Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters have two of the most challenging (yet enviable) jobs in Hollywood, serving as showrunners on ABC’s “Agent Carter” and “Resurrection,” two high-concept dramas with vocal fanbases and — following the breakout success of “Resurrection” and the blockbuster track record of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe — plenty of scrutiny.
If they’re feeling the pressure, you wouldn’t know it to talk with the accomplished pair, who sat down with Variety for a gregarious discussion about their professional partnership of 16 years, the experience of playing in the Marvel sandbox, and what’s ahead for “Agent Carter,” as Hayley Atwell’s titular heroine delves deeper into a web of conspiracies and secrets that may leave her feeling betrayed by those she trusts most, as the below preview from the Jan. 27 episode illustrates.
You have the Herculean task of juggling two broadcast drama series at the same time in “Agent Carter” and “Resurrection”; talk about how you approached that process.
Michele Fazekas: It was really interesting to think about — did we want to do that? — when the opportunity came around, because “Resurrection” was wrapping up and the studio said, “hey, there’s this Marvel property…” and we’re like, “in! I don’t care what it is, we’re in!” and then “Resurrection” was doing well in the ratings and then “Agent Carter” was going to line up [with it] schedule-wise, so we sort of figured, “I guess they’ll find somebody else to do ‘Carter.’” But we’d already met with Marvel and we’d already met with [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, so the studio was like “can you do both?” And we thought about it and really talked about how we could make that work. I think this show is the only show we would’ve done it for — we so wanted to be involved in it.
Tara Butters: And the nice thing is that there’s two of us, and we’re able to share duties and split up if necessary.
Fazekas: We went to the studio and said, “okay, here’s what we would need: we would need both writers’ rooms to be in the same general vicinity” — we can’t be going from Glendale to Culver city; we would need to hire Chris Dingess, who we hired on “Reaper” — he’s fantastic, he’s perfect for the show; we said, “hire somebody else over on ‘Resurrection’”; and we also said, “we need to have a good six weeks of ‘Resurrection’ writers’ room before the ‘Agent Carter’ writers’ room starts up.” We wanted a little bit of lead time. Usually you get about six weeks before you start shooting, they gave us almost nine weeks. We presented all that to ABC and they said, “okay.” It was challenging… Tara and I wrote the last episode of “Agent Carter” and so trying to write while you’re producing two shows is really hard because you can’t write in the office, you have to go home at night…
Butters: Because everybody needs you.
Fazekas: I was really glad we got to write one and we get to be on set while we’re shooting it — we couldn’t spend a lot of time on set because there are plenty of other things to do. But when both writers’ rooms were up and both post-production [offices were] up and both productions were up, it was a little crazy, but we did it! We didn’t die!
Butters: And our children still speak to us!
What was your experience of joining the Marvel universe and contributing a piece to this huge jigsaw of interconnected properties?
Butters: I found them nothing but collaborative and they’ve been very welcoming of us into their playbox.
Fazekas: [Marvel Studios Co-President] Louis D’Esposito is always like, “you’re in our family now.” And we’re very happy to be in their family. [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige is involved in the show as well, and they’ve never really worked on a TV show like this, and so he’s coming into editing and they don’t ever come in like, “it has to be this way,” unless we’re stepping on another movie or show that they’re doing. They’re never dictators and ABC isn’t either, so it’s been lovely.
Tara, since you’re married to a fellow showrunner for a rival company’s superhero series (Marc Guggenheim, executive producer of “Arrow”), do you talk about the work or try to keep business separate?
Butters: It’s funny; I’ll read his features and just give him an overall thought, and there are times when I will be stuck on a story problem and run something past him…
Fazekas: I will too. And we ask my husband to come up with episode titles.
Butters: But it’s great to have somebody who understands everything we’re going through, or when we’re stressed out and have a lot on our plate, he can empathize with that. But at the same time, you don’t want it to overtake your life either.
You’ve been writing partners for years — do you feel that it’s given you an advantage in the industry, in terms of always having someone in your corner?
Butters: Absolutely. We always have a writers’ room — there’s always someone there to bounce the ideas off and for us that has been really helpful. We’ve been on some shows that have not been fun, and it’s nice to know that at least someone has your back.
Fazekas: And there are some writing partnerships that don’t work out. I think Tara and I learned how to do it. We always say it’s like a marriage — it’s really good practice for being in a marriage, because you’re not always going to agree on something, so learning how to resolve that is a really good tool to have. What we figured out was, whoever feels most strongly about something wins, and you can always eventually know who feels most strongly… It’s something you can apply to your life; you can always figure out “this is more important than this to me, so you get that.” And it works, but you really do have to work at it… like you work at a marriage. We’re friends, we started out friends before we were writing partners and our families still go on vacation together; we live a mile away from each other; our kids are like family.
Butters: Our writing staff is incredibly close, the cast, we all want to come in every day… You don’t want it to end.
Fazekas: Eric Pearson, who is a story editor on “Carter” but wrote the One-Shot… he was talking to his dad about it, and he was like, “I feel like I’m not going to see these people as often as I do.” His dad was like, “well, you’re friends, so you’ll see each other,” and he was like, “Yeah, but this is like an organized party every day.” The writers’ room is where everybody gathers and you have your own offices to go off to, but every day you’ve got a place to go to hang out with people that you like and talk about stuff that you like to talk about — it’s kind of idyllic.
What can you preview about Jarvis’ (James D’Arcy) trajectory in upcoming episodes? When I talked to Hayley, she said that he gets to be both the comedic standout and, along with Howard (Dominic Cooper), a pivotal part of Peggy’s emotional journey.
Fazekas: I can’t believe he’s never done comedy before, he’s a natural… You’re gonna uncover even more about him. He really becomes invaluable in a way that she never expected.
Butters: And in episode four, you’ll see Howard in a very different light that’s not his usual glib, cad of a self, which I love.
Fazekas: And there’s a truth that comes out, and when it comes out, it also comes out that Jarvis knows about it too, so she’s betrayed.
Butters: And how that affects their relationship moving forward and eventually, how she deals with that, is such a wonderful character story.
Fazekas: But for Howard, Peggy’s personal trajectory through the eight episodes — I know why Hayley’s saying that; he is instrumental in helping her come to a resolution in the end.
I appreciate the fact that each episode reveals deeper layers in the supporting characters; it seems like Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) and Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) in particular have a lot of backstory still to explore…
Butters: Episode five is a very big story for Thompson. What I love is each character has a very big moment in the series — and obviously more than one — but they have a character-defining moment, and with Chief Dooley [Shea Whigham], with Sousa, with Thompson, that changes Hayley’s trajectory, it changes the trajectory of the show. It’s really been a pleasure.
Fazekas: We talked about Thompson because it’s very easy to write him off as just a jerk and arrogant, and then you peel back the layers and you find out more about him, and once you know that about him, what does he do with that? He’s gonna have a choice by the end of the season of, “what is your life gonna be from this point on?”
Hayley also expressed the importance of the female relationships in Peggy’s life — Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Dottie (Bridget Regan). What can you say about the role they play for her going forward?
Butters: They represent something she doesn’t have in her life; she looks at them and sees them living these normal lives, like, “if I wear this sweater, will this guy look at me?” It’s both foreign and something she desires. They have that element in how she looks at her own life.
Fazekas: Episode four, you learn more about Dottie. There’s some fun scenes coming up at the Griffith, the all-women’s hotel. If you remember “Stage Door” from the ‘30s, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, I watched that again… the dialogue is so crisp and they’re ripping on each other all the time, and that was a big inspiration for a couple of scenes in there. One of the weirdest lines I’ve ever written in a script was in those scenes.
Even though Steve (Chris Evans) is gone, his presence is so tangible in the first three episodes — you really feel Peggy’s loss. Will that continue, or does the show dwell on him less as the season progresses?
Butters: One of the things I really like about the eight episodes, as much as you only see him in that clip in the pilot, he does have a presence in this series.
Fazekas: His absence is a presence.
Butters: And it’s part of her journey… So much of it makes more sense when you see it.
“Agent Carter” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.