[This story contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Secret Invasion.]
Secret Invasion director Ali Selim may have been directing the latest chapter of the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he merely focused on the story in front of him. Yes, he knew he’d have to pass the Nick Fury baton to Nia DaCosta’s upcoming film, The Marvels, but the handoff never distracted from the story he was telling involving an aging Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his struggle to stop a Skrull rebellion that he’s responsible for to some degree.
“They’re not protracted conversations [with The Marvels team]. It’s just simply, ‘Where do you need him? You need him here? Great.’ And then we write into that. So that kind of stuff is very simple because it’s all above my pay grade,” Selim tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who’s the leader of the Skrull rebellion, is trying to incite a war between the United States and Russia so that the Skrulls can take over Earth. This plot may seem like it’s partially ripped from the headlines, but it wasn’t until the halfway point of Secret Invasion’s shoot that the real-life tensions between the U.S. and Russia reached another level due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For Selim, the real-life parallels only enhance the show’s intended tone.
“It’s coincidence, serendipity, danger and all of the above. But the thing that I like about it is that this show is meant to be real and grounded,” Selim says. “The stakes are Earth and humanity, as opposed to something off in outer space that’s more abstract or fictional. So the real-life conflict between Russia and the U.S. only helps to make this story feel more real.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Selim also explains why coaching Little League made him a better director.
So how did you convince Marvel to make a mature espionage thriller?
It wasn’t on me to convince them. They set out to make this mature espionage thriller and found me after my experience working on The Looming Tower and CIA and FBI things, where I understood the grounded world of trust, suspicion and paranoia. So that’s the tone they wanted to bring to this, and we ended up at the same fork in the road at the same time.
Overall, I’m sure you had expectations of what a Marvel job might be like, so how did your actual experience compare?
I have no expectations of anything in life, because I’m old enough to know that they never help you or come true. Marvel is the pinnacle of storytelling in the industry today, and I was really curious to be able to peek behind the Wizard’s curtain and see how it’s done. And it’s a very different process from anything I’ve experienced, but it’s obviously a very rewarding process. They just keep going after story until it is clear, thrilling and emotional, and to be on that ride with them was instructive and rewarding.
Regarding episode two’s train and restaurant scenes, were those special days for you since Sam did vintage Sam Jackson things?
Yeah, but honestly, every day was special for me. I can’t single out one scene over another, because there are a lot of great two-handers across these six episodes. Two great actors would come into an environment and they were prepared to apply their craft. And that scene with Sam and Ben [Mendelsohn] on the train was particularly exciting because they’re such good friends and they love working together. They have very different working styles, and watching that and helping them was fascinating. Don Cheadle and Sam have wanted to work together for decades but never had the opportunity, and they both have very similar acting styles. So watching them work through it and come up with the emotional truth in that [restaurant] scene was also a very rewarding but a very different experience.
You just hit on something that I’ve asked about a lot. What generally happens when two actors subscribe to different techniques? Does one usually adapt to the other? Or do you have to help them bridge that gap?
Well, they’re both pursuing the same thing, which is the emotional truth of the scene that serves the story. They’re not there to show us how they do it. They’re there to land on that moment, and the best actors, no matter what road they’re traveling down, are all traveling to that same place. When I say this, people think I’m being silly or making a joke, but I think the greatest lessons I had in learning how to direct were from coaching Little League. You have 12 kids who listen differently, see differently, need differently, and you just have to find a way to help them be the best they can be and help them be who they are, rather than shaping them into something else. And in baseball, you have the same goal, too, which is to go home.
Your release date changed, as did Marvel’s many other projects. How much adjusting did you have to do to account for other stories and release date changes?
Oh, if that’s the reality of what was happening, I never felt that. All I felt was that we were chasing down this story until it became everything that it needed to be: clear, emotionally truthful, thrilling and all of the above. I think Kevin said this morning [at the press conference] that we’re releasing it now because it’s done. There’s no other strategy.
For example, Nick Fury is in November’s The Marvels, so did you have to communicate with that team to make sure that you left him in the right position?
The answer is yes, but they’re not protracted conversations. It’s just simply, “Where do you need him? You need him here? Great.” And then we write into that. So that kind of stuff is very simple because it’s all above my pay grade.
The forehead embrace between Fury and the Skrulls, I don’t recall that being in Captain Marvel. Do you know the origin behind it?
We were just looking for different ways of connection between Skrull and Skrull and Nick Fury and his Skrull friends. It was conversations with Sam and Ben Mendelssohn, and just finding ways of doing something that’s a little different. The Skrulls aren’t from Earth, and so they probably wouldn’t shake hands for whatever reason. It’s just an exploration of what might be different.
There’s a United States and Russia conflict within this show, so was anybody apprehensive about these real-life parallels?
Well, the real-life parallels didn’t really come up until we were halfway through shooting, so it’s coincidence, serendipity, danger and all of the above. But the thing that I like about it is that this show is meant to be real and grounded. The stakes are Earth and humanity, as opposed to something off in outer space that’s more abstract or fictional. So the real-life conflict between Russia and the U.S. only helps to make this story feel more real.
I’m quite fond of that exterior staircase shot in the opening episode. Martin Freeman’s character runs up a staircase with motion sensor lights, and it’s shot through the windows outside the building. Where does that rank as far as your favorite shots on the show?
I can’t say that I have a favorite shot. Every shot we do is there to serve story, and if any one of them jumps out for whatever reason, then we’ve failed at our job.
Secret Invasion is now airing every Wednesday on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.