‘The Umbrella Academy’: Gerard Way & Showrunner Steve Blackman on Netflix’s Insane Comic Book Adaptation

     February 17, 2019

the-umbrella-academy-sliceBased on the popular and award-winning Dark Horse Comics graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance) and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy follows the “children” of Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore), a billionaire industrialist who adopts seven of the 43 infants inexplicably born on the same day in 1989 to random women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. While they’ve been prepared to save the world, things are never that easy, and now that the impending apocalypse is very real, Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David Castañeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Vanya (Ellen Page) and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) must get over their own family drama, if they have any chance of stopping global destruction.

At the Los Angeles press day to promote the new series, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with showrunner Steve Blackman and comic creator Gerard Way about adapting this bizarre world for TV, making some of the more surreal aspects of the story work, balancing the subversive with the whimsical, shooting the dance sequences, all of the Easter eggs, recording songs for the series, ending the season on a cliffhanger, action figures, the masks worn by Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige), and how they approached the changes they made.

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Image via Netflix

Collider: I’ve watched the full season and absolutely loved it! The show is just so much bizarre fun.

GERARD WAY:  Oh, cool!

STEVE BLACKMAN:  That’s great!

Gerard, were you nervous, at all, about having this turned into a TV series? When you wrote this, did you think it was something that would likely not be able to be made?

WAY:  I wasn’t sure. I believe in the medium of comics so much, that I set out to make a really great comic, and that was it. But I’m a visual thinker, so I could also see this stuff, visually, not beyond a comic, but as moving images. So, I was extremely nervous. I still am. It’s really strange. It’s still happening. I wasn’t sure if they would be able to capture it, and they did. It’s just surreal, and really weird. I remember being at the table read in Toronto, and that was the first time that it really clicked for me. I wasn’t on set yet. It was the day before going on set, and they all did the read of the script together, and I was like, “This is crazy!” There were all of these people that cared about these characters and who could be spending a good part of their lives playing these characters.

Was there anyone that most surprised you because they were not what you expected for a particular character, or was there anyone that you felt was exactly what you thought a character was?

WAY:  The way they handled Luther, at first, I wasn’t sure if it was gonna work. First of all, I just didn’t know if Luther was gonna work, period. Then, Steve [Blackman] pitched me on his idea for how to have it make a little bit more sense, and I really liked the idea, but it’s different than the comic, so there’s some trepidation. But then, when I saw it in action, and I saw it on the page and in person, and he was wearing clothes, because in the comic he doesn’t wear clothes, it all worked with the character, so well. I thought it was a big improvement over the source.

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Image via Netflix

Steve, at what point did you realize that you actually could bring all of the craziness of this story to life?

BLACKMAN:  I knew that I could because I make TV for a living, but it was a very tricky subject matter. With Pogo, I said to the network, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then, I was like, “How the fuck am I gonna do that?” It was a really tricky thing, but I don’t have to do him, I just have to find people who can do him really well. I realized that Weta, who’d done Planet of the Apes, had not done TV, at the time, so I phoned them and said, “How would you like to just do one amazing monkey for this?” And they said, “Well, we don’t do TV.” And I said, “Please do TV.” And they did, and they made this incredible. That wasn’t an actor. We had an actor on set, doing the eyeline and the lines, but he’s been completely removed. That’s a fully CG-animated monkey, and it was one of the big challenges. It was hard to do. You forget really early on that it’s a monkey and you realize that he’s like Alfred from the Batman series. He’s somebody that you care about, and the kids adore him. He’s a beautiful character.

This is a story with a lot of fantastical elements, but it’s also deeply human. What was it about this story that most deeply spoke to you?

BLACKMAN:  Well, that’s it. I had come off of Fargo for three years, and I did Altered Carbon for Netflix, and they said to me, “We have this graphic novel.” As much as I love comics, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that, but they said, “Just look at this one,” and I loved the dysfunctional family of it all. I love the idea of this dysfunctional family show with a body count. That was my tagline. It seemed important to me to show that, powers aside, how they would relate to each other? How did they survive being raised by a father like this? They come back, after years apart, like The Big Chill, and find themselves in a house together. That just spoke to me. I loved it, and I wanted to really lean into finding the subversive, fun and whimsical parts of it. It’s truly what I love about writing, so that was great. I fell in love with it, instantly.

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Image via Netflix

And among all of these people getting murdered, and assassins, and fight sequences, there’s dancing. That’s my kind of weird! I love that! What were those dance sequences like to shoot?

BLACKMAN:  It was really hard to do. I told the DP, “I need you to hang about a thousand Christmas lights on a rake. Can you do that for me?” And he was like, “Okay.” So, they figured out how to do it on a huge crane and lower them in. I said, “I want them to lower in and pull out afterwards, and make it feel beautiful and surreal, and have it be less about seeing a dream sequence.” They figured out how to do it. Technically, it was very tricky. We were in a huge park at night, and we couldn’t lock people off, so there were homeless people just walking through the sequence, but we made it work. The two of them really love each other, in real life. Emmy [Raver-Lampman] and Tom [Hopper] are just great together. They learned that dance from Ellen Page’s wife, who was the choreographer. Emma Portner taught them that dance, and they did this great, beautiful dance together. It took them 12 hours of dancing, that night. And then, for “I Think You’re Alone Now,” they just had great moves. I gave them all moves and they said, “No, don’t give us moves. We’ve got our own moves!” I was like, “All right, let me see your moves.” To their credit, they had great moves, all of them.

Who wouldn’t want to dance to that song?

WAY:  It’s a great song!

BLACKMAN:  Yeah, and a whole generation won’t know that song. We may know that song, but a new generation is like, “That’s a great new song!” It’s a remake. Tiffany’s version is a remake of another song, just like “Hazy Shade” is not The Bangles, it’s Simon and Garfunkel.

WAY:  And I had never heard the Simon and Garfunkel one. I had only heard The Bangles.

BLACKMAN:  I love that!

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