Catching Up With Daredevil Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight

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Catching Up With <i>Daredevil</i> Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight

Many series have come to a close, as new productions are being ushered in. One of the most talked-about series is the upcoming Daredevil. Disney-Marvel and Netflix have joined forces to release the show, the first part of a series that will encompass Jessica Jones,Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and then a live-action miniseries TV event with The Defenders. Steven S. DeKnight has been dubbed the first showrunner.

DeKnight is the creator behind Spartacus, and he has worked extensively with Joss Whedon on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. His background is in playwriting, and he’s also been a huge fan of Matt Murdock for years. Those of us who are fans of his work are excited, but also curious to know how he’ll balance the depth of character development that is so prevalent in his past work, with the action sequences of a comic book superhero.

Paste caught up with DeKnight to discuss his journey from spec scripts to showrunner, what he learned from Joss Whedon, and what’s in store for “The Man Without Fear.”

Paste Magazine: Tell me about your background. Did you always foresee this future for yourself?
Steven DeKnight: When I started out in college, I wanted to be an actor. After a couple of years I realized I wasn’t tall and hunky, so I wasn’t getting those roles. I wasn’t Dustin Hoffman-quality, so I wasn’t getting those roles either! I started writing plays. From there, I went to UCLA to get my graduate work as a playwright, and then hung around for an extra year, and went to their screenwriting program. I graduated and I started writing spec screenplays because I was very interested in the feature business. Six and a half years, and nothing happened. I was an ESL teacher at a Japanese school in The Valley! I was grinding away writing spec features that nobody really wanted. I was a finalist in the Nicholl Fellowships, which got me a low-level agent. A friend of mine called me up one day and said, “I’m doing production managing on this terrible MTV show called Undressed. I can get your stuff to the executive producer’s people.” That was really my first legitimate paying job.

Paste: With Spartacus and Buffy you’ve done a lot of action-based TV. Were you into that growing up?
DeKnight: Not that I ever intended to fall into the action genre, but I grew up loving those movies, and reading comic books.

Paste: And how did you end up going from Undressed to Buffy?
DeKnight: So, this job on Undressed was my first paying gig. I did four seasons of that show. I figured I’ve got a paying job now, now would be the time to advance my career, so I wrote a spec Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My lovely agent, who really only worked in features, knew three people in TV, and one of them was the head of Joss Whedon’s company. She sent my spec over. They liked it. They said, “Joss has to read your spec.” So they sent it to him.

Paste: That’s a big moment!
DeKnight: Yeah! I went back to work on Undressed, and then I got the call: ”Joss read the script, and liked it, and wants to see you.” I hot-footed it over to Santa Monica, and sat down with him, And we had a great half-hour talk about comic books and movies. At the end he said, “You want to come write an episode of the live action show?” I said, “I would love to!” I came in as a freelancer, wrote an episode of Buffy, and they invited me to come into the production meeting. I always remember this moment; it was the set of the Magic Box. I went down and Joss said, “So we really like your script, we really like you. You want to join us full time?” It was one of the defining moments of my career. I said, “Absolutely. I cannot wait.”

Paste: What was it like working with him? Now that you’re a showrunner, what are some of the skill sets you still find yourself using today?
DeKnight: The great thing about Joss is that he really trains showrunners. That’s not something you see a lot in television. He wanted his writers to be on set, in casting, in editing. He gave people opportunities to direct.

Joss and I have a lot of common ground with our influences, and the way we approach the writing. I’m also a big Shakespeare guy, and we both read the same comics. And we both had, I think, the same sensibility, where a really dramatic scene can have something funny. And in a funny scene you can have something dramatic—really mixing that kind of stuff up. And we both really love language. I look back, especially on that first season on Buffy, and [think about] the phenomenal people I worked with. Even later, getting to work with Doug Petrie, Marti [Noxon], David Fury, Drew Goddard, and Jane Espenson.

Paste: With Spartacus—and also with Joss’s work—every time you have a battle scene or an action sequence, you have to balance it with emotional character development. From a writing perspective, how do you approach that?

DeKnight: The character stuff is the important part of it. The action part of it, I always feel like anybody can really write action. It’s not that hard you just need a blueprint to tell the stunt team where they’re going, and let them take it from there. The most important part of any action scene, was the question, What are the emotional stakes of the action scene? It’s got to propel the story, and illuminate the characters. That was especially true in Buffy and Angel with the action and the monster of week. It was a metaphor and something to shine a light on what our characters were going through.

Paste: I talked with George Mastras about Breaking Bad, and he said something that could also apply to working on Daredevil—Every time the character wins, he also has to lose a little bit. When you’re handling a superhero, how do you think about his arc?
DeKnight: With this version of Daredevil, we wanted it to be grounded, gritty, as realistic as we could portray. That naturally fits in with the Daredevil character. Matt Murdock, on a regular basis, would get the shit beat out of him. That’s one thing that makes him a great character. He’s not super strong. He’s not invulnerable. In every aspect, he’s a man that’s just pushed himself to the limits, he just has senses that are better than a normal humans. He is human. The other thing that really drew me to this character is that he’s one of the most morally grey of the heroes.

Paste: How so?
DeKnight: He’s a lawyer by day, and he’s taken this oath. But every night he breaks that oath, and goes out and does very violent things. The image that always stuck in my mind was the Frank MillerElektra run where he’s holding Bullseye over the street, and he lets Bullseye go because he doesn’t want Bullseye to ever kill anyone again. When I read that originally, when I was young, I’d never seen anything like that in comics. Superman scoops up the villain and puts them in jail. This time the hero didn’t do that. It was a morally grey ground that I found absolutely fascinating. There are two sides to this character. He’s literally one bad day away from becoming the The Punisher! Frank Castle went just a little bit further than he did. Daredevil has no qualms about beating the hell out of somebody. He’s not going to tie them up with his webs! He’ll come close to killing somebody. And it’s that fine edge—Why doesn’t he go all the way? I really liked the flawed heroes, the human heroes.

Paste: We recently heard big casting news about Charlie Cox, and then Deborah Ann Woll. How involved were you with casting?
DeKnight: Whenever you start casting to get a show off the ground, it’s so nerve-wracking, it’s akin to a writer just looking at a blank piece of paper before you start. There a thousand ways to go, and you’re sure that 999 are the wrong way. You just have to hope you find the right way. Luckily our cast came together, and I couldn’t have been happier. No one will ever perfectly fit what’s in your head. For me, the more important thing is not whether or not they look the part, but if they feel the part.

Paste: You’re involved in the casting, the writing, and the directing. Tell me about the process when you’re on set. How do you delegate?
DeKnight: When I was on set as the writer, I was always glued to the director, making sure every little detail was how I thought it should be. There’s nothing better for a writer, than to direct to give you a different perspective on the process. Now, I have a much more relaxed attitude. I don’t sweat the small stuff. One of the most important things about being on set if you’re not the director, is to know that—yes you’re there to make sure the vision of the show is what you want it to be—but you’re also there to support the director. I never talk to the actors directly to give notes, because I think that’s confusing. I will whisper in the director’s ear about a note, and keep an eye on things and big picture stuff too.

Paste: Are you communicating with the cinematographer at all?
DeKnight: If need be. Again, usually I’ll talk to the director if I think something is a little bit hinky. On Daredevil we have a phenomenal cinematographer, Matt Lloyd. He was just nominated for an Emmy for Fargo. His work is just gorgeous, so usually I have nothing to say but, “That looks fantastic!”

Paste: Daredevil is called “The Man Without Fear.” As a showrunner, do you think fear is necessary, or a hindrance? Are you a man without fear?
DeKnight: Oh, hell no! (laughs) This profession is just ripe with fear at all turns. I think a healthy dose of dread is good. It keeps you moving. It keeps you motivated. You can drown in it… but it keeps you on your toes. I don’t think I will ever be the man without fear.

Paste: I love that the show is on the Netflix platform. With Spartacus, towards the end of the series, you had a lot of artistic freedom. Will you still have that freedom?
DeKnight: Netflix has been fantastic. They are phenomenally supportive of the creatives. How much freedom will I have? This is a bit of a different scenario because it’s a Marvel property. Once you have an IP like that, there are restrictions that you have to accept. I’m fine with that, I totally understand. I’ll push it as far as I can, of course, but I also respect the fact that this character has been around for decades. Overall I’ve been surprised at how willing everyone is to take a really fresh look and really push what we’re doing.

Paste: You chose to end Spartacus. There are a lot of shows that, for monetary reasons, continue past the point when the creative juices have stopped flowing. Looking at a story like Daredevil, how do you avoid that?
DeKnight: That’s a good question. There are many factors in closing up the doors. Spartacus was one of those unique situations where we go to a certain point— when we got to the bigger war, the Third Servile War—it became exponentially more expensive. I started looking at the history, and realized that, for the time period that Spartacus fought the Romans, it was a bit repetitive.

On this show, I honestly have no idea. That’s so far above my pay grade. Making it even more complicated is the fact that [Daredevil] is one part of the bigger plan— Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and then The Defenders. How that all fits together, and whether or not there will be a second season of this show—or if it will fold into the others—are question nobody really has answers to yet.

Paste: It allows you to be in the moment as a writer, but it’s also challenging because you can’t really look at the arc of a seven-season show.
DeKnight: Right. I can say we’ve been talking about some very cool stuff for Season Two that, good God, I can’t even hint at! It’s something that would be just fantastic to work on!