Marc Guggenheim breaks down his emotional Legends of Tomorrow directorial debut
Warning: This article contains spoilers about DC's Legends of Tomorrow's latest episode, "The One Where We're Trapped on TV."
For once, getting canceled is a good thing.
In Tuesday's Legends of Tomorrow (consulting producer Marc Guggenheim's directorial debut), the titular band of superheroes found themselves trapped on several different TV shows with no memory of their real lives. See, Charlie (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) placed her friends there to protect them from her sisters, who used the Loom of Fate to take over the world. Luckily, Zari 1.0 (Tala Ashe) had her memories, possessed Zari 2.0's body, and went on a very meta-adventure to free all of her friends from a Friends-like sitcom, a stuffy British drama like Downton Abbey, and a Star Trek homage.
With Mona and Gary's help in the real world, the Legends regain their memories. Charlie tries to stop them from escaping their TV prison, but the Legends refuse to back down, rebelling against the conventions of their TV show prisons. As each faux-series gets canceled, the Legends return the real world, which is now a bland, Fates-controlled dystopia. Oh, and now there are two Zaris in the real world because Charlie graciously split their thread, making Zari 1.0 and 2.0 two separate people.
In other words, Guggenheim was handed a fun yet very difficult episode for his first go at directing. Below, he takes EW inside the hour's Easter Eggs, musical moments, and more.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, was conducted for EW's Superhero Insider and will be available in full Friday on SiriusXM On Demand.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Some of my favorite parts of the episode were all the meta Easter eggs about TV shows with the scriptwriting algorithm, show swag, and canceling shows. How much fun did you have going through your repertoire and adding all of those in?
MARC GUGGENHEIM: You know what’s funny? A lot of them were already in the script. I think the only two audibles I called in terms of adding in Easter eggs were the joke that’s at Arrow’s expense when Nate describes the Hood show and Zari says it’s dumb. That was my ad-lib. And when [Dominic Purcell] was being Dhon, as in Khan, I asked him to quote a line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan directly because I love Wrath of Khan. Poor Dom had never seen Khan before, so in the episode, you are seeing his imitation of my imitation of Ricardo Montalban. I have to say that was a really fun day on set. Dom was so hysterical and threw himself into that role with such abandon that we were literally sitting at the monitors trying not to laugh and ruin the take.
I was going to ask you about the Arrow digs because I had a feeling that was either done for you or done by you, and I loved that moment.
If you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re not really trying.
This episode has a lot of musical elements, which are a beast to handle on their own. How did you approach those?
Well, first of all, here’s the thing: The cast is incredible. I mean, they can sing. Some people like [Shayan Sobhian] and Tala, they’ve got musical theatre experience and their game is ridiculous. They come into the recording, they’re like, “What key is this in?” and they know all the technical terms. You know, Matt [Ryan] and Olivia [Swann] were so game. We had to really talk about, like Matt, for example, he’s doing an accent on the show. He’s British, but he does a different style of British accent and he’s gotta now sing in that accent. It’s not easy stuff. But everyone just came in and got it.
I’m lucky insofar as I’ve had experience on Eli Stone doing pre-record sessions and singing on camera. So, I had seen it done enough times that I wasn’t coming to that experience entirely cold, but I’m not gonna lie to you. When they said, “Oh and by the way, we’re also adding in a musical number,” I was like, “Now, you guys are just being mean.” But I gotta give credit to [co-showrunner/writer] Grainne Godfree. She’s the one who, on the day, worked out the choreography of “Eat Your Mush” and everyone moving in concert. I actually have a video of Grainne doing it with the actors that if Grainne is ever mean to me, will be tweeted out.
To add another complicated aspect to this episode, you have two versions of Zari. How difficult was it to pull that off?
Well, you know what? It was particularly complicated because the moments with the two Zaris at the end of the episode, those were done on our first day, at the very end of a long day with what’s called a technodolly, which is a very sophisticated but also temperamental piece of equipment. I literally turned to Nico Sachse, the first AD, and I’m like, “Am I being hazed here? It’s hour 14, we’re like trying to get this done. Like c’mon, you don’t give a first-time director this on their very first day."
I will say, I was learning on the job how to use that piece of equipment. I think it works fine in terms of the two Zaris telling the story, but that’s part of the episode I wish I could do over again. Now that I know exactly what the equipment can do and exactly the right way to make it work, I think I could've done better there.
This episode is funny and goofy, but there’s also this sadness to it. It’s sort of a twist on “For the Man Who Has Everything” because, in the end, the characters have to make the choice to leave what could be paradise. Did you have “For the Man Who Has Everything” on your mind when you read the script? How did you approach those emotional moments where the characters are confronting this sadness?
I thought in terms of three things: “[For] The Man Who Has Everything;” “Terror in a Tiny Town,” which is John Byrne’s 20th-anniversary Fantastic Four story, which also is a similar “protagonist in an alternate reality, have to make the choice to go back” [story]; and It’s a Wonderful Life.
I would say probably the most challenging aspect of this episode speaks to the second part of your question about the emotions, which is: All the characters, depending upon which moment in the episode you’re looking at, they have their memories, they don’t have their memories, [or] they think they’re someone else, [or] they are themselves — all in different combinations. In some cases, they’re tempted. In other cases, they’re trying to get the hell out of dodge. The biggest sort of challenge for me was making sure each scene was tracking emotionally.
So, the thing that we did was: At the beginning of every scene, because we’re shooting out of order, even before we read the words, I would go over with the actors exactly where we were in the story. I’m like, “You are coming from this scene. You are going into this new scene now with this information, or remembering this, or feeling that,” so that when we cut it all together [and] put it into order, it wouldn’t feel schizophrenic. I was very afraid of it feeling emotionally schizophrenic. But just spending that five to 10 minutes before every scene, I think was really, really helpful just in terms of making sure that the emotions were tracking at the right moment because there’s a lot of juggling going on.
How did you go about creating that dystopian Loom-World visually? I feel like that’s definitely going to hit viewers a little bit differently now considering where we’re at.
There were so many different elements to it. Obviously, costuming plays a huge role. [Director of photography] David Geddes and I talked a lot about the lighting and camerawork for those sequences. But I really have to give it up for the art department because we shot all of the Loom-World stuff on location, so they had to bring in things — it’s not a soundstage – to really design the look of it. And they had to do that in the midst of an episode where they also were responsible for creating sets for four other worlds, if you will. So any one of those jobs would’ve been enough for any art department.
That script-writing machine was constructed by the props and art department working in concert together. And it really works. There’s no visual effect there. It is actually typing itself. It’s pretty amazing. We want to move it down to Burbank for the writers' room to give the writers some time off.
That would definitely be helpful. Did you ever predict when you were creating this world that everyone would be stuck inside watching TV shows just living their lives through TV?
I think it’s very safe to say that none of us, maybe with the exception of Bill Gates, anticipated what was going to happen. It’s pretty surreal. We were finishing up post just as the pandemic was hitting, just as the stay-at-home orders were starting to come in. We did the final playback for the sound mix — I don’t think the stay-at-home order had been completely in effect at that point — but it was just me, Geoff Garrett, the post-supervisor, and the sound designers and sound mixers on the mix stage with Purell everywhere.
I noticed that the final shot of the episode mirrors the final shot of the season 4 finale. Was that in the script?
No, it wasn’t. The script originally ended with them just walking out, but in prep, or maybe it was even a little bit while we were shooting, we decided to also end with Charlie reacting to it. But I have to say that I wasn't intentionally homaging that shot. I’d love to think I was that smart. I just knew the space we were in and, what would happen in a lot of the episode, I had an idea for a shot that I was seeing in my head. I probably was, on some subliminal level, influenced by last season’s finale.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.