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How Defenders Director S.J. Clarkson Filmed an Understated Earthquake

S.J. Clarkson

Marvel’s Netflix universe has come a long way since the beginning of Jessica Jones, and director S.J. Clarkson has been there to see it grow. A British veteran of shows like EastEnders, Life on Mars, and Dexter, Clarkson was recruited to helm the first two episodes of the Krysten Ritter–starring neo-noir hit. Now she’s back on the Marvel wagon, directing the first two installments of team-up series The Defenders, and Vulture caught up with her to talk about franchise-building, working with Sigourney Weaver (who plays the villain in The Defenders), and how to film an earthquake tastefully.

What’s different about doing Defenders versus Jessica Jones?
One versus four superheroes, I guess. What was different about it? I think what was great for me was having already established two of them, because I’d obviously introduced Luke Cage in Jessica Jones, so I already knew two of them, which was fantastic. I knew who they were. It was then really exciting to take on the other two. I knew that the intention, when I did Jessica Jones, was to make Defenders eventually, and I thought that was an exciting prospect to see those four come together.

Did the Marvel Television higher-ups like Jeph Loeb talk much about The Defenders when you were doing Jessica Jones?
For Jeph that was always the goal. I mean, I think it’s incredibly smart. You bring out these four shows, and then, “Hey, there’s a fifth one that has them all come together.” It’s pretty genius, and so I knew it was coming. I knew nothing about it other than there was gonna be four characters. At that point, Iron Fist didn’t exist. We knew Luke Cage was coming, and Iron Fist was obviously there in the intellectual property, but we didn’t know Finn [Jones] was gonna be playing it or who was gonna do it.

When I started Jessica Jones, the interesting thing was Daredevil hadn’t even transmitted, hadn’t even gone out, so it was so early in the universe that we didn’t know. They didn’t know whether it was gonna go nuts or how it was gonna be received. It was so early on when I got sent the scripts and we were up and running when it went out. So I’d seen the first two episodes [of Daredevil] and saw what they did, and knew we wanted to make ours slightly different, as Marvel wanted. They wanted each to have their own voice, but I knew all along that if they did well, the idea would be that they would all come together in one, which I thought was really cool, so I was thrilled when they asked me to do it.

Franchise building!
What isn’t these days, right?

How do you make sure that there’s a balance between the thematic and visual elements of the four different shows?
Well, we did a lot of work. [Co-showrunner] Marco [Ramirez] wrote a brilliant script, for starters, and they flew me out to Los Angeles and we sat down in the writers room. We sort of wrestled with it: where the story was going, how they all tied in, and how you land each of them individually but make it feel like it’s one cohesive piece. That was really my challenge. One of the things I was very keen to do was to have time with them one-on-one, to make sure we as the audience had a bit of time with them on their own to reintroduce them, but also the plan was, if you’ve never seen any of the shows, you’ll be able to watch Defenders and go, “Oh, I now know who this character is.” “Oh I see, Jessica Jones is the one that swears and drinks a lot,” and “Daredevil’s got this crisis of conscience,” and “Well, Luke seems like this really cool, solid guy that just keeps getting into bad situations,” and “Iron Fist is on this kind of hunt for who he is and how to save where he’s from.” With the intrigue, it’s of course great having Sigourney Weaver and her leading [the villainous organization] the Hand.

She’s my hero.
[Sighs.] Should we just take a moment? Sigourney.

I saw Ghostbusters at a very young age and Sigourney was always my favorite part. I know for most people it’s Bill Murray, but she hypnotized me.
She’s fantastic. For me it was Aliens, obviously. I had an older brother who was like, “We’re gonna see Aliens,” so I was like, “Oh, okay.” From a very early age, I’d seen this incredibly strong, powerful woman running this ship of people and fighting her way out of crisis and fighting these terrifying aliens. So when they said it was Sigourney Weaver, I was like, “Oh my goodness.” I met her at [New York] Comic-Con, which was when she got introduced, and it was fantastic. We started talking, and what was fantastic for me is one of her best friends is British, who’s an actress and director, Selina Cadell, and I happened to have directed Selina a couple of times and worked with her.

Conversation fodder, right there.
Thank God to Selina for that. No, it was great. I felt that we hit it off straight away. She is such a pro, she really cares about the character, she really cares about getting it right. She wanted to make sure that she was coming in to be part of the show, ’cause that’s the tricky thing. Each of these characters have their own distinct voice, and trying to bring them in with her as well, that was the juggle. That’s why I landed on this color palette for the world, so each of them had their own color palette that then moved together. She’s almost the palette cleanser, as it were.

I was gonna ask you about that.
Have you seen it?

Yes! Well, the first four episodes, which is what they sent us.
Okay, you’ve seen the first four, great.

What was your philosophy going into the color palette?
When I did Jessica Jones, I looked to Alias, the [comic] book [the show was based on]. I wasn’t really a comic-book reader and they said, “Hey, just take a look at the comics.” I sat down and I thought, “Oh, I’ll just flick through.” I read it from cover to cover in one sitting, and I thought the artwork was so impressive. It was just beautiful, it was sophisticated, and it was stylized and graphic, but they’re not saying ka-pow and things like that, which is what I was familiar with when I was a kid. I loved that feeling of J.J. and I loved the blues that they’d used in that, and I felt that she was a quite steely, abrasive character. I loved the idea of those steely gray blues, and that was her world.

And then I knew Daredevil was red. They’d made a play on that and I thought that worked really, really well. Luke Cage, I loved what they did with it, and I loved that some of their references were to those movies in the ’70s. I’m a huge fan of Shaft, French Connection, Serpico, all those movies, and anytime I can get a little bit of that ’70s vibe with the golds and the browns — I wanted to do that with Luke Cage. I’m actually staying in Harlem at the moment and Harlem’s got the brickwork, some of it’s really beautiful. Yellows and browns and you can be there on the street and it’s all of that texture and tone and palette.

With Iron Fist, with [the magic city of] K’un-Lun and everything else, the robes were green and his costume in the comic books was obviously green. I wanted to stay true to that, but make it grounded. So, for example, in Daredevil’s world, we didn’t have loads of red. It was sort of like neon lights would be red. In J.J.’s world, there was that steeliness, so that when you jumped from one to the other … it’s not like Traffic, which is that big reference. Soderbergh’s Traffic is where you jump.

From color to color in the washes with different characters.
Yeah, color to color. I wanted there to be a distinction between them, so that you knew which world you were in. When you’ve got so many characters in an episode and you’ve got to do a service to all of them, you want to make sure that when you land with them, you know where you are. So we had these train transitions that I came up with that took you from one part of New York City to another.

Right, you see quick montages of trains going by.
I really loved the idea of doing that, that the color palette would almost transition with the trains. We actually found the line, I can’t remember which line it is — I think it’s somewhere uptown — that we got the shots of a blue train and a red train. I was like, “Okay, this is gonna work.” The reason for it was to reestablish these characters, introduce them to people who didn’t know them so they felt comfortable with these worlds before they started coming together. And then, of course, the fun is when they meet. You’ve seen the first two, so I can say it, but when …

When Matt first walks in to meet Jessica?
Yeah, there’s a red door behind him in the blue world.

Ah, there you go.
[Luke Cage character] Misty is also there and wearing a tan-brown jacket, so each of them bring something from their own world into the room. The same way with Luke Cage and Iron Fist in episode two, you can see that sometimes they’re in a green light and then they get thrown into the sodium light, so we kept bouncing it around. Whoever within that scene had the upper hand, that’s where the lighting would land. It was just great fun to give it that visual and textural feel that made it really exciting, really visceral, and hopefully give a really strong impact whilst landing the characters so that you had a sense of, “I know where I am.” ’Cause if not, I was worried that flitting from one scene with Daredevil to Jessica to Luke to Sigourney, you might start to go, “Whoa, what is this?”

What was the hardest scene to pull off? What was the hardest one to nail in your episodes?
Some days, they all feel like they’re hard. Hmm, which one…

Was it the earthquake?
The earthquake stuff, in some ways, was pretty tough. I think the opening of the show was incredibly exciting to do in the tunnels with the swords, but there was a lot to do and it had water, so we were wet for the entire time.

Oh, fun.
It always looks great, the rain. Looks great, and then the crew after one day are like, “Seriously? Is it raining in this shot?” We’re like, “Yep, sorry.” We’re all drenched. That was pretty tough. But I guess the earthquake, and getting the right level of what it should feel like, what it should look like, what should drop off. Those things can look a bit hokey if you’re not careful, you know? A lot of it’s helped out in post by our brilliant VFX genius, John Kilshaw, but a lot of it’s in-camera. Pulling all these things with strings and making everything move, but that was a pretty difficult thing to pull off altogether. I suppose one of the other challenges was I wanted to do the courtroom scene in one shot with Daredevil.

Oh yeah, that is a single shot, isn’t it?
Because Charlie [Cox] is so good and just nails everything and completely understands the construct of a scene, I felt it was like a complete ballet. Because he often has those [one-shot] fights, I really wanted to do one in the courtroom, which they’d never done on the show. That was kinda tough to pull off ’cause everyone was like, “Have you not got the scene yet?” And I was like, “We haven’t got it yet.” You take a big risk. You rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and then you shoot frantically. So yeah, I’m sure there’s one in there that maybe was so difficult I’ve completely erased it from my memory, as you do.

Last thing: What’s it like to participate in a show that resonated with people as much as Jessica Jones did?
I’m incredibly proud of it. You can do good work all the time, but it doesn’t always land because of the Zeitgeist. What’s in, what’s out. That show just happened to come, I think, at the right time. I have to thank the lucky stars of the universe out there for making it land when it did, but I feel really proud of it because when I read the script, I felt that this had the potential to be something really special. I felt that it could be very grounded. Rather than it being about a superhero, I liked the idea that it was a woman that was flawed. I was attracted to the fact that this was a damaged superhero, that she had been mind-controlled — and if a woman’s been mind controlled by a man, you just imagine what would’ve gone on. I felt I had to do justice to that.

And thanks to Krysten [Ritter] being so utterly brilliant, she was able to mine from the character and display onto the screen those levels of damage, vulnerability, abrasiveness, toughness, harshness all mixed into one. She could just switch on a dime. When I said, “This is what I want to do,” I remember Jeph Loeb looking at my essay pitch, which I’d written, and all these screengrabs, and all these visual references. I said, “This is what Jessica Jones is.” I described exactly what I wanted it to be, how we were gonna tackle the sex, how we were gonna look at the visuals, and he just went, “Go make it.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Defenders Director S.J. Clarkson Talks Filming an Earthquake