The [Marvel] movies proved that as long as you are nodding towards the things that have been established and keeping the things that are very important, the fans will enjoy it.
Many a marriage therapist will tell you that the key to domestic tranquility is not to bring your work home with you.
Or is it? Say, hypothetically, that you’re Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, co-showrunners on one of television’s most geektastic shows, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If this happens to be the case, then you might want to be a little flexible.
In a recent conversation with the Writers Guild of America West website, Tancharoen explained why. “Last night we said, ‘Let's set a rule. After 11 p.m. there's no show. There's no checking the phones. There's no checking emails or anything, we shut it off.’ Then, of course, we were sitting there unable to sleep, just watching TV, and I start reading a script. Jed's like, ‘This rule is not working.’”
“There's no escaping,” corroborates Whedon. “The real stress is that we can't turn our brains off.”
“But partly the reason we work so well together is because we can't turn our brains off,” counters Tancharoen.
Luckily, the couple’s semi-voluntary loss of leisure time is our gain. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., an action-packed character study on the life of “normal” heroes in a world filled with Norse gods and angry green rage monsters, was a freshman smash, and launches into season two on September 23. If that means a few sleepless nights for the Tanchareon-Whedon home, well, too bad for them.
When you're writing the show, how much of the plot, the characters, all the elements, come from you guys and how much is handed to you from Marvel?
Jed Whedon: We mostly generate stories, us and the staff. There's a database of characters that are available to us and we have knowledge of the films and there are certain things that Marvel wants to hit along the way, but we generate stories internally and then basically check with Marvel.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right, and we have the opportunity to link up with things that have been established in the comic universe and the feature universe but our cast of characters—with the exception of Agent Coulson—are all brand new characters that have never existed in the comics. So yes, our stories, are basically generated here first. Then when we can link up with everything else, it just gets better.
Is it like how Dr. Who explains time travel, where there are set points in history you can't change? Like last season, I assume when your plot paralleled the Captain America: The Winter Soldier plot, you knew that was happening and had to work towards/around that.
Jed Whedon: That was a special case, but yes, in that case we did know that was coming from the beginning, and we had to carefully approach it. There were a certain set of parameters that came with that, we weren't allowed to have traitors, we weren't allowed to say the word “Hydra,” and so in that way the Marvel cinematic universe did take story. But how we got there and how it affected our show was left up to us.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right, that was all generated internally.
Is that kind of coordination fun or a pain in the butt?
Maurissa Tancharoen: It's a little bit of both. But you know, no one else gets to do that, really. No other show has that unique synergy, so it's a little bit of both. It was a struggle to hide Hydra; it was hard not to allude to any sort of moles or traitors, but we finally had the reveal of who Ward truly was, it paid off pretty well.
Jed Whedon: It's the best puzzle. When it's complicated it wracks your brain and keeps you up at night, but if you pull it off, if you put the pieces in the right place, it's intoxicating. And we're the only people who get to play in that world.
When you're adapting a comic book character like Deathlok for TV, how do you get what you want without pissing off the fan boys?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Well, we do have an established Marvel character; this coming season we'll have Mockingbird on the show, she is also a beloved character. But we have to take liberties with our version of it because we have to be able to tell the stories we can realistically tell on television. So with Deathlok we gave him a very human, sort of empathetic backstory, and then we saw what he turned into in our universe.
Jed Whedon: We have good people. We have Jeph Loeb and Megan Thomas Bradner from Marvel always around to be our temperature gauge on whether or not something's a cool take, a cool twist or a subtle representation of what was hit on in the comics, or a departure that will offend people.
The movies proved that as long as you are nodding towards the things that have been established and keeping the things that are very important, the fans will enjoy it.
Maurissa Tancharoen: If underneath it, there's a very clear respect for what's already been established in the comic universe then the adjustments and the tweaks you make…
Jed Whedon: …can feel like a fresh take.
How do you make normal people like the agents seem interesting in a universe filled with superheroes?
Jed Whedon: One of the things that appealed to us about the show initially was that very thing. In a world full of heroes, what's it like to be a normal person? How does this organization made up of regular people compete with people who have superpowers? In terms of how to make them interesting, hopefully they're just people you can relate to. Every other show mostly has regular people and some of those are interesting so hopefully the stark contrast doesn't diminish our characters, it gives them a more interesting challenge. Also, on our show, we can't have superheroes all the time because of financial and time constraints, so we don't have to deal with all the time having these people drop in their midst.
Maurissa Tancharoen: People always respond to the human experience no matter what world you're telling that experience in. Just the fact that being human is highlighted in our world helped each character's emotional journey become something relatable. Also, when we have powers it's always a metaphor for an emotional human experience anyway, because sometimes if you overload a story with just all sorts of flash and superpowers… for me, it displaces my experience.
Jed Whedon: Our approach to people with powers, Deathlok being an example of this, is to treat them as regular people. That's why origin stories are always the most interesting superhero story because you're seeing what would happen to a regular person if they were given this ability. Hopefully everybody in the Marvel universe is a regular person at some level so that they can be relatable to the common man.
I heard someone say once that DC has superheroes trying to be human and Marvel has humans trying to be superheroes.
Maurissa Tancharoen: That's something that everyone can relate to. I feel like everyone knows what it's like to yearn to be more than who they are, and that's a quality that Marvel definitely has throughout all of their content.
Do you guys dig through all the old comic books looking for plot points and plotlines and characters?
Jed Whedon: Sometimes. We have, on our staff, a couple of real enthusiasts. We're enthusiasts, but I'm talking experts. So sometimes that adds to the fun. There's such a giant archive of material to inspire, so for sure part of our process is seeing stuff that we can do that's been done and how we can do it in a different way—or nodding to some of those old storylines that are real classics.
Are you seeing ripples of your show moving into the comic book world?
Jed Whedon: FitzSimmons, I think, has just made their way into the true Marvel canons, which we're excited about.
Believe it or not, I have a couple of questions not about superheroes. How do you find co-showrunning works with domestic tranquility between you two?
Jed Whedon: That it's definitely a stressful job. We fortunately like each other a lot.
Maurissa Tancharoen: We can safely say that we have a rare relationship, which is why we are married. We are very like-minded people who like each other's jokes, and we like to have a lot of fun together. That sounds very sappy, but it's just the truth.
We do have to check in with each other. If it stops feeling like fun then we have to reassess. At the end of the day just as far as our home life goes, the show is very much a part of our lives, like 150 percent of the time, so we have to make a conscious effort to actually have a dinner that's dedicated to something other than the show. We're always thinking of the show, we live and breathe it, so an idea will always pop up in the middle of us trying to be romantic…
Jed Whedon: …or not even romantic, just doing anything else.
In your show, in Joss [Jed’s brother] Whedon’s work, and in most of the Marvel stuff, there’s a common beat: the mundane human moment in the middle of epic action.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Right, absolutely.
How does that work? How do you add it in there?
Jed Whedon: It's a little bit of taste thing. One of the things that's fun about playing in this world is undercutting the expectations. In The Avengers, the last 20 minutes is just this epic rollercoaster of action, but when you talk about that you only talk about the moments where Hulk punches Thor out of frame or bashes Loki like a rag doll; it's those humor moments and those human moments. When Hawkeye starts calling out signals to Ironman, you see them working together, it's those moments you remember. All the “cool” in the world is fun, but it's undercutting it and not taking ourselves too seriously that's memorable and keeps people smiling.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Moments of levity have always been important to us, even as audience members. It's the sort of things that we respond to when we are in an experience of a film or a TV show. The world that we have going into in season 2 on S.H.I.E.L.D. is not not dire [sic]. The entire institution that all of our characters have dedicated their lives to has completely crumbled. We are left with nothing, and we are true underdogs that are struggling to rebuild something. So we lean into the darkness of that, and when we do, we always undercut it with something that makes you laugh because that's how humans deal with pain. Sometimes you've got to laugh.
Jed Whedon: The hardest you'll laugh are in those most dire moments. How many people have had that bellyaching laugh session in a hospital waiting room, in a situation where you know everything's terrible or you're dealing with something that's a curveball. That's when you dig down, you find this humor, you find those moments, and you laugh because that's a coping mechanism.
I'm curious, though, how you technically do it. Do you just write it and then go back and say, "Okay, was this human enough?”
Maurissa Tancharoen: That's really interesting. I've never thought about it that way, but no, it's not a conscious choice like, we have to throw in a human/funny moment here. It's just sort of organic to the process we've established. We're fortunate to have a team of writers that have grown up writing that way.
Jed Whedon: Everybody in the room, first of all, is funny and when you're generating a story, so much of the time is spent just riffing and throwing out ideas that'll never end up in the show. A lot of those ideas are just to make everybody in the room laugh. An example of that would be in the pilot when Coulson walks out of the shadows and says, "Welcome to Level 7," then says, "I'm sorry—it was dark over there, I couldn't resist, there must be a bulb out." That was a pitch just to make everybody laugh but every now and then you go, "Actually that's great."
Maurissa Tancharoen: And it lands on the page.
My 10-year-old daughter is a massive fan of your show. In fact it's a bit of a bonding thing between us. When she found out I was talking to you guys her first question was, “Can you get me on the show, Daddy?” When I explained to her that wasn't going to happen, she gave me a list of questions. Would you mind answering a couple of them?
Maurissa Tancharoen: No, not at all.
All right, I'll give you two. One of them is: Do you have to memorize the script too?
Maurissa Tancharoen: Because of our partnership and because we're always writing late night at home, we do read the scenes aloud sometimes and not necessarily act them out but just hear them out loud.
Jed Whedon: Sometimes we act them out.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Who am I kidding? We're totally acting them out. We put on the accents and everything, definitely. In that way it gets ingrained sometimes.
Jed Whedon: Yeah. We do not have to memorize the scripts, but the ones we write we sometimes accidentally do.
Here’s her next question. How did you think of doing the show?
Maurissa Tancharoen: First there was Joss who came to us and said, "I need to make a show. What should it be?" Then we took a weekend and thought about what it could be.
Jed Whedon: We were presented with the concept of a S.H.I.E.L.D. show and sat, as we've done many times with Joss and just talked about what might be cool. And, in this case, most of the things we discussed in that first hour ended up in the pilot episode.
Maurissa Tancharoen: Except Agent May was Agent Rice. That changed when we cast Ming-Na Wen because we can't have an Asian woman being called Agent Rice.
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West