THE RED BULLETIN: It’s not an easy task to walk the fine line between a crime drama and a superhero series. How did you manage to do it?
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: Drew Goddard left me with a great blueprint of what we were doing on the show, and really it was about fleshing it out and the execution. And you hit the nail on the head, the most important thing was, we approached this first and foremost as a crime drama so when we were breaking the stories, when we were writing the stories, it was always with the idea that this is a crime drama that happens to have at its center instead of just a lawyer, a lawyer with some special abilities. But even with his special abilities, he is still just a guy.
He has no super powers.
No super powers. He is just a guy who has pushed himself to the limit and his greatest power is the fact that he will not stop unless he is killed – just like his dad – he just will not stop. So that made it very easy. We didn’t feel the pressure that we had to have a villain of the week. And because we are on Netflix we could tell a long-form-story. That really was like a 13 hour feature with a beginning, middle and an end.
Buffy was a “Monster of the Week” series in a way, but it worked very well. There were big story arcs building up in the background …
Yeah, when you are doing 22 episodes a year, there is no way you could tell the story that we told on Daredevil. It stretched out the 22 episodes. It wouldn’t sustain that for that long. The brilliance of Buffy, which I loved working on, is that it had a monster of the week, but the great thing that Joss [Whedon] did, he always made very clear to us that the monster isn’t important. What’s important is how throwing the monster into the group changes the dynamics of the group and illuminates the characters. So it was the effect on the characters that was important, not the monster, not the McGuffin, not the thing we had to destroy - it was all about the characters and the emotion and the interaction.
Why did you settle for 13 episodes?
You know it is really up to the network, of what they want. 13 seems to be the standard at Netflix. For Starz it was a little different. They tend to do 8 episode first seasons, and after that 10 episodes per season. So it really depends on the outlet and what they want.
When did you know that you wanted to tell stories for a living? Did you know it early on?
No, originally I wanted to be an actor. I studied acting in college and I realized at some point that I wasn’t tall and hunky enough to get like the leading man roles, but while I was a good actor, I wasn’t good enough to get the character roles – I wasn’t Dustin-Hoffman-good. But I loved the theatre, I studied acting for the stage, so I started writing plays and doing plays in college.
That sounds easy, but was it really easy?
No, you know it took a while to dial in. I had some early success. I was an undergraduate and then I went to grad school at UCLA to study playwriting and continued writing plays. But as much as I loved the theatre the chances of making a living as a playwriter are very very small. And I have always loved movies and television. So I spent an extra year going through the film program, and then when I graduated I couldn’t even get arrested. I was writing a bunch of feature specs. And after almost seven years of trying to break in, I finally got a job on an MTV show called Undressed.
Sounds a bit sleazy …
(Laughs.) That was my first big break. It was like a low budget teen sex comedy. So from there I wrote a spec Buffy the Vampire Slayer that got to Joss’s people and Joss read it and liked it. So I did an episode of Buffy for him, then he hired me on full time. That was really the point where I thought, “Okay, I want writing to be my career.“ I had always imagined to be doing features, but when I got hired on to Buffy, I thought: “I am enjoying television quite a bit“ and that was really the point where I decided that this is definitely my career.
Your departure from Daredevil came as a surprise. At first glance it kind of seemed like Frank Darabont was leaving The Walking Dead as a showrunner. But it was not like that, was it?
(Laughs.) No, it is not contentious whatsoever. When I signed on to take over for Drew Goddard I had a feature project in the works. And the only way I could come in and help out on Daredevil, was to delay this feature that I had been working on. So when I came in, I was very clear that there was a 99 percent possibility that this would just be for one season. In November the feature started heating up again, so I knew I would more than likely not be coming back. But everybody knew this coming in, that it was more than likely only going to be one season. And it is very very sweet because I love the cast, I love the crew …
And Daredevil is a big success now. How hard is it to say goodbye?
Ah, for me it is a little heartbreaking, but it is not like it is a decision that I could make. I had this other project first, that was very important to me and I love it equally …
Can you talk about it?
Unfortunately I can’t. I have been sworn to secrecy until it gets the official green light. But we tried to see if we could work out something where I came back and did season 2 before the movie starts shooting. But unfortunately I just don’t know what the schedule is and I didn’t want to leave in the middle. So I thought it was better if I just say: “Look, I love you guys, I love the show, but I don’t want it to get messy, so let’s bring in somebody else.“
Any chance to see you back on season 3?
Well, I am hoping that the showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez do an amazing job and they continue on. I would never want to come back and boot them out for doing such hard work. If my schedule allows, I would love to come back and work in the Marvel universe.
With a different character maybe?
Different character, The Defenders, something down the line, something on the feature side. I really enjoyed my time and I am very proud of the show.
HBO’s Game of Thrones is very good at the art of killing off characters. And Daredevil is doing the same thing obviously. Is this kind of a new ingredient for storytelling in modern television shows – the surprise death moments?
Yeah, you know on Spartacus I did the same thing. Characters were killed off as the story dictated. I always come at it from the point of view that it doesn’t matter how important the character is, if the storyline leads dictate that a character needs to be killed to move the story forward, then all bets are off. Anybody can die at any time. With Daredevil the two major deaths were James Wesley and Ben Urich, and they were already decided before I came on. Now I wish I could take credit for that, because I thought they were both brilliant ideas, but for me, when I came on, it was purely the execution and figuring out how to best serve that. Especially with Ben Urich, which I think was the most shocking for fans of Marvel comics, because Ben Urich is very much ingrained in Daredevil and in Spider-Man. I know Marvel wanted to let the audience know that no matter what you know from the comics, that you can’t predict what’s going to happen on the show.
More importantly we needed to take Fisk, from a point where we built up quite a bit of sympathy for him and his background and what he is doing, we needed him to cross a line, to propel the end of the season. What I love about what I was able to construct, when I went in there, was that he didn’t kill Ben because Ben was about to release the story, or expose him. He killed Ben, because Ben brought Fisk’s mother into this. Which to him was the crime. Like we saw in episode 4, when Anatoly embarrassed him in front of his date. You don’t offend the women in his life, because that’s what will make him go crazy. I thought it was a bold move from Marvel to kill off Ben Urich, but definitely the right thing to do for our show.
How were the reactions from the fans?
Everybody was really shocked and some people were outraged and some people just thought it was a damn good story. So we knew when we were going to kill off Ben Urich, there would be people who would be very upset about the decision. But again you just have to do what you think is right for the story.
Who was responsible for casting Vincent D’Onofrio as Fisk, which in my opinion was an excellent choice?
It was a group effort but the first thing I did, when I came onto the show, is I started sending Jeff Loeb pictures of Vincent D’Onofrio I pulled off the internet. He had a shaved head and a big mustache. And I said: “Listen, ignore the mustache, but he is perfect. Not only does he physically embody Wilson Fisk from the comics, it is very difficult to find somebody with that kind of stature. He is also a phenomenal actor and I think he really elevates the material and brings it to life.” The initial reaction was “Yes, he is absolutely fantastic. He is perfect. But we will never get him. He is busy and his quote in television is astronomical because of his time on Law & Order.”
So we started looking at a bunch of other people and nobody quite felt right. And then our casting director Laray Mayfield said: “Hey, I know Vincent! Why don’t we just see if he is interested and go from there.” So she got in touch with him and it turns out he was a big Daredevil fan and really loved the idea of bringing this character to life. So we got on the phone with him and talked to him and he said: “Listen, forget the money side of it. Let’s just talk about the character and then we will see if we can work something out.” So really Vincent was just so enthusiastic about the character and I don’t think the show would be as popular if we had not gotten him. To me a hero story is only as good as the antagonist and we had a great one with Vincent D’Onofrio.
Five ingredients that a perfect thriller movie or tv show needs?
You need a great setup – definitely. You have to have a great antagonist. And that antagonist does not necessarily need to be human. Like in Jaws, the antagonist is a shark. As long as you have a fantastic antagonist, your movie really starts to work. Tension, you have to have tension – which is very different from the next element, a cathartic release of tension, which is the scare. So you need a really great tense build-up and then a release with that scare. And the last element - and this is one that is extremely difficult - you have to stick the landing. The final resolution has to be satisfying and it has to make some sort of sense. You have to have some kind of internal logic. A lot of times thrillers kind of fall apart in the last ten minutes, as you try to figure out how you explain everything that just happened. And if I was going add one more; you have to really identify with your central protagonist.
The modern heroes seem to be more flawed than ten years before. Something has changed in terms of hero material …
I think it is absolutely fine to have a flawed hero. Recently the antiheroes really come to the forefront, especially in television shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and going back even further with The Sopranos, which I really love. And I think you have more latitude to explore the antihero these days.
Why do you think that television has reached its Golden Age?
I think it started with the premium channels doing original content, especially in the one hour drama, you know with HBO, with The Sopranos, Deadwood, Game of Thrones and then basic cable, starting really at AMC with Mad Men and then going from there. There has been an explosion of outlets. Back when I was growing up you had three stations. There was no upside taking a big risk. Where now there are so many outlets and so many people producing content, that to cut through all of that content, there is a huge benefit taking a risk and doing something different. And I think that has really transformed television. And the other thing that has transformed television is premium cable, basic cable and outlets like Netflix and Amazon not needing to do 22 episodes a year. When you only do ten to thirteen episodes you can tell more complicated stories, you can tell longer stories, and you don’t have to have each episode be its own contained story. You can expand the whole thing much like we do with Daredevil. So really, it is an amazing opportunity and an amazing time for television.