Nia DaCosta Talks ‘The Marvels’ and Directing Actors in the MCU

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Photo Source: Disney/Misan Harriman

In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

After breaking out with indie drama “Little Woods” and helming the horror sequel “Candyman,” writer-director Nia DaCosta was tapped for “The Marvels,” the 33rd film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and first team-up between superpowered trio Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). With the movie hitting theaters on November 10 and the filmmaker prepping her next project, the Tessa Thompson-led “Hedda,” DaCosta is reflecting on how she left the MCU experience with a new power all her own.  

“Being able to work at such a large scale, stepping onto that set, having an amazing crew who are just truly the best, and being in command of all that? I was like, Oh, I can do this. OK, cool. That’s informative,” DaCosta says. “That’s the biggest thing, is realizing I can do it and also realizing how hard it is. But that’s the way films are supposed to be hard, because the work itself of trying to make the best thing is rigorous. That’s the thing I’ll take away the most: the confidence that I can actually kind of do anything.”

On this episode of In the Envelope, the filmmaker discusses her cinematic inspirations, her approach to working with actors on a blockbuster set, and bringing her personal touch to the MCU. 

The Marvels

Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, and Teyonah Parris in “The Marvels” Credit: Laura Radford

Seeing “Apocalypse Now” at a formative age influenced DaCosta’s approach to filmmaking.

“It was one of those films I watched during that period that made me feel like: Oh, wow, you can really do anything. So much is possible to do [with the] camera. Obviously, there are huge ethical issues with how that film was made. But when I think about film now and the things we take for granted that just ‘aren’t possible’ to do, I just don’t buy any of it. I’m always searching for a way to push through that feeling of, Ugh, it’s too difficult, or, Ah, we can just do it with VFX. Even on a VFX-heavy film, I’m just like, We have to make a movie. We cannot be pushing this off to hundreds of VFX artists to figure out later. We have to be here in this space, and things have to feel real.”

The director sees working with actors as a process of constant collaboration. 

“You get better and better at listening to the way they need to be spoken to. How does their brain work in order for them to get to the performance you’re both trying to get to? Something that Brie would say a lot that I love: Sometimes you’re like, ‘And then a moon is falling out of the sky, and there are these people floating.’ And Brie is like, ‘OK; what are the stakes?’ Eventually, instead of her having to ask me, I would just say, ‘The stakes are here.’  

Each actor has…a specific way of understanding the world they have to play in; so you figure out how to play with them. But if I’m being honest, half of it is casting. Obviously, [for[ a Marvel film, I inherited a ton of actors—[Samuel L. Jackson] as [Nick] Fury, for example. The man has played Fury for [15] years; he knows what the hell is going on. So a lot of the direction there is: How does Fury fit into this specific story?”

DaCosta felt free to add her personal quirks to the MCU template. 

“Visually, Marvel is pretty much like, ‘Have at it; do whatever you want’—which I love. That changes a bit when it comes to VFX, because so much of their world is built there. So much of it has already been established, like what a [Kree] jump point looks like, what Carol’s powers look like, what Kamala’s power looks like. But it’s fun to push and develop them. I changed some things a bit just to suit my tastes. 

For me, because I really love comic books, I’m used to this thing where you’re reading a run of, say, ‘Iron Fist,’ and then a new creative team takes over. It looks completely different, [but] the same story is happening. You just accept it; and sometimes you don’t like it, but this is how comics work. That’s what I think is fun about the MCU. [The movies] all basically have a general energy because it is the same universe, but the way I do space in my film is very different from the way James Gunn does space in his [‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies], and it looks slightly different from [space in Taika Waititi’s] ‘Thor: Ragnarok.’ ”

Director Nia DaCosta on the set of “The Marvels”

Director Nia DaCosta on the set of “The Marvels” Credit: Laura Radford

The first time DaCosta directed Larson and Vellani was for a cinematic dining experience on a Disney cruise ship. 

“The people who produce this [additional] content are amazing. I know [Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige] really loves doing it, because it’s fucking cool, man. You make this movie, and then there’s a roller coaster, and then there’s a giant slide on a cruise…. At the same time, it’s sort of everything I was promised making a Marvel movie would not be, which was someone over your shoulder making sure you do this and telling you how to shoot. For my first two days, I was like, Oof, this is not what we’re going to be doing when we shoot the actual movie. I was like, What an awful way for me to meet my actors. 

Then, of course, you get into it. Brie has done this before, and it was an interesting way to get to know [my collaborators]. My entire crew was shooting it, so it was cool seeing how they work together. It was the first time for me shooting in an entirely blue-screen space. So it was a fun little start—incidentally, at the most inconvenient time: two weeks before we were supposed to shoot. But it ended up being really interesting and informative.”

The filmmaker loves bringing out new sides of her actors.

“There was a day when we were shooting ‘Candyman’ [when] Teyonah had to see this horrifying thing, scream, and wake up from a dream. She was having the hardest time. She was like, ‘But nothing’s there.’ We did a couple takes, and she was like, ‘I don’t feel it; I don’t feel it.’ Of course, for me, it looked amazing because she’s amazing.

Then she got ‘WandaVision’ and I got ‘The Marvels,’ and she was like, ‘Oh, no—Nia knows I can’t act against something that’s not there’—which, of course, she can. So we got on the set for ‘The Marvels,’ and it’s that moment from ‘Candyman’ times a thousand: entire days, sometimes an entire week, where we’re just on a blue-screen stage. There’s, like, a platform or just one set piece. It’s a lot of action, and she’d never done action before. And to see her become a superhero, to see her deftly be able to look at an orange X on a blue screen and start crying [like she’s] seeing her mother or whatever—it was amazing to see that and to be a part of that journey.”

DaCosta was especially impressed with Vellani, whose work on “The Marvels” was only her second time acting onscreen. 

“Iman’s amazing, because she’s the most professional, the most prepared, the most wonderful to be around. I was never like, ‘Here’s what you need to know, girl.’ I was more like, ‘Don’t pick up any bad habits; stay who you are….’ 

It’s also really fun because she’s such a Marvel nerd. There was one day we were shooting, and we were trying to figure something out. We were like, ‘Oh, my God; oh, my God.’ And she was like, ‘I think…’ And I was like, ‘Wait, just give me a second.’ We shot this whole thing, and she was like, ‘So, what I was going to say was X, Y, Z.’ We were like, ‘Oh, that solves all of our problems. Thank you, Iman.’ ” 

Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with DaCosta.