“WandaVision,” like most stories in the Marvel universe, came flying out of the brain of Marvel czar Kevin Feige, arguably the most successful producer in the history of Hollywood. He believes in letting audiences spend more time with characters that they love and getting them to laugh along with them, as well. He also likes to change things up with surprising shifts in tone by bringing in talented film creatives — from James Gunn and Taika Waititi to Cate Shortland — to work with his more experienced team led by Marvel executive producers Louis Esposito and Victoria Alonso.
Elizabeth Olsen first heard about “WandaVision” in January 2018, when she was finishing up filming “Avengers: Endgame.” Her contract was up after that movie, and Feige brought her in for a meeting. “I thought it was a conversation about my potential future,” she said on the phone. “I didn’t realize there was a plan. He pitched WandaVision. He wanted to tell a story about Wanda and Vision living in the suburbs, as a sitcom ‘Twilight Zone,’ manipulating reality.”
Olsen told Feige her concerns. “I was worried about moving the characters to television,” she said. “He was clear from the start that they weren’t going to cut corners in any way because it was television. He was using it as an opportunity to see if the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] could spread to this medium.”
No one was hired yet. Before Feige could proceed with a “WandaVision” limited series for Disney+, he needed to seal deals with Olsen to play Russian-born Avenger Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as her love-mate Vision, the Mindstone-powered Vibranium synthezoid. As soon as Bettany was out of his Feige meeting, he and Olsen connected to discuss. Of course they were both in.
Next Feige needed a showrunner to execute this ambitious series that combined a melange of Marvel comic characters and storylines with a black-and-white live-audience TV sitcom modeled on the ’60s “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He hired recent Marvel writing recruit Jac Schaeffer, a Princeton and USC Film School grad who had never written or run a TV series. Her experience was on the movie side: She wrote and directed the romantic-comedy “Timer” (2009), wrote Disney Animation’s short “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”(2017), wrote the “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” remake “The Hustle” (MGM/UA, 2019), and joined the Marvel brain trust on “Black Widow.”
Like Disney Animation or Pixar, Marvel is its own self-contained production universe. Everything is done in-house at Disney’s Frank Wells building in Burbank, by a well-oiled team of Marvel veterans. But Feige is always seeking new blood to bring energy and fresh ideas to each project. Schaeffer pitched Marvel on “Black Widow” during a rigorous process that led to her writing that film for a year, which she called “a threshold moment. I learned so much about screenwriting and storytelling and how Marvel works. Whatever I’m working on, it’s something inside a larger constellation, it feels like being part of a larger mythology.”
Feige charged Schaeffer, who had always sought to become a director, with supervising the writers’ room and showrunning the nine-episode series. She loved being a series creator, she told me on the phone. “That’s how I identify most, it encompasses so many different pieces of storytelling. I realized I have another skill set as a manager — I enjoy collaborating.”
To that end, Schaeffer assembled her first writers’ room. She picked eight writers, all new to Marvel, “who were fresh and excited and had faith in me and the idea,” she said, “who would be eager and guileless and attack it with integrity. And that’s what they did. What did I need to pull this hat trick off?” She hired a tool box of writers with different skill sets in crafting sitcoms, procedurals, genre fare, and mythology.
Upping the ante was the fact that Marvel was new to television production. At first, Schaeffer comforted herself that “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” would come out first, but in the end “WandaVision” was the first Marvel TV series to debut on Disney+ — to upbeat reviews and audiences (it earned 4.8 billion minutes-watched over its nine-episode, eight-week run, for a weekly average of 600 million minutes-watched) as well as 23 Emmy nominations including Limited Series, Directing (Matt Shakman), Lead Actress (Olsen) and Supporting Actress (Kathryn Hahn), as well as three writing nominations.
At Olsen’s first “WandaVision” meeting with Schaeffer and her co-executive producer, Mary Livonos (“Captain Marvel”), she got to see the writers’ room. “All the images of the shows they were referencing, their bible and images, were 360 covering the walls of this room. They walked me through the arc of each episode, how they mapped out the stages of grief through the episodes, focusing on the idea of a family sitcom.”
One wall was covered with cards that broke down each episode of the season. “Sitcom-style posters above the cards told us plot points, color codes,” said Schaeffer, who says pictures of the room were taken but never revealed. “Vision was green, Wanda was pink.” Another wall was “inspirational and motivational: ‘The Truman Show,’ ‘The Twilight Zone, Maya Rudolph’s ‘Forever.'” Comic art covered a third wall. And the fourth wall was a huge whiteboard.
Livanos charged Schaeffer with finding the shape, structure, and building the world of the series. As a writer, Schaeffer’s chief asset is characters, she said: “I understand real human behavior. Given a bizarre genre situation, how do you drop in and make it feel emotionally honest?” Schaeffer focused on the original story in the comic books of Wanda and Vision trying to make a life in the suburbs and pass for normal. “Both characters have been questing for some time for a nuclear family life. In ‘House of M,’ Wanda breaks reality and creates children that she does not realize are not real. When she’s told they are not real, she creates this fracture in reality.”
Schaeffer decided to launch the show inside the sitcom, as Wanda seems unaware of what is going on. “Red herrings through the episodes are meant to make the viewer question what has been done to Vision,” said Schaeffer. “Is he alive or dead? Is he of her own making? I was interested in the puzzle box of the show, unveiling reality, and how Wanda was going to get out of this situation.”
The trickiest moment was the Episode 2 move to color — and new time frame — when Wanda gets pregnant. How to make that reveal was “nerve-wracking,” said Schaeffer. “It was a shrewd maneuver to drop the first two episodes together, in order to make sure we got our hooks into the audience and didn’t leave them too confused.”
Courtesy of Disney+
Unusually for a series, Schaeffer keeps things murky until the penultimate Episode 8, when she reveals all via nosy neighbor (Kathryn Hahn), who turns out to be powerful witch Agatha Harkness, as well as an expert psychiatrist, digging into Wanda’s rocky past to explain her current psychosis and “how Wanda got where she is,” said Schaeffer, “all the therapeutic touch points, and how she came to create the Westview anomaly.” Feige supported this slow burn of the series unfolding. “He referred to it as playing chicken with the audience.”
In that “Black Widow” year, Schaeffer learned how to write action, she said. “I like it best when it is earned, secondary to character and story.” She’s proud that after all the high-stakes destruction of “Avengers Endgame,” disappearing and returning half of the world’s population, that audiences could respond to a quiet family sitcom with a boss choking at dinner as the “peak physical dramatic high stakes moment of the pilot episode.”
After 22 weeks in the writers’ room, there was too much rich content that needed to be whittled down in the pre-production phase into shootable episodes that juggled time, space, marital bliss, grief, and existential dread. Given all the demands and complexity of the series, which varied a lot, from shooting the first episode in one day in front of a live studio audience, filming an average of seven pages a day on a normal television schedule, to elaborate visual effects and constantly changing sets, the actors never felt confused.
“We had a full understanding what we were getting into,” Olsen said. “We always had the full picture. We knew how the story would unfold. They did such a brilliant job of filling in the blanks of the in-between and the before of Ultron. As an actor, I love playing with genre and tone and time periods. People don’t know me for parts where I get to do that. It was really fun to be reinvented every episode. We weren’t doing a parody, just putting these characters in these given circumstances. It was more about timing and speed and the inflection of delivering a joke. How earnest is the physical humor? How many shaking-your-head moments are at the end of joke? I used Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke. She was in control of the house, she was the matriarch and straight man and very funny. Through all the shenanigans with the main characters you believe in their love for each other and their relationship.”
While she can’t say exactly what she’s up to next, it looks like Schaeffer will be busy for some time at Disney. No surprise: The studio has signed her to a long-term deal.