Black Widow screenwriter Eric Pearson is no stranger to the MCU. In addition to penning Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) standalone film, he also wrote the script for Thor: Ragnarok, several Marvel One-Shots, and multiple episodes of Agent Carter.
/Film talked with Pearson about his experience writing for the MCU, including how he approached created Black Widow’s story. Read on for that interview, which contains only very mild spoilers for the film.
This isn’t your first foray in the Marvel world. And it’s not even your first writing of a character that the audience knows is no longer with us. You also wrote for Agent Carter, which is somewhat similar to Black Widow in that you’re writing in a different timeframe and writing for a character that the audience knows is no longer with us in the MCU’s contemporary timeframe. Did your experience on Agent Carter inform you at all in writing Black Widow?
I’m not sure if it actively did. I can’t think of an example where I was like, ‘Oh, thank God, I learned this lesson from Agent Carter.’ I mean, Agent Carter was probably the most helpful in that it was the first TV job that I’d had. Collaboration is really important — I’ve been so fortunate that I started my career with Marvel Studios. Everybody really collaborates there. They really do. And if any project is in trouble, everybody circles the wagons, and they all help out. And so, you learn to work with other people. And then Agent Carter, with my bosses, Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas running the room, it just felt so collaborative.
And also, I feel like we leased these characters. I didn’t create Thor Odinson. I didn’t create Natasha Romanoff. I am leasing them to tell a story. And with Black Widow, Scarlet was a producer, and Cate Shortland, our director, had a lot of very specific thoughts. I guess the biggest lesson is just saying is the Natasha Romanoff story that we’re telling. How do I best service this character and this vision and this theme and this story?
With Marvel movies and shows, there’s a balance of making sure the story you’re telling is a standalone cohesive story, but also fits into the jigsaw puzzle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How did you approach that for Black Widow, especially knowing that this is likely the last time that we’ll see Natasha?
This was the trickiest one, honestly. By the end of Thor: Ragnarok, we knew they were going to end up in space and Thanos is going to show up. So there’s a lot of ways to get there. But this was like, “Okay, we are right after Captain America: Civil War but before Avengers: Infinity War.” So it was a very short window. This was the trickiest one, and the villain threat was the trickiest part of that, because you needed a villain threat that could realistically succeed, but we wouldn’t notice. That was the hardest thing.
Ultimately, it led me to a place where it worked for the spy thriller genre we’re going for, and for Natasha’s character as well, to have this scumbag-y villain who is basically a coward and is hiding in the dark, puppeteering things. Because he’s such a coward, he doesn’t care about how much he’s ruining other people’s lives. That felt like an appropriate villain threat that also works, as opposed to say, “I’m going to blow up the moon.” You can’t say that because we’ve seen Infinity War. There’s a moon there. We know that.
But besides that, it was fun, because what we got to do with Natasha is really show this whole other side of her. She’s been in six movies, seven movies, maybe, and the whole time you felt like you knew her. And then a scene that I really like is she goes off the grid, and she meets this character named Mason, who she’s so comfortable with. He’s so comfortable he’s able to sleep in a bed that has been set up for her.
And it was meant to put the audience off balance. You think you’ve known her, because you’ve been around her with Tony Stark and Captain America and Nick Fury and all this stuff. But no, she’s actually got this whole other thing that you don’t know about. And that gave us a lot of freedom to really explore new things with her.
You talked about the big, bad villain and truly making him evil, of showing the trauma that he put all the girls who went through the Red Room through and specifically Natasha and Yelena. The movie sets this up by starting in mid ‘90s Midwest America. How did you come up with that idea?
I’ll be honest, Marvel had that when I came in. They had a few things figured out that they wanted to do. And one of them was the idea of this American family. Having this family like a prologue, and then having a “getting the band back together” dynamic to the story. So I knew that it was going to be somewhere in the American Midwest, and it was really just getting the character dynamics right, the action right, and the plot device — the MacGuffin they’re stealing.
Did you know Yelena would be so funny, or is that something that came after Florence Pugh was cast?
I immediately wanted Yelena to be funny. For me, I feel like there’s a couple of ways to make new characters, to endear them to an audience. They can do something really cool, or they can make you laugh. It’s always been easier in my life to make people laugh than to be really cool. So I just was thinking immediately of this kind of dynamic. She’s also in contrast to Natasha Romanoff, who is emotionally guarded and very reserved. I thought we would have an action introduction to where you see Yelena — where she’s brutal and ruthless and awesome.
But what if, as opposed to Natasha — who has reset her life after leaving the Red Room and controls all the information that people know about her as a defense tactic — what if Yelena is just emotionally naked. She’s going to say everything and be openly annoyed at you for doing something that bugs her. And it just worked for their dynamic really well. Plus, Florence is very funny. I mean, there’s no denying she’s just a very funny person and has that kind of energy. I was just getting introduced to her through Lady Macbeth and Fighting With My Family. And so, once you see the actor, you’re like, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of just intentional and unintentional comedy that can come out of her.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Black Widow is currently in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
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