Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany smilin on a swing set - still from WandaVision (2021)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 04 Mar 2021

How WandaVision’s dissection of loss became the perfect balm for pandemic life

InterviewPop cultureReadTelevision
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Director Matt Shakman talks crafting a love letter to television history with the groundbreaking WandaVision.

Wearing you heart on your sleeve is one thing but wearing your heart on every frame of a multi-million-dollar Marvel television series is another thing altogether. Yet somehow that’s what the cast and crew of WandaVision managed to do after nine episodes and months of heated discussion and dissection about the groundbreaking show. Given that it carried the burden of being the first Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) television series made for the Disney+ streaming platform, the part-romance, part-surrealist fantasy show penetrated an even wider viewership than the usual comic book fare in part thanks to its pop cultural literacy. It helped if you had seen the past decade worth of MCU content, but it wasn’t essential. The only primer a viewer really needed was to have engaged with television at all, from any decade, and to have loved the medium wholeheartedly. “When I couldn’t talk about all the secrets of the show, I would often would just say ‘it’s a romance’,” laughed WandaVision’s director and executive producer of all nine episodes, Matt Shakman. “It really is, it’s a love story at its heart, and that’s why I think so many people have been taken with the line ‘what is grief if not love persevering?’.”

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Betanny dancing - Black and White still from WandaVision (2021)

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in 'WandaVision' (2021)

On the surface, that could be viewed directly as the love between the characters Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) and Vision, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany respectively. Yet right there alongside it is the “love letter” crafted to the medium of television itself, with the story moving through the various decades of family sitcoms while the central character tries desperately to hold on to what’s left of her fragmented family. It was a world Shakman was incredibly familiar with, having started his career as a child actor on sitcoms including Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten Of Us and The Facts of Life. Behind the camera, his directing work spanned from sitcoms like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and high-concept fare like The Great and Game of Thrones, to period work like Mad Men and Everybody Hates Chris. In terms of skills required to take an audience time travelling through the various eras of sitcomlandia, his was almost a perfect resume with one more additional feather in the cap: that of founder and artistic director of theatre company Black Dahlia.

Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn and Elizabeth Olsen - Still from WandaVision (2021)

Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn and Elizabeth Olsen in 'WandaVision' (2021)

“Without a doubt the theatre background is helpful, especially in Episode 1 – ‘Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience’ which we did do in front of a live studio audience,” said Shakham, with that homage to Desilu Productions of the fifties like I Love Lucy, even including practical effects (the floating cutlery was performed mid-scene rather than being added in post-production). “Even Episode 5 – ‘On A Very Special Episode …’ – The Family Ties kind of eighties era episode. Whenever you’re staging for a live audience, it really is theatre: how that’s blocked, how the actors move through the space. I love that, I love the energy that comes from actors meeting the audience and there’s a real dialogue that happens. It’s like lightning in a bottle, you can’t replace that.” The “adrenaline” didn’t just impact the cast, but the crew as well said Shakham with everyone from series creator Jac Schaeffer to the production designers and costume team thriving under the pressure of essentially pivoting with each episode and starting again as they recreated a new era: whether that’s Malcolm in the Middle of the nineties or Modern Family of the naughts. “There was a great deal of love and passion put into the making of the show from everyone, from Jac and the amazing writers she recruited to all of my filmmaking collaborators and designers,” Shakman said. “We all love the history of television, we love these characters, and we love being able to put it all together.”

Matt Shakman, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany on a blue 1950s kitchen set - still from WandaVision (2021) .jpg

Left to right: Matt Shakman, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany on the set of 'WandaVision' (2021)

It’s a joy tinged with sadness, of course, because WandaVision – in Shakman’s words – “is about the interaction between grief and love”. Perhaps a lofty conceit to execute within a genre famed for making things go boom, which was also why more traditional MCU television property The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was originally supposed to be the first Disney+ cab off the rank. However, COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works meaning the release date of the globe-trotting series had to be pushed and the soundstage centric – and considerably weirder – WandaVision was brought forward. It was a “strange circumstance” said Shakman, with editing and post-production happening in lockdown. “We came at a very interesting time,” he noted. “We weren’t originally planned to be the first Marvel Studios production to come to Disney+ … but then here we are making a story about how you deal with loss, how you grieve, while we are all dealing with a pandemic, which obviously we never would have predicted when we started putting the show together. I think all of us are experiencing so much. Here in America, we’re over 500,000 people lost and still growing, all over the world even more so. The show has extra resonance for that reason, and I think that adds to how it’s being received.”

Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her seventh book The Rose Daughter is out now along with the limited podcast series Josie & The Podcats which explores the 2001 cult film.

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