering to superfans who stick around for the end credits.

“Directors like Chloé, they have an ability to look at this IP that’s been around for 40 years, 50 years, and to reinvent it with fresh eyes and ... turn it into something that feels really fresh, that feels surprising, but still stays true to the roots of the comics,” Burleigh said.

“So many of these movies get made, but it’s crucial to keep them original and to keep them pushing boundaries. And ... Chloé’s work, on this film in particular, does that.”

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In addition to becoming the first woman of color to win an Academy Award for directing, Zhao is also the first woman of color to direct a film in the MCU.

While showering Zhao with praise at the world premiere of “Eternals” last month, cast members and producers fondly recalled the moment they watched their colleague accept her historic Oscar for directing “Nomadland.”

“It was so earned. [‘Nomadland’ is lovely],” Moore said. “It transports you to different worlds, and I think that’s hard to do unless you’re a super talented filmmaker. And Chloé’s super talented.”

“I was so proud of her,” Ridloff said. “I texted her immediately. I was like, ‘Yes!’ Chloé is such a badass woman.”