In the Albuquerque, New Mexico desert sits an abandoned train depot disguised as a bruised and beaten New York City. There, among the charred debris, overturned taxi cabs and craft service tables is actor Jeremy Renner, hunched over, sweating and gasping for breath.
Forgive the man for being a bit winded -- he just spent the last 30 minutes or so fighting off a group of staff-wielding extras dressed in motion capture suits. The warehouse, rank with fumes and dust, is an inhospitable place for any person, let alone one currently in the midst of shooting a scene from the upcoming superhero epic, "The Avengers."
As Renner looks up, he spies something even more disturbing -- he spies, well, us: A pack of entertainment journalists who've been invited to witness what may or may not be the most important release in comic-book movie history being made.
Yet, despite spending the previous 24 hours meeting and interviewing the film's stars, speaking with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, and visiting several sets, we knew almost nothing about the plot. We'd managed to hunt down bits and pieces; educated guesses culled from the Internet or the time we spent desperately trying to suck information from the cast and crew - but that was it.
Therefore, when Renner completed his escapade -- battling unidentifiable aliens, then stabbing one in the neck with an arrow -- most seemed pleased with the result. Did it give us any more information about the actual story? No, not really. But that didn't matter. Like the "Avengers" trailers and posters, this scene was a fanboy's wet dream -- 100 percent pure unadulterated geek awesomeness.
Some filmmakers today are obsessed with keeping their projects absolutely top-secret. And, to be honest, it's hard to blame them. When every magazine, newspaper, blog, Twitter feed and carrier pigeon is willing to post anything that even remotely resembles a spoiler, you try to close off the leak. (This is why J.J. Abrams recently built a giant wall around the set of "Star Trek 2.")
During my stay in New Mexico, I had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Clark Gregg, and Joss Whedon. They were all gracious, pleasant and talkative hosts. However, getting them to say anything remotely resembling the storyline was like dealing with a well-oiled politician who lightly tiptoes around the issue then quickly changes the topic.
Q: What can we expect from Chris Hemsworth's character, Thor, in this movie?
Chris Hemsworth: We end "Thor" with him certainly matured from where he was in the beginning of the film and ready for that next stage... [turns to the Marvel publicist and asks] I am just wondering, how much am I allowed to say?"
Q: So where is Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) in this film as opposed to the last one?
Clark Gregg: I forgot what a tightrope act this is ... Coulson is, in my mind, kind of a cross between the world's most persistent bureaucrat, a secret ninja assassin, and the guy who kind of wrangles the rock stars at Lollapalooza [turns to the Marvel publicist and asks] Am I allowed to say any of this stuff?
On and on this grand dance continued. There was Hiddleston (Loki), who joked about "sniper rifles" being aimed at his head in case he accidentally spilled secrets to the press, and Evans (Captain America), who didn't "want to give anything away" about a possible scene where Thor's hammer hits Cap's shield.
Clearly, finding details out about "The Avengers" was going to be harder than I first assumed.
The journey of "The Avengers" began, at least for movie audiences, during the post-credits scene in 2008's "Iron Man," when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury approached RDJ's Tony Stark about the "Avengers Initiative." (When we first arrived at the Albuquerque Studios lot, there was a parking spot reserved for Tony Stark, which made perfect sense: The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with him.)
The general storyline for the movie features Fury attempting to coral a group of larger-than-life heroes -- Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye. -- to fight the god Loki as he attempts to conquer the human race. (Somehow, the Cosmic Cube, a very powerful device that has appeared in both "Thor" and "Captain America" films, also plays into the plot.)
The thing is, Marvel didn't plan on making this movie the be-all, end-all of superhero flicks. After all, "Iron Man 3" and "Thor 2" are already in the works. This makes a project like "The Avengers" all the more difficult: The film must be able to stand on its own and further the journey of each character.
"It's Vulcan chess, there's just so many things," explained writer/director Joss Whedon. "There's a ripple effect on everything you do."
Whedon - best known for his work on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and the upcoming horror/sci-fi flick "The Cabin in the Woods" -- is a huge comic book fan. He's read these stories since he was 11, which makes the journey of creating a new one all the more exciting for him.
However, to help ease the task of writing something this massive, Joss used a collaborative script-writing process: He handed first drafts to his actors, then sat down with them to gauge their reactions. Although Whedon was vague on what he and each of the stars spoke about, he did have one funny anecdote, regarding Samuel L. Jackson and his character, S.H.I.E.L.D leader Nick Fury.
He asked Jackson, "Is there anything you're looking for or anything you particularly want to avoid?" Jackson's response: "Thank you for asking. I don't want to run."
This back-and-forth process with the "superheroes" is perhaps why they were all happy to discuss how mind-blowing the script is.
"He's a very confident writer; he's really collaborative, and I've seen him be that way with a lot of the actors," Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/the Hulk) said of Joss. "I think the script is in really good shape."
Downey echoed similar sentiments. "It's just a really good story that could've been done a hundred ways wrong -- don't act surprised at how unpredictable it is."
Ensemble movies are rare. Even rarer are ones where the writer is more than happy to gauge his stars' reaction while he's crafting the script.
Eventually, our group was able to see some of that dialogue in action: a scene where Captain America and Tony Stark fight over a character's recent death. As we sat at the other end of the warehouse, listening in on headphones, we frantically wrote everything they said.
Captain America: Was he married?
Tony Stark: No, just a cellist.
Captain America: Sorry, he seemed like a good man.
Tony Stark: He was an idiot
Captain America: He was doing his job.
Tony Stark: For taking Loki alone, he was out of his league.
Captain America: Is this the first time you've lost a soldier?
Tony Stark: We are not soldiers! I am not marching in Fury's fight.
Captain America: Neither am I. He's got the same blood on his hands as Loki. Right now we've got to put that aside and get this done.
The scene was pretty sharp. However, someone in the movie had died, but whom? Is it a hero? Hawkeye? The Hulk? Black Widow? Tell us! (Joss later spoke about the difficulty of not being able to necessarily kill any of the main characters off: "Ultimately, the answer is always what's at stake has to be more than their lives. It has to be something bigger externally and smaller internally like they have to be going through an internal struggle that matches what they are facing on the outside.")
After filming, Evans and Downey sat down and spoke about what had just transpired. Predictably, the two were tight-lipped.
Q: Everyone wants to know, who's the "good man" who was dating a cellist?
Downey Jr.: Yeah, who is that?
Evans: I heard that's something we can't touch.
Downey Jr.: ...or somebody's gonna die!
Sigh. Well, it was worth asking, wasn't it?
Regardless, RDJ was nice enough to give us a few hints about the story.
"Obviously, there's only one person who's name is Captain ... I mean, this is essentially a war we're trying to avert. So that's really valuable," said Downey Jr., seemingly alluding to the fact that the film will be told through Captain America's point of view.
Meanwhile, Evans discussed the friction that will inevitably result from a group of alpha males trying to work together to save humanity.
"Even though Tony is kinda flash[y] ... he's still a hero. He's still a good man. It just takes the duration of the film to see eye-to-eye and see that in one another."
By pairing two sets of actors -- Evans and Downey, Johansson and Renner -- together during our interviews, we got a preview of the type of chemistry and camaraderie that had occurred on-set. It first happened with Chris and RDJ. Later, it was ScarJo and Jeremy -- particularly when the two began arguing over which hero has the most uncomfortable costume.
Renner: We definitely have it the easiest, I think.
Johansson: I don't think that's ... speak for yourself!
Renner: I was going to say that I have it easier than you because of your hair.
Johansson: Nope. My hair? What about my hair?
Renner: You have to do hair every day.
Johansson: That's a girl thing. That has nothing to do with being a superhero. I'm talking about that it's, like, 800 degrees in my costume ... and it's a unitard, and I have nothing underneath it!
During our second day on set, we finally got the "scoop" we had come for. After leaving Renner at the abandoned train depot and returning to Albuquerque Studios, Marvel Studios President, Kevin Feige, showed us around the art department. Unfortunately, we were explicitly told that we could not write notes or record anything while we were walking through it.
Afterward, I quickly scribbled down as much as I could remember, and combined it with several tidbits we had picked up along the way.
There is a random shack in the middle of Calcutta, where Bruce Banner is holed up; a tree-covered mountaintop, where Thor, Iron Man and Captain America go toe-to-toe; a scene where Thor swings his hammer at Cap's shield; Cap's house in Brooklyn; the Wishbone Lab where Loki is experimented on, possibly by scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard); Iron Man, without his mask, falling from a skyscraper; and, lastly, the top of the Chrysler Building being struck by lightening.
Answers! (Well, at least, some answers.) Eventually, most of these designs came to life when the official "Avengers" trailer hit the Internet.
Last up was our chat with Marvel newcomer, Mark Ruffalo.
This is the first time Ruffalo will be playing the role of Bruce Banner. (Ruffalo is taking over the role that Edward Norton originated in 2008 -- Eric Bana's 2003 version of the character is unrelated to this story.)
We had already come across some Hulk set pieces earlier in the visit, when we were shown around the Helicarrier containment chamber. Safeguarded by S.H.I.E.L.D fingerprint scanners, the enclosed space is presumably used to house the loose cannon Banner, just in case he decides to go all mean-green on the crew. (We later learned that the chamber would eventually be dropped out of the ship. However, the Hulk would not be the one in it at the time.)
During our conversation, the Oscar-nominated Ruffalo was genuinely excited, but also a bit anxious to be taking on the role: "I made the mistake of going online once and reading the fanboys' take on my playing Hulk and it was not encouraging."
However, the actor was in good spirits. We spoke about his work with the motion-capture suits, and him studying the movement of gorillas when it came to researching the role.
Then, at one point, he came very close to showing us what his incarnation of the Hulk was going to look like. (Keep in mind, this was months before the trailer debuted.)
"I've seen an awesome representation. Here, I can show it to you guys, but you can't take a picture of it. Alright, I'll do it really fast," he said, adding, " I'm the loose cannon of the Marvel family."
Our eyes were all turned to Ruffalo, as he began looking for the Hulk photo that was saved in his phone.
This was it! We were finally getting some unfiltered spoilers from one of the film's main stars.
But soon after, the Marvel publicist walked into the trailer and told Mark not to show it. A predictable, but no less frustrating, groan filled the room.
Foiled, once again.
Despite the explosive teasers, the multi-million-dollar merchandising and the behind-the-scenes set visit, Marvel is still trying to keep this movie under wraps. For now, we're just going to have to wait to see the film - and I suppose that's the point.
"Marvel's The Avengers" hits theaters on May 4.
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