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How a Lunch With Dick Van Dyke Helped Inspire Marvel's 'WandaVision' (Exclusive)

How a Lunch With Dick Van Dyke Helped Inspire Marvel's 'WandaVision' (Exclusive)

A witch and a robot move next door and hilarity ensues -- until it doesn't. That's the premise of Marvel Studio's first foray into television, WandaVision, which brings Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany's Vision to the forefront for a Disney+ series that is, as the kids say, the bee's knees.

WandaVision picks up in a post-Avengers: Endgame world -- marking Marvel's first release since 2019's Spider-Man: Far From Home -- and within a classic '50s sitcom, filmed in black-and-white in front of a live studio audience. Think of it as the MCU by way of Nick at Nite. It only gets trippier from there, as Wanda and Vision's mysterious new reality sends them careening through the '60s, '70s, '80s and beyond, through sitcoms inspired by Bewitched, The Brady Bunch and Family Ties.

The series hails from writer Jac Schaeffer (Black Widow) and director Matt Shakman, who's cut his teeth on TV comedies like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia along with helming episodes of Game of Thrones. Perhaps more meta to the series at hand, Shakman is also a former child star who once appeared on The Facts of Life, Diff'rent Strokes and Growing Pains.

Ahead of WandaVision's premiere, Shakman takes ET inside the MCU's first streaming series, from the lunch he and Marvel head Kevin Feige had with Dick Van Dyke himself to filming the show's more Marvel-ous set pieces and beyond. (Following WandaVision's finale, Olsen will continue on to Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.)

ET: I need to know more about this Dick Van Dyke lunch. What was that experience for you?

Matt Shakman: Oh, easily one of the best afternoons of my life. I mean, he is, I'm sure, an inspiration for so many people, but for me in particular, he had a huge impact on my life, and I think the same for Kevin Feige. So, the chance to sit down with him and pick his brain and kiss the ring, really, but also just try to soak up the secret sauce that has made so much of what he's done but, in particular, The Dick Van Show be this timeless classic. That was an utter joy. And we did it at Disneyland, above Pirates of the Caribbean in this place called Club 33. It really just felt like the perfect place to meet with Dick Van Dyke, this great Disney legend.

Now you're just bragging.

Now I am, I know! But oh, what an incredible time.

How well-versed is Mr. Van Dyke in the MCU? Did you have to explain like, "She's a witch and he's a synthezoid"?

We did. We did have to give him the explanation, and he didn't seem to be too fluent with the MCU. It was great. He did say at one point during our lunch, "Oh, I hear you guys have had some great success. That's wonderful. Congratulations. What did you just put out?" And Kevin, who's great, obviously Kevin is this mastermind of this incredible creative endeavor that's had so much success, he said, "Well, yes, well, we just put out Avengers: Endgame." And [Dick] was like, "Oh, Avengers: Endgame? Oh, great. Fantastic." He said, "Yep, it's actually the biggest movie of all time." "Oh, great. Is it-- What! The biggest movie of all time?!" He was like, "That's amazing!" It was so sweet to see Kevin realize and Dick realized what they were talking about. It was really fun.

You do realize now everyone is going to be wondering whether we're going to get a Dick Van Dyke cameo in here somewhere down the road.

Gotcha. I couldn't possibly say. [Laughs] Couldn't possibly say!

How deep into WandaVision were you when you sat down with him? Were there ways in which what you took from him foundationally affected your approach to the show?

We were many months into pre-production at that point already, but we had yet to start shooting. So, a lot of the things that I took from that lunch really did affect how we approached especially our pilot episode, which is sort of an homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as I Love Lucy and some of the other sitcoms of that era. But we learned from Dick Van Dyke that their number one rule for how they approached anything was that if it couldn't happen in real life, it can't happen on the show. Which is this idea that you need to ground what you're doing in real-life stories, but then that gives you the permission to be incredibly silly and to fall over the ottoman and do pratfalls. That was very helpful in how we approached the tone of it, because getting the tone right is the hardest thing in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s. It changes. It adjusts. What is funny? How far does comedy go? I mean, Archie Bunker and Dick Van Dyke are very different, and yet they're both hilarious. Their humor is timeless, and yet very different. Archie Bunker would never do a pratfall over an ottoman, right? And so, it's just about figuring out how you put your finger on that and how as actors, Paul, Lizzie and the rest of this amazing cast, could put their finger on that as well and calibrate.

Marvel Studios

Shakman directing Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany on set. (Marvel Studios)

This may be more of a Jac question, but I want to know about the process of choosing which characters would play in the WandaVision sandbox. We have someone like Monica Rambeau -- who isn't that closely tied to Wanda and Vision's solo outings in the comics -- and returning characters like Darcy and Jimmy Woo. What was that process of picking and choosing who fit into this world?

Without the risk of giving away anything that's to come, all of these characters have a really important function in the story. One of the things that's so beautiful, I think, about WandaVision is that it is this little puzzle box, and even as funny as it can be and the lengths that we've gone to be authentic with the sitcoms, all of it is in service of a larger narrative. And all of it will eventually make sense on a macro level, including those characters and how they function. But the story itself is pulled together -- all of the different stylistic experimentation and all of the different tones and genres -- [around] a love story. It's this love story between Vision and Wanda, these amazing characters we've gotten to know in the MCU, and it's exploring that, going deeper into that, that really holds all of this together.

We've talked a lot about the sitcoms that inspired this, but I want to know what comics you were reading. I have to assume that Tom King's The Vision and the Steve Englehart run were influential, but what was on your nightstand?

Everything. Everything about Vision and Scarlet Witch, of course, Wanda Maximoff, all of that has been a part of our prep process. Because just like Tom King, I'm sure, was reading all of the comics that came before his edition, we want to know everything that's in the comic canon and then osmose that information and create our own thing. Because really, what I love about the MCU is that they're not doing strict adaptations of any one comic run. They're creating their own comic run. They're doing what those comic artists did. They're standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before and introducing something new. That's what our goal was in creating WandaVision, is to do something new that built upon all the great stuff that had happened before.

You said this is a love story and it very much is in the three episodes I've seen. But for people who have read Wanda and Vision's comic storylines, things tend to get very, very, very dark for those two. How dark are we going to get here?

Definitely don't want to give too much away, but this is a story about these two amazing characters, Wanda, who's fiery and powerful and has suffered so much trauma and so much loss, and Vision, who is this synthezoid but a deeply soulful synthezoid. He's sort of more human than any of us, even though he is technically less human than any of us. The two of them make for such an unlikely pair, but they make for such a perfect pair. It's that connection that I think all of us root for, and so this show is definitely an exploration of that love story and also the two of them as individuals. That's about all I can say without giving too much away.

This may be another one where we'll have to talk after the series airs, but people have been praising how unique and different WandaVision is from anything Marvel has done before. Later in the season, we know it will assumedly merge more with the Marvel as we know it. How were you able to still keep your fingerprint on that part of the series, to make it distinctly you and what you're doing here?

The great thing about Marvel, it's a wonderful place to work as a filmmaker. They are super supportive and encouraging. Their guidance and counsel along the way from Kevin and Lou [D'Esposito] and Victoria [Alonso] is amazing, so you are given so much freedom to explore and play in the sandbox. And even though there's a tremendous amount of exciting storytelling that has happened and there's a lot of great storytelling that's coming up, it really feels like you're a part of the greatest relay race in cinema, that you have been passed this baton and you run with it and you run as hard as you can and you do the best stuff you can and then at the very end, when you're all out of air, you hand that off to Sam Raimi, or to whoever is next. That's really fun. We obviously had a big, ambitious story to tell, and I have to say, as a filmmaker, it was super exciting, because no day was like another day. You would come in one day, and it's the '50s and it's a sitcom and the next day, it's a giant green screen, action-adventure moment. You never really could get into a rhythm, but that's actually great because we were constantly creating anew and never in the same place twice.

Disney+ has excelled by sticking with this weekly viewing format instead of dropping a season all at once. What will fans get from watching this week-to-week and not binging it all at once?

I love the idea of week-to-week. Binging has its place, for sure, but there's something about the mystery -- especially for a show like WandaVision -- where people can think about what they've watched and come up with their own theories and it builds anticipation. It's worked really well for The Mandalorian, obviously, it worked really well for Game of Thrones -- a show I used to work on -- it's exciting to put something out there and allow people to kind of chew on it and come up with their own theories. But I also have to say, because we're involved in a great meta-project with WandaVision being this love letter to the history of sitcoms, is that coming out weekly also feels right for our show, because we're coming out the way those shows used to come out, so it all seems to make sense.

Once you're in good with Feige, you tend to be in good with Feige. Jon Watts was just tapped for Fantastic Four. Have you begun dropping hints of another character you want to play with in the future?

No, I don't know. I'm a lifelong Marvel fan. I love working for Marvel Studios, they're the best, and I love what they create. You know, I was a little kid who dressed up like superheroes until it was considered inappropriate -- my teachers told me I had to come dressed as a normal human -- so the idea of continuing to work in the world of superheroes is super exciting. But no, I don't have any firm plans to do anything with Marvel Studios after WandaVision at this point.

Who was little Matt dressing as?

Oh, my goodness. Spider-Man, absolutely! There were a few days where I would go over to the DC universe -- you know, Superman made some appearances -- but it was mostly Spidey.

Feige has said this series will connect to the next Spider-Man movie, so that has to be cool for little Matt to see grown Matt is playing in the ballpark of Spider-Man. You have a hand in it.

I have to say, Mary Livanos, who is our producer from Marvel on the show, one of the first things she did when I signed up for this show, because she knew I was a huge fan, is she said, "Let's go on a trip to the warehouse." And I was like, "Warehouse? What are we doing in the warehouse?" And she took me to the Marvel warehouse, where all of the costumes are from all of the movies and many of the props, and I mean, 5-year-old Matt was basically there anyway. But if 5-year old Matt could ever have dreamed just to be able to see Spidey there and to see Captain America and all these incredible costumes. Holding Cap's shield and all that, for a true fan, as I am, those are some of the most special moments that I'll remember from this.

WandaVision premieres on Friday, Jan. 15 on Disney+.

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