Interview: Matt Shakman explains how his work on ‘Webster,’ ‘Just the Ten of Us’ and ‘Game Thrones’ made him uniquely qualified to take on ‘WandaVision’
From the very beginning, it seems director Matt Shakman was destined to helm WandaVision. His acting resume began in the mid 80’s with appearances on such shows as the Saved By The Bell prequel Good Morning Miss Bliss, Just the Ten of Us, Highway to Heaven, and Webster. Mix in a directorial resume which spans such television shows as, The Great (for which he received Emmy and DGA nominations in directing), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Game of Thrones, there isn’t an individual working today who was this qualified to tackle the variety of tones and themes presented in WandaVision.
We were lucky enough to speak with Matt about his experiences working on WandaVision and hearing how meticulous the process was behind this critically acclaimed Disney+ series was an amazing experience. Matt also discussed how his theater background prepared him for this challenge and whether or not Marvel let him on what’s to come moving forward in Phase 4.
Dewey Singleton: All right. Let’s start at the beginning. What was more daunting sir, meeting Kevin Feige for the first time or being in Just the Ten of Us or Webster?
Matt Shakman: (laughs) Well, as a little kid, I don’t know that I was aware of the situation as much. Being on those shows, was just a part of my life. I started as a child actor at three and a half years old, and it was just the rhythms of my everyday existence. Meeting Kevin Feige was a huge honor. I’m a big fan of the work that he’s done and of the MCU in general. Yeah, going in there and meeting him first just generally was a super highlight for me of my career thus far, and then getting a chance to work with him on WandaVision was absolutely the dream of my directing career. It was great.
DS: See I thought maybe Good Morning, Miss Bliss would be a bit more daunting than all of them combined.
MS: (Laughs) It’s funny, you mentioned Good Morning, Miss Bliss because there was some more pressure on that because we were all told that that was the passion project of Brandon Tartikoff and that it was based on a teacher that he had growing up. He came to the set a lot. He was the big president of NBC at the time, which was maybe arguably the biggest position in entertainment at that moment. Yeah, he was around. We didn’t want to let him down, so yeah, I’d say that was one of my more stressful jobs as a kid.
DS: Do you think your eclectic television background as a child actor might have in a roundabout way prepared you for this moment?
MS: Without a doubt. The goal of this show was always authenticity. We wanted to bring to life these different eras of television in a genuine way. We didn’t want a spoof or parody and so the fact that I have, in my body, basically ’80s and ’90s television as something that I experienced firsthand and lived through, definitely impacted how we built those different eras. In the earlier era, I had seen in syndication as a kiddo watching, but didn’t know them firsthand so that required a lot of research and talking to people who had worked on those shows but when we got into the ’80s or ’90s, that was definitely my sweet spot.
DS: You worked with Michael Landon, for crying out loud. That’s amazing stuff. Not many people can say they worked with a cast member of Bonanza. You could pull from that experience, all sorts of experiences, to bring the show to life. You can literally not find another director out there that comes with your background. Crazy coincidence or good luck?
MS: I think it was lucky, for sure, but in some ways, it also felt like destiny. This was a show about destiny. Where was Wanda Maximoff headed? She was destined to become the Scarlet Witch, even though she was resisting it and fighting it until in the final episode, she accepts it, and that final episode is about accepting grief, accepting loss, but also accepting destiny. For me, it felt like destiny too. Here I was having lived through so much of these eras that we were going to bring to life, but then also having focused as a director on comedy and drama, as well as large-scale action and visual effects, and here is this show that drew on my own personal experience and also drew all the different skills that I had as a filmmaker. Which is rare. Usually, you’re working in one bucket at a time. This was a really exciting challenge because no day was the same and every day you’re doing a live ’50s sitcom taping or the next day you’re doing a big Marvel action set piece. It was really a joy.
DS: The ABC Wide World of Sports opening back in the day would say, “Spanning the globe.” Your career has certainly spanned the globe, sir, from acting to directing. Did you take something from each of those moments to get you in the right mindset for this daunting challenge of WandaVision?
MS – Definitely. I’ve traveled along these television roads and pulled whatever I think is valuable from a stylistic standpoint, a tonal standpoint, a technical standpoint, and I put it in my tool kit, and then when it comes time to bring something to life like WandaVision, I’m able to draw on that and fall back on all those different experiences. But I will say to you, I come from the theater. I direct a lot of plays and that’s where I spent my time in between my child actor days and when I came back to directing film and television. The theater is something that is so tonally complex. A great play is by its nature, not just a comedy or a drama. It is something that is more like life that has all of these things wrapped up. I ultimately think that my experience in theater is the most helpful thing as we are able to tackle, in entertainment now, more and more of these complicated stories. I think streaming has really hit a wonderful place where I May Destroy You and WandaVision and Queen’s Gambit and all these different kinds of shows that are playing with genre mashup and tonal complexity, they’re more like life, and so it’s really fun as a director to try to balance all of those things.
DS: Is there a play that you directed in your career that you can say that that experience prepared you the most for what you went through making WandaVision?
MS: Oh my goodness. Probably all of them, although, if I was going to be cheeky and take the easy way out, I’d say Shakespeare because he gets you ready for anything really. The Tempest was a play that I always loved and that was a tough one when I directed it. But yeah, Shakespeare started writing comedies and dramas and history plays and by the end of his career, he was writing The Tempest, which was essentially all of those things all in one, which becomes the template for a lot of what I feel like is on streaming now. Things that are just constantly surprising and taking left turns and right turns in unexpected ways. I worked on this show called The Great right before WandaVision. It’s another one where it’s ostensibly this drama with comedic elements, but then it makes these surprising turns into horror really or into broad comedy and all of it is you’re just trying to figure out how to knit it together and keep that tonal balance going. It’s no surprise that was based on a play. That started as a play that Tony McNamara wrote for Sydney Theater Company in Australia. Yeah, making things that are closer to life is definitely the challenge, but also the fun of it.
DS: When you’re summoned to meet with Kevin Feige, is it either akin to being brought to Avengers Campus, and you’re probably blindfolded when you go there, since you’re not allowed to know the on the location, or you’re brought in a pseudo Batcave where you’ve got to go through the waterfall and there’s Kevin sitting with the Infinity Gauntlet, but that’s just in my twisted mind. I guess my question is, were you summoned? Did you do the pitch? How did you get into this position to direct WandaVision?
MS: I wish there were a bat cave. Well, I guess it would have to be a Marvel equivalent of whatever.
DS: I’d want Avengers Campus because I knew who I was talking to. (Laughs)
MS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I do. Marvel does feel a little bit like Avengers Campus. You show up there, and you’re surrounded by movie props and costumes, and giant Iron Men loom over everything and look down. It’s really exciting and there’s just a ton of artwork everywhere, and it’s a wonderful sandbox. I enjoyed my time prepping WandaVision from those offices more than any other prep period I’ve ever had, just because you feel like you’re a part of this large continuum of great stories. Stories that I’ve loved since I was a kid reading comic books. Then, of course, through watching the MCU films. It just was osmosing all of that excitement and all of those great stories and all the great work of storytellers who have come before in the MCU, so I was excited about that. But my first meeting with Kevin came about because of Game of Thrones. I was actually nervous. I had left my wife and very young child to go to Belfast for six months to make Game of Thrones, and my wife had been incredibly understanding, but I of course had been guilt-ridden by this, but it was such a huge opportunity and a show that I loved and a really big moment professionally for me to tackle. I came back and I was nervous. I was nervous. Will the fans like the episodes and also was it worth it? Was it worth leaving my wife, and I was fretting in my neurotic way and my wife who’s very practical said, “What would make it worth it? Quantify what would make it worth it?” I was like, “Ah, well, I don’t know. If Kevin Feige calls tomorrow.” Then after the episode aired, The Spoils of War, Kevin’s office reached out, and I got a meeting to come meet with him, which was exciting. He was a fan of that show and liked that episode. We talked and that was the first time I met him. It’s hardly being summoned. He is the nicest person in Hollywood and a joy to collaborate with and so when WandaVision was coming together, I gather, he remembered my strange history and varied interests, and it felt like a good fit. So I came in and had a chance to meet with Jac Schaeffer and Mary Livanos, who had just started putting together the ideas of the show and was blown away by what they were cooking up and had just nothing but excitement about jumping in and joining with them, and then it was a wonderful two-year collaboration after that.
DS: How do you assemble a team for this?
MS: We talked about how we needed people who were Swiss army knives, who had every tool contained within. That they could do any style, any genre, any tone, and so I specifically went after designers, cinematographers, costume designers, who had a breadth of experience that mirrored my own, eclectic background. Mark Worthington, the production designer, I met working on Ugly Betty years ago, but then he’s since gone on to Watchmen and American Horror Story and Star Trek and so many different things that require a million different skill sets. I knew he could handle vintage sitcoms as well as contemporary Marvel. Jess Hall, whose work I loved on Hot Fuzz, which is incredibly funny, but also a really good action film, has done some beautiful crafted dramatic indies, as well as Ghost in the Shell and large studio films. Here was someone who is comfortable in all of those different potential worlds. Mayes Rubeo, the costume designer, had done Apocalypto and Avatar and Thor Ragnarok but then on the other side, she’s done Jojo Rabbit and other indie films. And so she, again, could do period and could do contemporary Marvel and could do anything in between. It was assembling a group like that across the board and, again, with the actors the same way. That’s why I was so excited to go after Kathryn Hahn, who is an actor who can do anything, can turn on a dime, can terrify you, can make you laugh, can make your heartbreak. Can do a sitcom in a ’50s style and can also do something very subtle in contemporary dramatic performance. And that was true of Lizzie Olsen and Paul Bettany of course, but I did not cast them. They of course came with it already, but they are Swiss army knives themselves, and so it was bringing together a group of people who could all twist and turn and bring this world to life.
DS: In terms of casting Agatha, was it Kathryn Hahn or bust?
MS: It was Kathryn all along. (laughs)
DS: Yes ! (laughs)
MS: It was one of those things we were like, we want to get Kathryn Hahn. Oh, she’s not available. Okay. Now we want someone like Kathryn Hahn, and then we were trying to figure out who that might be. Then it was like oh look, Kathryn Hahn’s available, and then it was like let’s try to get Kathryn Hahn. It was one of those where she was always the paradigm of what we wanted.
DS: It’s a strong ensemble.
MS: It was a dream. It was also just a daily joy to work with everybody because not only were they super talented, you couldn’t find a nicer, kinder group. Paul Bettany, Lizzie Olsen, set the tone. They are the loveliest. They’re also the hardest working. They care more than anybody. Teyonah Parris who I met years ago working on Mad Men who’s incredible. Who’s another theater actor, Juilliard grad who can do anything and was so brilliant in those sitcom scenes, as well as in the Marvel world, who had this character who was really breaking under the strain of grief in the same way that Wanda was. She did such a beautiful job. Randall, Kat Dennings, and then, Evan Peters who was flying back and forth between doing Mare of Easttown and living in these two completely schizophrenic worlds, somehow managed to bring his wonderful Pietro/Ralph to life while also juggling Philadelphia murder. It was just a wonderful group across the board.
DS: Were you told the what the “big picture” Marvel was heading towards in this phase when you took on WandaVision?
MS: We were just really focused on making our story, our nine episodes, our six hours really work to the best that we could possibly make it. It was a story that we always knew what we wanted to do, and it ended obviously with Wanda accepting Vision’s loss and accepting this destiny that was awaiting her. I think of it really as like a relay race and the baton is passed to us as a group, to me, Jack, Mary, and we ran with it as hard as we could. Then we handed that baton off to Sam Raimi and his group on Dr. Strange and to The Marvels Nia DaCosta on her side, and so various stories continue, and they’ll build on what we did, and we built on what came before us. It’s really just a lovely continuum. I’m sure there are a few things. Kevin’s really the spinner of the place and so if there’s anything that he really thinks he needs for down the road, he’ll let us know and seed it in, but it’s a much more organic process, which I think is why it succeeds. It’s not some sort of chess game that he’s working out. He’s actually really focused on telling the best emotionally satisfying complex stories as possible, and then handing those stories off to the next set of filmmakers, and that’s what’s happening across the MCU and why I think it’s so surprising and ultimately satisfying.
DS: Sir, it was a thrill to speak with you. it’s a thrill to talk to you.
MS: Thank you very much for taking the time.
WandaVision is currently available to stream on Disney+. Matt Shakman is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Limited Series/Anthology Series and Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios