Steven S. DeKnight, who created the “Spartacus” empire for Starz after serving on the writing staffs of nerd-friendly series like “Smallville,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” isn’t the official creator of “Marvel’s Daredevil” — he took over for fellow Joss Whedon acolyte Drew Goddard. But he brought more than enough comic book savvy to the series, as well as an Asian cinema-influenced knack for violence and an appreciation for the variety of stories to be found within the superhero “genre.” Below, he tells Indiewire about what, exactly, a “PG-15” rating means, what Joss Whedon taught him about making genre TV work for the masses, and whether — in the mix of discussion about the other Marvel series which will follow “Daredevil” — if he was planning for Season 2.
I just want to start off with this random observation, which hopefully you take as a compliment — there is that one fight scene, at the end of Episode 2, that made me want to go back and re-watch “Oldboy.”
I will take that as a huge compliment. Yeah, we were very much influenced by “Oldboy” and “The Raid” and “The Raid 2.” It’s funny when we were designing that sequence, beautifully written by Drew Goddard, one of the things I told the set designer and the stunt coordinator and the director, Phil Abraham, was that we wanted to go for that “Oldboy” feel. And also, I wanted that hallway, I wanted to feel like we stepped onto a set from Fincher’s “Se7en” and put those two together, and I think we’ll have something special.
So you were on set at that point; when exactly in the production process did you join?
I flew in about 10 to 11 weeks before we started shooting. Drew Goddard had written the first two scripts and there was a broad-stroke layout for the rest of the season. We hadn’t cast anyone yet, [and] we didn’t have a crew yet. So it was a lot of very fast work to do in about 10 weeks.
What was key for you, in terms of diving into things?
Thankfully, I was very well-versed in “Daredevil.” Marvel comics, I’ve been reading as a kid. We used to talk about Marvel comics all the time when Drew and I worked together on “Buffy” and again on “Angel.” So, thankfully, I didn’t have to start from zero about “What is this whole Matt Murdoch ‘Daredevil’ thing?” I grew up loving the character, especially the Frank Miller run, and, in later years, the Brian Michael Bendis run. So, that was really great.
Beyond that, they really pitched it to me as a gritty, grounded show that they wanted to lean more towards “The Wire” than “Smallville,” which Jeph Loeb and I also worked on, and I loved the idea. I mean, no one will ever do a “Wire” again, but I love a high bar that you shoot for, and that’s pretty much it. Then it was just diving in and getting to work.
How much of that training, from shows like “Buffy” and “Angel,” has been helpful for you, in terms of approaching genre TV for a mainstream audience?
Oh, huge. I always say that for those of us who were lucky enough to work with Joss Whedon in television, it really worked like a post-doctorate education. He’s the master, and not only a phenomenal writer, but a phenomenal director and a phenomenal showrunner. So yeah, huge, huge influence for all that’s coming out of there, and especially for Drew and I.
The reason I ask is that nowadays, you have this wonderful blending of genre elements with mainstream programming, and for you — especially based on the first two episodes of “Daredevil” — the more supernatural, mystical elements of the character are not super-involved yet. Is it still important to ease people in these days?
I don’t think so. I think everyone is well-versed enough with comic book adaptations, especially thanks to the huge success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Really, for us, it was more about we approach it as a crime drama first, and a superhero adaptation second. Not all the characters in comic books lend themselves to that, but with “Daredevil,” I always felt that was really the heart of “Daredevil.” So, that made our choice very simple.
I love the idea — and again, Marvel really spearheaded this with the release of “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” both in the same year — that the superhero genre has many subsets. You can do a political thriller, you can do an action-space-comedy. It doesn’t all have to be “put on the tights and fight a giant robot and save the world.” There’s a lot of different variations, which is the wonderful thing about Marvel, and what I loved growing up — that there are so many different characters and so many different sub-genres that you can explore.
If you were to have made a list at, say, the age of 15, of the comic book characters you would’ve most wanted to adapt, where would “Daredevil” have been on that list?
It would’ve been very high up. I feel very fortunate that I’ve already gotten to work in the realm of “Superman,” or at least Clark Kent on “Smallville,” and now I’m getting to do “Daredevil.” These are some of my favorite characters growing up. Now, if I can add Batman and Spider-Man to the mix, the 10-year-old in me would die happy.
I’m sure they could use a script over on “Gotham.”
[laughs] I think they’ve got it covered. The other thing about being a fan of this material, in this day and age, is if you look at the TV landscape — especially with the addition of “Daredevil” — I think there’s really something for everybody. If you like something that’s lighter and brighter and faster and really well done, “The Flash” is awesome. If you want to dig into those iconic early days of “Batman” villains, you’ve got “Gotham.” And if you want something hard-edged and a little brutal, here’s “Daredevil.”
Do you feel like we’re reaching a saturation point? And are you sick of people asking you if there’s a saturation point?
James Gunn went through this after the infamous Oscar hullabaloo about, you know, shitting all over superhero movies and the disdain for that big filmmaking. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. I think if you look at the landscape of those movies and television, the superhero genre occupies a relatively small section of that pie. To me, saying that “Oh, there’s too many superhero comic book based movies and series” is saying, “Ah, there’s too many comedies! Ah, there’s too many period dramas!” There’s plenty of room for everybody. I think part of the backlash against it is because, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s so successful. Nothing will make people crazier than something being massively successful, especially when you feel maybe you’re not creatively a part of that. So, no. I don’t think it’s saturated at all. I think as long as different kinds of stories are told under the umbrella of the superhero genre, I think it’ll do quite fine.
Especially since, the thing is, that they’re all just human stories.
Exactly! Exactly. You know, you can’t do five different variations of “Smallville” and put it on TV at the same time. Then you’re oversaturated because you’re hitting the same note. But now, I think there’s enough variation that makes it very interesting, and I’m hoping that the addition of a TV-MA series geared a little more adult — which is not disparage any of the other shows on, which I think are all great — but it occupies a different corner.
I saw that you referred to “Daredevil” as “PG-15.” Does PG-15 translate to you as TV-MA?
I think I have a higher threshold. I’ve read certain reviews about how incredibly violent this show is, and my reaction is, “Really?” Maybe my bar from “Spartacus” is too high. But for me, I think one of the reactions to the violence in “Daredevil” is juxtaposing it to what people have seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or on other Marvel television shows.
It is much more graphic and realistic, but if you actually look at what we show, we tend not to show you an actual really gory event. It’s the things around it. We leave a lot to the imagination, especially in the day and age of what you see on “The Walking Dead,” which I love. I love that they go all the way into very, very hard R-rated violence, which I think works for the story, but that’s certainly not this. So, for me, I feel like it’s PG-15. There’s no real full nudity, there’s mild cussing, and there’s violence that’s more implied than explicit. So, for me, it feels like TV-15. Although, TV-15, TV-Mature, yeah, it kind of translates into the same thing these days.
I wouldn’t disagree with that. In terms of the outline when you came in, I feel like within the first five episodes, I was surprised by how quickly some of the obvious romantic angles got invoked. And I was curious if that was always part of the plan to get really focused on relationships early, or was that something that you brought to it?
No, for me, I think it was a combination of both. It was Drew Goddard’s layout and then my own personal proclivities on that are I didn’t want this to be a soap opera where the relationships, particularly the romantic relationships, really drive the story. And that’s very much the approach I took. We also wanted to flip the conceit on its head and have really the main romantic through line of the season be on the “villain’s side.” Fisk’s relationship with Vanessa is a real love story. So, we didn’t want to bogged down in too much soap.
Not that soap is a bad thing. I enjoy soap, I always say that “Spartacus” was a soap opera with the emphasis on the opera part. But this, we really wanted to be, again, more of a crime drama. So are there relationships with Matt? They kind of start, but he’s in no condition mentally to be in a healthy relationship, I think that’s pretty clear. And we really wanted to explore that part of it instead of, “Should we get back together? Will we be together? Let’s be together.” It didn’t feel like the show.
You just touched on something interesting, that I noticed right away and kept noticing, which is that you never refer to Wilson Fisk as Kingpin. It’s always Wilson Fisk.
Correct. And that’s like the same way Matt’s not referred to as Daredevil. It really is the story of this first season, about how Matt Murdoch becomes the hero known as Daredevil and how Wilson Fisk will ultimately become the Kingpin of crime. But at this point, they’re both really not quite at that iconic level. They’re both figuring things out. It also frees us up to have them make mistakes, to not be the fully formed characters they are from the comics.
I know that we have the whole Defenders universe that’s evolving over the next couple of years, but are you also thinking, in the back of your mind, about “Daredevil” Season 2?
Well, you always hope that there’s a Season 2. There’s definitely little bits and pieces that we started laying in this season for if there was a Season 2 and also little bits and pieces we started laying the groundwork for the Defenders, down the road.
So, the answer is, you know, “yes?”
The answer is a hopeful yes.
It’s just interesting because, I don’t know if you watch “Better Call Saul,” but that show is also kind of an origin story.
Oh, absolutely. I love “Better Call Saul,” I think it’s brilliant. I was just talking to someone about that the other day about how there are so few shows on television that have such a cohesive style that from episode to episode, you’re looking at it in the background, half notice it, but the way they use wide lenses and the camera angles and the setups, it’s just so specific and beautiful. I love “Better Call Saul,” and I loved all of the deep, deep, deep references back to “Breaking Bad” that you kind of really have to dig out.
It’s interesting because they’re all such different worlds. What do you feel is the secret to building the world of a show, whether you’re “Better Call Saul” or you’re “Daredevil”?
You know, Joss Whedon always told us as we were coming up that clarity and emotion were above all else, and I think that really applies to everything. You have to have great characters that you care about. They don’t have to be the hero. They can be the villain, as long as you make them intriguing and human and really care about them, it doesn’t matter what the genre is. As long as you have those elements, you’ll have something that people will respond to.