Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon (Creators of MARVEL’S AGENTS OF SHIELD) – Exclusive Interview

Exclusive Interview – Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon
Creators of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D

Maurissa Tancharoen, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen Interview, Jed Whedon Interview, Agents of Shield

ABC’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. exists within the Marvel movie universe, which is to say its characters coexist with the likes of THE AVENGERS’ Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Bruce Banner/the Hulk, et al. Indeed, the leader of this S.H.I.E.L.D. team is Agent Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg. Coulson died in THE AVENGERS, something he only recently learned – he had been led to believe he recovered in Tahiti. He still has plenty of unanswered questions about his revival (as do we).

The rest of the team consists of physically tough agents Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), biology and technological science geniuses Leo Fitz (Iain De Castecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) – sometimes known jointly as “FitzSimmons” due to their nearly inseparable bond and habit of talking at the same time – and newcomer Skye (Chloe Bennet), a computer hacker who has just found out a few episodes back that her origins are so mysterious she may not even be human. The S.H.I.E.L.D. team travels the world, dealing with fallout created by rogue technology, aliens and general strangeness that is too much for general law enforcement, but also more than the Avengers can handle on their superhero schedules.

AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. was created from Marvel’s original material by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon (Joss’ brother) and Maurissa Tancharoen. All of them are executive producers on the project. Jed Whedon and Tancharoen serve as show runners alongside fellow executive producers Jeff Bell and Marvel’s head of television Jeph Loeb.

Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, married to one another since 2009, have written as a team on DROP DEAD DIVA and Starz’s SPARTACUS (where they also served on the staff of producers), as well as with and/or for Joss Whedon on DR. HORRIBLE’S SING-ALONG BLOG, its accompanying COMMENTARY! THE MUSICAL and the Fox series DOLLHOUSE.

ABC and parent company Disney have arranged a visit for members of the Television Critics Association to the set of the giant jet that serves as both transportation and home base for our heroes. Some of the actors are in the loading dock area that contains Coulson’s beloved car Lola, while others are giving interviews in the plane’s lounge.

Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon are both on the latter set. Tancharoen talks one on one for awhile, before the conversation merges with the one Whedon is having nearby. Both are happy to talk about all aspects of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. that aren’t top secret, requiring what the characters would call “Level Seven clearance.” In the real world, this translates to, if you’re not an executive with Marvel or the show, you can’t know those details yet.

AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. had what was arguably one of the best lines of dialogue on any series in 2013. Faced with the Earthly mess left after Thor tangled with the Dark Elves – an incident chronicled in last year’s feature film THOR: THE DARK WORLD – Coulson mutters, “Just once, I wish Thor and his people would send the God of Cleaning Up After Yourself.”

When asked who wrote this speech, Tancharoen laughs and indicates her writing partner/spouse. “I think this one did.”

Various studios and networks have different degrees of involvement with the series they produce and air. Tancharoen says that Marvel, the same company that continues to publish the comics on which the S.H.I.E.L.D./AVENGERS-verse is based, is very hands-on.

“Marvel is absolutely an integral part of the creative process. They see every story break, they see every outline, they see every script, and so we’re constantly in communication with them. From the start, it’s been very clear, and I think we’ve said this before, to our surprise and to our fortune, that all of us are trying to make the same show.”

The story arc for S.H.I.E.L.D. Season One has been in place since before production began, Tancharoen adds. “Creatively, from the beginning, we’ve had a plan. We have twenty-two episodes to tell this story in one season, so the speed at which we’ve been rolling out story and laying the groundwork is now, now that we’re at the midpoint, all those cards – we’re about to turn those cards up. And Marvel has always been a part of the process. It’s not like they’re stepping in now and making any kind of changes. It’s been the same process as at the beginning.”

Although the storyline is proceeding as it has been mapped out, have there been any course corrections along the way? “‘Course correction’ is an interesting question,” Tancharoen says, “because people ask us about [external] criticism and things like that, and whether or not that’s influenced how we’re changing our story, and though we are aware of it, it’s not something that is affecting and influencing what we’re doing. I wouldn’t say we’re doing any sort of course correction. It’s been our plan from the beginning.”

Have there been any adjustments made based on things that Tancharoen and Co. have observed – for example, perhaps a wall should be bluer? Being a first-season show, there will be bumps in the road,” Tancharoen replies. “We’re still on the same road and we’re learning as we go, and there’s always room for improvement, and we’re always trying to improve on all aspects of the show, and so yes, if we want things more blue, we’re going to go for more blue,” she says with a laugh.

Asked if there are any specific areas she can point to where adjustments have been made, Tancharoen relates, “I would say sometimes, with certain ways we approach a certain kind of visual effects.”

J. August Richards, who had worked with executive producers Bell and Joss Whedon before when he was a series regular on ANGEL, was introduced in a guest role as Mike Peterson in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s debut episode. His character has returned, been kidnapped by evil forces and has now transformed into a cyborg character from the Marvel comics: Deathlok. This leads to the question: how long had the Mike Peterson-into-Deathlok story arc been in the works?

Tancharoen reveals, “Deathlok was someone who was always on our radar from the beginning. We always knew that there might have been a future for Mike Peterson, of turning him into somebody with powers, because of course we start with revealing him in the Centipede Program. The evolution of Mike Peterson into Deathlok was something that we had toyed with from the beginning. We sort of courted different characters. Deathlok was always at the top of our list and now that we’re further into the season, we’re revealing that.”

Whedon joins the conversation. “Yes, it happened organically in us talking about story, talking about Mike Peterson the character and how to bring him back.”

The writers knew that Peterson would be Deathlok well before actor Richards was told of his character’s destiny. “He wasn’t [aware for] as long as we’ve been planning it,” Whedon relates with a laugh. “One of the things that we set out with goals, we have tent-poles, but everything changes, especially in TV.” One of those changes can be sudden actor unavailability, Whedon adds. “Someone will book a series, and now everybody has a series, because there are so many. So it’s always shifting, so we’re very careful when we tell actors what our plans are.”

“In case they change,” Tancharoen elaborates. The creative team don’t want to create a situation where they wind up disappointing their actors. “You don’t want anybody to get locked into a promise that maybe won’t happen.”

Whedon continues, “So we were happy to have that plan, and happy to give him the script where he …”

Tancharoen finishes her partner’s sentence, “… knows what’s happened. He was thrilled to know what happens to his character, but from the beginning, we had our sights set on Deathlok.”

Are the writers looking back into Marvel’s past for other characters that will fit into the S.H.I.E.L.D.-verse? “Yes, we are,” Tancharoen says. “Again, that was part of our course of storytelling. We knew from the beginning that we were being very respectful of the cinematic universe, as we exist in that same universe, and within the cinematic universe, there are only two real people with superpowers, and so we didn’t want to just start the show with the tag line ‘Not all heroes are super’ and just have a ton of people with powers. And so as we move further along into our stories, you’ll see more and more characters with powers.”

This brings us to Skye, who has just learned that as an infant, she was designated as an “0-8-4,” something of unknown origin. Does this mean that she just has a complicated birth story, or may she actually be other than human? “You are meant to be asking those questions, yes,” Tancharoen says evasively, then laughs. “We will be answering that at some point.”

Have any characters emerged as Tancharoen’s favorites to write for? “I absolutely adore FitzSimmons, I have so much fun writing their banter. I enjoy writing for all of them. Skye is kind of – she reminds me of many of my friends – but there’s a new person I think we very much enjoy writing, and that’s Agent John Garrett. That might have a lot to do with Bill Paxton.”

Actor Paxton, who plays Garrett in a number of upcoming AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, is a genre legend due to his work in movies with James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, among many others. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun it is to work with that guy,” Tancharoen enthuses. “He said the other day on set, ‘I’ve been killed by an Alien, a Predator and a Terminator. Who else can say that?’” She laughs. “I said, ‘Nobody. No one else can say that.’

“We were interested in the character of Agent John Garrett for awhile,” Tancharoen explains. “He’s a smaller character in the Marvel universe, but we knew we could bring him into the fold. He’s a big character in S.H.I.E.L.D., and we wanted to show an old cohort of Coulson, someone he’s been in the field with, but they sort of have different perspectives on how they approach things. Garrett is a little more rough and tumble, has swagger …”

Yeah, and less of a company man,” Whedon interjects. “He’s all S.H.I.E.L.D., but when he got his high-level clearance, he was like, ‘All right, but I’m not wearing a tie.’ He’s that kind of guy. And he’ll be around for a lot of episodes. Just working with him is such a pleasure.”

The S.H.I.E.L.D. creative team wanted to be careful in how many superheroes they brought onto the show. “When our show started,” Whedon explains, “the [Marvel/AVENGERS] cinematic universe really only had two human beings in the history of the planet who had powers. There was Cap [Captain America, played in the films by Chris Evans] and the Hulk [played in THE AVENGERS by Mark Ruffalo]. There was a guy [Tony Stark aka Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr.] who built a suit that used tech, and there were aliens [Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth]. So we early on wanted to be very respectful of that and not come in with a show, going, ‘Oh, no …’”

Tancharoen overlaps, “Especially a show with the tagline, ‘Not all heroes are super’ and just have characters with abilities …”

“And sort of undercut the films by saying, ‘Oh, no, this is going on everywhere’,” Whedon concludes. “So we were trying very early on to be respectful of that and to introduce people organically and slowly and sort of ramp it up, so that it didn’t feel disrespectful to the huge universe that they spent tons of time and money creating, that we’re playing it and planting the seeds, and now you’re starting to see that all of these things that seemed like these little one-off things, we’re starting to bring them all back and this is all starting to pay off, which is our intent.”

Some elements of the movies have already turned up on S.H.I.E.L.D., with one episode devoted to dealing with the Earthly fallout from THOR: THE DARK WORLD. Jaimie Alexander as Thor’s Asgardian colleague Lady Sif visits our planet in another episode. Given that the audience knows something that most Asgardians don’t at the end of that film, who does Sif think is currently in charge on her home world?

“Well,” Whedon says, seeming to choose his words with care, “she comes down with a very specific mission, and she’s following orders, but whose orders those are, we’re not sure.”

Speaking of aliens, is that Chitauri technology we see repairing Coulson’s brain in the flashback that shows part of his resurrection?

“That’s a Level Seven question,” Whedon replies. Turns out, we the audiences aren’t meant to be sure at this point. “What you know is what you’re meant to know. And we know a little more. What he knows is sort of as much as anybody is supposed to know.”

“Yeah,” Tancharoen agrees. “The reveal of what happened to him is just to raise more questions about what may have also happened to him.”

With elements from the Marvel films in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, might elements of the series turn up in the upcoming movies? “There’s always that possibility,” Tancharoen says. “I mean, synergy is a big part of the whole universe that we’re operating in, so if the opportunity arises.”

Marvel has announced that the company is gearing up to do a number of Web series based on its characters. Might S.H.I.E.L.D. be integrated with those online narratives? Tancharoen and Whedon overlap on giving the same answer. “That’s a Level Seven question.”

Whedon acknowledges there’s a challenge in getting the S.H.I.E.L.D. series to look as though it’s happening in the same universe as the Marvel feature films, minus a feature film budget. “We can’t do [special effects on that scale], so how can we sort of do it, or figure out a way to tell that story in a different way. So that will be the ongoing struggle, trying to fit these giant ideas into this little box.”

With Tancharoen and Whedon writing and producing as a team, is there a division of responsibilities between them?

“Yeah, there is,” Tancharoen says.

“Yes,” Whedon jokes, “I write all the boys and she writes all the girls.”

Tancharoen laughs, then gives a straight answer. “I tend to be more on set and making sure everything’s running smoothly on set, and he’s running the [writers’] room – I pop in and out of the room. As far as our writing process, it’s been the same forever, where we sort of dive in together.”

“Yeah,” Whedon concurs, “we’ll divvy up, or I’ll do a ‘puke it out’ pass, as they say.”

“And I’ll go in there and make it pretty,” Tancharoen laughs. “It’s a very male/female writing relationship we have.”

“But it’s strange,” Whedon adds. “We live together and we work together, but we see very little of each other, because it’s always like,” he takes on the tone of someone in a frantic hurry, “‘Are you going to …’ ‘I’ll see you there!’”

“We will always give each other flying high-fives as we pass by,” Tancharoen agrees.

As Tancharoen and Whedon head into the latter sections of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.’s first season, is the work process changing for them at all?

“It’s getting more fun,” says Whedon. “We’re just plugging ahead.”

Tancharoen adds, “I really do feel that from this point forward, for the rest of the season, it’s full-throttle from here on out.”

Does this mean the episodes will become more arced, rather than standalone? “Well, some of the stuff we set up is paying off,” Whedon replies, “so there will be a lot more of that, for sure, in terms of continuing storylines and paying off a lot of the set-ups that we’ve had.”

Will Season One of AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. end on a cliffhanger?

Tancharoen laughs. “Do you think we should?”

Whedon foregoes Level Seven clearance on this one. “I actually think we will. We might. I’ll say that we might.”

Interviewed by Abbie Bernstein

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein