Director Stephen Surjik has a career that spans both the big and small screens, with a resume that includes work on seminal projects like Kids in the Hall, Wayne’s World 2, The X-Files, and all six of the Marvel Defenders shows on Netflix, plus other Marvel Comics adaptations like Runaways and The Gifted… not to mention both seasons of the Netflix adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, which is the subject of this phone interview The Beat conducted with the accomplished filmmaker!
We asked Surjik all about the incredible cornfield scene from Umbrella Academy season two episode three (which was accomplished using actual corn grown for the purposes of the shot), how his experience storyboarding on Marvel projects informed the adventures of the Hargreeves siblings, and what effect time travel has when filming anachronistic on-screen romances!
AVERY KAPLAN: So there were no computer graphics in this scene?
STEPHEN SURJIK: Now, if I were to say that, I might be lying to you. But all of the corn they used in that gigantic shot where we went up into the air and did the twenty acres of corn, that was all real. In the actual explosion, when Vanya [Hargreeves, the White Violin] stopped the bullet that was coming at them, that was obviously computer graphics.
But the big divot – I guess it would be called the crater, that was caused by their superpowers – we did that by hand, and all of the corn in that area was grown specifically for the purposes of this episode; this scene.
KAPLAN: The corn was actually grown over three weeks?
SURJIK: They’d seeded the corn, and it was… I mean, I have the pictures of it!
We went out there to talk about what we wanted to do, where the areas were going to be that we’d shoot, because – for example, originally there were some vehicles driving through the corn. Primarily that was the reason why we had specialized vehicles put together, so they wouldn’t get stuck in those ridges in the ground.
So that was originally the concept, but by the time we got out there to look at what we were actually doing, the corn had started to grow. And it may have been there for ten years, but it was only 2 inches, 3 inches high. At the most, maybe there was a piece or two that was 4 inches. We were doing our scouting, and that was three weeks before we were going to shoot that scene.
So yes! That is the truth of it, and it blew my mind. I mean, we went up there, we took pictures, I was sick – I was sick! Because I didn’t think it was going to be ready. But the farmer – my producer said he talked to the guy who’s the specialist, and I asked him, “So how are we going to do here?” And he just, “If the sun shines, this stuff will grow, and it will grow very, very fast. And when you get here, there will be corn. I’m almost positive.”
And I was thinking, the corn is going to get up to three and half, four feet – like very tall grass. No. We go there and it was eight and nine feet! It was insane! It was so high, that it was dark inside when you walked through the rows…
We had to deal with that, we had to light it differently. I never really understood the meaning of “genetically manipulated seeds,” but I think that might be part of it right there!
KAPLAN: It just looks so incredible!
SURJIK: Yeah! Well, we went out there right before we went to camera, and I saw how high it was, and I went, “WHOA!” It was like… I’ve never seen anything like this, how can this be?
We made some changes – this is true. We had to pull rows of corn out, down every other row, so we could get our camera vehicle that’s going to be filming him (Elliot Page, who plays Vanya) run down the lane, and we got to the place where the explosion was going to be, and we cleared that area. And then we had our backup area, which is like a mirror of that entire section.
So we ended up using the mirror just for the aerial shot, the drone that follows Elliot and Five (Aidan Gallagher) into the crater and up into the sky… so that was a different spot than we shot everything else, but it was the area that we had planned to use. That’s all ours!
Again, if there was anything [computer generated] added, it would have been an extremely small bit of filming. Because the crew went in on a little run, on a little tread that we go in to get our cameras and everything into the area. Little patches of cleanup – tiny patches of cleanup – no reproduction, though. Nothing was put together to make it seem like there was more.
And of course, the explosion was CG, and of course, the guys – as they’re landing, we had to add some of the debris… So there’s reinforcement always that you don’t even notice. Wire removal, things like that. But the actual corn was planted and grew, and I’d like to say it’s god’s creation, but I think man took part in it as well – genetically engineered corn.
KAPLAN: How did you level the corn?
SURJIK: They’d break it – we studied the effects of actual craters that had occurred from a shell that comes out of the sky and lands on the ground. We looked at the way it would break and the way it would layer the foliage over into a pattern… So that’s what we emulated, but it was done by hand. Break it, snap it, and then move on to the next piece. And we looked at little tests of it and it wasn’t quite right, and we’d adjust it. Eventually the little epicenter of the bit was – we dug a little hole in the center and dumped hot coals in there, so it was smoking – that was the final touch.
But yeah, it was basically built by hand, and just by pushing over… You know, it almost looks like a crop circle, really, but we didn’t use boards to push it down or anything, the crew did it by hand… god bless ‘em!
KAPLAN: And it was a drone shot that pulled up and away?
SURJIK: Yes, it came out of the patch of corn. Five is talking to Elliot’s character Vanya, and they weren’t really aware of their powers, and as they walk, they see the big hole… directorially, I thought it was best to experience it with them, to see what they saw as they saw it. But then we leave their perspective and go to a third person perspective, as the drone goes up in the air.
One of the things we discovered – we tried a couple of different versions of that shot. There’s one that went straight up, and when you look down on it, oddly, it looks like an eyeball, and it was very distracting to do that! It didn’t feel like it was appropriate.
Let me just say – I’ve been working as a director for a fair amount of time. Too long to be proud of. But I used to be into shots: “Oh, this shot would be cool, that shot would be cool.” And it took me a long time to get away from that, to a point where the shot is serving the narrative – a good marriage to the emotional situation or narrative moment, so it would help amplify that moment.
You know, I tried to get away from talking about cinema, TV or film, in terms of shots, and talk about it more in terms of dramatic beats, in terms of what we’re feeling narratively, emotionally. But every once in a while, there’s a moment we can reinforce that feeling by doing a shot, and this is what that shot was. It was a dozer! It was a really great, spectacular, scope-y moment.
KAPLAN: Is there anything else about the cornfield you’d like me to include before I go on to my non-cornfield questions?
SURJIK: I got lost in it once, I should mention that! It was early on and I was wandering around. I actually got panicky, because I didn’t know how to get out of it… I knew, theoretically, if I followed the row, I would get down to one end.
When you’re lost, all of the sudden you’re soaking wet, you’re sweating and you’re panting, and you don’t know where you are. And I experienced that in the cornfield, and I knew then that production had done just a killer job at growing that corn for us.
That’s all I’m going to say about the cornfield. The rest of it is history.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us a little bit about how your experience working with and storyboarding for Marvel informed Umbrella Academy?
SURJIK: That’s a good question. I think that my experience with Marvel – and Marvel, as we know, began as a graphic narrative… I had come from art school, and in my early days I was cutting my teeth on graphic artists like Charles Burns, but it was basically the same thing: all of my work, every time I went to shoot something in motion picture, I always sketched it out, I’d always do a picture of it.
So when I got to Marvel – and by the way, I did this on Kids in the Hall, which is a sketch comedy show, probably before you were born. It was a sketch comedy show and I was hired to do small little clips, little short films that would be interspersed between the half-hour.
Anyway, that really taught me the value of storyboarding, and what it meant to a production. So when I got into Marvel, I had been storyboarding my whole life. And I’m not a good artist, I’m a graphic illustrator and I have a really fine artist that I work with, so I do all the drawings and he re-does them in such a way that – he works on the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, he actually teaches surgeons how to formulate an ear and how to draw an eye – medical illustration and plastic surgery, he’s a really detailed person.
And I’m not! I do my storyboard so I can understand the lens I’m going to use, the angle I’m going to shoot it from, where everyone’s eye lines are… then he fills in all those other details. And I’m not going to make light of it, there’s lots of them, and he’s a great collaborator. When we worked on Marvel, I storyboarded every shot that I was going to shoot, and that’s just hours and hours and days and days of drawing.
In the world of Marvel, they come from a world of comics – of graphic narrative. And so when they saw how I was approaching the work with my storyboards, it seemed to be a really great marriage. They understood this very clearly, they said, “Oh no, that’s not how this,” or, “Oh, that’s right, he’s got it right this time,” or, “that’s a beautiful idea, why don’t you do it from this angle,” and onward. So it was a great way to communicate.
When I got to Umbrella Academy… and interestingly, I just want to add, there was one of the writers in the Marvel Universe, she was working on Daredevil and she also did some scripts on The Defenders, and I ended up covering her scripts. She was up with me when we were shooting those scenes and shooting those episodes, and that was Lauren Hissrich. And Lauren ended up basically talking me into meeting with the people who were doing the Umbrella Academy, and she worked there for a little while, but then she ended up going off and doing The Witcher, which I just finished doing the first two episodes of the new season on.
But anyway, that’s just the backstory about how the connections work. And Lauren is a tremendously talented individual and she talked me into talking to Steve Blackman, and we talked about the show and I talked about my approach for the show, and we were fast friends; I understood what he was talking about and the universe, and I started storyboarding everything and passing them by him and he would review them and comment on them. So it was a terrific way to share our ideas about how a scene would unfold, and how we would approach a point of view in a scene, and what effects would come in and how much they would cost.
It’s a real asset to be able to look at a picture, because there’s some things that can’t be discussed in words, and you actually have to look at a picture. It’s like music – you can say it’s gentle or laid back, but you don’t really know what it is until you hear it. And pictures are like that, too. You know, they say a picture is worth whatever it is, a thousand words, a million words. A picture helps us communicate all throughout the making of those episodes, and I think that I’m just grateful that I was able to learn so much from Marvel, and in the way that they incorporate graphic narratives into their actual storytelling. And I think that was part of the contribution to Umbrella Academy.
Now, Umbrella Academy began as a graphic narrative – a very sort of Avant-garde idea that was built by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, I don’t even know how many years ago he started this. It began as a graphic narrative, a comic, very much like the Marvel Comics, just a different genre. And so in a way, it was a perfect fit.
KAPLAN: It’s not unusual to film out of chronological order, but I’m curious if there was any special challenge in filming the scene where Klaus meets his lover in season two when he had already had the conclusion of that relationship in a parallel timeline in season one?
SURJIK: Yes, yes. That is a really good question, and it’s a question that I haven’t come quite to terms with… and it’s a problem that can crop up.
I’ve had it kind of show up recently, I’m working on a show called Jack Reacher for Amazon, it’s a new series. They set me up to shoot the flashbacks, of Jack Reacher’s brother twenty-five years earlier. So I had young actors – young girls and boys who were going, “Who am I? What do I turn into? Who is Jack Reacher?” You can give them Lee Child’s book Killing Floor, but it’s probably best not to! They’re kids!
But it’s exactly the same issue, where you start to work on the conclusion of a relationship before you’ve done the development.
It was difficult [with Umbrella Academy], and we had a lot of discussions about whether or not we use the actor that we used in the relationship, that died in the field [in season one]. And it was a very difficult choice, because… you can’t make him look 15 years younger unless you go to CGI, and I don’t think that works. It’s really hard to do that in a way that is effective. So we just recast the person.
That was number one and that was a very difficult choice, and I don’t think there’s any right answer. I do believe that people will accept that this is now the kid that he was in love with.
And then there was a mind-bending problem, where the actor is dealing with a relationship that has already happened, and the kid died and he already buried him. He hasn’t resolved it, he’s struggled with it, and now he’s meeting him before he knew him – you know, it’s a time travel issue. What would you do, if you were there? What would you say to this person? And I think the reason it is a great scene is it’s sort of aspirational for all of us. We would all like to meet that person before we knew them, before something tragic happened in their lives – and we would like to help them at a time when we could be more effective and could more helpful.
So I think the scene is largely aspirational in that way, even as it’s tragic and difficult. It was a great scene to direct, and Robert Sheehan has such great insights on these things, and he’s able to deal with these details without going overboard and being so convincing in his rendition of the character and what he goes through. I think he’s got a magical quality in that way. And I wish I could answer more of that question, but that was our struggle!
KAPLAN: Is there anything else that you’d like me to include?
SURJIK: I think that there is a lot of talk about the value of family, and family values, and in Umbrella Academy, you have arguably the most dysfunctional family ever. But they also have these superpowers, which are unusual and empowering and aspirational. And somehow I think Umbrella Academy more represents the reality of our world now, in terms of the reality of our relationships and family dynamic.
No matter what your narrative is about, it has to have an underlying meaning that relies on character and relationships. In this particular case, it’s characters and relationships that are involved in the family, largely. And they do such a great job at expressing those broken but real relationships that I find it valuable and realistic beyond its, how shall we say, science fiction framework. I think it has value that’s larger that its entertainment.
The first two seasons of Umbrella Academy are currently available for streaming on Netflix – and a third season is on the way!