Thursday, December 24, 2020

Santa Claus is (Still) Coming to Town!

Covid-19 has made this year into a bit of a nightmare for many of us, but, just as the Grinch attempted to do away with Christmas only to discover that Christmas is rather tougher than he'd imagined (V in V for Vendetta notes that "you can't kill an idea"), so have I discovered a bit of Christmas spirit at the end of the year.  It was unexpected but a small, bright beacon of light in an otherwise largely dreary season.  I've gotten to enjoy time with my family, including my wonderful new son, and although some things have changed (we met with Santa on Zoom instead of in person), others didn't (we still sent an obscene number of holiday cards - you're welcome, USPS).

Because I love both Christmas and "fictional" science (aka "comic book" or "super-hero" science), I decided to round out the year with a beloved topic of mine crammed through a pseudo-scientific lens: the topic of Santa Claus.

I've been a big fan of Santa for over 30 years and this year was no exception.  I wrote an article explaining how Santa is handling the Covid-19 pandemic and what various Santa experts (including Santa's elves) have informed us about Santa's annual gift-giving journey.

If you'd like to know about how Santa is managing 2020, click here!  Don't worry, kids; he's still coming, and he's being extra safe!

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May our 2021 days be more merry, and brighter.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Good Reads: Skyrim Edition

Did you know that the video game Skyrim has over 300 readable books?  They don't do a thing except tell you a story and you can, in game, open them up, flip through the pages, and read a story.

Most people don't take the time to read every volume, but yours truly did, and wrote a massive, 10-page article summarizing the best books AND personal journals in Skyrim, for the curious readers who wonder which tomes are worth their time.

Check out my article here!  (Spoiler alert: No, "Palla" isn't #1, though it did make the top five.)  This article details the best Skyrim reads, where to find them, if they confer any special skill points to your in-game character, and offers a broad plot summary so you can choose if you want to track them down and give them a read yourself.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2020

Dualing Banjos: Two Portrayals of the American Hillbilly

On July 7th, back in the days before I canceled my Amazon Prime account, I saw a documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. It's about the White family, a self-proclaimed clan of hillbilly redneck ne'er-do-wells. I wanted to write a review for it, but got waylaid. In a note to myself, I wrote simply, “It's at times funny, but mostly heartbreaking. It's a great look at how America has let down its people and why white supremacy is flourishing. These people are so destitute, so despondent, and yet so resilient. An amazingly insightful film.”

With the Netflix release of the Oscar-bait movie Hillbilly Elegy, I decided now is the perfect time to revisit my review The Wild and Wonderful Whites, which didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved. It got a lacklustre response and mixed reviews. This isn’t surprising to me, though, because it’s by no means a feel-good movie. It’s simply a year in the life of people, and it’s generally a hopeless sort of film that seeks only to give a realistic portrayal of the American hillbilly. It’s a hopeless kind of film, one in which sympathy is tempered by the up-front awareness that many of the struggles faced by the family are self-inflicted wounds.

Yet there’s also an understanding that the poverty, mental illness, and drug abuse that plagues the family is so thoroughly ingrained that it’s almost impossible to change. One small part of the family moved away from West Virginia in an effort to “start over.” It is made clear that this was a difficult decision, one that stripped the people of their very identities, and that many members of the family lack the resources to make a clean getaway.

Near the end of the film, one of the central subjects of the documentary, Mamie, confesses that she feels like there is no hope for her or her generation; they are not only mired in poverty and ignorance, but doomed to hell. She says she only wants more for her children and grandchildren; there’s a brief cut of her smiling, laughing, and hugging one of them, only for her expression to fall into one of despair the moment the child runs off to continue playing. The utter hopelessness of these people, and the idiosyncratic self-awareness they have of their situations combined with a paralyzing inability to alter them (call it fatalism, or nihilism, if you insist on assigning it an -ism), really affected me.

This film was a portrayal of “hillbillies” in a way that was both sympathetic but unflinching. Certainly, one could easily dismiss the Whites as the main perpetrators of their own abuse, and one would not be wrong. But at the same time, I found myself rooting for them. I wanted them to get better. And I wanted their efforts, however small, however late, however utterly stupid, to succeed.

Hillbilly Elegy, by comparison, is a sneering, derisive work that aimed for the same tone as The Wild and Wonderful Whites but misses its mark and ends up caricaturing its subjects in an inexcusable way.

The thing you should know about Hillbilly Elegy is that the movie is based on a book, and that book is a memoir. The author of the book was born into a family of hillbillies not unlike the Whites, who suffer similar problems: severe drug addiction, untreated mental health problems, dire socioeconomic circumstances. The author proceeded to go to Yale. That’s pretty much the entire plot arc, which is a bit dull and self-congratulatory, in my opinion. But it’s also the sort of thing that you would write a memoir about. My problem is not with the plot but the conclusions drawn from it. Author J.D. Vance blames the people in his life for their own circumstances in what comes across as bitter libertarianism that’s the direct result of the familial traumas he suffered in his pre-college years. The general disdain Vance has for his ex-peers precludes any possible sympathy or understanding. And the generalizations he makes are sweepingly broad.

In short, the problem with Hillbilly Elegy (as a book) is that it falls victim to a fair world fallacy in which all people who are poor are poor because they are lazy; all victims of drug addiction are simply not trying hard enough to get clean; the world is populated only by pathetic losers and Vance, who heroically discovered that the secret to success is pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

The Netflix screen adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, dilutes Vance’s problematic, right-leaning ideals, making its central focus the portrayal of his mother and grandmother. Played by Amy Adams (a rich Hollywood woman in “poor face”), Vance’s mother steals the spotlight with her hysterical antics. Though I didn’t like Vance’s memoir, one thing I can say about it is that it had a point. The movie, in forcing Vance to play a milquetoast “straight man,” ends up being nothing more than an invitation to gawk at a caricature. It has no lesson. The book did, and while I disagree with it, I can at least say it was pushing forth a story that the author felt had meaning. The Netflix movie trades in cheap emotional clichés, with its characters oscillating wildly between screeching at each other in over-the-top, fake southern accents (Vance is from Ohio) and nauseatingly gooey speeches set to rousing orchestral music.

It invites the audience to gawk openly at the poor yokels with smug satisfaction and the security of knowing that the actors themselves are not real people, only pale imitations of real people. It’s a voyeuristic film that comes across as the highfalutin final project of an insufferable film student, and it would be utterly unremarkable if not for the “based on a best-selling memoir / based on a true story” tagline.

I know it’s a bit of a banality to see a film based on a book and to say afterwards, “The book was better.” I read Vance’s book in 2016 and I strongly disliked it. I disliked its cruel, pitiless, snide tone and its ham-fisted lessons on self-actualization that seemed rooted in personal scorn. However, in this instance, I’ll resort to the film’s strategy of trading in clichés and say it: The book was better than the film. And neither holds a candle to the stark, raw, provocative, and terribly under-valued documentary that is The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.

But when you get right down to it, that is how Americans as a whole regard the iconic hillbilly. We want to stare, to spurn, to point and laugh, and we want to do it without feeling bad. J.D. Vance’s book and the film based on it both allow us to witness the spectacle without being touched by it, and to be reassured of our own superiority to the hapless hicks we’re observing. It’s a modern freakshow. The Wild and Wonderful Whites does not strip the Whites of their humanity and, in doing so, demands that the audience confront the horrible realization that, there but for the grace of God go we. You don’t feel good watching it, and nor should you. The Wild and Wonderful Whites is a lens into an uncomfortable reality that, unlike Vance’s book, doesn’t extend itself into the realm of judgement.

Hillbilly Elegy robs its characters of their dignity with the weak excuse that hillbillies have none. As a result, it’s exploitative and mocking. The Wild and Wonderful Whites, on the other hand, lets its subjects speak for themselves; they are both pathetic and proud, forcing the audience to accommodate their oxymoronic nature in what is an uncomfortably close depiction of complex, wholly realized people. This is where Howard’s film failed. His characters, based on Vance’s memoir, are one-dimensional and shallow. They don’t deserve your attention; the Whites do.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Content Dump: Animorphs and Elliot Page

Yesterday Elliot Page, one of the stars of Umbrella Academy, came out and as the "resident Umbrella Academy fan" of the Grand Geek Gathering I was asked to whip up a press release.  You can read it here.

I had actually spent all weekend writing a 9-page listicle about the best books to read in Skyrim (spoiler: Palla v2 only made it to the #4 slot) but this was deemed more timely, so you'll have to wait for next week.

Also this week, I wrote up a brief review of the new Animorphs graphic novel adaptation.  I don't like it as much as the books but in fairness, it would have been hard to live up to my eight-year-old enthusiasm for the original book series.

Click the links for my writing or don't.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Loki is an LGBTQ+ Icon (And Actually, Always Has Been)

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. 

If you'd like to read a light-hearted and validating post about Loki, the character of Norse mythology, Marvel comics, and Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, check out my most recent post published by the Grand Geek Gathering on November 18th.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

“You Look Like Death” Prequel Breathes Life Into Umbrella Academy Series

 Originally published by Grand Geek Gathering, Nov. 11.

If you discovered the Umbrella Academy comic book series through the Netflix screen adaptation, and only picked up the source material afterwards, you might have found yourself confused or disappointed.  The Netflix series is only a loose adaptation of the graphic novel by Dark Horse, and the truth is, the comic is very different.

A recent spin-off focusing on fan-favorite Klaus premiered this year, and it’s clear the Netflix show helped writer Gerard Way sharpen his vision.  You Look Like Death is a prequel that occurs about a decade before the events of Apocalypse Suite (from which the Netflix series draws its inspiration), and after reading the first two issues, I have to say, it looks promising.

“Curious and unnatural,” if you will.

My impression of the original graphic novel was that the story was choppy, poorly paced, and often confusing.  The characters weren’t very well-defined and the story seemed to move between action sequences without much glue to hold it together.  I did get the impression that the writers and illustrators had spoken, at length, about the plot… but that plot was lost in translation, as the comic seemed desperate to highlight the coolest action sequences without investing much in back story.

You Look Like Death builds wonderfully on both the original graphic novel and the TV series.  The story arc and pacing has a much cleaner, well-defined quality.  The issues are short, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality.  The linework is less “sketchy,” the colors brighter, the backgrounds more detailed.  One of my biggest complaints of the original graphic novels was that all the characters look alike; in You Look Like Death, the characters manage to have actual faces that one can readily tell apart, complete with expressions and noses (something that was occasionally conspicuously missing in Apocalypse Suite).  And it’s not just their faces that are more distinguishable; the personalities of the characters are, too.  Perhaps it’s because we are focusing on a cast of one instead of a cast of seven (well, six, since poor Ben is dead throughout the series).

Note the level of detail in this panel.

In Issue One, Klaus is kicked out of the Umbrella Academy due to his drug use and general delinquency.  Sent out into the wide world, he engages in a series of zany gimmicks to try to make his way, including such hijinks as putting himself up for adoption.  He steals a massive stash of drugs and experiences a high like no other, unaware that he just ripped off an incredibly powerful chimpanzee vampire drug lord, The Shivers.  Moving to Hollywood, he happily discovers a wider world of mind-altering substances than he ever could have imagined.  The issue ends with Klaus dancing at a Hollywood party, having recently made the acquaintance of a wealthy but washed-up actress, Vivian.

Issue #1

In Issue Two, Klaus basks in the attention of the Hollywood elite, summoning long-dead sensations to dance the lindy-hop at parties and impress various creative types with “his” talents.  Unbeknownst to him, Shivers the vampire chimp is hot on his trail, and is moving in to take his revenge.  Meanwhile, Vivian, Klaus’s patron, introduces him to heroin and begins making demands for Klaus to summon various ghosts for her.  We’re treated to some flashbacks of Klaus’s childhood and Reginald’s A+ parenting, and the issue ends with Klaus possibly making a big mistake with his powers.  (No spoilers; you’ll have to read the issue if you want to know what happens!)

Issue #2

Although I was never a fan of the original Umbrella Academy graphic novels, You Look Like Death: Tales from the Umbrella Academy is a fun series.  The attention to detail, color, and design is far superior to Apocalypse Suite, and perhaps because of the influence of the screen series, the characters seem better written and well-rounded.  There’s more humor (Klaus, of course, has always been the comic relief) mixed with intense angst-filled darkness (Reginald scraping up Klaus’s dead cat is nothing short of hair-raising).  For the price, I would definitely recommend You Look Like Death.  It’s an improvement upon the original comic series and, for those who prefer the Netflix series, a faithful expansion on a beloved character, with explorations of both his lighter clown-like side as well as his disturbing, traumatic past.

Classic Klaus hijinks: trying to get adopted.

Classic Klaus trauma: Reginald’s A+ parenting.

You Look Like Death doesn’t take itself too seriously, one other complaint I have about the original Umbrella Academy comics.  The dark themes are present but they are only lighted upon, which, in my opinion, gives them a little more impact.  Apocalypse Suite and subsequent issues of the central series read, at times, like a soap opera, with the comedic backdrops feeling out of place and poorly timed.  You Look Like Death makes comedy the main focus, with Klaus’s trauma always lurking just out of reach, giving it a rightfully ominous feel that doesn’t bludgeon the reader over the head.  Given the short length of the issues, and the limitations of the medium, sometimes, less is more, and suggesting meaning is better than showing it outright.  The fact that Gerard Way was able to accomplish this in You Look Like Death demonstrates a degree of maturity in his writing, and I’m hopeful that it might carry over to the fourth volume of Umbrella Academy, currently in production.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Perfect D&D Homebrew Formula I Never Realized I Was Using

 Originally written and published on the Grand Greek Gathering.


The first-ever D&D game I played was homebrewed, and I didn’t know that this was unusual.  I was a poor college student and I didn’t have the money to shell out for modules.  What’s more, my college was in a small town and there was no local comic book shop that would have sold them, anyway.  So when I began DMing my own campaigns, years later, I too made homebrew campaigns, unaware that pre-made modules even existed.

I was lucky in that my first DM was a talented storyteller.  They say that one of the marks of an expert is to make their craft appear easy, and my DM certainly did.  It was only after I became a DM myself that I discovered the enormous amount of work he must have put into his campaigns, which, from a player perspective, ran so seamlessly.

No easy feat when players insisted on such allowances as “being a sentient chair.”

It would be well over a decade before I discovered the formula both he and I had unwittingly been using in our homebrew campaigns.  I stumbled upon it while trying to coach a friend of mine (a seasoned player but a new DM).  I’ve named this formula the Triple Diamond Structure, and you’re about to see why.



A good homebrew follows a thread, but the thread cannot be too obvious or the story feels rail-roaded to the players.  D&D is ultimately a sandbox game, so the players should be able to explore and have plenty of room to breathe.  But aimless wandering gets old, fast, so the role of the DM is to facilitate the characters through a choose-your-own adventure story.

Like all stories, the DM needs to establish a conflict, rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  I have found that every single-session quest I’ve ever taken my players on was a play in three acts.  Identifying the acts allowed the story to be paced properly, to offer changes in scenery, and to offer three separate win conditions (one per act).  Each act begins with the conflict, then bulges into potential actions, then resolves at a single node.  In other words, the flowchart of the action looks like a diamond.  And if there are three acts to the story, the story will look like three stacked diamonds, with the nodes being “known” plot points that the players will light upon as they play.

This is a single-session arson quest. More on this later. Note that I write out my campaigns by hand, but you might prefer to use a digital tool to create neater structures.

In other words: the players, as they interact with the world, will go in all sorts of directions.  The DM offers them a hook, and if they take it, the subsequent action can go in many directions.  But since the hook has outlined a clear objective, the players will come back to that objective.  The story will bulge and pinch.

For some DMs, the “bulge” is where the campaign unravels and becomes a meandering mess.  To keep the players on track, anticipating actions and how those actions will lead to the next node can help.

In order to build a Triple Diamond Structure, the two most important things for the DM to be able to articulate are what type of quest the players are on (because this will determine the win conditions), and what type of actions they can perform.



I’ve heard it said there are anywhere from three to seven basic “types” of quests.  I believe there are fundamentally four:

  • Kill quests.  (This includes killing a beast, subduing a wizard in battle, or beating up a bad guy.  The win condition involves winning at physical combat.)
  • Retrieval quests.  (This includes collecting items, finding items, or fetching items.  The win condition is that an item is obtained/moved/interacted with.  Note that the item might be an NPC; for example, rescuing a princess from a dragon.)
  • Movement quests.  (This includes escort and delivery missions.  The win condition is locating and/or going to a place.)
  • Information quests.  (This includes mysteries, lore, and background quests.  The win condition is obtaining information.)

Needless to say, quests can be mixed-and-matched.  For example, an information quest can easily devolve into a kill quest, and a movement quest might be combined with a retrieval quest.  (Some call a movement-and-item quest a “push the button quest.”  Players go to a place and interact with an item.)

The point of outlining these basic quest types is to determine what the story arc and win condition is.

For illustrative purposes, let’s say the mage in your party, who enjoys using fire-based spells, was recently accused of arson.  This quest is an information quest, whose ultimate goal is to clear the mage of the charges against her.

Now let’s identify the three acts in our play.  In act one, the mage will be accused and the guards will attempt to take her to jail.  In the next act, the characters will (hopefully) attempt to clear her name by investigating the crime scene, questioning witnesses, or lawyering up.  In the final act, the party is likely to have a confrontation with the real arsonist.

Identify the conflicts of each act, and what actions or triggering events will lead to the next act.

As I have written the story, there are now three mini-quests with three mini-objectives.  Note that the type of quest changes based on character actions.  If they decide, in act 3, to obtain evidence and take it to the city guards, then the mission is a retrieval quest whose win condition is the taking of the evidence to the city guard.  On the other hand, if the party decides to kill the arsonist outright and then turn in his body later, then it’s more of a kill quest.

Identifying types of quests and their respective win conditions will help you construct your diamond and anticipate player actions.



While every DM knows that improv is critical to the game (everyone has that one player who likes to wander off the map or kill a town guard just to see what happens), anticipating fundamental player moves can be hugely helpful.

Actions can usually be broken into either-or conditions.  For example:

  • Physical v. mental.
  • Non-magical v. magical.
  • (If physical): Outright brawling v. stealth.
  • (If physical): Ranged weaponry v. melee combat.
  • (If mental): Intimidation v. seduction.

DMs who have a feel for their players’ characters will be able to anticipate their actions to a degree.  Reggie the Rogue is going to try to break into the library to steal a forbidden scroll with the arsonist’s confession written on it, while Hans the Bard is more likely to walk in the front door and try to charm the librarian.  Characters without money are unlikely to try to bribe the guards (unless, of course, they’re experts in transmutation).  What happens next is up to the dice.  But if the win condition is to retrieve the confession, then that is what the DM should be anticipating will happen, one way or another.

Breaking down the most likely actions your characters can/will take will help you react accordingly. Before you say it: yes, “charm” should be under magic, not mental. I know, I know.



For more inexperienced parties (or any party with a barbarian), missions that require finesse may go sideways.  Never fear.  Anticipate the most likely lose condition and construct a new diamond.

Let’s say Reggie destroyed the confession scroll by accident, making it impossible to clear your fire mage’s good name.  New win conditions might include finding a copy of the confession, repairing the original, and/or keeping your mage from murdering Reggie with a fireball.  The nice thing about the Triple Diamond Structure is that, just like a real crystal, it can be built upon thanks to its regular, predictable shape.

In this example, the possibility of fleeing is added on as a diamond between act 1 and act 2, but it still flows back to the central pathway to allow for eventual resolution of the main conflict.

If your side quests or story arcs seem too linear, tack on some new diamonds and let the party follow those threads.  Since the diamond is really just a fancy flowchart, you can break down either-or actions into increasingly tiny nodes to create elaborate stories.

Here, the either/or condition depends on whether the party wants to act lawfully or chaotically, and then further breaks down potential actions and outcomes. There are diamonds within diamonds!

Ultimately, the goal is to give your players the appearance of ultimate freedom while still following an anticipated storyline.  The characters aren’t being railroaded, because they can choose how to get to the next node of the story… but the story has designated waypoints that create a natural, satisfying story arc.  They choose their own path and consequences, but within a framework that is designed to give the story a natural rise and fall, and lead to a satisfying conclusion.



If DMs don’t like the idea of having a designated outcome, then the diamonds can be separated.  For example, in act 3, the players are expected to solve the mystery.  But they might instead prefer to just skip town.  This is still a resolution and when diagrammed out, will still create a diamond-esque story shape.

Here we have a triple-diamond in which players have chosen NOT to clear their friend for the crime of arson and have instead elected to skip town. There are two potential resolutions now, but if you squint, you’ll realize it’s still three diamonds.  The final node is a resolution which can vary based on player-character actions.


Voilà! There is more than one resolution to our quest, but all outcomes lead to a resolution. This allows the characters to feel a dopamine-rush of satisfaction for completing the quest, and to collect on that sweet, sweet XP.

It is not necessary for players to come to the resolution, only a resolution.  This can include abandoning the quest entirely (see above) or getting the entire party killed by a Minotaur.  The possibilities are endless.  The first node of a story diamond, at its most basic, can simply be called “hook” or “conflict,” and the last node can be thought of as “resolution” or “ending.”  The bulges of the diamond are the player actions; the DM should be ready and able to respond without leading the players to any particular path, with the awareness of how actions will flow down to nodes of the story to eventually reach a resolution.



Just as a single-session side quest can be broken into three parts, a larger campaign can be created, with each “diamond” representing a part of the story.  People are often naturally attracted to the rule of threes, but any number of diamonds can be stacked, and the DM can focus in or out as needed on their story structure, with all either-or options creating smaller and smaller diamonds within the central story structure.

Of course, not all styles are created equal, so your mileage may vary.  I never drew out a diamond until I began trying to help my friend with his campaign.  I’m a highly improvisational DM, and I reacted to unexpected player actions instinctively.  Different people will get more or less out of using this tool to help plan out their campaigns, and some may prefer not to diagram out their story at all.  But if you’re new to homebrew and finding that you’re having problems visualizing your campaign or pacing your stories, try the Triple Diamond Method to simplify how you present your quests.  It’s just another item for you to put in your pocket, and who doesn’t want a handful of diamonds in their coin-purse?

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why I'm Not Canceling Netflix

I watched the controversial movie Cuties so that you wouldn’t have to.

I went in prepared to tear this movie to shreds, and instead, discovered a beautiful, realistic tragedy that has been unfairly represented in the media. Here's my honest review of the "Cuties" movie:

I accepted Netflix’s challenge to watch the movie [before judging it], and I’m glad I did.  I concur entirely with Tessa Thompson’s opinion: it gutted me.  It’s a beautifully done movie about a sensitive topic.  It’s as tasteful as it can be, considering that the POINT is to make you, the viewer, squirm a little.  The discomfort of the movie speaks to a very real issue not often talked about: how girls grow into women, and how various influences (pop culture, traditional cultural expectations, and peer pressure) guide them.  My takeaway from the movie was that the single biggest problem with Amy’s coming-of-age was the utter lack of guidance.  It was the blind leading the blind; she took her cues from her friends, from online videos, from her own misinterpretation of the world around her.  At no point did her mother (or any other woman) in the movie sit her down and have a frank conversation with her.  She was unable to ask for questions or for advice.  She was isolated, and alone.

The beautiful tragedy of the controversy surrounding this movie is that, by boycotting it, by demanding that it be silenced, the cultural conversation it begs to have is being shut down.  Amy experienced what too many young girls do: a nosedive into an empty swimming pool, from childhood to womanhood, with the nuances of sexuality and maturity being closely guarded, shameful secrets that she is expected to figure out on her own.  The attempts to cancel the movie is, essentially, mirroring the very problem that the movie highlights: that by ignoring a problem or refusing to confront it, we allow it to grow worse.  Yet another case of life imitating art.

For more information about the #CancelNetflix controversy, as well as a play-by-play of my reactions while watching the film, check out my full article on the Cuties movies here.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Rest in Power, King: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

 [A/n: This post was written last weekend and supposed to be published on another site Wednesday, but as it is still not out and I feel this is timely, I am reproducing it here.]

"You are a good man with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king." - T’Chaka to his son T’Challa, Black Panther, 2018.

When I saw Black Panther in 2018, I called it “one of the most important and relevant [superhero] films of our generation.”  In my opinion, that sentiment has only grown stronger.  Behind every great movie is a great actor to carry it, and Black Panther owes its success, in no small part, to Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last Friday from colon cancer, which he had been battling in private for four years.

In a statement to the press, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, described Boseman as a man who “radiated charisma and joy, and… created something truly indelible.”  Former President Barack Obama, quoted in People, said: “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”  Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, described Boseman as "a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith.".  (You can read his full, official statement here.)

"Always and Forever," by BossLogic

Chadwick Boseman starred in an incredible 15 film roles over the course of his career, seven of them following his cancer diagnosis in 2016.  In addition to starring in fictitious roles, he also took on the mantle of some of America’s influential Black citizens, from major-league baseball player Jackie Robison (42, 2008) to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Marshall, 2017).  But perhaps one of his best-known and most-cherished roles was that of King T’challa, aka Black Panther.  The recurring role (Civil War, 2016; Black Panther, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War, 2018; Avengers: Endgame, 2019) left an impact on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as on the sociopolitical impact of superhero films as a whole.

With a box office at $1.347 billion, Black Panther was the first of the Marvel movies to win an Academy Award (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design), as well as the first “superhero” film to get a nomination for Best Picture.  Its commercial success speaks to a deeper cultural impact.  The first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly Black cast, Black Panther offered a generation of Black children the superhero representation that had been lacking from the prior 17 MCU films.  It was a nuanced, emotionally impactful movie that did not shy away from racial topics but treated all of its characters (even the villains) with dignity and honor.  Boseman, as T’Challa, gave power and emotion to a performance that represented important political and social questions within the context of a fictional world, and in doing so, transcended the superhero genre into something more meaningful.  He brought depth and soul to his characters, and in turn, allowed his characters to speak to modern issues and real concerns about racial justice in modern America.

Boseman’s death, at the age of 43, came on August 28th, which is, fittingly enough, Jackie Robinson Day.

At the 2018 Howard University commencement speech, Boseman describes struggles in life as being “meant to shape you for your purpose,” and encouraged the graduating class to “press on with pride and press on with purpose.”  Remembered as curious,  kind, inspiring, and driven, Chadwick’s death leaves an absence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cannot (and perhaps should not) be filled.  Yet his legacy remains.  With regality and gravitas, Boseman’s performances left an impact that will survive him for generations to come.  He gave audiences of all colors something to aspire to and embodied his role as the King of Wakanda with the bearing of true royalty.  Graceful, inspirational, and humble, Boseman was not merely a fictional hero, but a cultural one.  He famously said he’d “rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe.”

Chadwick Boseman is survived by his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, and his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman.

His death has impacted countless fans.  To those fans, we offer this wisdom from King T’Challa himself: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Yimbambe.  Wakanda Forever.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Review of Season 2 of Umbrella Academy

 I've made it pretty clear that I absolutely love the Netflix show "Umbrella Academy."  I had my expectations for season two set very high; every promo picture and teaser-trailer that came out got me even more excited, because it looked really good.

I was warned by many friends to temper my enthusiasm lest the second season fall short and I end up disappointed.  The truth was, my expectations were so high that such a let-down seemed inevitable.

At midnight I was up with a bottle of wine, ready to watch the ten newest episodes when they dropped.  It was like New Year's Eve.  The energy was palpable; I probably hadn't felt such anticipation since Marvel's Civil War.

In case you are wondering how it turned out: expectations MET.  Expectations SURPASSED!  The second season was everything I had hoped for, and more.

And you can read my comprehensive review of it here. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Surjikcal Approach to Style: A Conversation with Umbrella Academy Director Stephen Surjik

Earlier this month I scored a HELL of an interview with one of the directors of the Umbrella Academy, two weeks before the release of season 2.  I have been working on getting this interview completed and posted on a larger website to be enjoyed by more people, hence my absence from my own blog.

The interview posted below was originally published by the Grand Geek Gathering on July 27th, 2020.  It has been imported with as much accuracy to its original publication as possible.

A Surjikcal Approach to Style: A Conversation with Umbrella Academy Director Stephen Surjik



Stephen Surjik, the director of “The Day That Was” and “The Day That Wasn’t,” sat down to discuss his process, working with the cast, and other details about the production of the Umbrella Academy.  In never-before-seen set photos and storyboard art, Surjik shared his experiences in season one, as well as some of his impressions of the upcoming season, in which he directed episodes two and three, “The Frankel Footage” and “The Swedish Job.”

Stephen Surjik on set

Tony: Let’s jump right into it by addressing the elephant in the room.  The Covid-19 pandemic really took off just as the second season of Umbrella Academy hit post-production.  To what extent did the pandemic affect your work?

Stephen:  Umbrella Academy already was in post-production when we [Netflix] shut down, so that wasn’t largely affected. I was in the United Kingdom working on The Witcher.  In two weeks, we start up again.

Everybody’s back and we have another five weeks of shooting these first two episodes. And then who knows what will happen.  We’ll see how that goes. There’s a very rigorous set of protocols that Netflix and the Directors Guild of America has co-authored. It includes rigorous testing. I test before I leave, I test when I land, I get tested before I leave the hotel. Everyone gets tested before they go onto the stage.  The whole idea is that we’ll remain as quarantined units. Even our shooting location is basically an Air Force base. Everything has been reorganized and cleaned and polished. And there’s a lot of remote work, things we do over radio.  We’ve actually scheduled a day that’s a full-on corporate rehearsal.  We’ll just go through the motions as if we’re working and we’re not really shooting anything, and just to see how the whole thing plays out.

It’s a whole new behavior on set. And now, from what I hear from other people that are going through this kind of thing… It’s not so bad. It can be handled with proper behavior, with the proper therapeutics… and a liberal dash of money.

Tony:  How badly did it disrupt filming on the Witcher set?

Stephen: It was a shit show. Everybody was on the run and stranded all over the place, and Netflix was extraordinary in their support and coordination in helping their families while they were stuck. Helping them, shipping stuff to them, shipping stuff to their families. It was an unusual time, and no one really knew exactly what to do, but everyone knew that they had to do something. And Netflix was awesome. And it doesn’t come by me naturally to say these things.

Tony: That’s very encouraging.

Stephen:  It is.  So, now we’re gonna go back, we’re gonna see how this works. I’m prepared, and we all have to be prepared to learn and to learn you need to make mistakes. So, it means we’re gonna have to stay humble. We just have to accept that. And then I think that if we just handle it, like adults, we’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna get through it, get the thing done, and everyone will move forward in a mature way, and in a way cognizant of the virus.

Tony: As a director, most of your work seems to be based in fantasy and sci-fi genres, which means there’s a lot of post-production editing and special effects.  How does that affect your directorial style, knowing that the final product is going to look very different?

Stephen:  I storyboard everything so that I have an understanding with the producers, the special effects company, and the actors.  We have a general marching order. It’s all provided at the beginning but at the end of the day, when that FX shot goes into ILM or wherever, and it starts to develop, it changes.  But then you get to comment on it. You do have that discussion, because you’re facing a lot of this on artwork that you discussed earlier on. But at a certain point, I don’t get to weigh in and I have to walk away and try to be an adult about it.

On the set of season two

 Tony: Is there any particular thing that you recall being disappointed about? 

Stephen:  Yes, there definitely are some disappointments, and there’s also some happy surprises! I’ve been on shows that have been much better than I expected and I’ve been on shows where they’ve been much worse, in my consideration.  But I’m not the writer of that show. And that writer has a better idea of what the limitations are budgetary, and in terms of the format and what they’re trying to achieve in 9 or 12 or 15 episodes… or three years. So sometimes I want to play all the cards, and they say, “No, no, hold back.”

I think that in the case of Umbrella Academy, it’s always been a pleasant surprise. Everything that I’ve been involved with has always been shockingly good news for me from the very beginning.  In nearly everything I see,  there’s always a degree of disappointment in these things. Not with the Academy. It’s just not the case. It’s largely because of Steven Blackman, who’s the showrunner, along with Gabriel Bá and the graphic narrative people.

We share a lot of the same tastes so that’s why the show excites me a lot. And that’s why I think the show’s very successful is because he [Blackman] manages to do that with every director. He gets the best out of them.   He makes the show into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.  This is not the case in all shows.

Tony: Can you give me an example of what tastes you share?  What sort of thing about the show excited you, from the get-go?

Stephen: Casting was definitely one of them. Early on, I was looking at this family unit, and it was an extremely diverse group of people. You look at them all and you go, “How is this gonna be a family? This will never fit.”  Well, that problem exists in every show you work on.  Will they look like a family, will they work together like a family?  If that chemistry works, the show succeeds.  And if it doesn’t, it fails. In the case of Umbrella Academy, in the script, it was drawn up as an unusual group of oddballs, but one that really fits chemistry-wise. They all had great chemistry.

Tony: I notice that the rating changed.  It was TV-14 in the first season, and now it’s TV-MA.  I’m wondering if that changed anything for you as a director.  In the storyboard you sent me, there was this great scene with Cha-Cha that was a bit… adult.  And that didn’t make the final cut.  So I’m wondering—

Stephen [delighted]: You looked at the storyboard!

Tony: I did and I gotta tell you, it’s a great scene. It’s so darkly humorous, and it fits with the tone of the show. Why wasn’t that included? 

Stephen:  It didn’t have anything to do with the censors so much as it had to do with the actors. Very early on, I brought the two of them in for rehearsal, and we were talking about a bunch of scenes, and the way that scene was written.  It was written like that because they wanted this relationship between Cha-Cha and her partner. Double chemistry gives great chemistry, but they [the actors] were on their own track. The actors weren’t romantically involved in this show; they weren’t feeling it. So, Blige was like, “How do I get there? How do I get to a place where it’s authentic, where I’m actually fantasizing about this guy?”  We brought Steve in on the discussion.  Blackman talked about it and said, “Yeah, it probably doesn’t fit. We should probably get rid of it.” So that’s what happened.

Tony: Was that one of those disappointments you mentioned earlier?

Stephen: I mean, it may have gotten cut anyway.  I liked the scene, myself.  I pushed for it. I said, “Steve, no, please let me do this.”  But it seemed that it wasn’t in the actors’ natures. I think we learned early that if the cast isn’t feeling it, it’s probably best to follow their instincts. They won’t betray you in that department. They just won’t. But boy, how about if the chemistry had been different? If it had been organic, it would have been really cool.

Tony:  I would have loved to have seen that. I thought it was just a delight.

Stephen:  Thank you. I appreciate that. That’s testimony to the good writing. Maybe the cut reflects failure on my part because I wasn’t able to get our cast into a place in terms of their own internal mental landscape. But when I got there they were kind of already on their way.

It’s interesting because some of the storyboards are like a shorthand or cheat sheet. So I can say, beforehand, here are the mathematics that are in my own head.  Here’s the front and the back end. But when we’re shooting, I try not to make them slave over the details in terms of how I need this. The board doesn’t hurt, and we do fine if we do what’s on the board.  But generally, there’s a better way based on the vibe of the moment.  If an actor learns the lines then they can change the lines if they actually know them.

Tom Hopper, left, and Aidan Gallagher, right, from a season two still.

Tony: I know that there were some lines that were improved at different parts in the show.  Is that pretty consistent, having a bit of improv going on with the cast? 

Stephen:  If an actor is really good and I’m really good with the actor, it will seem like an improv line. That’s really the goal.  If somebody has an idea and they try it, great.  But I always want to deliver what’s on the page, always try to make that work first. And then if we add to it, or offer extras, those are usually well received.

My experience has been that improv lines rarely make it in to the dialogue.  Maybe little bits here or there. Yes. But if they’re actually really good, it’ll feel like an improv line.  The bottom line is, if you enjoy it and works, it doesn’t really matter where the line came from.  Everyone will look at it and figure out what the best thing is. And I kind of lose control of it at a certain point.  I do my thing as a director, the thing that’s presented, and then…  well, they say that you pay a prostitute to leave. That’s how I see my job.  They say, “Okay, you’re done. Thank you. Good-bye.” And then they do what they want. But if you’ve done a good job, they’ll just feel it.  They’ll feel the impression you were going for.

Tony:  You mentioned there’s an organic sort of chemistry that occurs, when you have the right cast.  

Stephen: Well, before, I started working with Marvel. I was with Jeph Loeb and Karim Zreik, and we worked on a lot of different shows. And they really had a great eye for casting.  Some people are really good at it.  It’s like a cocktail party, and they know who fits in. They know who will be entertaining in that group, and how they’ll mix, and how they’ll increase that vibe.   Not me, but I’m okay with it. And once I get them on the floor, I start to learn. But I’m not great at casting. There’s people that are great at this. And that’s what sets aside some of the superstars, because somebody has the foresight and the insight into the casting.

“The Swedes” are the new antagonists in season two.

Tony: I went over and looked at a couple of these episodes that you directed.  There’s a fight scene in an office building. There’s a big dance scene at this rave. To what extent are you working with the choreographers to tighten these scenes up? They seem like they’re really challenging because there’s a lot of moving parts.

Stephen:  The choreographers do a lot of heavy lifting.  It’s a crazy process because I work with the producer in terms of the general overall story block and how we can best express the drama, and then we bring in the choreographer and the music and we talk to them.  You know, that dance scene was actually choreographed by Emma Portner, who is a really an extraordinary choreographer.  I have my workout routine and it involves two hours of… popping.  Don’t laugh don’t judge me! I don’t aspire to be a dancer but it’s my workout. So, I love when we get into any kind of dance situation.  I just enjoy it a lot.

As for fight scenes, those are something that I’ve been involved with for so long. It’s much more challenging because you’re always trying to find a way to get to the characterization of the character within that scene.  How to achieve that in a fight scene is always insanely challenging. How do we make this scene different? How do we make it unique? How do we make it reflect the interior sort of topography of his mindscape?

When I was working on the Marvel shows, there was a lot of opportunity to experiment and try new things.  We’d shoot a whole scene on videotape and look at it and go, this is working or this is not working.  It’s a process. It’s something that goes through a bunch of steps and it changes and I try to block it in a way that is a simpler block.  We want to fine-tune it so we can be more specific and specialized in the material that we do.

The actual choreography starts with the choreographer, but if there’s a part I don’t think the actor was bringing to the dancing, I’ll say it.  Or I’ll say, that part there, that’s a great part. That’s fantastic. And we’ll work through it.  Even when we were shooting that dance scene, I was shooting clips off by phone to Blackman, and he would look at them and go, “Oh, no, shoot this, shoot that, now make sure you’ve got this angle, how about get more of that…!”  Everybody was yelling at the same time. It was awesome.

As far as the rave scene, Steve has a real sense of old-fashioned entertainment the way he approached it. He said, you have to deliver me something that I believe. I said I’m gonna need people that also were born in this age, I need people that are dancers, who know that scene. I need a DJ. I need the right music. I need the right paint. This is how you’re gonna get it. Man, he delivered that from a production standpoint!  And we spent a lot of time shooting to get it just right.

Tony: I have to ask.  There’s a character featured in the background scene at the rave, an actress who’s shown up many, many times.  I’m blanking on her name…

Stephen:  Yeah, I think I know where you’re going with this.

Tony:  People always want to know, is she just an interesting character? Is there a significance to using the same actress in many different capacities? She’s at the rave. She’s in some of the other episodes, at the bank, at the bowling alley…

Actress Heather Sanderson, a recurring character

 Stephen:  There are secrets that the showrunner has kept from me. He didn’t want me to lean into it this way or that way. I didn’t know what the larger plan was, to be honest with you. I often wonder. And I still do. I think it’s just a cool character people look for and identify.  And it speaks to the environment: people live in this neighborhood, in this world, and there she is. I wish I had a better answer for you. I want to know what is going on there, too.  And I asked and I didn’t get an answer. There might be something breaking soon.

Tony [imitating Frodo]: Alright then.  Keep your secrets.

Stephen: [laughs]

Tony: As far as the two episodes you directed in season one, they’re occurring on the same day, but in different timelines. So, I’m curious if they were shot concurrently and how you, as a director, ensured continuity between those two?

Stephen: No one understands how difficult that can be. If you have two episodes that are exactly the same, almost, with small details changed, it’s incredibly difficult to delineate those scenes.  It’s easy if it’s, say, at night, in a rave, between two people, and then there’s another scene that’s between four people, and it’s outside during the day on the beach.  Then, it’s easy to remember the differences between the scenes, as well as the conflicts that occur within the scenes.

In the case of “The Day That Was” and “The Day That Wasn’t,” the first time I read it, I just thought my head was going to explode.  They were so similar. And yet there were real, relevant changes and differences. And no one on the crew understood that; no script person got it.  It was the single biggest challenge on the show for me, I think I told you when I originally started, I read those two scripts. I wanted to start working on the show, basic prepping, and they brought in the first episode that they had just completed. It wasn’t even fully completed.  They made me sign a nondisclosure agreement, and I watched it once, and then watched it again, and I just couldn’t believe it.  That first episode just blew my mind.  I was like, Oh my God, I’m working on something that’s really good.  I got it, now I understand what we’re doing. So I had to go back and start the whole thing over again as I read the scripts, and I made charts: this seems like that scene except it’s different this way.

I painted my whole room with storyboards, and my notes were covered with these triggers. It’s very difficult otherwise to track this stuff. And I knew no one was going to be tracking it except me. So that’s how I approached it. And I told Blackman: “You guys are working on something that’s super fucking cool. And you got to understand that I am gonna do whatever I can to keep up with you guys.”  I don’t know if I was awkward. This was like, too big. It’s too exciting. And I think they were happy to hear that. Because I think that at a certain point, you forget what you are worth and what you’re in.  But, man, that was a big day for me. It brought clarity.

Surjik sits at a desk in “The Commission.”

Tony: I actually had the same sensation watching it. I paused halfway through the first episode and I said to my partner, you have to watch this show. It’s really good. 

Stephen [excited]: I was like, Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for this.  I’d watch it, replay it, watch it again.  And I was like, they’re in the bank! They’re going in to the bank! [laughs]

There’s a lot of moving parts and it’s really wacky. Even though it’s very abstract, they follow all the rules of narrative for the most part.  I just adore it. I adore everything about it.

You know, there was a TV show on NBC called Boomtown.  In the first act, you would watch a crime scene and you would follow the criminal through it. And the next act, you would watch the police arrive, and the scene would change. It would literally change what happened, depending on who was there, based upon these interactions and conflicts.  It was the smartest thing you’ve ever seen.  To do this, it was impossible, and it often didn’t work. But when it did work, it was a masterpiece. This reminded me of what we were attempting to do in Umbrella with these two episodes, because it was kind of the same thing.  We’re going through the same plot and scenes again, but it had to change enough to be interesting. And to reflect this larger reality.

There was originally a whole bunch of other stuff. And I was like, “Whoa, how do we get here?” And so, we dropped that, and we restructured it in post-production, and gave it a new ending. That was largely Steve’s insight as he wrote it.  It was good material, like really cool shit we were doing, but it just wasn’t clear on what was happening. So, he made some changes, he added the rewind scene and the little time placards, and it really clarified things.  They say, in Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style, that quality writing can be described a lot of different ways. But one thing it always has is clarity.  Steve managed to achieve clarity. And I think that was a close one. Because I think we could have failed. I just wanted to deliver it passionately, I wanted to deliver what was on the page. I’m not one of those guys who goes in and changes things… I’m not that guy.  Steve had to do that himself.  And it was great, and it worked.

Surjik framing a scene from episode 8

Tony: As far as storyboarding, do you think that this is something that led you into doing a lot of graphic novel adaptations? Or do you think that storyboarding is something you developed because you were shooting comics?

Stephen: When I started storyboarding, I wasn’t doing graphics. I was doing Kids in the Hall and Wayne’s World, things like that. Storyboarding was for my own mental exercise. So, I knew where I was, but it wasn’t required in terms of style, or narrative push. It was just something I used as a tool.

When I was working with Kids in the Hall, as a director, the actors came to me with their ideas, and I would render it and say, this is what it will look like. I would show them, and they would all look at each other, and they would either agree or disagree.  They could point out a scene and say, This is good, or bad, and then we could move on. And that process became kind of accepted as a format there, and it saved us time and money. We increased our audience and everybody got along.  So that’s where I started doing that. That was a long time ago.

When I brought that to other shows, some said, no, that’s not our thing. But when I brought it to the Marvel Universe, it was like, “Oh, yeah, we got this. We know how this works.” They could see that I understood perspective and that I understand how you can create anxiety with foreground. How you can emphasize a character with all the different tools that are sharpened with the use of storyboards. So that’s where it really became a big break for me. They started really insisting upon that kind of thing, particularly for action sequences, special effects sequences.  And in Lost in Space, they use the whole sequence to budget in a mountain.  We didn’t have the money for that, but we were able to move the shot around and make it work.  It’s really easy to move that stuff around when everyone is looking at the same picture.   That was a big breakthrough.

In something like this show, Umbrella Academy, where in that first season it can be difficult to delineate the differences between the two scenes, I needed the help. I needed to look at these pages in the morning and be able to very quickly revamp where we were at, what we were doing, what the conflicts were, who was in the scene, where they came from, where they were going. And I can sometimes, in words, but it’s not as relevant, because it’s still based on the instruction manual. As the director, I have to move the instruction manual to a 3D space. But I have the manual, and so it was all successful.  We brought that back in season two.

Tony: I think it’s interesting… you mentioned the little rewind bit at the end of “The Day That Wasn’t,” which really explains what’s going on.  I saw your two episodes back to back. Because I feel like you have to watch them that way. 

Stephen:  I think so, yeah.

Tony: It’s good that they put the same director on the same episodes because… Can you imagine?

Stephen: It could have been a wreck! Yeah, that was lucky. Although there were times, I wish I wasn’t the director. I was like, oh my God.

Tony: I notice you’re using drone shots this season… Do you have any comments on getting drone shots as a director?  Do you find drones make things easier, or complicate things?  

Stephen: I personally adore all the drones that have been developed for film and TV work, but like all good tools they’ve been overused and overexposed in such a way that it becomes cliché and sophomoric. It’s disheartening. When someone doesn’t have any insights on the narrative or the characters they begin to talk about shots.  Suddenly the tail’s wagging the dog. I was a part of this upside-down world for much of my career and only recently have I been able to recognize the folly of my ways. It doesn’t mean I found my way out of the maze but I have become a lot less tolerant of cool shots for their own sake.

Drones have all kinds of uses outside of the camera platform. We discovered that drones can make a very good lighting platform. There were some scenes in Witcher that required a nervous, surrealistic, dream-like atmosphere. Without giving away any narrative information or spoilers, we tested road flares against marine flares against Air Force flares and even some very rarified SPFX-made magnesium flares.  We were measuring luminance, color spectrum, and duration, and the intensity of strobing.  Once we found our happy place in the explosives department, we then suspended the flares from lighting drones. These drones are heavy lifters that moved the intense monochromatic light and forest shadow across a creepy night time exterior. We were not the first people to use flares for lighting in a movie and we were not the first people to use a drone for lighting, but we may be the first people to use flares suspended from a drone for lighting.

Two important things to note here is that we are still perfecting the technology because of course it’s failed numerous times.  It’s extremely dangerous.  Most important is the experimentation, the journey.  The cool results were all done in the interest of recreating what was described in the script and on the storyboards.

Tony: There’s a photo you sent from the season two set of Umbrella Academy that shows you with a pig.  Does the pig have any sort of significance, either symbolically or as a plot device?  I know animal “actors” can sometimes be unreliable and capricious.

Surjik scouting locations for season 2

Stephen: The photograph that you saw of me and the pig was simply a shot I took while on location scout. I adore animals.  I’ve always enjoyed directing certain kinds of animals.  There are some big surprises in the new season but I can’t tell you who is involved or what kind of animal it is or what character the animal is a part of.

It’s almost as if you conjured me into giving up the big one.  You almost got me. Well, you did get me, but you just didn’t get me to spill the beans!

Tony: Okay, I get it, no spoilers.  Let me ask you this.  From season one, what was your favorite scene to direct, and which one was the most challenging? 

Stephen: There were a couple of scenes with Sheehan. Where he is getting his brother to tie him up to the chair, so he can’t leave that room. I don’t know how those scenes translated but, to be in them with an actor of that caliber was so exciting. Because once he was in it, once he was in that scene, he didn’t leave that scene until we set a wrap on it, and it was really powerful and exciting to watch. A truly high reward for the series he was working on, to have an actor who can actually with their powers of acting just conjure up the atmosphere.

You feel like suddenly you’re part of a scenario that is just in their imagination, but you become tricked into it.  They can imagine a swimming pool, and you think you could jump in and get wet.  It’s that kind of power. And in those scenes where he was literally struggling with the rope, he was also struggling as far as having problems with drugs, and he was also struggling because while he was on drugs, he could not conjure the dead. That’s his superpower and so he couldn’t get to the person that he loved, who had died earlier on in his past.  He’d met someone who he fell in love with. And that person died and he desperately wanted to get back and resolve the issues that he had in that relationship.

He couldn’t use his superpowers because he was on drugs.  But on a human scale, there is nothing out of context.  It’s relevant to anyone. Like, you can’t resolve personal issues if you’re drunk or on drugs.  You have to get straight, you have to deal with your problems. But in there, they were doing it like it was a superhero issue and he was struggling with his addiction.  And then he finally got clean, and he had to see and deal with his issues. It just exploded, I thought it was brilliant.

Sheehan getting into character in season one

Tony:  The show is about superheroes but they’re human issues. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people really like it, because they relate to it. Maybe they’re not going to the moon or whatever. But they’re very human problems.

Stephen: Scale problems. And so, we’re familiar with them.  There are commonly occurring issues and resolutions that are achievable.

Tony:  A lot of the issues there are pretty dark.  You’ve got childhood trauma and drug use and a lot of other really serious issues. I’m wondering if there was anything that you were bringing, if there was a personal relationship with it?

Stephen:  Well, I can’t answer that directly, except to say that Steven Spielberg once said, “If you come from a family that’s a real mess, you’re gonna be a good director. And you’ll come by it honestly.” And when I read that I said, there’s something I think we’re all struggling with, and I want to think that my problems are special and different. But in fact, I think that my problems are probably the same as Sheehan’s problems or any of the other characters, the people, the ravers, any of them.  The issues are what makes a character fit the series.  The issues are what makes a narrative empathetic.  You can relate to it, and it’s commonly occurring. So yes, I have issues.  But no, I’m not gonna say what they are.  [laughs]

Robert Sheehan on set, season one

Tony:  So, which character is your favorite? I think I might be able to guess from your answer back there…

Stephen: Well, I mean, I like Sheehan.  Robert, he’s done a lot of work in the Misfits and stuff that I’ve watched before so I kind of knew his work. I’m a huge fan of Ellen. I think that she’s a brilliant actor. She works at a microscopic level. She’s like a molecular level actor that is just incredibly cool. This is my reward for working on this. I go through all sorts of hell in production but when I’m watching them in their scenes, it’s just the greatest reward to see someone working like that.  But the whole cast is truly magnificent.  The whole cast together, they each have their strengths. I love that in this last year, I worked a lot with Raver[-Lampman], and she was brilliant. We did a whole thing in Dallas at a diner, which is very, very close to something that’s been happening here with the Black Lives Matter movement.

A still from season two, set in the early 1960s.

The second season tackles the Civil Rights Movement.

 Tony:  Do they have a psychic on the show?  Because the timing for the release, in the midst of a sort of second Civil Rights Movement— so many of the issues in Dallas feel like they’re coming up again, and even though the second season is set in the 1960s, it’s reflecting a modern reality.

Stephen:  I had no idea when we were doing that scene what sort of emotions it would bring up.  I brought my assistant to shadow me. And he happens to be from a Muslim background, and he said, “This is gonna be tricky for you because you’re not a minority.  You don’t understand, you can’t. So, what are you gonna do?” I said, we’re all gonna get together and we’re gonna like, hash around until we figure it out. And he really helped me.

We didn’t want to do something that would trivialize these issues that were occurring right now in the United States.  We wanted to find a way to deal with these issues in the show that was really dealing with both, the fiction and the reality of the movement. In a way that was righteous. That was helpful and honest.  I can’t pretend I know what all those issues are. But I can listen and I can be open to feedback. And I can help actualize that. So, I said, Look, I’m your tool, use me. And that’s what we did, and it worked pretty well. I mean, when we were out shooting those scenes…  It was pretty crazy out there.  There’s a lot of emotions that came to the surface.  We were dealing with a racial issue. In the scene, there’s basically a sit-in at the front of the restaurant with our African-American cast and then these white, privileged little douchebags come in and start pounding on them. I mean it’s just— it’s a really tough scene.  It spills into the street, and— well, it was hard.

Tony:  Do you feel the tone for the second season is quite a bit more serious than the first or is there still a little bit of that sort of comic book zaniness?

Stephen:  It’s interesting you should you ask that because when I was in my rehearsal room with my lead actors, they didn’t want it to be a zany, cartoony treatment of something that’s real, nor did I, nor do I, and I don’t think we did. However, there was a danger of that. We didn’t want to filter or sanitize it.  I don’t think we did. Maybe you’ll disagree. I’m not really qualified to even say.  I was really careful the way I approached it. And I think it’s important that non-African-American, young white kids in the suburbs know that this was an issue.  There’s a value in the educational aspect of saying this happened.  You know, you say, come on, I don’t even believe that, but no, that actually happened. It’s still happening! And it might even be worse. I don’t know because it’s sublimated now. So, this is something that we’re talking about that’s tricky.  It’s a challenge. From a production standpoint, I still had huge scenes that were awesome to be involved with, but with the sit-in scene, I had something that was more meaningful.

I do wonder how it’s gonna be received.  Who knows? We don’t know. I think that it’ll depend on how they re-edited.  It depends what’s in the final cut. But we were pretty careful.

On the set of season two: a sit-in at a diner

Emmy Raver-Lampman in season two

Tony: In the second season did you end up working at all with the child actors? Or was it really just focused on the adults?

Stephen:  I worked with this young man who was playing a child who is on the spectrum. And he and his mother are struggling with it. And Aidan was involved with this scene where his family falls out of the sky.

I was dealing with a young man who had really researched and worked hard at understanding the behavior consistent with the character, the best way to portray him. And Steve Blackman is personally involved with such a child, and I do have a brother who was always on the spectrum. So, in between all of us, we were all kind of getting personally invested, holding hands, and running at it. It’s really kind of difficult because you’re dealing again with a common trend phenomenon. Everybody’s got a brother, everyone’s got a sister, everyone’s got a mother. Everyone’s got someone in their family that’s struggling like that, probably.  So now, how do you deal with that, in an honest way?

All of a sudden you start identifying with these characters because they’re real. That is how it works.  We never dealt with it in a trivial way.  But it’s not a documentary on those mental issues, it was just— these are people that surround us every day. So, we might as well see them. So that was exciting to have that in the show.  That young man was very good at what he did.

And by the way, I always find myself working with like 10-year-olds, and it’s the best thing ever.  They really seem to get it. They say that to get clarity into your past you have to return to your childhood perceptions.  So yeah, I got to deal with this character and he was awesome.  Those were tough days because Steven was really affected.  It affected us all.  Doing any scene where people are familiar with a tragedy or conflict somehow, or linked to it… It could be the death of a loved one or, in this case,  it was a kid that was just difficult to communicate with. The difficulty of handling someone that you love while they are struggling. So, we had to be able to deal with that.  I never want to rush it.  Steve always gave me whatever time I needed to do it.

Tony:  Speaking of child actors–

Surjik and Gallagher

Stephen: Gallagher playing Number Five?  I know he’s very popular, and I love him very much. And he’s great to watch, but it’s insane how well he can play when he’s on. I get worried that he’s looking at me across the room, like vacuuming me out, copying me as an old man.  I’m like, “Stop looking at me!”  Because it’s not natural to act so well for a kid.  His acting is supposed to be in the body of a young man, but his character is actually 58.  And he brought it, bam, first day. Bam, he would, like just, embody it.  He’s very mature.  As a character, and a person.  You know he’s actually working for the United Nations, as an environmental ambassador. I know there’s some controversy, or something, because there are crazy people out there that don’t agree so strongly that they would write off other people completely.

Tony:  There’s always gonna be contrarians.

Stephen:  It’s true and particularly, politically, if you’re not challenging people then what are you doing?  Just sleeping through it.

I don’t think we’ve [Umbrella Academy] made any real enemies. I don’t know if we were that good.  But we tried.

Tony: Tried to make enemies?

Stephen:  [laughs] Yeah, that quote by Churchill, about making enemies because you’re doing something worthwhile.  Everything he said was quotable. [laughs]

But I think it’s gonna do really well. I think the first episodes of this show are at least as good as last year, maybe they’re better. I think that the first year was very difficult to get on track. It was just a heavy lift. There was so much of the universe that was so unusual. Like you said, you saw it. Oh boy. “Am I gonna watch this?  I don’t know.”  That was kind of how I felt about it. I didn’t really know what it was.  And now I know what it is. I think we’re gonna have a good go.  I think people are gonna love it. I think we’re gonna get a lot of people laughing, a lot of people crying. I think it’s gonna be a very successful franchise. I don’t know. But we’ll see.  I’m excited for it.

A season two selfie.  “Dallas” was actually filmed in Hamilton, Ontario.

 Tony:  For a lot of people Netflix has been sort of a salve on the burn, just to have something to look forward to, and to go to a different sort of world where there’s still human problems that are relatable, but they’re not necessarily our problems.  We’re seeing them through a lens. Maybe a little bit of distance, looking at it from behind the camera, makes it a little easier to stomach.

Stephen:  I can only speak for myself, but I want to go home and watch something that I can escape to get out of my world, because of all that we’re dealing with. And I think that we probably hit the right mix with Umbrella because you don’t want to have just all the singing and dancing for the whole time, but you don’t want to throw reality in the trash can, either.  You gotta have it balanced and you gotta have the hard parts hit strong.

Tony:  Do you think it’s a dark comedy or a light tragedy?

Stephen: I would say it’s both and it probably vacillates between.  And it’s best if you get both in the same episode because you got a little bit of laughing, a little bit of crying. You want to do both.  They don’t want too much darkness, though.  I have trouble watching these documentaries on murders and stuff.  It just freaks me out.  I get anxious, and I can’t take it further.

Tony:  I think you’ve got a good mash up of emotions and perspectives. 

Stephen:  It’s sort of a miracle that it went through so many layers of creativity.  We started with Gabriel Bá and My Chemical Romance and with the narrative ideas and the graphic narrative, with Bá doing the pictures, and then it moves to a script form and a whole bunch of people write scripts and then it goes to directors and actors and usually, almost never, these things don’t usually translate so well.

Tony:  It’s a credit to the writers. I’ve read the source material and as far as adaptations go, that’s a very difficult thing to adapt. 

Stephen:  It’s a tough bridge, isn’t it? It’s really a long walk on the bridge. I think they did it.  When I first read it, I wasn’t sure. But then I— well, I wouldn’t want to be trite about it. I think that they hit it, but man, it’s a tricky world.  There’s this trauma but there’s also a little bit of silliness and I think it’s fun to explore those issues. Without traumatizing your audience.  It’s a delicate balance.

Surjik surveys a season two set

Season 2 of Umbrella Academy is coming to Netflix on July 31.