Great Guns director Dan Trachtenberg on shooting Amazon’s The Boys, the prescience of Garth Ennis and his frustration with Easter eggs
What would happen if superheroes were real? With the world an feeling increasingly confusing and unstable, maybe they'd swoop in, clean up and provide role models for us all to admire and aspire to? Would they be as conflicted and corruptible as the rest of us? Or – hang in there – would they be even worse than regular folk? The new Amazon Prime series The Boys posits that far from being paragons, the Super Best Friends would be unrestrained egotists, narcissists, and psychopaths. The show sets up a band of underdogs against shiny avengers The Seven and their corporate masters Vaught - along the way tackling everything from evangelical mega-churches to the international arms trade. In the world of The Boys, these 'heroes' are coveted by brands and warmongers alike.
Director Dan Trachtenberg is no stranger to the world of geekdom and speculative fiction – he’s got an episode of Black Mirror under his belt and a recently-launched trailer for the new Warframe game, which he made through his commercial production company Great Guns. On the big screen, Dan directed the hit sci-fi feature 10 Cloverfield Lane and he's slated to shoot an upcoming movie adaptation of the videogame Uncharted, starring Tom Holland. But he’s also no stranger to the work of Garth Ennis, the Northern Irish writer who penned the original graphic novel that the series is based on. Dan describes Preacher, another Ennis comic that has also been adapted for TV by Seth Rogen’s team, as his ‘favourite story of all time’ and he’s been developing his own project based on a smaller Ennis title called Pride & Joy. Being such a fan of the creator and his comics, Dan was surprised and thrilled to be brought on to direct the pilot.
As he directed the first episode, Dan worked closely with writer and producer Eric Kripke to help shape the look of the world and set up the rest of the run. Costume, for example, was key to bringing the comics to life. Costume designer LJ Shannon was brought in even before Dan joined the team – and fans of comics will be impressed at the luxuriant accuracy of the superhero suits. At the same time, with the more ‘human’ characters, Dan was keen to avoid the obvious and to deviate for the comic where it benefited the characters. So leading man Billy Butcher, played by Karl Urban, ditches the Matrix-y black duster and black T-shirt for a dishevelled Hawaiian shirt vibe; corporate shark Madelyn Stillwell swaps shoulder pads for a look that suggests an exec who ‘brings her whole self to work’ and spends a little too much time browsing & Other Stories. “In a TV show that’s trying to sit alongside movies that have much bigger budgets and much more time, they were sure to start working on the costumes very early on so those things can look legit,” says Dan. “I thought that was a really smart idea and we were able to crack the nut of feeling authentic and true to the comics, as well as what the costumes were referencing originally in the comics.”
That attention to detail is also apparent in Dan’s approach to the big bombastic set pieces. For example, one of the key moments in the pilot is an iconic scene from the comics where hapless everyman Hughie [played by Jack Quaid] first meets his favourite hero, the speedster A-Train. As the fastest man on earth rushes, we glimpse the world from within superspeed, cracks slowly creeping across windows as they’re shattered by a sonic boom. It’s a moment that crystallises the narrative tension of the whole series, as ordinary people are caught up in the fallout of the heroes.
“This thing is probably happening in other superhero movies but they’re not showing us that part. There’s a lot of collateral damage, cars get tossed but as long as we don’t show it, it doesn’t trigger us to go ‘wait a minute’. This show is deliberately trying to say, ‘no, no… bad things can happen’,” says Dan.
But the show is not a stilted recreation of the comics – there’s plenty of original stuff and new moments too. For example, there’s the showstopping fight between Billy Butcher and invisible supe Translucent. During the punch-up, Billy spits his own blood over Translucent in order to see where he is – an instance of clever CG and even cleverer problem solving.
“The trick with television is that you don’t have the time to do all that fight training and fight choreography that you would have in a movie. We had a tremendous fight choreographer but we didn’t have the time to iterate and workshop ideas. Working in TV I’m always thinking ‘what’s a good idea’? Even if we don’t have time to execute the specifics of the melee, what is a good hook that can tell the same story in a fun exciting way?” says Dan. “There was a version [of the fight] where the sprinklers would go off and so we’d see Translucent’s outline in the water but it felt like this is much more specific to our show and Butcher's energy. He allows himself to beaten up in order to use his own blood to mark where the bad guy is. I thought it was a clever way in to handling a fight scene and it is much more character-orientated.”
And that character-driven approach is just as key to The Boys’ success as the tricksy visuals and elegant production design. Where the original text revelled in stereotype, the series takes a surprisingly nuanced approach. The Stillwell character was male in the comics but in the show is a new mum with a big career (the scenes of her being simultaneously leered over and sneered at in disgust as she breastfeeds and pumps milk might be one of the sharpest observations in the show). When Dan talks about the characters, he’s as likely to talk vulnerability and fragile machismo as he is power and superpower.
Collaborating with Jack Quaid to bring the audience-subsitute character Hughie to life was a real highlight for Dan as a director. Jack’s improv comedy chops brought something that the director and cast members could play with and Dan says his ‘aww shucks vibe’ is something he finds deeply relatable on a personal level.
“I think we were able to improvise more on the first episode, which is something I was happy to have and specifically Jack and Karl’s scenes really got electric. Jack is very gifted when it comes to improv and the two of them were really great together,” recalls Dan.
There is one area where Dan didn’t invest quite so much energy, however: the Easter egg department. As a lifelong fan of geek culture, Dan has a habit of weaving painstakingly obscure references into the background of scenes in order to reward the hardcore fans. But the eagle-eyed internet-eratti have left him hanging with his recent projects like Warframe and Black Mirror that he’s decided to exercise a little more restraint.
“I put so many little things into that Black Mirror episode that no one’s picked up on that it’s killing me! I think that’s hurt me so much that now I’ve stopped doing as much as that. There are things in the Warframe trailer that require freeze-framing and super, hyper Warframe veterans have not discovered them yet!”
If you’re suffering from superhero fatigue, you might be tempted to give The Boys a miss, but it’s far from another attempt to surf on the success of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s as much a critique of modern politics, influencer marketing, and media manipulation as it is a dissection cape-wearing wonderboys.
“On the surface, we all thought it was a deconstruction of superhero ideas, and certainly it is in many ways, but actually as we were working on it, any time we were trying to do a run on superhero stuff that well would run dry pretty quick,” reflects Dan. “The stuff that Eric Kripke brought to it, really what we’re sending up is celebrity and politics and how these two things combine. The 1% versus the 99%. That’s the real stuff that we’re trying to shine a light on and that’s where anyone – who has the stomach for it – can access this.”
That meditation on the interplay between power, politics and celebrity is there in the original Garth Ennis text – albeit obscured by lashings of gleefully gratuitous blood and fornication. “Sometimes with The Boys comic book I think a lot of people missed the thematics behind the violence. I think Eric did a tremendous job bring that stuff to the surface,” says Dan.
Of course, since The Boys first hit comic stands in 2006, subsequent developments have rendered the series weirdly clairvoyant. There’s the #MeToo movement, fake news, the social media explosion and the election of the host of The Apprentice as POTUS. For advertising nerds, the boom in influencer marketing and the complicated tussle of brands, celebrities and licensees is all too real. Several storylines play out differently on the show, evolving to fit the context of 2019 – for example newbie hero Starlight’s navigation of a horrible sexual assault and its subsequent fallout is both less gratuitous and more complex. It sees Starlight test the limits of her own agency and ends up taking the arc in a different direction. Nonetheless the core of these stories and ideas are to be found on the page.
“So prescient!” Dan says. “Between Charlie Brooker [the Black Mirror writer and showrunner] and Garth Ennis, I now know the two psychics I need to speak to before I invest in anything or go vote on anything because those guys called the way in which society would move very early on and the continue to do so.”
So yes, the show asks what would happen if superheroes are real. But in a time ‘what’s really happening?’ The world feels pretty messy right now and while superheroes may not be able to help save us from it… The Boys might just help us to make sense of it.