CS Interview: Creator Steve Blackman on The Umbrella Academy season 2
Just in time for the highly-anticipated second season debut of Netflix’s hit adaptation of Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy, ComingSoon.net got the chance to chat with creator Steve Blackman (Fargo) to discuss the next chapter in dysfunctional superhero family series!
Warning: Mild spoiler alert for the second season of The Umbrella Academy
When it came to reassembling his writers room an devising a plan for the second season, Blackman found he had a few goals in mind for both the stories and the characters following the first season’s major cliffhanger ending, looking to “expand on not only the emotional storytelling, but also the action and stuff that we are doing.”
“I also knew that if we were going to go to a period piece, especially in the 60s, you know, I didn’t want to shy away from any of the issues of the day,” Blackman explained. “Even though it was in a fantasy world, a heightened existence, we were confronting issues of race and stuff like that, I really didn’t want to glaze over them. I wanted to sort of tell them in a grounded way. And then also, the stories, for example, of Vanya being gay/queer is a story I wanted to tell and be very honest with it. And so, the struggle for our show is to be able to still have the fun, heightened story, to be able to tell some stories, grounded stories and be honest and insightful and sort of find that really tricky balance that I think we achieve, was sort of my goal for the year.”
In looking at developing Vanya’s relationship with Marin Ireland’s Sissy in the latest season, the Emmy-nominated creator felt he and his team “just wanted to tell a beautiful love story,” no matter who it was with and that having Ellen Page as one part of the puzzle really helped it come together.
“When I would talk to Ellen, we just would talk about doing an honest portrayal,” Blackman recalled. “We never went into it latching it like that, like a love story or that this is necessarily a queer character. We’re just telling a love story. We’re trying to just keep it real and just show us a part of life the way love is. I mean, anyone can fall in love with anyone. So we were trying to tell this really, real, beautiful love story, show the challenges for both the characters, not just Vanya and Sissy, who had a lot at stake because a person who’s queer in 1963 Dallas, they go to jail. You know, would lose custody of their child. So that’s really to build that kind of storytelling.”
With Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s source material taking a more nonlinear approach to its storytelling, there were a number of routes that Blackman could’ve taken in continuing from the cliffhanger of the first season and in working with the source duo in a “wonderful collaboration,” he was able to zero in on the ’60s southwest period setting from volume two of the comics, “Dallas.”
“It’s actually 1964, so it’s only one of the six volume comics, so it’s a small section of that, but I wanted to set it in 1963 because it was such a tumultuous time and the assassination of Kennedy lends itself to many conspiracy theories,” Blackman expressed. “It just was an interesting point to set it. But once we did that, you know, we committed ourselves to a very complicated production to make the look of 1963. And most of it was shot in a small town north of Toronto. Ironically, we went to Dallas and there was nothing in Dallas that looks like 1963, so this place looked more like Dallas in ’63 than Dallas did. So we shot on Grassy Knoll, but really the production of bringing that world to life was a real challenge. But I wanted them to be stuck in time. I knew that from the very beginning on season one that we were going to have to be stuck somewhere that wasn’t contemporary time.”
Despite sending them to the same area of the country, the second season sees the family split up across different years in the Texas and taking on new lives in the past, but Blackman revealed this wasn’t his first thought and initially toyed with the idea of keeping them together the whole time before feeling that “it seemed to easy” and had a desire to “complicate it.”
“I sort of woke up one morning and thought, you know, what happens if they all arrive at the same place, but just in a different time period,” Blackman recalled. “I thought this is a great way of sort of making their lives more complicated, if each thinks the other is dead. And it also allows us just to establish real lives for them. You know, Allison makes the largest life of them all, I mean, she gets married. She has this whole life and Luther has a life. And it just seems important for me to have them anchored. And then, suddenly, their real lives are bound to show up, the families show up and it has that meaningful complication, which is what do I do with this old life when I’m now back with my siblings? Plus, you get that moment of them having to find each other and regroup and have them be stronger together when they find each other again.”
Blackman notes one of the hardest parts of developing the series is finding the right balance between the more humorous moments and aspects of the characters with the life-threatening and dramatic moments, as the writers room wants to appropriately tell a “story about a dysfunctional family” while relishing in the “sort of crazy things that ensue from that.”
“At the same time, we want to tell some really tough, dramatic stories, so I worked very hard with the writers and spent a lot of hours trying to find that balance,” Blackman stated. “We’re not making fun of the things that really are important. At the same time, these characters can laugh at themselves and find humor in just about anything. I think that makes our show stand out on its own, a bit like over the other shows in this sort of genre. It’s sort of how we find that balance. You know, and we’re not an R-rated show, either, which is tricky because sometimes it would be easier to go all the way down to that place. But we stick to having a very broad audience that can watch the show – families, older people, younger people, and still sort of love it.”
With the first season being set in the present day, Blackman had access to a wide history of music to weave into every episode, one of the most notable being the heavily-advertised “I Think We’re Alone Now” sequence with all the family dancing along in various areas of the house. But though the second season is set in the ’60s, it still features plenty of contemporary tracks and rather than look at it as anachronisms, Blackman wanted the soundtrack to consist of songs “from any time period” with the feeling that music in general “is timeless.”
“I never thought about just ever having just 60s songs, there are 60s songs in the show, but I didn’t want it to be layered into that,” Blackman explained. “I think in some ways, that would be too easy just to do 60s songs. So I wanted to challenge myself and now the writers and the music supervisors to sort of help to come up with a more sort of challenging mix of music. I think even for example, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ from season one, I mean, obviously I did that when I was younger, but that was a cover of another song that was done even a generation before that. And now we’re going to reset and do a whole new generation. So that’s 50, 60 years of one song that’s sort of spanned generations now or coming to love it. I love music, but to me, music’s another character in the show, and I tend to pick songs for the show, and most of the time what I do is I pick them ahead of time, which is obviously — most shows, you do your cut and then you add music. We put the music in in the script, a lot of the music is already written into the script so the actors can listen to it, they can understand what we’re going for. And then, another goal is to sort of counterpoint the music to do it in a weird way that other shows don’t do it. Like you’ll see that we do things like Backstreet Boys on a big fight scene. So that shouldn’t work together, but yet, it does. And that’s sort of what we’re aiming for, is just bringing it to a new way to sort of hear a song and the sort of visual modality we put together.”
Of the many things Blackman and his writers room got to expand upon was the role of The Handler, played in a recurring fashion by Kate Walsh in the first season before being bumped up to a series regular in the second, and the creator says this decision came from both planning out the second season as well as viewers’ response to the character.
“To be honest with you, people just love The Handler, so we were leaving it a little bit open ended,” Blackman noted. “I had a way to continue forward with the notion that she has a metal plate in her head. But there really was a lot of love for Kate. I’ve worked with Kate for years and this is only my third show with Kate. So it was wonderful to bring her back. But what I really loved about the character is, I wanted to see what would happen with a character like that who goes rogue. So she is a “company man” and doing everything that the company’s asking her to do, and then suddenly, she’s screwed over by the very company she’s never lied to. I wanted to see how she could complicate things for everybody and going rogue and sort of rising to the top in a very devious way. So, it was just so much fun to write that, so she’s in a new outfit literally every episode. Every time you see her, she’s wearing a new thing. We just loved her look and changing her look, but I really loved how it turned out.”
Though the family do overcome a number of challenges near the end of the season, they find themselves treated with a major shock going into the final moments, leaving audiences with another cliffhanger for a potential third season and, though he was keeping his lips sealed on exact details, Blackman revealed he does “have a pretty good idea of season three.”
“I’ve sort of worked it out, I don’t want to give away anything to you guys, but there’s a lot of things to sort of take in,” Blackman stated. “The thing is that we’ve definitely done away with the 2019 apocalypse and the 1963 doomsday. Those are not the problems of season three. There are other issues and other problems, but you know, if we get a season three pickup, I think we have a really exciting season and story we want to tell. I understand character-driven issues and world-ending stakes are definitely being dealt with. But I think there’s other complications about, the time travelers have a saying of like, ‘When you mess with time, there’s always repercussions.’ So I think in season three, we’re ready to deliver the repercussions of things that you may or may not expect that they messed with.”
Speaking of time travel, one of the most utilized and complicated methods of storytelling in film and television, Blackman joked that he and his writers room “argue a lot” about keeping the various paradoxes and timelines in track, especially going into the second season.
“It’s so funny that we are all so emotionally invested in our arguments about time travel when none of us have ever time traveled,” Blackman chuckled. “Like that’s the irony. Everyone thinks they get time travel and there’s all these different theories, but I just remind the writers like, none of us have ever done this. But we all have a different idea of how it would work. I’m not sure where like the paradox psychosis came in of what happens when you exist at the same time as yourself. But the truth is, we just had a lot of fun. I grew up loving stories about time travel and the writers and myself, we endlessly argue just for fun about it. But you know, it’s a great storytelling device because it bridges so many different ways to go with it. And I think it’s timeless, I know it’s time travel and it’s weird to say it’s timeless, but it’s just, people are endlessly fascinated about storytelling about time travel. You know, 1500 years ago, there are books about it and even now, I’m still fascinated. I love any show with time travel in it because I just think it’s just such a fun thing to even watch.”
.In season one, on the same day in 1989, forty-three infants are inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist, who creates The Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. But not everything went according to plan. In their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, the six surviving thirty-something members reunite upon the news of Hargreeves’ passing. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya, and Number Five work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death. But the estranged family once again begins to come apart due to their divergent personalities and abilities, not to mention the imminent threat of a global apocalypse.
In the second season, Five warned his family (so, so many times) that using his powers to escape from Vanya’s 2019 apocalypse was risky. Well, he was right – the time jump scatters the siblings in time in and around Dallas, Texas. Over a three year period. Starting in 1960. Some, having been stuck in the past for years, have built lives and moved on, certain they’re the only ones who survived. Five is the last to land, smack dab in the middle of a nuclear doomsday, which – spoiler alert! – turns out is a result of the group’s disruption of the timeline (déjà vu, anyone?).
Now the Umbrella Academy must find a way to reunite, figure out what caused doomsday, put a stop to it, and return to the present timeline to stop that other apocalypse. All while being hunted by a trio of ruthless Swedish assassins. But seriously, no pressure or anything.
The series stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton, Mary J. Blige, Colm Feore, Adam Godley, John Magaro, Ashley Madekwe, and Kate Walsh.
The Umbrella Academy is based on the popular, Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), illustrated by Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics.
The series is produced by Universal Cable Productions for Netflix. Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) will return as executive producer and showrunner for Season 2, with additional executive producers Jeff F. King (Hand of God), Bluegrass Television, and Mike Richardson and Keith Goldberg from Dark Horse Entertainment. Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá will serve as co-executive producers.