“A Dysfunctional Family Story Cloaked In The Superhero Genre” Showrunner Steve Blackman on ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Season 2 (Part 1)
“I actually had an old life as an attorney,” said showrunner Steve Blackman. “I was pretty miserable practicing law. I dreamed of getting out and I saw an opportunity to write a TV show about young lawyers.”
Following the write-what-you-know advice many young writers hear, Blackman sold a show where he was already familiar with the players involved. “The truth is, some of the most honest writing comes from looking within and writing from your own experiences.”
Blackman said he felt a certain “angst” to this first spec script. “What made the package a better sell is that when I pitched it, they knew I was giving a story from the heart. It was sort of my story and it made it more real and put more credence behind the storytelling.”
“The second they bought the show, I quit that day from my law practice, which was a bit of a shock to the partners,” added Blackman about cutting the metaphorical safety net. “It’s a truly wonderful thing to write something on a piece of paper and see it come to life through amazing actors, crew, production. I’ve done this for 20 years now, but I still get excited on set.”
Over the past two decades, Blackman has written for popular TV shows like Wild Card, Bones, Las Vegas, Private Practice, Fargo, Legion, and Altered Carbon. He’s also the creator behind Netflix’s Umbrella Academy.
Across Blackman’s last four works (and perhaps his career in hindsight), he said he “loves character shows.” He added, “I love telling very relatable stories about people. My favorite characters are the ones most broken, the ones with the foibles. To me, the characters that struggle are the most interesting to write. I think my brand is ‘the dysfunctional character.’”
These most recent works also come from adaptations or extensions of known creative universes, so that comes with new challenges to give audiences both what they expect but also what they don’t expect to see on screen.
“The Umbrella Academy is a challenging show because we’re living in a heightened reality, but at the same time, trying to tell dramatic stories. In Season 2, we’re dealing with real issues like racism and homophobia.”
Season 2 invites audiences to watch the Hargreeves siblings travel back to the 1960s, around the time JFK was assassinated, which is also a story in the comic book series.
“To find the tonal balance between the heightened reality of superheroes, and at the same time, being true to these issues and telling credible storytelling is a challenge, but that’s the sign of doing something great.”
Blackman cites the most recent Watchmen by Damon Lindelof as hitting these marks. “When you find that balance, there’s nothing better.”
Adapting The Umbrella Academy
Blackman sees the graphic novel as a “wonderful springboard,” but it’s not necessarily something that completely dictates the narrative of the total story. “It’s incredible source material.”
“From the beginning, we realized the two things couldn’t be a carbon copy. The type of story is nonlinear. It’s so big we’d need a feature budget to do it, so we took a dramatic license to take what we need and draw new stories.”
The purpose of Season 1 was to introduce, but also ground, the characters. In Season 2, the story follows their 10-day arc which comes from a single comic in Volume 2 of the overall series.
Blackman tries to avoid conversations of genre and focuses on “subverting expectations.” He said, “The superhero genre is a very busy genre. I wanted this to feel like something different.”
“I look at the show as a dysfunctional family show. The fact that they’re superheroes is important, but it’s also incidental in telling relatable, human stories, with a broken family and abusive father. That was how we came into it.”
“The word ‘genre’ gets tossed around a lot and how you fit into it. I try not to put that blinder on my eyes, but tell the best story we can with these characters.” In fact, when Blackman pitched the idea for The Umbrella Academy, he told Netflix he didn’t want to do another superhero show like those that had come before. Instead, he discussed family.
In addition, he had also just worked on Altered Carbon for Netflix, which was a big, massive sci-fi piece, so he wanted something that could feel a little smaller, at least for the bulk of the show.
“I wanted to lean into the unexpected and ground everything, even though it was a heightened graphic novel. In Season 2, we went even more bizarre and weird, so I hope the fans who love the graphic novel appreciate that.”
Writing Unique Characters
The Umbrella Academy siblings are:
- Luther, the muscle-bound leader,
- Diego, the vigilante crime-fighter with bullseye accuracy,
- Allison, the mind-control sister,
- Klaus, the flamboyant chatterbox who sees the dead,
- Five, the time jumper,
- Vanya, who appears powerless in the beginning, but is actually the most powerful; and
- Ben, the dead brother who is only seen by Klaus, but can also project deadly tentacles from his chest.
“I think we want every fight sequence to feel like, for each character, you’re in their unique world. It’s the same thing with music, where we tailor the music for the show to be distinct to the person that’s in it, so you feel like you’re in the world of that character.”
In addition to subliminal messaging, the action also changes with the characters. “A good fight scene tells its own story. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s not just throwing punches, but telling a story within the fight that’s the tricky thing.”
Writing rich characters also helps the writers avoid being too precious with the show. “I definitely want to do more seasons,” said Blackman. “I have a plan for Season 3, but the truth is, Gerard [Way] is coming out with new volumes ]of The Umbrella Academy]. He’s working on Volume 4 now.”
“I think as long as we can make it feel unique and original, there’s a way to keep doing the show. I don’t want to get ahead necessarily, of where Gerard is going, with the general structure. I would hate to take a Game of Thrones path and go somewhere different completely.”
“The good news is that it takes us fourteen months for prep, production, and post, so that gives Gerard time to get a new volume out so we can move at the same pace,” he mused.
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