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Loki director Dan DeLeeuw spent nearly 30 years in visual effects, but he knew it was time for a change after receiving his second and third Oscar nominations for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. DeLeeuw worked as the on-set visual effects supervisor on all four of the Russo brothers’ Marvel films, and having directed second unit for Joe and Anthony during Endgame’s additional photography, he quickly realized that his next step involved the director’s chair.
“It was definitely something like, ‘Where do you go from here?’ ” DeLeeuw tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Caesar wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, so where do I go after Endgame and not get bored with it? And I was like, ‘Let’s go to second-unit directing and then start directing.’ ”
He proceeded to handle second-unit responsibilities for Chloé Zhao’s Eternals and Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania until Loki EP Kevin R. Wright called to offer him the chance to direct Loki season two’s second episode, “Breaking Brad.” Wright remembered DeLeeuw’s keen interest in story as the VFX supervisor on Loki season one, so the promotion made perfect sense in his mind.
Now that he’s a director, DeLeeuw admits that he’s extra attentive to the needs of his VFX supervisor.
“You have to be careful. You know what they need and what they really need, so it was this interesting transition of being the guy that says, ‘No, we need to stop. We need to get the HDR of this and shoot the tilesets of this,’ ” DeLeeuw says. “So understanding it gives you [the ability to respect the process]. Some directors, to ADs, will be like, ‘Hey, you’re costing us time.’ So [we] didn’t get into that. You just let them do the job.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, DeLeeuw also explains how a Ke Huy Quan choice in Loki‘s season two premiere led to a running gag in his episode and beyond.
After a career in visual effects that culminated in three Oscar nominations, you started to transition to the director’s chair through second unit on Avengers: Endgame’s additional photography, as well as the entirety of Eternals and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. What prompted the move after all this time?
It’s something that I’d always wanted to do, even going back to college. I gravitated to visual effects, but directing was always something in the back of my mind. Storytelling was always important to me, and when I started in visual effects and effects houses would have the whole show, you did animatics and designed the sequences. But that stopped happening as they started splitting up the shows, so then I gravitated to the show side [on set] for visual effects and to be a part of the storytelling.
And working with the Russos, they were really generous across the films: “Give us all your suggestions, whether they’re visual effects or not. Help us design the sequences.” And then Joe was like, “Do you want to shoot additional photography on Endgame?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’d be amazing.” So it’s something that I always pushed for, and everyone at Marvel picked up how story-oriented I was in terms of designing sequences and shots. When I did visual effects on Loki season one, Kevin Wright, our executive producer, noticed that I would just go off on story things, and so he invited me back to direct on season two.
Yeah, Kevin Wright told me that he knew you’d be a good director for Loki because you approached VFX reviews from the characters’ perspectives. Is that an approach you developed over time?
To some degree, it was always there, and it was nurtured by working with the Russos. The interesting part about being a visual effects supervisor is that you’re usually in the director’s village while they’re shooting. So you’re standing behind [the director] the entire show, and you learn something from every movie you work on and every director you work with, if you pay attention. So you pick up on things, and you start anticipating what their notes might be and then you see if you’re right or not in terms of what they [communicated] to the actors. So a lot of that was just my own desire and the fortunate experiences I’ve had.
Part of me wondered if Infinity War and Endgame put you through the wringer so much that you knew it was time to direct.
(Laughs.) Well, it was definitely something like, “Where do you go from here?” Caesar wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, so where do I go after Endgame and not get bored with it? And I was like, “Let’s go to second-unit directing and then start directing.”
Loki is such a specific world with its own vocabulary, and it’s probably a bit overwhelming for anyone who’s brand-new to the proceeding. But since you were VFX supervisor on season one, did that familiarity help you hit the ground running?
For sure, because I understood its world-building beyond what ended up in the show. I got all the backstory that [season one director] Kate [Herron] and Kevin had been working on, so I had that knowledge to help bring it towards season two. I just made sure everything stayed honest with all the different aspects of it, like the time travel, the TVA and Loki.
As director, what’s your dynamic like with the VFX supervisor now? Is it difficult to cede or let go of those responsibilities?
You have to be careful. You know what they need and what they really need, so it was this interesting transition of being the guy that says, “No, we need to stop. We need to get the HDR of this and shoot the tilesets of this.” And now, being the director who’s experienced the same experience, you’re looking at your watch, going, “OK, we got to move. We got to go.” So understanding it gives you [the ability to respect the process]. Some directors, to ADs, will be like, “Hey, you’re costing us time.” So [we] didn’t get into that. You just let them do the job because you know what they need.
In 201, there’s a corridor shot where O.B. (Ke Huy Quan) tosses the TVA handbook over his shoulder and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) catches it. Is that what prompted the idea to do even more manual flipping?
Yeah, that was something that Ke started doing with the manual. He just always flips it. In episode two, we had a few takes to try to get it right because a little bit of a flare is great. But it was funny because they set up some tubes on [O.B.’s counter] in episode one and Loki knocked one over. And then in our episode, one was sitting there, and we kept knocking it over [when O.B. flips the handbook and hands it to Mobius]. We finally just got rid of the thing. So you run into stuff like that and it costs you a couple of extra takes. [Writer’s note: When the shot changes to Mobius and Loki’s perspective, you can see that the tube is no longer present like it was in the previous shot.]
What were you using on set to create the impact of the time cubes?
So that was an interesting day for visual effects. That’s one of the sequences where I knew it wouldn’t be great for them in terms of cleaning it up. For Rafael [Casal], we did some rehearsals where he pantomimed being squeezed in the time cube, and it just didn’t sell. So it became one of the simplest, un-technologically exciting ways of doing it. We basically got plexiglass with handles, and the special effects team just started shoving the pieces of plexiglass against themselves. So that gave Rafael leverage to push back off of, and when he’s lifted up in the air, the special effects team built a little riser. On the backside, visual effects had to go back and paint all those guys out. The good news with that set was that the wall was pretty much just one color. So you didn’t have to paint back complicated designs on the wall, and that made it easier.
The color palettes between the TVA and the 1982 McDonald’s have a lot in common. How much were you trying to lean into those shared colors?
I think it was a side effect of the times. McDonald’s came in and worked with our art department in terms of re-creating it. They brought the designs for the wallpaper, and they found a mold for the Hamburglar. I was hoping they’d have a Grimace, but they couldn’t find a Grimace. So McDonald’s contributions brought that to life along with all the great work by the art department. It wasn’t necessarily intentional; it’s just that McDonald’s in 1982 and the TVA have a lot of brown.
That Oklahoma McDonald’s is not located in a densely populated area. Did you dress a real location, or was the exterior manufactured on stage?
So we talked about doing it on stage, but we found a restaurant 40 minutes outside of London that had been empty for a year or so. There’s a little bit of farmland out there that could double for Oklahoma. When we went to scout the location, it was once a curry restaurant or something, so there were holes in the roof and stains on the floor. (Laughs.) Kasra [Farahani], our production designer, was there with all his artwork, and the curved windows are what excited him most, because they were everywhere on McDonald’s designs back then. So he was like, “Don’t worry, it’s going to look great! We’re going to put visual effects on the outside.” And then he brought in all the set dressing, the tables, the wallpaper, the old cash register, the slides they put the burgers on, so I couldn’t really find anything that took it out of the time period.
Well, Dan, I’ll see you at the premiere of your “elevated thriller,” Zaniac.
(Laughs.) Yeah, we’ll do it at Blumhouse. It’ll be a bit more of a horror thing.
Loki is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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