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When Jac Schaeffer, the creator and head writer of Disney+’s WandaVision, set out to craft the Marvel limited series, she knew exactly what story she didn’t want to tell. She felt strongly that the world had seen enough female characters, particularly in the genre space, buckle under too much power, only to have a man swoop in and save her from herself. “The idea that that’s the only resolution or endpoint for a powerful woman …” says Schaeffer, her frustration with the cliche palpable. “It isn’t.”
For Marvel’s first big swing on the small screen, she offered up a different narrative, one that felt more authentic to her and the women in her life. Wanda, portrayed by a magnetic Elizabeth Olsen as one half of the show’s eponymous couple, wouldn’t have anyone come to her rescue. Instead, she’d ultimately look inward and save herself. Says Olsen of Schaeffer’s vision for the show, “She saw an opportunity to give Wanda a sense of agency and autonomy that we haven’t yet seen from her in the films.”
Growing up in Agoura Hills, California, Schaeffer seemed to always want to direct films, and that passion only grew when she discovered Sundance as a teenager. “I wanted to be an auteur,” she says. After getting an English degree from Princeton and an MFA in film production from USC, she made good on that dream with her first film, a 2009 sci-fi rom-com called TiMER. She wrote, produced and directed the feature, which starred Emma Caulfield as a woman searching for love in a future where a device can tell you when you’ll meet your soul mate. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, but Schaeffer had a hard time releasing the movie without the plethora of streaming services available today. Still, the process of making the film was everything she hoped it would be. “Creatively, I was so fulfilled and it felt so right,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’ “
After that, the gigs started coming, though it would be a handful of years before she’d hear from Marvel Studios. Schaeffer was in Majorca on the set of the 2019 Rebel Wilson-Anne Hathaway comedy The Hustle, which she’d penned, when she got word that the Disney-owned studio wanted her to come in to pitch story ideas for their Scarlett Johansson stand-alone film, Black Widow. “I was like, ‘Really? Me?’ ” she says. Even though TiMER had a sci-fi premise, until that point it had gotten Schaeffer jobs mostly on romantic comedies. But in the years between her debut and The Hustle, she’d written a spec script called The Shower, an action comedy about a baby shower that’s interrupted by an apocalyptic meteor shower, which landed a coveted spot on the 2014 Black List. A driving force for Schaeffer in penning the screenplay, which Hathaway was once attached to, was the notion that women don’t write, direct or consume action flicks. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah? Let’s see about that,’ ” says the scribe, who is fairly certain the still-unproduced script is what got her a foot in the door at Marvel.
That said, Schaeffer didn’t initially jump at the opportunity. She was building up a comedy roster at that point, and she wasn’t exactly a comic book fanatic, either. “I never saw myself in the blockbuster tentpole space,” she says, noting that this doesn’t mean she didn’t have an immense respect for and a curiosity about that world. But she ultimately couldn’t say no to the opportunity — and she’s certainly glad she didn’t. The Black Widow job turned out to be a crash course in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, she’d been writing screenplays for a decade at that point — but this was a whole other ballgame. “It took me a minute to get my footing,” she says.
Now that she has her bearings, she’s floored by just how rich the MCU is. “It was such a surprise to me, but I discovered the freedom that you can have inside this kind of restricted space,” says Schaeffer. “It works for me.” Though other writers came in after her on Black Widow — Schaeffer retained a “story by” credit on the final version of the film — the Marvel executives clearly liked what they read. A few months later, they asked her to contribute to Captain Marvel.
Unlike Black Widow, which had been in the nascent stages when Schaeffer came aboard, Captain Marvel was fairly well formed by the time it landed in her lap. It was a chance to do more surgical scene work as opposed to big-picture development, further rounding out Schaeffer’s experience in the Marvel industrial complex.
While working on those films, Schaeffer began to hear whispers about a new project brewing at the studio. She learned that Marvel boss Kevin Feige wanted to make a stand-alone series about Avengers heroine Wanda Maximoff and her synthezoid husband, Vision, played by Paul Bettany — and somehow wrap it all up in decades of sitcom history. “My eyes were as big as saucers at the idea that they were really going to try to do this,” says Schaeffer, who didn’t hide her enthusiasm for the project. “I’m interested in any story about a powerful woman always, but especially a powerful flawed woman.” She made sure the Marvel executives knew she was intrigued. “Jac just sort of raised her hand,” recalls Mary Livanos, Marvel’s point executive on the series, who ultimately was sold by Schaeffer’s hourlong pitch. “She had a fantastic approach to how the series could be tackled and understood this thing that we were trying to make.”
It didn’t hurt that Schaeffer has a knack for allegory, or, as she puts it, “externalizing the internal.” She made a short film as a graduate student at USC’s film school called Ava Elderberry, about a woman who wakes up one morning with a small tree growing out of her ear after swallowing a seed. She tries to cut it out, but it’s too painful; she experiments with weed killer, but it’s too toxic. She ends up finding a support group for people who’ve been afflicted by urban legends, including a man who cracked his knuckles too much and a kid who ran with scissors. She eventually falls in love with a guy who made a face and it stayed that way. The short was about how uncomfortable Schaeffer felt in her own skin at the time. “I was 23 or 24 when I made it and I was like, ‘I’m short and fat and weird. I don’t like all these parts of myself on the outside. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could not only get to the point where I accepted myself, but I could find someone else who also accepted me?’ ” she says.
To her, a good gimmick, if done right, is the best lens through which to examine the human condition. And Wanda’s sitcom was the perfect conceit: She’s grieving the loss of her husband, trying desperately to deny her reality and create a new one in this picture-perfect TV world she’s created. “It’s so relatable. It’s so tragic,” says Schaeffer, noting that she’s lived that way at times in her life, too. “I mean, I got through a breakup just mainlining Battlestar Galactica,” she jokes. It’s why she wanted to destigmatize mental illness by painting a realistic portrait of depression and anxiety, even going so far as to invite a grief counselor to speak to the writers room. “We wanted, to the best of our ability, to take Wanda’s psychology and her history seriously,” she adds.
Schaeffer, of course, wasn’t the only one who felt protective of Wanda: Olsen, after all, had been playing her for years. When Schaeffer took on the project, she was keenly aware that she’d be writing for actors who already had real ownership of their characters. She credits her experience penning the Disney Animation short Olaf’s Frozen Adventure with helping her become comfortable writing for a long-standing franchise. “I learned a little bit there about what it means to write for preexisting characters and for actors who’ve lived in the roles well before I ever walked through the door,” she explains, adding that she knew incorporating Olsen’s and Bettany’s perspectives was key. And to hear Olsen tell it, it was a seamless collaboration. “From the first day I met Jac, it felt like she was already a part of my journey with Wanda,” the actress says. “It was as if she went inside my brain and found the connective throughlines I made up for myself between films so that they would make sense to me.”
On the heels of the show’s critical success, Schaeffer inked a three-year deal with Marvel and 20th Television, where she’ll develop TV projects for both Disney-owned companies. Whether that’ll include more WandaVision, Schaeffer won’t say. She has, for what it’s worth, suggested in past interviews that the show comes to an emotional completion and that it was “always designed to feel like the run of a comic.” As for what might actually be next for the in-demand scribe, Schaeffer is clear about one thing. “WandaVision was my first experience with a weekly drop where you have the opportunity to shock and surprise everybody and have them lean in and be excited to tune in next week,” she says. “And it’s my hope to provide more of that.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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