Steven S. DeKnight has worked on some celebrated TV programs over his career. He's written for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and held different producer titles for “Angel,” “Dollhouse” and both “Spartacus” incarnations. Now, he's earning critical acclaim for his contributions to “Marvel's Daredevil” which debuted on Netflix last week.
Thanks to show creator Drew Goddard and DeKnight, this version of the classic hero is a far cry from the tepidly received 2003 movie that starred Ben Affleck as the Man Without Fear. Netflix's “Daredevil” is the darkest, bloodiest and most grounded Marvel Studios creation yet. And yet, as with most great “Daredevil” stories it features an inevitable showdown between Matt Murdock in his alter ego as Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Wilson Fisk a.k.a. The Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio) as they both fight to transform a pretty upscale neighborhood of Manhattan (O.K., it's still pretty un-gentrified because of all that destruction in “The Avengers,” but still!).
Last week DeKnight took a few moments to talk to HitFix about how he came on board to shepherd the show after Goddard's departure for potentially greener pastures (Sony Pictures' “The Sinister Six”), D'Onofrio's previously unknown connection to the material, whether 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' or 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' affected the story whatsoever and, thankfully, answers a tough question about a certain minority group missing from Hell's Kitchen.
HitFix: Congratulations by the way. Really loved the first five episodes.
Steven S. DeKnight: Oh, thank you.
Someone was mentioning earlier toddy that the trailers do not do it justice.
Well, that”s fantastic. We just put so much love into this. One of the great things about working on this is, myself, Drew Goddard, Jeph Loeb, Joe Quesada and everybody, we all grew up reading comics and reading 'Daredevil' and it's not just a job for us. We love this stuff.
Writers can go into a pitch meeting like and push for more realism, but this is almost shockingly gritty.
Very much so. You know my hat”s off to Drew Goddard and Jeph Loeb who, you know, Jeph Loeb sold this package to Netflix and then brought in Drew Goddard to spearhead it. I was working on…
I”d finished 'Spartacus.' I believe I was wrapping up 'Incursion,' the science fiction show I was working for and I was still under a deal for one more year to develop so I was unavailable. But Drew called me up and said, 'Hey, I”m doing 'Daredevil.' Do you want to talk about maybe doing it together?' And I sat down with him and I said, 'This is fantastic. I”m under contract. I can”t. But, oh god, they”ve got the perfect guy to do it.' Because Drew and I worked together on 'Buffy' and on 'Angel' and we actually wrote scripts together on 'Angel.' So, I said, 'Oh man, no, I can”t wait to see this show. It”s gonna be awesome.' And then, about a year later I was wrapping up my deal for Starz and I got a call from my agent saying Drew has to leave to fulfill an obligation to write and direct 'The Sinister Six' movie for Sony. 'They want to talk to you about coming in.' And I had been working – I don”t know – the last six years nonstop straight so I was like, 'I really want to take a break. But all right. I”ll read the first two scripts and go on and see what they have to say.' So, I read the first two scripts and I said, 'Damn, this is good.' And then I went in and heard the broad stroke idea for the rest of the season. It”s like, 'Oh shit, I”ve got to take this job. This is awesome.' They already wanted it to be in a more grounded world and then I came in and pushed it even further into the ground to make sure that we got that gritty realism as much as we could.
Having watched the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Studios on television it's hard to believe 'Daredevil' is from the same company. It's even more amazing that Disney let one of their Marvel creations get this dark. Did you ever hear any comments from the corporate brass?
Not at all. Honestly, I never heard a peep out of Disney. They let us do our own thing.
I dealt majorly with Marvel and Netflix and definitely Netflix had no problem with any of the content. When I came in I thought, 'Well, let”s just push this a little bit further and see how far I can go.' It was right around episode four where I got to go, 'Yeah, too far. Which I absolutely agreed with.' I always say, you know, this is more I think technically it”s PG15. It”s not quite R.
We kiss up to R but not.
Wait, it wouldn't be R? Really with the…
Even in the movies, honestly, I don”t know if this would get an R. It might. For me R-rated violence is 'The Walking Dead,' a show that I just could not love more. That”s R-rated violence. 'Spartacus?' R-rated and NC-17. But I never wanted to push ['Daredevil'] that far because I didn”t feel like the material really warrants going [there]. If I were doing 'The Punisher' I would be in a constant fight to push it into R-rated territory. But for this show it felt like it was violent enough. And, it was violent enough, sexy enough, the cursing is just right. I didn”t want to go too far with it because it just wouldn”t feel like the essence of the comic.
One of the things I really love about the show is how you flip the audience's expectations. For example, you don't tell a complete origin story right away.
Was that Drew”s pitch for the show or was that something you guys as you were fleshing out in the rest of the scripts decided to make part of the series?
It was a little of both. I thought Drew had a great take on how to roll out the origin story more over two episodes to get just enough about the background and not spend the first episode with how he became to be this guy, which I thought was great. When I came on I pushed things back even a little bit more. In the original first episode at the end of that you actually meet Wilson Fisk in the art gallery and one of my first comments was, 'Listen, this is such a great scene, but I think it”ll have more impact if you just talk about Fisk and hear his voice and don”t see him until the end of episode three.' The great thing about Netflix is you can do that. If this were network television it”s like not only do we need to see Fisk at the end, we need to see him in the first ten minutes. This way we could roll out the story and build expectation and drama.
Let's focus on Kingpin for a moment since you brought him up. He's one of my favorite characters on the show because I feel the writers have come up with a fresh justification of why he is the way he is. He has so much self-hate and I can't remember ever seeing Wilson Fisk portrayed that way in the comics. Was that something that Drew or one of the other writers came up? Was it's Vincent's idea?
You know it was a combination of all the above. As you get deeper into the first season you find out why he”s like the way he is and it”s a beautiful emotional journey. I always like to take the “villain” and, for me, the most important thing is not to look at them as villains and heroes. Actually, Ben Urich has a line coming up where [he says] 'There are no heroes and villains, just people with different agendas.' And that”s the way I always approach it. We really wanted to take the opportunity to make Wilson Fisk a completely rounded person. And another great thing about this season is that he”s the guy who has the love story, not the hero. You know the hero has…
Maybe one. Maybe.
Maybe, but the true love story is on the Wilson Fisk side. And, then of course, we were just so fortunate to get Vincent to do it. When I first signed on to this project one of the first things I started doing was sending Jeph Loeb emails with pictures of Vincent that I”d pulled off the Internet.
Yes. I found this great picture of him with a shaved head and a Topper mustache and I said 'Imagine this without the mustache.' And, of course, the response I got was, 'Love Vincent. He”d be perfect. No way we”ll ever get him. Do you know what his rate is now because of 'Law & Order'? It”s impossible, you know. It”s never gonna happen.'
How did you guys convince him to do it?
Our casting director, Laray Mayfield, knew him from other projects and knew him socially. [It turns out] he was a 'Daredevil' fan and knew Wilson Fisk and loved the idea of playing an iconic character like that. He got on the phone with us and we had a long conversation about the character and he was really into it. When [the call ended] Jeph Loeb and I looked at each other like, 'Did that just happen? Did we just talk to Vincent D”Onofrio?' And he signed on. I always say I don”t think there”s another human being on the planet that could play that role and encapsulate what he is in the comics physically and just have such a depth of what he brings to the screen with his acting ability.
One of the interesting parts of 'Daredevil' is how it ties into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And right around your release you have 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' hitting theaters and 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D' has at least six more weeks after you guys come out. I know you guys shot through December and you had your own plan, but will people get to the end and go oh, 'This is tied into the Marvel world more than I thought it was?'
We are the dark corner of the Marvel Universe. We exist in the same world, but we did not have any of the onus of having to tie into the movies or other TV shows which is great. We didn”t have that burden to have to do that. 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,' of course, had to because it”s a direct spinoff. And 'Agent Carter' had to because it”s a direct spinoff. We had none of that burden on us. All we had to do was make a nod that we exist in the same universe but this is our little street level version. So, we don”t have to worry about that at this point. Who knows later on as things roll, but we didn”t have to worry [about whether our story lines up] with 'Age of Ultron.'
Or any other stuff going on.
Or anything else. Yeah.
I've got one last question which isn't that fun to ask. I want to preface that I liked the justification of why Hell's Kitchen needs Daredevil, because, frankly, it's pretty nice these days…
Oh yeah. It”s beautiful.
I thought you did a wonderful explanation of like why and it makes so much sense. But I”ve just got to say because you have at least in the first five episodes you have almost every minority in New York represented, but there”s not one gay character. I don”t know if you know this, but I'm prettu sure there are more gay bars in Hell”s Kitchen now than any other part of New York City.
Oh brother, I”m with you.
Okay, so will we get anything by the end or do we have to wait for the next sort of like series?
Yeah, often change comes slowly, you know. It”s baby steps. You know Marvel is wonderfully inclusive, but you have to get there. You know I had a lot more freedom obviously with 'Spartacus' and I would like nothing more than to introduce more gay, lesbian and transgender characters. It”s just fitting it into that big model I think is going to be a slightly slow process. I totally agree.*
*DeKnight championed a significant amount of gay characters and storylines on 'Spartacus.'
What do you think of 'Daredevil'? Share your thoughts below.
“Daredevil” is now available on Netflix.