This story contains spoilers for the first episode of ‘Secret Invasion.’
Director Ali Selim is pretty sure Marvel fans are going to kill him after seeing the first episode of Disney (DIS)+ series Secret Invasion. In the final moments, longtime MCU character Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) seemingly met her death. We see Hill shot and bleeding on the ground in Russia, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury powerless to save her from Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a Skrull who wants to take over Earth.
“Once they see what happens at the end of episode one, they’re going to send hit squads after me,” Selim confirms, speaking ahead of the premiere. Still, the director, who helmed all six installments of the series, feels confident in the story he’s telling. Everything that’s happening now will apparently pay off later, even if it upsets or perplexes fans. Selim approached the series, which sees Nick Fury up against an army of Skrulls, like an espionage thriller, hoping to keep it as grounded as possible. For Selim, a longtime television director, Secret Invasion was a dream project.
“This is the pinnacle of storytelling in Hollywood today, to work for Marvel,” Selim says. “For the last 10 years I have been working as an episodic director and I got called in to do two episodes of this series. My connection to the scripts and my understanding of an aging hero who’s kind of lost his step a little bit—examining that after having aging parents—I just was saying the right things about Nick Fury and that brought me into three episodes. And then through a series of circumstances and good fortune, I ended up with the entire project. It was an evolution.”
He adds, “If it hadn’t been an evolution, I probably wouldn’t have the call. I mean, I’m the guy who made The Looming Tower, not the guy who made Winter Soldier. But now I feel like I’ve grown into it.”
The series, which also stars Ben Mendelsohn, Olivia Colman, Emilia Clarke, Dermot Mulroney and Don Cheadle, plays on events from Captain Marvel, as well as other MCU films and TV shows. But Selim hopes it can stand alone. Here the director discusses the inspirations behind Secret Invasion, his rules for the Skrulls and whether Hill is actually dead.
What was your emotional entry point into this series?
It is Nick Fury’s story, and that is the emotional entry point. Nick Fury is a human who can’t fly, like other superheroes. He is a superhero of his own kind, but because he can’t fly I felt like it was a really grounded and human story. It was something I could not only tell, but I could contribute to because I understand that world. There’s a human scale that feels universal, rather than a universal scale that’s trying to feel human.
It feels very human because that’s really what I’m drawn to. We immediately latched on to that aspect of Nick Fury returning to Earth and putting his feet on the ground again for the first time in a long time and trying to find his footing in a very real and human and non-science fiction way. That drew us to the themes of trust and suspicion, which drew us into film noir. We pretty quickly got into cobblestone images for the first few shots in the story because we wanted to put Nick’s feet on the ground in a really secure and vulnerable way.
Was that visual style inherent in the scripts?
The first few pages of spies and alleyways and the stakes being Earth and not a fictional planet somewhere, it felt very political thriller, very espionage, as opposed to superhero. The cinematographer and the production designer and I went straight to The Third Man and The Conversation. I don’t think it is a spoiler that what Nick acknowledges, or comes to learn, is that this is his battle and his battle alone. And he’s a man and all he has to fight with is his moral code and his convictions. The visual style came very much out of that theme and those ideas.
When you’re telling a new story within an established landscape how much can you assume that people know and how much do you have to explain about that world?
It was a constant effort on our part. Marvel is iconic in and of itself. The Nick Fury character is iconic in and of himself. Marvel has an incredibly powerful and valuable brand that you want to shepherd. And its fans are expecting references to the MCU that makes them feel like they own it in a way, and they do. But at the same time, I believe that your story has to exist within the box that is your story. You can’t rely on people bringing knowledge from a movie made 10 years ago, and you can’t expect people to bring knowledge from current events. If you want that in your story, you have to put it in your story.
I think we tried very hard to make it a standalone piece. The test we always applied to it was: I have my wife on one side, Robin, who is clueless about the MCU, and I have my daughter’s fiancé, Ryan, on the other side, who is perhaps the greatest super fan. We would always say, “Does this story element pass the Robin test or the Ryan test?” And if it only passed the Ryan test, we had to bring it back in so that it could hopefully pass the Robin test.
It’s good for Marvel to understand who their enormous fan base is. But it’s also good for Marvel to think about expanding into the world of the Robins so that they can keep growing their audience. Not all of their audiences can watch all of the Marvel productions in order to understand Secret Invasion.
While the first episode is set mostly in Moscow, you filmed in London. Eagle-eyed fans might realize the park towards the end is actually Hyde Park. Did you have to be conscious of spoilers when filming somewhere so public?
We didn’t do any decoys, which I know is common practice. Like if you’re going to be in the public, you’ll have a decoy scene or decoy actors to throw the fans off a little. But it was chaotic enough in Hyde Park. Ben was there and Colbie and Sam, and there were 500 extras dressed up as Russians and speaking Russian. I don’t think anybody had any sense of what was going on. So it didn’t feel like we were revealing the ball in Hyde Park. I didn’t ever feel the need for decoy scenes. A lot of it was also shot at Pinewood [studios] and that’s like getting into Fort Knox.
What other cities did London double for?
London doubles for Moscow, for Washington, and Oxford. We did almost everything in London. We shot around England a little bit. Liverpool for a while, Leeds and Halifax. There were some big sets that you just couldn’t get done in London.
The premiere jumps into the action right away. How did you determine how to best pace the episode?
There’s a lot of information that needs to happen in the first episode. The story has to exist within the box that the story is, but you also have to have a lot of high octane coming out of it. Credit to Kyle Bradstreet, who created it and wrote that first episode. I think he really found a sense of pace and reveal and the right way to bury the expositional information. And more importantly, for me, it sets up the tone. The question of who can you trust?
For those who aren’t familiar with the comic book lore, can Skrulls take the form of anyone they see?
It’s a good question. When I came on, I was told, “Don’t read the comics. They have nothing to do with what’s happening in the show. It’s just the base.” If you want to know the MCU version of the Skrull, you would go back to Captain Marvel and watch the introduction of Ben Mendelsohn. But we created a set of rules that were working for the story. The idea is that a Skrull can scan your DNA and look like you, so are various versions of shapeshifting.
The first version is a Skrull needs to escape the restaurant and so looks at a another diner, gets enough from that quick scan of DNA to look like them, walks out of the restaurant and then becomes who they are. But the real strategy that Gravik has is to occupy these people. In order to do that he had to frack their brains and he had to frack their brains constantly. So you actually have to kidnap the human, put them in a pod. It’s easy to take on their physical appearance —their shell—but more difficult to mimic them completely.
So as the series goes along we don’t yet know who is a Skrull or who is not.
It will all be revealed. But yeah, as it goes on, you should be surprised every step along the way.
The Skrulls are clearly very strong, as we can see in the fight scenes. What are the physics of their abilities?
Again, it’s just a rule that was created. The rule is that a Skrull in Skrull form or a Skrull in human form is roughly 15 percent stronger than a human. But they can’t fly or they don’t have any superpowers of any kind. They’re just 15 percent stronger.
Did you sit down at the beginning and write all of these rules down?
Yeah, you’ve got to figure it out. Because every time you come to fight you’re like, “Okay, how are we going to choreograph this fight? We need some rules to it. They can’t just have superpowers. We have to explain all of that.” We had a lot of Skrull rules, and then we would morph them along the way to make sure that they were guiding us towards episode six.
In the series, Nick Fury isn’t wearing his famous eyepatch. Is there a psychological reason behind that?
I think he’s just tired. Old men get old and they forget to close their robe. And they’re like, “Whatever, I’m just an old guy. I’ve earned this.” I think Nick Fury has a little bit of that: “I’m tired. I’ve been in the blip. It was very confusing.” For Sam, the blip was a little bit like lockdown. Like, “Where did I go? What happened?” And so he had a real connection to that sense of it. And we all learned something during the pandemic. I read a great op-ed in the New York Times about soft pants. I haven’t worn hard pants since before the pandemic. And I think I’m gonna carry soft pants into the rest of my life. And that’s the eyepatch. Nick is like, “You know what, I’ve been through the blip. I’ve been gone. I’ve lost my step. I’m not going to wake up every morning and put that on.” Until, of course, it’s time to get his mojo back.
At the end of episode one, Maria Hill takes a bullet and appears to die. Is she really dead?
I don’t know. What do you think? In the MCU, people come back. I’m here for Secret Invasion, so I don’t know what’s going to happen next with Maria Hill. But you will [see more] in episode two.
Did you have discussions about how your series would impact the larger MCU?
Yes. I could always state my case for story points and story beats and what needed to be there in episode one that pays off in episode six. But Kevin Feige is the mastermind of what’s coming next. So I would say, “This needs to be here in episode one so that in episode six we can do this.” And he would say, “Well, I need this to happen in episode six because five movies from now in phase 11, I have this plan.” And we were like, “Great, that’s great. Then we do that.” It’s all about shepherding the brand and at the same time busting the doors off of it. It’s a balance.