How 'The Falcon And The Winter Soldier' Director Kari Skogland Found New Ways To Shoot Superhero Action [Interview]

Even if you don't know her name, chances are strong you've seen the work of director Kari Skogland. Specifically, if you've been keeping up with high profile peak TV over the past decade, you've seen her output. Skogland has directed episodes of The Handmaid's Tale, The Walking Dead, The Americans, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and so much more. Hell, she even directed an episode of The Punisher for Netflix, from an era when Marvel's TV shows didn't live on Disney+ and didn't have such a direct connection to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her filmography is a tour of sleek and stylish water cooler television.

With that level of experience under her belt, Skogland seems like a natural fit for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel's explosive buddy action series starring Captain America's two best buds. In conversation, you can see why she landed the gig – she knows what makes these characters interesting and knows just where to put the camera to emphasize their specific sets of skills.

I spoke to Skogland over Zoom after watching the first episode of the new series, which leans just as heavily on character development and Marvel world-building as it does on explosive action. But first, I had to ask: how exactly does one land a Marvel gig?

How did you enter the Marvel universe? Were you a fan of the movies, or did they seek you out because of your TV experience? How did this all get rolling?

A little bit of all of that. Definitely a big, huge fan, but never thought in a million years that I would be chosen to be directing certainly this wonderful story. So I was thrilled when I got the call. We had met on a couple projects, and this is the one where I guess I ticked all their boxes. So I was thrilled to be able to tell this particular story.

When you first started having those conversations, was it always going to be one director for the whole series? When did you realize you were going to do the whole thing?

At the beginning. We approached it like a movie, so from the get-go, that was the goal. To have a consistency and a directorial authorship and I was absolutely up for it. Obviously it's not a sprint. You have to have the fortitude to go the distance, and I had done it before, so it wasn't my first time authoring a six-parter. I really enjoy that, and I think also perhaps my enthusiasm for it. Truthfully, I think it was always intended, because it meant that the character development, the story development, all of that could be single-minded and have not just an authorship, but a signature, both for [showrunner] Malcolm [Spellman] and myself. So it became an organic way to tell a six-hour movie.

So what's the conversation like between you and Malcolm Spellman when you're making decisions? What's the dynamic like between you and him on the actual set?

Well, the set is kind of my domain, and the writers' room is kind of his domain. So once we were up and rolling and on set, he was back in the writers' room doing the tweaks and whatever additional – because every day, we of course would look at a scene and do what we could do to make it better, or make it informed by the scene yesterday. So lots of dialogue back and forth. But the set was pretty much myself, and the conversations were Zoom and phone and that kind of thing.

I'm glad you brought up the one long movie approach. This is actually a controversial thing among some TV fans: the idea of a series telling one long story instead of being purely episodic. How do you walk that line as a filmmaker, making sure each episode is contained enough to get you hooked, but also to tell the next chapter of the story? Are there tricks of the trade you've learned to walk that line between, yes, this is one long story, but each chapter has to be as satisfying as possible?

Yeah, well, what you're basically doing is saying, "First act, second act, [etc.]," structurally, it's just six hours versus two. Two is an arbitrary number. Three is an arbitrary number. Six is an arbitrary number. Whatever it is, you can still do a structure that is a three-act paradigm. Then within that, of course, you have, as you said, chapters. So if episodes one and two are the first act, then you can easily figure out what your mid-act turn is, and so on. So you're still sort of doing the same thing. Because when you break down even a scene, it's a three-act structure, right? So everything has a structure within a structure within a structure. So it's not that difficult to apply that global idea to any number of hours, and then within that you target accordingly, and obviously, you make your cliffs at big turns, so you're left with a cliffhanger.

As you know, I've only seen the first episode so far, so I have to be limited in what I can ask you about, but I was noticing how you film each of the two title characters in very specific ways. For example, Bucky is filmed in a lot of claustrophobic close-ups, like it was really honing in on how trapped he feels. Can you talk about in these dramatic scenes, the choices you make as a filmmaker to portray both Sam and Bucky in different ways? 

Great, I'm glad you thought that. Thank you very much for noticing. Yes, it was a combination of allowing the camera to be part of the perspective, of who's perspective we're in. You might have also noticed that I did a lot of work with focal plane and where that focal plane sat. So typically, if you're looking at something, it's in focus. But what if I want to be in his head? Then I would switch the focal plane to be in the foreground focus, versus including the background. But with Sam, we talked earlier about the GoPro idea in this great opening action sequence. I wanted to capture being with the character. I did a lot of research in what's on the web, and these sort of action groups that go out and tackle jumping out of planes with parachutes in squirrel suits or whatever and slap cameras all over themselves, and that's informed an audience about how to look at an action sequence differently. So I wanted the audience to feel it like we were doing it, like they're not used to seeing.

So similarly with Bucky, there's a two-hander scene that's gotta go inside his head and really set him up as a character and make us feel what it is that he's going to go through. That had to be very intimate in a different kind of dynamic. Yet, much like the action sequence, tell us volumes. So I chose the camera angles and being really inside his head as a way for us to get to know him. Then, of course, his action sequence within that gets a lot of fun because it's sort of got a slightly ironic tone to it.

We like these characters from the Marvel movies, but they were always supporting characters and now we're seeing them really taking center stage. I'm assuming Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie come to this project with a certain idea of how to play these characters. But this is the first time we're learning so much more about them. What kind of conversations do you have on set where they know who the characters are, but did they ever need a boost from you to push them further into the spotlight?

Of course. I feel like we're very much collaborators in an actor/director relationship. Their job is to really know their character inside and out and explore and push the envelope. I'm there to support that and give them ideas. Obviously I come in with a preconceived idea of where we're going, and I have the global picture in my head. But I very much encourage and embrace their input. Because I feel like every department – the costume designer is a better costume designer than I am, you know? The production designer is a better production designer than I am. Anthony Mackie is better at being Sam Wilson than I am. So I embrace his ideas. He and Sebastian and all the actors were very, very proactive and thoughtful about what that character – because we got to get to know them differently – what that character is, who they will become, and they allowed the path of discovery to happen. In a situation like that, one of the things you have to steer clear from is rigidity. You want it to be a moving bowl of Jello without the bowl.

I'm curious if there was a distinct difference between directing this and directing the episode of The Punisher, which was under a previous iteration of Marvel. How different was it, knowing that you're so closely tied to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe now?

Well, that was a very, very different – that was a whole different group of people. It was miles apart. But Jon Berenthal is a lovely gentleman, and I really found him to be a delight to work with, similar to Anthony and Sebastian. Such a pro and such a nice man. These are people that I would love working with on any project they do.


The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premieres on March 19, 2021 on Disney +.