'Supergirl' producers on the politics of making a female superhero
With Supergirl taking flight on CBS tonight, we spoke with executive producers Greg Berlanti (Arrow, The Flash) and Ali Adler (Glee, Chuck) in separate interviews to ask some of our burning questions, particularly about the politics of making broadcast’s first female-driven costumed superhero show on a Big 4 network in decades.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was specifically the hardest thing about making this show?
GREG BERLANTI: I think I would say twofold: One was the stress of making sure that we had the right Supergirl. These things are incredibly cast-dependent, and if we don’t have that right person, you’re done even before you start. So just the pressure of that, I think, was felt by everyone, on every level. And the other thing I would say was incredibly hard, was just trying to do something of this scope and size, and, quite truthfully, in Los Angeles. It’s an expensive city to shoot in. These things don’t come cheap, and we didn’t want to do it if we couldn’t give it the scope that it really deserves.
There’s a leaked email from a Marvel executive a few years ago essentially saying, “This is why female superheroes don’t work,” and it listed three examples of ones that didn’t work over a long history of time. What was your take on that?
BERLANTI: It’s on us to make a great show. If we make a good show, I think people are really excited and interested in having a female lead at the center of one of these shows. I’m not even sure I was as aware of the desire for this until actually after we started making it. The kind of response I’ve had for that — from male and female parents wanting their kids, boy and girl, to have a hero like this in TV or movies. So I’ve definitely noticed a real desire for that when we’ve been doing.
Has everyone in the industry really been supportive, or has anyone privately said, “This could be tougher to sell”?
BERLANTI: Honestly, not a single studio or network person has worried about the show’s success or failure based on her gender. If people worry about the success or failure of the show, it’s based on are we doing a good job making it. And that’s where the pressure should be. There were moments where Supergirl gets a thrashing in the pilot, where if a man in the Flash or Arrow pilot got beat up, people didn’t visibly wince. And I watched in testing, people in the audience really became uncomfortable by the fisticuffs and the action. But then, they were elated and cheering at the end. And you can’t have one without the other. We always check ourselves to really make sure we’re not changing an element of the story or production based on the gender of this character. We try to be extra vigilant about it. Also, the majority of the executives on the project are women. In my gut, we’ve crossed that threshold, and the audience is going to be equally engaged by this thing if we do a good job making it.
At the same time, is there a certain amount of pressure? Like, if Supergirl doesn’t work, then will that say something — unfairly so — about the potential success of female-driven superhero shows?
BERLANTI: I feel a tremendous amount of pressure whenever we have a character that we’re doing that the audience has a lot of familiarity with anyway. Nobody wants to screw up a Supergirl or a Superman show. I’m sure they felt the same pressure back doing Smallville, or Lois and Clark. You’re a part of a larger thing, and so we already kind of feel that kind of pressure of making sure that it’s really good and that it can live within the really esteemed kind of canon of these stories.
ALI ADLER: If we had a female president, I don’t think we’d be going, “There’s our female president,” we’d just go, “There’s our president.” Maybe the first day in office we’ll talk about that, and after that, she just needs to prove her worth. You start watching it like it’s a female superhero, and then she’s just a powerful person.
It’s become a bit of a social media minefield — as Joss Whedon discovered with Black Widow in Age of Ultron — that if you make a perceived misstep with a female superhero character, you could be in for the biggest backlash of your career. And it’s partly because — as Mark Ruffalo pointed out — there are so few of them, so fans feel more protective of how they’re portrayed.
BERLANTI: I’m anxious for the day when there isn’t any unfair scrutiny. But we welcome any kind of conversation anybody wants to have about the characters. I think if you work in this space, and you’re lucky enough to do characters that are really well known, there’s always going to be a lot of conversation about something, and you always hope that people give you enough time to discover what the best version of the show is. That’s true, on our end, it’s true of any TV show we do. It takes a little bit of time to figure out what works best, and all our shows have a learning curve to them, and all the shows we do hopefully get better as we go along.
ADLER: I think there’s going to be our learning curve and then a teaching curve. We can’t just paint with two colors. I think Kara is very dimensional, which is exciting for us. Superman — at least in the comic books — is, to me, less interesting, because his range of emotion can only be … he’s an autonomous guy. So because Kara has friends, and this wider range of emotion, she has a different origin story, and grew up on Krypton, she knows two worlds, she’s just got a wider range of emotions we get to use.
Somebody told me Supergirl was Warner Bros.’ most expensive TV pilot ever?
BERLANTI: I don’t know. It’s the equivalent of after you have a baby, not remembering how hard the birth was. If I really sat around and remembered the cost of these things, I’m not sure I’d ever have the gumption to do one again. We definitely felt supported throughout.
It’s always tricky when you have a really expensive pilot, and then you have to do a regular episode every week. Is there any concern in terms of keeping the high production values beyond the pilot?
ADLER: I will say that the second episode is as big, if not bigger, than the pilot. So I don’t necessarily think money always translates to the largeness.
One aspect everyone seems to praise is series star Melissa Benoist. It keeps being hinted to me that somebody was reluctant about her initially, and that’s why her audition process dragged out. What was the hesitation that she had to overcome?
BERLANTI: It wasn’t so much a hesitation as much as it was everyone wanting to… When we do this audition process on our end—just so you know, because I think nobody realizes this — we see a thousand people. But then we only submit to the studio and the network the people that we like out of those people, because you don’t want to submit someone you don’t want, because you could get stuck with them. They didn’t, nobody at the studio or the network level had the benefit of seeing a thousand people like we did. And so I think — I wouldn’t even call it a hesitancy as much as it was everyone, the way I would describe it is, everyone just wanted to be sure. They knew that this was the most important decision that we would make, it was more important that the money we would spend on it. They have these pictures in the comics of a massive wave of a blonde mane, and she’s been drawn different throughout the years, with an emphasis on her chest, or legs. If Whereas if you’re casting Superman, everyone’s going to go like, “How much does he remind you of Christopher Reeve?” But we had an idea, just from the storytelling in the script, of who inspired us and who we wanted to write for. So I think the vetting process was totally to be expected. The studio, the network, asked for Melissa to do multiple scenes because they wanted to be sure. But the second everybody was sure, everybody was ecstatic. I always think the audition process is such a great indicator of the person in the part because her energy and spirit throughout the auditioning process told us that she’s going to have the joy and the exuberance and the stamina to do the show itself. We ended finishing the script even with her voice in our heads because we had a good sense that she was the girl.
I thought one of the smartest things you guys did was having the speech about the “girl” vs. “woman” in the pilot and then putting that in the trailer and getting out ahead of that just as criticism of that element began to brew online. You reclaimed the issue and reframed it. Whose idea was that, and can you talk about the strategy to get out there months before the show aired?
BERLANTI: That was my idea even before the pitch. That speech was in our pitch for the show. One of my golden rules about these things, is I don’t want to do a Supergirl show and then call it something else and make it something else. I want it to be what it. It’s hard enough trying to make these things what they deserve to be, let alone try to make them something different, and I knew sometimes the corporate people and executives can get nervous or scared about certain things. It’s called Supergirl and so people are going to wonder how that’s not too young for a broader network [like CBS]. One of the most valuable things about it is the name, so we wanted to have the conversation that we felt the audience would have.
Another step was the costume, which is sort of a trap. If it’s sexy, that’s bad. But if it’s unattractive, that’s bad too. What were some of the thoughts being thrown around the room when you were trying to figure it out?
ADLER: We got [designer] Colleen Atwood, who’s so inspired and brilliant and came in with so much thoughtfulness behind the suit. She talked about being inspired by Kryptonian wear. The belt that Kara wears is the same as her mother’s. Then there’s this modern thumb-strap to tamp down the sleeves. There was this functional quality that the boots are flats. With other female superheroes — you can’t run down the street and punch someone if you’re holding up your top. So there absolutely was this functional quality.
The version that leaked on BitTorrent was, from what I’m told, a higher resolution than anyone peripherally involved in the show actually had access to, leading some to think that it must have been deliberately leaked as a way of generating interest in the show since The Flash did so well after that pilot leaked. Was this a strategy?
BERLANTI: Oh my God, no, no, no it wasn’t. I’m pretty open-book about that stuff. I’m always excited when people are enthusiastic about the shows and for more people to be talking about the shows. But I feel like when people watch stuff that way, it’s like going to a restaurant and leaving before you pay the bill. I see how hard the crew and everybody are working on the show, to make these shows, and they have families, and people have to pay bills.
What was your reaction when you saw that it leaked?
BERLANTI: I get upset, and I write the studio and the network, and we talk to legal, and we talk to press and publicity about where it may have come from. Everybody is investigated. It’s no small deed. And then at some point over the next couple of days, I kind of relax about it and just kind of let the chips fall where they may, because there’s nothing I can do about it. We so closely guarded with the script. People in the auditioning process had to come to our office to read it. By the end of the day, there’s so many other things for me to worry about, I try to focus on what I can control. This happened last year on Flash, it got leaked, we put some extra time in the show, so the audience that saw it on air saw a couple different things they hadn’t seen in the show. We try and do stuff like that.
Another thing beyond your control was SNL‘s Black Widow parody that came out the same time as the trailer. What was your reaction to seeing that, and the romcom comparisons being made?
BERLANTI: I think it had come out a week or two before. I thought, “Oh gosh, maybe there really is a need for something like this if they’re already making a skit about it.” Clearly people are wanting to talk about why there’s not more female heroes represented. And then in terms comparing our trailer to the parody, I had no concerns about that, because I knew how much action we had in this. We had a meeting where CBS showed us all the different commercials that they have coming out for the show, and there’s commercials that promote the sister relationship, there are commercials that promote the alien element, there are commercials that promote the workplace comedy. And what was great with each one of those things were valid, because the show is all those different things.
We see Kara was raised by Dean Cain and Helen Slater in the pilot, will we see more of them in future episodes?
ADLER: They’re in an upcoming episode and we hope to do more with them.
I was wondering: Why does Kara feel the need to have a day job?
ADLER: I don’t know if the other job pays the rent, for one. Like Clark Kent, it’s important for her to stay close to this nexus of information and at CatCo she’s at this media hub. Also, Kara thrives on being around people.
Superman was before a time when everybody carried a camera in their phone and before facial recognition software. Will it be tougher to explain why nobody recognizes Kara as Supergirl?
ADLER: We actually address that in an upcoming episodes. Do we always see the heroes amongst us? You can be looking right at a person and not really see them. It’s about seeing someone for who they are.
Every reporter asks if Supergirl will crossover with your CW shows. To me it’s a silly question, because of course you’re going to do it — it’s just a matter of how long you wait before you do it. So my question is: Will there be any kind of crossover acknowledgement possible with the Batman vs. Superman film, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does with the Marvel movies? I’m wondering if that’s possible or whether, due to the corporate mechanics of it, it’s just not going to happen.
BERLANTI: What I’ll say about the network element crossover is what I always say, which is, “Never say never.” And then in terms of the connection to the feature side, we are writing a Superman who is not the same as the one that’s represented in the film. So we have nothing to do with them, because we reference him quite a bit on our show in different ways, and my sense of it doesn’t line up with that film. Ours is a different Superman.
Kara (Melissa Benoist) steps out from her super-cousin’s shadow to become Supergirl and defend National City in the third Arrowverse show.