Hawkeye Director Rhys Thomas on the Finale and Hiding Its Big Secrets

Editor’s note: The below interview contains spoilers for the season finale of Hawkeye, “So This Is Christmas?”.

Hawkeye, which first premiered November 24 on Disney+, picks up with the continuing story of the MCU two years after the universe-changing circumstances of Avengers: Endgame. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is hoping to spend a quiet and uneventful Christmas with his family, but those plans get derailed quickly when his path crosses with that of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), a skilled archer who has her own personal history with Hawkeye. The series also promises to follow up on the aftermath of the MCU film Black Widow, which saw Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) being mistakenly led to believe that Clint was responsible for Natasha Romanoff’s (Scarlett Johansson) death on Vormir. The show also stars Vera Farmiga, Fra Fee, Tony Dalton, Zahn McClarnon, Brian d’Arcy James, and Alaqua Cox, as well as Jolt the Golden Retriever as Lucky the Pizza Dog.


This week, Collider had the chance to chat with Rhys Thomas, who served as executive producer and director on three episodes of the season, after the premiere of the finale, “So This is Christmas?”. Over the course of the interview, Thomas talked about helming the bookend episodes of Hawkeye in Episodes 1, 2, and 6, how the production and VFX teams staged the set to look like Rockefeller Plaza for that fantastic finale battle, and trying to keep the Kingpin of it all secret with Vincent D’Onofrio returning as the character in the MCU. He also spoke about balancing action with character moments in the fight between Yelena and Clint, letting the camera roll on Steinfeld and Pugh in their scenes together, whether there were any alternative trick arrow labels we didn’t get to see, trying to make the boomerang arrow idea work, the placement of that Rogers: The Musical mid-credit scene, and whether or not he’s heard any news about the possibility of Season 2.

Collider: Congratulations on finishing Season 2 and the finale and everything. In directing the show, you got to tackle the bookend episodes, the beginning and the end in terms of the storyline. I’m curious [about] your approach to those episodes. Did that change at all in coming to the story where Clint and Kate start off versus where the journey resolves for the two of them?

RHYS THOMAS: It was funny because we shot the show… We were essentially shooting portions of it the entire time. I think our first week of shooting, we shot some scenes from the final episode in New York. The weird thing about the finale was that it was so big and it always had that focal point of Rockefeller Center that it was never far from our minds, because we were constantly having meetings to try and figure out how to do it. So, I couldn’t say I managed to separate the two things and I think it was probably hard for Jeremy [Renner] and Hailee [Steinfeld] as well in that way, because of the way we were jumping all over the place. Again, it was like, one day we’d be shooting scenes where they’d just met, and then we’d be shooting these moments where they were working as a unit. So it was really for them to toggle more than me.

Image via Disney+

I’m glad that you brought up Rockefeller Plaza, because that’s such a big scene. It takes up most of the episode really, once they’re there for the party. There’s the battle and you’ve also got so many different fights happening. You’ve got the Tracksuit Mafia, and Yelena, and Kazi up in the tower with the sniper rifle, so there’s a lot of moving pieces. I’ve seen some behind-the-scenes footage already. Was that all blue screen substituted in for New York? Because if so, it looked great.

THOMAS: Well that’s good. I worked at Rockefeller Center for close on 13, 14 years or so. So, it was really something that I took quite seriously and I fought like crazy to try and be able to shoot. I was just like, we have to shoot it there, there’s no way we can regrade it. It just seems crazy, why can’t we shoot it there? And of course, it would be incredibly expensive to do anything close to what we did, but it was a combination. In our first week, we shot a couple, we shot a few little surgical things in the actual… We basically spent our nights on the Plaza, where we shot a few things that, I think, just helped trick you and glue it a little bit, the real stage.

Again, my hats are off completely to both our production design team and the visual effects team, because again, I was very dubious. I wanted it to look real, I don’t want it to be all plastic-y. And they methodically spent a lot of time at Rockefeller Plaza just scanning the entire space. We had that whole space mapped completely, and they rebuilt everything and that was led by Greg Steele. So yes, we showed a lot, basically, we built this giant ice rink. We built the ice rink full-size in Atlanta and then the bottom portion, basically the whole Plaza, that bottom portion was in Atlanta, and then blue screen and extension for everything else. It was crazy to see.

It turned out great. I was sitting there going, “I’m sure that this is not Hailee Steinfeld repelling down the side of the Comcast building, but it really looks like it.”

THOMAS: That’s good. She did do the repelling herself.

Image via Disney

When you had talked to Steve at the beginning of the season, you had mentioned that you always try to make sure that even the moments of action serve the characters and the story. Keeping in this Rockefeller theme, it feels like there’s no better scene that encapsulates that in this episode than the fight between Clint and Yelena. Even when they’re fighting, there’s this sense of emotions that are coming to the surface. As the fight gets more aggressive, she’s clearly getting into that place. How did you, in trying to stage the scene, try to strike the balance between action and character development?

THOMAS: That’s a good question. Again, that was a scene, that it really was for Jeremy and Florence [Pugh]… It was a tough one to toggle as well, because you needed that turning point in the fight. Obviously, Yelena lands with a mission in mind and almost like a clean sense of justice. And Clint has honestly had that… In the way that Jeremy does very well, his response is to open himself completely and he understands that she needs to do what she needs to do. And if that means that he dies, I think, there’s that sense that, if that’s what has to happen for her and for him to perhaps find peace within such thing, you sense that he’s at that point where he’s come to peace with it.

It’s all in feeling. That’s what’s interesting is, it’s not like Clint says much to her. It’s almost [like] you’re watching someone primal scream and slowly break down the walls of what they ultimately maybe deep down know and understand. I remember the beginning of that night, because we shot that whole thing in one night, and we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the day just talking it through. We rehearsed it and talked it through. Again, not rehearsed it in terms of performing any of it, but just talking it through in the moments and just understanding what those individual beats through the fight were. So that they knew where to go, but again, hats off to them. All you can do when you’ve got two actors like that is sort of gently nudge them out there and provide little bumpers, but it was all them.

Speaking of two actors that I feel like you must have just let the camera roll on: Hailee and Florence. The scenes with them in this episode, I feel, are just a great continuation of what we’d already seen in “Ronin.” I know that [directors] Bert and Bertie had talked about how there were a lot of ad-libs from Florence. Was there was anything in Episode 6 that might have been a surprise while filming during the scene or maybe rehearsal that ended up changing how things turned out?

THOMAS: Yeah. Ultimately, what was great was that Florence is the type of person that just arrives. She arrives on set and just brings a certain energy with her. There’s this very positive energy in the room when she’s there. Hailee too, as well, and I think that was the thing, it would just… It’s funny, I can’t remember what was ad-lib versus what was scripted or what we planned, but ultimately, it was just getting them in the elevator and that little fight, and then obviously the chase through the corridor. It was just fun the whole night. So, yes, it was them playing and me trying to think of ways to give them more room to play and seeing what happens.

Their energy, again, like everyone noticed, the chemistry is just so present and fun. I always knew this scene was going to be fun as we were planning it, the elevator and the buttons, and the chase through the office. I always knew that would be a lighter moment of this sequence, but then you get together and you’re like, “Oh God, this is better than I could have imagined.”

Image via Disney+

RELATED: ‘Hawkeye’ Director Rhys Thomas On Exploring the Price of Clint’s Superhero Life in the Disney+ Series

Another big reveal we get this week is obviously the big man himself, Kingpin, Vincent D’Onofrio. I have to say, I’m really impressed because I feel like in this age of leaks and things getting out, he stayed pretty well hidden under wraps until we get the cell phone photo in Episode 5, and then obviously his official appearance on screen in the finale, and there’s a lot for him in this. He gets a fight scene with Hailee, and a confrontation with Echo, and there’s so much that we get to see from him. How difficult was it, in terms of production, to keep all that from getting out?

THOMAS: (laughs) It was really hard. It was really hard. It was almost a policy of never mentioning him by name. He became the Voldemort of us. He would arrive in a Voldemort-like cloak, he’d walk between his trailer and set covered in this thing and everything was closed. It was one of those things too where they were so on top of keeping it secret. Again, it is done for the fans, because it’s going to be so much more impactful if no one sees this coming. I think there were some moments when I feel like Vincent tripped once on Twitter, he posted something that got people a little… And some people knew and people were talking about it. I just had a policy, I didn’t mention it in front of my kids, I didn’t mention it in front… You just don’t, just block it out of your mind, that’s what’s happening. It was tough, they wanted him to do it. It was hard. This whole process was an education in secrecy.

The mid-credit scene, putting the entire Rogers: The Musical in there. Was that an early decision to put that full version [in]? And was that the version that was filmed for the beginning of the show or was that a separate filmed version?

THOMAS: I was not aware. It wasn’t planned that that was going to be the way that the show was going to close. I was actually a little in the dark too. I was curious, like, “Is this slot going to be reserved for teeing something else up?” In the tradition that Marvel’s known for. I was waiting for what that was going to be. Yeah, they made the decision to put the musical at the end there, which honestly, I was slightly conflicted about because like a fan, I’m like, “The people, they want to see something, they want to know what’s coming next. Is this going to disappoint?” In all fairness again, to the team, it’s like, no, no, no, it’s Christmas, it’s light. We’ve got so much blood in this episode, it’s just fun. It’s a fun release at the end, and it’s a nice way to send people off. That’s how that came about and in terms of what it was, that was part of… Obviously, when we shot it for Episode 1, we shot the entire thing, but obviously in Episode 1, the focus was Jeremy and less of the performance. It was [an] evolution of that.

Image via Disney+

One of the fun shots in this episode is early on when Kate and Clint are crafting the new trick arrows. Were ever any variations of the trick arrow labels that we didn’t get to see? Because I was surprised we didn’t get a call back to the boomerang at all, and I was wondering if there were any other versions of trick arrows that were attempted [or] that might have been alluded to.

THOMAS: Oh yeah, no, fully. We did toy with the boomerang. We tried to figure out how the hell it would work and our props guys did craft a kind of amusing-looking arrow that had a bunch of boomerangs. It was there, but again, it’s always finding that line of the callbacks versus building momentum. I think that’s why that dropped out of there. Again, part of it was we just couldn’t figure out a good way to use it and deploy it in the end so we just teased it later on. There was one label that I… There were a lot of labels that we played around with and one that I childishly tried slipping in, we just smartly cut around. I had one that was labeled the brown note, for any South Park fans, but editorial thought better to rub it.

I know you had mentioned this a little bit before, with the mid-credit scene, [in terms of] putting something in for the fans. The fans are definitely starting to clamor a little for a Season 2. Do you know if there have been any conversations around that and if so, would you want to come back and direct more episodes?

THOMAS: I cannot speak to future plans in the tradition of secrecy. Again, the show coming out, you never know how it’s going to be received and it has been amazing to see how warmly people have taken it and enjoyed it. And it’s been great to see Hailee’s character embraced and sort of land so firmly in the MCU. I sincerely look forward to where that character goes next. And yes, I loved walking on the streets of the MCU and would gladly enjoy doing it again.

I feel like I can only speak for myself, personally, but I would just love a Hawkeye [spinoff] with the new Hawkeye and the new Black Widow, with Hailee and Florence. That’s my pitch to Marvel.

THOMAS: Tell me about it. It’s great. It writes itself. A Thelma and Louise theme.

All episodes of Hawkeye are currently available to stream on Disney+.

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‘Hawkeye’: Kevin Feige, Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, and Rhys Thomas on Why It’s a Series, The Avengers Musical, and Nods to the Comics

They also talk about how the Christmas setting came about and the tip that Renner gave Steinfeld when she signed on for the show.

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