AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Chloe Zhao has had a tremendous year. She won two Academy Awards for her film "Nomadland," a quiet, contemplative story. And now she's out with a very different movie, Marvel's "Eternals," a sweeping superhero saga that spans thousands of years of humanity.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")
GEMMA CHAN: (As Sersi) We're Eternals. We came here 7,000 years ago to protect humans from the Deviants. We were instructed not to interfere in any human conflicts unless Deviants are involved.
CHANG: Zhao wanted to direct a Marvel movie because she's a huge fan of the superhero genre. And her fandom comes in part from a childhood love from manga, Japanese comics.
CHLOE ZHAO: Manga, anime and also the Chinese wizard (ph) genre had such important influence on me. And those were stories that linked to mythology, telling stories in allegorical and fantastical ways. So I always wanted to do that.
CHANG: Would you say that your love a manga in particular shaped a certain approach to making this film, the "Eternals"?
ZHAO: It's a big part of me, so I think aesthetically, you know, when it comes to action sequences - and also what Manga does is that it takes itself very seriously. It talks about often big existential questions we have about us as humanity, while a gigantic monster will show up and then a really awkward humor will happen. Like, that's manga. I was drawn to the MCU very naturally because tonally, manga doesn't really have a tone consistency. I think that definitely - I carry that.
CHANG: Well, you know, a lot is being said now about how you are the first Asian woman to direct a Marvel film. You also broke ground as the first woman of color to win the Oscar for Best Directing. I was just curious, how do you feel about these kinds of distinctions? Are they meaningful to you? Should they be meaningful?
ZHAO: I think they exist because people need to give meaning to them for what they need in their lives. And I'm very honored and grateful to be at the right place at the right time. They don't mean that much to me because for me, it is just work that I love.
CHANG: You didn't feel that there were certain kinds of expectations put on you because you were the first Asian woman to direct a Marvel film, when it came to a project like the "Eternals."
ZHAO: No, because I'm really just a kid in the candy shop.
ZHAO: Suddenly, I have so many new tools that I - imagination that I've had since I was a kid that I haven't been able to exercise operating in independent films. I was just playing, you know? I had so much fun. So I wasn't thinking, maybe I should have thought about it a bit more.
ZHAO: No, no.
CHANG: Well, you know, the diversity in this movie among the main characters just alone is kind of epic. Like, there are Asian Eternals, Black Eternals, Latinx Eternals. One of the Eternals is Marvel's first gay superhero. Another is their first deaf superhero. And I was wondering, do all these firsts increase the pressure for this movie to be a success for you? Like, how do you even think about that pressure, if you do?
ZHAO: I don't.
ZHAO: Well, I'll tell you why - because when I first signed on to this film, in the treatment, this is Marvel Studios' desire to have their movies represent the world we live in. It's very strong and is one of the reasons why I was drawn to the project. My job is not to think about that. My job is to treat all these firsts as human beings. You know, this is a really, really big Marvel movie that talks about 7,000 years in human history. To see yourself in that story gives you the desire and the permission to dream big. And I love for as many young people around the world to have that opportunity as possible.
CHANG: I read something that you once said - that you're drawn to outsiders because you are one yourself. You said at one point, quote, "I feel like an outsider almost everywhere I go." What did you mean by that when you said that?
ZHAO: It means I sit in the table by the window in the cafeteria in high school (laughter). And my kids - I'm talking about my 10 Eternals - yes, they're very different people, and even the actors. But all of them are a bit of misfits themselves. They might just end up in the same table. When I was in college, each group has a misfits, and they end up in the same table from very different parts of the world. But we just didn't really fit in with our group. And I - do you know what I'm talking about?
CHANG: Yeah, I totally do. You felt like your clique was a collection of misfits.
CHANG: In what way did you feel like you didn't quite fit in?
ZHAO: Because I never want to be put in a box, because I think we live in a conformist society because it feels comfortable to put people in boxes. And as a creative especially, I feel like I will die if I stay in a box. And that's why I'm always a bit of a misfit because once I stay in a box for too long, I have to leave.
CHANG: Well, when you were first working on this Marvel movie, did you ever find the scope of it, the size of it or the scrutiny that can be associated with a Marvel movie - did you find any of that daunting? Because a lot of your - most of your previous projects were smaller, independent projects.
ZHAO: Daunting, nevertheless. I tell you, people seem to think it's easy to make "The Rider" and "Nomadland." I slept a lot more on "Eternals" than I did those films.
CHANG: That's so funny.
ZHAO: Because on "The Rider" we wrap at 2 in the morning. Then I got to drive two hours to drive my actress home. And then I wake up in the morning and cook everyone food and then go bribe someone for me to use their location. The grass is always greener, you know? And obviously, there are moments on "Eternals" - you know, one decision we have would take 500 people to move and it takes time. You have to have patience. It's never easy.
CHANG: Yeah, it's never easy. Well, when you look ahead, I'm just wondering what you see because you have found such tremendous success pretty early in your filmmaking career. I mean, where do you go after the Academy Award for Best Director? What do you dream about?
ZHAO: In moments like that, I always look at one of my idols, Mr. Bob Dylan, you know, who said it really, really well. He not busy being born is busy dying. And every time I go into my next project, at home, I'm reborn. I going completely naked, vulnerable, no idea what I'm doing. And I'm coming out just a little bit wiser. But never am I going to feel comfortable.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "IT'S ALRIGHT, MA (I'M ONLY BLEEDING)")
CHANG: Chloe Zhao directed the new film "Eternals." Thank you so much for speaking with us.
ZHAO: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALRIGHT, MA (I'M ONLY BLEEDING)")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) That he not busy being born is busy dying. Temptation's page flies out the door. You follow, find yourself at war. Watch waterfalls of pity roar. You feel to moan but unlike before... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.