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.

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