How ‘The Marvels’ director Nia DaCosta literally herded cats

How ‘The Marvels’ director Nia DaCosta literally herded cats

Nia DaCosta is ready for takeoff.

The 34-year-old filmmaker (and self-described nerd) is officially joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directing the high-flying superhero epic The Marvels (out this weekend). The movie unites three of the MCU’s brightest stars for a candy-colored, galaxy-hopping adventure, filled with alien cats and impeccably choreographed fight scenes. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of neon interstellar saga that DaCosta has dreamt of making ever since she was a kid leafing through her uncle’s old comic books.

“The biggest challenge was finding the balance between my point of view as a director and as a comic book nerd,” she tells EW. “Obviously, there are changes between the comics and the movies, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ Sometimes [Marvel head] Kevin [Feige] would be like, ‘You’re being too much of a nerd. Please stop.'”

Nia DaCosta on the set of ‘The Marvels’.
Laura Radford/Marvel Studios

DaCosta is best known for directing the acclaimed 2018 indie Little Woods and the 2021 Candyman reboot, but she’s long been fascinated by superhero stories. When she was only 30, she pitched Marvel on her idea for a Captain Marvel sequel, laying out an ambitious adventure that united three different heroines across time and space: Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani). Upon her hiring, she made history as both the youngest and the first-ever Black female director to helm an MCU movie.

With the film about to hit theaters, DaCosta admits that she’s “relieved” to be at the finish line, especially after the pandemic pushed back the film’s release date several times. “Initially, it was going to come out a year ago,” she explains. “Now that it’s finally in the world, it’s really nice.”

DaCosta opens up to EW about her forays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from working with cat actors to the advice she got from her fellow Marvel filmmakers.

Carol’s flerken Goose makes coffee in ‘The Marvels’.
Marvel Studios

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve talked about growing up as a big Marvel nerd. Was there a point during this process where you geeked out the hardest?

Just being able to text Kevin Feige was a big thing for me. Every time we had dinner, I would ask him a million questions, like, “What’s next? Tell me more! What are you going to do for that? I have ideas!” I just admire him a lot. But the first time you step onto a huge set that’s been built based on what you and your production designer have come up with, that’s a big pinch-me moment.

Was there a particular set you loved the most?

My production designer Cara Brower, who was on Candyman, took a huge step up with this film, especially with S.A.B.E.R. and Carol’s ship. Those were two that I really loved. For Carol’s ship, we really wanted to show who she was when she wasn’t punching Thanos in the face. When I was first pitching the project, I was kind of obsessed with the idea of, Who is she really? She didn’t have her memory in the first film and Endgame. She shows up, she crashes into some ships, punches Thanos, and then dips again. Creating that ship was a way of answering that question.

You got hooked on Marvel as a kid because your uncle collected comics. What did young Nia love most about those early superhero stories?

On one hand, I think it was a kind of escapism. On another, I deeply connected with the X-Men. Thematically, they’re really fascinating. The idea of what makes you different is actually your superpower, that’s really powerful.

Iman Vellani, Brie Larson, and Teyonah Parris in ‘The Marvels.’.
Laura Radford/Marvel Studios

In the movie, Kamala Khan is an escapist fan like that. Did you connect with that character?

Yeah, it’s that fandom part of her. She really, really loves superheroes. She writes fan fiction. I’m from New York City, and she’s from Jersey City, which are very different, but still, it’s the Tri-State area. I’m not Pakistani American, but being the child of immigrants, all of that was really relatable for me.

Tell me a bit about getting to work with the stunts and action elements of a movie like this. That’s not something you have a lot of in your filmography.

As a viewer, I love great stunts, and I love great fight scenes. There were some things that were really inspiring to me for this, and it was great to be able to pull from things I loved to create our own unique look for this film.

What are some of the things you found inspiring?

In my pitch, I talked a lot about Carol in this movie compared to the first [Captain Marvel]. I compared it to Casino Royale and Die Another Day. There, you have a whole different Bond and a whole different actor playing him, but also the energy is different. I was interested in the 30 years that we haven’t seen [Carol]. We can almost see her as a new character. At the beginning of Casino Royale, there’s this really great chase sequence, where we see the brute force of Bond chasing after this parkour genius. This is like Carol and Kamala, showing the physicality of how they are different. I also loved the bathroom fight scene in Fallout [the sixth Mission: Impossible movie]. The fight coordinator we had was the fight coordinator for that scene. I was really inspired to do something as grounded and as brutal.

Little kittens… erm… flerkens cause chaos in space in ‘The Marvels’.
Marvel Studios

I also have to ask about the feline actors. What was it like to have all these cats running around on set?

So wonderful and fun! It slows things down for sure, but it was great. They’re cats. They’re hitting marks and pressing buttons and jumping up on people’s shoulders when they’re being asked to! Cats aren’t supposed to be able to do that! It was really cool for all of us on set to see that happen. I kept holding kittens all day. I’m allergic to cats, but I was just like, “I can’t help it! They’re so cute!”

Was there any diva behavior from any of the cats?

One of the cats who plays Goose scratched Iman, so we were like, “Okay, that cat can’t be held. Good to know.” One of the kittens scratched Sam Jackson, and I was like, [gasp] “National treasure Sam Jackson! Please!” But honestly, considering that they’re cats, they were exemplary.

With cats, you never really know what you’re going to get.

One hundred percent. Sometimes they’re just like, “We’re not doing it today. Give me my chicken and get out of here.”

Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan faces a flerken in ‘The Marvels’.
Marvel Studios

What is it like going from a project like your first film, Little Woods, to something like this, where you’re working with so many different departments and literally hundreds of people?

The great thing is that when you’re working with your department heads, it’s the same. You’re working really intimately with them because, at the end of the day, they just want to get your vision on the screen as well as they can. That collaboration is so special, and it’s why I love directing in the first place. Obviously, this is a hugely VFX-heavy film, so I have department heads that I never worked with before or that I never worked with on this scale. That was where things were new.

You’ve said that you spoke to some other Marvel directors before starting production. Did they give you any advice that you found particularly helpful?

I probably talked to [Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings director] Destin Daniel Cretton the most. He’s just really great. I love him. But James Gunn [Guardians of the Galaxy], Ryan Coogler [Black Panther], Taika Waititi [Thor: Ragnarok] were all wonderful. The biggest thing that I found interesting was that we all had different experiences. There are commonalities, obviously, but everyone is able to put themselves into the process as filmmakers. That’s probably the best advice I got: Bring everything you have, and leave everything on the floor.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

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