Steve Blackman is the creator of the new series The Umbrella Academy, which debuts today on Netflix.
It’s about seven extraordinary children who are adopted by an eccentric man named Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore).
Each of the children has a superpower, and he trains them to use their powers to fight crime in the city where they live, including thwarting bank robbers and other criminals — and ultimately, to save the world.
The Umbrella Academy was filmed in Toronto, and Netflix brought not only Mr. Blackman, but several members of the cast back to Toronto to talk to the media about this exciting new show.
Make sure to check out our on-camera interviews with the cast of The Umbrella Academy by clicking here.
I chatted with Mr. Blackman at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on February 14, 2019, and he had some fascinating details to reveal about this incredible new series, including how and where he found the actors to play the siblings and which character was the most difficult to cast. ~Alexandra Heilbron
What I love about this series is that it’s a bit of a mystery and every episode we get another piece of the puzzle. How tricky is it to write something that goes from the present to the past to the future and back?
That’s a good question. It’s a lot of planning. I mean, we really worked hard. Along with me, I have a team of four writers, so I knew a lot of the flagpoles I wanted to hit. I definitely had a beginning, middle and end before I started. So it was just about how to parse out the information. The goal of the show, because it’s streaming and a lot of people binge, is to make it that the puzzle fills out as you go. You learn little bits and then you have to wait two episodes and you fill in another blank, then you go back in time and fill in another blank, because I want the audience to put it together with me. I thought it was fun, because network TV, sometimes they just literally explain everything in the first episode and then they tell a story. We wanted to unravel and peel the onion slowly. So that’s what we did.
That was what I loved best about it. I just drank in every episode.
That’s the point, I love that you loved it!
I also loved every single piece of music. Who chose it?
I did. Music’s a big part of my life and I really wanted to do a lot of music. I didn’t just want needle drops where it’s just 20 seconds, I wanted it to feel like you were immersed in a whole song. Almost like it was another character in the show. So I actually put the song choices within the script, I really planned ahead. I said to Netflix, I really want to do a lot of music and they supported that. Hopefully if we have multiple seasons that will be something we always do every year.
You have an international cast, how did you put them all together?
I got really lucky. I had a good sense of who I wanted in the beginning. I really wanted Ellen Page for Vanya — you know, she’s Canadian, I’m Canadian — so it was nice to start there. I’d seen Tom Hopper on Game of Thrones, and I thought he was a gentle giant and his face was great; I’d seen Robert Sheehan in Misfits, so I really sort of put it together. Plus, I wanted it inclusive — being inclusive is very important to me to be diverse. I wanted to mirror the real world and the real world’s inclusive and diverse, so we wanted that in the show. I got very lucky in my casting and you know, Mary J. Blige is just a whole fun little element right there (laughs).
Tell me how you found Aidan Gallagher, because even though he was only 14 during filming, he was incredible at portraying someone who’s old and jaded — he really seemed older than his castmates.
It was so hard to find him. I went through 300 kids. I searched in the U.K., Canada, America, Australia, you name it, we went looking. And I couldn’t find anyone because the character has to embody a 58-year-old man, he has to be a curmudgeon, and sort of serious, and look down upon his 30-year-old siblings. So I found Aidan and when he started his casting tapes, he turned to the camera and said, “I would kill for this role.” Because he knew the comic, he was a big fan of Gerard Way and when he started his audition, I mean, clearly he’d done acting before, but he just had this presence. And he sort of had that curmudgeon look a little bit. But in real life, he could come to set and he knew his lines, he was very professional, and he was never intimidated by the 30-year-olds. I put him in a room with some famous actors but he didn’t blink. He’s wonderful, just a wonderful kid and just a great actor but that was the most nerve-racking role to cast.
When you have a minor on the set, are there time limitations?
Oh yes, it’s very tricky. He has to go to school for a certain number of hours per day, he has to have a school teacher and a social worker, he can only work for eight hours a day maximum door to door, from when he leaves his house to the time he gets back, so we had to maximize Aidan’s time. We had a stunt double and a body double, who were very similar in height to him, it was very tricky, but Aidan was great.
How long did it take to film the first season?
The filming took about five-and-a-half to six months of filming here in Toronto, but it took 18 months in total to do 10 episodes, so it was a long time. I just finished at Christmas, I had to deliver all 10 at once.
This show is set in modern day, unlike the comic books. How did you decide to have no cell phones in the show?
I just think cell phones are a terrible device in TV shows and film now. Everyone has pop up bubbles and stuff, so I hated that. But more importantly, I wanted to make the world feel slightly odd without drawing your eye to it. It’s not just cell phones; I took out all the exotic and bright colored cars. If you look at the background, you’ll see everything’s very muted. So a lot of the choices I made with the director of photography and the production designer, was to sort of make you feel like you’re in a slightly odd — although it seems normal — not like it’s completely bleak, but there’s something that makes you think there’s something a little weird about this place.
That totally worked. It took me awhile to realize there weren’t any cell phones and the world they inhabit did seem vaguely different.
And there’s microfiche. We actually had to digitally put the microfiche in with VFX because we couldn’t find a microfiche machine that worked anymore.
That’s funny. There were some scenes that I was waiting to be explained by the end of the season, but they weren’t. Is that being left for a second season?
Any examples? Or just in general?
There’s a scene in which Sir Reginald seems to be living in the 1800s at one point.
Yes. There are a lot of seeds I planted for future seasons, and we haven’t been picked up yet for season 2, I hope we will, but there are also a lot of Easter eggs. There are Easter eggs all over the show, in fact, there’s something in episode 3 that foretells what happens in episode 10, very subtly, but the fans of the graphic novels will find it. There are tons of Easter eggs in all the scenes — things I put in the back on the walls, posters, clues on the walls of the house that are telling you where the show’s going and where we’re going in future seasons.
How did you choose Toronto as the place to film?
Well, first of all, I grew up in Canada so I’m still Canadian, even though I’ve lived in the States for a long time, and I love Toronto, I lived here and went to school at Western [University], believe it or not, but you know it’s funny because I’ve been in L.A. for the past 16 years but the last three shows we shot in Canada. I shot Fargo in Calgary; Altered Carbon, which I did for Netflix in Vancouver; and this one here in Toronto. I think what it is, is that there are great crews here, there’s a good tax credit here and the dollar does well for the studios. So, it’s very cost efficient to come here. The crews are great, people are nice, so it’s a good place to go. I mean, there are people shooting in Budapest and everywhere else, but Canada, it’s easier for the cast to get back and forth; I like it here, so it was sort of a combination of we all thought this was the best place to do it.
What is it like to work with Netflix?
I love them. And I don’t say that lightly. They supported my creative vision from start to finish and very few people do that. There are networks who are answering to advertisers and answering to a lot of other people. Netflix comes and says, “You’re the showrunner, you’re the creator, we support your creative vision.” And they back me. They have opinions and they have things they want to say but you feel so supported creatively, which is so rare in this business. It’s really a pleasure to feel that protection and that support. So that’s why I think people are flocking to them. It’s because you don’t get that very many places now.
The Umbrella Academy is now streaming on Netflix. If you’ve seen the show and would like to rate/review it, click here.
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