12:30pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Agent Carter' Showrunners Grilled By 'Arrow' Producer in Honest, Wide-Ranging Interview
To say Marc Guggenheim and his wife, Tara Butters, are a comic book family would be an understatement. Guggenheim, currently an exec producer on The CW's Arrow, has written scores of Marvel comics (and DC feature Green Lantern). Butters and her longtime writing partner, Michele Fazekas, currently showrun ABC's second-year drama Resurrection and Marvel's high-profile Captain America TV spinoff Agent Carter.
Fazekas and Butters, who met as assistants on The X Files and served as writers-producers on shows including Law & Order: SVU before going on to create cult hit Reaper, are among a small list of female showrunners juggling multiple shows (including Shonda Rhimes and Julie Plec) and are tasked with overseeing the Hayley Atwell drama that represents Marvel's first female-fronted entry.
The Hollywood Reporter enlisted Guggenheim to get the inside scoop from Fazekas and Butters about the intricacies of Marvel's big swing (Agent Carter was picked up straight to series), the differences between the company and comics rival DC and more in a wide-ranging interview where he, too, answers their burning questions.
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Guggenheim: First question: For people who are living under a rock or don't watch football where a lot of promos have been, what's the "elevator pitch" for Agent Carter?
Butters: For people who aren't familiar with the Marvel universe, I will often pitch this show as Alias in the 1940s.
Guggenheim: That's a good pitch!
Butters: A female protagonist who is both beautiful and intelligent and kicks ass but she is dealing with the fact that with the male workforce coming back postwar, no one really wants her there.
Guggenheim: So the really tough female protagonist that kicks ass, that's based on which of the two of you?
Butters: Probably more Michele. (All laugh.)
Guggenheim: That's a very honest answer. Tara, which character on the show most resembles you?
Fazekas: Sousa [played by Enver Gjokaj], the one with the limpy legs, because he's the most diplomatic. Tara is the one who is much better at negotiating or discussing things without getting angry.
Guggenheim: That's very true! Good, this is an honest interview! Do you consider Agent Carter's eight-episode order a blessing or a curse?
Butters: It's a blessing. Having eight episodes where it's not eight with the possibility of more, you know there's only going to be those eight and you're not going to have to hedge your bets and say, "Well, maybe we'll have a few more episodes that we'll have to fill out." You know the beginning and end of the season and can plot it out in a smart way. As long as you stick with it, and you're not a slave to it, you can move things around — and things do move around or better ideas come up but that makes it a process where you're not scrambling to come up with, "What's the next show?" You can actually spend time making it better and getting into the thematic, character stuff as opposed to just churning out a script because production is breathing down your neck.
Guggenheim: Because Tara and I have been married 10 years now and that entitles me to a larger share of her earnings, I feel compelled to ask you guys to make clear: This isn't eight and done; there is still the potential for a second season, right?
Fazekas and Butters: Yes!
Guggenheim: OK, I wanted it to be clear to the readers because I want them to tune in. And because I have points in the show, essentially. (Laughs.) So Peggy Carter is a character spinning off from Captain America. How is the show integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Butters: We have connections to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fazekas: Peggy Carter was obviously in Cap 1 and Cap 2, Howard Stark [Dominic Cooper], who's in Cap 1, is in this series. Jarvis [James D'Arcy], whom people have seen in the Iron Man movies, is the voice of Howard Stark, sorry, Tony Stark — that's going in the "Stark Jar" Tara has for if you mess up somebody's name, your name goes in the jar and at the end of the season, whoever gets picked out of the Stark Jar has to buy lunch for everybody.
Guggenheim: On Arrow, we have Ray Palmer and Roy Harper and if you call Roy "Ray" and Ray "Roy," you have to put money into the jar. But because we have a different budget than you guys, the money in that jar actually goes to produce the episode — usually in its entirety. (Laughs.) So are there other characters from the Marvel cinematic universe that we might expect to see on your show?
Guggenheim: Do you want to say who they are?
Fazekas: I cannot. This is actually an interesting question I would ask you: You've worked in the Marvel comic universe and I've never had such a high level of security. I understand why they do it in this day and age — even when Tara and I worked as assistants on The X Files where, when they did the first X Files movie, they were printing script pages out on red paper so you couldn't photocopy it and they were stamping everyone's name on the script. The level of security here is really high — because they don't want any spoilers out there — and as little as you can say, the better it is. They don't want anyone to know anything about it other than what they have to disclose. You're always literally looking to someone saying, "Can I say this or not?"
Butters: What is DC Entertainment like?
Guggenheim: DC is actually pretty chill. I will say [Arrow and Flash showrunner] Andrew Kreisberg and I tend to be the gatekeepers in terms of what's a secret or trying to keep spoilers from leaking out. DC never really dictates stuff to us. We're self-policing, and we always apply a story that I had heard about Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Spoiler alert: In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Enterprise was blown up, and when Paramount cut the trailer, that scene was in the trailer. [Producer] Harve Bennett and [director-star] Leonard Nimoy went to Sherry Lansing — the head of Paramount at the time — saying, "That's a huge moment for us, we don't want that in the trailer." And Lansing replied, "Well, do you want people to be surprised or do you want them to go to the movie?" We use that as a barometer [on Arrow and Flash]. We're not militant but there are certain things that are absolutely secret. There was a pilot printed on red paper, and I read everything on my iPad and have a scanner on my desk for these purposes. I scanned in the script and red paper script scans in perfectly fine.
Guggenheim: In a perfect world, Agent Carter gets a second season. Would you like to come back in another eight-episode bridge [between Agents of SHIELD's presumed first and second half], or would you prefer a full 22-episode order? Tara, you have to answer as a writer, and not my wife. Tara as a wife might answer differently.
Butters: I think any type of heavily serialized show, you're going to get better scripts with fewer episodes. Now, whether that's eight, 13 or 15, the fact is, you're just going to get a more cohesive, thorough line.
Fazekas: I do feel like we certainly have more episodes in us, and because we're having so much fun and we like these characters so much, that always makes it easier to write and easier to want to spend time on. So, yes, I think we certainly can do it. We didn't say the same thing about Resurrection because it is a very different story ending, where we were very upfront with the network that you can't do 22 episodes of that show in the amount of time they wanted us to do it because there's a much more different show to break. Every episode of Resurrection is different and the stories don't start and end in the same place all the time. It's not like a Law & Order where you're just doing the case of the week. Carter has a more obvious story ending.
Guggenheim: That makes a fair amount of sense. Are you guys aware that Marvel is doing a Peggy Carter comic book? I'm sure the timing of that is not coincidental. How do you feel about that?
Butters: It's great.
Fazekas: Absolutely! Why not?
Guggenheim: It seems pretty cool, so that's got to feel very supportive. How much interaction do you have with the folks at Marvel who make the movies?
Fazekas: Quite a bit. Because Peggy comes from their movies, Louis D'Esposito and KevinFeige are very invested in this and they've been really collaborative and very generous with their world. Kevin was down here cutting an episode [recently] and he's really good at it, which is wonderful.
Fazekas: Because they're coming from the feature world, they're very surprised at how quickly you have to make your decisions. Jeph Loeb, who's at Marvel TV, is really good at having synergy between our show and Agents of SHIELD [which has already featured two Carter crossovers]. He's such a comic book geek that he's pulling out all these old references from comic books of the past.
Guggenheim: My next question was going to be: Why is Arrow such a better show then SHIELD, but because I actually want to write a Marvel movie, I'm not going to ask that. Instead, I'm going to ask: Which Marvel movie would I be best to write? (Laughs.)
Fazekas: Black Panther?
Guggenheim: Black Panther would be great. That's a really good answer. [As in Guggenheim would love to write Black Panther.]
Butters: I have a question for you, Marc. You've written comic book characters in comics, TV and film. Which version do you enjoy doing the most?
Guggenheim: That's tough.
Fazekas: That's like picking your favorite kid! (All laugh.)
Butters: What are the different challenges?
Guggenheim: With comics, there's no budget. There's a budget in terms of you have to pay an artist and a colorist and all that, but you can do anything you want to do. One of the products I'm working on is Arrow season 2.5 [comic], which is our very bluntly titled bridge between seasons two and three. I can have Oliver fall off a building. I can have Oliver jump out of a plane. All of the stuff I can't afford to do on a TV budget, I just put into the comic book because you're really only limited in a comic by your artist's imagination. When you do a movie, you get to play with a wide canvas, and nowadays, you're limited by budget. And the visual effects have grown so accomplished that you can almost accomplish anything. However, you have to tell a two-hour story. So unlike comic books or television, our cinematic stories are much more closed-ended, and that's a pro and a con. There's no serialization and that compression either can make the story better, but at the same time part of the fun of comic books and TV shows is seeing these characters month in month out week in week out, in some cases for a number of years, and see how they develop over hours and hours of entertainment as opposed to just two hours of entertainment. Even if you have a successful movie franchise, you're doing what, three movies? That's like six hours. You guys are already doing more hours of entertainment with Agent Carter at only eight episodes. For me, the narrative rhythms of a movie, a TV show and a comic book are all different. Frankly, when I'm doing 23 episodes of television, I'm writing for my life. One of the reasons I like doing movies is I get to really think about every single word as opposed to, "OK! This script is done! On to the next one!" I like the ability in a film, it's not any difference artistically in the medium but just in terms of the way film is produced versus network television, you tend to get a lot more time. With comics, it depends on what the project is and who the editor is. With comics, the deadline always depends on what the nature of the gig is.
Guggenheim: If it was possible to do an Agent Carter-Arrow crossover, would you want to do it? And what do you think the story should be?
Butters: It's hard because it's in two different time periods.
Guggenheim: (Laughs) I'm not saying it's easy!
Fazekas: Would Oliver time travel back to her? Because my immediate answer is no. Not that I don't love time paradoxes and time travel stories, but for whatever reason, with Peggy Carter I don't want to do time travel stories. So if it's your Arrow and our Peggy Carter, I can't see a world that you would be able to do.
Butters: Unless you did two parallel stories in two different times, in which they're like The Notebook or something.
Guggenheim: You guys are the only people I can ask this question because you're the only two who would understand the reference: We should totally do an Agent Carter-Arrow crossover the way they crossed over X Files and Picket Fences.
Butters: Picket Fences was on CBS and X Files was on Fox and the networks wouldn't allow it. So they had FBI agents who came in to Picket Fences who were originally supposed to be Mulder and Scully who they just recast.
Fazekas: I don't know, would you want to?
Guggenheim: I would love to. I always love a challenge. I love doing something crazy outside the box. I think part of the challenge is the time, but also making the two tones work. It's like super challenging. But yeah if we did something like The Notebook…
Butters: It would be interesting to see Haley Atwell and Stephen Amell in scenes together because in some ways she would be his most formidable foil.
Guggenheim: [Skeptically] Hmm, that's interesting! Why would you say that?
Butters: Because I feel like he wouldn't know what to do with her. And she would not have any time for his broodiness.
Guggenheim: So no romance?
Fazekas: Look, she was dating Captain America! I don't think he has the pecs for it!
Guggenheim: Tara, what subconscious or textual thing is behind the fact that your protagonist won't sleep with my protagonist?! What does that say about our marriage? I know that says something! Particularly since my protagonist sleeps with pretty much everything.
Guggenheim: Let the record reflect that you totally dodged this question.
THR: I want to see Peggy Carter and Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) in the same scene.
Guggenheim: I do, too, but I have a feeling that we want to see very different things happening in those scenes! But yeah that would be actually totally awesome.
Fazekas: How much interaction do you have with DC when you're doing Arrow? Are you getting notes from them? Are you getting cut notes? How much are they involved in your show?
Guggenheim: We have these semi-regular meetings where throughout the season we'll take them through the next chunks of episodes and say, "These are the big 10 pulls, here are the big moves that we're making." We plan the season out all in advance, so at the beginning of the season they know where the midseason finale is going to be, who's going to die and who's going to become a superhero. That's usually when we discuss which characters from the DC universe we want to bring in and which ones we can bring in. Obviously DC has a lot of different projects both in TV and film and we want to make sure that we're not stealing characters slotted for other avenues. Episode by episode, they're on all the studio notes calls and the calls for the cut. The only time we actually get notes are in the script stage. They actually produce a handy little document for us that is usually no more than two pages long with notes and thoughts. It's very democratic and offered for our consideration. We always say we'll take a good note from anywhere, and usually their notes are really quite good.
Fazekas: The Captain America movies are based on the Ed Brubaker comics run. Marvel is pretty free — if we're using a minor character or a bad guy from an old comic book, we don't have to adhere to what that character was in that comic book from 1945. Because there are so many different iterations of a specific character, you can't be true to every single one. Are you beholden to anything the comic book sets up, even with minor characters from the DC comics?
Guggenheim: I always get in trouble but my answer is no. To me, there are different levels of comic book canon. You talk about minor characters. I read a draft of a Superman screenplay years ago where Krypton didn't blow up. To me, that's not really a Superman story. It's like doing a Batman story if Bruce Wayne's parents are still alive. The advantage of a character like Green Arrow is his origin really is apart from the fact that he was a billionaire who ended up on a deserted island. His origin is not very well established and the character isn't as "high profile" as Superman and Batman. You can't do Spider-Man without him getting bit by a radioactive spider, otherwise it's not Spider-Man. So by the nature of the character we've been playing with through these years, we've always felt more freedom than if he was a more well-established character or if his origin was more well established.
Butters: But there have been bad guys that you've taken a name and some general idea of who they were and have made them your own.
Guggenheim: That's our favorite thing to do. There are a lot of times where there is a great bad-guy idea that's been terribly executed in the comics or a great name that had bad execution or a really great character with a really silly name. It's fun to reimagine everybody. We always call it Arrow-ifying a character and doing our version of it.
Guggenheim: One question I'm always asked is, "Will you have or do you want to see superpowers on Agent Carter?"
Butters: Our show is a lot more grounded than Agents of SHIELD in some ways. Right now, where Marvel comes from [with Carter] is more in the technology. You've got Stark technology, or even SSR technology that did not exist in 1946, but because we have Howard Stark and because we have this secret spy organization, they have things that are special and they have things that approach the fantastic. But I don't necessarily need super powers to tell this story. It's not like I'm against it or we've been forbidden to use them, but we haven't needed to tell that story. We keep saying Peggy's super power is that people underestimate her.
Guggenheim: I feel like I have the same super power. (All laugh.) To double back to the whole fidelity to the comic books thing, you guys are going to have Anton Vanko on the show. I know I'm not spoiling your show. I've written Anton Vanko for Marvel. Do you feel a special obligation to be faithful to my version of the character?
Guggenheim: Good answer, that's absolutely correct! (All laugh.) Michele, I've been curious about this for years: Who do you think Tara loves more, you or me?
Guggenheim: Really? Interesting! I don't know if it's going to play in the interview but there was no pause. You did not question that for a second.
Fazekas: She loves me different.
Guggenheim: That's true.
Fazekas: Who's No. 1 on your iPhone favorites list? For me, it's Tara. And for Tara, it's me!
Guggenheim: I rest my case! The interview may say one thing but truth is the iPhone says something else.
Fazekas: Who is No. 1 on yours?
Guggenheim: That's a good question! [Chanting] Please don't let it be [Arrow and Flash exec producer] Greg Berlanti…it's actually Tara, but our home number.
Butters: Which is really weird because we never answer that phone!
Guggenheim: I know, then it's Tara's cell. Along with a little note that says, "She probably won't answer."
Guggenheim: Getting back on track: What part of Agent Carter are you most excited for people to see? Not a plot beat but before the show premieres.
Fazekas: Haley is unbelievable. Enver, Chad Michael Murray, Shea Whigham, they have all grown into their characters in such a great way. I'm excited for people to watch a show that has an adventure element to it. And people having fistfights on top of moving trucks. We're always referencing Indiana Jones when we're talking about stuff, so that's what I'm excited for.
Butters: The relationships on the show. I love seeing Peggy and Jarvis together and Peggy and Thompson [Murray's character] together. She has a different relationship with every man on the show and each of them is different and funny.
Fazekas: Marc, CBS is doing Supergirl. What is the possibility of a crossover?
Guggenheim: It's possible.
THR: I actually heard it's in Greg's deal, that Supergirl can cross over with Flash and/or Arrow.
Butters: How many members of the Justice League would you like to get all together?
Guggenheim: On Arrow or in general?
Butters: On Arrow.
Guggenheim: At the end of the day it'd be so awesome to have Batman on the show. That'd be really cool. I don't think that will be happening anytime soon, but you never know…one day. One thing we're always saying…we never expected to have had the Huntress [Jessica De Gouw], Deathstroke [Manu Bennett] or Deadshot [Michael Rowe]; we ended up with a lot more DC Comics characters becoming part of the show than we had ever planned. It wasn't initially part of the pitch or the conception of the show. Now here we are in our third season and we've Flash [Grant Gustin] and the Suicide Squad and we're going to have Katana and we have Ray Palmer [Brandon Routh], and it seems like you could field an entire show off the characters that we have introduced on Arrow. That's so beyond anything we expected. That's a long-winded way of saying I've learned not to expect anything or make any predictions because the reality has far exceeded any of our initial predictions or initial conceptions.
Agent Carter premieres Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. on ABC. Arrow returns from its winter hiatus on Jan. 21 on The CW.