Kari Skogland has directed a handful of movies that most people won’t have heard of — Men With Guns, Chicks With Sticks, Fifty Dead Men Walking, and more — but her career focus has rarely been on film. She’s worked on some of the most striking and notable TV shows of the last 30 years, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Queer As Folk, The L Word, Boardwalk Empire, The Borgias, Longmire, Vikings, House of Cards, and The Walking Dead. She’s also a film writer, a producer on shows like NOS4A2 and Sons of Liberty, and the CEO of her own production company, Mad Rabbit.
So it’s no surprise to see her taking directing duties on Disney Plus’ new Marvel Cinematic Universe series The Falcon and the Winter Solder, which seems likely to play out like a five-hour film over six episodes. She’s the kind of capable industry veteran who gets called in to pick up the reins on all sorts of series, though she tends toward drama and action, both of which are front and center in Falcon and Winter Soldier. Polygon recently jumped on a video chat with Skogland to talk about how she approached directing the series, and how she uses her camera placement to shape the series’ emotions.
Many of the action movies Skogland watched as inspirations for the show won’t come as a surprise to viewers: “I did a very deep dive into all kinds of films that seemed like they might be tonally offside, but they all teach me something,” she says. “We went to the obvious places, like Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Midnight Run, the list goes on.”
But Skogland also wanted the series to have a deeper emotional aspect than some of those slick ’80s movies, so she watched a lot of lower-key emotional dramas as well, from Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider to David Lean’s sprawling epics: “all these films that had uniqueness,” she says. “You have to train your synapses. You put it in a pot and stir it, and hopefully what comes out as you’re making decisions is something unique.”
She says one of the single biggest inspirations for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the French movie The Intouchables, about a rich quadriplegic who hires a young man from the projects as his caregiver. “I was very inspired by the vulnerability the characters showed,” Skogland says. “It’s a spectacular movie. I think that helped me feel secure in exploring some of the vulnerabilities with Bucky and Sam, that we could go down that road and really get inside them, and feel for them. Because their vulnerabilities actually made them stronger.”
Part of exploring those vulnerabilities had to do with camera placement: in scenes with Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the superhero Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie, the camera is generally further back, showing wide spaces and taking in Sam’s surroundings. “He has an expansive world,” she says.
But in scenes with the more troubled anti-hero Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan, the camera moves in uncomfortably close. “Bucky, I felt, is in a prison of his own making, and I wanted to convey that through framing. We did extreme close-ups of Bucky, where we’re kind of reading the inside of his brain. It’s a very extreme use of focus, of the focal plane. You can be at someone’s side, maybe behind them, and put the focal plane on just a part of his face, and that made us feel like we knew what he was thinking, we were in his thoughts.”
Skogland says Falcon and Winter Soldier is more of a character-based story than past Marvel movies, and that it focuses on men who are “two sides of the same coin, but still feel very different.” She says having six episodes to tell their story was an important part of building tension between them. “You start to root for the characters in a different way,” she says. “We get to see them without their suits on, and we get inside their lives, and it becomes very real-world. We get to ask and sometimes answer the questions that we don’t get to when we only have two hours to tell a story.”
The problem with a movie, she says, is that the characters are always in “world-saving mode,” so they don’t have time to address their personal lives, because that would feel like they “dropped the ball on the important things they’re supposed to be doing.”
Skogland says another enjoyable aspect of working on the show was making room for improvisation. She says Mackie and Stan are real-life friends who didn’t require much direction to play bantering rivals: “Believe me, they take care of it pretty much themselves. They are terrific together. We looked a lot at their interviews, the various press conferences they’ve been to, and I was very encouraged by what I saw. And part of what I had to do was just get out of their way and let them do what they do. A lot of it was improv and ad libs, because they’re just able to do that. I look at the script as a roadmap. It’s always malleable, it’s always something where you can find new ideas. And they’re very good at that.”
She also wanted to try new ways of dealing with action sequences than she had before, and address Falcon’s fighting style in new ways. “I did a very deep dive into extreme-sport videos,” she says. “Technology has changed, so I was able to embrace smaller cameras that we can slap on people, the GoPro of it all. I was able to jump into that world, which meant we could get coverage that we hadn’t really seen before. And we were able to hire a team that could do some extraordinary things in squirrel suits.”
“I wanted to see Falcon fly in a way we’ve never seen him fly before. The most important thing for me — with both of them, actually, but Anthony in particular — was that we were flying with them. That we really felt we were not looking at him, but flying with him. Same with the fight sequences, and the choreography, as much as possible.”
Inserting emotion into the action sequences is “quite complicated, ultimately,” she says, but was a necessary part of the story. “I wanted to feel the emotional charge in the fights, particularly for Bucky, who doesn’t want to fight. He’s coming from a place where that fight for him is over. So it was very important that we embrace that emotional space he’s in.”