When “WandaVision” head writer Jac Schaeffer and her team were writing Marvel’s new series, they worked out of a windowless office at the studio’s headquarters. Writers weren’t permitted to bring drafts home. Manuscripts were watermarked. Ms. Schaeffer had to memorize a code for her “scary black hard drive.” She was afraid to dictate ideas into voice memos for fear that they might find their way on to the internet.
“Marvel’s so locked up with the secrecy, it terrifies me,” says Ms. Schaeffer, who received a “created for television” credit for the series and is an executive producer.
Ms. Schaeffer’s “WandaVision,” which premiered this month, is the first original Marvel Studios series for Disney+. It plops Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), two characters from the multibillion-dollar “Avengers” franchise, into the golden age of television. In the first three episodes, the couple has gone from being perceived by neighbors and colleagues as suspiciously childless during the black-and-white, Dick Van Dyke era, to becoming parents of twins living a colorful life reminiscent of “The Brady Bunch.”
Ms. Schaeffer—whose screenwriting credits include “The Hustle,” a gender-reversed remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”—wasn’t obsessed by comics and superheroes as a girl. But when doors in Hollywood started opening wider for women, she found a place at Marvel.
“I came to learn pretty quickly that the sprawling mythology of [the Marvel Cinematic Universe] is the ultimate playground for storytelling,” she says.
Ms. Schaeffer spoke with the Journal about doors that can no longer be closed and how writing for the coming “Black Widow” film changed her career. Edited excerpts:
As a child, did you envision yourself running a windowless writers’ room under heavy security when you grew up?
I loved acting when I was very little. And when I was about 12 my dad told me about directing. He said: “You know, you’d be good at that.” Really quickly a whole world opened up to me, the idea that you could be in charge of all the decisions that go into a movie. I didn’t know anything about showrunning or running a writer’s room. And it wasn’t until “WandaVision” that I discovered that for me, that’s actually the greatest job.
Women haven’t always had big opportunities on superhero franchises. Did you ever wonder if a woman could run a superhero tentpole like ‘WandaVision’?
When I was very young, the messaging to me was I could do whatever I wanted. It wasn’t until I was actually in the industry that doors were closed. I had difficulty in the industry early on in my career. There was resistance to what I thought I could do and what I wanted to do. There was also a lot of self-doubt. I knew the doing of the job was never in question. But the walking into a room and convincing people that I could do it, that was much harder. And then I really rode the wave of #TimesUp into the Marvel offices.
How did that happen?
I was on the set of “The Hustle” when the
story broke. Quite quickly after that I was invited to pitch on “Black Widow.” In that moment, I found my confidence to speak up about the characters and my view on the story. It was just such an exciting time. It was a reckoning. And I feel like the door can’t be closed now. All of these women and people of color and marginalized people are getting to tell their stories. There’s still so much work to do. But I believe it’s been several really great years of perspective.
When people grouse about cinemas showing mostly reboots and comic book movies, does that bother you?
I think that there’s a lot of underestimating by, sort of, more critical voices. I feel like people who love comic book movies, there’s a purity to that love. Young people love them. And, especially a movie like “Black Panther,” you cannot argue the importance of that film and the positive impact that it’s had.
What does writing on a Marvel title let you do as a storyteller that you couldn’t before?
These stories are so sweeping and so enormous in scale, there’s nowhere else that you can get that big in terms of the sky’s the limit. It’s whatever your brain can come up with. So, that’s incredibly exciting and intoxicating. At the same time, it’s not good unless the characters feel real and there’s heart to it. So, there’s the fine-tuning work of understanding the interior life of these people with these enormous exteriors. The gift, as a writer, is to be able to have both.
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Appeared in the January 27, 2021, print edition as ‘A Storyteller Finds Her Voice at Marvel.’