Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Screenwriter Eric Pearson was presented with a unique challenge writing what would become Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) side-quest in BLACK WIDOW. He was tasked to create a narrative that would be thoroughly engaging and immersive while also not causing any ripple effect on the Marvel movies that featured Nat that came before this. In addition to that, it was going to be set in between two major points on the Avengers’ timeline, betwixt CIVIL WAR and INFINITY WAR.
In the superhero action-adventure, a figure from Natasha’s traumatic past comes back to haunt her and, in order to defeat him, she’s tasked with assembling her estranged, makeshift family. I was able to speak to the affable, talented screenwriter recently over the phone where we chatted about how he further crafted these indelible characters and upping their stakes.
For me as a woman, it felt like your villain Dreykov (Ray Winstone) had some very real world connections.
“He’s a real piece of shit too.“
Yes, thank you. Especially because his goal is to control women’s bodies and minds. How much of a challenge did he present to you in the writing? I’m sure you could probably pull from the news and see this happening with American lawmakers.
“The biggest challenge of that would be villain plot and stakes. Because we have this weird time period where, those of us who’ve seen AVENGERS: ENDGAME, know that Natasha Romanoff makes a personal sacrifice to save the universe. We know that she’s dead. We’re having this movie take place right after CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Writing the villain plot, I knew that I couldn’t blow up the moon, because we’ve seen since then the moon’s there. Coming up with how to treat a villain thread that could potentially succeed and not be noticed in the timeline was the trickiest part.
It was a tricky thing to wrap my head around – and our head around as the whole team. But it kinda helped lead to this ultimate villain who’s a bit of a coward. He wants a lot of control but everything he does is from a place of fear and lack of self-confidence. He’s a bully. Natasha did a great job of making him know that when they’re able to finally confront each other.“
How precious is Marvel about what you pull from the comics?
“They’re not too precious with it. They always tend to have, when you come in, there are ideas there that are essentially images or moments from the comics or things they want to incorporate in there. The favorite ones will always be pushed, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get cut out. I remember Kevin [Feige] had one of our greatest jokes in pre-production for THOR RAGNAROK. It was Kevin’s idea and we all laughed about it, but it didn’t work and Kevin cut his own joke out.
In this one, we had a couple of lines that were very important the whole way through to make reference to something in the chase sequence in Budapest and ultimately it wasn’t working and we took it out. They’re not too rigid, but everybody has their favorite moments that they want to see brought to fruition.“
Did any of the writing change once cast members signed on, to better suit their own personalities? I know you were on-set, but I was also curious what your role was there.
“It definitely changes. When I came in, there was already this loose idea of a family structure. I was writing to that as David Harbour as the father figure and Rachel Weisz as the mother figure and Florence Pugh as the sister/ sibling. Cate Shortland made it a point for us to sit for a couple of days for rehearsal, which was pretty intense to be at the heavyweight table with the four of them; Scarlett, Florence, Rachel and David there. Each had their own ideas. I was a little freaked out. Everyone had just come in and it was us gathered for the first time ever and everyone was shouting out their own ideas and it became very overwhelming. But I think what Cate did was very smart. She essentially put me at the family dinner table with these four and I got their energy. They had suggestions and we’d work on them.
I remember Florence was talking about the scene and I said, ‘That’s the line that saves the whole thing.’ I told her afterword, ‘You just saved me so much time with one random question. This will really help in the climactic emotional moment for you and your parental figures. It changed a lot. They’re all so good at their jobs. I feel like I gave them a blueprint and then they helped me make it excellent on the page. And in the performance, they’d do it different than you don’t expect, which makes it even better.
As far as role on set, we had a pretty free set too. There will be improv sometimes. I feel like I’m the custodian of the story and of the document on set, because you want the actors to be able to do what they feel. Sometimes though they do omit something and it could be one word even, or the phrasing of a word – a past tense – might make a big difference. I feel like I’m guarding the whole story, very meekly and politely poking my head up if I hear something that’s going to affect the story as a whole.“
Was the dinner table scene one of the most daunting scenes to write, because there’s so much to balance there between the characters superficial and subconscious needs and have the humor come in and not undercut the drama?
“It was the 800 lb. gorilla I was most scared of. I knew it was gonna be massive. I think it has 9 pages and it not only has to be character dynamic, and humor, and some emotional conflict and reckoning of these characters, but also have some big points of exposition in there and some comic book science that has to be explained to the audience. Weirdly I was the most scared of it, but once we did those rehearsals over two days and I was able to wrangle everyone’s point and make it work without turning it into a 35 page scene. We also shot it fairly early – about a month into shooting. Once it was done and in the can, I was so relieved. I got to watch it and seeing them perform it, made it seem special.
I think besides that one, the ending was the most difficult one to write because there was so much to keep track of. We have different players on the field and different parts of the facility and different threats and countdowns. That was the hardest one, purely from a spatial map thing – of keeping track where everyone is, who knows what at what time, who is ahead of who, when does the reveal happen. That was the most challenging.
This may be a dumb story, but it was the day of the family dinner scene. Florence has this great emotional moment in it and she’s winding up and I had this big sneeze and I’m close. I literally clamped my hand over my mouth, but the sneeze forced itself out of my body in the weirdest noise I’ve ever heard. People in our video village had teeth marks in their arms trying to bite down from laughing. I made a sound that sounded like a bored donkey. I did not want to screw this up. Luckily they didn’t pick it up. Everyone in our tent did though.“
Was Don McLean’s “American Pie” always written in the script?
“The idea of playing music came from one of those rehearsals, even though it wasn’t ultimately at the dinner scene, from David Harbour. And then they were pitching random different songs that they could be singing and then suddenly these four impressive, intimidating actors all kind of started randomly singing that song. There was terror amongst all of us too; If this doesn’t work, it’s the cheesiest thing of all time. And if it does, it’s the greatest. So I had a genuine fear until I saw the first cut and I was like, ‘Oh. Okay. Great.’ It’s just one of those things that came out of the actual family dinner rehearsal.“
You were in the Marvel writing program and I was curious if there were lessons learned there you apply to all your writing?
“The way that work is done. I was very fortunate to get my first job in the Marvel Studios writer’s program. As a struggling writer, I was really bottoming out in credit card debt and it was my first job really doing what I wanted to do for a living. I arrived there after IRON MAN and INCREDIBLE HULK, but before AVENGERS. I remember people saying, ‘Superhero movies are going to be done at any moment.’ It was before the gold dust of AVENGERS opening at $200 million. But I was there to keep my head down and have fun telling stories. That’s what I found from everyone who works there; From the assistants all the way up to Kevin Feige, everyone was there saying, ‘We’re here to make movies. This should be fun. We need to work hard, but you can only take yourselves so seriously. There’s no reason to fight, or get angry. We’re just going to do our best job all the time.’ It was a work ethic thing, I suppose.
I think it was Nate Moore [VP of Production and Development at Marvel] (who produced WINTER SOLDIER, CIVIL WAR, BLACK PANTHER and ETERNALS), who said, ‘Once we’re in the third act, it’s a sprint for the finish.’ I think that was his way of saying everybody wants to do the biggest possible finale and it’s a Marvel movie, it’s gonna have a pretty fantastical finale regardless, so you should approach it doing the smallest version of fantastic as possible because otherwise it turns into an entire other movie that should be ending and you want everyone to have their big moment, you want to payoff the setup and you want people to leave happy – or, in the case of INFINITY WAR, leave devastated.“
BLACK WIDOW is now playing in cinemas and available through Disney+ Premiere Access.