How 'WandaVision' Director Matt Shakman Went From Starring in Sitcoms to Helming a Superhero Sitcom Love Letter [Interview]

Matt Shakman knows his sitcom history. No really, he does. The director of WandaVision, the upcoming Marvel Disney+ series that pays homage to the past five decades of classic American situation comedies, has been on the other side of the camera in numerous shows, acting in the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us, and appearing in shows like The Facts of Life, Highway to Heaven, Diff’rent Strokes, and more.

“When I was a kid I like to hang out with the camera operators and the director and be in the control room and see them calling shots,” Shakman told /Film in an interview ahead of the Disney+ debut of WandaVision. “And so I always thought about maybe moving into directing, so it was fun to finally find myself, you know, behind the camera on a multi-cam sitcom.”

It felt serendipitous when Marvel approached him to take on WandaVision, even though his directing background was almost on the polar opposite of sitcoms, with episodes of Game of ThronesMad Men, and Succession under his belt. But because of this wide resume, Shakman “got to use every tool in my toolkit,” he said.

Read our full interview with Shakman below.

Your background acting in sitcoms has been brought up, as an actor in sitcoms like Facts of Life, Diff’rent Strokes, etc. Did it feel serendipitous when you were approached by Marvel to direct a sitcom inspired comic book show?

It really did, yeah. It was a trip down memory lane, especially because we shot some of the stuff for WandaVision on the actual lot where I shot this show Just the Ten of Us for three years, and I would skateboard down Blondie Street, which is the name of this little sitcom street that have at the Warner Brothers Ranch, where the Partridge Family houses, the Bewitched house [was]. And I remember doing that when I was 11, 12 years old. So strange to be back directing this Marvel show on that very same street, years, years later.

Was it strange being on the other side of the camera during that live audience tapings of WandaVision, because that must have been a bit of a difference for you?

You know, when I was a kid I like to hang out with the camera operators and the director and be in the control room and see them calling shots. And so I always thought about maybe moving into directing, so it was fun to finally find myself, you know, behind the camera on a multi-cam sitcom. I had not done those as a director, so that was a lot of fun.

So, you and Jac Shaeffer took the cast to sitcom school ahead of WandaVision. While you were going through this intensive homework, which classic sitcom stuck out to you the most in your research for the show?

We did sitcom boot camp with the actors for a couple of weeks before we started shooting, where we got together and watch lots of television reference and studied how people moved and spoke in different areas, just so we could try to match the tone and the style of each thing. But yes, we looked at everything. It was the best kind of homework, to go watch old episodes of amazing television shows like Dick Van Dyke, Bewitched, I Love Lucy, and I Dream of Jeannie. Especially I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched because they are about a magical person trying to hide their abilities from their suburban neighbors, and that was very much what we were trying to do.

Obviously you studied up on not only the visual style of classic sitcoms but their narrative and comedic beats. Did you have to change the way that you directed or approached a scene based on these classic sitcom styles? Like, did you have to kind of rethink the way you thought of a scene in your head?

Definitely I felt like I was changing my approach every single day on WandaVision, because no day was like another. We might be in the ’50s, and then the ’70s, and then some big Marvel action set piece. And that was the joy of the show, and I think it was the same joy for the actors as well, that no day was really like another. And, you know, whether [they’re in the] ’50s with the way that they move and sounded, versus what they’re like in their MCU world persona. So we had a lot of fun adapting to it. And yeah, I mean sometimes when you’re organizing a live taping of a sitcom, which is what we did for Episode 1 of the show, versus doing green screen work with people on wires or whatever, they are very, very different, they’re completely different skill sets. But it felt like, you know, drawing on my experience as a sitcom actor [and] joining them with my experience as a theater director made that live taping work. And then drawing on my work in Game of Thrones, that kind of thing, to understand how to corral some of these larger set pieces. So it was great, I got to use every tool in my toolkit.

Was there ever a point where you had to draw the line at slavishly paying homage to classic sitcoms in order to better or more properly service the story?

We were never slavishly recreating any one particular show, we studied lots of different things, but ultimately this is WandaVision, this is our show, and we wanted it to be informed by the style of each era. But we wanted, first and foremost, to be telling our story, which is this wonderful little mystery meets love story, meets thrilling sort of adventure, and that was the governing thing. And then the thing that kind of pulls everything together and that holds it together is this love story between Wanda and Vision.

The show noticeably switches up visual styles whenever something goes wrong in Wanda’s illusion. You referenced in the press conference that the change-up draws inspiration from The Twilight Zone. But were there any like specific techniques that you use to alert the viewer to this change, either by cinematography or other visual references?

Definitely. You know there are some changes that happen in, in the first episode as well as the second episode that you’re referencing, where we kind of move into a Twilight Zone territory, and we do a lot of work with sound design, we do a lot of work with lenses and the lighting to change the mood, and to change the field. Especially, it’s very dramatic when you’re moving from a multi-camera sitcom, that’s being done… almost like a theater show and the shots are all from just outside the set, to when you go inside and all of a sudden you’re in the sort of emotional experience of the people that has a dramatic impact on. And obviously, a fourth wall appears as well, and now you’re seeing the room in the way you never would have seen it if it was just a multi-camera setup.

I’m curious, for the live audience that you use in the first episode, were they present for those kind of visual stylistic changes or is that something that you shot, very much in a traditional sort of drama manner?

We shot the entire show in front of the live studio audience and then we also went back later and did additional shooting for those departure moments.

So one of the things that really stuck out to me when watching these three episodes was how talented of a comedian Paul Bettany was. He talked about channeling Dick Van Dyke but he turned out to have a surprising talent for physical comedy and classic sitcom style timing of what we’ve seen so far. Did you discover any hidden talents or hidden skills like that for the cast as with Bettany, as you went into production for the show?

I’ve been fans of all of these actors for years. I’ve known Kathryn Hahn for a long time, I’ve worked with Teyonah Parris before this before, but I’ve been a fan of their work, and I knew they were great. I knew they could do all sorts of different things. And Paul and [Elizabeth Olsen] are both coming from the theater, and in theater you’re asked to do lots of different things, but I was blown away by how good they both were with comedy. And they’re fearless, and they’re brave, and that’s so much fun to watch they’re willing to take crazy risks and make fools of themselves in the best way. But yeah, it was a huge discovery when we started rehearsing and then shooting, just how great they really are at physical comedy.

Are there any Easter eggs or references to other sitcoms or even other pieces of pop culture that are hidden throughout the show, other than the obvious inspirations that we see like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, I Love Lucy etc. Either that came about organically, or that you kind of just wanted to put in maybe for audiences who are familiar with those kind of things?

Yeah, there definitely are a lot of Marvel Easter eggs and some sitcom easter eggs throughout, comic book easter eggs. You know, part of that is just it’s just fun as we build the world and draw from our research and part of it is actual little pieces of evidence as you build this puzzle and solve this mystery. But yeah, they’re they’re in there, and I hate to draw attention to them so that people can have the joy of finding them themselves.

As someone who acted predominantly in ’80s and ’90s sitcoms, was there an era that you particularly really enjoyed being in, in terms of that classic sitcom homage? 

It’s funny, you know, I have direct personal connection to an ’80s multi camera sitcom — obviously I did a lot of those as an actor — and then I know what it’s like to direct comedies from the audience, and so some of the shows that you know that I have directed professionally. Those are our shows that I know sort of how to bring about because I’ve done them already, so that sort of was in my toolkit already. But so, the most fun for me was doing the shows that I had no personal connection to: the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s. Shows that were sort of just ahead of my time. And especially doing the live show was really fun because it’s just like theater — I direct a lot of theater — and it’s fun to have that energy from the crowd and see how much you can affect, and change the performance.

The first two episodes of WandaVision arrive on Disney+ on January 15, 2021.

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