Marvel’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. Executive Producers Jeph Loeb and Jeffrey Bell Talk Slow-Burn Storytelling, Developing Deathlok, Cross-over Possibilities and More

     January 27, 2014


As part of the TCA Press Tour, we were invited out to the super-secret filming location for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., to discuss new characters, exciting upcoming storylines, and possibilities for the remainder of the season, which returns to ABC with new episodes on February 4th.  While there, we got to preview the already announced Stan Lee cameo and get glimpses of Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) battling Asgard villain Lorelei (played by Elena Satine), Mike Peterson’s (J. August Richards) transformation to Deathlok, and the introduction of Agent John Garret (Bill Paxton).  If those clips were any indication, things are about to get bigger, more explosive and even more connected to the Marvel universe.

While onboard the CXD 23 Airborne Mobile Command Station, executive producers Jeph Loeb and Jeffrey Bell talked about the velocity of their storytelling and why the show has been a slower burn, how they view the first half of the season as the first hour of a movie, that they wanted to make viewers care about these characters above everything else, how they approached developing Deathlok, whether something from the show could cross over to the films, how they put the storytelling first, and that they try to get something funny, sad, wondrous and beautiful into every episode.  Check out what they had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers

marvels-agents-of-shieldQuestion:  Are you listening to fan complaints about the speed with which story is being unfolded on this show?

JEFFREY BELL:  It’s coming together.  We’re at the midpoint of the movie.  It is a little bit of a slower burn.  We feel like the velocity of storytelling has changed, with Netflix and binge viewing, and with everything being so serialized, like Game of Thrones.  So, we’ve been aware of turning cards over faster, and reveals of Coulson being mid-season versus at the end of the season.  I was on The X-Files, and we waited seven years to say where Mulder’s sister had gone.  And now, by Episode 6, we’d be going, “This is bullshit!”  I try not to focus on criticism too much, but I remember, after Episode 5, people were like, “They still haven’t told us what happened to Coulson!”  Well, be a little patient. 

JEPH LOEB:  There’s good stuff coming. 

BELL:  For me, it’s the emotional life of Coulson coming to the realization that something happened.  Who am I?  What happened to me?  Those are still great existential questions that you can mine for good storytelling, rather that just, “He’s a this,” or “He’s a that.”

LOEB:  Also, we had a very unique challenge.  We live within the Marvel cinematic universe.  Those movies, which are so extraordinary and that we all love, have the giant tent pole of Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor.  And when we set out on the road and said, “We’re doing Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not only do we have the incredible Clark Gregg, who’s reprising his role from the movie, but we’re going to be introducing you to five brand new characters.  They’re not only new to you, if you’ve not watched Marvel movies, but they don’t even exist in the comic books.  So, we wanted for people to get to know those characters, fall in love with those characters, and join us on this incredible adventure.  We’re telling a big, giant story that has human emotion, and also a little sprinkling of humor, along the way.  We knew we were going to have these wonderful Marvel moments, and the choice to introduce those characters as we got along was all planned out, from the beginning.  We wanted to have an opportunity to grow our own universe, and for people to be able to get to know our characters and this incredible plane that we fly around to these incredible locations.  All of that had to be put into motion, long before we could then start having the guest star of the week, or we were pulling out plot.  That had to be set up properly.  And we really do think about the first 10, 11 or 12 episodes as the first hour of the movie.  Now, if you’ve ever sat through any movie, the first hour of the movie is the part where you’re getting to know everybody.  If you’re impatient, go get popcorn.  Just come back.  I promise you, the second half is going to be everything that you’ve ever dreamed of.

When you take on a character like Deathlok, and you’re going to introduce him to the Marvel universe, are you thinking about how you can develop him specifically for the show, or are you also thinking about it being a potential spin-off character or as part of the movie franchise?

marvels-agents-of-shieldBELL:  That’s a case by case basis, really.  But with Deathlok specifically, we had J. August Richards in the pilot, and we had plans for him.  Before he jumps out the window, he says, “It’s an origin story.”  We knew that we were going to do that.  We knew that we were going to earn that, over the course of the season.  We had to do it in a way that fits on a network television show versus a science fiction television show, and in a way where you get to know the character and the person, see his conflicts, and see what his challenges are. 

LOEB:  You also have to keep in mind that we’re not doing the Deathlok show.  We’re doing Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so Mike’s not in every episode.  We needed to go, “Okay, we need this part here.  The Eye is going to be introduced in Episode 4.  Let’s blow him up in Episode 10, so that we can get that incredible burned face that Deathlok has.  Hopefully, what folks are going to do is either go, “This show surprises me,” or “I knew it,” which we’re happy with.  You know that there is an internal conflict that’s going on between man and machine, whether it’s the A.I. who’s fighting with the Man, or whether it’s someone who is controlling him, on an emotional and everyday level.  That is still happening.  It’s just happening within our universe, where we know that The Clairvoyant is the person who’s going to be the Man, as we say. 

Are you hoping that something from the show could then cross over into the films?

BELL:  We have an excellent relationship with the studio.  We love having conversations, back and forth. 

LOEB:  We know the director of The Avengers 2, as  well. 

BELL:  Let’s be realistic, any television series runs the risk of, “Well, that was fun for three episodes.  Thank you and good night!”  A movie takes two years to make.  I don’t think anyone wanted to go, “Hmm, Fitz/Simmons might be interesting,” until we knew Fitz/Simmons is as fabulous as they are.  The more you guys talk about how much you love the show, and the more people want to see the show, the greater the chance that we’ll be having more intermingling.

Since you’re bringing on characters from Thor, how are you approaching that, in terms of tone? 

LOEB:  What’s wondrous about what they’ve been able to do with this is that they make a show that really reaches out into the magic of the Marvel universe, which enables you to tell stories that are science-based, fantasy-based, romance-based, and epic-based.  Those are all the things that we want to be able to do.        

marvels-agents-of-shieldBELL:  We have four words on the writers’ room wall, and they’re funny, sad, wondrous, and beautiful.  And we try to get those four things into every episode.

Any show has to find its legs in its freshman year.  What was the triumph for you, when everything clicked into place?

LOEB:  Just speaking on my side, I think we hit it in the pilot.  That’s one of the things that Joss [Whedon] does so well.  He had a very clear vision, with Jed [Whedon] and Maurissa [Tancharoen] and Jeff [Bell].  And when you take a look at our cast and how they’ve grown, there was always a plan, from the beginning, for where everyone was going.  We’ve laid out bread crumbs, along the way, and hope that folks are latching on.  There certainly are moments that I think we all point to, as our favorite moments, but I don’t know that there was any particular, find its legs kind of moment. 

BELL:  Yeah, it was less about finding our legs than thinking of an idea and going, “Oh, I can’t wait to do that!”  One of the first stories that we came up with, early, early, early on, became Episode 6, where Simmons gets infected and she ends up jumping out the plane.  But, we had to be patient. 

LOEB:  It couldn’t be Episode 2 because you wouldn’t know who Simmons was. 

BELL:  You wouldn’t care about her.  So, we’ve just had to be patient and find the right time to do things.  We also had a Chitauri thing, which tied into the movie.  We don’t want to be too far from that.  We just wanted you to get to know Fitz and Simmons first. 

LOEB:  If you go back and take a look at Episode 6, the cast that’s crying in that scene was really crying, and the crew was crying.  And then, when we were watching it in editing, we were just like, “Okay, I only cried five times that day.” 

marvels-agents-of-shieldBELL:  And that was true again in Episode 12, where Skye learns about her past.  Coulson is talking about it, and she’s weeping.  We were around the corner going, “No, I’m tough.”  It’s all about moments.  Stories are great, but at the end of the day, you remember that moment and that moment and that moment.  The Avengers had all of this great, giant action, but for all of the clever dialogue, it’s the moments.  We try to have enough moments that get you to care about these people, so that when they hit, it resonates.

The show’s tagline is, “Not all heroes have to be super,” but now there’s the possibility that Skye has powers.  Doesn’t that change things?

LOEB:  She is an object of unknown origin.  That’s all we have said. 

BELL:  There are parts of my life that are of unknown origin, as well.                              

Do you think the show works better when it has more super in it?

LOEB:  What we think works best is the storytelling.  In the pilot, there was a guy who could jump out windows and lift up stuff.  We never said that there wasn’t going to be super in it.  We just said that not all heroes are super.  We didn’t want the show to be a cameo-of-the-week kind of show.  We wanted people to be invested in our characters.  And we think that now that they have been, there are going to be surprises that happen, along the way. 

BELL:  We’re always looking for a visually interesting way to tell a story.  So, if you have a guy who can do something with fire, that’s a cool visual thing.  We also have weapons or technology from the Marvel universe, whether it’s a plasma beam, or whatever.  We’re looking for different ways to tell stories.  We had a woman who had an eye that could see backscatter.  For us, that was a cool, visual way to tell that story, and it was also a nice metaphor that somebody’s watching you.  Super powers are wonderful because of the metaphors behind them.  On Buffy, Joss always called them the theme-ons versus demons.  There has to be a reason you were given this power.  So, when we’re bringing in these characters in with these gifts, hopefully it helps us tell an emotional story.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs on Tuesday nights on ABC, with new episodes returning on February 4th.

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