WandaVision director Matt Shakman tells DQ about bringing the Marvel Cinematic Universe to television, rewatching old sitcoms and why limited series might be the best format for small-screen stories.
For more than three years, Marvel Studios had been plotting how its army of superheroes could conquer television the same way they had dominated the box office ever since Iron Man burst onto cinema screens in 2008 to herald the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The company had previously ventured into TV with series such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Inhumans and the Netflix collection featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, who first appeared in standalone series before uniting in crossover event The Defenders.
But this would be the first time Marvel Studios had transplanted characters from The Avengers onto TV – and on a streaming platform, no less, with these new limited series destined for Disney+.
Then when the first series launched in January this year, it was like nothing ever seen before from the MCU. Blending Marvel’s trademark action with America’s heritage of classic sitcoms, WandaVision introduced Wanda Maximoff and Vision as two superpowered beings living idealised suburban lives, with the first episode placing them – without explanation – in a world inspired by 1950s and 60s comedies such as I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Episode two then moves further into the 1960s with I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, while The Brady Bunch, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Family Ties, Full House, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family and more then influence later episodes as the show arrives in the present day.
But as the story plays out, newlyweds Wanda and Vision begin to suspect that everything is not as it seems in their home town of Westview, with outside forces soon emerging to upset their domestic bliss.
At a time when audiences around the world were struggling through lockdowns, WandaVision proved to be a show the whole family could watch, while Marvel fanatics rallied together to uncover its secrets and debate how the story might unfold – and how these new events might relate to the wider MCU.
Matt Shakman, who directed all nine episodes, says it was “an incredible honour” to helm the first MCU series to land on Disney+, with The Falcon & the Winter Soldier following in March and Loki launching earlier this month. “We never expected the show would come out in the middle of a worldwide pandemic,” he tells DQ. “Who could have predicted that? But a show that was a meditation about grief and loss and, ultimately, about love and about family seemed to be well timed for a world that was wrestling with issues of grief and loss as well.
“The timing of it ended up being interesting and surprising. But I’m really proud of the show and proud of the cast and the crew and the incredible artistic collaborators I had. It was a wonderful two years bringing it to life.”
Shakman joined the project in mid-2019, several months after creator and head writer Jac Schaeffer (Black Widow) first came on board and began to assemble a team of writers to bring the story to the screen.
“They were busy dreaming about what the series could be and building on the original concept from [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige – this idea of taking Wanda and Vision and putting them in a suburban setting and putting it in the world of sitcoms,” the director says. “Jac and her team were busy fleshing that out when I joined up. It was a wonderful conversation and collaboration that went on for several years as we shaped this thing together.”
Wanda, played by Elizabeth Olsen, was first introduced to the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), while ‘synthezoid’ Vision was created in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). But despite the characters’ close connection and burgeoning romance, it’s notable how little screen time they had actually shared before headlining a series together.
“They have been in these films with so many other vibrant and amazing characters, and they’ve had, I think, just about 10 minutes of screen time together to establish who they are and this relationship,” Shakman admits. “Somehow, because of the magic of those characters, the writing, but maybe most of all the chemistry between the actors, they managed to make an indelible mark in that 10 minutes that meant we were rooting for them. So when Vision dies in Avengers: Infinity War, our hearts are broken and we wonder what will happen and how [Wanda] will pick up the pieces of that.”
That question directly informs events in WandaVision, which takes a deep dive into Wanda’s grief as the story explores the circumstances behind the new life she has created for herself and Vision.
“They both have a rich comic book history separately and together, but to spend six hours, nine episodes, focusing on their love story, which is really one of the most important love stories in the MCU and in the Marvel comics canon, and to have two amazing actors like Paul and Lizzie to bring those characters to life, it was just an undeniably wonderful idea to explore that,” Shakman says.
Despite having the MCU films to lean on, the director says every episode of WandaVision felt like creating a brand new world, with the sitcom stylings of each part informing every aspect – from the camerawork and performance to costume and production design. From the beginning, blending the MCU with classic sitcoms gave Shakman and his team the chance to push boundaries and take some experimental leaps.
“But all that stuff works because you have this powerful spine, this love story and this idea of how you can overcome loss and the question of [whether you actually can]. That’s really what held it all together,” he says. “My job as a director was mostly focused on storytelling and how best to tell that story. Peppering Easter eggs throughout definitely was something that happened. Sometimes that was the writer, sometimes that was me, sometimes that was an actor. Sometimes that would be the prop designer who was having fun putting a label on a wine bottle that sent the world crazy because it said ‘House of M’ [in reference to a Wanda comic book series].
“The chief goal is always to tell the best story possible. We are building on these amazing stories that have existed, and that’s what super fun. It’s out there. There are all these wonderful comic book runs that we looked at and studied carefully. But what I’ve loved about the Marvel Studios approach to the MCU is that they aren’t just adapting one comic book. They look at it as the opportunity to create a new comic book run that builds on what’s come before and launch something new. So we osmosed all the stuff that was out there and then tried to make something new that we felt was tailored to this moment.”
Rooting the show in the world of sitcoms gave Shakman “a professional excuse” to spend hours watching classic series, which he says makes working on WandaVision “the best job ever.” But the key to recreating the sitcoms’ spirit was authenticity, with the director keen for it not to appear like WandaVision is trying to spoof or mimic these shows.
“This was Wanda’s show and, ultimately, it’s revealed that this is Wanda’s way of dealing with her trauma and that she has the power of creation,” he explains. “She’s an incredibly powerful witch, so the show we were creating had to have so much integrity. To that end, no detail was too small. We looked at the original prints of episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. We wanted to really understand what The Brady Bunch looked like. What were the palette colours involved in that show? And we studied performance; we studied how comedy changed through the era as we studied how people walked, talked and moved, and their clothing.”
Though the early episodes are presented almost wholly as episodes of classic black-and-white sitcoms, elements of the wider story slowly start to infiltrate Wanda and Vision’s world, with out-of-place props, pops of colour and even other characters – including neighbours Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) and Herb (David Payton) – hinting at the bigger picture.
“There’s always something hiding under the surface in WandaVision that is threatening to creep its way in,” says Shakman, who compares the show to series such as The Twilight Zone or Jordan Peele film Get Out, with a feeling that people around Wanda are perhaps being controlled against their will or where viewers can sense a “lake of trauma” is bubbling beneath the surface.
Finding that balance between the authentic recreation of numerous sitcoms and Wanda’s path in the story was one of the great challenges the director had in making the show. “It really was a great opportunity, as a director, to play around with styles and to throw it all into the pot, mix it up and add different spices and ingredients and see what we could create,” he says.
“Then, of course, once you get into the universe outside Westview, then you are in more of a traditional Marvel universe. But even then, we wanted to give it our own spin and make sure there was a real tension between the sitcom world, the real world and what happens when the barrier between them starts to break down. We had a great deal of fun playing with aspect ratios and filters and all the tricks of the trade, because playing around with form was ultimately playing around with narrative. It was a way to tell a story about what was really happening.”
Working with “fearless” stars Olsen and Bettany, Shakman was also putting two established characters in a completely new environment. “There was a lot of risk, and the opportunity to feel silly was there every day, but they are so smart, so well prepared and so playful that we had the best time,” he says of working with the stars. “This show was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a director, just working with this team and also being able to do such different stuff. You’re never coming back to the same thing. You’re doing a witches’ coven in old Salem one day and you’re doing a 1950s sitcom in front of a live audience the next. It was a lot of fun for all of us to continually adjust to the new challenges.”
While Shakman’s “day job” is that of artistic director at Geffen Playhouse in LA, his screen credits include Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty, House, Mad Men and Fargo. But it is his work on season seven of Game of Thrones, helming episodes The Spoils of War and Eastwatch, that provides the best parallel to WandaVision in terms of creating something “truly cinematic” for the small screen. Working on the mega-hit HBO fantasy series gave him the chance to “dream big” in a way he hadn’t been able to do up to that point, even though the budget for an hour of Game of Thrones still paled in comparison to that for an Avengers movie.
On WandaVision, “we’re doing six hours of a Marvel show, whereas an Avengers film will only be two hours and change. There definitely was a scale difference [between film and television budgets], but Marvel wanted to deliver something that felt like a continuation of the brand that they’d built in the movie theatre,” Shakman says. “I always felt supported by them and we did the best we could. But of course, with filmmaking, even at the highest studio level, you always feel like you never have enough money.”
Sets for WandaVision were often designed in instances where costs meant they couldn’t be built from scratch. One example is the SWORD facility where Vision is disassembled. These scenes were actually shot at an old building in Atlanta that had an open courtyard, which the design team transformed into an operating theatre.
“That’s one of my favourite sets in the whole show,” says Shakman. “Even at big levels of filmmaking, when you feel like you’re making an indie film, a student film or those films you made as a kid on your camcorder at home, that’s when you really feel the joy of filmmaking. Sometimes it’s more fun to have limitations.”
Further MCU series such as Ms Marvel and Hawkeye are now expected to arrive on Disney+ later this year, while Moonknight, She-Hulk and Secret Invasion are among several others in the pipeline. In a post-pandemic world where it remains to be seen how cinemas will bounce back, Marvel’s plans for the small screen are further blurring the boundaries between television and film by taking advantage of the rising popularity of limited series.
With shows such as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, for example, “you can invest in characters for six, seven or eight episodes and you don’t have to take all the shortcuts in a movie,” says Shakman, speaking to DQ during the Banff World Media Festival, where he joined a directors panel.
“In a limited series, you can take that little extra time for the character moments, but still deliver wonderfully big set pieces. For me, that feels like reading a great book, and now movies almost feel a little too fast. Yet at the same time, I can’t imagine watching 22 episodes of a show for an entire season either; it feels like too much. Maybe we’re finally settling into what the proper format is for our narrative. Six to eight episodes is a pretty perfect way to digest something.”