One of the most talked about freshman TV shows is the ABC drama Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. With Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Phil Coulson from Marvel’s feature films, the team of highly select Agents investigate the new, the strange and the unknown, across the globe, in order to protect the ordinary from the extraordinary. The show also stars Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producers/writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon talked about what it’s like to do a show with such a crazy level of secrecy, having a solid two-year plan for the series, finding a balance between drawing on the already existing Marvel universe and creating their own characters, including Easter eggs, what it’s like to run a show of this size, their hope that Cobie Smulders will return, especially now that she’s wrapping things up on How I Met Your Mother this season, the possibility of bringing in some other familiar faces from the Whedonverse, and Jed’s desire to direct an episode. They also talked about how surprised they’ve been with the lasting success of Dr. Horrible, and how they still hope to make a sequel, some day.
JED WHEDON: They’re reading strange scenes.
MAURISSA TANCHAROEN: Yeah, we have to tailor the audition scenes quite a bit, as to not leak anything out.
WHEDON: It makes the scenes read weird because it will be like, “It’s good to see you, man. I was surprised to hear you got the fancy gadget out of the place.”
TANCHAROEN: Whenever any actor comes into a producer session, they have so many questions, and we still can’t really tell them that much until they get the job. I feel badly for them. But, it’s a fun show to work on. Once they’re on, it’s fun.
Do you feel like there are advantages to doing something so high-profile, or are you constantly fighting to tune out all of the outside opinion?
TANCHAROEN: We really just try not to think about the scrutiny and the pressure. We’re just trying to make the show that we like, and we’re working really hard at it.
WHEDON: There are obviously advantages, in that there are a lot of eyes on it. Our job is to keep them coming up, so we’re just trying to make something that we would want to watch again.
TANCHAROEN: When Joss came to us and said, “Let’s make a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show,” we were excited about the idea alone. And then, once we started diving into the world and inventing these new characters that would be a nice group around Coulson, it became a show that we want to watch, so hopefully other people share our feelings.
WHEDON: One of the things we like about Coulson and the cast of characters, in general, is that they’re relatable. We consciously did not put superheroes on the show. This is a TV show. We have to be realistic about our budget and how fast we have to make the episodes. So, it was a conscious decision to tell those same stories or show that same universe through a different lens and see it from a different angle, and that’s the human angle. It’s not about a guy who gets to fly. It’s about a guy who’s stuck on the ground while that guy is flying around without a care in the world. Hopefully, the relatability of the characters will keep people coming back. That’s all we can hope for.
When ABC greenlit this show, did they give you guidelines? Did they want to know the bigger plan before they said yes?
WHEDON: A little bit.
TANCHAROEN: Yeah, we had a whole pitch for them that mapped out all of the characters and the entire season, and subsequent seasons. They had a nice idea of what it was going to be before they said yes.
WHEDON: It’s more fluid than that. We have a two-year plan, at this point.
TANCHAROEN: We have a fairly solid two-year plan.
WHEDON: What happens, especially in TV, is that you set out these tentpoles, and then, as you go, things pop up and things change, and more interesting ideas are pitched by other people.
TANCHAROEN: The exciting and challenging part about our show is that we do want to weave in with the movies, as well. Whatever comes up there might show up a little bit on our show.
WHEDON: There might be some fal-out because we’re trying to exist in the same universe. A lot of it is based on that, too. So, it’s a fluid thing, but we have ideas.
How much are you allowed to draw on the already existing Marvel universe, and how much are you allowed to add your own characters with super powers that don’t already exist?
TANCHAROEN: We’re trying to do an even balance of both. We asked them what we can use. There’s a list of characters that we are allowed to use. Sometimes when we come across others in the comics, we pose that question. If the answer is yes, then we pursue it.
WHEDON: We also work from a place of coming up with a story, and then asking if there’s someone already in the universe. It’s such a vast universe that sometimes we come up with an idea, and then we’ll be flipping through the pages to see if there’s someone who has that ability or fits that profile. So, it goes both ways. Creating new characters is something we have a little bit more freedom with.
TANCHAROEN: We always start from the place of theme and emotion. If there’s something that can exemplify that or if there’s a character that already exists that can play into that theme, then we go for it.
Is it exciting to create characters yourselves that could end up getting incorporated into the Marvel universe, in some other form?
WHEDON: Hopefully, they’ll be loved enough to do that.
What makes Clark Gregg and Agent Coulson so appealing?
TANCHAROEN: Clark Gregg is so cool. He’s a pretty cool cat. People are drawn to him. He’s got a sexy everyman thing.
WHEDON: Coulson was just a little part in Iron Man, but he was interesting enough that they were like, “Let’s bring that guy back.” And that kept happening. Through each movie, his role got bigger, and now he’s got a show. One of the things that’s great about him is that you cannot write a bad line for him. You can write a bad line, but he’ll make it sound great. We’ve actually talked about, later in the season, writing some real clunkers just to see how he says them ‘cause everything out of his mouth is great. It’s a pleasure to write that character and work with him, as an actor.
Do you always think about Easter eggs that you can include, here and there?
TANCHAROEN: Not always, but sure. We aim for it more to be something that fleshes out the world, instead of just being in there for the sake of being an Easter egg. The benefit to that is, yes, it fleshes out the world, but if a fanboy catches it and their brain explodes, then that’s fun, too.
WHEDON: We don’t want people who don’t follow the comics or the films to miss a beat. If there’s something that’s dropped, we want it to be cool on its own. If it isn’t, we want it to at least fill a gap that we need, or just roll past it, so that there’s no one going, “What are they talking about?”
This is the first time you guys have been showrunners, on a day-to-day basis. Did you have any moments where you were like, “Oh, my god, what are we doing?”
TANCHAROEN: Luckily, we have Jeff Bell and Jeph Loeb, right alongside us. We had a fair amount of experience on Dollhouse. On the second season, we ended up writing many of the episodes, so we were on set constantly. And we were very involved in production, during that. So, we didn’t come into it blind. We didn’t feel that raw, the first few days of running a show. We also have an incredible writing staff. Everyone working on the show is very talented.
WHEDON: So far, it’s been very positive. We haven’t run into a ton of blind spots, but when we do Jeff Bell and Jeph Loeb are there to fill in the gaps.
TANCHAROEN: Jeff Bell has been such a wonderful partner, on the showrunner front.
WHEDON: One of the things that’s great about working with those guys is that, right away, it was very apparent that we’re all trying to make the same show, which isn’t true, all the time. It’s a vast desert, but we’re all in the same pyramid. That helps a lot ‘cause there’s no argument about tone or direction of the show. We’re all trying to make the same show, which is a big blessing. There’s already enough people involved and scrutiny.
With shows like The Walking Dead killing off characters on a regular basis and always bringing new characters in, have you thought about the possibility of having a revolving door of cast members?
TANCHAROEN: It’s good for them to know they’re going to die very soon, so that none of their heads get too big. But no, we haven’t thought about having a revolving door.
WHEDON: The great thing about TV is that it’s so fluid. When you bring in someone for one quick role and they’re fantastic, you can bring them back. The way it happened with Coulson in the movies, you can discover so much and start giving them stuff. People can end up being regulars in Season 2 because they’re so good in Season 1.
TANCHAROEN: We’ve introduced you to a team of six people, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is a very huge organization and we travel the world and stop at places that you may meet some new faces in that might stick around. It will evolve, in that way.
WHEDON: And because Joss is involved, there is the threat of death, at every turn.
Did this core team change and evolve, as you discovered exactly what the show was, or were they always the team they are now, with the skills they have?
TANCHAROEN: Right off the bat, it was those people.
WHEDON: We talked about the show for about 20 minutes. By the time we were done, we had a rough sketch of who all those people were. Their names are a little different, but we had a pretty good idea, right off the bat, of who we wanted to surround Coulson with.
TANCHAROEN: We thought, “Who would a guy like Coulson pick?” And those were the characters that came to mind.
Having cast these particular actors, did you start to make adjustments to their relationships, once you saw them interacting?
TANCHAROEN: The inspiration for Fitz and Simmons was Casey Affleck and Scott Caan in Ocean’s Eleven. They were way more bickery, and with a little bit more hate there. And then, we cast Elizabeth Henstridge and Ian De Caestecker, and their chemistry was just so much more like brother and sister. They still bicker, but there’s a lot more love there than we anticipated.
WHEDON: And that’s true with all the actors. Once someone is in a role, it changes. They’ve all brought something to their character that we didn’t expect. Fortunately, in all cases, we’ve been happy with those changes.
Balancing the episodic with the mythology, are you looking to have some threads that are carried out long-term and some that are resolved quickly?
WHEDON: Our goal is for every episode to feel like its own thing, whether or not it’s dealing with mythology, or it’s a stand-alone. We want every episode to have a beginning, middle and end, no matter what. So, we are going to balance that and, as we get into it more, we’ll uncover more question marks and give more answers.
Now that Cobie Smulders is in the last year of How I Met Your Mother, are you hoping to have her reappear?
TANCHAROEN: We’re definitely open to that opportunity.
WHEDON: We’re big fans of her and of the character.
TANCHAROEN: Agent Hill is such a great representative of S.H.I.E.L.D. that it would be a fun, exciting thing to have on the show.
WHEDON: She can come over, whenever she wants.
Are you keeping in mind that, with any Whedon project, fans expect to see some familiar faces?
TANCHAROEN: I feel like, if it’s a Whedon show, not that there’s that expectation, but it’s going to happen.
WHEDON: Partially because you become friends with the people you’ve worked with for five years.
TANCHAROEN: When the people you’ve already worked with are very talented and you know what they can do, if you think of a character that happens to be perfect for them, then you make it happen.
WHEDON: But, we didn’t think of J. August [Richards] for that role [in the pilot]. We saw his read for it and cast him off of that. He just nailed it. He was fantastic in it. He just came in and was like, “I will have this part now, please. Thank you.” And we said, “Sure!” We’re very proud of the work he did on the show, for sure.
WHEDON: Secret desire?!
TANCHAROEN: No. I feel like it would be ridiculous, now that I’ve created a show, to also put myself in it. Also, Kilo was not my idea. That was an Andrew Chambliss invention. I’m not stupid. I wasn’t going to say no. But, it wasn’t my thing. We’ll see.
WHEDON: There is so much to do right now that I can’t imagine ever seeing a movie.
TANCHAROEN: Let alone playing a part on the show. Also, there are already too many Asians on it. We’ve hit the quota. I’ve done my job.
Do you have to always think about TV budget limitations and know how many action sequences you can put in one episode?
TANCHAROEN: We don’t necessarily have a formula for how many action sequences there are per episode. It’s just what organically serves the episode and the story we’re telling, in that hour.
WHEDON: We throw everything in, initially, and then we go, “What do we need? What can we actually do, with the time and with the money?” We try to build the story so that it’s not effects dependent. Hopefully, if there were no effects and no gadgets, the story would be compelling enough. That’s just icing on the cake. That’s how we’re approaching it. But, there’s a fair amount in every episode.
Have you guys thought about directing an episode?
TANCHAROEN: I know Jed definitely has plans to do that.
WHEDON: Someday, maybe. When things calm down a bit, I will consider it. There’s a lot of good people around who have a lot of experience with it, so I think if I were to try that, it would be an easy place to do it, or as easy as it can be. Jeff Bell is a great director and a great person to work with. I’ve thought about it, sure. We’ll see.
TANCHAROEN: I think it’s a good idea.
WHEDON: I think it’s a fantastic idea!
TANCHAROEN: When I was writing on my own, I had a pilot at Fox and I was losing my mind. We were dating, at the time, and I said, “Help me!” We worked on it together, and it turned out really well. We said, “Hey, let’s write a feature spec. Why not?” So, we did, but then the strike happened. But, it went out wide and it got a great response. And then, Dr. Horrible happened, and right after that was Dollhouse.
WHEDON: We also make things at home. We write dumb songs about dumb things, and we make YouTube videos. The goal is to keep it fun. When it feels like that, then we know it’s good. Obviously, with this, there’s a ton of pressure and a lot of different voices, and there are eight executive producers and a million properties. But, the goal is to make it feel like we’re doing a cool project that we’re making as cool as we can.
TANCHAROEN: It’s nice that we can check in with each other and make sure that that feeling is happening.
TANCHAROEN: No, we did not. We did not anticipate that, at all. I think it hit us when we went to our first Comic-Con and showed it there and heard the response.
WHEDON: Joss knew what was going to happen, but we did not. I don’t think he even knew what Dr. Horrible had become, but he knew what that panel would be.
TANCHAROEN: We’re five years later, and people are still watching it and loving it, and still having their own screenings of it everywhere. Every Comic-Con, they have some sort of Dr. Horrible panel. It’s very cool!
WHEDON: And we love it, too. We love that it lives on.
TANCHAROEN: We still, in our heart of hearts, want to make the sequel. It’s just a matter of when. But, it is a goal of ours.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights on ABC, and you can learn more about the show at www.abc.com/shows/marvels-agents-of-shield.