‘The Boys’ Showrunner Eric Kripke Talks Season 3, Breaking Down The Superhero Myth, And Hitting “The Zeitgeist Bullseye”

Behind the scenes on The Boys, Eric Kripke is the man. He developed the hit Amazon Prime series, based on the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, and has served as showrunner since its inception. The Boys subverts the superhero genre, imagining a present day where awesome avengers, controlled by the unscrupulous Vought corporation, purport to stand for “truth and justice” while secretly committing heinous acts. Filming of Season 3 is underway in Toronto, with Kripke—who previously created the series Supernatural, Revolution and co-created Timeless—again at the helm.

DEADLINE: Where are you in production?

ERIC KRIPKE: We’re in the middle of shooting. We’re just over the halfway point by a couple of weeks. So, full-on production. It’s all happening. I went through the quarantine and was on set for about three-and-a-half weeks, just in the beginning, to get everybody off and running. But since then I’ve been here [in L.A.].

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DEADLINE: What are the challenges doing a huge television series in the midst of COVID-19 protocols?

KRIPKE: I find it really difficult. This is definitely not my favorite production experience. It’s no one thing, but it’s the cumulative amount of annoying things that all pile up. The crew aren’t allowed to drink water on set. Every two or three hours you have to give them 20, 30 minutes, to just be able to drink water. So that’s an extra hour, hour-and-a-half out of your day, every single day.

In Canada, you’re not allowed to have more than 50 performers on your set at any given time. But we’re a show that often has crowd scenes of 500 or more. So visual effects has to step in, to tile all of our crowds. But when you have a visual effects shot it takes three times as long as a normal shot.

Canada has a two-week quarantine. So, say I’m bringing in Giancarlo Esposito to film one scene—it’s very, very difficult to get actors in and sit in a hotel room for two weeks just to do a day’s work. I would say every single thing is just harder. We’re figuring it out, and I think the material’s really great, but it’s just every bit of it’s more difficult.

DEADLINE: I doubt you want to divulge any season 3 spoilers, but maybe you could talk about your goals for the season as you set to work on it.

KRIPKE: We’ve been certainly a political and satirical show. We were really interested in exploring both the recent history of Vought, the company in the show, but also through that the recent history of the United States… We got really interested in the myths we tell ourselves, to feel that we’re righteous, really exploring America itself as a myth.

A big element of the comics actually are flashbacks to World War II and Vietnam. I always really loved it because you got to see how the superhero phenomenon didn’t just affect the present, but how it affected parts of the past as well. And so we have this character, Soldier Boy, played by Jensen Ackles, and he’s been around since World War II and was the first Vought superhero. Through him and through his story, we’re able to explore a lot of the history of the country, really.

I’d say in previous seasons the boogeyman for you to be scared of used to be, “The terrorists are coming to get you.” And now it’s sort of metastasized into, I think, a much more ominous, “Your neighbor is coming to get you.” And that’s scary to me, how politics are turning us on each other. So, we want to explore what it means to be in America, really.

DEADLINE: One of the most remarkable aspects of the show is how you take on contemporary social issues—authoritarianism and celebrity, for instance, which we just lived through for four years. How are you able to somehow explore these timely issues, through ostensibly a kind of unreal world?

KRIPKE: Part of it was, I do admit, dumb luck, because all good genre is a metaphor for something. I happened to stumble into this great job that had the perfect metaphor for the exact second we’re living in. I’ve been waiting my whole life to stumble into something that hits the zeitgeist bullseye, and I don’t take for granted that I finally found one. Part of it is just really relishing this world Garth Ennis created that is about celebrity and authoritarianism, and social media and misinformation, and how corporations present a shiny, happy mask to the world, when what is behind that mask is the most ruthless drive for capital. I got handed this beautifully tailored suit and felt I just had to strut in that as much as I can.

One thing we do, though, probably even more than the comic is we really try to hew to a very ruthlessly logical, grounded place of what would really happen, what would it really look like…if “Supes” were really real, and if you applied the complete fucking absurdity of the superhero myth to the actual world we live in. Where those gears grind are funny and strange and absurd. I love living in that sort of deconstructed space, of just simple questions like, if you were The Flash, you would be blowing up people all the time. If you were Superman and you had eye lasers it would not be a cute little puff of white light when it hits you, it would be a horrific evisceration. Exploring all that makes the world feel more credible, but it’s just great fun to break down the superhero myth that way.

DEADLINE: It’s a character-driven show, unlike a lot of superhero content.

KRIPKE: When I was working with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] to create the show in the beginning, one of the things we quickly landed at was, everyone will expect us to be shocking and outrageous and gory. So, we said the most surprising and subversive thing we could do is have an incredible amount of emotion and heart and hook people into the characters. That’s the one thing that people weren’t expecting on this show. Part of it was just the nature of, what can we do to really surprise them?

We try to give it the psychological focus of an indie film, in the middle of these flying lasers and fights and whatever. We, in the writers’ room, spend 75-percent of the break talking about, “What would that do to them psychologically? And where are they? And what is their level of insecurity at this point, or paranoia?” We spend the vast majority of the time talking about getting inside these characters’ heads. And only then when that’s over, we say, “What does that remind us of politically and satirically that’s happening in the world, that we really want to talk about?” And then only when that’s over and literally in the last week, we’re like, “All right, where’s the exploding whale, or the giant dick, or where’s all the things that go on the front of the cereal box?” But that happens very late, because we try to really make sure our infrastructure is on solid ground.

DEADLINE: You have assembled a wonderful cast of actors, many of whom were not super well-known beforehand. One of the standouts is Antony Starr, who’s from New Zealand, playing the all-American “Homelander.”

KRIPKE: Casting for me is a lot of luck, because you never really know. You’re guessing on some video that you’re looking at. For him, he was shooting some indie movie in the high desert somewhere and did a selfie audition in his trailer. And it took him a while to even get to a place that had the internet to send it. It was just like he was on Mars, sending this tape to us.

But what I really responded to was he had this take on the character from the jump, that was the American hero whose mask is cracking and revealing the sociopathy underneath. Just from the jump he had that charming American smile, that almost game show smile down pat, but you could see it in the corners of his eyes that he was very, very dangerous and psychotic.

He was a slam dunk. He was definitely the only actor we put forward for that role… He attacks this as seriously as any actor attacks anything. “Ants” consistently gets angry when we’re on panels and people talk about, “You’re the best villain.” And he’ll say what a good actor should say, which is like, “I’m not the villain. How many times do I have to tell you? I’m misunderstood.”

At first I thought it was shtick. And then I realized he really believes that. And that’s what makes a great actor great, that it doesn’t even occur to him that they’re the bad guy, because they’re so deep inside, making that character human.

DEADLINE: In an odd sense, I find myself rooting for him as much as any other character.

KRIPKE: He has such a brilliant way of finding the little boy inside that character too, where you realize what a broken child this massively powerful monster is. And that ultimately, at the end of the day, he just really wants to be loved. That layer just makes that character so tragic, as well as completely terrifying.

DEADLINE: Watching the series I had a flashback to George Carlin and his famous routine about the seven “dirty” words you can’t say on television. And you’re certainly saying some of them. Carlin was talking about broadcast television, of course, and you’re in a different environment. But are there times when you’re like, “I can’t believe I’m writing this word and it’s going to be said.”?

KRIPKE: I never feel that way, writing the language. If anything, we’re given such freedom from Amazon, our instincts in the dialogue go to self-policing. Obviously, we’re not doing it that much, because there’s a ton of profanity all over the script, but [EP/director] Philip Sgriccia and I will have conversations, where we’re leaning too heavy on the “C” word, and we’re leaning too heavy on the “F” word. And it doesn’t want to ever become like a crutch. It wants to be honest to the character. You don’t want to use it to just spice up a line. You want to use it because the character needs to say it in that moment.

And so, if anything, we tend to be more like, “Well, should we do that?” rather than the glee with which we get to do it. Now, the thing that I do with great glee, pinch myself all the time, I can’t believe we get to do this, are the visuals we pull off, the 12-inch penis, the smashing into a whale broadside, facing-sitting a guy to death. Those are the ones that, for me, I sit in editing with my hands over my head, just giggling. Because I was in broadcast for so long. And so, I don’t take for granted that I’m in a space where I can just pull this stuff off.

Without giving away any spoilers, I was just in editing yesterday, and we’re doing something here in the season 3 premiere that is not only I think the craziest thing we’ve ever done, it’s got to be up there with the craziest thing anyone’s ever done. Maybe it won’t work. Who knows? But I’m just so high on this gag that we’re pulling off. And it’s certainly something nobody has ever seen before, probably for good reason. So all that’s really exciting.

Every episode we do really get to show the audience something they’ve probably never seen before. And that’s exciting. How often on a TV show do you get to say that?

DEADLINE: You’ve become one of the most experienced showrunners in Hollywood. From your point of view and all you’ve learned, what makes a good showrunner?

KRIPKE: Bob Singer, who is my mentor and my partner on Supernatural, really taught me how to do the job. Literally, the very first thing he said to me was, “Here is the first rule of show running: You are in the business of making decisions.” He said, “Now let me give you a corollary to that rule. It doesn’t actually have to be the right decision.”

And I found that to be the best advice I’ve ever gotten. A showrunner’s job, at the end of the day, is to keep the momentum of your team moving forward so that everyone knows what they have to do. You really literally are running it like you would a train. And then even if you’re wrong and you come back the next day and you say, “Hey, guys, I was wrong, but now I know that we’re going in this direction,” even that’s okay, because it’s always moving.

The terminal, most destructive thing you can say in a writers’ room is, “Give me a day or two to think about that.” It’s death on a stake. And once a showrunner starts saying that, you know that odds are that show’s going to be in trouble, because you have hundreds of people waiting on you and you have to answer them, so they can keep doing their job.

Outside of that, the thing that makes a good showrunner is you always want to punch up, and you never want to punch down. Be aware of the power dynamic and that everyone working for you is trying their level best to do great. And be kind and reward them with praise when they’re doing good, and comfort them with understanding when they don’t. And take all of that good will and put it towards your crew, and then fiercely protect them from the powers above you. And fight tooth and nail to get them what they need, to do their best work. And I think one, that’s just being a good person, but two, I think it gets the best work out of people, because not only are you a benevolent leader, but they also see you going to bat for them over and over and over again. I think with that you win their loyalty, because they know that you’re there to fight for them.

DEADLINE: We’ve all heard about really awful behavior committed by some showrunners. The emotional intelligence with which you approach the work is laudable.

KRIPKE: Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I find myself, whenever I hear the horror stories, just amazed. Because even if you put aside that you’re being a bad human and racking up terrible karma and, it’s horrible management. At the very least, it’s an inefficient, poor way to do your job. So it always blows me away, but hopefully it’s on its way out.

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