Delivering series follow-ups to Jonathan Demme’s iconic “The Silence of the Lambs,” beloved kids projects “The Mighty Ducks” and “Saved by the Bell,” and Marvel Cinematic Universe characters all seem like daunting, if not impossible, challenges on the face of it.
Yet, in the burgeoning era of franchising, studios are digging deeper than ever into their IP mines. This results in old favorites needing to feel both familiar and new again, to captivate a broad audience. Much of that task fell to those who created the visual landscapes of series, including CBS’ “Clarice,” Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” and Disney Plus’ “WandaVision.”
According to Maja Vrvilo, helming the pilot episode of “Clarice” was the most intimidating challenge of her career to date. “Being a fan of ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ it was incredibly exciting and incredibly terrifying at the same time,” she says.
That pilot episode picks up only a year after the events of Demme’s Academy Award-winning film but utilizes flashbacks to recreate some of the most memorable moments Clarice (then played by Jodie Foster, now played by Rebecca Breeds) has with serial killer Buffalo Bill. But because time has passed, Vrvilo knew the pilot had to provide insight into all of the issues, such as PTSD and being in a glaring national spotlight, that Clarice has been dealing with between the film and where the audience is reintroduced to her.
“She’s still defined by what some would consider to be her greatest weakness: the ability to empathize with killers and their victims,” Vrvilo says. “Those are actually her greatest strengths. She’s forced to look into her past and see how it shaped her as a person and how to learn and grow from that.”
In a similar fashion, “WandaVision” draws on the very recent trauma that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) experienced in “Avengers: Endgame” as the catalyst for events in the series. Unable to handle the loss of her love, Vision (Paul Bettany), Wanda reverts to her youthful coping mechanism of sitcoms. But because she is so powerful, she drags an entire town into the show-within-a-show with her.
“At the heart of it, we took Wanda Maximoff, a character who has suffered a great deal of loss, and explored how she comes to terms with that loss [and] can she come to terms with that loss?” says director Matt Shakman. “It’s a larger exploration of grief and also a love story, because the flip side of grief is love, and she’s lost all the people that she loved so much.”
Each episode changes style as the sitcoms move through the ages, paying homage to shifting story tropes and being shot in different aspect ratios. When it came to the scenes outside of Wanda’s idyllic suburban creation, Shakman says they used the same lenses and camera packages as on “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame” so that fans would feel the same epic scope to which they have grown accustomed.
With Disney Plus’ “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” director Kari Skogland faced very similar complexities as Shakman, and she, too, relied on “Endgame” as a guide. But such an action-heavy show required a bit more research, which led her to a lot of extreme sports videos to find new angles to capture the soaring fight sequences involving Anthony Mackie’s eponymous Falcon.
“I wanted those to feel really different because we hadn’t spent that much time with Falcon in the air before. We needed to take them to a whole new level,” she says. “Watching those videos inspired the squirrel suits, and we hired a team to actually jump out of a plane and do the landings and I put cameras all over them so we could capture what that new aesthetic is where you are really with the characters.”
Both of these series centered around characters who had been somewhat on the periphery of the bigger MCU films, with “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” exploring the leads’ back stories in much greater detail.
“If you look at Sam, we wanted to capture the history of that family, of the Black community which has been dealing with the same story again and again, with the same financial strife, the same racism,” Skogland says.
Instead of focusing entirely on key characters from their original inspirations, both “Saved by the Bell” and Disney Plus’ “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” brought a whole cast of fresh new faces to the party.
“You watch the original today and it feels like it’s from a different time,” says Trent O’Donnell, director of “Saved by the Bell.” “Some of the original storylines, the stuff the characters did just wouldn’t fly today. The world of the affluent kids in this affluent suburb is not the story we wanted to tell this time. Now, we’re very much showing that those kids lived in an insanely privileged world. The new Douglas High kids are our entryway this time, which was a wonderful way to approach it.”
Although the show does pay tribute to the original (from the fourth wall breaks, to countless subtle Easter eggs directors, including O’Donnell, had to capture), he says the goal was to only “nod to the visual language and the feel” of the original.
Similarly, “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” flipped the premise of the original series on its head, making the famed Ducks into an arrogant team that takes kids’ hockey far too seriously while former coach Gordon Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is a reclusive rink owner who claims he wants nothing to do with the sport any longer.
“I thought that was a fun thing to satirize,” says director James Griffiths.
Even when making deliberate choices to differ from the original films, at its heart “Game Changers” always aims to retain the spirit that led those Ducks and their coach to become so mighty, adds Griffiths.
“What I loved about the original movies, the first one specifically, was how the kids interacted with each other,” he explains. “We found those real characters in casting kids like Brady Noon and Maxwell Simkins — kids who have this adult energy, this banter, this comedic muscle at a young age. I just wanted to be truthful and authentic to them — to let the kids be the heroes.”