Netflix's 'The Umbrella Academy' Is Wonderful and Weird
The adaptation of the comic written by Gerard Way is "a ten hour movie," inspired, in part, by Wes Anderson.
Photo via Netflix
When My Chemical Romance hit the scene in 2006 with Welcome to the Black Parade, a goth-pop anthem full of pomp and circumstance, the world was introduced to Gerard Way and his unique visions. He followed up his musical endeavors with a six-issue limited series graphic novel with Dark Horse Comics in 2007, The Umbrella Academy. In it Way, along with illustrator Gabriel Ba, created a world that brings to mind Harry Potter, Doctor Who, the X-Men, and Men In Black—a kaleidoscope of pop-culture that imagines a trippy alternate universe in which John F. Kennedy had never been assassinated. It left fans mesmerized and wanting more.
Enter filmmaker Steve Blackman, the much-heralded, uber-talented show runner of Fargo and Altered Carbon, who took on the distinct challenge of turning Way’s comic book series into a TV series, The Umbrella Academy, which drops on Netflix February 15. It's a wonderfully weird and vibrant adaption of Way’s creation starring Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, and Mary J. Blige. VICE talked to Blackman about how he got involved in the series, how important it was to stay true to the comic books, and what it was like working with the charismatic MCR frontman on the series. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: How did you get involved with The Umbrella Academy series? Was it brought to you or was there some interest there? Can you take us through that?
Steve Blackman: It was actually brought to me. I had just finished doing Altered Carbon for Netflix, which is a big sci-fi show with Joel Kinnaman. When I finished, Netflix [asked] me [if] I’d be interested in this project. I didn't know about the comics beforehand. I wasn't familiar with it. When I looked at it and saw the original pilot, I loved it. [It] felt different to me and really called to me.
You already said that you didn't know about the comic book series beforehand. Did you know about My Chemical Romance or Gerard Way or was it like something totally new to you?
No, I love Gerard's music. I love Gerard, he's a great guy. I loved his band, I loved the music. I heard about Umbrella Academy, I just hadn't put the two together. I read the graphic novel and sort of fell in love with it when they told me they wanted me to do this. It was a nice moment realizing how the two connected—that Gerard Way was the guy who's the lead singer of a band I love and also [the creator of] this graphic novel.
How involved was Gerard Way in the production? How much interaction did you have working with him on this project?
Gerard is great, [as is] Gabriel Ba, who's the co-creator of the comic. It was very important for me to include them through this process. This was something they gave birth to ten, 11 years ago with the first volume of the comic and the series behind it. I really wanted them to have input. Very early on I made a lot of calls to Gerard and we talked through sort of what my vision was, what his vision was, and we really got along and had some very similar ideas.
All along the way I've been including them. I send them outlines and scripts, get their feedback. When we shot the pilot they came in to sort of see what we're doing, they [liked] to weigh in. Every cut I've done I've sent it to them so they could be a part of it. We've had a lovely collaboration, often they don't go smoothly, but we all get along, which is wonderful.
How important was it to you to stay true to the comic books in making the series?
It was important for me to respect the comic. It’s got a wonderful fan base, and I wanted to make sure that fan base feels respected and that I've done justice to the material. It doesn't often translate page to page on screen. You have to sort of evolve it in a different way and they're two different mediums [that] don't just merge perfectly. It was important for me to sort of take what I thought was really the most important things, these characters, and then evolve them in a way that I thought could make it a great TV show. It's a very busy landscape of superhero shows and what I loved about this show was I didn't see it as that.
I saw it as a dysfunctional family show first in the way maybe Wes Anderson did The Royal Tenenbaums. I came from Fargo. I love the character style. The fact that they're superheroes was just an added bonus. This show in my mind takes a very different path on it, where they have these powers, it’s this sort of thing we play with. It was hard to think of what things I could use and which things just didn't fit. I do think the fans will feel that I've done justice to what makes this a wonderful graphic novel [that we] translated into a TV show.
You mentioned Wes Anderson. I found the cinematography was very Wes Anderson-like with the way scenes were centered and the camera movement. Was that the plan going in?
I really wanted to make something cinematic and beautiful. At the starting point we're not trying to be Wes Anderson, but it's Wes Anderson inspired just the way he tells stories visually. With my two directors of photography we sat down and talked about it early on. One of the things we did is we shot it on a very special camera called the Alexa 65 made by ARRI. It's usually a camera they shot big films with, we're one of the few shows [that used it.]
It gives us a very wonderful contrasting scope that you don't get with a typical TV show, and we took advantage of that. We lit it a different way. It's shot in 4K so it really is a beautiful show, but we planned the sets. We planned everything with an idea of making a ten hour movie as opposed to making ten one hour TV shows. How do we make the ten hour movie? We have the camera, so that was sort of going in to it. We really stylized in certain places, we really thought through all of that.
The original comic was real quirky, lots of pomp and grandiosity. How hard was it to replicate that on the screen and at the same time keep the serious superhero tone?
It was difficult, but the beautiful thing is we had a great VFX [visual effects] team. [For] the character Pogo, there's two ways to do it. You can do a guy in a suit that you augment, or you can do fully CG, and that's a much more ambitious way to go. I wanted to do full CG, so what I did I called up Weta FX in New Zealand, who did Planet of the Apes. They’d never done a TV show and I said look, we want you to do this monkey for us.You can do hundreds of monkeys really really well, I just need you to do one amazing chimpanzee for us, and they were intrigued.
We got into business together and they did a fabulous [job]. I think Pogo just looks incredible, how real he looks, and after awhile you sort of forget that there's a talking monkey on the screen because he's just so beautifully rendered. That was a real process with sort of bringing him to life and I wanted to do justice to that for the fans too, because Pogo's a big part of this season. That was an example of where VFX came in and really helped to take something out of the graphic novel [and] make it really come to life.
There’s almost like a separate subplot that eventually meets up with the main storyline with Number Five. How important was bringing in Number Five and that whole world that he brings to The Umbrella Academy?
That's probably one of the most scary parts of this whole season. The character Five played by Aidan Gallagher. Aidan's wonderful, it's like he's the perfect catch. I went through hundreds of kids all over the world trying to find that character because truly the show sort of turns on this character. Five is playing a 58-year-old man in a 13-year-old's body. That's really tricky to do for an actor, and there's some wonderful kid actors out there, but not many have the ability to be sullen and gruff, and embody a 58 year old who's had a really tough life. I went through hundreds of kids and as we got closer and closer to shooting I was starting to panic a little bit. Then this kid pops up and said 'Hi, I'm Aidan Gallagher, and I love this part more than anything in the world.'
I think he actually said 'I would kill for this part' on his audition tape. I just watched him and I said 'This is the kid.' I mean he understood the sort of complications and layers of Five and he's such a seasoned pro, he'd done shows before us. So when he came to set he knew his lines and it wasn't like he was intimidated. We put him in scenes with five 30-year-old actors, didn't bother him at all. That was the great thing because sometimes when you have a young actor with a lot of adults on screen it's very intimidating. Aidan never had a problem take after take. It got a little nerve racking until I found Aidan. He's just an amazing kid, just so good and such an important part of the show.
Ellen Page's character Vanya seems like she kind of grounds the family in a way, even though she has no powers and is dealing with her own problems. How does her character keep the dysfunctional unit together?
She's really important because this is sort of different than the X-Men. The X-Men all went to an academy [as] outsiders. They couldn’t have gone to the [Umbrella] Academy. These kids were born into this, they didn't have a choice where to go or what to do. They're all sort of stuck with this dysfunctional father who thinks they will one day save the world, except for this kid Vanya who's kept as the outlier of the family. It's a hard struggle for her character to be in a family of super heroes [that are] known throughout the world [as teenagers] and never be a part of that.
She has this extra burden in life, and when the team comes to pieces emotionally and break up and go their own separate ways, Vanya is in some ways the one with the sort of biggest road to climb because she's not only trying to navigate the real world, given her family upbringing, but she's [been] told her whole life she's not special. She's just ordinary in a family of extraordinary kids. She's a person who has a very long journey to make and hers is a journey that makes a lot of transitions through the season. It's a wonderful thing what Ellen Page does to transform this character.
If you compared the Umbrella Academy to other superhero groups, who would you compare them to?
There are similarities to the X-Men where you have these abilities whether you want them or not and you have to exist in the world that may or may not understand them. But again we're different than the X-Men in a lot of ways, as well as in terms of how dysfunctional they work together. In our world they don't really come together that well, they try [but] fail a lot of the time. That's sort of where we're a little bit more human in terms of how they worked together in the world, and sometimes things just don't go your way, which is part of our show.
It was a very tricky show, very ambitious to sort of pull off everything we wanted to do. I was happily surprised how well the cast worked together. I had a vision, that this would be a very grounding human show. I think there's amazing Marvel and DC shows, but we wanted to feel different than a lot of those. We wanted to feel like we were different type of show with special superheroes. I learned how much the fans loved the material and Gerard. I knew Gerard was big and important in this world, but I didn't realize how these fans have stayed loyal to him all these years and how excited people are about the show coming out.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.