Hawkeye: Interview with series head director Rhys Thomas

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Set in post-blip New York City, Hawkeye sees former Avenger Clint Barton on a seemingly simple mission: get back to his family for Christmas. Possible? Maybe with the help of Kate Bishop, a 22-year-old archer with dreams of becoming a super hero. The two are forced to work together when a presence from Barton’s past threatens to derail far more than the festive spirit.

Helmed by Rhys Thomas (pictured above, right) and directing duo Bert and Bertie, the series sees the return of Jeremy Renner as Clint and introduces Hailee Steinfeld (above left) as Kate Bishop.

We spoke to Rhys Thomas about being part of the MCU and shooting a show set at Christmas…

How did you first get involved with Hawkeye?

I got called in for a general meeting at Marvel, much to my surprise and joy! In that meeting, I was introduced to the idea of a streaming series and they asked if there was a character that I was interested in exploring. Hawkeye was my first answer because I always enjoyed his humanity. It felt really interesting and obviously, the [Matt] Fraction run of Hawkeye comics too. So it started there and then just persistence thereafter of casually checking in to see what they’re doing!

Were you always going to executive produce and direct the show?

I don’t know whether they planned it. Maybe it happened along the way. This started at the beginning of the pandemic and I had a lot of time on my hands, so I started doing a lot of deep dives in terms of looking at movies and the comics and I would put together ideas and send them along. Then they started sharing outlines that had come out of the writers’ room with me, and I’d send notes and thoughts on that back.

So it was kind of this natural process, and then slowly I started seeing some of my ideas when the first draft of scripts came out. By the time I actually pitched and came officially on, I felt like I was in deep. I mean, if I hadn’t have got it at that point, I would have felt cheated haha!

Were there any particular elements of the Hawkeye character you wanted to focus on?

They told me early on when I had started talking to them that the Matt Fraction tone was something that was very interesting to them. So keeping that as a North Star was key and I think a lot of the tone in that, for me, comes from the fact it’s just a really good character study about a guy who probably hates character studies!

Clint is a guy who is a human that doesn’t have any superpowers, that somehow became an Avenger. He has this name, Hawkeye, which is probably a label that he might not even be comfortable with. He just does what he does. So the idea of exploring that person (and I think that’s what Fraction does well – the fact that it’s low stakes plotting almost just so you can focus more on character) felt interesting.

What do you think it is about Clint Barton that makes audiences want to see more of him?

I think he’s vulnerable. You saw the vulnerability in Endgame, obviously, when he loses his family during the Blip and the Ronin years and then obviously what happens with Natasha on Vormir. This person has emotionally been through a lot and is carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders.

I think something that separates Clint from some of the other Avengers is that he’s made a choice to be that. He wasn’t gifted with powers, or a suit, or anything. He’s choosing to be there. So it speaks to a large part of who he is. But then the fact that he has this guilt and his past, means that he doesn’t sit there comfortably. It just feels really interesting.

Then you bring in Kate Bishop who holds him up as this hero, which a lot of people do and for him to realise what that means to her, and for her to realise what it means to him. I felt like it was a really interesting territory to explore.

“Something that separates Clint from some of the other Avengers is that he’s made a choice to be that. He wasn’t gifted with powers. He’s choosing to be there.”

What can you tell us about Kate Bishop?

We see that she also has her own baggage. But she’s a fun, energetic character. She’s set her sights on Hawkeye as a role model, with a certain understanding of what that is. So she’s tried her best to learn the skills that she thinks one would need. We get to see her have to utilise those skills in real-world situations, so there’s an element of chaos to her and things that just keep bouncing off Clint in an annoying way until he starts understanding.

Is she similar to the Kate Bishop we know from the comic books?

There are similarities. I mean, there are obviously different iterations of Kate in the comics. I think the Fraction Kate feels like the most grounded to me in that Clint is more of the chaotic figure. He’s not chaotic in his energy, but just bad things seem to keep happening to him, usually by his own doing, and Kate is kind of the grounding element who understands him and empathises with him. But she’s got her own path and confidence.

Obviously, in other iterations, she’s this happy, very driven individual, so I feel like what we’ve done is a balance of those energies with an MCU flavour. In the end, it’s all Hailee ultimately. She’s the one who really grounds the character and gives her her identity. We did what we could on the page but Hailee is the one that takes it somewhere else.

What can you tell us about the relationship between Clint and Kate?

I think that’s the joy of the show. In any true buddy comedy setup, it’s always fun to see two polar opposites come together and how they negotiate coming together. I think the different thing with this is it almost has a father-daughter quality to it, in a way. Because Clint understands his responsibility for this person.

You’ve seen Clint with these different female characters over the years, and he’s always had a close connection with them, but to suddenly see someone who he really feels responsible for and has the same vulnerability as him. it just felt really interesting.

Rhys describes the father-daughter relationship between Clint and Kate as “the joy of the show”.

What genre would you say that Hawkeye fits in?

I’d say it’s a Christmas action-comedy. Does that sound good? Or am I selling it short? An excellent Christmas action-comedy!

How do you manage to maintain that balance between the action, the comedy and the Christmas elements?

There’s a fine line. I mean Christmas is obviously just something that is so magnetic and once you start putting a Christmas tree in frame, this warmth starts arriving, and Christmas music’s great. So you had that and obviously that ties to Clint’s family. A lot of the driving force for him is getting home to them for Christmas, because he’s made that promise. So I think that brings that family component in and then the joy is watching that plan get blown up and snowball into more and more trouble. Of course, the trouble is related to his backstory and his past, which is the dramatic component. So it all meshes quite nicely over the run.

Was it always the intention to set the show over Christmas?

Yeah, I think so. I mean Kevin Feige the Marvel mastermind probably had that as an original plan but I think because of Clint and who he is, it’s a real natural fit. Even in the Fraction run there’s an element of Christmas. So that definitely helped but I think it was just an interesting way to look at this specific character. It’s a time of year, because he’s a family man, that means something to him specifically. It doesn’t feel just like a surface-level framing. It feels like it actually has meaning.

What was it like shooting a show set over Christmas?

It was really fun. Obviously, we shot over a long period of time and so it was more amusing just walking into these odd locations or stages and remembering ‘oh, yeah, it’s Christmas again’. I mean, I love Christmas music. I’m not tired of it yet. I still enjoy a Christmas song.

At least it’s a good excuse to start listening to Christmas music early…

Oh man, my kids are big fans of Christmas but I drove them nuts early on with Christmas playlists in June!

Christmas means a lot to Clint because he’s a family man and setting the show during this period was an interesting way to explore his character.

What was the biggest challenge for you when shooting the series?

I really wanted to keep this grounded in a story sense and also in the world of the show. Because it is this human character, we’re not going to space, no one flies. So it was a challenge trying to keep that rule throughout. From the way we handle the action, to the texture of the sets and the locations – always pushing for that reality.

Also, the cool exciting ambition that Marvel has for the streaming series is that they intertwine with the movies, and it’s all part of one world. So you’re doing six hours of a Marvel movie essentially, just on a tight schedule! So, just practically, trying to keep that standard up and meet it and deliver the action. You’re doing everything basically in less than half the time… but that seems to be my fate for life haha!

What’s it like being part of the MCU?

It’s thrilling and bizarre. Just being on early meetings and whether it was talking about the Battle Of New York sequence and realising you’re treading in that territory again, or meetings where we’re concepting the hero costumes for the characters and realising ‘oh wait, I’m doing this. I’m having input on these things’. That’s just… It’s unreal the whole time. You know, you feel a responsibility to fans and you want to deliver but as a fan, it’s bizarre!

Speaking of the Battle Of New York, Hawkeye revisits some iconic scenes from the Avengers movies. What was that like?

Really exciting, I mean that Vormir scene was one of my favourite parts of Endgame, so even just talking with Jeremy about that scene was exciting. The fact that that was a reference point for his psychology.

With the Battle Of New York, you just realise how deep the roots of this universe go in our consciousness. It’s been around [for a while] now. We’ve all lived it and it’s gone so many places, so it’s an uncanny experience walking the streets of New York but seeing them through the MCU eyes and realising that this is actually where Stark Tower is in this alternate reality that we know. It’s really cool.

What was it like shooting in New York?

It was great. I worked on Saturday Night Live, which is obviously a New York institution, so I know New York quite intimately. I’ve probably shot on almost every corner of New York and been there at 4am! So I was kind of a tyrant about being true to the city and getting the geography right in terms of where people’s apartments were, and making sure that the architecture surrounding those places matched up. There’s nothing that distracts me more than these made-up cities that don’t seem like they connect, so it was really exciting to ground it in New York because it has its own texture, especially at Christmas time. Which was really cool.

What audience is Hawkeye aimed at? Is it a family show?

I mean I don’t want to be responsible for sending young kids into the thing but yeah, this is fun! It’s Marvel, it has action, but we tried to keep it quite light. It’s specifically for 12-and-a half-year-olds, that was our audience haha. No, hopefully, it’s for everyone.

I have a six-year-old and just as you asked that I was like ‘would I let her watch it?’ and I don’t think there’s anything in there I would worry about.

What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

Hopefully they’ll have a satisfying understanding of Clint and they’ll be anticipating a bright future for Kate. We’re paying homage to one character and introducing another with a tone and a world that I think there could be more of. So it’s great.

Hawkeye debuts exclusively on Disney+ on 24 November 2021. Read our review here.  

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