Why ‘Black Widow’ Writer Eric Pearson Felt Post-Credits Scene Guilt – Hollywood Reporter

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[This story contains spoilers for Black Widow.]

Sometimes a screenwriter will sit down at a movie premiere and watch a film that doesn’t truly reflect their work. That’s not the case for Marvel veteran Eric Pearson, who has been fortunate to be intimately involved on projects such as Thor: Ragnarok and Black Widow, where he spent time on set and at rehearsals, which allowed him to better write for stars Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz.

At one point, Pearson found himself at a dinner table with the four leads, each of them shouting out ideas for the film’s pivotal family reunion scene. Pearson went off to write, and when he returned, filmmaker Cate Shortland asked him to act his ideas out in front of the cast — a nerve-wracking proposition for someone who doesn’t consider himself a good actor. This wasn’t the only time the writer had to act on set. In another instance, Pearson actually read lines in place of  O-T Fagbenle (Mason) who was sick the day the team shot the moment in which Mason and Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff argue over how to pronounce Budapest. (Fagbenle shot his end later.)

Though Pearson is entrenched in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even he isn’t granted all the keys to the kingdom. When he wrote a post-credits scene involving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Pearson wasn’t told where the MCU would go after Yelena (Pugh) is handed her next target: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.

“I was like, ‘Who am I screwing over? Something is going on! I don’t have an answer for this,’” Pearson tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh. “They were like, ‘You don’t need to. We are going to figure that out.’ I remember writing it and feeling super guilty. ‘I hope whatever writer is working on this next chapter is going to be OK with what I’ve done to them.’”

Pearson is riding high this year after co-writing the Warner Bros. and Legendary hit Godzilla vs. Kong. He came up as part of Marvel Studios’ Writers Program and went on to work on ABC’s Agent Carter and also performed uncredited work on Ant-Man and Avengers: Infinity War, among others. Those who work with Pearson are quick to highlight his ability to combine humor and heart. (The same guy who wrote the quips in Ragnarok penned Pugh’s heartbreaking dinner table realization.)

“He’s an amazing screenwriter,” Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige told THR at a Black Widow fan event premiere in Los Angeles in June. “He brings both humor, stakes and emotion, which you need in Marvel. I look forward to many more with Mr. Pearson.”

Pearson is credited as sole screenwriter on the Widow script, based on a story by WandaVision head writer Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson. In a conversation with THR, Pearson dives deep into the world of Black Widow, including the Taskmaster reveal and the moment at the premiere that had him sweating bullets.

What elements were in place when you joined this movie? Was there a board of characters you can choose from?

There were some ideas in place when I got there, including the family dynamic. I knew that Ross [William Hurt] was going to have to be involved. He is the one who chases her out in Civil War, onto the run. We knew Yelena Belova was going to be in there. Alexei Shostakov.

Scarlett is the first Avenger to be an executive producer on their own Marvel movie. How much did you lean on her, both as the resident Natasha Romanoff expert and as a producer?  

She was ever-present throughout the whole thing. A day or two after I signed on, I got a call from her. We talked for about an hour, hour and a half. That’s the moment when you realize you are talking to the actor who had an entire movie based around the sound of their voice, in Her. She had a lot of obligations, finishing up Endgame. As we were writing, she was there. She was there calling in. When they did Endgame press, I met her with Joe Russo and we chatted there. We had a bunch of rehearsals. I wasn’t in editing as much, but from everything I’ve heard, she was very present.

David Harbour has said you shot so much in the dinner scene that you could make a whole movie of his flirtations with Rachel Weisz’s Melina.

It was while he was eating endless amounts of chicken wings, too. (Laughs.)

He really went for it?

We did long takes. He probably ate — I can’t even imagine [how many] — during two days of shooting that thing. His character eats like a slob. So he was going through all that.

Rachel Weisz, Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in BLACK WIDOW.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Cate Shortland held rehearsals for that scene. How did that inform your writing?

The rehearsals were essential. Especially the dinner scene. That was one we were talking about from the beginning. [The scene] has to do so much for the movie. It’s eight, nine pages long. There is comedy in it. There are characters together for the first time in awhile. There is a lot of emotional conflict. There are also a lot of comic book, science exposition. It was just a mess of a scene to have to write. Cate essentially put me at a table with Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour and Rachel Weisz. “What are all your ideas for the scene?” It’s an intimidating enough table on its own. And they are all there just blurting out all their ideas and it’s so overwhelming at first. By the second day, I was able to cull down a lot of the ideas. I remember I had to perform part of the scene because I brought it to Cate during a break. She said, “You have to [act it out].” I literally as I was reading, I was pointing at who I’m speaking for. At one point, Harbour goes, “Oh OK.” He started to see what I was going for. I was like, “Thank God this is working out.”

The rehearsals is where the idea for using “American Pie” came out of. We didn’t use “American Pie” [the 1971 Don McLean hit featured in the film] at the dinner table. But it was in the rehearsals where those four actors randomly started singing “American Pie” to the whole rehearsal room. “OK, maybe we can have this be a big moment of emotional resonance.”

You not only have the emotional stuff and the comedy, you also have the pig and the science in this scene, too.

There are some things I didn’t realize how much impact they would have. The pig is one of them. The other one is David Harbour’s, “Is it your time of the month?” Which I wrote and I got a lot of flak for in the script period. I was like, “David is playing a character who in his essence is outdated and a bit misogynistic. He’s also going to be a pain in the ass with our two lead heroines. And of course, we are going to let Scarlett and Florence throw it back in his face.” When we watched it at the premiere fan event, and he said, “Is it your time of the month?” I got stereo surround groans. I just ducked in my chair. “We can’t get back from this.” I was so scared, and thank God Florence really rips into him after that. It saved us from that moment.

Speaking of Florence, what do you recall of her line, “the best part of my life was fake and none of you told me”?

That was the line to get to. That whole scene felt like it was going to be the ultimate crumbling of the walls for Natasha. I’m always thinking, “Natasha first.” She has gone through the whole getting the band back together, trying to maintain her, “I’m an Avenger. I’m in control,” persona. By the time we get to the dinner table, she’s saying, “Here’s what’s going to happen,” and no one listens to her. Until she gets too frustrated. I didn’t want her to be launched into the next part of her journey from a place of frustration. It had to be from a place of, “Oh my God. Maybe I’m at fault here as well.” A way to get there is the baby sister breaking down and being as vulnerable as possible, with Florence’s amazing performance.

There was a time we were filming close on [Florence] and I had to sneeze. I had my hand clamped over my mouth and my fingers on my nose. Our junior executive was next to me and looking at it happen, like a bomb was about to go off. I was going to ruin a take. The sneeze forced its way out of my mouth and the strangest sound. I sounded like a bored donkey. We almost ruined the take.

“Buda-pest” vs. “Buda-pesht.” Where did that come from?

That came from a real argument. Scarlett naturally says “Buda-pesht.” And I know it’s probably appropriate and the correct pronunciation to say Barcelona (Perason makes a th sound) but I gave myself chills of embarrassment because I feel like I’m a poser, I’m faking it. It was a real argument.

That was an argument you had with Scarlett?

I can’t remember. There was a day that O-T, who is in that scene with her, was ill and he wasn’t able to be in it. I had to read offscreen lines. He had to do his lines later. I had to read offscreen with her and that’s where I started pushing it. She gave me a look in the middle of that. Also, I don’t act. And now I’m there saying lines with Scarlett Johansson. She looked at me like, “I could kill you in this moment. But I’m not going to. I’m going to show mercy.” We were seeing how long we could take this “Buda-pesht,” “Buda-pest” riff. She was like, “Move on.”

Scarlett and Florence have talked about how the hero pose joke came from Florence teasing Scarlett. It seems like all these spontaneous moments bled into the script.

We had the idea of the pose and Florence was teasing Scarlett about it. “OK, we’re going to get that in. The hero pose.” Then we thought of this fun payoff. “OK Scarlett is going to land, and then Florence will call her a poser.” Then you don’t even realize, because we haven’t blocked the third act yet, “Oh wait, we have a moment where Florence is going to drop down from the air vent.” I tried to be too clever for a second. “What if she just hits the floor and falls backwards?” And I was like, “No, just take the easy win.”

Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Scarlett Johansson in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW.
Courtesy of Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios

Red Guardian almost certainly never met Captain America. What was it like crafting that Steve Rogers obsession?

Everything Alexi says, he believes is true. I don’t know what Marvel’s plans are, if there are split dimensions or time travel or whatever, but you cannot convince Alexi otherwise. [That he actually fought Captain America.]

You have references to Natasha on magazine covers. It’s always interesting to step back and realize the Avengers are celebrities of this universe. 

That whole scene was more about Yelena’s resentment toward Natasha and her just needling her. One of my favorite things in it is when she says, “Someone kills you and then one of the big ones come.” That’s the way I imagine a little sister would needle a big sister. “You’re part of the cool kids, but you’re the lamest cool kid.” Saying, “We’re exactly the same but you’re on a magazine cover,” is kind of an extension of, “You’re a poser.” Which is all driven from Yelena’s emotion, which is, “How could you leave me and not bring me along to hang out with you? I loved you.” The reason any of those things work is because it goes back to character dynamics and relationships. That’s the fun about the Marvel-ness of it. It gets to be these big, bombastic comic book things, but they really work when you have the human, character things.

When did the Taskmaster identity decision happen?

It was tough to crack. I couldn’t tell you exactly when. It was an ongoing discussion. It felt like a lot of pieces came together. We have the mystery of Dreykov’s daughter. And a really dark secret from Natasha. What’s something that’s a really dark secret? It can’t just be, “Oh I was going after a bad guy and some people accidentally got hurt.” It has to be something like, “I chose.” From the very beginning, we see her take action as a child to protect young Yelena. So that’s her thing. “I want to protect young girls who are potentially in harm.” If Natasha were to make a decision to harm or kill a young girl as a means to an end to get an enemy to defect from the Red Room, that’s a pretty dark secret. That’s something that would really haunt her. “Oh wait, what if that person didn’t die? And also, the father of that person has the ability to rebuild the human brain?” I have all these pieces that kind of work together, why don’t I just fit it in? Taskmaster could have just been a hired mercenary. “I’m doing this for the money.” But that’s kind of boring. My hope was to interweave it personally with Natasha’s story and her dark past.

In Thor: Ragnarok, you wrote a Thor versus Hulk fight that was pretty detailed in your script. How much writing did you do for Yelana versus Natasaha in the Budapest apartment?

Marvel has the best stunt coordinators and fight choreographers and all these amazing people working for them. It’s an apartment fight and I think they might have had floor plans for it at that point. I had no idea what it looked like, so I just had to write the scene thinking, “What’s in an Eastern European apartment?” I wrote it as best I could with cool bits. Maybe a gun is hidden in the butter drawer or whatever. It was probably too long, but I ended the fight with them smashing into the bathroom. I always love — I think it goes back to True Lies — when people slam through the porcelain, a toilet or something. That just feels so gnarly to me. I ended it in the bathroom and it was the shower curtain. It doesn’t matter who wins this fight, Natasha versus Yelena. Also I can’t establish too much of a power dynamic disadvantage either way. They are about to go on an adventure together. The important thing for character and story is, they care about each other, but they don’t trust each other. Maybe there’s a visual way to get them to connect again. “All right. Shower curtain. Choke each other, eye to eye.” There’s something in seeing each other’s eyes that makes them go, “OK, I trust you enough to talk.” Then our fight team gets ahold of it and they immediately get in on that. “This is what we need to get to.” All the other fight stuff, they talked to me a bit. I was like, “Yeah, it’s important that they both have wins and they both look cool,” but recognize that the most important thing is we end this fight at a really intense, violent stalemate where a kind of connection is revealed between the two of them. I was really proud of that. I was so happy when [fight coordinator] James Young or Rob Inch, our stunt coordinator, came to me with the pages. He said, “It’s not the bathroom, but we’ve got 18-foot walls with these giant window curtains.”

People like Matt Damon being in Ragnarok blew your mind. Did you know Julia Louis-Dreyfus would be in this? Were you involved in the post-credits scene and the Hawkeye reveal?

I was told, and I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough. Maybe they have the tag figured out really early, but in my experience, the tags you tend to get it toward the end of production or maybe it’s an additional photography kind of thing. I wrote a few drafts of it. When they told me, “We have a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine who is coming in and she’s going to be played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus so we need her and Yelena,” I was so excited. Obviously, just a huge fan. I think we knew there was going to be some sort of at the gravesite scene happening. I like the emotional closure of that. It’s not spoken outright, but it is implied they have erected a gravesite for her in Ohio, where they spent that time, which I think is touching and great and emotional. Then, I loved taking that poignant moment and flushing it down the toilet with Valentina blowing her nose, just intruding on this very personal moment. That kind of stuff is my favorite in the world.

I felt bad. They told me I got to do it, so I was really excited I got to do a lot to shape Valentina’s personality, but they told me, “and then at the end, this is the target.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” They were like, “Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to know that.” I was like, “Who am I screwing over? Something is going on! I don’t have an answer for this.” They were like, “You don’t need to. We are going to figure that out.” I remember writing it and feeling super guilty. “I hope whatever writer is working on this next chapter is going to be OK with what I’ve done to them.”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Eric Pearson
Michael Buckner/PMC

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