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‘We Started With Sitcom Boot Camp’: Director Matt Shakman on the Making of ‘WandaVision’

The series director discusses mining series past — and his own long career in television — to craft a layered show that was ultimately ‘about grief and loss’

(L-R:) Director Matt Shakman with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany on the set of 'WandaVision.'

Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

There are few directors better qualified to helm every episode of WandaVision than Matt Shakman. As a kid in the Eighties, he was a working sitcom actor, appearing in multicam hits of the day like The Facts of Life, Webster, and three seasons as a regular on the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us. As an adult director, he’s worked on psychologically intricate dramas like Mad Men and Six Feet Under, epic action like Game of Thrones, and self-aware single-cam comedies like You’re the Worst and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

As a result, he was uniquely equipped for the demands of Disney+’s inaugural series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch used her powers to create a sitcom fantasy land as a way of working through her grief over the deaths of Paul Bettany’s Vision and the rest of her family. Working hand in hand with WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer and the rest of the team, Shakman had to recreate the look and feel of classic multicam comedies like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Family Ties, as well as more modern single-cams like Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. He had to handle the psychological nuances of a story about depression and loss while periodically indulging in spectacle reminiscent of the Avengers films in which his two title characters had previously appeared.

Shakman spoke with Rolling Stone about the challenges of paying tribute to so many vintage shows, the way the series proved therapeutic for him as much as for Wanda, and a lot more.

A few years back, you directed what seemed like a note-perfect Always Sunny homage to Birdman, which you later explained wasn’t intended as an homage at all — just a coincidence of timing. Now that you’ve done all of these intentional sitcom recreations, what’s the secret sauce for doing it so well?
The quote-unquote “Birdman” episode of Sunny really was like — didn’t two people come up with calculus at the same time in different continents? Something was in the air. We wanted to do this oner [an episode made to look like it was shot in a single take], and set it to jazz music. We just got lucky. This one was all about doing a deep dive into sitcoms of the past, this love letter to television. Because it’s ultimately revealed that Wanda is creating this reality from her own history of watching past sitcoms, and her own power is creating this reality, I knew these had to be perfectly done. We approached them with authenticity and not parody the whole time, trying to create a show that would stand up as WandaVision on its own. So we watched old prints, we interviewed people who worked on the shows, we read making-of books, and when possible, we talked to the people who had made them, like Dick Van Dyke.

Which recreation was the hardest to do?
The first one was not that hard, because I direct a lot of theater, and it essentially is theater to do a sitcom in front of a live audience. We had done [the musical episode] “The Nightman Cometh” on Always Sunny the same way. I made the guys do it all the way through in front of an audience so that we could have the incredible reaction of people seeing it the first time. When we were getting into [WandaVision] Episode Three, with The Brady Bunch, that’s tricky, because we were trying to create something that had integrity on its own and wasn’t just copying The Brady Bunch of that era, but had its own language, too. The Seventies are really easy to self-parody, and it was like trying to figure out how do we not go too far with bell bottoms and sideburns. I’m a child of the Eighties, was a sitcom actor in the Eighties, so I know that era really well. I didn’t work on Malcolm, but I almost got hired on Malcolm, and I worked on a lot of Malcolm knock-offs like Oliver Beene. I understood exactly what the zany subjective camera was. And then Modern Family, I’ve done a little of the interview docu-stuff as well.

What’s something you had to do that was much harder than it must have looked to the audience at home?
Certainly, the practical special effects are wickedly hard to do. I thought it would be easy and charming to recreate the Bewitched-style stuff, and no, it took more prep time than some of our big Marvel things — like, all of these technicians hanging out in the rafters with monofilament, getting frustrated because they couldn’t make a plate fly the right way. That stuff is hard, and we had increased respect for the people who made Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. But the biggest thing was tone with actors, because comedy changes over time, acting styles change over time, and for us, it was understanding how comedy worked, but also how they made things feel grounded. It was important to us for this to feel grounded. You look back over those early episodes and hopefully realize it’s telling the same story of a woman dealing with grief and accepting loss.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

What were those conversations like with Elizabeth, Paul, and Kathryn Hahn? What did you have to tell them about how a Sixties sitcom wife or nosy neighbor is different from her Eighties descendant?
We started with sitcom boot camp, which was basically rehearsal. We spent several weeks watching television episodes and discussing them, looking at books about how they made the show, and then reading our own scripts in the style of that. We also worked with a wonderful dialect coach who worked on how people sounded in different eras. Clothing matters a great deal, how people sat, and how they moved — we looked at all of that. The actors are wonderful, and they’re all such hard workers, and they all prepared so well that they would do work on their own watching episodes. They would come in the next day and Paul was like, “I was up all night watching Family Ties! Let’s talk about Tom Hanks!”  But they’re fearless, and we mostly just wanted to give ourselves options. So we pushed the comedy and the broadness, and then would always remember the grounded version and pull back, just to make sure that we were believing always in this love story at the heart of the whole show, and that the stakes were real, to some degree.

In the years after when you were on Just the Ten of Us, what was your attitude about multicam sitcoms? Did you become one of those people who were like, “OK, I did that when I was younger, but I’m a single-cam director now. Multicam is lame!”
[Laughs and points at his nose.]

How do you feel about multicam now having done this?  
I do think of this show as therapy for myself as well as for Wanda. I was a child of “TGIF” land. When I became an adult director, I had a modicum of shame about having been a sitcom kid, and would anyone take me seriously as a proper filmmaker? So I tried to hide that part of my life. But then, ultimately, WandaVision required that I embrace it in a wonderful way. We ended up filming it on the same lot where we shot Just the Ten of Us, on this street called Blondie Street at the Warner Bros. ranch, where you have all those iconic sitcom houses: The Partridge Family, or the Bewitched house, where we of course put Agatha. I used to skateboard there as a kid when I was 12, surrounded by the ghosts of sitcoms past,  and then here I was many decades later, shooting the show, surrounded by those ghosts as well as the ghosts of my own past. It was very much a Christmas Carol-type adventure. But I loved it. It allowed me to own this part of my life that I had maybe tried to ignore a little too much. I’m glad that all this time spent on sitcom stages in the Eighties really made this show possible for me.

Jac Schaeffer recently said that she originally pitched one of the flashback episodes in the style of C.S.I. Were there other shows that were talked about, particularly for the later episodes that took place in the “real” world?
That was definitely discussed: How much would we adhere to this meta idea of that everything is television? And there is a meta side to the S.W.O.R.D. world. Darcy is a binge-watcher, she’s a fan, she is following the events of WandaVision the way that we hoped our watchers would follow the show. So there were things being written on the whiteboard by Jimmy that we’re hoping the fans are also questioning as they’re watching. There was a meta experience already baked into that, and we enjoyed the fact that Randall Park and Kat Dennings are well known for being on sitcoms, and yet they’re not cast in the sitcom world. There was some duality to that that was fun, but the world outside needed to be grounded in order for the world inside to be all of the glorious sitcom that it needed to be. To that end, it’s always 70 and blue skies inside, and we tried to make it as real and dirty and rainy and muddy outside, so the contrast was there. And the same for the acting, too.

There’s been some audience pushback regarding the scenes in the finale where we realize the extent of the psychological torture that Wanda put the people of Westview through. They felt the show was maybe letting Wanda off the hook too easily for enslaving them. Do you feel like she faced appropriate consequences for those actions?
I don’t think we’re letting Wanda off the hook. She realizes in that final episode what she’s done. She’s brought to that moment by Agatha — “Are you a hero? Are you a villain? Heroes don’t torture people.” — and she tries to let them go in that moment, but realizes that she’s not fully able to say goodbye to her family yet. So the crisis at the middle of the episode is important to her story, that she is ultimately moving towards accepting the loss of Vision and her family. The show was always about grief and how we come back from loss, so it always had to end with her accepting that loss, but also accepting this new mantle of the Scarlet Witch and what that means. But that final scene, she comes into town, it’s her walk of shame as she walks through town and feels the daggers being stared at her, meant to be this indictment of her. She is a pariah, and she’s not being forgiven by them. The conversation with Monica is about two people who have bonded over grief and loss understanding the motives behind it. Doesn’t mean it excuses it, and Wanda acknowledges that. She flies away from this town knowing that it wouldn’t really welcome her back.

When you’re loaned toys that Marvel owns, I assume you don’t have to return them in mint condition, but you do have to return them in a condition that’s been pre-arranged so they can be used in the next thing, like how Wanda will be in the Doctor Strange sequel? How much freedom did you guys have to fundamentally change her as a result of what takes place here?
A lot more freedom than I would have expected, actually. I love working at Marvel because they are so welcoming to filmmakers and super-supportive, and Kevin Feige is a wonderful creative partner in building these things. From the outside, people ask that question and they assume it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and you’re fitting into a larger plan. But really, it feels like a relay race, where you’re getting the baton passed to you. You run with it as hard as you can and then pass the baton off. I talked with other filmmakers who are moving forward with these characters, but really, it’s a little bit on them to inherit the snowball that’s coming down the hill towards them, pick it up, and keep rolling with it. They have to continue the narrative we’ve done with these characters, as opposed to us having to end up in a place that works with that next movie.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

What do you remember about directing Elizabeth and Paul in the flashback scene where Vision asks, “What is grief, but love persevering?”
In that scene, there was very little that I needed to do. It’s so simple, they are brilliant, they understood that scene absolutely. It was really about creating the proper space for that to exist, because it’s a deeply emotional scene. So it was about keeping it quiet and not trying to distract from camera stuff and letting it be about these two people. That line is incredibly powerful, and I think the line before it is incredibly powerful too, and the one that got so much attention wouldn’t work without the one about what grief feels like to her, how she’s drowning in waves of grief. That is the scene that’s the thematic of what the show is about: the origin of their love and their connection to each other. It was the simplest scene in the episode, because the episode had bigger cinematic things to accomplish, but it’s the best scene in the episode, because it’s the most emotional episode.

Finally, the way the season was structured, you got to spend the longest amount of time playing the older sitcoms straight, while the more modern ones came in episodes that had to make much more room for the MCU plot. Were there things you wanted to do with the later shows that there simply wasn’t space for?
Not so much. I did remember reading your piece about the Malcolm episode and you saying, “This is a great sitcom, and I wish there was more of it.” And that’s fair, but this was always about Wanda realizing how she ended up here, and then trying to control it and protect it, while Vision is realizing what the rules of this world are, his dawning awareness. The narrative was always going to spend more time in the real world and start to play with that line between them. That was a part of the larger narrative about grief and loss. I loved doing the Malcolm stuff, it was superfun. There was a lot of Malcolm in that episode, though, with Uncle P up to no good. But we did obviously have to spend more time in the real world with that story.

From Rolling Stone US