'The Umbrella Academy' Showrunner Drew Inspiration From 'The Royal Tenenbaums' And 'Children Of Men' [Interview]

Stop me if you've heard this one: a group of kids with extraordinary powers are raised together to save the world. No, no, it's not the X-Men. It's The Umbrella Academy, Netflix's new series based on the Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba comic book.

One day, women around the world give birth to super-powered children. Sir Reginald Hargreaves (Colm Feore) collects seven of them to raise in his mansion. They learn to use their powers for good, but when they reunite as adults after Hargreaves' funeral, they have some lingering trauma to work out. Then Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) reappears with some bad news about the end of the world.

Jeremy Slater began work on The Umbrella Academy streaming series, but Steve Blackman took over and produced the current version. Blackman spoke with /Film by phone about The Umbrella Academy, which is currently streaming on Netflix. And a spoiler warning for some of the comics and first batch of episodes.

What had Jeremy Slater written before you came on?

Jeremy had done a really solid job of sort of trashing and mashing. He had a pass of the script that still had tropes of the superhero shows, but he cracked the nut of finding a way into this graphic novel that felt grounded. So when I came in, I got to see that script as well as a couple different projects that Netflix was offering me. I don't come from a graphic novel background, but I read the script and I really liked what Jeremy had done but I saw a way I wanted to do it which was leaning into the Royal Tenenbaum version of it. So I wanted to remove all the tropes and the stuff I felt like I'd seen and take these great characters and turn it on its head and find a very subversive, still fun but subversive way into the world that didn't feel like all the other superhero shows that are out there right now. And some of them are really well done but I just wanted it feel like something different.

Is season one primarily following Apocalypse Suite?

Yeah, obviously I've taken some dramatic license and some of my own creative vision within that. I think the graphic novel fans will feel very respected in terms of what we did. There are some changes. There are some different things but I think it feels very much close enough to the source material that people will feel like, okay, I loved this. I love the graphic novel and I love the show.

There are a lot of complicated rules of everyone's power, how time travel works and their mom. Does streaming allow you to gradually reveal these elements so it doesn't all have to come in the pilot?

Yes. One of the things I also pulled back on the pilot when rewriting it was I wanted to parse things out in sort of a much slower burn. I came from Fargo before this and I think after doing Fargo for three years, I love how the Coen brothers do slow burns in their things and you just go along with the story until something happens that surprises you. I approached this show with the same kind of idea of really creating some characters that suddenly surprise you as it goes along.

A lot of superhero teams describe themselves or are described as a dysfunctional family, like The Avengers, The Fantastic Four or the Justice League. You mentioned Royal Tenenbaums so is the Umbrella Academy literally a dysfunctional family?

Oh yeah, they're a completely dysfunctional family. Here's sort of the difference between the X-Men world and this sort of world. In the X-Men world, they came to the Academy. In this world, they're born into it. They're taken as babies. They don't have a choice to leave so they're stuck in this dysfunctional place with a father who views them more as instruments than children. What makes the show so interesting to me is we pick up 17 years later when they're in their 30s coming home for his funeral. And we get a chance to see what happened to them and how they changed based on this upbringing when they were young. They were superheroes as kids and they were like a big Partridge Family and now they're not. They're all messed up from this unique upbringing that they all had, this dysfunctional upbringing. You have a dysfunctional upbringing, you have a dysfunctional life and that's what they're all struggling with. For different reasons and different things but they're all fighting this dysfunction, trying to come together as a family.

Is music where you can really put a stamp on the show since there's no music in the pages of the graphic novel?

Yes. I love music. Obviously, I used a lot of music, a ton of music in the show. Music is its own little character in the show. A lot of thought went into which songs go where but I think we used a lot more music than most shows do. We used it, I think, quite well. Sometimes it's for fun and other times it's sort of breaking the emotional place with the characters that I feel is great when this family's fighting to be together and making things work out.

How did you choose Phantom of the Opera, Tiffany and Queen?

Ah, so you've seen a few. Tiffany's great just because it really tells you where they are emotionally in that moment. So they're in the big house together, but they're all really alone, right? They're all alone in the moment. So the innocence about being in your room alone, where you grew up, and letting loose for a second when you think nobody's around. And in a way, I feel the metaphor is that they're very much apart and yet inside, they've still got the similarities. They still have this innocence about them. They're all fighting with each other but they still have something in common. We see that in that moment. The Queen song, I just love that song. I felt it really worked in that scene. The other songs are just things that sort of called to me when I was listening to them. Music is a part of my life and as I was writing certain scenes, I thought of the songs and I heard the song and it helped me write the scene or vice versa. Basically the music and the writing went hand in hand for me.

I learned from Shazam that you used a more recent cover of Dancing in the Moonlight. Was it a significant choice between that and the original version?

Yes. I thought that worked better in the scene that we were doing.

If Number Five can teleport, why does he ever walk or drive?

Because he has limitations. He can't teleport across town. He can only teleport 15, 20 feet and he can only teleport so many times before he's tired. I needed to put limits on it because truthfully, his power if he had no limits on it would be so great compared to the others, so we had to put some restrictions on him and just make him feel similar to the constraints of all the other kids. Obviously, he's able to jump through time and he's done it very unsuccessfully, but we realized he can jump through a wall and jump up the floor but he can't jump from here across town. What I set up in episode two is there are limits to how many times he can jump in one fight or one sequence before he physically is too tired to do it because it demands a lot of energy for him to jump from place to place. So he has limits to his skills and his power, as do all of them.

How did you choose which things remain from the comics, like you have Pogo, and what you had to change or drop?

A lot of things you can translate from the page to the screen. It was important to me to respect the fans of the graphic novel so they could feel like this is what they were watching. At the same time, I wanted the VFX team to be able to pull off certain things and other things we just felt wouldn't translate that well. Pogo was something that was very challenging to do. Instead of putting a person in a suit on stage and adding VFX to that, I went to Weta who does Planet of the Apes, and said to them, "Will you do this for us?" They said, "We don't really do TV shows." I said, "Well, do one great monkey for us." They said okay. So we had Weta do Pogo and I think he's flawless. Plus, he's so iconic to the show and the graphic novel, I wasn't going to give up trying to make that work. But that was a lot of effort to make Pogo.

How long does it take to render a Pogo scene?

One shot of Pogo takes 12 weeks. So it takes weeks and weeks and weeks so we went through a process and he's the longest limiting factor to getting episodes done. But Weta is just a brilliant group of creative people. We worked on a process with them where it worked but it basically took 12 weeks for every shot.

Would you ever consider the Eiffel Tower?

Oh, absolutely. I won't make promises but hopefully if we have multiple seasons, nothing is off the table.

the umbrella academy featurette

Did you eliminate the idea that this is an alternate present where JFK lived? Was that a bridge too far for the series?

Yes. I think the idea is, I mean, viewers may still feel that. The truth is, we want it to feel like Children of Men a little bit. I don't mean the bleakness of Children of Men, but to respect the world. So the viewers are watching, they may or may not notice that I've eliminated certain pieces of technology. It's supposed to be now, contemporary, but certain things are slightly different. So I suppose you could say we're in a little bit of an alternate universe but I want it to feel very, very subtle. I'm not sure you picked up on it but there are no cell phones. No one uses a cell phone ever. It's odd things like that. Certain types of cars we used to create a palette, and we shot the show on a very special camera called the Alexa 65. We're one of a very few handful of shows that use Arriflex's camera because it's really a movie camera. We also shot a very cinematic 4K too so I wanted the world to feel a little bit different. And of course, we have some little Easter eggs for the fans. If they look around, there's many, many Easter eggs hidden in episodes that the graphic novel fans will find very interesting if they pay attention.

Could Hargreaves have ever been an alien on the show?

I'm not going to comment on that. I'll just say that Hargreaves is a mystery and will be a mystery if we're lucky enough to have another season or two or three. We'll definitely explore that character more.

Vanya apologizes for everything. Do a lot of women relate to that as we're learning how society conditions women to apologize for things that aren't even their responsibility?

Really it was about her upbringing. Here she is a child, told by her one parental figure that she's not extraordinary like her six siblings. She's told she's ordinary and there's nothing special about her. I think that molds her entire life and her whole personality that she's an outsider and she's an outsider in this group of kids and an outsider in life. So she goes around life feeling marginalized by who she is, by who she's supposed to be and fighting to understand how she fits in. So I feel like Ellen [Page] does an extraordinary job having this character have this metamorphosis over the season, without giving too much away, that really feels like somebody coming out of their shell given the circumstances. It was a very painful upbringing for Vanya, so debilitating emotionally to be shut out like that.

Was Vanya on anxiety medication in the comics?

I don't know what specifically was in the comics but for our world, it helped to make sense of why her power didn't ever manifest. That was part of the reason for that. Hargreaves had a hand in that without giving too much away. She's taken these pills her whole life and been told that she needs to take them.

Is that a tricky thing because you don't necessarily want to tell viewers that if they get off their meds they'll have superpowers, but there are kids who are given medication they maybe don't need?

No, it's a good point. The lesson here is some people need them. In her case, she didn't need them. We were very careful. We're not trying to send a message to people saying taking pills is bad. In her case, taking pills when you don't need the pills didn't work for her. It's a good point. We tried to be as sensitive about it as possible. I don't think we ever say what it is. I think she says it's for a nervous condition.

One piece of technology I did notice was Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) still uses microfiche.

Oh, I love that you noticed that.

Was that an important part of the world or just because you've gotta have a microfiche scene?

That's all VFX. I wanted to mix in some older technology, just to feel slightly leaning to the left. It's so subtle, some of the things I wanted to do. I think a whole generation of kids may not know what microfiche is. You and I know microfiche, but I thought it was an interesting way of showing how people used to look at things and make you go, "Where am I? Is this right here, right now?" But, you know, there is no microfiche machine you can find so the screen is done with VFX.

In success, would seasons two and three follow Dallas and Hotel Oblivion?

Yes, if we're fortunate to get another season or two, the idea is to stay in the world of what Gerard and Gabriel created, to add my spin on it and make it a television show. I love where they're going and the stuff I've read so far, both in volume two and volume three. I really like Gerard and Gabriel. We've had a good collaborative experience so to feel like we're in that world will be the continuing theme for us.