Matt Shakman with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in WandaVision (photo by Chuck Zlotnick. © Marvel Studios)
In a world where most episodic directors specialize in hour-long dramas or half-hour comedies – and some specialize even further in those formats known for procedural or prestigious dramas or multi-cam sitcoms – Matt Shakman is possibly the most versatile Filmmaker who works on television today. He's made one of the funniest comedies on television (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), one of the biggest and most popular premium cable series (Game of Thrones), and behind some of the best episodes of Succession, Fargo and Mad Men. Shakman, the Also serving as Artistic Director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, he's as comfortable with audience favorites like The Good Wife as he is with a Hulu-era piece like The Great (for which he received an Emmy nomination) Angeles – extremely elusive and seems to like it that way.
Shakhan's most recent job directing all nine episodes of Marvel's WandaVision for Disney + requires that he use all of the skills he has acquired over the years not only as a television and theater director, but also as a child actor. He began his career in front of the camera in sitcoms such as Growing Pains, Webster and Just the Ten of Us. This backdrop is a clear indication of his approach to WandaVision, an uncategorizable mix of old school television styles and contemporary Marvel iconography action. At the start of the series, characters Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) from the Avengers films inexplicably jumped back to the 1950s and (despite Vision's earlier death on screen) happily live in black and black white world shot in the style of the Dick Van Dyke Show. As the series progresses, Wanda and Vision tour several other television traditions in episodes modeled on Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Malcolm in the Middle, and other classics. Meanwhile, as we realize, the Marvel Universe is slowly beginning to infiltrate the series when we learn that the sitcom world was invented out of nowhere by the supernaturally gifted Wanda in response to the heartache of losing sight. Shakman orchestrates all of this like a master conductor who moves seamlessly between familiar TV styles and a modern comic-cinema language, underpinning it all with the most emotional storyline in Marvel Studios history. After all of WandaVision's episodes aired and its secrets revealed, I placed a Zoom call with Shakman to learn how such a remarkably ambitious, risky and ultimately artistically successful game of chance was planned. (Editor's Note: This interview contains spoilers.)
Filmmaker: WandaVision has such a strange concept. How were the early conversations between you and Marvel and what stage was the series at? Was it just an idea, did you already have scripts? Tell me about how you got involved and what the early stages of the show's development were like.
Matt Shakman: I'm a lifelong Marvel fan. I was a comic book reader as a kid, and I've been in every Marvel Studios movie since Day One of Iron Man. It was a dream of mine to work with Marvel. When they took me to a show about Wanda and Vision, I was really intrigued. I had no idea what the show was going to be, what they were thinking. I met with producer Mary Livanos and Jac Schaeffer, the lead writer, who by then had been working on it for a few months and was just beginning to figure out what the show would be about. At that meeting they introduced me to the idea of a robot and a witch moving to a small town in suburban New Jersey. They would use the history of television and sitcom reality would eventually fall apart, and the whole story would be an exploration of the trauma Wanda went through, which I definitely knew from the comics and their appearances in the Marvel Universe so far. I was very intrigued by the emotional story and romance, but also by the opportunity to play with a shape that was clearly on the table. It started as a concept by Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel Studios, to bring Wanda and Vision into a suburban setting and have that suburban setting based on sitcoms. He's a huge fan of television history, just like me, as are Jac and Mary. They had put together a wonderful group of writers and Jac was running this room and starting to outline and figure out what the whole story would be like. At the same time, I started putting my team together and we would design set pieces and sequences and develop what the world would look like and feel, storyboarding and pre-vis and all those things. The things we made up would then be passed on to Jac, and we would script them over time. So we built the world together. It was great fun.
Filmmaker: One of the things I really love about the show is that it feels real, not like parody – this first episode really feels like something that could be aired alongside the Dick Van Dyke Show. I heard you met Van Dyke before we started shooting. What did you learn from him that influenced your approach?
Shakman: Authenticity was key from the start. We wanted to make sure we avoid parodies that no one thought this was too many cooks. This was a love letter to television history, but it was also Wanda's television show she created for herself to escape the world. And she's extremely good at creating things – that's her superpower, this ability to create things from whole stuff. So we wanted to carefully study any shows that would have influenced Wanda's creation of this world and bring those shows to life in as much detail as possible. To that end, we saw many episodes. We read books about the making of the shows. We looked at original prints of shows so we could really make sure we were recreating the look the creators intended.
And we talked to people who actually worked on those shows. One of those people we got to hang out with was Dick Van Dyke. Kevin Feige and I had a really wonderful lunch with him at Disneyland – this is the perfect place to hang out with Dick van Dyke right through Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a really nice and memorable afternoon talking about his experience on the Dick Van Dyke Show, which I consider the perfect TV show – as good today as it was when it came out. At its center is that couple that you love and that you put down roots for and believe in. You really believe in Rob and Laura, you believe in this relationship and the passion they have for each other and their family.
We wanted that. Our story is a love story; You should root Wanda and Vision as much as you should Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke. So I asked if there was any secret sauce that helped make this show so successful and he was very kind to talk about how they approached the tone. Because in the end it's all about the sound, and that's what we've been following all along and trying to put our finger on it. That tone changes from era to era and from show to show, just like comedy and acting styles change. But he said Carl Reiner would start rehearsing every week, asking each of the actors about their own lives, what had happened to them over the weekend and what was wrong with them, their wives and their husbands and their children and their families. That was what he would draw from for the stories because he believed – and that was the rule of the show – if it couldn't happen in real life, it shouldn't happen on the show. This sense of grounding and holding onto real-world experiences allowed the show to go to some pretty fun and silly places. You can trip over an ottoman, you can have Mary Tyler Moore come out of a closet onto a walnut waterfall, as long as you are also grounded in some kind of reality that we can all identify with and understand. We tried to apply this principle to what we did. And of course there was a deep reality among all of our sitcoms, namely this lake of trauma that Wanda went through and that she tries to escape by going into this world that is always there.
Filmmaker: Taking into account this Carl Reiner Principle, how much did the actors inform their characters? It sounds strange to say that an actor is playing a robot, but Paul Bettany was so natural it felt like he was playing himself.
Shakman: I think, in a way, that this always happens, or at least it should. Paul and everyone in that cast – Elizabeth Olsen, Teyonah Parris, Kathryn Hahn – are so talented and able to jump into any tone and style that they are ready to jump off a cliff and take the greatest risk. And Paul is a wonderful comedian from the theater that I saw in plays when I first went to London when I was younger – he was at the RSC at the time. He did everything. And we got to know him as a vision in the Marvel Universe, this philosopher who is not human, but somehow more human than the rest of us. And this was a wonderful opportunity to point out other aspects and to place this logical robotic synthetoid in a world where he could become nervous and overwhelmed by the struggles of everyday family life. But he's capable of anything, Lizzie is capable of anything, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah. It was really fun to see what they can do and how far we can take it.
Filmmaker: How did you convey what the show would be like to them? Because here, too, it is very unusual and difficult to define.
Shakman: We kept in touch with them over time and sent scripts as they were developed as a group in advance of our meeting and had lots of conversations so we could hear their thoughts and explain things and bring their thoughts into the scripts . I come from the theater so I'm a big fan of rehearsals. I think it's incredibly important, especially on a project like this that is so unique. You can't just show up on the set and say, "Okay, we're in the 70s" and try to figure out what that style means – that would have been very difficult. I think it would have been a challenge to make sure everyone was on the same tone and style. So we got together as a group and had what was called a sitcom boot camp which was basically just rehearsals where we watched a lot of TV shows, read books about it, and discussed the styles and changing styles. We worked with a wonderful dialect and movement trainer to talk about how the actors physically move and how they would sound in different eras. We listened to music and whatever we could do to put ourselves in this environment. Then we rehearsed the scenes and played around with them, and that was definitely helpful in developing a common approach for each era. When we did the first episode, we rehearsed it like a piece in the days before.
We did it in front of a live studio audience, just like I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show, and it was exciting for everyone. This was the first thing we filmed, and we did some live taping that Marvel had never done and probably never will do again. We all had to hold hands together and jump off the cliff together – not only did we bring our artistic ideas together as a group, but we also built the sense of camaraderie that brings the group together. We were a lucky group of players who would spend the next few years together trying to make this happen.
Filmmaker: What are the logistics of doing a Marvel show in front of a live audience, considering how secret the studio is to its footage before it airs?
Shakman: I'm really grateful to the people who were in this audience that kept it a secret. It was a group of friends and friends of friends. We collected phones, got people to sign an NDA before they could come in, and we tried to explain why we had to keep it a secret. I think everyone got it, and we all kept the secret together, which was very nice. And what a fun day it was – we were all dressed in contemporary clothes, and a lot of spectators came in contemporary clothes. We were able to play the first theme song demo for everyone and introduce the cast as you would have done a taping earlier. And because we actually wanted to film the seating plan later, in the penultimate episode, in which we see Wanda creating the first sitcom set, we went to great lengths to create a timed auditorium. The seating and everything was contemporary.
Filmmaker: On this subject of authenticity from the time, another thing that I absolutely loved about the show was the way you used sound design to express points of view and convey the era. TV shows from different eras not only look different, they sound different, and I felt like you did a lot with them.
Shakman: Yes, we thought about sound as much as we thought about the visual attempt to achieve authenticity. To that end, we have a Laughter Marks Advisor, someone who was the world's expert on them and who could tell us how they were going to change. The Dick Van Dyke Show was done in front of a live studio audience and they mostly used whatever recordings they got from that audience. But when you get to Bewitched it'll be a laugh track because that's a single camera show done on a set with no audience. So it's changing and we wanted to make sure the salmon trail adjusted too. We researched how to do it and then our own loop groups copied the sounds of the laugh tracks through the ages, including certain distinctive laughs that you would hear generation after generation until the tape wore out. We tried to recreate some of these typical laughs to make them time specific.
In terms of sound design, the first episode is filmed in front of a live audience, and the Dick Van Dyke Show didn't have much going on in terms of ambient noise. You didn't insert realistic backgrounds. It was very much like a play – you could hear the actors' dialogue and some sound effects, and that was about it. But as the episode progresses and Wanda and Vision sit at the dining table with Mr. and Mrs. Hart asking them questions about their story, she suddenly switches from that multi-camera sitcom style to the more Twilight Zone episode where it's more subjective becomes. We changed our lenses, lighting and sound design. Suddenly you can hear the clock and in the distance the sound of traffic. You hear a bit of wind and it feels like a realistic environment for the first time. Then turn around and look back at Vision at an angle that you would never have in a multi-camera sitcom because you would see the audience. Now there is a finished set behind him and a window and the wind is blowing on the curtain. We wanted to get the idea that under all this sitcom facade there is something, something lurking, and it shows through at certain moments.
Then you get into the second episode which is a lot more of In Love with a Witch, and the sound design changes there too. Eventually we switched from mono to stereo because that would have happened in the development of the sound design. And what's more, the hex that Wanda built is based on an evolution of the early video in the 80s. So you've got the little streaks you would have seen there and you're moving more into the digital world and the aughts in the 90s. The hex changes based on the time period that is in it at that moment. Visual effects and special effects also play a major role. We used a lot of wire work and jump cuts like you would see in those early episodes on Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie because we wanted it to feel like it was on those shows. When something happens that is a Marvel Effect, like Vision reaching into Mr. Hart's throat and pulling out a strawberry, it is using modern technology. There is real tension in it and it stands out because you haven't seen this in the whole time.
Filmmaker: The show also did a great job recreating the music from different TV eras and the theme songs. What was your approach to music?
Shakman: I went to college with Bobby Lopez and have known him and his talented crime partner and Mrs. Kristen Anderson Lopez for a long time. I knew they were big fans of television and could easily break into songs and remember every single theme song from the 70s and 80s. So I reached out to her immediately because I knew that we would really need specific theme songs and that the theme songs sometimes had to have a certain narrative weight, like in the first episode where we build our world where a witch and a robot move into a small town in New Jersey. We also wanted to make sure that they capture the spirit and tone of the show and help to inform that. Jac Schaeffer and I worked closely with them during the year and a half that they wrote these songs, and we all talked about what each episode was about and how we felt needed from that opening on. and the tone and style and all the benchmarks from the era – sometimes it was other shows, sometimes they were movies, and sometimes they took on artists of the era. We have compiled our references and agreed on what we consider to be the best sources. Then they did what they can better than anyone and came back with these theme songs. These theme songs all had to be linked in the same way that the show's production design had to be linked. We wanted everything to iterate so that there was real connective tissue.
The set is basically always the same layout: there's the TV and fireplace, couch, kitchen and stairs, but it evolves through the ages and through the style of the show. So we're assuming an open plan where no fourth wall sitcom is set up in a completely realistic setting for shows like Bewitched or Brady Bunch that didn't have a live audience. The music did the same with the signature Wanda theme. Although they are very different, understand how they are related.
Chris Beck wrote such a beautiful score for the Marvel site, but also wrote the incredibly time-specific and impressive sitcom scores. He would also refer to some of Bobby's and Kristen & # 39; s subjects – I love shows where they reference their own theme song in the score, so we have a couple of them, especially in the '70s episode. He also took some of the Wanda signature themes from the opening songs and took them to really wonderful, surprising places, like where the little girl is watching the Dick Van Dyke Show on our penultimate episode, and it's a throwback to young Wanda She is with her family the night her parents are killed. She's immersed in the Dick Van Dyke Show, and you'll hear those notes from the Wanda theme song when you understand the whole world is being built here. His work really straddles the line between the sitcom and the Marvel symphonic stuff at the end, and his graduation, the actual main music at the end, is such a beautiful subject.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the tone earlier, and the tonal range of this show is insane – it goes from the sitcom to the pretty harrowing tragedy. How do you create these transitions between tones? Is it on the page or in the way it's done, or do you really need to tweak it while editing?
Shakman: All of the above. I think we were trying to work on the sound the whole time, whether on the page, in rehearsal, or when we were filming it. In the editing room, the sound is certainly a mystery. It's like that little dancing flame that you're looking for, and I think a lot of it is discovered through rehearsal and performance. Then, while you were recording it, I definitely wanted to give myself room to adjust it while we went into the editing process. So play with how far we can bring the silliness, breadth, and humor, then make sure we remember the circumstances and justify some of the settings. We always had an opportunity when we stood back in the mail and saw the whole forest that we could modulate it and make sure we were telling a cohesive story.
There's also a way you'll move into those moments – we've referred to them as "Get Out" moments or "Twilight Zone" moments where the reality below breaks through. They had to be bought a lot. Especially when editing, rewinding or jumping, or just at moments of discomfort like at the dining table: How do you get in and out of the Twilight Zone? You definitely took a lot of trial and error in editing it. I had an amazing trio of editors, and our sound designers at Skywalker really worked and played and figured out what worked best.
Filmmaker: I think I'm excited to see how your background as a child actor affects your approach to this. Even if you haven't necessarily shot multi-cam sitcoms in front of a live studio audience before, you've performed on them. What perspective does that give you?
Shakman: This show felt like therapy to me, just like Wanda, because I grew up watching sitcoms in the 80s and measured my childhood through rehearsals and tape nights. I knew the process very well – I had lived it so I was sure I knew how I structured the process, especially when we were doing the live taping and how we were approaching some sitcom staging and filming. I had been moved by some of the best sitcom directors of the 80s so I knew how that worked. Then when we moved into the '90s and the Aughts, we were in a style that I actually staged. I hadn't worked on Malcolm in the middle, but I did work on shows that used that style. And then of course Modern Family – I didn't do Modern Family, but happy endings and the like.
There were a lot more in my wheelhouse, but I would say that multi-camera is very similar to theater. Many theater directors direct multi-camera sitcoms, and had even done so in the past. It was like a theater. I think that's one of the special things about the Dick Van Dyke Show. Another thing he shared with us over lunch is that unlike a modern day sitcom where a scene is taped multiple times, there is an MC who is usually trying to keep your energies up and reminding you, "Oh, Pretend you didn't see that scene and laugh like you didn't see it, ”they didn't. They just did it like a play. They didn't pre-record it or make any pickups unless something went terribly wrong. They just did it in front of the audience from start to finish and the audience laughed and reacted as if they were only going to see it because it was them. That's what ended up in the air, and if the audience really thought something was funny and the laughter went on for a while, it did so on the show when you saw it. I think this spirit is the idea of a theater. This interaction, this communication, this dialogue between audience and performers. And it's like lightning in a bottle and it was amazing to see. My incredibly talented group of actors just filled with the energy and excitement they received from the audience, and as a result, new things happened.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian and lives in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.