“What is grief, if not love persevering.”
That line from the finale episode of WandaVision reverberated across the internet. Mainly because it’s a fantastic piece of writing. And also because in a year marked by pandemic and the immeasurable loss of life, Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olson) exploration of her grief allowed us an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our own.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the best-constructed franchise in cinema history, with each entry providing, at the very least, a whole lot of escapist fun. What elevates WandaVision to the top of the MCU is that it is hugely entertaining, bingeable and (re)watchable. But, the series is anchored in raw human emotion. Using the safety and familiarity of classic sitcoms, Jac Schaeffer and the writing team behind WandaVision have created a chasm to magnify the very grief Wanda is running away from. Schaeffer, who helped bring WandaVision to television and served as an executive producer, has achieved a balance of character development, MCU-world building, humor, heart, and homage to TV’s greatest family sitcoms. A magic trick so brilliantly executed that even the Scarlet Witch would be impressed.
How did she do it? Read more of our interview with Jac Schaeffer to find out.
Awards Daily: I’m interested in WandaVision and the fact that there are two separate stories. You have the exploration of grief intertwined with the superhero element. How did you approach the sitcom structure and the exploration of grief and trauma?
Jac Schaeffer: I came at them both together. The hope with superhero stories is always that the superhero journey is a reflection or a mirror image of whatever the personal journey is. In this case, Wanda is in denial of her grief and the tremendous amount of loss that she has suffered, so she uses her powers to warp her reality to make it more comfortable and to make it feel safe and loving and what her heart’s desire is. So, I approached them in tandem. There are superhero boxes to check, and that requires work and collaboration with Marvel. There are other story threads and inherited backstories and lots of things to consider. And the character work, what’s really going on with Wanda psychologically— that was some intense work with my extremely talented writers in the room. And Lizzy just brought so, so much to the table— so much of what she had done and developed in the past in the MCU. She arrived ready to dig into this story
AD: I’m so curious about your collaboration with Marvel and specifically how much flexibility you have as a writer. Say, for example, the Vision vs. Vision fight at the end and how it evolves into this whole philosophical discussion. Is that your doing? Is that coming from Marvel? Can you take me behind the scenes of the decision-making process?
JS: Sure. With that specific example, the idea of involving White Vision in the storyline came from Marvel. With this project, with any of their projects, they usually have a grab-bag of, ‘Maybe this character, maybe this storyline, maybe this comic kind of a thing.’ And then the creative gets to sort through the bag and try things on.
With WandaVision, that was an idea early on. I thought that was so very exciting, especially because we knew that we would see ‘sitcom Vision.’ So the idea of having another Vision present and having another transformation for him— another iteration of Vision. In my mind, that’s what Vision is; he is constantly evolving his form more than many other characters in the MCU. So, the short answer is the decision to include White Vision from the comics comes from Marvel.
The scene you’re referring to with the Ship of Theseus thought experiment, that was the writer’s room, that was Megan McDonnell. What I had mapped out is that if we pitted two Visions against each other, it would be fist-to-cuffs-fist-to-cuffs tic-tac-toe-tic-tac-toe, and it would ultimately devolve or really evolve into a logic battle. For that, I was very inspired by the end of War Games. The idea of computers going up against each other. So, we sort of had a pin in that for a while of, ‘Okay, they’re going to fight, it’s going to be really cool then at a certain point, there will be no winner and no loser, so they’ll have to talk, and they’ll have to say something cool and Vision-y, and it’ll be something great. And finally, the rubber hit the road, and we had to come up with something there. We worked at it for a while, and Megan came in with the Ship of Theseus thing that she had to explain to us like six times, but once we got it, it just seemed like the perfect thing for them to dig into.
AD: And Agatha (Kathryn Hahn). What can you tell me about your approach to the character?
JS: It was very important to us that Agatha, as the show’s villain, be multi-dimensional. We were lucky because in the comics, she’s so complicated— she’s a nanny, she’s a mentor, she’s a bad guy, she’s an ally, she’s all these things. She does terrible stuff, and she does wonderful stuff, and she’s entrusted with the care of all these children. We decided to use all of those pieces and have her be a neighbor, friend, teacher, partner, sister, and all these things. But, ultimately, she’s an antagonizing force.
The other thing we were really interested in, is that especially at the end is that most of what she says is true. All of the observations she’s making about Wanda are cutting and mean-spirited, but she is calling what she sees, and she’s correct. And we really liked that as this back and forth between the “good guy” and “bad guy,” that it’s our hero who is in the wrong and it’s our villain who is speaking the truth. We really reveled in that opportunity.
AD: I’m just so curious how you were able to find balance within the writing because you’re dealing with superhero elements, but you are also dealing with grief and Wanda’s coping mechanisms for that grief. And the coping mechanisms happen to be sitcoms, so you then have to write in that sitcom-y language. How do you, as a writer, make sure that everything remains grounded in that raw emotion?
JS: You know, it comes down to tone. And tone is really fascinating to me. I love genre mash-ups. I love throwing everything in the kitchen sink and then making something out of that. I think it requires a level of discipline. If you look back at the notes from our room, there were times when we went off in directions that were insane, and I would corral it. Or Kevin Feige would corral it, or producer Mary Livanos would kind of look at us, and we would get the impression that we had gone a little bit too far.
I think for this project, it was about tethering everything to Wanda’s experience and finding the truth in that. Early on, one of the decisions was which shows we were going to focus on and we decided on aspirational family sitcoms. There are so many extraordinary sitcoms. So many of them have a great deal of social commentary and broke barriers— from Norman Lear’s work to Will & Grace. We realized pretty quickly that our show ran the risk of being overstuffed. So we decided on only aspirational family sitcoms and that sort of carved out a very clear lane for that piece of the story. It’s those decisions that were made with discipline and with a clarity of vision that helped us. And it’s my personal taste —the amount of comedy and drama and weirdness and surprise that I like to see in work. With the pilot, I knew that I wanted to dig entirely into the sitcom and have it not in any way be parody and have it feel, as much as possible, like an authentic episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. That was a challenge. That was very hard because those shows were extraordinary, and those writers were incredible. The goal was to try and be as good as they were and sustain it, almost to a tipping point and then shatter it. That was always the zone for me, lull the audience into the fun and familiarity, and then just when you forget you’re watching a superhero show, throw something at them and have it be small enough but distressing enough that it sort of destabilizes everyone. That was the zone I tried to stay in for the show.
AD: And how did you approach weaving in the winks and those Marvel easter eggs?
JS: Well, many easter eggs were added later, the production design touches and wardrobe touches and that kind of thing. That came when we hired [director] Matt Shakman, and the department heads came on, and all of these incredible technicians brought their expertise and their clever ideas to the table.
Our space within the writing of it wasn’t really about easter eggs. It was about the puzzle of the show, the mystery of the show and plotting, when and how we revealed the truth of what’s going on. So, we categorized what we referred to as the ‘weirdnesses’ or the step-out moments. First and foremost, it was Wanda’s subconscious and when her subconscious was kind of poking at her. The first example being with Mr. Heart at the dinner table in episode one. He’s choking because she’s making him choke—whether she fully understands what she’s doing—that’s her attack on him because he’s asking too many questions.
Another example is when she sees Vision with his head crushed in. Then there were S.W.O.R.D. intrusions, things like the drone coming in and ending up in her rose bush and Jimmy (Randall Park) speaking over the radio.
And then there’s the classification of the townspeople and them waking up from their mind control. And Agatha and all of her behind-the-scenes mischief. So we had a system. It gave us headaches and melted our brains, but we had an abundance of good ideas and did our best to be rigorous in choosing the best, and plotting them with the right rhythm.
AD: All Marvel entries, to some extent, permeate our culture. But, with WandaVision coming out amid the pandemic and being a show about loss, I think, in many ways, WandaVision helped people process the grief that they were feeling. How does it feel to know that your work has connected so deeply and helped so many?
JS: You know, it’s really hard to express how powerful this experience has been for me and how bizarre it’s been to have such enormous professional highs and such devastating low lows in the world simultaneously. I feel incredibly grateful and honored that the show has resonated with people and that they’ve express that it has brought them comfort in this moment. We didn’t anticipate the pandemic. It made sense to us that this woman who can’t even look at her grief, and can’t look at her life, and can’t bear to open her eyes to the world around her— that she, with the power that she has, would completely change it. And make it what she wants. And that she would sink into the entertainment that has brought her so much comfort in her life. That made sense to all of us as writers and craftspeople in the entertainment industry. It was quite a shock to us that it became true for us in our lives for an entire year. I’ll never get over that, the coincidence of art and life.
AD: I know that Marvel projects are tricky to talk about in advance, but if WandaVision is the exploration of grief in a superhero setting, how would you categorize Black Widow?
JS: Oh, that’s an interesting question. Well, I will say I’m one of 3 writers on that project, so I don’t feel that I can speak entirely on my own. But I will say, I think that Black Widow is about family.
WandaVision streams exclusively on Disney+. Read more of Awards Daily’s WandaVision coverage here.