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How Runaways changes up the comic's point of view

Contributed by
Nov 21, 2017

Ever since former wunderkind Josh Schwartz teamed up with Stephanie Savage back in 2003 to executive produce The O.C., the pair have remained a creative writing powerhouse. From Gossip Girl to the recent Dynasty reboot, the two have a knack for leaning into water cooler television. The hope is that they'll do the same with Hulu with their adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona's Marvel comic book, Runaways.

The series is essentially a teen versus parents drama, as the progeny of a group of very wealthy and influential couples discover their parents are actually part of a secret cabal known as The Pride. When the kids accidentally see their parents participating in a secret ritual meant to sacrifice an innocent peer, their innocence is shattered. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game between generations as more secrets are revealed that could impact the future of the world.

Schwartz and Savage sat down with SYFY WIRE over tea to dissect how they approached translating such a beloved book into a series that honors both the source material and allows for plenty of surprises.

Having worked on The O.C. together, teens stories are certainly in your wheelhouse, but Vaughan's voice feels particularly attuned to your style of writing.

JS: When I first read the comic book, I was like, "I don't know who this Brian K. Vaughan is, but this is my people," so his tone was very appealing. Obviously, the premise of the book was so fun. I have been a Brian fan for a long time. On Chuck, Chuck has a Y the Last Man poster on his wall so when we first met Brian, I said, "We put a Y poster on his wall!" He said, "I know. My parents told me about that and they talk about that more than my comic books." And what was fun for me was that Steph was not a reader of the comic book world. It was important, obviously, if we were going to do this together she had to love this world as much as I did. So having her read the book for different reasons, it felt like there was so much there that spoke to both of us.

SS: The humor and the voice of the characters was a huge part of what drew me in. Plus, the great cliffhangers at the end of every issue, the incredible female characters and the diversity felt really special.

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Runaways was a huge book in the early 2000's because it was a departure from what Marvel was putting out at the time. It means a lot to many readers so did you feel obligated to lean into what the fandom treasured about it?

JS: Some because you have to be aware [of that] but you also have to make your show. And so what does Nico mean to the larger readership that transcends the Runaways? Got it, flagged it, know that. But hopefully the things that spoke to us about the characters are the same things that spoke to the readers. What we really wanted to do was dig into it even more, and open up that first run, where it really is kids vs. parents, and live in that world for as long as possible. We wanted to dig into stories, the back stories and also the parent's stories and make them as important to the story as the kids are. We also had Brian in the room with us for the first month that we were blue-skying to give us his thoughts on scripts and outlines. It gave us courage to get his endorsement, but also we got his brain helping cook up that stuff with us.

Brian has written for TV series like Lost, so he knows how to write in a room.

JS: Yeah, which is why at first he didn't want to meddle. He was like, "I've been on shows and I don't want to be 'that guy'. I've had experience where a person whose source material was super cool and gave me a lot of space." We said just come for the first lunch and then he stuck around for a month so it was great.

Were any of his ideas, or unused story threads, directly expanded upon for your series?

JS: Sure. Why are the Yorkes Jewish but the Steins aren't? [Laughs] There's that kind of stuff and a lot of questions like why did you and Adrian take the story in this direction? And a lot of times the answer was that they thought the book was getting canceled in the next issue.

It was a book that was always in peril.

JS: Yes, so they made decisions that as showrunners you find yourself in a similar position sometimes. That shared experience was exciting to be able to slow it down, even though it's a fast-moving show, and open it up to live in it.

SS: It's more of a deep dive rather than what's the next incident and the next plot point.

Structurally, how much did you want to adhere to the book narrative?

JS: Our pilot story is from the kid's point of view, which is true to the book. The second episode retells the pilot story from the parent's point of view and then the stories meet up halfway through that episode and keep moving. We really want to send a message to the audience early that this is a family story and it's not just a teen drama. It's about the parents as much as the kids, and there is no villain.

With so many Marvel TV series out there now, how did you want to aesthetically frame the story to distinguish yourself?

SS: Our pilot director is Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck), who comes from a documentary background, so his whole mantra for establishing the template for the show was authenticity and making sure everything felt organic and grounded. Even when we are dealing with heightened situations, the look of the show and the reactions of the characters felt very grounded and how it would be if it was happening to us. I think it has a unique visual look that does come from the doc tradition. It's very cinematic and doesn't feel like a traditional Marvel show or a traditional teen show.

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Did the Marvel TV think tank mandate anything you were required to do in your adaptation?

JS: We can tell the story we want to tell regardless.

SS: We love that it's set in L.A. so that in itself gives us our own blue sky, palm tree world that feels unique to the other shows.

Are you weaving any future comic storylines into Season 1?

JS: For the first season, it's really about living inside that first run.

For Season 2, will go you off book so you can really make it your own story?

JS: [Executive producer] Jeph Loeb was right on when he said, "If all you're doing is taking a comic book and telling the exact same story in the exact same way, it's no fun for anyone. I think it's about being true to the spirit of the book.

SS: And again having Brian a part of the process has made that really freeing and emboldening that we're taking some chances that we might not have felt like we could take chances with if we didn't have him apart of the process.

There's a smart juxtaposition in your casting using relatively new teen actors for the Runaways versus casting established genre actors as their parents. Was that to bring in some established genre fans to the show?

JS: The fun thing about making a teen drama is that it's going to be about people you've never seen before, and it's about discovery which is great. With putting the adult cast together, if they have a recognizable background in genre...bonus. But who feels like the best version of that character? In the cases of Kevin Weisman (Alias) and James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), that just happened to work out.

SS: They well-embodied the characters they are playing. James is an amazing Victor Stein.

JS: And Kevin just slays as Dale Yorkes.

Did you have the kids and the adults read together for chemistry?

JS: Part of it was timing as some of the kids had to get cast, but we certainly did chemistry reads for Alex (Rhenzy Feliz) and Nico (Lyrica Okano) which was important for us. We also did some for the parents. Then we did a bowling get-together with the cast and the actors who play Robert and Tina (James Yaegashi and Brittany Ishibashi) reached out to Lyrica and were like, "Hey, we're your parents so we should probably drive with you to the party!" She was like, "No! I'm supposed to hate you." So the family dynamics came about naturally. (Laughs)

Does the series airing on Hulu impact the style of the show in any particular way?

JS: The Hulu thing was great for us because had it not been there we probably would not have been able to tell the kids stories and the parents. We also got 10 episodes and that's a beautiful number as people who have done 25 to be able to dig into 10 is wonderful. And the Marvel thing is important to them but they really wanted us to focus on character. If it was episodic, I think it would be about the next event.

Marvel's Runaways debuts on today on Hulu.