Ahoy, squirts! Quint here.
If there was any doubt I was in for a good day it was extinguished when I saw the 1940s cars parked on David Lean Dr. in front of the Orson Welles building just past the front gates of Shepperton Studios in London, England.
At first it seems an odd choice to film Captain America in London. In fact when I was going through customs at Heathrow the agent asked me what I was doing in the UK and I said, “Funnily enough I flew all the way from America to London so I could see Captain America.” We both shared a laugh and I didn’t get put in the “cavity search” line.
But standing on the streets of Shepperton Studios one can’t help but feel the history of the place, aided of course by the 1940s autos and the sweet blue and tan period bus parked in every available space. It starts to make a little sense that perhaps the hope is that the feel of the area might bleed into the period-set film.
After checking our cell phones (they are very serious about leaked images) our small group was joined by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and producer Stephen Broussard who quickly led us upstairs to have a look around the art department.
When I entered the door labeled “Frostbite Art Department,” (Frostbite being the codename for the shoot) I was witness to a long rectangular room with every square inch of wall space plastered with production art. If one started at the right spot and walked clockwise around the room one could see the entire movie beginning to end in art form.
The movie begins in present day as an excavation uncovers something in the ice. The art pieces I saw included a wide shot of the excavation site which looked a little THING-ish, digging equipment in a small camp illuminated by bright lights, and a great shot of a familiar round object, obscured by thick ice, colored red, white and blue with a big, white star affixed in the center.
If you paid attention during Comic-Con you’ll remember that the footage Joe Johnston brought involved Hugo Weaving procuring the Cosmic Cube. In the early books the Cosmic Cube gave the Red Skull the ability to conjure anything with a thought. This version doesn’t do that, but it apparently gives The Skull an advanced form of weapons knowledge.
So this world will be a little more sci-fi-ish than I expected. There are giant tanks that fire what looked to be energy blasts or plasma shots, sleek guns that looked like a combination of WW2 weaponry and blasters and transportation devices that were a mix of the technology of the time with a bigger, sci-fi edge.
One of these devices was a massive machine called The Orbital Bomber, a stealth bomber looking ship that is so massive it houses seven more aircraft that will detatch and enter battle during the climactic battle sequence.
The Red Skull’s group, for those uninitiated, is called Hydra and the logo is a red skull with octopus-like tentacles underneath. Because of the edge the Cosmic Cube gives them the war is now radically shifted in the Reich’s favor.
Enter scrawny, but idealistic young Steve Rogers. He wants nothing more than to enlist and help the American war effort, but he truly is a pipsqueak and is labeled 4F each time he tries. There was a fantastic piece of art that said everything there is to say about Steve Rogers: Little Steve stands in front of a mirror with a soldier’s outfit and helmet drawn on it. On the art are the words “Do You See Yourself In This Man’s Army? Enlist Today!” Steve’s head barely reaches the uniform’s collar, the helmet floating above. The lad’s shoulders are slumped, his body language pure misery. You can see that image realized in the trailers for the film.
Pale, rail-thin and short Rogers’ ambition far exceeds his physical ability.
That’s not true of his best friend, Bucky, who is enlisted. On their last night together they attend the Stark World Expo, which looks just like you’d expect if that art’s any indicator. The glimpses we got in Iron Man 2 made it look like Tomorrow Land on an epic scale and that’s exactly what the art made it look like, complete with monorail and fireworks.
I’m not sure exactly what happens from this point out, but I know Howard Stark is instrumental in the development of the Super Soldier formula and at some point early on Steve Rogers is picked to be the recipient.
There were some amazing pieces that stood out to me before we leave the art department room. One was a big war piece where Cap straddled the top of a giant tank with an enormous barrel blasting a bright blue light. Cap had his shield raised high over his head, about to strike down on what I’d imagine is the top hatch.
Another piece had Cap riding a zip line down to a speeding train, which was sleek black, carrying missiles and branded with the Hydra logo.
One more piece of art had Cap standing in the center of The Invaders (which are really The Howling Commandos), which had a French resistance officer, Dum Dum Dugan (complete with bowler hat and shotgun) and Bucky, wielding a sniper rifle.
And then there was a piece I tried to talk the studio reps into making a teaser poster. It’s a great Rosie-like artist’s rendering of a grinning Captain America urging you to join the war effort. Total propaganda and perfect for the time period.
After checking out the art room, we were led to a large space that was set up with big props including the rebirth chamber (the thing that turns Scrawny Steve to bulky Cap) and Schmidt’s coupe, a crazy extravagant Nazi ride that is like Burton Batmobile long with a shiny black coat of paint and even shinier chrome accents.
Apparently this coupe was so spruced up that when they first hit the gas on it the car did a wheelie, so they toned it down to 500 horsepower. At the time of our visit the coupe had been clocked at hitting upwards of 70mph, which is super fast when you consider just how massive this car is.
When we were done taking close-up looks at the big props we moved over to the corner of the room where a sound system and screen were set up to show us some stuff from the movie, most of which you’ve now seen in the trailers. But they did show us the complete Scrawny Steve transformation scene. The details are foggy this far away, but the footage was rough, cut really quickly for us by Johnston… some of the shots had Steve Rogers looking buffed up before he was supposed to be, some we clearly saw his double (who wore facial prosthetics as well as the track dots to make his face look even closer to Evans’), and, of course, there was no sound mixing, color timing or green screen replacement. Tucci was the stand-out even in this rough cut version of the scene. His Dr. Erskine was played with the perfect mixture of seriousness and humor as needed in this scene.
Dramatically, this scene showed us a crucial part of Steve Rogers’ character. During the experiment, Rogers experiences incredible pain and his body is so stressed that his life is in danger. Erskine and Howard Stark move to stop the transformation before it completes, but Rogers screams from inside the chamber “No! I can do this!” taking the pain and risk because it’s the only way for him to serve his country.
Feige filled us in on some story elements, including a really cool way for Johnston to incorporate a bit of the classic comic book into the slightly more grounded movie version. After Cap is born, the project is sabotaged and Rogers is kind of lost. He’s big, he has great strength, but those who had plans to train him to use it are now gone or scattered. Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t like him much and wants to study him, but a US Senator thinks there’s a better use for him.
Cut to Cap at war… but when the camera pulls back we see that he’s on a stage, not the front lines, as a camera crew films a war bond newsreel promo. This Captain America is used as an icon, a symbol of the allied war effort and does touring shows. In these shows the boots are bright red (and look more like Cap’s comic pirate-looking boots), his costume is more like the original run of Captain America comics and his shield is that classic police-badge shape, not the upgraded circular shield.
They’re going to use this traveling war effort stage show to recreate the cover of Captain America #1, where Cap punches out Hitler.
The utilitarian Cap costume you see in the trailers come to play when Rogers has to go on a rescue mission. They didn’t say it, but I think his longtime friend Bucky might be in trouble and his first boots-on-the-ground mission takes him into a massive Hydra factory to rescue some POWs.
Now, Hydra begins as a special weapons division of the Nazi party, but when Schmidt gets his hands on the Cosmic Cube that morphs into the more sci-fi powerhouse that Hydra will becomes in the movie.
Interestingly enough, Feige told us that we shouldn’t count out seeing more WW2 themed Captain America stories on the big screen since the movie takes place over a period of about 3 years. So even though we all know Cap ends up in the ice if there’s a call for more WW2 Cap adventures there’s plenty of missions we don’t see. I found this very exciting, especially since Feige said that he loves Ed Brubaker’s use of WW2 in his Captain America stories, where the first few pages of one of his comics would be a WW2 adventure and that would inform the modern day storyline being told in the book.
The first actual set we visited was Hydra’s HQ as the 2nd Unit filmed scenes of Hydra soldiers running down hallways. Later on the soldiers would be fighting with the Howling Commandos, but we didn’t get to see any of that.
Red Skull’s lair was the centerpiece of this particular set and it was pretty rad. It’s a giant space that feels Third Reich-ish, but with a flair of sci-fi tech. The Red Skull’s desk was a big sucker, but tidy. An old book sat open on the desk, pages yellowed and delicate. It looked like an occult book, written in German. Broken glass littered the top of the desk. I guess there was a struggle.
On the wall next to the desk was a large painting of The Red Skull wearing a decadent fur cape and a slick black leather outfit. Behind the painted Red Skull was a large black banner with the bright red Hydra logo on it. If you want an idea of the style, it reminded me a lot of Joe Jusko’s Marvel Masterpieces work.
Down a couple of steps, but in the same large room was an area we were told The Red Skull uses to build Cube tech. Four huge mechanical arms hung from the ceiling, each with a different tool attached to the end. One of them had a pincer, another a drill, another a bank of lights, etc. Everything cube-related had a glowing blue light associated in some way.
From here we made our way to Shepperton’s oldest and biggest studio space: H Stage. Stanley Kubrick shot all the lunar surface stuff from 2001 in this massive stage. Producer Stephen Broussard believed the Award Ceremony ending to A New Hope was also filmed on this stage, but there wasn’t any documentation to prove it. He challenged me to find a Behind the Scenes pic to prove it, obviously a follower of my daily column.
In the center of the stage they were deconstructing a gigantic wheel. It was like an airplane wheel, but multiplied about four times. The wheels themselves were maybe 10 feet tall and the landing gear some 25 feet tall, going up into the rafters.
They had just shot The Red Skull’s crazy extravagant coupe skidding to a stop in front of this wheel and didn’t need the set anymore. The crew was hard at work dismantling the giant structure, sparks flying as they blow-torched pieces off it.
Our roving band of geeks moved from here to the real fun place on a movie set: The practical effects wing. Usually it’s just a make-up trailer that makes your head spin with all the prosthetic appliance chemicals and glues, but here they had their own building. We saw the Red Skull prosthetics on dummy heads (the heads themselves cast from Hugo Weaving’s lifemask so they’d sit perfectly).
Like most facial prosthetics they came in multiple pieces, with the difficult areas being the seams. They have to hide the edges, with the trouble spots usually being mouth, nose and eyes… Well, with the nose they don’t have to worry about it because the Red Skull ain’t got one. The prosthetic had the nose hole sculpted, with just enough room for Weaving’s real nose to fit through. His nose was painted black and would be digitally removed in post-production.
Weaving spent 3 ½ hours in the make-up chair every day to transform into Red Skull and they used very thin, flexible silicone to allow Weaving the full range of expression. They were adamant that Weaving wouldn’t be buried underneath the make-up.
Because of the tight Orbital Bomber stage, our monitors were set up in a smaller, unused stage where we could watch as they filmed a fight scene between Cap and Red Skull. Um… yeah. How cool is that? Not only was I there to watch some filming of a Captain America film, but they brought us there for a down and dirty punch-em-up between two of Marvel’s most iconic characters.
And the fight was surprisingly brutal. It didn’t feel overly choreographed and featured a lot of close hand to hand fighting.
The action of the scene began with The Red Skull and Cap falling over at the same time on the flight deck of the Orbital Bomber. Cap’s shield is at his feet, upended. He rolls forward and grabs it, sliding his left arm into the leather straps and punching forward at the now standing Red Skull with the shield.
Red Skull blocks the punch and lands his left fist into Cap’s gut and in one fluid movement grabs the shield, pulling it free of Cap’s grasp, and swats him with it.
The blow sends Cap crashing backward into some machinery, sparks flying on impact. The Red Skull doesn’t let up and pushes forward with the shield. Cap grabs it and they’re locked together for a moment. Red Skull shouts something like, “You wear a flag on your chest and think you fight for the future of your country. I’ve seen the future. There are no flags!” Cap shouts back, “Not my future!” and pushes back, catching Red Skull off guard.
With a mighty heave Cap rams The Red Skull into a chair near the windows, causing another explosion of sparks as the chair itself collides with the control panel. Immediately the Red Skull sends a boot flying at Cap’s face, sending him backwards as air and fog rush about the room.
The Red Skull grabs at a railing just as his feet upend and he’s struggling against a giant suction. They didn’t say what happened, but it’s clear the windows were blown out and the air is rushing out, trying to pull both men out with it. So, the Red Skull was pulling a Total Recall, holding on for dear life.
Hugo Weaving came over for a couple of minutes to talk to us and the make-up looked pretty spectacular up close. It was definitely bizarre conversing with The Red Skull. The best part of the brief talk was hearing Weaving talk about how amusing Werner Herzog’s accent was (“There’s something wonderfully mad about it,” he said) and how he built The Red Skull’s accent off of Herzog’s.
We had considerably more time with Chris Evans who was led in wearing an overcoat, presumably to hide the costume from telephoto lenses. One of the reporters asked if we could get a closer look at the costume and he said, “Sure,” removing the overcoat. It took about three seconds for us to realize his zipper was undone and it took him about four seconds. He quickly zipped up with a sheepish grin on his face and answered some questions.
Evans was candid about his reservations taking on the role, one due to the pressures of expectations of doing justice to the character and two, because he’d already played a superhero and wasn’t sure if people would be up for seeing him play another.
He also said that he’s basing Steve Rogers very heavily on the books, naturally, but also on his friend Charlie, who is a huge comic fan, but also the most honest, upright citizen he knows. He’s an Eagle Scout through and through and that’s Evans’ personal way into the character of Steve Rogers. He also said that he wanted to make sure that Scrawny Steve Rogers could still be seen in Cap and that if you couldn’t see that character at the end of the movie then he would have failed as an actor.
Shortly after Evans was called back to set we were told that Johnston wanted us to travel one stage over and watch a few takes live. This was the Orbital Bomber deck where Cap fights with Red Skull. The space was cramped, but there was a circular walkway about five feet off the deck that we all stood on. In a semi-circle we watched as Weaving was pulled up on wires to get that Total Recall shot I mentioned above. The timing had to be right because Skull had to be lifted up, flip forward and grab a piece of railing to keep himself from being sucked out into the void.
We spent all of two or three takes on the stage before we moved out to go tour wardrobe, which was actually much cooler than I thought it would be, mostly because I got to be photographed holding Cap’s shield if I’m to be totally honest.
But there was also the ability to get a real up-close look at some of the iterations of the suit, from the flamboyant wing-eared bright red, white and blue USO Show version to the final real war version. Yes, I did get to hold the classic circular shield (built by Howard Stark, no less… as was Cap’s costume, we were told), but I also insisted on picking up the very heavy original shield that is part of Cap’s USO show. It’s gaudy, totally impractical and all the cooler for it. The back of this shield was reflective gold! Unlike the practical shield that Cap takes into battle, which is much more utilitarian.
We were informed that some of the design elements that worked their way into the costume came from the base fact that Howard Stark designed it and that he, as a character, is a futurist, so they felt comfortable augmenting the 1940s style with hints of ‘50s touches, giving it both a retro and a slightly futuristic feel while making sure it was totally functional.
Interstingly enough, we were told that minor bits of the costume were altered due to fan criticism from the brief glimpse of the suit at Comic-Con that year. The biggest complaint was that there were no wings on the helmet. The wings are present (and stick out) on the USO outfit, but in order to not make it ridiculous on the soldier’s helmet they settled on a stencil approach, so the wings are there, but not gaudy.
That about wraps up my time on the set of Captain America. Hope you guys dug the report! Now all that’s left is to see the damn movie!