On Jan. 15, the first episode of Marvel’s most recent series, “WandaVision,” landed on the streaming platform Disney+. In its first week, “WandaVision” was one of the 10 most-watched original shows across streaming platforms, according to Nielsen estimates. By the end of January, it claimed the title of most-watched series across streaming platforms, despite only three of nine episodes having then been released. By Feb. 15, according to Parrot Analytics, it became the most popular series in the world.
The creator, head writer, and executive producer behind the superhero streaming sensation is Jac Schaeffer ’00, a director and writer who concentrated in English at the University before earning her M.F.A. from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her previous work with Marvel includes contributions to “Captain Marvel” (2019), and she is also a writer for the upcoming “Black Widow” (2021).
Schaeffer spoke with The Daily Princetonian about her process — and how her time at the University influenced her work. This conversation has been edited for clarity and concision. It includes spoilers for season one of “WandaVision.”
The Daily Princetonian: What do you feel you still carry with you in your work today from your time at Princeton?
Jac Schaeffer: I was heavily involved in theater, behind the scenes and acting. I was in [Princeton] Triangle [Club], and I did some shows at Theatre Intime; I did some thesis productions as well. I did a little bit of choreography for the [Princeton] Shakespeare Company. I was in the arts, and it’s what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to direct more than anything.
I learned so much about storytelling and mainly about acting. I was never a terrific actor. I played sort of versions of myself, and I like a lot of attention, so it worked out. But I learned the vulnerability involved in performing. I’ve had wonderful and productive relationships with actors, and I do think that a lot of that is born of my experience acting at Princeton.
There was a baby film program — it wasn’t actual film, it was video film — and I took a class, and then I applied to get a certificate, and I didn’t get in, which I find hilarious. It made me feel a little frosty at the time, but even at the time, I was like, well, one day I’ll be hugely famous and I’ll do an interview with The [Daily] Princetonian and say that they didn’t let me into the program.
DP: Did anything from your time at Princeton influence the writing of “WandaVision” specifically?
JS: I wrote my thesis on dystopian literature. It was a comparison of early dystopian novels with contemporary novels that are sort of cyberpunk novels. I had always been very interested in speculative fiction and “what if” stories and near future stories as a social commentary, as a way to look at ourselves. I loved “Twilight Zone” as a kid, and now I love “Black Mirror.” That infused all of my work, and Princeton was where I looked at all of that academically. “WandaVision” is an obvious synthesis — really more of a collision — of tones and influences and genres.
The other thing is I have a group of friends from Princeton: there are 10 of us, and we’re very tight. Back in the before times, before COVID[-19], we would do a trip together once a year. They’re extraordinary women who live all over the country, who do all kinds of things — doctors, lawyers, environmentalists, some are mothers. They’re just the best women, and they have impacted all of my work greatly. I think about them whenever I write anything.
You know, the character that Monica [Rambeau] met on the show that everybody thought was going to be Reed Richards, the engineer? That character is Major Goodner, and she’s named after one of my friends, Aly Goodner [’00], that I went to Princeton with, who’s part of this group. I made that choice because that character represents every time one of these women has come through for me and every time they’ve been good at their job. It became this hilarious thing for me that everybody was like, “It’s going to be Reed Richards, it’s going to be some important man,” and I’m like, “No, it’s just a lady who’s awesome at what she does and who will be there for her friends.”
DP: Is Westview, N.J., at all based on Princeton, N.J.?
JS: No, it’s not. The New Jersey piece of it was meaningful to me because of Princeton and because my mom is from Jersey. We were always going to do the Northeast, and I think I probably nudged it toward New Jersey.
Westview was because Kevin Feige is from Westfield and we liked that, but we didn’t want it to be a one-to-one, so then we thought of Westview because “W” [and] “V,” Wanda Vision.
DP: How did you prepare for writing “WandaVision,” a series which draws from a swath of American sitcoms and from Marvel comics?
JS: A lot of the sitcoms were just in my DNA, especially the ’80s and ’90s ones, just being a kid and a teenager and watching them. So I didn’t do a lot of rewatching of those eras, except to be like, “What did that kitchen look like?” and if there was a very special episode, “what was the episode that was the outlier and what did they do?”
There were episodes that stood out in my mind that I wanted to go back to. There was an episode of “Growing Pains” where the daughter had a boyfriend and he died in a car accident, and I remember it so vividly because it was so upsetting at the time. That wasn’t supposed to happen on a sitcom. So I revisited ones that I remembered being sort of a fractured version of themselves.
I was only peripherally aware of “Dick Van Dyke,” I had seen some of it, but I became a connoisseur. Same with “Malcolm in the Middle.” The episodes were assigned to the writers, and I assigned them the responsibility of becoming experts in their era, so some of that heavy lifting was done by them.
As for the comics, I don’t read comics very much. I respect them, I respect the artistry of them tremendously, but at Marvel, they sort of flag things for me, so I look at what I need to. Mostly, they tell me the good stuff, and then I internalize it, and we discuss it and things happen.
DP: For me, much of what’s clever about “WandaVision,” in addition to its script, comes from its visual storytelling and pastiche — the costumes, the set, the changing aspect ratios. How much did you have a say in those kinds of visual elements?
JS: The script was literally written according to the mode that we were in. There were signifiers on the page of when we’re in sitcom mode and when we’re in cinematic mode. There was essentially a legend, like a map, of where we were aesthetically in any given moment of an episode. That was to communicate to the director and to the department heads and, perhaps most importantly, to the actors so that they would know what style of performance to employ in a given moment.
DP: When writing the series, how did you balance accomplishing the big picture goals that moved the broader plotline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU] forward while also letting “WandaVision” have its own life?
JS: I didn’t really look at it in that black-and-white way. It was Kevin Feige’s idea to do a brief story about Wanda and Vision using the history of television sitcoms. I thought it was an extremely difficult prospect. I believed it could happen, but I was like, this is a real trick. There is a high probability that this could just be parody with no heart or a thought experiment with no heart. That’s really where my focus went: how do we get the fun that we want and the mystery that we want and the creepy that we want, all those trappings — yes to all of it, yes to the funny, yes to the aesthetics — but how do we constantly keep our eye on the story, the heart of it? It wasn’t like, “How do we make this different from everything else?”
I felt so focused, on a foundational level, on being truthful to Wanda’s grief and her process. The writers in my room were very united in that goal as well. We had as many heavy talks about grief and sadness and loss as we did about comedy and pop culture. I think we brought that to the page.
DP: You’ve contributed writing on several Marvel projects that center women and characters who have been previously portrayed heavily through the male gaze. How do you approach telling these stories?
JS: I feel like Marvel has been on a great path for a while. There’s Dr. Jane Foster and there’s Valkyrie, and Natasha [aka Black Widow] has been in the MCU for so long, so I don’t want to nullify what came before the projects that I’ve worked on. I get a lot of questions about this kind of thing. My general answer is always along the lines of, well, I want to write women as fully dimensional humans. That’s the trick. The trick of feminist writing is to treat female characters like they’re human beings.
I’ve had the good fortune of coming on board projects where the protagonist is a woman. And then I have advocated for populating more of the world with more women, that it’s not just the one lady at the center. There hasn’t been any resistance to that, but, like anyone knows, the more representation you get, the better everything is. It’s about authenticity. With what I know of this character and what I know of myself and my life and the women in my life, does this feel true? Does this feel real? Is this what she would do? Is this what she would be thinking about? That’s my approach. It’s less about, “Yay, she’s going to win the battle!” and more about, “She wins it because of her own journey.”
DP: Why do you think this show has been getting such great attention right now — and not just from Marvel superfans?
JS: I think the actual moment of it has nothing to do with me and is just this moment in history. We’re coming off a full year of an MCU drought, so everybody has been craving this for so long. Everyone’s trapped in their homes, and the themes of the piece speak to our current collective experience. It is about grief. It is about loss. It is about finding solace in entertainment. That is 100 percent the moment we’re currently living through. So that is just all serendipity, I think.
The show itself, beyond all of that, it’s what’s called a “four-quadrant show” because it appeals to every age and demographic. That wasn’t our motivation at the beginning, but it was a hope that we had, that grandparents would sit down with grandchildren and watch the Dick Van Dyke episode, and it would mean something to everybody. I think that was really special.
I was not a Marvel fan before I started writing for Marvel. I was aware of it, but I didn’t approach it as a superfan. I hired people who were like that. Some of my writers are superfans and some of them had a passing knowledge of Marvel. I think that combination made it into the work. We weren’t just writing for the superfans. We were writing for ourselves. And what interests me is the emotion and the comedy. I want to see people be funny and love each other, and then I also want to see a good twist, and I want to solve a puzzle. These are the things that I want to do. Then if there’s some bad people I have to be fighting, okay, but all the other things are why I sat down to watch.
DP: Are there any moments of the show that still give you chills?
JS: The thing that still moves me and I kind of can’t get over it is their [Wanda and Vision’s] goodbye scene. It was written very early. The kernel of it was part of my original pitch. I wasn’t sure if it would survive the development of the series. But Vision talking about all the things he’s been and the idea of “what will he be next?,” that was a really early idea. I really love Paul Bettany as a person, and he loved that piece, too, so it’s very beautiful to me. That scene is totally the heart of the show.
DP: As you said, the heart of the show is the love between Wanda and Vision. What about their relationship compels you?
JS: They’re so guileless. I’m a sarcastic person, I’m a sassy person. Most of my world is entrenched in humor and, prior to “WandaVision,” they weren’t funny, like, at all. They were serious and lovely and well-intentioned. I have always found that so beautiful about the two of them, that they didn’t sign up to be flying through the air and going after bad guys. That’s not what they wanted. They’re after something simple, and they just love each other so completely. There’s just a real innocence to it and a real optimism and hopefulness, and that’s what I find totally bewitching about the two of them.
DP: What advice would you give to your college-age self or current college students about going into this line of work?
JS: There’s a small number of writers in the world who are just incredible, and they’re incredible from the cradle, and they just write and they can’t not write, and good for them. But the majority of writers struggle, and it’s really painful and hard and confusing, and there’s a lot of self-loathing. It’s my feeling that, for those writers for whom writing is painful, it requires a lot of life experience. It’s very hard to be an excellent writer right out of the gate. I think if I could talk to myself at Princeton, I would say, “Live your life. That’s the most important thing. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Trust your instincts.”