Jac Schaeffer: ‘WandaVision’

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‘WandaVision’ Executive Producer, Jac Schaeffer. Photo by Peter Yang.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Jac Schaeffer, head writer and executive producer of the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” Schaeffer’s other works include “The Hustle” and “Timer.” Schaeffer says at first, she was hesitant about sitcoms being the medium through which these Marvel Studios stories were told, but she soon realized the impact these conventional programs could have on audiences. Schaeffer also says her storytelling, which she considers more instinctive rather than sticking to a conventional structure, is greatly inspired by magical realism.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. It's a thrilling thing to be talking to somebody who, at this point, is probably in the center of pop culture, the woman who helped to bring “WandaVision,” the newest iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to us all on Disney+.  I'm talking to the show's executive producer, Jac Schaeffer. These things that you've done are really about: where does the future begin for people? I mean, if you so mired in the past, when does your future start?

Jac Scheaffer: I have two small children at home, and I look at them, and sometimes I'm tempted with the thought of: what are they gonna look like when they grow up? And then I think: there's no finish line. They're gonna look the way they look when they're 12, and then they're gonna look the way they look when they're 36 and, god willing, 78. We're all constantly evolving, and I think it's just as exciting to look forward as it is to look back. It's all the different versions of ourselves. 

KCRW: Well, it's the difference between conceptually what you want versus the reality of what's happening around you. Being lost, and conceptually what you think you should have.

Schaeffer: Absolutely, I think that's true. And I think, with “WandaVision” in the penultimate episode, when she has to go back and assemble the pieces of herself, it's not just looking in the mirror of this current moment and what she's doing, it's looking at the totality of herself. That's a very deconstructed way to look at identity, but I'm always very interested in stories that physicalize the internal journey. I mean, that's so much of what cinema is, and I love a metaphor. I love an allegory. I find it difficult to tell straight stories and linear stories and stories that don't have a magical realist element or a supernatural element.

KCRW: I'm so glad you brought up magical realism because there's something about the work that seems not quite American. Obviously with “WandaVision,” there's a hint of that but also there's a feeling that these things are grounded in some other land.

Schaeffer: In high school I discovered magical realism. I wrote this long paper on Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits," where there's a character who has green hair, and I was like, you can do this? It doesn't have to be wholly fantastical, and it doesn't have to be entirely plain Jane. It's possible to just like have characters and things walking through the narrative that feel at once untethered and tethered. And I was dazzled by that.

KCRW: Sitcoms at their heart are about anxiety and how people deal with it and to laugh at that, but to sort of say that it's a horrific thing and funny at the same time really gives you a chance to gild the lily there. 

Schaeffer: Yeah, the sitcom piece of it, which was Kevin Feige's idea, was to blend the sitcoms with “WandaVision.” It just was so fertile to me, because sitcoms are so seemingly innocuous, but they speak volumes about who we are and who we want to be and these elemental truths about family and connection and love and parenthood. It seems like this almost pedestrian way into a show that has very large emotional stakes and themes.

We thought a lot about young Wanda Maximoff, as a child, living in a war torn country, connecting to this content that was so beautiful and gleaming and simple and these people who had seemingly had no worries in the world, and this is how she learned English, and this is how family and safety was modeled for her. I've been so pleased with some of the think pieces that I've seen, saying that there's an immigrant story here.

KCRW: I find myself thinking about people from Herman Melville to Billy Wilder, who basically learned about storytelling through storytelling they got from this country.

Schaeffer: I've always been very [interested in]: how do you learn story and how does it seep into your bones? I've always been very insecure as a creator about the fact that I have a hard time holding on to the language of screenplay fundamentals. I went to film school; I should know these things; I should be able to speak that language. And I can, to some degree, but for me, it usually comes down to instinct, and to: what do I feel in my cells is the thing that I need next? Do I need a rest? Do I want to be surprised? Do I want to be terrified? Do I need to laugh here? What's the rhythm? What's the ebb and flow? And I think sitcoms are so instructive in that way, and you feel so secure in the hands of a sitcom. But I also felt there were examples of sitcoms when I was a kid where there was like, a very special episode or something that sort of shattered that safety. And I remember those moments, those episodes so well. They would give me a sick feeling in my stomach.

KCRW: Because you knew tragedy was gonna happen to Punky Brewster. It was always about somebody coming in, leaving havoc and then disappearing, but then that episode never exists again, because those shows are about discontinuity.

Schaeffer: Absolutely. Punky's friend Sherry got locked in that refrigerator just the one time and then we don't go back to that horrifying, traumatizing moment, Carol Seaver's boyfriend dies; we never see him again. But, in the moment, Jesse Spano's got a drug addiction just for the one episode, that all stayed with me. And for this show, that was a constant conversation in the writers room of: that's the sensation we're hunting in this, step-out moments of the show. How do we lull the audience and then shatter it because we want the happily ever after? But that's the opposite of what the story is.

KCRW: There is that idea of what a TV show was versus what TV shows became, which is also this kind of evolution of what Marvel Comics was, taking what was a two dimensional world and adding an emotional undercurrent to them.

Schaeffer: Early in my career, I really felt that I wanted to do original work that I was only qualified to make my own weird ideas happen. And increasingly, I learned that I could work with IP; I could work with underlying material, but it was Marvel where I understood that stories are always evolving. Something starts in a person's brain that was incepted there because of their lives and the influences on them and the content that they've consumed. And then they create a comic and then that turns into a TV show or a movie. And now “WandaVision” is out in the world, and people are making fan art, and it's going to spin off into other Marvel stories. And I see a lot of beauty in the chain of storytelling and the constant evolution. It feels like right now we're at this really peak moment of fandom, that I love and embrace. 

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

KCRW: You're actually writing things that the characters are aware of the left turns, but still refusing to engage with the idea they have more control of their destinies than they want to give themselves credit for.

Schaeffer: With Wanda, her denial of what she's doing, which obviously is about her denial of her own grief, that her choices to make everything small that she's lived in this space of everything being enormous and huge stakes stakes of the universe and that she wants to retreat into a home, I found that really beautiful and unexpected. And her denial of the enormity of the outside world felt relatable to me, that self isolating of it.

KCRW: There is this idea of the power of a woman's narrative, which is kind of overlooked. There are lines in "The Hustle" about basically a woman being able to create a narrative inside the larger world because women aren't given credit, and so much of this, too, is about Wanda's awakening. And that's a big part of "Timer," this idea of narrative and a woman's power over it and how often that's disregarded. And I just wonder if this is really a fun area for you to play with.

Schaeffer: Absolutely. I mean, it's my POV. So these are the stories I want to tell. This is what I gravitate toward. It's also my way of honoring all of the women in my life and the sacred relationships that I have. This issue of power, though, is a new one for me. And I think in my career, cultivating the moments to step into my own power was tricky.  

When I signed on for "WandaVision," I was in for the genre mash up of it, and the sitcoms and the world building and the puzzle box and the emotion and a woman's internal life and all of these other female characters and their stories and their perspectives. Yes, yes, yes, yes. But it was down the line that I realized how much I connected with that. This was my first job running a room. I was nervous about it. But in a lot of ways, I've never felt more myself in doing this job and the sort of relief and satisfaction in stepping into the role. It's been kind of euphoric, and Wanda ultimately is unapologetic about her seizing the mantle. 

KCRW: I think there is real power to this kind of storytelling, because it's the kind of thing that we don't see when a woman has to understand that there is power in being in touch with what's right in front of her.

Schaeffer: Absolutely. I agree with that. I think that that's totally true. The discovery of: I have what I've needed all along inside, I think, for all humans, not just women, is a story that I could tell over and over again, I believe it, but I often have to relearn it myself. 

KCRW: We hear in Paul Bettany's accent and locution, but also in Wanda, it's an immigrant story, for two people. Both of them are really not of this country, in one way or another. 

Schaeffer: And I think that's a lot of the foundation of their connection, is that they are such outsiders in such big ways. There's no one like them, like either one of them. Vision is made of Vibranium. He's the only synthezoid. She is the only Scarlet Witch. She is arguably the most powerful, like huge, huge, huge, huge, huge, but their desires are so small and so simple, both of them, which is one of the things that I find very heartbreaking about them both.

KCRW: I think what was done so well here is this thing of being torn between two worlds of being both synthetic and human and where one's heart is or can a synthetic creation have a soul. It's done in the show in a way that's not quite so on the nose, but in Bettany's performance, he seems to be both literally and metaphorically feeling his way around.

Schaeffer: Yeah, it's funny that you mentioned a soul because in the script, for the finale action lines in the dialogue lines to distinguish between White Vision and the Vision that we've come to know inside of the hex, we referred to him as Soul Vision, because that was our shorthand for who he is. He's the one with the soul. In the first few episodes, he's not questioning himself, he's questioning the world. And then he's questioning his wife. So the preoccupation isn't: what am I for the first half of the series. It's: what's going on? I think he feels very centered in who he is. I think there's no question he's the father to these children, and I think that's how Paul performed it and why it feels so accessible.

KCRW: There is the idea of the presentational versus the actual, and you've written these characters who in fact, the premise is about presentation versus what is underneath. 

Schaeffer: When I first approached this, I did have this nagging concern or anxiety that we wouldn't be able to get the audience to care. I was worried that the gimmick of the sitcoms would keep the audience at arm's length and that sitcoms in general, you don't always hook in on a deep level. There's sort of a notion that it's like fast food or it's a confection. But as we got into it, I realized that notion about sitcoms is false; you can care extremely deeply about sitcoms and the characters on sitcoms. And it ended up being sort of the opposite, that seeing them be so happy in this space, I think hooked the audience in immediately. So Wanda is going for a presentation. She's going for the look of everything being perfect, but at the beginning of the show, she's so loving this moment of pause and this moment of play acting and I think that that joy is just  erupting from her. 

Paul Bettany as Vision and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios' WANDAVISION exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

KCRW: Especially with the sitcoms of the 60s but even the 70s and 80s, there's a presentational aspect where something is happening that's basically a theater piece where the boss is coming over dinner or we're doing this show. So it's presentational and the anxiety of the characters to get it right. But the anxiety of the character is here to fit in, and you talk about Elizabeth Olsen's performance; she can go from playing the comedy to us seeing a little bit of a terror in her eyes of being exposed, which is really, as we follow the show to its end, is the idea of basically her exposing reality to herself. 

Schaeffer: Absolutely. The moment I think you might be referring to is in Episode Two, when they're rehearsing the magic act at the top. She gets close to him and says, "You know, I want us to fit in." You're absolutely right; in her eyes is a real terror, it's a genuine anxiety. And yes, it is about all the layers, it's about the top layer of fitting in with the ladies and the neighborhood watch in Westview, but it's much more about being exposed as the orchestrator of the Westview anomaly. And then beyond that, her exposure in the world as a freak and as someone who's different and perhaps a monster.

In the comics, there's a long history of xenophobia tied to Wanda and  Vision. And obviously, yes, the whole mutants mythology is about the other, but then on the superficial level, the idea that in a sitcom, a very common trope is the “we want to fit in” episode. The queen bee, mean girl that you got to get on the right side of, that's like bargain basement sitcom storytelling. What we tried to do is use those tropes to our advantage and to try and maximize the number of layers we could get out of it.



Rebecca Mooney