THE ODD COUPLE
SFX|January 2021
Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe begins – slightly later than planned – with the surreal and secrecy shrouded Disney+ series WandaVision. SFX speaks to its showrunner and stars
TARA BENNETT

AFTER 13 YEARS OF dominating the attention spans of global cinemagoers with its string of 23 box office successes, no one would hold it against Marvel Studios if it decided to lay off the gas a bit. But that’s not how the President of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, or his team of storytellers operate.

As Spider-Man: Far From Home closed Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2019, there was no rest for the weary. By the end of that summer, at both San Diego Comic-Con and D23 Expo, Feige had announced their even more aggressively ambitious slate for Phase Four, including an added slate of in-canon limited series to air exclusively on streaming service Disney+.

Among those series was WandaVision, featuring the return of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany as the superheroes/lovers Wanda Maximoff and Vision. One of the many head-scratching details presented was a teaser image of the duo wearing ’50s-era clothing, seemingly plucked from the stage of a frothy Golden Age of Television sitcom. Weird, because audiences have only known the pair in contemporary stories. Plus there’s the major wrinkle of Vision being dead, since Thanos (Josh Brolin) ripped the Mind Stone from his head in Avengers: Infinity War.

That confusion hasn’t lessened much since, as Marvel Studios and Disney+ have been tight-lipped about any details, outside of what’s been parcelled out in teasers and trailers for the six-episode series, debuting this month. But SFX can now pull back the curtain more, starting by going back to 2018, when Feige officially put the show’s concept – the pair using sitcoms as an escape mechanism – in development with co-executive producer Mary Livanos.

“Research in general is something that I really enjoy doing as a producer,” Livanos tells SFX via phone, as she and her team in Los Angeles work to complete post-production. “I try to read all the comics, noting every appearance of each character that I deal with.”

It was during that process, Livanos says, that WandaVision’s cast expanded outside of the duo to also include a grown-up Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who originated as a young girl in Captain Marvel. “Her inclusion in the series was a discovery, and not quite mapped out, but it’s really enriched the show.”

Other existing characters, like Kat Dennings’s Darcy Lewis and Randall Park’s FBI agent Jimmy Woo, as well as brand new ones, helped flesh out the treatment. The next step was finding the best candidate to write and showrun the series. Screenwriter Jac Schaeffer was originally brought into Marvel Studios by long-time executive producer (and former film school friend) Brad Winderbaum, but at the time, their schedules never aligned. That changed, however, when Winderbaum needed a writer for Black Widow.

“Brad indoctrinated me,” Schaeffer laughs, as she recalls formally coming into the Marvel Studios fold, based on her dynamic pitch to write Black Widow. She wrote her draft scripts and was then pulled in to help punch up the Captain Marvel script. From there, it was Black Widow co-producer Brian Chape who first clued Schaeffer into the early ideations for WandaVision.

“He told me about it in the super early days, just what the kernel was, and I was like, ‘How does a lady get herself on that show?’” she remembers. “I was invited to pitch. I had gotten really familiar with how one pitches inside of Marvel, and how to express ideas and break a story, so I took all that knowledge and did a big pitch for WandaVision, and was lucky enough to win it.”

Working from the expanded development docs, Schaeffer says she was given an expansive deck of comic materials, along with their ideas, hopes and dreams for what the series could be. “It was really exciting, beautiful and just shiny and full of promise, and noisy and insane,” she enthuses. “But what they were looking for was shape. It was an incredible idea, an incredible space and a really intoxicating collision of pop culture, yet what they needed was a way to make it work, a way for it to hang together, narratively and in terms of a legitimate and affecting character arc.

“That’s what I pitched upon: how do we follow a yellow brick road through all of this hairy and exciting territory?” As it turns out, her initial pitch remains very close to what audiences will see in the limited series in terms of what’s happening with Wanda and Vision, and their love story. Since WandaVision is also part of the new vanguard of episodic storytelling at Marvel Studios, Livanos says there was a learning curve for everyone about what their version of expanded storytelling would look like.

“For us, it all started with figuring out what the characters were going through, entering the situation, and from there, we were able to structure and lay out the series accordingly,” he explains.

“Something that Mary and Kevin said early on was that part of the way that they wanted to look at this was as a run of comics,” Schaeffer continues. “It’s a condensed deep dive where we get to really explore this bananas adventure that we find these two characters in. Now prior to this, I had not been in television since the very beginning of my career, when I was an assistant. And I’m an enormous consumer of television, but I hadn’t written for television, which I think was to our collective benefit.”

Why? Because Marvel Studios and Schaeffer were all referring to WandaVision as a “really rich, enormous feature,” which means ambition-wise, they were on the same page. They just needed to break the story elements into a coherent series. “WandaVision is in the bizarre space of being a tentpole movie within a limited series construct,” Schaeffer explains. “And once we started breaking the story, we had to figure out how to carve out the episodes from within the larger story.” To do that, Schaeffer hired a room of TV writers to help them place the pieces into a satisfying whole.

Though loathe to share details about exactly which Scarlet Witch or Vision comics served as a foundation for the series, Schaeffer explained some of her guiding principles with the series. As she immersed herself into the mythology of the MCU films, she found herself gravitating towards a lot of unexpected sequences.

“I really liked the more mundane moments, or the small character moments,” she explains. “In Infinity War, [Wanda and Vision] have this moment in Scotland where they put their life as superheroes on pause, and I think that is very relatable to people. It’s the idea of ‘Let’s hide away from the world and just be, and see if this works.’ And when I pitched Black Widow, I had a lot of ‘What’s her real-life like in the real world?’ She’s a superhero and a crazy assassin, but what’s the humanity and day-to-day underneath that?

“That is one of the really delicious and exciting things about WandaVision,” Schaeffer continues. “We get to see the two of them in several very domestic environments. And we took those moments from the MCU that really shine, and I felt grateful and excited to drop into that space with them for longer.”

Feige, Livanos and Schaeffer also focused on finding a director who could deftly balance the disparate elements of the series, from reproducing the look and vibe of classic sitcoms to massive MCU-style set-pieces. As with Schaeffer, it turned out to be someone who was already on Marvel Studios’ radar: Matt Shakman.

A Marvel fan since the tender age of three, Shakman says he used to dress up as SpiderMan so frequently in pre-school that his teacher eventually banned his web-slinging ways. Professionally, Shakman’s done a bit of everything in Hollywood, from being a child actor in sitcoms like Just The Ten Of Us, Diff ’rent Strokes and The Facts Of Life, to working as a special effects make-up artist mentored by the legendary Dick Smith – and now a director for series like Fargo, Game Of Thrones and The Good Wife.

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