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From Eureka and South Philadelphia to Westeros and Westview, Matt Shakman has had quite the unusual journey to the director’s chair of WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ first foray into television via Disney+. Shakman began his career in the 1980s as a child actor, which culminated in a series regular role on Just the Ten of Us, a Growing Pains spinoff that lasted three seasons. The ABC sitcom ended up being Shakman’s final onscreen credit as he returned to the business in 2002 as a director. 51 credits later, Shakman, the filmmaker, was often identified as a comedic director-producer, having helmed 43 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s 154 episodes. But then, in 2017, everything changed when Shakman unleashed one of Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) dragons on the Lannister-Tarly army in Game of Thrones’ “The Spoils of War.”
Naturally, the internet was stunned by the fact that “the Always Sunny guy” was capable of directing something on such a massive scale, but Shakman had already become accustomed to hearing similar feedback throughout his career.
“Yeah, I had done so many different things in my career before I did It’s Always Sunny. I was doing more dramas [before Always Sunny], and then some people wondered why a guy who did drama was now doing comedy,” Shakman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve done shows with a lot of VFX before Game of Thrones, and a lot of different things with stunts and action. I come from the theater, and in the theater, you’re expected to be able to do anything. It’s all about figuring out the best way to tell that story.”
In hindsight, WandaVision was tailor-made for Shakman since he’s able to combine his sitcom experience, as both an actor and director, with his eye for ambitious action set pieces. And thanks to his time on Just the Ten of Us, Shakman already knew the perfect location for Wanda and Vision’s house.
“We shot [Just the Ten of Us] on Warner Bros. Ranch. So I would skateboard down Blondie Street during my lunch break every day, and to this day, that’s where all these amazing sitcom houses are. Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Partridge Family,” Shakman recalls. “So I wanted to put Wanda and Vision’s house there. I wanted it to be there among the ghosts of sitcoms past. I wanted it to have that DNA and that weird kind of tension between fake and real, which is what that street really has. You can’t go to a real neighborhood and make it feel like Blondie Street.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Shakman also discusses the importance of water-cooler shows like WandaVision, recapturing the aesthetic of classic sitcoms, and directing his actors in front of a live studio audience.
I’m still reeling from your Good Morning, Miss Bliss trivia. [Writer’s note: Shakman was “unceremoniously fired” from the pilot that would go on to become Saved by the Bell.]
(Laughs.) Yeah, that was fun way back in the day. It was [Former President of NBC] Brandon Tartikoff’s dream project that was loosely based on a teacher who really inspired him when he was a kid. So he brought Hayley Mills in, and then it changed to something very different [Saved by the Bell].
Between Marvel and Thrones, which production was more secretive?
Oh my goodness. I think they’re equal. They’re both very careful about their secrets, and for the same reason. They love surprising their audience, and I love that about them. And I love the fact that WandaVision is going to be on weekly, much like Thrones. We don’t have that many water-cooler shows anymore, and so, with The Mandalorian and now WandaVision weekly, I think that’s exciting.
Since you’ve been immersed in modern filmmaking since the early 2000s, is it more difficult than one might think to recapture the look and feel of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, etc.?
We really wanted to be authentic. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t cross over into satire or spoof. This wasn’t a parody. So we basically did everything we could. We recreated everything from vintage lenses, production and costume design, to the actors getting together with me and studying what those old shows looked like. We tried to put our finger on what comedy was like back in the ‘50s versus the ‘60s, because it really does change. We worked with a dialect coach [Courtney Young] on how they spoke in different eras, and how they walked, talked and moved. It was really important because ultimately this is the reality of that episode, and we wanted people to fully buy into it.
Once the world shut down, you started editing what you had already shot. Generally speaking, what did you learn about WandaVision that you were then able to apply to the rest of production?
It’s a great question. We were shut down at a really interesting moment because we had just wrapped in Atlanta and we had moved to L.A. So we were about ready to start shooting the next chunk of our schedule, which was all about shooting on backlots. We were going to be at Warner Bros. Ranch, Blondie Street, which is this amazing street. I grew up there, in a way, too. I was on this show called Just the Ten of Us, and we shot on Warner Bros. Ranch. So I would skateboard down Blondie Street during my lunch break every day, and to this day, that’s where all these amazing sitcom houses are. Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Partridge Family. So I wanted to put Wanda and Vision’s house there. I wanted it to be there among the ghosts of sitcoms past. I wanted it to have that DNA and that weird kind of tension between fake and real, which is what that street really has. You can’t go to a real neighborhood and make it feel like Blondie Street. So we were already heading towards that portion of our shoot, and then the pandemic forced us to pause. So it didn’t really change our plans or our narrative in any way. It just meant that we ended up doing what normally happens at the end, in the middle, and because we were up against our delivery date, our post-production on this side of shooting has been shorter than usual. So it’s all kind of evened out in the end.
Since you had a live studio audience for the first episode, how did you direct your actors when it came to audience reactions?
It’s much like theater. I do a lot of plays; I run the Geffen Playhouse here in Los Angeles. There’s always that discovery when you go out of a rehearsal room and meet an audience for the first time about what they find funny. Sometimes, they find things hilarious that you never expected, and other times, you’re pausing for a laugh that just isn’t there because they don’t find it funny the way we did in the rehearsal room. So there is always that and great actors have to play it like a musical instrument. You have to lean into it, expect to move through it with the pace that we’ve rehearsed, but be able to respond to the moment. If a laugh stops it, it stops it. When we had this great lunch with Dick Van Dyke, he talked about some moments where the laughter just went on forever and they just had to hold it and hold it and hold it. You can see the charm of that in some of those old episodes. So Paul Bettany, Lizzie [Elizabeth Olsen], Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris — they all have theater experience, and they’re all really good at handling that.
For the laugh track that wasn’t recorded live, did you have to account for that sound on the day? Or did the sound team simply retrofit a track to the timing of your edit, in post?
That’s a great question. We were not super conscious of the laugh track. We didn’t try to introduce a ton of pausing in there, but I think the obvious setup/joke moment kind of creates that anyway, in the rhythm. We worked with an amazing laugh track expert who helped us understand how laugh tracks changed throughout time, and that helped us in our sound design as we built the shows.
WandaVision’s marketing informs us that the series is headed to the ‘80s and ‘90s, and Elizabeth Olsen just so happens to be tied to a famous sitcom from that era [Full House], something Kevin Feige touched on during this morning’s press conference. Was she comfortable with you paying homage to her siblings’ show since it potentially runs the risk of being a bit too meta?
Yeah, we do cover and reference a lot of different shows, and we were careful never to reference one show exclusively in any era. So we looked at The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and all kinds of different shows for each era. So, while we probably did look at Full House as a reference point, it certainly isn’t a cheap reference point at any point.
Did you rewatch two particular films by Gary Ross and Peter Weir before making WandaVision?
(Laughs.) Sure! Absolutely. My prop designer on this show, Russell Bobbitt, has done a lot of great Marvel things. He made Thor’s hammer and Cap’s shield. But he also did Pleasantville, and we talked a lot about his experience on that. And, certainly, The Truman Show. I love both of them. I think that there’s some spiritual connection to both films, of course, but WandaVision’s puzzle is a different kind of mystery.
Prior to WandaVision, had you ever played with aspect ratios to this degree?
No, never. I loved that. I loved that we could experiment with form and that it could be directly related to narrative. That was a great and exciting discovery as we built the show.
Once your work on Thrones aired, I’m sure you heard the common refrain: “Who knew the Always Sunny guy could do that!?” Were you amused by such responses?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I still remember a tweet from that day. Someone had put out: “Critics: Matt Shakman from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is directing Game of Thrones?” And then, it said Matt Shakman, colon, with a GIF of a dragon burning thousands of characters. Yeah, I had done so many different things in my career before I did It’s Always Sunny. I was doing more dramas [before Always Sunny], and then some people wondered why a guy who did drama was now doing comedy. I’ve done shows with a lot of VFX before Game of Thrones, and a lot of different things with stunts and action. I come from the theater, and in the theater, you’re expected to be able to do anything. You might get a gig at a summer stock theater where you have to do Noel Coward Shakespeare, and a brand-new play all in a summer. And that’s okay, because it’s all storytelling. It’s all about figuring out the best way to tell that story.
How do you give notes to actors like Lizzie and Paul who’ve played their characters several times over?
Well, we were creating something very original and very different. We were going deep for nine episodes in a way that even though they’ve been in all these films, their screen time has been relatively limited given that there are so many characters in those movies. They’ve had a short amount of time to really establish who they are, and also, they’ve evolved over the films as well. One of the great things about the Marvel universe is that you’re involved with these characters as they grow and change. So we have nine episodes to continue that evolution and to go deeper into this relationship. These are fabulous actors, and we had a great time collaborating and building these worlds. They’re incredibly hard-working, diligent, brave and fearless. So we had a wonderful time.
Did you and [head writer] Jac Schaeffer put together a supercut of Wanda and Vision so you could find new ways to photograph them, and utilize them in action sequences?
Yeah, we did look at everything that had been shot before, even stuff that hadn’t made it into the films. Dailies and things like that. We studied everything that had been done before and looked at how we wanted to build on that.
WandaVision’s first two episodes are now available on Disney+. This interview has been edited for clarity.
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