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Exclusive: Ellen Page, Steve Blackman, lift lid on Umbrella Academy

New Netflix series defines a post-Marvel world for Netflix, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK learns from its star and showrunner.

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For Blackman, who as showrunner has creative as well as management control of the series, Netflix was also a breath of fresh air.

“They’re very creatively supportive. I never felt that until I worked for Netflix, a company saying to me, ‘what can we do to help your vision?’ as opposed to saying, ‘how can we support advertisers?’ Netflix doesn’t operate that way, they don’t need to do that. They have a subscriber model so there’s no need to do product placement.

In traditional studios, they ask ‘How do we shift your vision?’. Here, they support a vision. I wanted Ellen and all the actors to feel very comfortable and safe creatively and I felt the same way with the network. It’s a big difference.”

Even the way the soundtrack is handled is distinctly different to the typical movie or series, where music servers as background. Given Gerard Way’s involvement – he was a regular visitor to the set – it’s not surprising that music lives in the foreground of the series.

“Music is a big part of my life,” says Blackman. “It was very important to me to make it feel like a character. So we didn’t just put in little needle drops of twenty seconds of music. We really wanted to play an entire song. We really wanted to evoke emotion. So I found songs that counterpointed what was going on.”

Clearly, viewers will take many experiences from the show. Page herself felt it spoke to her personally.

“To me, it’s talking about something really important. This poor girl has dealt with so much pain in her life and it has manifested in thinking it’s her fault. She feels utterly worthless and, especially at the beginning, is very numb and almost trapped in her mind. And she has to go on a journey to really learn the truth about herself and that can be so painful.

“I think it’s the most important thing we can do for ourselves, but it’s painful to open that stuff up. Especially not getting the support that she needs. It literally explodes in the level of anger and rage that she’s never allowed to be in touch with. I think that’s a lot of people’s experience and an important thing to talk about.”

Blackman feels this applies to all the very flawed characters: “They’re all fighting to find themselves, and be true to themselves. They’ve all been stunted by a father who abused them and was not a good father and now they’re trying to overcome all that damage from that parental upbringing.”

Ultimately, however, the biggest challenge was how to hook an audience that can choose from thousands of pieces of streaming content at the click of a button. Blackman was not immune.

“There is tremendous pressure in the streaming environment to lock in an audience. To make an audience stick around. So every episode had a great ending, to make you go, ‘I don’t care if it’s midnight or one in the morning, I’m going to keep watching this show’. So it was important, and I thought that through in the beginning, to keep people excited to come back. I do feel that I succeeded. I think you’ll want to come back for more.”

  • Umbrella Academy airs on Netflix from 15 February. It also stars Robert Sheehan, Tom Hopper, Mary J Blige, Aidan Gallagher, David Castaneda, Cameron Britton and Emmy Raver-Lampman.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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