Earlier today, Hulu debuted the first three episodes of Runaways, with The O.C. and Gossip Girl alums Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage adapting Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona’s beloved Marvel comic about six kids who discover their parents are supervillains.
I reviewed the show yesterday, and noted that Schwartz and Savage take a bunch of deviations from the comic, starting with the fact that the kids don’t actually run away nearly as quickly. I spoke with the two creators at length about developing the show, what they chose to change from the comics (and the few cases where Marvel mandated a change), and more — with full spoilers for these three episodes, and references to some things from the comics that were different there — coming up just as soon as having shiny hair gives me moral authority…
Let’s start at the beginning. Had either of you read the comic before you wound up with it?
Schwartz: Yes. I read it around the time it came out, which was the same year that The O.C. premiered, and fell in love with it instantly and it was something I always loved and as you probably remember, we had a Y: The Last Man poster up in Chuck’s room as a beacon, as back signal to Brian K. Vaughan that hopefully one day our paths would cross and we couldn’t put a Runaways poster up in Chuck’s room because of course it was a Marvel property and that was a Warner Brother show. Always loved it, and then we heard that it moved out of feature development and was potentially available for television, so wanted to schedule a meeting to get in with Marvel as fast as possible but obviously couldn’t do it unless Stephanie loved it as much as I did, so I gave her the book.
Savage: And I read it, and I completely fell in love. I’m not a comic book person by nature, but I fell in love with Brian’s world and the characters that he created, the strong female characters, the diversity of the characters, the heart and humor of his writing, the great cliffhangers at the end of every issue, I was really excited at the possibility that we could actually work on it and bring it to life.
When you sat down and said, “How do we make this a TV show?,” what were those early discussions like?
Schwartz: Well, first it was, Marvel television has a policy, which is no magic. They like to take a more grounded approach to the story, so things are driven through science, or technology, even if it’s technology from the future, but nothing that feels like completely impossible. So that was a fun challenge of taking some of these dynamics or some of these powers, certainly the parent powers, and try to put that through a more grounded lens.
And I will say, we wrote it on spec to prove to Marvel how much we loved it and how much we wanted to play in this world, and we wrote a bible to go with it, and our first episode was structurally closer to the comic: we opened with the Pride meeting, with the parents and kids showing up and very early on the kids witness the sacrifice, and when we landed at Hulu, they gave us the kind of note that we would never have gotten on broadcast but we were thrilled to get, which was, can we take this giant event that happens early in your story and push that to the end of the show, and open up that real estate to be able to really delve into these characters and understand who they were and who they are before they show up at the Pride meeting? And that led to a lot of interesting conversations just about backstory and their dynamics.
So Nico is not using magic, her mother isn’t, the Staff of One is not magical?
Savage: Well, don’t tell Nico that. It definitely is activated by blood. It can read your mind, if by reading your mind, it means translating electrical impulses from your brain. But Tina tells us that it was engineered in the wizard laboratory and powered by some very special unique technology.
Schwartz: Yes. It may not be from this world.
In the comic, not only do they find out really quickly, but they go on the run right away. Here you’re moving quite a bit at a more measured pace. Was that just a necessary concession to both TV and to a certain extent to budget? Why did you decide this is the rate at which you want them to actually run away, so to speak?
Schwartz: Yeah, those were things that we were thinking about early on, which is, it’s called Runaways. In the comic, as you said, they do run away sooner, but we felt like that title had other meanings as well. The first character we meet in the show is a runaway, and there were different applications to how that title could be interpreted. We really love that first volume, those first 18 issues, and we really felt like our creative challenge was, “How do we open up the story and get to live in that world for as long as possible?” You know, the kids versus the parents. That was the most thrilling part of I think the original Runaways comic, the runaways versus the Pride. How do we open up that story and how do we open up the parent storytelling? And the fun of these kids living under the same roof as their parents trying to figure out what happened. And once they run, you can’t go back. So we really wanted to earn that moment, when that happens.
Savage: And from a budgetary standpoint, it was a giant negative that they all came home, because it meant that we had to create six home environments versus if they were all living in the Hostel, that would have just been very delightful for production.
It also makes me think back to The O.C., where you guys burned through six seasons worth of plot in 13 episodes there. Was that in the back of your head at all in terms of figuring out how to make this work?
Schwartz: It was 27 episodes and we burned through six years’ worth of stories. First 13 episodes was only three seasons’ worth of story. When we sat down with Brian early on, one of the things we talked about was how fast the comic moves, how quickly people got offed, and Brian was very honest, and said, “We thought with every issue, we were going to get canceled.” They thought this was it every week. And we too had been accused of burning through stories too quickly, so how can we correct that here? And the story really does pick up and every episode starts to move faster and faster as we go along, but one of the things we’ve learned is that we can earn that emotional state by not blowing past it too quickly.
We’ve learned Alan. God.
But the flip side of that is that with some of the other Marvel shows, the stories get decompressed too much and it becomes a story moving slowly only because it can. How do you sort of figure out, while moving at a measured pace, how to keep this story interesting, how to keep teasing out enough of the powers and the mythology and everything else?
Schwartz: Number one, we’re doing 10 episodes, so there was less episodes that we’re telling of our story in terms of where sometimes things can become decompressed. And I think ours is the opposite, which is we just keep pressing down on the accelerator faster and faster and faster, as the season moves on, once we’ve laid this groundwork and hopefully gotten you to invest.The first time I read the comic, for me it was always about these characters. And as Stephanie said, that was her first reaction too. And we love this cast, and we love these characters, and that was really the thing that we felt like could sustain us, even if a dinosaur wasn’t romping through the scenery by the end of the pilot.
Savage: And there’s just so much story in the comic that needs to be unpacked for it to really resonate with them. We’ve got six protagonists, not one. We’ve got kids that are discovering things about themselves that they weren’t aware of, we have a murder mystery — if not two — we have technology that is hard to understand or explain without going to sort of science fictional explanations. So, it feels like there’s a lot to unpack that I think we felt like it never felt slow. We’re not telling like the story of Karolina learning about her life for 10 episodes, or Nico learning how to use the staff for 10 episodes. So all of those things are threaded together.
It also gives you the opportunity to go back into a high school setting for the first time in several years for either of you. Was that nice? And how do you balance your enjoyment of the John Hughes of it with the fact that, again, it’s a superhero show?
Schwartz: Those two things don’t feel mutually exclusive. I think Brian’s comic really paved the way for us coming back and telling stories about coming of age. We really always see these shows as family dramas, I know they’re categorized as teen dramas, and sometimes the kids have more out of the stories than the parents. But they are family dramas in our eyes. It’s digging into this dynamic, and trying to give you this idea that this is not a comic where kids, at least not for a while anyway, have nicknames and certainly it’s not a story where people put on capes and cowls, but everybody in high school is wearing a mask. Everybody in high school is creating an identity for themselves. It may not be their real identity. So that also really ties in to sort of the John Hughes and the superhero thing, which is like taking off those masks as people are learning about their powers.
I want to talk about some of the additions to the mythology and the backstory. Let’s start off with the Church of Gibborim. Had you been reading up a lot on Scientology? What was it about the idea of one of the parents running their own cult that was interesting and seemed to fit in well here?
Savage: Josh, do you want to talk about how we…
Schwartz: You go for it.
Savage: Well …
Schwartz: You can get in trouble with Scientology, I don’t want to.
Savage: It is obviously, in some of its tracings, connected to Scientology, but we’re also drawing on things like the Source Family and some of the more sunny, benign, California communities of the ’60s and the ’70s and kind of driving that story through Leslie’s father David, who was the founder of the religion. But originally, when we were starting to talk about how we were going to translate some of the more heightened elements of the comic into a live-action version for TV, we were thinking about the way the Gibborim are in Brian’s comic and the idea that if you had to come up with a front for an organization that was dealing with an alien entity, what would that be? And then we were like, “What if the origin story of Scientology was actually true and there are actually aliens among us and somebody had the task of translating that into a belief system that people felt could help them in their daily lives?” And just kind of went from there. We tried to make the tenets of Gibborim to be helpful and relatable for people having to do with meditation and being present and seeing the spectrum of driving things through science, so there was a sense of connecting to light and some of it to other technology that you see in the show, so that ultimately all of those things will come together.
Schwartz: It’s a really good religion. I have since converted to Gibborim.
The other major addition is that Nico now has a deceased sister. What is that about?
Schwartz: That was about really examining the nature of the relationships of these kids. In the comic, they go to different schools, they don’t really like each other, they only see each other once a year. When we started to talk about the live-action version of that, if you’re 16 years old and you don’t want to go someplace, you don’t really have to go to your parents’ meeting. You know?
So how can we kind of just dig deeper into those relationships and into that backstory and to say they used to be friends, that there’s something emotionally at stake there, and something that’s really driving Alex to the top of the story, but that the combination of this shared tragedy, plus high school, has led to them drifting away. And that felt like ultimately it would be more satisfying to see them wrestling with and it also creates a backstory that will be explored moving forward, because obviously if you’ve just witnessed a teenage girl get sacrificed in your basement if you’re Nico, and your sister died when she was a teenager, you’re going to start to connect those two things.
You have to deal with a lot of backstory, just across these four episodes I’ve seen, there’s not only flashbacks, but there’s frequent allusions to things that happened before the series began. There’s a ton of story in the present and you’re also layering on all this stuff in the past. How did you figure out about how much you could handle of each?
Savage: I think that was just something that we were very aware of not wanting to have too much backstory that needed to be gotten out through onscreen exposition. We loved the idea of starting the episodes with flashbacks, but even as we were moving forward, we did some self editing and took out some of that information, because it just felt like we were so engaged in the present day story that some of the backstory that we talked about in the room or that we have in our heads doesn’t necessarily need to be on screen in the episode if it felt like it was better for the episode to just keep moving forward.
Schwartz: And also knowing we were going to be releasing multiple episodes at once, that it wouldn’t just be the first episode that would drop, or even the first two. But the first three gave us more freedom in exploring present-day stories, shifting perspectives, and some backstory as well.
You decided to do the parent POV episode as your very second episode. You could have maybe done that at a lot of different points. But it’s there right after we spent an hour with the kids, we’re now spending the second hour largely with the grownups. Josh, you always like to talk about how the parents are important in these kinds of shows. How important was it to get that much of the grownups up front like this?
Schwartz: Well, clearly to us it was important. And part of it is being a parent now. You know, you’re like, “Yeah, the parents! They have something to say. Let’s hang out with them!” But a big part of it also was that we wanted to build this thing that would be sustainable longterm and to understand that, we didn’t want to have any true villains in our show. And that everybody is doing things for complicated reasons. The comic has two great ideas in it, right? The first one is every teenager thinks their parents are evil, what if your parents actually were? The flip of that is, later on, this idea that every parent does something which they know their kid is going to hate them for, but they are doing it, at least in their own minds, for the kid’s own good.
And we wanted to be able to earn that and have that pay off. So for us, we always saw this as a family story, and that understanding the Pride and deepening those parent characters, and connecting them emotionally, connecting them even to Destiny, our runaway who gets sacrificed, and building her out more, would just give you more hopefully emotional stakes that will pay off down the line, versus just these villains who are only operating in the shadows and that felt like it would rob of us of just some of the more grounded emotional drama.
What can you say about this show’s relationship to any other Marvel universe show or movie? Does it take place in that universe? Are these kids aware of superheroes and alien invasions and things like that?
Schwartz: A red dot from a Marvel sniper has just landed on my forehead. So the position that we’ve taken is, the emotional reality is that these kids are discovering these things about themselves for the first time, and we felt like the most impactful version of that was not to necessarily draw attention to the idea that maybe other people have powers too. So you could read it a lot of different ways. You could read it as because they live in California, and it took place in New York, or because it didn’t take place in our world. Marvel’s position is everything is connected, but our show is trying to walk that line where the reality our kids are facing, they are facing for the first time.
Which of the powers proved most challenging to realize on screen?
Schwartz: Well, Karolina’s glow for sure, because it’s very unique. It’s unlike any other power in the Marvel universe.
Savage: Marvel is very controlling — I say that not in a negative way — over the visual representation of the powers that the characters have. For Karolina, it was a big conversation of how we were going to do this and what it was supposed to look like, because there’s no other powers where you can say, “Well, it’s just that. So just do that.” She goes transparent, or it’s energy beams or it’s particles or she turns into a rainbow, she becomes light.” So, we really referenced the comic book illustrations and particularly the coloring and the colors. To me it was significant that she was a woman, because Karolina’s look is so beautiful and so feminine and wasn’t like some x-ray kind of vision where you saw like the bones and muscle inside of her arms, or she had like arrows shooting out of her, it was something that was very soft and feminine and looked like the northern lights or a rainbow.
And then it was interesting, like we don’t even really understand how light is. Particle theory exists and wave theory exists, so we had to sort of throw down with one of those. So there were a lot of conversations that were very sort of artistic, aesthetic driven, and then also science driven. And it was really fun and our whole team came up with a great way to do it where Karolina has a tropical light suit that she wears, we did a 3D model of her body that we sometimes use, and everyone sort of working together at special effects, visual effects, the DP, and the whole electric department figuring out how to bring her to life.
How much are you able to use the dinosaur?
Schwartz: Quite a bit. Part of our approach with the dinosaur was to do it as a combination of this really beautiful puppet that was built by Legacy, this company that also did a lot of the puppetry for Jurassic Park. And it’s like a six-person operation where every eye blink and nostril flare is controlled and just this really textured and tangible creature with a CGI component when it has to jump and run. But that probably gave us the opportunity to use the dinosaur more and also gave the actors, especially Ariela who plays Gert, a real creature, a real dinosaur, to interact with. And it helped her performance, it helped bond her to Old Lace, and that really plays on screen. So we’ve been able to use the dinosaur a lot. It don’t come cheap, but it’s well worth it every time.
Savage: Yeah, and wanting to have that puppet, that was really important to us for that reason. That you know, we’re always going to have some limits on what we can do with visual effects, just because there’s a cost associated with it, so once we have the puppet, and it can be in any character-driven scene that we want. She’s number 16 on the call sheet when she shows up.
Schwartz: No, she’s renegotiating to be number 14 next year.
Some of your actors have been styled to look a lot like the people on the page, some of them much less so. In the cases where they were or they weren’t, was it an intentional thing or it’s just, “He looks a lot like Alex, so we can do that, and he doesn’t really like much like Chase, so we’re not going to bother with it as much”?
Savage: I think first and foremost, it’s finding the actor that you think can embody the essential qualities of the character. And you can’t cast people based on their hair. So for example, Rhenzy, who we think looks very much like comic book Alex, when he first presented to us, he had short hair and he wore a wig in the pilot. And since then, he grew his hair out, so in theory, that’s his actual hair. But we’re grateful that we cast Rhenzy, who was the perfect embodiment of Alex versus some kid who came in who had a great afro but he wasn’t right for the part. And then with Chase, we felt like Gregg just had all the qualities that we wanted Chase to have, and Chase’s hair, in our minds, was not as iconic as Alex’s hair and he could be free to show his natural hair. Molly’s pink hat, Karolina’s braid, Gert, purple hair obviously, Alex’s hair, we tried to find what felt like sort of the iconic thing about each character and incorporate that into how we were building them on screen.
Although Molly is obviously the most changed just because she’s older, even if she’s not as old as the other kids. Why did you want her to be close to their age?
Savage: Well, partly it’s just for storytelling, for her to be at the same school that they go to, and then as the story moves along, that we were putting her in situations where it felt like it would be difficult to incorporate an 11-year-old into that story. But we still wanted to have that age gap. Allegra is 14. We wanted someone who was the age that she was playing so that you did feel that kind of age gap between her and the other characters.
Schwartz: Her parents are not in the show, she’s Gert’s stepsister, and obviously there was a practical reason for that on the one hand of we already had 16 series regulars. But also, it creates again, another interesting mystery, a backstory that could be investigated moving forward and here’s Molly who’s going through all these changes with her body and discovering these things about herself, and the first person you’d want to ask about that is your parents. Are they like that? And so not being able to have those people to ask those questions isolates her and really reinforces her relationship with Gert, because that is her family now.
How much do you feel both teenagers and teenage dramas have changed in the last decade since you guys were first doing O.C., and how much of the difference in what you’re doing here is generationally and technologically versus the fact that you’re doing a show about kids with powers?
Schwartz: Well obviously a lot of the lingo has changed. I think on The O.C. they use terms like “Daddio” and “tallyho.” But some of the language has changed, technology has changed, the pervasiveness of technology has changed, and even since Gossip Girl, it’s become even more ubiquitous. But the truths are universal and they predate any of the shows we do, they go back to all coming of age stories that you can trace back, and the themes that Brian’s comic was exploring 15 years ago are still true today. Kids today still grapple with identity, with fitting in, with understanding their place in the world, with questioning authority, with the relationship with their parents, first loves, friendship, heartbreak, all that stuff is timeless and universal.
When you’ve been going through the comic and figuring out stories to adapt, are there any that you’ve come across thus far that the kids having a smartphone would solve that problem right away and you had to do something else?
Schwartz: There’s a scene in episode four where the kids all group Skype each other, and back in the days of The O.C. they would have all had to show up at somebody’s house. We had that conversation. And obviously, technology is a big part of the show and the Minorus work in technology and Victor Stein is a sort of Elon Musk innovator and inventor, but in terms of stories from the comic that wouldn’t have worked with a cellphone… it is a cellphone, you could argue, that sets off the whole story, which is Molly taking that picture.
Savage: I don’t want to give too much away as a spoiler, but I will say that something happens in the future, or something may happen in the future that takes out a lot of their technology and forces them back into a 2002, 2003 world.