Following D23, Andrew J Salazar sat down and talked with Ashley Bradley, the showrunner for the upcoming ‘What If…?’ series that will release in summer 2021. Ashley discusses her work on the recent ‘Trollhunters’ series as well as how she first joined the ‘What If…?’ series. She also discusses Captain Carter, Jane Foster Thor, T’Challa Star-Lord and what The Watcher brings to the series.
DF: To start things off, I was actually at D23 a few weeks ago and attended the Disney Plus panel. Can you talk about how it felt coming up on stage to what must have been thousands of people and receiving a very positive response to the first footage ever revealed from What If…?
Ashley: Coming on stage at D23 was a bit of a surprise. I knew I was going to D23 about a few months earlier because we were working on the trailer and then I was told, “You’ll probably end up going on stage for a moment”. I was like, okay, cool. Then I found out on Wednesday afternoon that I would actually be talking on stage and I thought, “Oh well this is going to be interesting”. I think it was only 10 minutes before we got on stage that I found out that we would be the first ones up. Kevin (Feige) came over to me in the green room. He goes, “We’re going to do this whole thing: we’re going to say thank you 3000, then you come on and talk about the cast, and then Bryan and you introduce the reel.” I pretty much turned to my executive producer, Brad Winderbaum, and asked, “Is there alcohol back here?” He laughed and said, “I wish”. It was a little nerve-wracking because it was 6,000 people, but it was also one of the most the receptive and warm audiences. So you can’t really knock it.
DF: Yeah because even though it is 6,000 people, every single one of them are fans. They actually want to see you and hear what you have to say. It was a great crowd. The response sitting in the audience was really exciting because no one had any expectations and they were completely floored.
Ashley: It was kind of nerve-wracking because for the first minute you couldn’t hear anything. Unless you’re in the audience, you can’t actually hear it until after a certain decimal. So we were like, “Oh, we don’t know if this is going well”. Then there was a lovely cheer with the revelation of Captain Carter and we were like, “Okay okay, we might actually have something here”.
DF: Before we continue talking about What If…?, let’s backtrack a little bit. How did you first get into the television industry and writing?
Ashley: How did I start off as a writer? Well, to be perfectly honest, I am from the Bronx, New York, so I grew up very working class and in a neighborhood that usually doesn’t produce many playwrights, poets, or writers in general. I didn’t grow up thinking I would ever work in Hollywood or this industry and it wasn’t until college where I would always write short stories on the side. Again, I didn’t think this was something you could have a career in. I started taking a couple of film classes because I liked the nature of screenwriting. I like the rules. I like the formality of it. I Like that they give you a box and then you spend a hundred pages trying to break that box. When I was about to graduate college- I got that thought, “Oh no, I don’t know how to live outside academia”. So I applied to USC film school and ended up getting my master’s right away. USC in Los Angeles is what brought me out here. I was an assistant for a few years and then yeah… it’s an uphill battle getting a waiting for your lunch.
DF: You worked on Trollhunters as a writer and that is a dream job because you got to work with an amazing crew and staff, including Guillermo Del Toro. Can you talk about the experience collaborating with the other writers and creating that world?
Ashley: Trollhunters came about because I had worked with the executive producer, Marc Guggenheim (Arrow) on a few projects previously. He called me up asking if I would consider staffing on this family animation show and up until that point, most things I had written had been pretty much PG-13. I was kind of surprised, but his real rationale, him being a brilliant man was, “I want someone in that room who knows long-form storytelling. I want someone who has seen every genre movie and who absolutely loves comic books”. So I joined the team. It was the Hageman brothers for the head writers and two other writers who had come from a YouTube background. I was the one that had the more long-form storytelling work and it was an interesting experience. We did 52 episodes in about 20 months, which is an insane speed. Guillermo Del Toro was involved very heavily at the beginning and very heavily at the end because in the middle he went to go film this little indie movie, The Shape of Water. You might’ve heard of it.
DF: Yeah, just maybe.
Ashley: He was great. The thing about a guy like Del Toro is that he is always like the phrase, “the hundred-pound gorilla in the room”. When he wants something, he gets it. So on one hand, we usually followed his lead with everything; but if we ever needed a particular actor or budget, he would be the one to go and get it for us, which is always nice. Near the end of Trollhunters, the Hageman brothers left and I ended up taking over the execution of the last few episodes of the last season. That led me to then running the spinoff 3Below.
DF: Having taken over the ending of Trollhunters, can you talk about bringing that show to a satisfying conclusion?
Ashley: It was a team effort. We had done a pass of the scripts and the Hageman brothers left to go work on something else. Guillermo came in and he felt that we had a lot of plot and not enough characters, which happens a lot in television shows. So we took a step back and primarily it was me, Marc Guggenheim, and Lila Scott. We asked ourselves what the most satisfactory ending for these characters and their worlds could be? I had already written the episode where Jim makes the sacrifice and turns into a troll. So we aimed to bring that out more. It was this notion that we can have all the puzzle pieces in the world and make it as cool as possible and have all the fun, the most badass fights you can imagine- but if the heart isn’t there, if the character work isn’t there, if the resolution isn’t there. We’ve asked kids and adults to follow this journey for 45 plus episodes. You want to give them everything they want and what they’ve been dying to see. Those last handful of episodes, that was making sure we had moments of the three kids coming together, that we had moments of Jim and Blinky and very clearly stating that Blinky was the surrogate parent at times. Jim was always a latchkey kid and he found a family with the trolls.
DF: Talking about animation now, how did What If…? come into the mix? How did you get involved and was it the first you heard of it?
Ashley: I had known some of the producers at Marvel for almost 10 years now. I met Nate Moore who’s the producer on the Captain America movies and Black Panther about eight years ago. He’s a great guy- incredibly smart. Years and years ago we used to talk about when we were going to see T’Challa and when we were going to see Black Widow movies- when are we going to see these other characters? This is in the early days of Marvel and now Marvel is in a different place. Moore produced Black Panther and so he called me out a few years ago to meet for another project and I did, but at the time I was in the world of 3Below and trying to pull that show together. So it was always like they called me up to come in, but I was usually working on something else.
Then I actually stepped away from 3Below. I had written the first draft of the finale, but I got very ill so I stepped away a month or so early. I was recuperating when I got a phone call from Marvel. The funny thing is they never tell you what you’re meeting on until you go in the room. They don’t tell your agents, they don’t tell your managers and you walk into a conference room and they make you sign an NDA first. I always told myself, “This is Marvel, this is my dream place to work”. If they want me to write Power Pack, I am there. I will write whatever they want! So they asked me, “How can you do a cartoon?”. I went, “Okay unless it starts playing at 3 in the morning you don’t get to call it a cartoon, it’s a prestige animated series”. I said, “you’re doing prestige animation”.
They went, “okay, how do we do that?” I walked them through some of the technical stuff and then asked “What are you doing anyway? What’s the character and who?” They said all of them and I reacted with, “what…?”. They asked if I knew what What If is and if I wanted to do it. Now the animation side made sense because you wouldn’t be able to pull off these stories on a live-action budget because every episode is going to be a different exploration of the different aspects of the MCU. I came back two weeks later and pitched a couple of episode ideas to Kevin Feige, he was lovely. It was like second or third time meeting him and then within the next month, I was in an office.
DF: As the showrunner of What If, did you consult or collaborate with any other Marvel directors or writers? James Gunn, for example, is a correspondent for the Guardians of the Galaxy for other movies he doesn’t write or direct. Did you experience something similar?
Ashley: I would say Marvel is a very creative and collaborative environment. They jokingly call people members of the family. So that’s been really kind of refreshing. There’s not a competition to make the best movie or the best show. It’s more like we’re all in it together. They are also very producer-driven, which is different in some aspects to the way other studios work. On the plus side, the producers are great. I work with Brad Winderbaum who’s been with Marvel since the first Iron Man. He knows the world inside and out. So the first couple of weeks it was me, the series director Bryan Andrews who’s been a board artist at Marvel since Iron Man, and my story editor Matthew Chauncey who had been on 3Below with me and who had previously, because the world is very small, been the producing assistant on Agent Carter. The funny thing was on 3Below, we would reference Marvel movies a lot. This is common language, there are things to reference such as Alias, Marvel, and Star Wars. This added slight anger for a couple of the other writers who are younger and had never seen them. Two writers who had never watched Alias or Buffy and didn’t really ever get into Star Wars were like, “What is our common language?”.
So when I joined What If…? I couldn’t write all the episodes by myself. So it was me, my story editor Matt Chauncey, Bryan Andrews, and Brad Winderbaum in a room for about three weeks. We also had help from our junior executive, Simona Paparelli and my script coordinator, Ryan Little. It was just all of us tossing around ideas. We had pictures of all the characters up. We had a timeline of the movies. We spent three weeks coming up with 30, kind of like two-sentence ideas. We gave those to Kevin and he picked his favorites, which was like 25 of them. Then we made him be a little bit more selective and that’s how we found the first season. I had been lucky enough to cross paths with Marcus & McFeeley, the writers of everything, and who are probably two of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. They were so lovely and excited for the show and had been very sweet.
DF: It’s common to hear horror stories coming from other showrunners about how they feel like their projects got taken away from them. So for such a project like the first animated MCU series, which is a pretty big deal, hearing what you just said couldn’t be more gratifying.
Ashley: There have been no major hiccups. The only thing we’ve had so far was Kevin (Feige), who was watching an animatic, question some voice acting. Our temp actor canceled so we got our PA to do it. He didn’t get to go to like Julliard but he was trying! “We’ll get it accurate for the next pass”, we jokingly told Kevin.
DF: Let’s talk about your inspirations for writing the show. Besides the MCU movies, did you have any other inspirations whether it was the What If comics or any other animated projects that you’ve seen in the past?
Ashley: We’re all big fans of the comics and we do use those to a degree. Our first weeks there I very strongly pitched doing The Mighty Thor- Jane Foster Thor. Jane wielding the hammer, I believe first happened in a What If comic. I was very poignantly told that was never going to happen. I got a little angry and thought, “Why, because they don’t want a woman holding the hammer?”. I was very politely told, “No we’re doing it”. I was like what? “We’re doing it in the movies. You can’t do it.” I was like, seriously? They responded with, “Please don’t tell anyone. We’re with you on it, it’s an amazing idea. Taika Waititi wants to write it”. At that point, you just go “Then Taika Waiti can write it”!
So we did use the comic books to draw from- which was a lot of fun. We also used passions of ours in other ways to change the story. We’ve all stood in a parking lot outside after one of the movies and talked about what if this had happened or that had happened. This is just us taking that and getting to do it on a bigger level. Getting to fulfill the audiences’ dreams. What we drew from was this collective consciousness of what we want to see. What would we do differently?
DF: Given that D23 was the first time that we actually saw what the animation was going to look like- did you give any input on finalizing the animation style? When I first heard about the show, the first thing in my head was not what the story was going to be- but what it was going to look like because animation can be so vast.
Ashley: In the earliest days Ryan Meinerding, who is like the visual developing god at Marvel Studios, got involved. He’s one of the nicest guys alive. He and Bryan Andrews were playing around with doing a much more cinematic style. Actually getting to play with the lighting and animation, which you don’t always get to do, especially if you’re going for a tv look. So there had been some growing pains in finding that look. What we were trying to achieve really hasn’t been done before. That made me excited because I had come from CGI animation where we would push the envelope on what we could do in CGI and this is trying to almost do that but in the realm of at least looking 2-D. What has impressed me the most is that we’re trying to use the color palette, the lighting, the character design to tell as much story as you can. The same way you would do in live-action, which is a pleasure you don’t always have in animation- especially television animation due to time and budget.
DF: Going back to D23, we got an extensive look at the Agent Carter episode. I actually shouldn’t even say Agent Carter…
Ashley: Captain Carter!
DF: Right! Walking around the convention center after, I got to hear so much Captain Carter talk around me from fans.
Ashley: That’s great!
DF: I think the biggest surprise besides Carter herself was that Steve is in it and that he’s in this Iron Monger-esque WWII suit. Again, no one knew what to expect. The first reaction was like, “I don’t know what this is but give me more right now!”
Ashley: If people were shocked to see Captain Carter, they are in for some definite surprises because that is just the starting point and we go in different directions and in so many different places.
DF: Without spoiling anything, is there anything else that you want to add about the episode? Why you chose it as the first one and what inspired you?
Ashley: Early on, there was already this consensus to do Captain America as the first episode. We didn’t know which- what the story would be exactly. Then this idea of Peggy Carter, not only a fan favorite but a favorite around the Marvel offices, and getting to show her story more became tantalizing. It was just fun and fascinating. The idea of writing Peggy kicking ass in WWII wielding the shield was just a pleasure to write. I think it took me two days to start the script because just writing in the words “Project Rebirth” was terrifying. I felt a burden. I have to do right by these characters. I have to do right not only by Hayley Atwell but by the millions of people who have now grown up with the incident with Captain America, with Peggy, and also tell the story.
DF: Yeah because people really go to bat for Steve and Peggy. Maybe more than any other couple- they have hardcore fans.
Ashley: My story editor, Matt Chauncey, calls them his parents. “Peggy and Steve are my parents. They have to be together forever”, he says.
DF: One of the interesting aspects of the show is the inclusion of Uatu the Watcher. Can you talk about how that idea came to be? How early or late in the process did you know he was going to be in it?
Ashley: It was actually fairly early and that first conversation with Brad Winderbaum. He mentioned The Watcher, which kind of surprised me because he was a Fox character technically because he first appeared in Fantastic Four. He said “no no no, he’s coming back” and I was like “okay…”. We had a lot of conversations. It was really important to me that the watcher wasn’t an old white man in the spec. I don’t want him to be Santa Claus. I don’t want him to be this Western white version of God. That was not who the character should be and it can very easily go that way.
DF: Yeah, that’s not exciting.
Ashley: He’s above everything else. He’s above everyone, but there should almost be a gleefulness watching these stories. I keep using this metaphor, which I’m not too sure if anyone likes, but I always compare it to the pizza rat meme that went around a few years ago. Someone next to the subway recorded this video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza across the platform. I think that’s what The Watcher is- he’s a guy watching a rat drag a slice of pizza across the platform. He has no interest in becoming friends with the rat, living amongst the rat, or doing rat things. He just goes, “Man, this is remarkable. Look at the little guy go”! That is The Watcher’s relationship with humanity. It’s like he’s watching this weird theater and stories unfold around him and he doesn’t know always if he should be watching. He doesn’t intervene because that’s not the point. The point is for him to watch and observe. When it came to finding the voice, the casting directors gave us a list of names. I can’t remember if Jeffrey Wright was on it, but we very quickly got to Jeffrey Wright because his voice is just so powerful and his presence, while charismatic, can address authority. He’s also a friend. He has such a warm personality. It’s a nice mixture. You don’t feel like you’re being lectured by your high school principal. You feel like you’re talking to your best friend’s husband and that was the feeling we wanted. The Watcher shouldn’t feel like a god. He should feel like almost another viewer. We’ve been very lucky with Jeffrey. He’s amazing.
DF: Honestly, the pizza rat analogy is not bad. You’re really on the dot. Again, this is the first animated MCU series and talking to you so far, I can see your admiration and respect for the craft that is animation. A lot of artists today don’t really have that same admiration or respect. Having said that, what do you hope audiences will take away from the first animated MCU series and why do you think animation is such a great method of storytelling in the first place?
Ashley: Let me answer that backward. Animation is great for this kind of series because we do things that are beyond the budget of live-action. We get to do dystopian New York, we get to see WWII, Germany, we get to go to outer space. We get to do things that would require a hundred million dollar budget on a movie. We’re all very lucky that the cast is absolutely amazing. We’re working with top-notch actors who couldn’t portray the characters in a more fully rounded way and that’s so important. But we all grew up with the kind of animation that was pumped out very quickly. We’re now able to elevate it and take time in the TV space. To actually create something really beautiful and cinematic is great. People have a weird notch to give animation. They don’t want to watch anything like they’re watching a children’s cartoon. In the first 30 seconds, you should forget and feel like you’re watching one of the movies and that is what Kevin (Feige) said from the beginning. “Every episode should feel like one of the movies”.
As to what people take away from it? I just hope they get to enjoy it. We’ve grown up with these characters and they are part of our social landscape, our cultural lexicon, and now to explore them in new ways and see them in new ways. It’s kind of fun. It’s remixing the MCU. Although I do joke that I’m writing very expensive fan fiction.
DF: I mean who wouldn’t want to do that? That’s a lot of people’s dream job.
Ashley: Yeah it’s mine!
DF: One last question, it was established that there is an episode for every MCU movie?
Ashley: That is a rumor. Kevin said that we will be exploring every movie in a new way, but not every episode is about one movie if that makes sense. On the reel (shown at D23), there is this image of a Star-Lord T’ Challa because we wanted to see what if the worlds of Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy collided? That was taking two universes, two to three movies, kind of twisting them in new ways.
DF: Right, because there’s an assumption going around the internet right now that every single movie will have an episode about it. Like there being an Incredible Hulk episode and so forth. Obviously, you can’t say a lot, but that’s not right correct?
Ashley: That’s not the objective. The objective is to hopefully see the majority of characters from all 23 movies, You’ll see multiple characters in an episode.
DF: That makes more sense.
Ashley: With Star Lord T’Challa obviously, we want to know how T’Challa ended up in other planets? What’s the story there? It’s super exciting to work on because again, it’s seeing these characters and seeing the combination of character interactions. Seeing the Avengers hang out together and more recently Endgame gave us the fun of seeing something like Ant-Man hanging out with the Hulk. What If…? is taking it a step further.