Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Chloe Zhao’s Eternals.
Chloe Zhao‘s Eternals is one of the Marvel films that opened during the pandemic leading to a “low” box office and a litany of think-pieces, but the movie is what it is. Fans will appreciate what Zhao and Marvel have done with the characters and storylines, but it remains something of a tough sell for newcomers. The film is new to home video, and among the handful of featurettes included on the disc, there’s also a commentary track.
Keep reading to see what we heard on the Eternals commentary!
Commentators: Chloe Zhao (director, co-writer), Stephane Ceretti (visual effects supervisor), Mårten Larsson (additional visual effects supervisor)
1. Zhao wanted to open the film with a Star Wars-like text crawl providing background information leading into the movie.
2. The opening with the object floating past the sun is one of Zhao’s favorite shots in the movie. Seems odd from someone with her filmography, but the pull of the dark side is strong I guess. She had been reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey and liked the idea of a monolith in space.
3. Arishem’s chamber was designed to resemble a place of worship with Jack Kirby-inspired cuneiform on the walls.
4. Zhao insisted on filming as much on location as possible. “That’s something you can’t invent in a studio, obviously,” says Ceretti in regard to the opening battle on the cliffs of the Canary Islands, although he adds it made things harder on the visual effects side of things.
5. They couldn’t stop the dog at 10:15 from wagging his tail while the monster rises in the water, and it had to take it out in post-production.
6. Disney’s Pocahontas was a reference for Zhao when it came to visualizing Sersi’s nature-infused powers. “I love the idea that she’s not turning things into ping-pong balls, it’s always something beautiful.”
7. They don’t explain why Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) uses American Sign Language in 575 BC and includes the sign for “time” — pointing at her wrist — when wristwatches weren’t invented until the 1800s.
8. She recalls Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige saying “Wouldn’t it be great if kids watch this movie and then become more interested in history?”
9. Zhao has South Dakota in all of her films and wanted to continue that trend here. “Obviously we couldn’t travel there,” she says, but they did find one place in the UK that “kind of looked like” the state. The corral at 32:20 is modeled after the one in Zhao’s The Rider (2017).
10. They tried to capture the idea that an entire cosmos can be found in the smallest grain of sand to explore both “the grand and intimate.”
11. Thena (Angelina Jolie) suffers from mahd w’wry (aka “mad weary”) which Zhao equates to PTSD.
12. Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) Bollywood costume was handmade in India and is a riff on Ikaris’ (Richard Madden) hero costume.
13. Ceretti cameos at 46:31 as the guy holding a “deviant” head.
14. The Canary Islands were a stand-in for Australia as the red dirt helped with the illusion. London was a stand-in for Chicago.
15. The overhead shot of the Amazon river at 1:04:47 is full CG created by ILM.
16. The forest fight at Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) was among the first things shot for the film, and rather than begin with two weeks of night shoots Zhao suggested they just build s soundstage. Zhao wanted to shoot on a soundstage! Anyway, other minds prevailed, and they filmed on location.
17. The deviants show a hint of gold in their colorful design starting with the forest sequence as they’ve gained elements absorbed from Ajak (Salma Hayek).
18. The Hiroshima sequence was difficult to conceive as Zhao wondered, “How can we show this crime against humanity and yet not sensationalize it?” Nobody asked why they should show it, though, apparently.
19. The sequence in Phastos’ (Brian Tyree Henry) home was among the most difficult for Zhao. “I already don’t know how to film inside of a house, I like to go into a field.”
20. “I think one thing that I was most humbled by,” says Zhao, “was just how much visual effects and CG as a tool of storytelling can change the landscape of cinema moving forward.” She adds that she wishes film school taught more around this as she herself learned nothing about it and “was afraid of it.” She didn’t trust fx/CG and feels there’s an unfortunate stigma attached to it. Zhao feels similarly about reshoots/additional shooting saying it has a bad reputation, but if you have the opportunity to take advantage of it you’d be a fool not to.
21. The beach scene during the film’s climactic battle presented its own on-location challenges as the incoming tide was a daily interruption. They weren’t surprised by it, obviously, but they did lose a some equipment on occasion that sometimes made its way back to them a few days later.
22. In case you missed it, that’s Bill Skarsgård voicing Kro.
23. The 2014 book History of the World in 1000 Objects was a major inspiration for the end credits.
24. The last few visual effects were completed just a week before the film’s premiere.
25. Zhao loves Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004).
26. Larsson will be spending a lot of time working with that mystery voice at the end of the final credits scene as he’s Production Visual Effects Supervisor on the upcoming Blade starring Mahershala Ali in the title role.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Let’s talk a little bit about shooting on location for this.”
“We were sandblasted on a daily basis.”
“If Pink Floyd is playing continuity doesn’t matter.”
“We wanted to make sure we separate Icarus from Superman as much as possible.”
“Shout out to Wong Kar-wai!”
“Let your audience just discover what’s in the frame.”
“That’s a real sunset, untouched.”
It shouldn’t surprise as Zhao is joined on the Eternals commentary by two visual effects artists, but the vast majority of the talk here is focused on the visuals. Comments about the cast are minimal, but we do get a little bit about the story and themes. It’s an interesting enough listen, though, in part because Zhao acknowledges a pretty seismic shift in her filmmaking sensibilities when it comes to effects. Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, and something her future choices will reveal, but it’s an honest revelation.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.