‘WandaVision’ Director Matt Shakman on Paying Tribute to Classic Sitcoms and Why He Didn’t Ask for a Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen Cameo

WandaVision director Matt Shakman
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios 2020

WandaVision” is here and it’s weird. With its first two episodes now streaming, Marvel Studios’ first series on Disney plus transports Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) from the universe of big-screen explosions to the world of classic sitcoms — pratfalls and all.

For the 1950s and 1960s-set first episodes, the series was most inspired by “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched,” director Matt Shakman tells Variety, noting the latter two specifically “because they’re both about people with magical abilities, who are trying to hide them from their suburban neighbors and also trying to fit in and be normal, even though they are not. And that is very much what our show is about, too.”

Here, the director explains how the team managed Marvel’s first foray into situation comedy and teases what’s to come as the show traverses the decades into the 2000s, paying tribute to the family-friendly television that defined the times.

This series feels a bit like “Pleasantville” meets Marvel. Why did stretching the story out over nine episodes and diving into the different decades in a 30-minute sitcom format become the most interesting way to tell this story?

“WandaVision” is definitely a puzzle box. It’s a long mystery. And so that’s part of it is leaning in — and just like Wanda and Vision, we’re wondering, “Where are we and how did we get here?” The audience is also wondering that, too. And those answers come as you watch over the nine episodes, I promise. For us, it was a chance to innovate and to explore a part of the world that Marvel hasn’t done before. One of the things I love about Marvel Studios is its risk taking. Kevin [Feige] and his team are always looking for the thing they haven’t done. And it’s that sense of adventure and boldness that I think has brought us things like “Guardians of the Galaxy” — when you never would have expected something like that after “Iron Man” or “Captain America.” They play around with genre, tone, style — [like in] “Thor: Ragnarok” — in amazing projects. We jumped into these different decades of television and tried to recreate them authentically; this is the reality of that episode and we wanted to make sure that it was as authentic as possible.

Since “WandaVision” is inspired by classic TV shows, there are tropes that you’re subverting or nodding toward when it comes to the roles of women. How did you take some of these ideas that are a little dated and make them modern?

Even though we were authentically recreating these shows, we have to look at it through our own progressive lens. So, we enjoyed putting little nods in there and rewriting the world to be a little bit more feminist than it might have been at the time. We were also picking those shows that age well as reference points; we wanted to find shows that were as good back then as they are now. They’re family shows — shows about people who love each other who are wrestling with those everyday troubles of suburban life — and that was what our show is about, too. That’s why we ended up focusing on shows like “Dick Van Dyke” and “I Love Lucy.”

During a meeting with Dick Van Dyke, he told you and Feige that the key to his series was, “If it couldn’t happen in real life, it couldn’t happen on the show” and that advice was one of the rules you worked from. What else did you learn from him?

That was the biggest thing, because tone is so hard. How do you put your finger on why the “Dick Van Dyke” show works so well, because it’s really bold in its comedy? How do you make room for pratfalls and all of the great silliness? It’s got some of the most outrageous stuff — there’s Mary Tyler Moore flying out of a closet, sliding down on a bunch of walnuts in one episode. How do you make room for all of these things? And the answer is, by focusing it on real family stories. One of the things he said is that, before they would start rehearsing that week’s episode, Carl Reiner, may he rest in peace, would say, “All right, so what happened in your life this week? Tell me about the weekend? Tell me about what’s going on with you?” And he would just gather all this information, shamelessly steal from everybody’s life, and put it in the show. And that’s what makes it special. It’s just like ‘Law and Order’ says ripped from the headlines, but ripped from our family headlines and put into the show.

Did you think about trying to find a way for him to do some sort of cameo in this series?

He’s amazing and it would be an honor to work with him at any point. He’s one of my favorites.

Feige also mentioned that the mood board for the ’90s-centric episode included a nod to “Full House.” Since he said it took him a minute to remember that Elizabeth is related to Mary-Kate and Ashley, how long did it take you?

I definitely remembered. Lizzie and I both are children of the ’80s sitcom world and early ’90s; we definitely had that in common and talked about it from time to time. She grew up on that “Full House” set, and I, of course, grew up and many other sets. [Editor’s note: Shakman appeared as an actor on shows like “The Facts of Life,” “Good Morning Miss Bliss” and “Just the Ten of Us.”]

Did you think about asking Lizzie to ask her sisters to do a cameo on the series?

For us, we were faithfully recreating the style of the shows with authenticity. It wasn’t about parody or homage or spoof. It really was about telling the story of Wanda and Vision. And so, for that reason, we were focusing on our characters who are the best actors to bring those characters to life, rather than trying to find a way to have Bob Newhart pop by.

You are digging into decades of Marvel and Marvel Comics history and every fan is looking for hints and homages, questioning which storyline that you are pulling from the comics. People have already asked whether the show is about the “House of M” story and we’ve seen potential references to S.W.O.R.D. — how do you weave those little Easter eggs into what we’re seeing, without making it so obvious that fans guess what the storyline is? How much of it could be a fake-out?

Marvel Studios has done a great job of creating their films and now their streaming shows building on what’s happened in the comics, but these are original stories. Just like each one of those comic book writers was building on what came before them, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re taking and osmosing all of what’s out there in the comic book world, and then building and forming a new story that’s made for today.

Have you gotten used to the idea of fans tweeting a theory and questioning, “How did they figure it out?” Or are you thinking, “They’re never gonna guess where we’re gonna go?”

Gosh, I hope that fans are watching, leaning forward, excited to figure out what’s next. I’m glad we’re going out weekly. It’s exciting that people have a little bit of time to chew on it and come up with their own theories. We don’t have that opportunity with binge-watching to have those water cooler shows anymore. And obviously, with a pandemic, we don’t have too many water coolers we can all gather around, but social media is our new water cooler. So, it’s worked great for “The Mandalorian,” it worked great for “Game of Thrones.” [Editor’s note: Shakman directed 2 episodes of the HBO series: “Eastwatch” and “The Spoils of War.”] I certainly hope it’s the same for “WandaVision.”

You are introducing an incredibly important and iconic character in the MCU and in Marvel Comics with Monica Rambeau (played by Teyonah Parris). What is it like to bring the grown-up version of this character into the MCU via this series?

It’s super exciting and it’s in the best possible hands. Teyonah Parris is awesome; she’s brilliant actor. We met Monica as little Lieutenant Trouble in “Captain Marvel”; she’s still Lieutenant Trouble all grown up now. We saw her mom [played by Lashana Lynch in the film] and she’s gonna follow in those footsteps too — of bravery, courage, a spirit of adventure and [she’s] tough. It’s exciting to bring Monica here and see what’s ahead.

I’d imagine part of what’s exciting is that this show is linked to whatever is next in the MCU. But is it also a little pressure-filled and maybe a bit stressful to think that you could be setting up 10 different other stories in the Marvel Universe — everything from the Young Avengers to the X-Men?

It’s a great opportunity. It’s an honor. Being involved as a filmmaker in the Marvel Universe is like being a part of the most awesome relay race, and that baton gets passed to you, and you grab it, and you run it as hard as you can and do the best job you can. And then when you’re all out of energy and you’re just about to collapse, you pass that baton on to whoever’s next.