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Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman talks season 2 - Exclusive interview

Heading into season 2, Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman was faced with a new challenge: How to top the stylish, compelling, character-driven narrative that had made the first season of his adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's hit comic a success on Netflix. Fortunately for viewers, Blackman used the house money with which he was playing by virtue of the show's popularity to up the ante in a thrilling second go-round that offered fans a fresh spin on characters we'd come to know and love, as well as some new surprises.

It remains to be seen whether The Umbrella Academy can continue its run and snag a third season from the streaming giant that is its home, but it's hard to argue with the tightrope walk Blackman has done in terms of both pleasing fans of the source material and crafting a distinctive identity for his TV series. On the eve of season 2's release, we sat down with the showrunner to talk about bringing super-powered battles to the screen, his favorite character combinations, fan theories, and where the Umbrella Academy goes from here.

New challenges for Steve Blackman in The Umbrella Academy season 2

So season 2 is here, and it's another apocalypse. Is this a running theme with The Umbrella Academy now?

Well, I think it was important for me. I planned in season 1 that I wanted them to bring the apocalypse with them. So I think the theme of the show is they have 10 days and they have to... they always had big stakes on them, but it wasn't just the notion of having to have another terrible event. I wanted to bring that event back with them, that something they had done had affected time, and now there's a new apocalypse that they had caused.

How were things different heading into production on season 2 now that season 1 came out, it was a hit, you've got a fanbase, you've got momentum... how did that change things going into production on season 2?

Well, I think, first of all, I was very excited that the graphic novel fans like the show and they brought in this new fanbase, but I felt more pressured in season 2 to sort of continue to be respectful to the fans of the graphic novel, to bring more elements of the graphic novel into the show, and at the same time to make the show sort of really enjoyable and fun for this sort of new audience. There's a hard careful balance I'd have to play in doing that, and yeah, that was sort of my main goal.

One of the things that's interesting about The Umbrella Academy as a show is it does diverge pretty wildly from the comics. And with comic book fans, that can often be a sticky thing to navigate because people want to see the things they love from the comics on the screen. So what's been your experience in terms of that, in terms of making your own choices versus what's on the page and how fans have reacted?

Well, the good news is I'm very tight with Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, and that's really important to me that I have their blessing and support. So, early on, Gerard and I realized that there was a TV show and there's a graphic novel, and it didn't have to be a copy right from the page to the screen.

Part of what Gerard is so brilliant about is his non-linear storytelling. The graphic novel is just so wonderfully weird and out there, but that's hard to translate to the screen. And at a certain point, I just couldn't do it. And, you know, looking at Dallas, volume two, I wanted to zero in. And because we have a 10-day time period that makes it very hard to go as big as the graphic novel, but it was important for me to zoom in on a period of time within that graphic novel and sort of tell the story. For example, I loved AJ Carmichael. I couldn't imagine doing season 2 without doing AJ Carmichael and you know, that wonderfully bizarre character is right from the graphic novel. 

How the cast and characters propel The Umbrella Academy season 2

The ensemble cast of this show is a big strength. Do you have any favorite character combinations in terms of getting particular people in a room together and having them interact?

It's hard, 'cause I'm a proud parent. I love all of them together, so it's hard for me to sort of say I love one combination more than the other. I think I'm always trying to find new pairings and I think part of the life of the show is there are wonderful new interactions you can have with characters when you have them spend some time together. For example, just that moment when Vanya leans her head against Diego's shoulder in the alley. They haven't spent a lot of time together in the show, but you know, they're still brother and sister and they have a history and those are still things I can go to if there's another season.

But I did love seeing Five and Luther together. I find that combination just really amusing — Luther's sweetness, and Five sort of so headstrong and sullen. So that's one of the combinations. I think Diego is fun with everybody, because he's trying to be a lone wolf, but he just doesn't necessarily achieve his goals often. But it's hard for me to sort of choose which is my favorite, to be honest with you.

What was the key dynamic shift in those character interactions from season 1 to season 2? What would you say characterizes the way the family has changed in season 2?

I think if season 1's theme is "meet the family," season 2 is "get to know the family." I purposely wanted them to not be together in the beginning. I wanted part of the fun of the season to be how they search for each other, because I see some interesting combinations of characters, and then you can have a wonderful moment when they do come back together, and they're stronger than they were in season 1. You know, it doesn't mean there's not a huge amount of dysfunction with them, as you see when they see their dad in the tiki bar lounge, but you know, they do come back together, they missed each other.

For some people, it's been three years since you've seen them. For Five, it was days ago. But it was fun to sort of play on that dynamic and to strive to sort of make them stronger this season as they find each other and have a little bit more understanding of what the other person's about, as we set up in season 1 when they've been apart from each other for 15 years.

What's something about the behind the scenes of The Umbrella Academy the fans don't know, but you feel like they should?

I think it's just how hard the actors work. I mean, I know this sounds a bit cliché, a showrunner saying their actors work hard, but you know, we're a very big show. We're a huge ensemble. And this year, for example, we shot all over Ontario. We shot in Hamilton, which is two hours north of Toronto — Barrie, which is an hour and a half east of Toronto.

But you know, we were driving actors for hours in cars back and forth, and the great thing is, they never complained. They really care about each other. None of us are from Toronto, so we're all sort of stuck there ourselves. It's a great city, but we're away from our families and all we have is each other, and it's great to see that we all come together to support each other.

Season 2's big battles, and Ben's moment

WARNING: This portion of the interview contains spoilers for season 2 of The Umbrella Academy

We get a big, super-powered battle for the first time in the series. What was that like putting that sequence together?

It's great fun to do, but it's a tremendous amount of work, and we thankfully have a lot of the actors do their own stunt work. They're very proud of that fact. We also have a great VFX team. But opening episode 201, we called that battle Dallas, that big fight scene, and what was amazing about that scene is all we really had there was some debris, a tank, and the actors. Everything else was green screen.

So we sort of did a feature-like opening, and we were very proud of how that turned out. And then, in that last episode we were fighting weather, and half of the episode there was no snow when we wanted it and there was snow when we didn't want it, so it was a fight to sort of make this thing cohesive. But we love doing those big action moments. At the end of the day, we're a dysfunctional family show. I like to joke that our show's a dysfunctional family show with a body count. We're just really proud of the action as well as the emotional storytelling we're doing.

Can you speak a bit to the resolution of Ben's arc, and the part he plays in season 2?

Yeah. I mean, what's so ironic about the Ben character is, I mean, he's this wonderful, sweet guy with so much to say, loved by all the kids, yet he is the worst translator in class. You know, that's the wonderful irony about the story, and Justin's such a great actor and such a fan favorite, so I wanted to let him have a journey this year where he plays a huge role. He basically saves the day, and saves the world, if you think about it, by being able to bring Vanya down in the end. Then I wanted to, if we have a season 3, reboot his character in a different way and not have him a ghost, so we came up with the concept of sort of, he dies in episode 9 as a ghost, and whatever energy makes up a ghost is gone.

But as we see, something has changed when they return to the timeline and there's a physical, real Ben standing in front of them. Who he is and what he is for season 3 will remain a mystery, but he's corporeal now. And it's a lot of fun for Justin hopefully to play.

That must've been nice for him to have a scene interacting with someone other than Klaus when he had that scene with Ellen Page. Can you talk a bit about that scene in particular and bringing that to life?

Oh, yeah. I mean, he was thrilled. I think he and Robert Sheehan are so close, but I think he wants to interact with more characters and he hasn't got to do that playing this part, so any chance he has to do different things is great. So it really was a sweet scene with him and Ellen and he was really excited about that. And I think they both handled it beautifully. But I think there are a lot more fun stories for Ben going forward into a season 3, if we have one.

The Umbrella Academy's showrunner on season 3 and fan theories

Do you already have plans in place for next season, assuming this one is well received?

Well, I don't assume anything. I mean, I love Netflix. I hope they give me another season, and I have a good idea of what season 3 will be. I worked it out in my mind. I know where I'm going and where I'm driving to, I know the beginning, middle, end, but I will happily wait for the call when Netflix says green light.

The show has a very strong fandom online, and a big part of that is fan theories. Have you seen any of those? Do you keep track of that and kind of have any favorite, weird ones that you've encountered?

I love the theories. I try to read as much as I can. I'm very busy, so I can't deep dive as much as I want to, but the writers do and they report back to me and they say there's this theory and there's that theory. I love how close they get to where we're going at times, and other times they're way out there, and I think that's great. I love how part of the fun of the show is how we don't answer all the questions for the audience, and that's done purposefully. I love, as a TV fanatic, to be able to watch shows and try to fill in the blanks, and the shows that allow me to think through those things are great. I also think, because of the nature of Netflix, we have this bigger break than those shows. You know, we have a year off between seasons, and that's a long time for fans to sit with something they love and try to figure out what's coming next, and how we might get there.

The Umbrella Academy season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.

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