TV

‘Umbrella Academy’ Showrunner Steve Blackman On Blending Comic Inspiration With Original Storytelling

The Umbrella Academy is a show that’s constantly reinventing itself. It’s a necessity, that practice of metamorphosis. When every season ends with an apocalyptic event that scatters your main characters to the four corners of the timeline, you’ve got to get creative.

In season three, streaming now on Netflix, showrunner Steve Blackman does that by introducing an entirely new squad of supernaturally powered weirdos, The Sparrow Academy. While the Umbrella crew has been thwarting presidential assassinations, tangling with The Commission, and trying to make it out of the ’60s without destroying the world (again), these guys have basically become The Avengers of their time. They pose the first real threat the Hargreeves clan has faced that didn’t come from within and Blackman uses them this season to test, push, and eventually evolve the family dynamics that are at the core of his story.

Of course, he does that while also pulling inspiration from the comics written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, injecting callbacks and cleverly hidden Easter eggs he’s hoping fans will eventually find. But this season, perhaps more than any other, feels like a genre vehicle he’s firmly behind the wheel of, one that rides the line between respectful adaptation and non-canon originality in a way other shows will likely be envious of.

UPROXX chatted with Blackman about being inspired by — but not beholden to — the show’s comic book origins, working with Elliot Page to transition his character on screen, and how The Umbrella Academy has influenced the trajectory of superhero shows.

There’s so much story to tell with these comics and with these characters. When you sat down to write this season, where did you start?

I’m very close with Gerard [Way] and Gabriel [Ba]. They’re very nice guys and very generous and have understood that there are two different mediums here. The TV show does not have to be the graphic novel. And in fact, they’re becoming a bit symbiotic, where some of the things we do now are influencing where Gerard and Gabriel are going. But as a starting point, I want to be respectful of the source material. I look it over, and Gerard always tells me where he thinks he’s going. He’s writing the next volume. It’s not done. He’s thought about the one after that. Sometimes it’s just too hard to translate into TV. There are elements of the last graphic novel that I loved but we couldn’t have afforded to do them.

So I try to, whenever I can, pay homage or find inspiration in the source material. And I know, of course, there’s the purist graphic novel people who say it should be exact. But I think what we’ve done over the years has brought a big audience in and converted a lot of the graphic novel fans who’ve accepted this as its own sort of version of Umbrella Academy. Plus, people who have never even heard of the graphic novel have now come together. But I’m very respectful of the guys. I always want them to feel that they have a say and a voice in some of the ideas that I do that are just very different than what they’ve done to the graphic novel.

You’re basically recreating the starting premise of season one by introducing this new family, The Sparrows.

Yeah. This is how I thought about it: The Umbrella Academy was a family that never knew how to be superheroes, and the Sparrows are superheroes that never knew how to be a family. So we get to see a little bit of the ‘What if?’ The Umbrellas broke up at around 16 years old. They blew apart, had lives for many years and they only came back for the dad’s funeral. The Sparrows have stayed together a very long time and they’re not in a very good place, even though they’ve perfected the art of being superheroes. They have a lot of similarities. They’re all broken and really, they’re quite relatable in some ways. I don’t think they see that initially [but] they come to know that better later on.

Are the Sparrows just an antagonistic plot device to push the Umbrellas forward or will the two groups maybe work together by the end of this?

I think the latter. Obviously from a storytelling point of view, it forces our family to either decide to work together or not. There are seven Sparrows. If the odds become really stacked against them and they don’t work together, then it can become one or two of them. So working together is in their survival favor. But I also think they’re not all bad — the Sparrows. I think they’ve also suffered similar traumas. There was a lot of story to service this year and I have to concentrate more on our Umbrellas than the Sparrows. If I had more time and more episodes, I think we could have delved a little deeper into more layers of the Sparrows.

Speaking of character growth, the show did something really beautiful this season by letting Vanya’s character grow, eventually becoming Viktor after Elliot Page transitioned. What went into crafting that storyline?

The scripts were finished when Elliot called me and talked about his transition. And to be honest with you, I didn’t know a lot. So I called GLAAD and talked to a guy named Nick Adams there. And I also connected with a trans writer named Thomas Page McBee who was sort of instrumental in guiding me. And of course, Elliot was part of that process. It was important to not try to pretend as a cis man that I understood it the way [Elliot and Thomas did]. And I didn’t understand it. I’m still learning about it by the way, through Elliot. It was so important for me that the story feel authentic and real. At the same time, we didn’t want it to take over the show. We didn’t want to make it the story.

Right.

So the challenge for me as showrunner was, how do I write that in and not let it overtake everything? Ultimately talking to Elliot and Thomas, we concluded that families can accept people. And this family, they accept differences. So we wrote a story about acceptance and we wanted to put a pro-trans message out in the world. There’s a lot of negativity towards trans kids in the south right now. So it’s very important to tell a message about acceptance.

What was it like shooting that day?

There were tears on set. It was a really beautiful moment because we all love Elliot. We’ve been with Elliot for five years now and we’ve seen some struggles. I think, and this is just my opinion, I’m not quoting Elliot here, but after Elliot got the haircut and Vanya became Victor, I just felt there was a weight off the shoulders of even the character of Victor, the way he walked around, the way he interacted. And it sort of was just a really beautiful moment for the cast and crew. It’s one of the most touching. I get a little verklempt thinking about it.

The show manages to make every season look and feel unique, no matter the time period. Did you pull any inspiration from other works of film or TV when building the sets this year?

Absolutely, we do. I have a lot of ideas that I go to my production designer Carrie Myron say, ‘This is sort of what I want the hotel to look like,’ and he’ll start sketching. But if you are a big fan and you like Easter eggs, there are a lot of homages to Wes Anderson. There’s definitely some Kubrick in there. I won’t give away which Kubrick film, but you probably can get a sense of it. There’s Barton Fink in it this year, and we’ll tell you how that fits in. That’s the Coen brothers. We love sort of getting inspired by our favorite filmmakers and trying to put those elements in the set and hide them in places. And by the way, the fans find everything. I’m like, ‘There’s no way they’re going to catch that.’

And then they’ve figured it out after a weekend of binge-watching.

A couple are really hidden this year. So let’s see if they get them all by Monday.

Everyone’s going to be enjoying season three, but are you already thinking ahead to what comes next?

Gerard is at the end of the comics now. I think he’s writing the next volume. So we’re at a place that’s a little more precarious, but I’ve already planned season four. I pitched it to Netflix. It’s not picked up yet, but I know what season four is. I know where it begins and ends. And if we get a pickup, I will then sit down with Gerard and say, ‘How does that fit with where you’re going?’ And that’s where the process begins for us. But I have a great idea with season four.

Comic book stories on TV and film seem to be getting weirder, a bit more creative. Do you think you guys had any kind of influence on that?

I would like to think we did. Believe it or not, it is almost five years ago now when we started. There was great Marvel stuff and great DC stuff. The Boys was coming on the air. But I still think we’re something different. To me, we’re a dysfunctional family show first. I don’t see this as a superhero show. This is the Wes Anderson Royal Tenenbaum family [of superheroes]. That’s our difference.

But I do now see that people are also being inspired by what we’ve done. You’re seeing a lot more subversive superheroes with comedy and some of them are very good. Maybe we weren’t the first, but we definitely had an influence on this type of [storytelling], the way we subverted this genre, and where it’s going to go in the future. And there are a lot of places to go.

Season 3 of The Umbrella Academy is streaming now on Netflix.

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