Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Interview: Director Stephen Surjik on Why ‘The Umbrella Academy’ Is So Special & The Magic Behind the Scenes [EXCLUSIVE]

Stephen Surjik has probably been behind the camera of one of your favorite shows.

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He is an award-winning director who has been behind the lens for the likes of Lost in Space, Daredevil, Luke Cage, The Defenders, The Punisher, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Runaways for Netflix, along with CBS’ FBI and Person of Interest, The Gifted, Designated Survivor, Bates Motel, The Flash, Arrow, and Apple TV’s See, which earned him his fifth Directors Guild of Canada nomination.

Through speaking with him, it was clear to see that the focus of Surjik’s directing style is truth for both character and narrative, something that shines through each episode he helms. This honest, raw approach to storytelling is something that sets him apart from others in the field and harnesses the audiences’ love and ability to relate to these stories and characters.

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We had the opportunity to chat with him about his work on the Marvel Netflix shows, as well as his work on the sensational Netflix hit, The Umbrella Academy, including some really shocking facts about corn.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Nerds and Beyond: I’m a huge fan of The Umbrella Academy, so, I’m really excited to chat with you. And I’m also a huge Marvel fan, so it was really exciting to see that you worked on so many of those Marvel series, too.

Stephen Surjik: I did, and it was a huge part of my life. I spent four years in New York flat out working from one project to the next and it was it was really an extraordinary time for me. I was very lucky in that the first Marvel job I directed was an origin story for Kingpin, it was an outstanding script that was written by the showrunner. And it was really special in so many ways. I got very lucky to have a good script. If you get out of the way, you don’t screw it up, it goes on to be a big show, a big episode. It was a great episode — violent, it was sentimental, it was fantastic. It was such a great script.

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Nerds and Beyond: Is there a different kind of pressure adapting well known comic characters for the screen knowing that these fan bases are pretty passionate, myself included [laughs]?

Stephen: Yes! And that was something I learned. I think Marvel had a system in place that honored their fans, and in doing so they retained their fans. So what they did, it was all new for me, but on set usually there’s a writer there, and all the rest of the people, but in this particular case there were these people that were experts on Marvel nuance — on the character nuance, on their behavior, and how they did things, and what the universe was like.

So, when I was shooting scenes and we did something they’d say “Hold it, hold it, this is how it’s done.” These guys help you through that situation and it was great because I didn’t want to make a false step there. Generally, they’re grounding the characters, the notes that I got the most often was to make sure that they’re in the universe and that’s real, where they’re in the physics of the universe, like there’s gravity and there’s day and there’s night and you want to make it as real as you can. That was a very important note for them because they didn’t want it to be just about heroes with glowing eyes and superpowers, so we had to find a way to make the characters real and grounded and aspirational, and their behavior had to be common occurring behavior.

That was what they did at Marvel, they had that system in place to double check to make sure you’re watching for that and working toward that.

Then when I got to The Umbrella Academy they didn’t have so much of that because it was largely about the relationship of a dysfunctional family with superpowers. Steven Spielberg said something like, “If you come from a dysfunctional family, you might be a better director than if you didn’t,” [laughs]. That’s all just to say, I don’t want to brag about my dysfunctional family, but the fact of the matter is you learn to adapt to the situation that you’re in in a dysfunctional family. You learn to work with that, you find your place, and you’re either successful in that or you’re not, and if you’re successful, you move on.

Directing is a large dysfunctional family and you have to find your way through it. Ironically, The Umbrella Academy was a family that’s dysfunctional, they all have these problems, and they were also recognizable to me, and the characters made them so, the writing made that happen, but I was familiar enough with it that I felt that I actually belonged to that family. I felt really excited to be a part of it, I felt very lucky to be a part of it.

Nerds and Beyond: These shows are such a collaborative effort between effects and writing and directing. What have you found to be the most important aspect of working with so many departments to make such a seamless finished product?

Stephen: It all starts with writing, if you recognize the characters, and the behavior, and the place, and the situation. Then, there’s the mathematics and the physics of drawing and making sure the eye lines are right, making sure the environment is right in the storyboard and put it all down on paper. And then the special effects people can look at your vision and say, “Yes, we can do that,” or “We can’t but we can do this instead.” And the camera people can say the same, and the locations people can provide you with a geography that matches that, and it’s a way that brings it together.

The actors brought so much to the characters. It was Sheehan playing someone who’s trying to not take drugs, we all know someone that’s trying to do that, and so we’ve been doing it and we’re not turning away from it. You know, Emmy Raver-Lampman, the sit-in that turned into a full on riot on the street, that came from an honest place, those were very painful experiences that were real for her. And so if I’m not familiar with the situation that we’re navigating, and even if I am, I go to the actors and then I ask them, I beg them, to lead the way on what is authentic.

I never ask an actor to do anything that they’re not comfortable with, they’re not committed to, because if they do, it it’ll seem false. That might be a line to read, or it might be some behavior, or it might be something you just don’t agree with.

We took great pains to make sure that we honored the sit-in and what was going on there, that we didn’t trivialize it. That we honored the history and the pain of that for everyone that was involved. So, I’m not familiar with that, I wasn’t around Dallas in ’63, and I went to the actors and I asked them in rehearsals how to approach it, and were they comfortable with it?

That was only possible because they’re just so generous. There’s a lot of trust going on.

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Nerds and Beyond: In season 1, you did those incredible scenes with Klaus and Dave in Vietnam. I might be biased, because I’m such a huge fan, but just as some of the most powerful scenes on television, can you tell us any part of the conversation that you had with Robert Sheehan surrounding those moments?

Stephen: Well, you know, we had a lot of those actor-director discussions that go on, and typically in any scene we try to find the honest line through it. He falls in love with someone and that it’s a tragedy when that person gets mowed down in the battlefield. It’s really a very difficult experience of loss, and everyone has experienced loss, some people more than others. That’s what builds character, and that’s a great actor. He is like one of the great actors.

There’s no context, but I want to tell you this: he did a scene in the prison in season two, where he was laughing, it was making me laugh and cry at the same time, as he was laughing and crying. I’ve never seen that before, never experienced it before. So Robert has the ability to create a universe and to bring everyone along with him that is just compelling and almost kind of creepy. He goes into a state and he’s there. I used to joke about him painting a swimming pool that he could dive into and go for a swim, he’s just that powerful.

So anyway, in the case of Vietnam, the pains, the creature comforts, and noise, and the distractions that are going on, they disappear for him. He just becomes focused, laser focused, right into that zone. So, when he lost his friend in the field there, lost his love, it really affected all of us. He did that when he was quitting drugs. And the reason he wanted to quit drugs was so he could get in touch with a person that he loves, the person that he lost. And it’s such a great allegory for what we go through in life when we start hiding behind drugs and alcohol so we can forget the painful part. He knew how to do that and knew how to act that.

Nerds and Beyond: I know you also did the reunion between Klaus and his father up in the great beyond. Was that your choice to do those scenes in black and white versus color?

Stephen: It was a choice I talked about, and believe it or not, I was a little more nervous about doing that than he was, when we talked about going into that universe. Steve’s a very courageous writer, and he was like, “Let’s go there. And let’s not worry about it.” We shot it, of course, so we could make a choice later, and she stuck to it. And I have to say that that was very brave, I thought it was great. Again, that was once he [Klaus] got off the pills and booze, he could then get in touch with his father and get a huge emotional breakthrough.

This is such clever writing and amazing acting, if I just keep out of the way and I don’t get in the middle of it, it always works out really great. We have great actors and great writers.

The little girl who plays God was my idea, the black and white I shared in, but it is collaborative. And sometimes in collaboration it’s difficult to untangle who did what. If you’re like-minded, you kind of go down that road really quickly back and forth, and all of a sudden you’re in a new place, you don’t know how you got there, but you both partook in making turns on the road.

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Nerds and Beyond: Coming into season 2 after doing season one, what were you most excited about? I feel like most of these characters did a huge, huge 180 going into season 2.

Stephen: First of all, in season one, I came in and I was reading, the two scripts are very similar to each other, it was like one was very, very similar, but just slight changes. I didn’t know the tone of the job, because it wasn’t released yet, and I was prepping and prepping. And then Steve Blackman said, “I have an episode for you to look at, episode 1, it might help you get there.” I watched it, it just… I cannot emphasize, it blew my mind. It was so mind blowing, because I realized what I was working on. And it was like the Mars mission but for television. It was the best thing ever. I couldn’t believe how excited I was, it’s everything I did in television. And so I went to Steve and I told him that he was creating a revolution, to go back to Netflix and ask for the crown because I was knocked out. But more importantly, I understood what it is that we were doing. I wanted to set the tone clearly. I followed that kind of vibe I think I’ve always been avoiding because it’s something that, we try to hide our own voice sometimes when we’re trying to emulate something else. But in this case, I was able to really understand it and get it.

So in season 2, I didn’t know where it would go, no idea how this would develop. And Steve called me and said, “You know, they love it, you know your episodes and they want you back. I want you back. What episodes Do you want to do?” And I was really flattered, but I had no idea where this was going to go. I couldn’t believe it so.

So Klaus is a cult leader. And that was so dense with material that it took the rest of the year to shoot, it felt like we’d work on a problem, and it seemed like forever to get it all done.

Also, Ritu Arya came on board as a new actor, and I found out that she’s not just an actor but she’s also a punk rocker, and that blew my mind. And she’s also writing her dissertation on astrophysics, believe it or not. Everything about the show is like mind blowing. And I love it. I don’t know why that is. Like a fan, I feel like I belong in this dysfunctional family, or what, I’m not sure, but I kind of relate to it.

Nerds and Beyond: I do, me as well. So, you grew genetically engineered corn for one of your episodes of The Umbrella Academy. I have to admit, I sat here and I stewed on exactly what kind of question I was going to ask, and I realized that the only question I can ask is just please just tell me whatever you can about how that went down? How you grew corn in a few weeks?

Stephen: I was reading the scenes, and the scenes were a little bit different, where Vanya is being chased to buy the Swedish assassins from the future, and I’m worried about that, a truck driving through that [corn] field. I went to Steve and to Jeff to say
we’re gonna have to like design a field that we can drive I grew up in Western Canada, near a farmland, they’re rigid, you can’t drive a truck through that stuff.

So I was saying we have to get a field that is designed that we can drive through, wide enough rows that we can get our lighting and all that stuff. We already talked to a farmer and they said we’re gonna get into it and come on up. So we went and we met the guy, and they had already started the plant, he had already followed the requirements for the flat so it wasn’t going to be hard to drive on it. But I looked down at the ground at the corn and it was, I think, a second or third visit, it was like three inches high. And we were shooting in like three weeks. I mean, every time I tell this story, I don’t believe it. I say “No, we’re shooting two and a half weeks, in 17 days from now or something, we’re shooting business.” I was like, okay, I’m feeling like I’m gonna throw up, so I talk to the corn guys, and they said corn grows fast, it’s been raining, it has water so it’ll be good. I said “It’ll be good, Mike? You know a lot is relying on this we really are dependent on this, we’re bringing out like 200 people to work in this corn in the middle of the night. Will it be?” “It will be, it will grow.” And I didn’t believe them. I just couldn’t believe it.

So, when we went out finally in 16 days, a scout came back “It’s good, it’s good.” So when Vanya was running, we couldn’t see her, it was dark, so we had to pull more corn out to get the light in. It was absurd, the craziest thing. It was a lot of it. I mean, you can see in that drone shot that we did when we did the lift off after she sort of unconsciously finds her superpower. She blasts those guys away, and she’s left in like a crater. She’s hiding somewhere in the corn and her brother, Number Five, comes and finds her and brings her through. We used the drones to express how big her blast was. That’s all real, none of that is CG. That’s all real, acres and acres of corn. We had a secondary one right across the road on the other side in case something went wrong with our footprint — if we made a mess or if we fucked something up. We had a secondary one ready to go, too. We didn’t need it.

The farmer took the corn and sold what we didn’t use to market you know, everyone’s happy.

Nerds and Beyond: Oh, wow. I still can’t believe that corn grew to nine feet in 17 days.

Stephen: It’s so insane. I said, “Well, if I sat out there could I watch it actually grow, because it seemed that it would be visibly apparent.” You know, it climbed several feet, it was six, maybe seven feet, it was nine feet in places. I’m telling you, I have pictures of it. It was just mind boggling. That’s what it does, apparently, the world we live in now.

Season 3 of The Umbrella Academy is currently filming, and while we don’t have confirmation of any of this season’s directors, we can only hope to see Stephen Surjik on an episode or two upon its release. Coming up, you can catch his work on Netflix’s The Witcher, where he directs the opening episodes, as well as his work on Amazon’s upcoming series Reacher. Keep your eyes peeled for a historical limited series, a musical drama, and a dark comedy crime thriller he is currently developing, too!

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Kaity
Kaity started with Harry Potter in second grade and it’s been a losing battle ever since, or maybe a winning one ... She lives in New England with a small herd of cats, two dogs, three chinchillas, and one daughter. Her main fandoms are Marvel, The Umbrella Academy, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, with special emphasis on one vibranium shield-wielding Super Soldier. Contact: kaity@nerdsandbeyond.com

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