The Defenders EP talks juggling four heroes — and the 'crisis' that unites them
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When Marvel TV tapped Daredevil season 2 showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez to helm their small-screen mash-up series The Defenders, the pair faced what seemed an impossible task: They had to work with four entirely different heroes who come from four entirely different worlds. Strip away their superhero exteriors, and Daredevil is an ultraviolent law drama, Jessica Jones a heady noir, Luke Cage a hip-hop-infused character study, and Iron Fist a martial arts extravaganza. “On paper, it seems like such a crazy challenge, because they’re all so different,” Ramirez admits. “How do you put Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist in the same room and give them the same goal?”
To make the balancing even more difficult, when Ramirez and Petrie began working on The Defenders, neither Luke Cage nor Iron Fist had aired, but they had to draft the shows’ arcs in advance. Plus, they had to make sure their familiarity with Daredevil didn’t mean his story would overshadow the others’. And finally, by the time The Defenders was set to start shooting at the end of October, Petrie had exited as co-showrunner. “We got to a point where the scripts were done, and we wanted Marco to continue, and Doug pursued other avenues,” Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb says.
But Ramirez wasn’t worried. “We’ve all been working on this for a very long time, so we’re good,” he explains. “Daredevil season 2 was an interesting audition, in a way, because we dealt with three major characters,” he says, citing the additions of Elektra and the Punisher. “I’d gone through the motions of figuring out how to cross those streams and mix the tones of each of those worlds.”
Ramirez spoke to EW about putting together The Defenders, the unique way the show has tackled working with other writers’ rooms, and what to expect when the series finally airs. Below is a condensed version of two separate interviews.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s go all the way back to the beginning of this series. How did you land the role as a showrunner? Was there an audition process or something like that among all the showrunners?
MARCO RAMIREZ: There wasn’t an audition process or anything. Marvel turned to me and Doug and said, “You know, you guys did some cool work on Daredevil season 2,” so now I’m here. Daredevil season 2 was an interesting audition for The Defenders in a way, in retrospect, because we dealt with three major characters [Daredevil, Elektra, and the Punisher]. I’d gone through the motions of figuring out how to cross those streams and mix the tones of each of those worlds.
How did you go about breaking the story? What pieces did you already have when you started writing?
The very bare-bones structure of it, I think Jeph Loeb has had since day one. He always knew what he wanted The Defenders to be in the end, he always had a broad sense. So when we initially took the job and when we initially started breaking the story down with the other writers, we knew the very broad strokes of what Marvel wanted to do, and it was our job to make that into eight cool episodes of TV.
Some things change along the way as the shows individually get made. Jessica Jones was such a massive success, Luke Cage was such a massive success, and with Iron Fist coming up, it’s never what you think the first thing is going to be. They’re changing on the fly, who these characters end up being. Even to a certain degree, what Charlie [Cox, who plays Daredevil] brought to Daredevil was different from what anyone had anticipated, and that’s so great. It helps us define who Daredevil was on this, so I do think there was a lot of recreating the initial plan.
We didn’t even know how many episodes we were going to do in the beginning. We were just like, “What do we want? How much do we need?” We finally found, with the writers, a shape that we felt was right for these four characters who are all individually really strong and independent and have really strong fan bases. We wanted no one to feel left out, so it was a fun challenge. We didn’t want to shortchange anyone.
What did you talk about at that first meeting with Jeph, with you and Doug being brought on board?
We were talking about where we would even begin with it, how to make this feel as organic as possible and not like, you know, a corporate mandate or something that we were just doing just because we had this project that we had to fulfill in any kind of way. It was like, “How can we make this feel earned and real and grounded the way that all these shows feel earned and real and grounded, and also topical and important, the way that Luke Cage and Jessica Jones did? If we tell this story, what is this story?”
How did you begin exploring each of the other characters, then? Like you said, it sounds kind of insane to put them together, but how did you learn about them? Did you meet with the other showrunners, visit the other writers’ rooms, or watch every show and take notes?
It was a lot of watching every show and taking notes and reading all of the scripts. For Luke Cage, for example, that hadn’t aired yet when we started writing, so we were just reading all the scripts and then watching everything from the initial auditions. Even before they had people cast, before they had any episodes shot, we needed to know, you know, what is Misty [Knight, played by Simone Missick] going to feel like? What is Luke going to sound like?
I remember when Jessica Henwick was cast as Colleen [in Iron Fist], Marvel representatives ran up to our offices, and they were like, “This is Colleen, just so you know!” And we were like, “Oh, cool! Now we know what she looks like!” It felt like we were making dessert while someone else was cooking dinner, and we were all in the same kitchen at the same time. The chicken isn’t even ready yet, and we’re already making the chocolate cake. [Laughs] That’s a bad metaphor.
So did you feel like you were sort of running multiple shows then?
It didn’t feel like we were running any of the other shows, because obviously Cheo [Hodari Coker, showrunner of Luke Cage] and Scott Buck [on Iron Fist] and Melissa [Rosenberg, on Jessica Jones] with season 2 of Jessica Jones have their own plans and their own stories to tell, but it felt like we were leasing other people’s cars. They were like, “Please drive this gorgeous, fast Ferrari. These are the specs on it. This is what it can do. Please just don’t break it.” [Laughs] You know? By breaking it, I mean, “Please don’t go against what the character is meant to do.” All I wanted to do was honor the hard work they’d already done, so yeah, we were always in conversation with Cheo and Scott and Melissa, and they would read our scripts.
How do you communicate with all of them? Do you have an email chain or something?
Well luckily, Marvel has a compound [laughs] so we’re all in the same building. Like, and this happened very early on, if I wanted to go over and ask Cheo questions, I would just go over and ask Cheo questions about Luke Cage’s world. I’m not sure [Marvel] would like the word “compound,” but it’s certainly one big building. It feels like a dorm. I say that because I sleep here. [Laughs.]
A massive Marvel sleepover sounds fun, but then, how do you guys work out the continuity of all the characters’ arcs? Are you running around all the time, or do you have a giant board with index cards set up tracing where all the stories are going?
[Laughs] Yeah, my office looks like Claire Danes’ office in Homeland. It’s just a bunch of arrows and color-coded things. It’s a lot of timelines, a lot to remember. But even beyond the timeline stuff, what’s really important to all of the writers on this was we were basically telling a version of Daredevil season 2.5, a Luke Cage season 1.5, a Jessica Jones 1.5, and Iron Fist 1.5, so it felt like we had to tell the story that came after their immediate seasons and before their next ones.
So, you know, what was important was emotionally, we were picking people up exactly where they were and telling a story that would get them to where they needed to be. It was really about tracking emotions and motivations more than it was about tracking events or dates. That goes for everyone, all the protagonists and the [supporting] members of our cast.
Does that mean that the story you and the writers were crafting had to be reactive to everyone else’s endpoints? Like, you had to wait for a show to reach a conclusion they’d film before you could move forward?
I wouldn’t say it’s reactive. I would say there’s a give and take, even to the story point. This is where the Marvel executives are really good. If we have a story that’s somewhat similar to what someone else is going to do on any of the individual shows, we would get flagged. It’s just a big, massive conversation. It’s weirdly like there’s a massive writers’ room with all of these shows existing as little organisms.
What’s an example of a story point that had to be changed become another show was already doing it?
I mean, for major story arcs and emotional arcs, we never really risk repeating those, thankfully, because we’re always so aware. It would come down to the logistics of a fight scene or a car chase or something, or a beat or even a character that feels similar to what someone else was going to establish. I can’t get too specific, but suffice to say if we came up with a cool car chase with three motorcycles, they’d be like, “Oh, we’re doing a three-car chase on this other show, so let’s not make the same thing.”
So Doug left as a co-showrunner at the end of October. Does that change anything at all? I know the scripts were finished by then.
It didn’t really [change anything]. I mean, we’ve all been working on this for a very long time, so we’re good.
Then, moving on to the story that’s been written and that’s filming now, what were those bare bones that Jeph had given you guys to start with? Did you know the conflict that would unite the Defenders?
I can’t describe too much, but I can say that we knew it had to be something big. We knew it would take something massive to pull these four characters from their individual worlds to work together, but also small enough that it felt like it existed in our world. It needed to be a crisis that brought these people together, but it still needed to be a very street-level crisis. That’s the world we’re dealing with, so it couldn’t be anything too sci-fi or too supernatural or big. That’s the stuff of the movies.
Are we going to see the Hand and that thread continue on through?
This should feel like a continuation of all the shows. Not that I’m trying to be cagey, but yeah, we will feel like this is the next step for all four of the shows… This will be a serialized story that feels like it is about one kind of contained event and story in our world. It’ll be one satisfying, self-contained piece.
Does this mean we won’t see other villains return, the ones who are still alive?
[Laughs] I don’t think we should be expecting anything. I gotta be cagey on that too.
What about how you would blend the four shows? How did you tackle the tone?
One of the good things about how the other shows all operate is they’re all about a central protagonist, and at the end of the day, they’re not about superpowers. They’re all about someone who has some major flaw and some major crisis and also heroically somehow overcomes it. One of the things early on that I found helpful was not to think about how many differences they have but to go the opposite way and think about how much they have in common.
And aside from the fact that they are all Marvel characters, there’s a recurring theme here with people who are orphans or people who don’t understand this urge but feel the need to do good and are constantly fighting inner turmoil and having that affect their personal lives. There’s a certain amount of maturity with how they deal with the superhero-ness of it all… We didn’t think about it in terms of how we’ll combine all the tones. We thought about the tone as its own thing. It’s about making sure this thing is something that could encapsulate all four worlds.
The other thing to remember is that there have already been characters who have cross-pollinated from one world to the other… In some cases they don’t know who each other are, but in some cases, they do. Obviously Luke and Jessica know each other, but others don’t know each other, so it’s about that in the beginning. Are you an enemy, or are you a friend?
So to summarize, the big question of the show will be whether these people can figure out that they’re heroes, and they should be heroes together?
Yeah, to me, it’s about four independent thinkers on their own flawed journeys who realize for a brief moment in time, they’re actually stronger together than they are apart. It’s ultimately a story about a family of orphans who are very grown-up but still have more growing up to do.
But in terms of their individual character arcs, it was basically taking the questions that were posted. This was something I told the writers: It’s taking the questions that were posed in the finales of each of their shows. So the last times we saw them, where are they, and what are they going to need to do in order to grow up? What do they, as they come out of their own seasons, need?… We never wanted anyone to feel like they’re a guest on anyone else’s show. It’s weirdly about all four of them. It’s about all of their collective stories finally folding in on each other.
I mean, you don’t have to have seen any of the other shows to come to this. We’re not entering the world of capes and superheroes. We’re taking our cues from shows like The Wire and The Shield. This is about what happens in the back alleys of New York City, and how people have to rise to the occasion. It’s for a fan of good crime TV as much as it is for a fan of superhero TV shows.
How did you go about mixing and matching characters? Obviously, the foursome won’t all be in the same frame all the time.
It’s funny, I almost think we should shoot each coupling on the street just so everyone will realize that they’ll all be together at some point [through paparazzi photos]. When it came down to it, there was just no way we would get away with telling this story and not have Danny Rand and Luke Cage have some chemistry, just because of what’s been established in the comics for them in Heroes for Hire. Danny and Matt’s relationship is really exciting to me. The Luke and Jessica and Danny dynamic is exciting. And that may be one of the most fun parts of the show to some people. Everyone needs a relationship with everyone else here.
We look up at a bunch of boards in the writers’ room, at the full season, and say, “Oh wait, we haven’t seen an interaction between these two,” or, “These three haven’t been together yet.” So what does that mean? Where does that lead? It was almost like a checklist, like, “Where’s our great Luke and Jessica scene? Where’s our Danny and Matt scene?”
I’m also curious about that mixing when it comes to the fight scenes. Their very first scene together is a fight scene, and that means juggling four different styles into one show. How did you go about that? Were there different stunt coordinators for each character?
It’s kind of like imagining a musical composition, and everyone has their own instrument. We have to work our way for Matt to do some cool parkour-y stuff, Danny to use his fist in some awesome way, Luke to use his strength and invulnerability in some cool way, and Jessica to just be a badass brawler. Coming at them from an emotional perspective is how we write those fight scenes, so Luke ends up being the protector, and Danny and Matt end up becoming the offense. Jessica is kind of the reluctant punk rock member of the band who doesn’t want to be there, but who’s really awesome. It’s making sure each of the characters can really pop.
Will we get to see them fight each other and compete using their powers and abilities?
I can’t answer that. I can say that they are all super strong-willed. These are four wild animals who will not be tamed easily… We never lose sight of their differences, even when they’re fighting on the same side.
Let’s talk a bit about the streaming model for this. The Defenders will be eight episodes as opposed to the 13-episode seasons for the stand-alone series. So how should this miniseries be viewed? Should it be binged because it’s shorter? How do you approach streaming?
We have to assume that some fans are going to watch it all at once, and we have to assume that some fans are going to watch it in two parts, or in three parts, or more, so it’s really about finding the right shape within that dynamic and giving the audience the ability to watch it. It’s like, build your own adventure, even though the adventure is what it’s going to be. [Laughs] I certainly feel sometimes, while watching any good show on a streaming platform, that the storytellers are telling me, “Now it’s safe for you to go to sleep and come back tomorrow.” [For us], it was about making sure [the episodes] are action-packed and as fun as possible, but also making sure that the person who watches all eight feels they’ve experienced one continuous train ride.
Will there be those moments where it’s safe to go to sleep, like act breaks in the season?
If I started watching this, I would not go to work the next day. [Laughs] It’s just kind of my taste as a writer. My first TV job was on Sons of Anarchy, and that show really tended to run and gun, and you picked up with adrenaline every episode and ended with adrenaline, so to me, that feels like what we want to do with these eight.
What is the timeline of the story? Over the course of these eight episodes, will we be seeing many months pass or days? Do they all run in real time and culminate in, like, an hour?
[Laughs] Yeah, an hour would be great, every episode is, like, 10 minutes. [Laughs] No, I will say that once we’re in, we move pretty fast. Once the bullets start flying and cars start getting flipped, we are certainly not taking our time with it. The story is kind of a shot of adrenaline to the neck.
The opposite of superhero fatigue, then.
Hopefully we won’t suffer any fatigue with what we’re doing because I think we’re doing something that hasn’t ever been seen before. Certainly on TV a crossover like this hasn’t happened before, so I don’t think the audience will feel fatigue. And then the trick after The Defenders is, you know, not doing a story like this again. [Laughs]
Marvel’s The Defenders hits Netflix summer 2017.