Meet Filmmaker Ryan Fleck
Berkeley-born filmmaker Ryan Fleck jumps into the superhero genre with Captain Marvel.
Ryan Fleck (left, with actor Ben Mendelsohn and codirector Anna Boden) on the Captain Marvel set.
Photos courtesy of Marvel Studios, Chuck Zlotnick
Ryan Fleck has built a solid résumé as the codirector and cowriter of several small, character-driven films such as Sugar, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Mississippi Grind. For his latest project—the hotly anticipated Captain Marvel—Fleck and his creative partner, Anna Boden, stretched their artistic canvas exponentially to deliver the first female-led superhero movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Diablo caught up with the Berkeley native to talk about his experience making a bona fide big-budget blockbuster.
Q: Were you influenced by comic books as a kid?
A: Only when I was really little. My dad had some Star Wars comics, which was strange because that was a movie first. He also had Tom Sawyer … and a [comics] collection from when he was a kid in the ’50s. So he would read me a bunch of them. I liked some of the hero stuff, but it never really took off for me until I got this job. Now I’m into them. [Laughs.]
Q: If Captain Marvel had come out when you were growing up, where would you have gone to see it?
A: I spent most of my time going to movies in Berkeley. My favorite place was the UC Theatre, which had a monthly calendar. I would put it on the wall and circle all these old, great double features. But one of the neighboring theaters on Shattuck would have [shown] Captain Marvel.
Q: You and Anna have made a series of smaller, independent films. What was it like to create a story on this massive scale?
A: [Captain Marvel] is massive, that is true, but we have tried to hold on to our storytelling skills, the same as our other movies. We ask, “Who is this character? What do they want? What is their arc?” We laser-focus in on those questions, and try to bring out the humanity, the vulnerability, and the complexities of that human experience. It’s no different here—even though we are not just dealing with the human experience but the intergalactic, universal experience.
Q: Captain Marvel’s protagonist is new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet she needs to interact with existing characters in that universe. When you wrote this story, how did you reconcile the new elements with the older ones?
A: The movie is set in the 1990s, so this is pre–Iron Man. … [Captain Marvel’s hero,] Carol Danvers, is really the first superhero in this world. We needed to be true to what would have been going on in the ’90s in the other stories. … The producers were helpful in reminding us what the larger impact [of our story] would be within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Q: What did you learn about filmmaking while making this movie?
A: Learning [about] visual effects was huge. It was like getting a scholarship to Marvel University. We were constantly saying, “Whoa! That’s how they do that!”
Specifically, [it was] knowing that anything is possible. We could shoot the movie, and then be in the edit room and ask, “What if this character was on the other side of the room? What if that wall wasn’t there?” … Time was the only limiting factor. We have a March 8 release date, and that was the only limitation on what was possible in the movie. We definitely pushed those limits right to the end.
Q: Are you worried about the reaction from the Marvel fan base, which has a reputation for being quite demanding about these movies?
A: [Laughs.] I don’t think we are quite ready for that yet. Thankfully, we have been protected from fan reaction at this point.
Q: I loved your film 2015 film, Mississippi Grind, which starred Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn is also in Captain Marvel. What was it like directing him in a character drama, then bringing him back as a superhero villain?
A: Ben comes on the set as a wild animal no matter what role he is playing. It’s what I love about him: Every take is different. … He surprises you. You can try and steer him one way, and he will start doing the opposite and make you rethink the whole thing. That’s when the job becomes really fun—when you see actors do things that are unexpected and they don’t fall into a pattern. For this movie, it’s particularly fun because he’s in a lot of prosthetic makeup and he really leaned into that.
Q: Captain Marvel stars a number of other renowned actors, including Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. What was it like directing them?
A: All the actors are such huge collaborators. I mean, Sam Jackson is a legend. … In the mid-’90s, I saw Pulp Fiction in Berkeley at [one of] those theaters we were just talking about. And 25 years later I’m on set with him, directing him, and [hearing] stories about what it was like shooting that movie. It was surreal and awesome.
Captain Marvel hits theaters on International Women’s Day, March 8.