[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 2 finale of The Umbrella Academy, “The End of Something.”]
When it comes to the Umbrella Academy, just because you’ve stopped the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean that you’ve actually saved the world. Jumping time and finding themselves scattered in and around Dallas, Texas, over a three-year period starting in 1960, has disrupted the timeline and started a doomsday clock. As they work to reunite, figure out what caused the nuclear destruction, find a way to put a stop to it, and return to their present timeline, they must survive assassins, romantic relationships, and a number of other oddities, if they’re going to rebuild their family and make it out alive.
Showrunner Steve Blackman recently got on the phone with Collider and shared all sorts of insight about the second season of the Netflix original series The Umbrella Academy, adapted from the graphic novels by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. During this 1-on-1 interview, he talked about both pulling inspiration from the already existing story and deviating when necessary, exploring familial bonds, presenting such tightly edited episodes this season, how meticulously they have to plan things out, the shocking Season 2 cliffhanger and what that means for Season 3, how far he could see the show going, whether he knows the show’s endgame, the role music plays in the series, and so much more.
Collider: Gerard Way has previously talked about how he gave you his plan for what would likely be eight graphic novels, so that you had a blueprint to work from from the beginning. How have you decided when to follow that, when to push things to later points, and when to deviate entirely from that?
STEVE BLACKMAN: Well, Gerard and I have such a great collaboration. He’s given me the roadmap for the graphic novel, and we both accepted that the graphic novel and the TV series are different things. I absolutely use his graphic novel as a springboard. There’s so much wonderful storytelling, and Gerard is such a genius, as is Gabriel [Ba]. But often, there are times where the storytelling is completely non-linear, or there’s just things that, budgetarily, we can’t do. So, what we realized is, to tell a story that, in our world, the TV world, is just 10 days long, I have to go in my own direction sometimes. We’re in a good place with it because he loves that I’m always inspired by what he writes and I want the graphic novel fans to feel respected. So, when I can, I put it in, and sometimes I have to go my own direction. I think it’s working both ways now. Often, I’m finding with Gerard, he’ll see something in the TV show and say, “That’s amazing!” We’re also inspiring him. The two mediums are now colliding. We just have a perfect collaboration. I love talking to him about all of the ideas for where he’s going with the graphic novel.
What were the things that you really intentionally wanted to plant seeds for, in Season 1, that you picked back up, for Season 2?
BLACKMAN: The first season was about meeting the family, and then Season 2 is getting to know the family. I had certain relationships develop between the family, in Season 1, and I wanted to see new pairings and new groupings, in Season 2, to see how the characters would interact. It’s such a lovely group of characters and great actors, and the ensemble is so much fun. So this year, I wanted to pair up different people to see how they’d work together and interact. I’m always trying to subvert expectations for what the end result would be. Those are things I set up and I knew I wanted to take in different directions. And also, I wanted to challenge them more emotionally, in the storytelling, and create more complex problems in Season 2.
All of the villains this season, seem to have these deep family storylines, whether it’s Reginald Hargreeves and the kids of the Umbrella Academy, or The Handler and Lila, or this trio of Swedish brothers. Was that something that you also intentionally wanted to explore the parallels of?
BLACKMAN: Yes. With the Swedes and with Lila and The Handler, they’re similar relationships and different dynamics. The Swedes are as loyal to each other as the Umbrella Academy is. It was definitely a theme that I wanted to explore this year. The show is a dysfunctional family show with a body count. At the forefront, it’s about relationships and these people, and that’s why these themes are continuing to evolve. It really is the thematic language of the storyline. I couldn’t just have one Swede. I purposely chose to have three brothers, who are also affected by the loss of family members. I love the relationships in family storytelling. I’m fascinated with writing that.
This whole season is very tightly edited and keeps moving pretty fast, all the way through. The episodes seem a bit shorter, but they’re really jam-packed. Was runtime something that you consciously thought about? Was that something that you paid a lot of attention to?
BLACKMAN: The hardest struggle of the season, for me, was the editing process. It was long and grueling. I appreciate you noticing that the episodes were cut shorter. It wasn’t because the studio or network put any constraints on me. I just felt like, watching all of the other shows out there in the universe, under 50 minutes is a more digestible amount of time. Certain shows run 56 minutes or 58 minutes. Just subjectively watching the show, I felt that it ran long, and I really wanted to tighten it and move it at a much faster pace this year. That’s why it was edited, and I think it works that way. We still get to tell everyone’s story, which is a challenge, but at a pace that clips along.
Is this a show where you also have deleted scenes, or do you really have to know what you’re shooting, going into it?
BLACKMAN: We try never to shoot things that end up on the editing floor. There were scenes that were cut, either because it didn’t work out quite as planned, or we didn’t have the coverage we needed, but generally, we used all the stuff we shot. It’s such a big show that we can’t afford to do that, so we very meticulously plan. Our directors come in early and we rehearse before the day of shooting with the actors on their off hours, which is very generous of them, so that we really know what we’re doing on the day. The goal is never to shoot things and then throw them out, so we’re very meticulous.
It seems as though, because of whatever happened in the past, this group has now changed things in their present, leading to there being no more Umbrella Academy. What would you say the effects will be of this new Sparrow Academy, how different Ben will be, and what the floating green cube is? With all of these things that you leave us with, what would you say about how that will affect a possible Season 3?
BLACKMAN: Well, I don’t want to give anything away. If we’re lucky enough to get a Season 3, I know what it is. I already have a plan for it, in my mind. I know the beginning, middle and end of Season 3. I know it’s going to be a very challenging season for them. Clearly, the Umbrella Academy is no more and their brother, who should be deceased, is standing right in front of them. So, I think there are going to be some changes. And Hargreeves, who should be dead, is alive. I don’t want to give anything away, but it will be obviously be a fun and tragic season, for them to understand what’s happening and how it came to be.
Was it very intentional, leaving the Sparrow Academy members shadowed, so that we can’t see them and that will keep us guessing?
BLACKMAN: It was. We shot it and we physically had people up there, but we intended to block out their faces to keep you guessing, because that’s a very exciting thing to figure out who’s up there and what the characters are. So, we wanted you not to see them.
From talking to your cast, it seems like you kept this from them a bit, too. When you told them what the ending for the season would be, how did they react? Who was the most surprised or shocked about it?
BLACKMAN: Justin was. Justin knew that his character was dying, or his ghost energy was dead to our world, so I had to really be careful. I whispered in his ear, a little earlier than everyone else, “Don’t worry, you’re not leaving the show.” So, he was the most relieved. But I think they were all very surprised because it was not what some of them were expecting. I didn’t do it to torture them. I just wanted to keep it because it was the last scene we shot and I was still working out different versions, myself, on paper. And then, when I made my final decision, I released the pages and everyone was really excited. It was a fun final day.
Netflix seems to be doing a third and final season for a lot of their original shows. Now that you’ve done two seasons of this, and there’s obviously a potential for Season 3, do you see any chance that Season 3 would be the final season, or do you see this as a show that could go on for much longer than that?
BLACKMAN: Well, I’m always thrilled when I get another season. I think there is enough material there to do more than three seasons, if we’re lucky enough. I think there’s a limit for how many scenes we could do. The wonderful thing is that, if we had multiple seasons after this, there are 43 kids that were born that day and there are places to go. There’s a lot of wonderful storytelling that Gerard has told me about, where he wants to go with the graphic novel. What’s great is that we have wonderful source material and a great collaboration with Gerard and Gabriel, so I’d like to think we have more seasons in us.
Do you have any idea when you’d start shooting a third season?
BLACKMAN: COVID has complicated everything for all of us in production, not just our show. We don’t want to be off the air for more than a year and a bit, so theoretically, we’d want to start early in 2021. But again, that’s up in the air until we have a confirmed Season 3 and see how we do. But we want to start sometime then, so we’re not off the air for more than a year and a half. That would be a long time for fans to wait.
Is this the type of show where you have to have the endgame for the series in your head, in case at any time you have to get to that point? Or do you try to not think about what that moment is?
BLACKMAN: No, I have to know the end. I know there are certain shows, especially the procedural shows, that don’t have a lot of linear storytelling that it matters, in terms of character. I couldn’t run a show that I didn’t know, before I started, what the end was. When I pitched to Netflix, I told them, “I pretty much know my endgame.” With the beginning and the end, I have to know those pieces to tell a cohesive story.
This season literally starts with a bang. How did you decide exactly where you wanted to kick things off, to set up the story that you wanted to tell?
BLACKMAN: I wanted to do a couple of things, in the first episode. It was really important for me that the kids weren’t all together. I wanted to throw them out of time. I thought it was too easy for them all to just arrive together in Dallas. So, part of it was that I wanted to see them apart, having other lives, with some of them moving on. For some of them, the events of Season 1 are very fresh. And then, they’re working very hard to find each other and have a wonderful reunion, and they’re even stronger together, when we finally meet them together again, in this season. I also wanted to show you one of the possible endings, if they didn’t get it right. You’re showing the ending of the world, right from the beginning, and I wanted to see what was at stake, visually, so you knew they had to right the wrong that somehow happens. So, I thought it was interesting to show the end, had they not fixed it.
It is difficult to balance telling a story where they have to try to save the world, while you’re still telling really interesting and complex love stories, whether that’s between Diego and Lila, or Vanya and Sissy, or Allison and Raymond?
BLACKMAN: That was really difficult. I’m glad we pulled it off, but it was a real challenge because it’s a big ensemble. There was a lot of moving pieces, especially with the mystery surrounding Kennedy. I couldn’t do the story of 1963, even though it’s a heightened world, without getting into the racial issues. It was really important that not be ignored or glazed over. We wanted to tell that in a really grounded way. We do a lot of research, and we spent a lot of time talking about it and working on it. The challenge is to be able to tell these big emotional stories while still having this propulsive narrative of the main plot story, still moving forward and still making sense. That was a real juggling act for me and the writers, in Season 2.
Music plays a really important role in this series. How often do you know in advance what songs you’ll be using versus how often you have to work that out later, in post?
BLACKMAN: I do it very different than other shows. I do the music first. Most shows finish the show, and then add the music. Music is a big part of my life. I love music, so I’m often listening to a song and wondering, how can I use that song in the show? Would that work over a fight scene? Sometimes I’m just imagining a scene, and I listen to a song and write that scene to that song. I encourage the writers to put their music choices in their scripts, so our episodes are full of music. Sometimes I like their ideas, and sometimes I go with my own. Music is really another character of the show. It’s a big part of the show.
I love how this is a show that, no matter what story you’re telling, you always find room for a dance sequence. Is it hard to figure that out?
BLACKMAN: I’m not trying to make that our thing, but yes. This year, I really wanted it to be organic. I know people are looking for it, so I didn’t want to do a huge group dance scene. But the idea of the three of them, drunk together in that hair salon, just lent itself to having a great moment where they hear a song on the radio. Music is timeless, so when they hear a song they like, they let loose in that moment there. They’ve all got great moves, this cast. If I could do more dancing, I would.
What was it like to have the assassination of JFK this season and to have a character like Jack Ruby? When you’re weaving in history, is it difficult to not go too far down that rabbit hole?
BLACKMAN: Yeah. The show has a lot of side stories, so I had to be very careful, how much we got into it. Plus, as writers, we found so many conspiracy theories. There are a lot of conspiracy theories worked into this show, both things that are obvious and things that are hidden. There’s tons of Easter eggs, this year, with the show and the conspiracies out there. With the man with the umbrella, on the grassy knoll, there really was a man with an umbrella on the grassy knoll. Kennedy was just a fascinating time. It’s a legacy that lends itself to tons of theories that people have, of what really happened. So, it’s wonderful to lean into those and see how we could embed our characters in that history, and weave we ourselves around it and through it.
The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is available to stream at Netflix.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.