Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger (airing on Thursday nights on Freeform) tells the story of Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson (Aubrey Joseph), two teenagers from very different backgrounds, who find themselves with superpowers that mysteriously link them to each other. As dangers surrounding them heighten, Tandy’s ability to emit light daggers and Tyrone’s ability to control the power of darkness puts them at risk, but also teaches them that they are better together than apart.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, pilot director Gina Prince-Bythewood talked about all things Cloak & Dagger and her impressive work setting up the series, including how she got involved in the comic book/superhero genre, what her first meeting with Marvel was like, making sure the teenagers at the heart of the story feel real and authentic, developing the look and feel, the challenges of finding the perfect Tandy and Tyrone, what made Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph their leads, and the most fun and the most challenges days on the pilot. She also talked about the indefinite delay on Silver and Black (which she’s set to direct), the difference between telling a superhero story for film compared to TV, and getting her voice heard, as a woman in a predominantly male industry.
Collider: I absolutely love this show, and I am so happy to talk to you about it! I was excited to hear that you were directing the pilot.
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: So good to hear you love it!
You’re not someone who’s previously been associated with the whole comic book and superhero genre, so how did you come to direct this pilot? Had you been seeking out work with Marvel, or did Marvel come to you?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s a place that I was absolutely eager to go. I love the Marvel Universe. I love all the films and I love the world, so I had been hoping to get in, and they reached out. I got the call and it was an easy, “Yes, I’d love to read the script.” I wasn’t actually familiar with the two characters, so I talked to my younger son, who is into comic books, and he knew who they were and told me a little bit about them. I think it was actually good that I read the script first and was introduced to the characters, in that way, and then I went back and started reading some of the original comics. I really loved that the core of who the characters are stayed the same, but it was updated for 2018, which really had to happen.
What was your first meeting with Marvel like? Was it more exciting or more nerve-wracking, going into it, and did it feel any different by the time you’d left it?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: That’s an interesting question. I’m not gonna lie, you walk into the Marvel offices and it’s like, “Oh, shit!” Everything that they’ve done is lining the walls and you feel the bigness of the moment. But I was excited because it was so clear what I wanted to do with this show, and then to sit with Joe [Pokaski], the creator, and Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel TV, and hear that we were all on the same page, that we wanted this to feel different from any Marvel show that was on TV, that we wanted it to be this very cool, grounded feel within the established universe, and also that it was about these two damaged teens who find each other and need each other to survive, that was all in my wheelhouse. And for Marvel to start with character, and the powers were second, that was important to me to be able to tell a story like that, about these two characters. It’s also a unique love story, which I love, as well. To bring all of that within this fantastical Marvel Universe is incredibly exciting, and I’m happy to be here.
It’s cool because, when it comes to these comic book and superhero stories, there’s been a real lack of female voices driving them. We have Wonder Woman and we’re getting Captain Marvel, which are female-driven, and that’s why it was so exciting to hear about your involvement with this. There’s a male and a female in the lead on Cloak & Dagger, and it’s great to have some more female voices heard in these stories.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Absolutely! To be able to put a young black man as a hero, out into the world, and a young woman as a hero, that I think many girls will be able to see and identify with and who feels real, I love that. That was exciting.
As director of the pilot, you get to set up the overall look and vibe of the show and have a hand in casting the characters. What did you specifically want to bring to this, and what did you specifically want to avoid?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Foremost, authenticity was our key word, so it starts with the casting. I said very early on, and Joe was right there with me, that we wanted to cast real teenagers. We did not want 90210. It was important, for authenticity, that you’re looking onscreen and believe that these are teenagers. They look, feel, move and talk differently, and it was hard to find teen actors that had the chops that were necessary to embody these two really complicated characters. Also, I just didn’t want these characters to be soft. It’s a teen show, and I wanted it to have an authentic edge to it and feel real. It was very hard to find those two, and it really did come down to the eleventh hour. It was Friday, and we were going to New Orleans on Monday, so it was incredibly scary, but I did not want to compromise on that part of it. That was a really big thing. And then, in terms of the look, we wanted to make people feel that they were watching real life, so we didn’t want the camera to be a character, so to speak. If you watch, there’s no slow motion, there’s no extreme close-ups, and there’s no crazy camera work. I just wanted you to focus on the story and the characters.
One of the things that I really love about this show is that it feels so unique and different from other superhero shows, as well as other teen shows, and a lot of that comes from the dialogue. Were you also very aware of how these two teenagers were speaking?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: That’s what’s exciting about having real teenagers. Joe wrote a very, very good script, and it was great to get into rehearsals. I love improv and I love deep diving, with the actors, into who their characters are, and giving them wants and needs, and making everything real to them. Especially dealing with younger actors and teenagers, it was so exciting because they’re so hungry and want to be good, so they’re open to everything. To be able to push them to be their authentic selves, within these characters, is not always easy, but we were lucky to get these two actors. As writers and directors, it’s our job to listen, and the way that they talk and their rhythm is always helpful for us to be authentic, in our writing and directing.
It seems like, with something like this, finding Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph was only half the battle because no matter how great they are, it doesn’t mean that they’ll have the chemistry that you need them to have together. Did you have a moment where you could breathe a sigh of relief that that aspect of it would all work out?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh, absolutely! We saw them, as individuals, in their audition on Friday afternoon. And then, there were about six people left, so it was about putting the together. When Olivia and Aubrey had their reading together, there was an immediate crackle, and you cannot fake that. If the chemistry is not there, it’s almost impossible to create what’s not there. That crackle was there, immediately, when they did the audition, so we started getting excited about that. And then, I pulled them outside and gave them this improv to do on the fly. I just wanted to see where they would go with it. So, they came back in the room, and it was surreal, how well they understood their characters and their relationship to each other. They had literally just met and just got this information, and to see them feed off each other, in an authentic, natural way, that doesn’t always happen, but when you see it, it’s so exciting. At the end, we all looked at each other and it was like, “I want to watch these two, all day.” They authentically, truthfully, really dig each other. You cannot fake that. They genuinely like each other and are supportive of each other, and they’re fun to watch. That shows up in the relationship, on screen.
What do you personally most enjoy about the story of Tandy and Tyrone, and what do you think audiences will most deeply connect to, with them?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I love the fact that they were damaged, as children, and that that damage is affecting them right now, as teenagers, and they’re fighting to overcome that. You don’t have to have a tragedy as deep as what these two suffered, but I think we’re all affected by who we were, as children, and we’re always trying to overcome that. That’s something you can identify with. And also, despite the tragedy, at the end of the day, this show is about hope, and finding goodness in the fact that these two find each other and help each other come to that. It’s a beautiful thing, and I hope that’s what audiences ultimately gravitate towards.
What would you say was the most fun day on this pilot, and what was the most challenging day?