11 Avengers: Age of Ultron – On Global Turf

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With the film in pre-production in London, the first order of business was a three-week shoot in Johannesburg, South Africa. The cityscape and surrounding areas would provide the backdrop for one of the biggest action sequences in the film involving Iron Man and The Hulk.

“Johannesburg has a very particular look and style to its architecture that I really liked,” says Joss Whedon. “It has very much its own rhythm, its own feel, its own tones, and there’s an earthiness to the way it looks. It is very different from the other locations we shot. You know immediately you’re not in North America.”

Setting up the sequence in the film, director Whedon relates, “The team has come to the coast of Africa to find Ultron and Scarlet Witch who has gotten to Banner and basically given him a nightmare experience so overwhelming that he becomes not just The Hulk but The Hulk Hulking out. He is completely out of control and he comes to the middle of the city almost by accident and then he’s just overwhelmed by noise, the lights and so many people. It’s not Super Hero Hulk; it’s a really scary version and as much as he’s fighting him, Iron Man is also making an effort to just get him out of the city and away from populated areas so he can put him down long enough to get Bruce back.”

Needing more firepower than just his usual Iron Man armor, Tony arrives in his newest piece of technology, aptly called the Hulkbuster suit. “The Hulkbuster is an iconic piece of Iron Man tech and it was always something that we would talk about for each ‘Iron Man’ film,” says Feige. “In ‘Iron Man 3’ our amazing team designed dozens of suits of armor and a few of them they designed as sort of an homage to the Hulkbuster suit, and at a certain point Joss said, ‘Forget the homage to the Hulkbuster suit, we’re going to do it in ‘Age of Ultron.’”

“The idea of Tony Stark in the Hulkbuster suit is a conflict that is fun for fans,” says Whedon. “It’s just a ‘duke-’em-out,’ like you don’t care situation, which is juxtaposed against the deep friendship between Tony and Banner. We learn in the movie that they built the Hulkbuster armor together in case something goes really wrong. So you have two guys who love each other, but have to just beat the crap out of each other and that’s what makes it such a unique sequence and not your typical ride. You know this is going to change their lives and the way they behave around each other. That’s the key through all of this because you always have to keep track of how does this make them different? Where is the emotional thread?”

“The Hulkbuster fight is one of the big action sequences in the film and is really an awesome spectacle,” says Kevin Feige. “An amazing action sequence, but it also is a best friend trying to beat down and stop his buddy. When we cut inside the HUD with shots of Tony we never lose sight of that. He’s constantly saying ‘Bruce, you’ve got to help me out here. Come back to your senses.’ Even as he’s literally punching the Hulk into the concrete. You can only have that type of action in a series of films where people are following along. People understand the dynamic between the characters and the humanity between their alter egos.”

For the filmmakers, pulling off the sequence required massive coordination between the local South African government and citizens of Johannesburg. “When you’re bringing a movie of this size, you need a government that’s going be welcoming, cooperative and give you the access to the city that you need. We looked all over Africa for this sequence and Johannesburg was clearly the place to be,” says Jeremy Latcham. “It had the look and access to the streets we needed. It was really film-friendly. In the downtown streets we flew helicopters, crashed cars and exploded massive pyrotechnics. It’s really exciting and nice to find governments that want filmmakers to come and show off their city and that’s what we have done and I think the people of Johannesburg are going to be thrilled to see their city well-represented up on the big screen.”

“I was told by our crew how happy they were that we shot in Johannesburg,” says Joss Whedon. “The government has been great, the city has been great and people have just opened their doors to us and we couldn’t have done it on this scale without that. We are so grateful because you really can’t capture a place like this unless you’re really there. I have to say the local background performers here were just so great and gave the same amount of energy running up and down the streets of the city take after take.”

Following the shoot in South Africa, the production’s first days of principal photography were in the Aosta Valley, Italy. Seldom seen in American films, the Aosta Valley (Val d’Aosta) is a mountainous, semiautonomous region in northwestern Italy. It is bordered by Rhône-Alpes, France, to the west, Valais, Switzerland, to the north and the region of Piedmont to the south and east. The Aosta Valley is the smallest of all Italian regions, but very well known all over the world for the major climbing routes that have made mountaineering history. The region also boasts many spectacular medieval castles and buildings. For the filmmakers, one historical edifice in particular would play an instrumental part in bringing the film to the region.

The edifice, dating back to the year 1000, was turned into Strucker’s stronghold for the opening of the film. “We have a massive aerial tie-in shot with the stronghold as the entire team of Avengers is raiding the place trying to find Loki’s scepter. Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Captain America and Thor are all in the sequences and it’s just a madhouse as they attack the stronghold to stop Strucker and his men.”

Latcham continues, “The search for Strucker’s stronghold started a year before production. We told our location manager that we need an impressive building that was in a region that hasn’t really been seen before. We wanted to open the movie in the snow and we wanted a big, beautiful, menacing edifice. We scoured the planet and sent out the locations team in a car all across Europe. They spent two months going to every single historical site that had a building on it.”

The production also shot in several other locations around the Aosta Valley, which would double as the fictitious Sokovia. Actors Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson kicked off the production with a bang as they did battle in Sokovia.

“Our first day in Italy we were shooting a segment of the end battle of the movie, which is how it goes in cinema sometimes,” laughs Jeremy Renner. “The Italian crew built wonderful sets and practical rocks falling and it was great for me because it made it much easier to jump right into a sequence when all of the elements were practical versus staring at a tennis ball on a green screen.”

The actor continues, “Shooting in practical locations just lets you trust what is going on and what you’re shooting an arrow at. When we were in Italy the town looked gritty and very Eastern European and then beyond that you could see the Alps and beautiful landscapes that were actually too beautiful. It’s funny because I think they’re actually going to have to green screen out the beautiful part of being in Italy and add in more war-torn backdrops to get the look of Sokovia.”

For Elizabeth Olsen, seeing the size and scope of the Italian production was very helpful as she stepped into her new Super Hero shoes. “The biggest benefit of working on these larger productions is that when you can step on set, they have the ability to take over the whole place,” says Olsen. “You’re really taking over someone’s hometown and making it look just totally wrecked and trashed. I felt bad about it when I’d see someone passing by who lives here and they look at all the destruction and mess like we were crazy.”

“When I first saw our final battle set in Italy, I did a 360 and went ‘Guys, this is the perfect set,’” exclaims Joss Whedon. “We had the perfect bridge, which we needed storywise, but more importantly everywhere is just beautiful. Every alleyway is just gorgeous, so we just had that freedom to point the camera in any direction. We wanted it to feel a little anarchy like you’re in the middle of a war, but it just seemed like everywhere I put the camera down I felt like, ‘Yes, shoot that!’”

The director continues, “It was so exhilarating and I think the actors fed off it really well. It’s not easy for these heroes. They’re going through an immense amount of stuff, and the thing that I wanted to inject in the film was it’s going to be a very different task here than in the first film. They’re very different environments, but still they’re integrated among the people so it’s not like: ‘I’m genetically superior, let’s fight!’ But instead it is, ‘There are people around this and they are why we even exist: to help.’”

With the production successfully completing its work in Italy, the production headed back to London. One of the first sets the production would shoot on was the massive set that would encompass the new Avengers Tower in New York City.

“In ‘The Avengers,’ the Helicarrier Bridge was probably the biggest set I’d ever stood on,” says Kevin Feige. “On this film the Avengers Tower set is much bigger. So much of the movie takes place there; it’s on so many different levels, it’s exposed to the outside, so you can see New York City; you can see a specific hangar for the Quinjet now.”

“Originally from the script, Joss wanted a big space because there was an awful lot of scenes we were going to shoot in it and there would be a lot of screen time spent in it,” says production designer Charles Wood. “If you’re shooting over 25 days on the same set you need to come up with something where you have multiple environments within the set. We wanted it all to be connected, but we also wanted to be able to move from downstairs to upstairs and vice versa. Have lots of different fighting platforms, and also have a beautiful view over the city of New York. That’s why we built the big glass piece on the front of it, which was very fluid, based on simple curves, because we looked at the whole engineering aspect of it and tried to incorporate some architectural elements that you see in modern buildings of today.”

Befittingly, the Quinjet got a new look to go with its high-end hangar. The redesigned Quinjet has a more militaristic look this time around and the pilots are now able to have a good look at the environment around them while flying. The design of the canopy was based on a helicopter cockpit with glass in front and below, which will give audiences a tremendous sense of speed when the Quinjet is flying through city airspace. The interior has been stripped down to a more utilitarian, sleek space as well, with many of the luxurious finishes and padding removed for an edgier look.

The actors also appreciate being able to work in real practical environments on such a grand scale. “The Avengers Tower was just so massive and it was on the scale of being in a real mansion and the details and thought that went into it really just blows your mind,” says Elizabeth Olsen. “It was definitely the coolest set I’ve ever seen and I am also a huge fan of being able to transform live places into worlds and they really nailed this one.”

“It was an incredible set,” says Chris Hemsworth. “It is was one of the most impressive sets I’ve ever been on. It’s Tony Stark’s house so it had to be big, high-tech and flashy and it was. It was also the first set that the entire group shot on together so it was nice to be in that kind of setting, to shoot the party scene there and all of us be together and catch up.”

While the set was amazing, the flooring on the set became a bit of a challenge for the actors after many of the big stunt sequences left. “I walked on the set for the first time and I said, ‘Wow, this is really impressive,’” says Robert Downey Jr. “But then as we went along somehow it wasn’t factored in what would happen when all of the candy glass from the action sequences got ground into the floor. It basically became a futuristic ice rink and that was almost impossible to navigate. The floors looked so beautiful, but were so slippery that it added unforeseen amount of excitement and danger to walking three steps. It also made everyone a much better dancer.”

“Avengers Tower is one of the most beautiful sets I’ve had the privilege to work on,” says Joss Whedon. “Charles Wood did such a beautiful job and it was some of the best production design I’ve ever seen. It made me crazy at times, because the space is so big and the lighting becomes very general because there’s only so much you can do. But it really looks amazing on film and it gave me so many options that I could point the camera and let scenes play out without having to figure out how to cheat things so much.”

It was also on the massive set that The Avengers would get the first look at Ultron, who crashes The Avengers party and unleashes his fury on the team. The scene also marked the first time that any of the actors had been on set with James Spader performing as Ultron. “When James showed up on set for the first day, he had this tracking suit on and a metal ring with a big light a few feet above his head so that the other actors knew where they should look,” explains Chris Evans. “As ridiculous as he looked in person, he was just so powerful and that is one great actor who can captivate all of us looking like that.”

“For me one of the things that’s interesting about playing Ultron is that the character is actually a metallic structure, but they incorporate certain facial gestures of mine into the character,” says James Spader. “Ultron evolves during the course of the film to the point where funny enough, he tries to delineate himself quite distinctly from being a man as opposed to a creation. He’s moving more and more towards that and taking more of a human physicality and articulation of body and movement. That was one of the characteristics that came up in the very first conversation I had with Joss. ‘What will be my contribution?’ ‘Is it just the voice?’ He said to me ‘It’s really as much or as little as you care for and as much as your schedule allows.’ So I told him when I do a film or anything, I’m all in!”

“The character of Ultron was one of the first times on any film where I had really no idea what that character was going to look like and how that performance was going to be played out,” says Chris Hemsworth. “But the first time I saw James perform in character, it just all made sense. The writing is all very tricky in terms of his speech cadences and rhythms. He also has sarcasm and irony to him yet is highly intelligent. It’s a beautiful mix and I remember the first time he came on set and did this big monologue and when he was done we all just sort of applauded and forgot our lines because we were so captivated by what he was doing.”

“Normally with a character like this you could just have like a tennis ball on a C-stand and the first AD reads the dialogue and you kind of react to it,” adds Mark Ruffalo. “It was amazing to have James do all of the character’s dialogue because when you start watching him and see the character come to life you just feel like, ‘You’re so wonderful and amazing,’ instead of being like, ‘Who is this guy? Is he a bad guy? What’s happening?’ He was just so captivating and you could see the layers getting built in the performance. I think when you start with somebody like James Spader, it’s already so elevated, and fans are really going to love this character.”

Shooting scenes in Seoul, South Korea, was up next for the filmmakers and marked the first time a big American production has shot in the capital city. South Korea has a rapidly growing Marvel fan base and according to executive producer Louis D’Esposito, “South Korea has become one of the top markets overseas.” He adds, “When ‘The Avengers’ came out there the market just really exploded and it has been growing exponentially ever since. In keeping with the mantra of shooting in locations and countries that you haven’t seen much on the big screen, Seoul fit the bill perfectly as you really haven’t seen it in the way this film is going to showcase it.”

“Seoul is a very cutting-edge city in real life and is a technologically driven society and they love the notion of us coming to their city and showcasing that,” says Kevin Feige. “They were incredibly gracious and gave us unprecedented access to the city and areas that had never been shot in before.”

One such location was the Mapo Bridge, which crosses the Han River in South Korea and connects the Mapo District and the Yeongdeungpo District. The bridge would be the backdrop for a sequence in which Captain America is chasing down and climbing onto the back and roof of an 18-wheel truck from his motorcycle. In order to shoot the sequence, the production shut down the one-mile-long bridge. It was the first time the bridge had ever been shut down completely.

“The amazing thing about Seoul is that there are hundreds of different bridges in the city and not one of them looks the same,” explains second unit director John Mahaffie. “We had amazing cooperation from the city of Seoul, and we found out we had been cleared to film on Mapo Bridge, which was quite exciting. It’s a 10-lane bridge, one of the widest, longest bridges in Seoul and they very graciously allowed us to shut down both sides of the whole bridge to stage this action, which was just fantastic.”

Another unique asset to the production was the use of drones and remote control cars to put the camera in places that could never be achieved by camera operators or helicopters. The production enlisted the expertise of brothers Menstru Pa, who is the Korean National Champion in drone flying, and Pak Min Keu, who is the Korean National Champion in remote car racing.

“The camera drones were amazing,” says executive producer Patricia Whitcher. “They’re just beginning to become a tool that we can use in filmmaking because in many countries you’re not allowed to use them for some safety regulations. The advantage of the drone is that you can really get a drone much closer to the action than you can a helicopter and it’s just less invasive and dangerous. In many ways it is much more flexible and is much less expensive. Menstru Pa was so talented and anything we ever asked him to do with the drone he nailed it every time.”

Whitcher continues, “We also had a remote control car operator, Pak Min Keu, who was his brother, and he operated the small remote control car that we mounted a camera on and he zipped it through the traffic, under cars and trucks. It allowed us to shoot chase sequences like I have never seen before. He had nerves of steel because he had a very expensive camera mounted on the remote control car and he was able to maneuver it so close to the action and never once missed a beat or messed up a take.”

The production shot in many locations, including Digital City, Gangnam, K1 University, Mapo Bridge and on rooftops in Namsam. To pull off all these sequences, the production relied on a massive production team that included both local Koreans and Americans working together.

“There’s a lot of prep work involved with the locals because we have to explain to everybody exactly what we want to do and how it’s going to be done,” says Mahaffie. “South Korea has never seen a film of this stature being filmed in its country and some of the challenges and stunts that we’re trying to achieve involve really detailed information going across all the different people, the locals, the police and the government. They’re fully behind us and it was just fantastic.”

The intense interest in the Marvel brand was in full effect when actor Chris Evans arrived to shoot his scenes. “Chris Evans is a massive star in South Korea and was in the hit Korean film ‘Snowpiercer,’” says Jeremy Latcham. “They’re also really big fans of our movies, so when he arrived at the airport there were thousands of fans that showed up to see him. It was also the case during production in Korea as thousands of people lined up on the streets there to watch it and were very excited about it.”

“The South Koreans are very enthusiastic fans,” says Chris Evans. “I don’t know enough about the local culture to understand their history or connection with comic books, but Marvel films are so popular here. It’s also really nice to be here because they’re so welcoming and they let us take over their streets for a few weeks and were so gracious and supportive of the shoot.”

The South Korean shoot was also very meaningful for Korean actress Claudia Kim who grew up in Seoul and plays Dr. Helen Cho in the film. “I remember telling Joss Whedon that whether or not I get the role, I’m so excited and so proud as a Korean that you’re shooting in the country,” says Kim. “Growing up here I don’t ever remember a film of this magnitude being shot here. I think it’s so meaningful for us as a country. Korea has always had a reputation for its massive growth, but I really feel Korea’s still developing and it’s really nice that it will be highlighted forever on film in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron.’”

Shooting an epic final battle scene is always one of the biggest challenges on a Marvel film. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron” the final battle sequence would be shot in multiple locations, including Italy and on location outside of London. Finding a location around London that could match the war-torn streets of Sokovia was not an easy task for the production, as it needed a big outdoor space that could house the entire production for three weeks and still be secure from paparazzi. The production struck gold when it found a government facility that had everything it needed.

“I think it’s safe to say this is probably one of the best locations a major motion picture has ever secured,” says Louis D’Esposito. “It had five big towers all in one massive compound. It’s just this massive place that we’ve redressed with the help of our production design team and turned into the town of Sokovia that we shot in Italy. The cars, the signs, the set dressing give it this authentic Eastern Europe feel. Our production designer Charles Wood also built this wonderful church and we’ve been able to run the drone up and down the set to capture every angle.”

Jeremy Latcham adds, “The set was on such a massive scale and we had access to the whole thing. So we sent the storyboard artists, we sent the visual effects guys and they built the set in the computer and we knew exactly where the cameras could go, exactly where the explosions would take place and we just start piecing the whole sequence together when we showed up for our 17 days shooting. It was big action, stunts and excitement. It’s just such a great canvas to kind of tell this big, massive Avengers story.”

“The facility was an existing location that fit extremely well into that sort of slightly post-communist type look that we had found in certain areas in Italy,” adds production designer Charles Wood. “Joss again is extremely flexible and we knew we needed certain elements: a bridge environment, a church and a market square, and very quickly we realized it actually worked incredibly well and it gave us a lot more room for action beats in the film that we may not have got in any other location.”

For director Whedon, the set was everything he could have hoped for when he wrote the screenplay. “There was real sense of a community that we were able to create on this production. The production crew was amazing and the church that Charles Wood built was just so beautiful. Shooting The Avengers in that church was some of the best visceral comic book stuff I’ve ever shot, and everybody was so great. The stunt team and the actors themselves really brought so much to it. It’s just a different look than I’m used to seeing and when you get the whole group fighting practically it makes it very visceral and exciting.”

“The finale of this film is bigger than anything we’ve ever done at Marvel Studios and will dwarf the finale of the first film,” informs Kevin Feige. “We hope it excites people, but we are cautious to give the impression that it was the goal to make it bigger. To a certain extent you can’t go bigger after a certain point and we thought we couldn’t go bigger, which is why we spent so much time on the character relationships and story arcs, which does take up a good chunk of the film. But the final 10 percent of the movie is a finale the likes of which I don’t think anybody’s ever seen in a film before, which is incredibly exciting.”

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