In her swan song as Russian assassin-turned-Avenger Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson fights her way through Black Widow (opening Friday) on a mission to destroy evil mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his network of brainwashed female killers. But first, Natasha has to confront her equally ferocious kid sister Yelena, portrayed by Florence Pugh. (Some light spoilers ahead). Abandoned as children by their spy parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), the now-grown Natasha endures merciless teasing from Yelena, who mocks her sibling’s signature landing pose for being melodramatically cheesy. “You’re a poser!” Yelena half-jokes.
It’s a rare case of superhero stunt choreography calling attention to itself, but once Natasha and Yelena set aside their differences, the sisters power through a globe-hopping succession of action sequences encompassing prison breaks, car chases, a relentless killing machine named Taskmaster, shower curtains re-purposed as garrote wire and an everything-but-the-kitchen sink aerial spectacle featuring dozens of characters falling through the sky.
Making the action pop alongside director Cate Shortland is Black Widow stunt coordinator Rob Inch, who previously worked on Wonder Woman 1984, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Speaking from England, where he’s prepping a new Marvel movie, Inch deconstructs Black Widow‘s most thrilling set-pieces.
It’s shocking to see Florence Pugh as Yelena slugging it out with Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha when they first meet in a Budapest apartment after being separated for 20 years. What was the concept behind the sisters’ knock-down, drag-out fight?
You hit the nail on the head when you say “shocking” because that was the brief: “Shock us.” We already know how badass Scarlett’s Natasha is through her movies, but this fight is our first introduction to Yelena. There was a lot of chewing and chawing between myself and Cate and second-unit director Darrin Prescott until it became about keeping things grounded so we have someplace to go [in the rest of the film] because we have so many more fights, and we wanted each one to have a different flavor.
There’s nothing fancy about the sisters’ fight.
It’s domestic violence with a little bit of an edge, isn’t it, with them slamming each other into the wall, getting dragged into the sink, being hit over the head by a kettle, and chucked into the door with breakaway glass. When the door accidentally went through the frame and through the glass, we were like, “Aw that looks so bad we’ve got to use it.”
And then Natasha uses a shower curtain to choke her sister into submission.
We wanted the sisters to end up on the floor together like we’re taking you back to their childhood. We figure out a small little bit of aerial stuff, which is a standard thing for Black Widow, but then we made it a little bit more organic using the curtain. That fight was the first thing we shot with Scarlett and Florence together. I would say it’s my favorite fight in the movie.
You go straight from this confined, intimate fight to a wild motorcycle and car chase on the streets of Budapest. How did you design that sequence?
Same thing, really, as the sisters’ fight: it needs to have levels. We start on the rooftop with a foot chase. Cut to downstairs getting on a motorbike and doing some really cool moves by this amazing street freestyle rider I got called Sarah Lezito. What this girl can do with a motorbike! And she’s doing it with a passenger on the back, which was pretty damn impressive with the bike drifting in and out of traffic. In the car, they get stuck in a traffic jam so the only way out is ramming their way out that, and makes it a little more organic. Pretty much all that stuff was all done practically. And then Taskmaster shows up in this bad-ass tank vehicle, which adds another layer. The girls are sort of sweetly driving in their car and suddenly there’s this brute thing pushing his way through, like a guy doing punk rock dancing in a ballet.
Natasha and Yelena end up at a train station where they slide down the escalator banister just like kids might do.
We talked through many different ideas but then we’d research them and see “We’ve done that before.” So this wound up being about actually getting the real girls, Scarlett and Florence, to jump on the escalator and slide down. They were so up for it, those two.
Scarlett Johansson has made nine Marvel films but Florence Pugh is new to action movies. How did you prepare her for all the fighting?
We had Florence for ten weeks out [before filming began]. She would drill and drill and drill and drill, and then do fitness training. Here’s the thing with any actor training for an action movie: They’re only going to be as good as the amount of time they commit to it. Both those girls are so good because they put in the time. And also, Florence had the confidence to lean on her stunt double. If there are moments in the fight choreography that are too difficult, we’re going do a wide shot where we can use your double and then we’re going to come back in and lean on these things that you’re good at. Having actors or extras who aren’t too precious [about doing their own stunts] shows a great commitment to the film.
Black Widow’s massive third act climax shows people free-falling through the sky as the villain’s airborne Red Room headquarters disintegrates miles above earth. It looks very complicated.
We spent six weeks on what we call “The descent sequence” and it was heavily pre-vis. There was live sky diving, there was wind tunnel work, traditional wirework, Robomoco as we call it, and visual effects as well. We morphed all those elements together.
Basically, Robomoco is a programmable robotic arm that picks up an actor by her hips and flies them through the air on a route that you’ve plotted. Then you digitally remove the arm. It’s a pretty cool piece of kit.
Did you bring back Scarlett’s frequent stunt double Heidi Moneymaker for Black Widow?
Heidi did a little bit of the re-shoot stuff in America, but our main stunt doubles for Scarlett were C.C. Ice and Mickey Facchinello. We had an amazing stunt team, all the doubles were great.
Up in the Red Room, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov character punches Natasha in the face, once, twice, three times. As a stunt that’s probably pretty simple to stage, but dramatically it’s very effective. What was your trick for making that fight work so well in the story?
It’s just down to making sure Dreykov felt credible. I’ve worked with Ray Winston before. He knows how to throw a punch. You definitely believe he’s credible. But it’s a funny thing. If you took away the sound from these shots, nobody would believe them, but when you add sound, you buy it straight away. Also, we’re working with two really talented actors. When you say “Imagine you’ve been punched in the face,” I don’t have to teach Scarlett Johansson how to act.
You started out as a stunt performer back in 1997 working on Titanic and before that, you jousted in a King Arthur’s theme park. Have you ever broken any bones on the job?
The ones who say they don’t have any broken bones have never really done any stunts. I had a nasty accident years ago doing a stunt on a horse. I fell onto my back and ruptured my pelvis in eight places. I was in the hospital for four months. So now I’m able to tell my stunt team, “I used to do stunts so I understand the pain you’re going through.”
Black Widow director Cate Shortland has never made a movie on this scale before. What was she like to work with?
Cate was very open to ideas. She brought these characters to life and then enabled others who were maybe more capable in other fields to get on and do their jobs. I’d call her a really good director.
Featured image: Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW. Courtesy Marvel Studios.