Matt Shakman is a bit of a secret weapon in his own right when faced with the challenge of directing something like WandaVision – the first Disney+ Marvel series, which reunites Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) with Vision (Paul Bettany). But, all is not what it may seem. At least for the first three episodes I saw, WandaVision sticks to its bizarre and unique concept of putting the two characters in a different sitcom each episode, the first three being inspired by The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and a sort of The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family hybrid.
What gives Shakman an interesting perspective was his time as a child actor on Just the Ten of Us, a spinoff of Growing Pains that lasted three seasons on ABC. But it’s learning those specific beats of how a situation comedy flows that aided Shakman. Specifically how lines of dialogue work while working with a laugh track and, for one episode, a studio audience. (The Dick Van Dyke Show was filmed in front of a live studio audience. Trying to recapture that energy as much as possible, that episodes, the first one in the series, was actually filmed in front of an audience that was asked to sign strict non-disclosure agreements.)
So I used to watch Just the Ten of Us religiously.
It was a Growing Pains spinoff, so of course I watched a show about Coach Lubbock. But did being a part of a sitcom help you do a show like this? Knowing the beats?
I mean, this is definitely a trip down memory lane for me. But, I have to say, having done sitcoms and understanding the rhythms of them, it’s been very helpful. But, more than that, we shot a chunk of WandaVision at the Warner Bros. ranch on Blondie Street. Which is this amazing little row of sitcom houses: Bewitched and The Partridge Family and I Dream of Jeannie. And that’s where we shot Just the Ten of Us. I used to go on my lunch break and skateboard around Blondie Street. So, it was very strange to find yourself directing the show about the history of sitcoms while standing on the street that you skateboarded on when you were a sitcom actor many years before. The whole thing just feels like it’s surrounded by the ghosts of my past.
Are you aware of the Twitter account that adds the theme to Just the Ten of Us to everything?
[Laughs] I am.
I’m hoping WandaVision is next. I hope they get the connection.
I’m sure they will. Yeah. “Doing it the best we can,” right? That was part of it, too, in re-creating these shows was the chance to collaborate with an old college friend, Bobby Lopez, and his amazing wife and partner, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. They wrote these extraordinary theme songs for each of our episodes.
Do you worry about people who are younger who might not have a working knowledge of Bewitched to get what you’re doing?
Well, I hope that there is enough of a narrative that’s happening in the moment, in the WandaVision show, that doesn’t require an appreciation or love or knowledge of these classic sitcoms. Because ultimately this is a story: It’s a romance, it’s a mystery, it’s an adventure story, it’s a comedy. About these two amazing characters in Wanda and Vision, we’ve gotten to know in these Avengers films, and they’ve had relatively little real estate there. We get a chance to take them and go much further over nine episodes. So, I’m hoping that this is a show that you can watch with your grandparents, and watch with your parents, and your kiddos, and that there’s something in it for everybody. And just as the Marvel fans will get all the Easter eggs, maybe grandpa will love the Dick Van Dyke. Who knows? But ultimately it’s a good story and well-told to drive you through.
To be fair, I think the cutoff age is somewhere around 30 with Dick Van Dyke, because of Nick at Night. So I’ll say he’s more appealing than to just grandparents.
Yeah. They should be! And if they aren’t, they should get caught up.
So what’s the meticulous differences between hitting a beat on a show that’s kind of doing Dick Van Dyke, and the one that’s doing Bewitched? As a director, what’s the difference in timing?
Getting a difference was a huge part of the job. We did a lot of work to make sure that we were being as authentic…
What’s a specific example?
Well, I’ll tell you. The big example was that Dick Van Dyke was shot in front of a live, studio audience. So there’s a performative quality to it that’s almost like theater. There’s an energy that comes from feeding off of an audience. One thing I learned from The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was amazing, was that they didn’t pre-tape the show. They didn’t do pickups for the show. They did the show once in front of the audience. And unless something went drastically wrong, which it only rarely did, that’s the episode. That’s what you watched. So you’re basically watching the one and only time that they did that episode in front of that audience. And you’re watching the audience react. Whereas, Bewitched was shot single camera, in sets, on backlots, and shot much more like a movie. So everything has been constructed in a different way. So obviously, comedy, physical comedy, it’s different in Dick Van Dyke to Bewitched. So we were trying to figure out what the sort of style differences are there. Then, because you have a camera right in front of your face in Bewitched, it’s much more of a naturalistic performance style than something that’s trying to be shared with an audience that’s a hundred feet away.
Was there ever a thought of how to replace Paul Bettany halfway through the Bewitched episode with a different actor? Like on Bewitched?
With Colin Firth maybe?
I’m just wondering if it was seriously brought up, “Hey, should we do the Dick York/Dick Sargent thing here or not?”
I worked with Dick Sargent when I was a kid actor.
Loveliest man. Yeah. Great guy. But no, I mean, why would I want to get rid of the greatest actor, Paul Bettany? Amazing. That guy is fearless. And he is the best dramatic actor and also the biggest comedic ham. I love that guy.
Have the other shows you’re recreating been announced?
I mean, I think there’s been some vague allusions to skipping through decades. I think Kevin Feige mentioned that we get to that kind of The Office, Modern Family kind of style as well.
What was your personal favorite show to redo?
Well, it’s weird, because as a television director, I actually have directed some of these reference points when we get to a certain point, which is funny. Then, as an actor, I was on a certain other chunk of reference points as well. The whole thing feels a little bit like therapy. So I guess the ones that were further away from my personal experience were the ones that I enjoyed the most: Dick Van Dyke styles. Or I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, up to The Brady Bunch. They’re very far from my personal experience as a filmmaker now. I’m a theater director and I loved the live audience. I thought it was really fun.
Wait. You actually had a live audience for one of them?
Oh, yeah. We had a live audience for the first episode. Yeah.
For Dick Van Dyke? That’s amazing.
Yeah, we did.
I’ve been at TV tapings. How does the warmup for the audience go for something like this? Do you have to explain, “Okay, here’s what we’re doing, gang. You have to give us the laughs, even if that might be a little weird.”
No. We didn’t do that. Because they didn’t do that at Dick Van Dyke. They did the show from beginning to end, like I said, so they didn’t need to juice the audience and say, “Come on, laugh like you haven’t heard it before,” the way they do now in a modern sitcom taping. So that’s the joy of it. Everyone dressed up in period clothes. You’re using period lighting and period lenses. The whole thing felt like this was something from a time capsule from back in the day. We put it on and it was fast, and it was some fun. Everyone signed an NDA. Those laughs, that energy: it’s like lightning in a bottle. It really makes it work.
This is my last question, unless the answer is no and it’s really quick then I’ll ask something else. But is there a show that you wanted to do but it just didn’t work.
Alright. Then I’m going to do another last question.
Is this a concept that could keep going beyond these nine episodes? Or is it very much its own thing that is only these none episodes?
We certainly set out to tell a completely satisfying and surprising story over these nine episodes. But this is Marvel, so the end is often not the end. So who knows what the future can hold?
‘WandaVision’ is scheduled to begin streaming via Disney+ on Jan. 15th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.