Critics and fans seem to agree that the third season of "Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D." is the best so far, perfectly balancing superhero action with spy capers. It took at least a season and a half to get there, but the creators of the show finally figured out their formula, and it's been smooth sailing ever since.
So of course, this week, they completely broke the formula and threw it out the window.
In the excellent "4,722 Hours," the creative team ditched 95% of the main and recurring cast to show what happened when Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) was stranded on an alien planet during the summer hiatus before being rescued -- traumatized, but alive -- two episodes back. The changes didn't just include focusing in on one character (well, three, but we'll get to that); it also included changing up the visual look of the show, down to ditching of the usual opening credits in favor of a minimal display of the title over an alien landscape.
Written by series consulting producer and sometimes writer Craig Titley, directed by newcomer (to the show, not Hollywood) Jesse Bochco, the rapturous fan and critical praise for "4,722 Hours" proves that taking chances can often pay huge dividends... Or at least shake up a formula at just the right time.
Of course, filming the episode posed as many challenges as it did (eventual) rewards. To get the behind the scenes story of how the hour came together, MTV News talked to Titley and Bochco over the phone the morning after the airing. The duo hadn't actually talked since the episode aired, and after a brief round of mutual (well deserved) congratulations, we discussed building a bottle episode on an alien planet, filming with minimal actors -- and which Easter Eggs you may have missed.
MTV News: when the conversations first started about this episode, how did you approach it? Was it "bottle episode in space," or did you come at it another way?
Craig Titley: I think from day one of coming into the writer’s room this year we knew we wanted to do the, "what happened to Simmons?" story, and it was just... How risky do we want to be? Do we dare to do an entire episode about Simmons, or should that just be half of the episode?
And the more we talked through it, the more we were like, "let’s just go for it. Let’s just lean in to something we haven’t done before." And of course you wonder how ABC, and Disney, and everybody will respond to that, but everybody was completely on board. And then the fear set in. Like, "oh my god now we have to do this. What are we going to do? How do we pull this off?"
Jesse Bochco: The fear setting in is a big interesting part of it. It was also a motivator. Because I, myself, wasn’t on that part of that writer’s room plan, but I had spoken to [showrunners] Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen early on when they were talking about it, they said, "ah, you’re doing episode five." And I said, "yeah," and they were like, "oh man..."
They gave me just the quickest of run downs, and I got really excited. I thought, "this is a really cool opportunity to do an outside of the box episode." And then of course when you read it, that’s when the fear sets in because it’s awesome -- and you have no idea how you’re going to get it done. [Laughs]
MTV: Structuring the script, you know you have 4,722 hours, but how did you start breaking that up? How did you figure out, hours-wise, where the beats would come? Or did you come up with different markers, and put the hours in later?
Titley: It was structured a different way, and the writers room was more than just one brain in the room. It was actually when we broke off to work on this episode, and I knew I was going to be the one to write it -- it was actually [supervising producer/writer] Brent Fletcher who came up with this idea that each act should be a chapter of a book.
Chapter one was called like "Rebirth." Chapter two was "The Stranger." I don’t remember what we called [all] the chapters, but that gave it a structure.
Like, okay, first act is going to be Simmons alone, born into this new planet, surviving. Chapter two is her first encounter with the stranger, which is what it’s called in the script until she found out his name was Will. And then I don’t remember what chapter three was. Chapter four was "The Plan," and chapter five was "The Last Day."
That became the structure -- and once we got that, we were like, "oh, okay, now we get this thing." And we actually broke this story -- usually it takes weeks -- we broke this story, the overall sort of spine of this thing, in about an hour and a half once we had that going.
Everything just fell into place... It was the conversations. Like, I think with Jed [saying], "there should be a planet where it’s always dark." Like, "oh, no we can’t use day six, day seven," so we were like, "let’s go hours." Which had a really interesting effect.
MTV: A lot of fans, probably because of recency, have called on "The Martian" as an inspiration, but the "person alone on a planet" thing has been a sci-fi trope for a while. Did you use any specific inspo for the script?
Titley: At the time, ["The Martian"] hadn’t come out, and I only just recently saw it this weekend... But yeah, it’s the sci-fi. It’s the, trapped alone on a planet. It’s "Enemy Mine," or any number of things like that.
MTV: Once you started to move from script to the actuality of filming this -- and I don't mean this derogatorily -- did you have any concerns about putting all this weight on Elizabeth Henstridge? She's awesome, but appearing in every scene, carrying the full weight of an episode solo is a very different challenge than you've put her through before... Jesse, was that conversation on you?
Bochco: I don’t think so. They'd been talking to Elizabeth for months beforehand, and she knew this was coming. I think Jed and Maurissa, and all of the writers and producers had at least told her, "this is how we’re going to pay off this mystery," as to where Simmons was last season.
And so coming in -- I got the chance to see Elizabeth a couple months before we actually went into production on it -- and I said, "oh my gosh, you got a story here what’s going on?" And she said, "I know what’s going on." And that was it. We knew we were going to get paired together, so it was exciting. We’ve worked together before, but that was the extent of it. I know she’d been given a big heads up... And there isn’t anybody more prepared or qualified on the planet -- certainly on the show -- than she is. She’s unbelievable. She makes it easy.
Titley: Yeah, when I say we were all sort of fearful... She was the anchor that sucked away all of our fear, because we’ve worked with her [and] Jed for three years, and me for two years. There’s nothing that you can throw her way that she can’t handle, or do. So we had no fear about that, and we knew that would be our saving grace. If anything else happened, Elizabeth’s going to shine.
Bochco: [laughs] Exactly.
MTV: And once you got on set, did you give her any specific coaching to go through this emotional journey?
Bochco: I told her early on that I wasn’t going to speak to her during the entire making of the episode -- and I came off of that in about an hour. I just wanted her to think that it was going to be like being stuck on a planet with nobody [laughs].
But no, for the most part she approaches everything from such a smart, thoughtful place. I didn’t spend tons of time on having conversations like, "okay, so now you have to be over here." She just comes in knowing every last detail of everything, so we actually cut to the chase. It’s fabulous working with an actor like Elizabeth, because you know most of that stuff has been digested and internalized already by her. We can really just get down to the logistics of, "okay, we know where we are, and how long it’s been since you’ve had water, or you’ve had food, or you’ve had contact with anybody." And then just get into really the meat of the actual scene itself -- which [were] all very involved, and have their own process, too. It’s just so great to have the luxury of cutting straight to that chase every day.
MTV: Did you end up filming it in continuity?
Bochco: We tried to as much as possible, but it was obviously impossible. What was difficult was, in the prep process -- and this was not my brain child at all -- but we came up with the idea that from the moment she shows up, [she goes from] bad, [to] worse -- four or five stages that we could really label, based on acts in the script, or hours, or however we decided.
That sliding scale was so that our incomparably talented hair, makeup, [and] wardrobe department could always just say, "okay, this scene is at this point in the thing and it’s on stage three on the sliding scale of disarray." And we could we could really put that into effects.
We tried not to put ourselves often in a situation where we had to change from a one, to a three, and then back to a one -- so when we scheduled it out, we tried to be smart about having some continuity that way, for ourselves. But then a lot of it was just location driven. You do your best to progress naturally within the confines of where you are, from day to day.
MTV: Craig, once they got to filming, were you done and on to the next script? Or did you have the chance to give feedback on set?
Titley: We operate where the writers are on the set -- [but] really I just sort of sit back and let everybody do their thing. There are just certain things I have to pay attention to, like things I know are coming up in future episodes that may not seem important, that I have to point out. "This is setting something up that you don’t know about." Things like that.
And we had to do a lot of that with Elizabeth... In the previous episode she’d be doing something, and she’d be like, "why am I doing this?" And we were like, "oh, well, this is going to be explained in five." So there’s a little bit of that back and forth. But other than that, my job is to sit there, observe, let them do their thing.
Bochco: Every moment they’re extremely happy about it... It’s really, really, good having that touch stone, an other set of eyes and ears and voice. It just keeps us moving in the right direction. And for someone like me, who needs to have that person where you can just say, "are we heading down the right road here?" When Craig said we were, I was confident that we were.
MTV: I know this was established at the beginning of the scene, but Jesse, it must have been a challenge to films something like 50% of the episode as day for night, since there's no sun (mostly) on the planet.
Bochco: It was a challenge! They said, "You know we’re going to shoot this whole thing day for night?" And I said, "Oh, okay, I guess that sounds cool." I’d rather that, than be out in the desert from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. every morning. So they said, "Did you see 'Mad Max,' they did a version of that effect in that movie at points," and so I went and looked at that.
Then you start shooting this thing out in the desert and it was... When I say it was miserably hot I’m understating the fact that it was miserably hot. Both Craig and I succumbed to a heat stroke on one given day out in Trula ,California. It was outrageously hot.
But you forget. You start feeling like you’re making a different movie. You’re looking on the monitor every day and it’s this beautiful desert day landscape, and that gets in your brain. Every once in a while, somebody would adjust the monitors and say, "this is an approximation of the night thing." And you go, "Oh my god, I forget that we’re making a different type of movie."
So you know in your mind it’s a nightscape, but being out there it felt so different. It felt so far from the sort of cool blue nightscapes that we knew it was ultimately going to look like.
I watched it on TV last night, and even still it shocks me every time I see it. That was a concept that had been dreamed up far before I arrived. And Feliks Parnell, our [Director of Photography], who is a wonderful guy, carried out that wish. I think it looked great. It was really, really cool.
MTV: There's a visual cue you did establish in this episode, the look of the entity, the thing stalking Simmons throughout the episode. I imagine we'll be getting back to that later in the season, so what went into setting up the look now?
Bochco: That was a big deal for Craig and the writers and producers, to deal with that, and what does that thing look like? At some point a drawing from Marvel surfaced, "this is it, the entity." I looked at it and said, "oh, that’s awesome, but there’s no way we can make that happen in about a day."
But it was an important thing, so for me, just going into was, how do you feel it, taste it, see it, let it scare you without seeing too much of it? It’s a version of just seeing Jaws’ fin from time to time and not much more -- so that there’s a lot of mystery to it. You know I think I always shot him at high speed for whatever the reason. But more than anything, and especially in the cut that ended up airing... Less is more. You just want to get a sense, an ominous sense, of this thing -- and not know too much about it.
MTV: Craig, how much was established of the look in the script?
Titley: It was more just: build up the ominous nature of this thing, and don’t go into details. Definitely less is more. Because it’s a thing that... May or may not be reappearing in the season [laughs]. I’m not at liberty to say. But the idea is just to establish there’s a force to be reckoned with, and that people wonder what it is, and what could it be. It’s like showing the fin of the shark and then later, if we so choose, show the shark.
MTV: Halfway through the episode, Simmons meets Dillon Casey's character, Will, an astronaut stranded since 2001. He’s such a tricky character to introduce, because the fans love Fitzimmons so much, introducing this third character into this triangle... You run the risk of everybody immediately hating him. How did you thread that needle, both from the script perspective, and from the directing perspective to make sure we actually liked Will, and didn't hate Simmons for liking him?
Titley: I think it’s exactly that. You have to build sympathy for this guy. First, [you wonder] who he is, and you’re kind of scared. And then, that moment where Simmons learns Will was alone for fourteen years... You feel for him.
The idea was to let it play in such a way that you didn’t know if they would end up together. So we cast somebody slightly older that doesn’t look like her type, or Fitz, or anything like that.
That through a lot of discussions, a lot of writing a rewriting, and the performances Jesse got... We made that all work so when they do finally kiss, you aren’t like, "Noooo!!! Nooo!!!" Or you might be like, "No, no!" if you want her and Fitz to get together, but you understand it. You get it. It’s hard to be mad or upset with anyone, because we’ve seen the trauma that they’ve been through -- his ordeal and her ordeal.
Bochco: I agree. That to me -- of everything in the entire episode -- was the big final act. How do you treat this character correctly, as far as making him a mystery for a good part of the episode, and then revealing what that mystery is... But still making him rough and unavailable for a good part of that episode?
He is intentionally [the] anti-Fitz, so that you believe that there is something almost repellent about him for her... Until this horror gets in, and a he starts to show his cards a little more. He starts to loosen up, to lighten up. Then hopefully you buy that this rapport, and ultimately romance exists between them.
You have to come a long way to get there with them, and you hope by the time that they do actually kiss... You hope that kids and people across America are either saying, "Noooo!" or "Yes!" Or both [laughs]. Any major reaction, or emotion is a positive one, if you get there the right way.
I think we accomplished that ultimately, but certainly we spent more time discussing that journey than anything else in the show.
MTV: Just to talk Easter Eggs before I let you go: you have a monolith being explored by NASA, in 2001... did you worry about that reference being TOO winky at any point?
Titley: [Laughs] Nope. That was a little nod. Like, when we decided what year to go with, "It’s got to be 2001!" Because there was a monolith. My favorite Easter egg is the name of the three astronauts. They’re my three favorite cinematic astronauts: Austin, which is Steve Austin in "Six Million Dollar Man;" Taylor, which is George Taylor from "Planet of the Apes;" and Brubaker from "Capricorn One." So it was just neat being a nerd.
Bochco: I don’t even know if I told you this Craig, but my mom is in one scene in "Capricorn One." So there.
Titley: What! You just blew my mind! [Laughs] That’s so cool! Cosmic convergence! Cosmic convergence!