It's fitting that Marvel's first streaming show is a love letter to golden age of TV, says WandaVision director Matt Shakman
In an exclusive interview, Matt Shakman breaks down the style of WandaVision, why it is inspired from classic family sitcoms, and how the show will shape Phase 4 of the MCU.
WandaVision is the first show in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With its focus on Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Betanny), two of the most eccentric characters of the MCU, the show isn't billed to be your regular superhero fare.
To decode that, we spoke exclusively to Matt Shakman, who has directed all nine episodes of WandaVision. In edited excerpts below, he talks about how he arrived at the style of the series, and how it pushes the discourse on mental health.
The most striking quality of WandaVision is its tone inspired from the golden-age sitcom culture. It is refreshing to see a spectacle movie brand like Marvel Studios pay ode to the history of television. How did this marriage take place?
I think it's really fitting that the first streaming show from Marvel is a love letter to the golden age of television. We wanted to create these different eras with great authenticity to make sure we were bringing them alive in the way they actually did the shows back in the day. It was important that we avoided that it looked like a satire or spoof or a send-up in any way. We were really trying to create them accurately. This is a love story between Wanda and Vision, and it's really a show about family. So we focused on the family sitcoms that still resonate today, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and so on.
As a child artiste, you have acted in some of the shows WandaVision offers hat tip to. How nostalgic was it for you?
There's definitely a little bit of nostalgia, and also a little bit of therapy, in revisiting my past in such a way. The street where Wanda and Vision's house actually is the Warner Bros Ranch, where I used to shoot called Just the Ten of Us when I was a kid. I'd skateboard down what they call Blondie Street during my lunch break. And here I was, shooting at the same place after all these years and surrounded by all these houses that have been used in Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, and The Partridge Family. It's full of the DNA of all the old television shows, which is why I wanted to put Vision and Wanda's house there. But it was also filled with the ghosts of my own television past. So it was really nostalgic.
Do you think this expansion of MCU into several tributaries of streaming shows allows more diverse sub-genres into the superhero space? What new can you do here which you would not be able to while directing a Marvel movie?
It's really wonderful to take these two characters from the Avengers movies where they've had relatively less screen time but have managed to make such a distinct impression.
To put them into a nine-episode Marvel series where we can go deep into who they are and their relationship, and take them to new exciting places, it's really great. We'll also be able to introduce characters in WandaVision that will go on to have some role in the future MCU movies. So it's all part of one large narrative fabric. There's a lot that will be created in the streaming world that you'll see in the movies and vice-versa. Marvel is a comics company first. There are a lot of comics that are short runs and long runs. Streaming shows are the long runs.
It is no surprise that Wanda and Vision are rather unusual, as Vision says in the trailer. What new do you think you have said about being 'odd' or being different through WandaVision?
Yes, we're taking about an unusual couple in a classic suburban setting, which isn't too different from Bewitched or I Dream of Genie, other shows about magical creatures keeping themselves away from their suburban neighbours, and trying to fit in. This show is thematically about that. So much of Marvel movies are about that. Why are we different, and how do we celebrate that difference? I'm excited that WandaVision does delve into that.
As we also saw in Avengers: Infinity War, both Vision and Wanda often attempt to escape their fate, but are forced back into the drill of saving the world by the virtue of who they are. What do you think of this conflict between escapism and responsibility?
That's a great question. The show is bit of a puzzle. It's slowly sharing its secrets. I hope viewers will enjoy solving that puzzle as they go along. Part of this puzzle is the reality we're in. Wanda and Vision are also wondering about that, and what it means for their past, present, and the future. I'd hate to say more until the folks have a chance to watch it themselves.
You edited the portions shot before the production halted because of the pandemic. How did that inform the way you approached the rest of the show once you returned to set?
We filmed everything all at once in a sense. Since I was the only director on the show, we didn't shoot it episode by episode. We did it in bits and pieces — one day, it was the '50s, one day it was the '70s, one day it was a big Marvel action sequence. So it was fun and surprising for the cast, for me, for my production team. We'd done a lot of good work in Atlanta, and were about to start in Los Angeles when the world changed. We had to pause, and we did pivot to post-production. It was a good opportunity but it didn't change the plan. We came back to LA to shoot specific things, like Blondie Street at Warner Bros Ranch, and be around that DNA of classic television. By the time we came back to set, we were very close to the delivery date. We didn't have the longest post-production period since we wrapped.
You have directed episodes of shows like Game of Thrones, Fargo, The Boys, Succession, Mad Men, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Boston Legal, and One Tree Hill. Since you helmed all nine episodes of WandaVision, did that turn out to be an advantage or a challenge?
It was definitely a challenge. I gravitate towards shows that mix tones. I recently did a show called The Great for Hulu, a comedy that's also horror, and also a period drama. I enjoy surprising myself and my audience. WandaVision is the greatest example of that given that it's a combination of authentic, highly stylised sitcom mixed with large-scale Marvel action. It was a great idea to have one person direct the entire thing because you need to make sure there's a through line and the show is cohesive, and also because each episode is so different from the other. Ultimately, this show is a love story. That's the through line, the spine that holds the show together.
What is it about the love story of Wanda and Vision that sets it apart from the ones we have seen?
They're a very unusual pair. She's a fiery figure who doesn't even understand the extent of power but has undergone a lot of trauma. He's sort of human in a way but is more human than most of us. He has a philosophical take on humanity. So they really are the ultimate 'opposites attract.' We've seen them as being charming together, being funny together, and obviously there's a great loss on both sides. This is besides the obvious chemistry that Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany have as performers. I think that's why the audience is so taken in by their story.
Finally, we all know Wanda has been battling mental health issues since birth. Since 2020 was a year that placed the focus back on mental health because of the unprecedented situation caused by the pandemic, what insight about mental health does WandaVision aim to provide?
It's a really good question. When I first met Lizzy Olsen about the show, she said about Wanda that it's the closest the MCU gets to talking about mental health issues. She's lost her parents, brother (Pietro, in Avengers: The Age of Ultron), and partner in Vision (killed by Thanos in Infinity War). She's been manipulated and used by Hydra. She's in this long journey to find out who she is, who she wants to be, and the life she wants to make for herself. It's a beautiful way to tell the story about how we need to deal with grief and loss, and find hope at a time when we're facing difficult circumstances. Certainly, this year has been difficult for everyone around the world. But I'm happy that WandaVision will be out at this time because it's a show that gives a great deal of laughter and joy, and I hope it brings some solace to the people watching it.
WandaVision will premiere on Disney+ Hotstar Premium on 15 January.
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