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Director Stephen Surjik Talks The Umbrella Academy and The Witcher

(Photo by Jackson Lee Davis/CBS via Getty Images)

Stephen Surjik is a legend in the television industry having helmed episodes of The X-Files, Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, The Blacklist, The Flash, Bates Motel, The Punisher, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Lost in Space, FBI, The Witcher, and, most recently, The Umbrella Academy. Surjik also directed the feature film Wayne’s World 2.

Lucky for us, Surjik was kind enough to chat with ComingSoon about his career, the ever-changing television industry, and his experience working on Wayne’s World 2.


Ames: What initially drew you to The Umbrella Academy?

Surjik: I had met with Steve Blackman, who is the showrunner and the head writer on the show. I met with him on another project and we got along very well. Actually, he made me an offer on it, but I didn’t fit with my schedule, but we got along. I said, I’d love to do it, but it just doesn’t work. About six or eight months later I got a call from one of the writers, Lauren [Schmidt] — she has gone on to do The Witcher — and she was working with Steve on The Umbrella Academy and mentioned it — and I had worked with her on Marvel. So, I said, of course! I love Steve. We got along really well. And we talked about that project and then I called and said, “You know, I’d love to work with you guys!”

And so, I got a meeting with Steve and we talked about the project a little bit and then the rest is kind of history. We got along very well. I think that Steve’s view of the world is so cool. I mean, I wish I could write because then I could say we’re very similar, but I can’t write. I see his world and I get it, you know? I totally understand.

That’s part one of that story. The other part is just that when I started working for him on Season 1, he gave me two episodes, six and seven, and one was very similar to Boomtown. So, I read those, I was prepping them, and he said, “Steve, you got to come and look at our first episode because that’ll help you understand our tone.” And I watched it and it was so great. This is not lip service. I just got what they were doing. I understand now. And so, I dug in. I started my prep all over again from scratch and I got going on it. And again, the rest is kind of history. You know, it was a great season. I was invited back, and I went to work on Season 2 and 3 in the next year. I worked diligently and it was just an enormous project.

RELATED: Henry Cavill Shares New Geralt Teaser for The Witcher Season 2

How do you believe television has evolved since you first got into the business in the early 90s?

Well, I only just started in the business. I’m almost 21, so I don’t know what you’re talking about — I’m kidding! (Laughs)

I was like, oh shit. I got the wrong guy!

I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve been a producer on cable shows like on the USA Network, like Burn Notice, which I’m proud of. I love the shows, but it’s quite different. Those shows have a certain number of shooting days. Incredibly, it was eight days of shooting and we would shoot 18 to 20 episodes in a year. I can’t believe that we did that then. Well, it’s changed radically. So, what’s really changed is I think the networks that are surviving are just doing so by a thread. Many of these networks are basically New Zealand now. They’re like, “Well, we were once great.” They still have a really important place in the world.

I can relate to that! Basically, what’s happened is the streaming services have jumped into the marketplace and they’ve expanded the niche markets in a way that no one could conceive of. The networks have to appeal to so many different people. You have to appeal to the rich, the poor, the smart, the not so smart, different religious groups … and if they don’t get that 20 million people watching at night, your show is basically on the bubble, and the next thing you know, you’re canceled. So, those shows were good because it brought people together from various parts of the world, various philosophical backgrounds. The streaming services are able to do niche shows that are really specific to a certain kind of people and a certain kind of thinking as well. They’re able to do these giant extravaganzas that appeal to a youth market, for instance. I can’t see the data like I used to see it when we did network shows, but streaming platforms are able to make these big, elaborate shows that are more like features! Except they’re limited to eight episodes; and it’s an appeal to the youth market and they just changed everything because we’re shooting 20 days for an episode or maybe 30 days in some cases.

I just got off The Witcher in England. I did two episodes and it was — I can’t tell you how many days of shooting we had. It just went on and on. I was there for a year and a half!

Do you appreciate the extra time as a director? Does it give you more time to really get into the nuts and bolts of the show?

Yes and no. I really appreciate the prep, you know, if I get extra time to prep the show, that’s where I spend most of my time organizing my thoughts, understanding the relationships, and how we’re going to shoot it. So, for me, that’s a very important addition because, on something like FBI, which I loved doing, you got eight days to prep and then you shoot it nine days. That’s it! And it’s very, very incredibly difficult to do that right. And you’re able to do it because it has such a great infrastructure that’s doing a lot of it for you. In the case of something like The Witcher, I get all the prep time, the shooting time, but some days we were shooting just a few shots because it was all special effects. There were stunts involved, there were large crowds, it was difficult to get. I felt like David Fincher there. I like doing it so that it’s properly done, but I like to be able to get done with a decent amount of work in a day. And that’s just because I get bored if it takes too long to shoot.

On that point, do you enjoy massive productions like The Umbrella Academy?

I truly do. Particularly, in Umbrella Academy because we have the support of Netflix and I have the support of the producer and the writer and they’re all behind it. They all want it to be great. They want to be the best that they can be. We have so many shows that we’ve done in the past as directors and as actors and as editors … we want to do our best work and we never have enough time or money to do that. So, often there are problems that crop up that can’t be solved because of that ticking clock. And so, yes, I do enjoy it immensely. It’s very satisfying because you have that support. It is extremely daunting, yes! And it requires a different kind of focus. It’s a long road, it’s more like a long-distance runner rather than a sprinter.

RELATED: The Umbrella Academy Season 3 Episode Titles Revealed

So, you’re not a part of The Umbrella Academy Season 3?

No, I’m not. And the reason for that is I went to England to work on The Witcher. It was going to be two episodes. I started this in December of 2019. And as you all know, by March 13, 2020, we were all on a plane on the way home wrapped up like we’re on our way to Mars. Everybody was running from COVID and we didn’t know what to do. Two or three months went by at which point — and I got to say that Netflix paid my crew for almost the whole time. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were really incredibly supportive at a time when everyone was afraid, and everyone was paranoid that the world was collapsing, and they stood up and they did that. It was amazing. But anyway, three months later we went back, and they had labs set up on-site and we were working away. We worked for another year, almost before it was completed, and that was for a number of reasons. But it got stretched out. So, I didn’t know when I was going to be done and it actually affected my whole schedule.

So, in other words, I was lost in space. I was lined up to do the third season of that show, but I couldn’t confirm that I was going to be free of my commitments on The Witcher. So, I lost a lot of shows in the rotation.

When you watch other directors tackling a show that you’ve been working on, is it frustrating to see them do something that doesn’t quite match your style?

You know, I’ll tell it to you straight. The truth of the matter is, I haven’t ever watched another director shoot. Sometimes I know directors who will direct a scene for you, for whatever reason it happens, and you get everyone to approve it. You give them a storyboard; you talk about what you want. They shoot it and it’s never what you would do just because it’s their thing. Many people have endeavored to direct Hamlet, and every one is different. Every one is its own thing. So, I’m not saying this would be Hamlet, but everyone has an interpretation of a particular script. So, no matter what happens, I’ve never been happy with what’s been done. I’ve been satisfied. I’ve been grateful, but I’ve never been totally like, “Oh great!”

I think there was one time in my life that I thought something was better than I would’ve done — I could never have thought of that! But generally speaking, I also don’t like to shoot for other directors. They say, “Oh, can you shoot this scene for this director? This person who’s gonna leave a little early because they got a family emergency?” I actually don’t like any of that because I know deep down what I do, no matter how careful I am, it will never be what they imagined.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Wayne’s World 2, which you directed back in 1993. Can you tell us anything about the production or what it was like to work with Dana Carvey and Mike Myers?

Well, you know, it was a different time, for sure. I had been working on The Kids in the Hall and I was doing short clips for a sketch comedy show in Canada. Many of the performers and writers were working on SNL, occasionally. It was like the farm league. I always thought we were the farm league. Lorne Michaels kind of brought me through that system and wanted me to work with him in other capacities. Eventually, I was doing Wayne’s World 2.

Now, one thing that I can mention about that experience is the actors were great. Every actor that showed up on set was a great performer and it always kind of blew my mind. I come from a small town and so this was really an exciting moment me, but above and beyond that — you know, I could go on about Christopher Walken, or, you know, fill in the blank. There were so many brilliant characters. There was a script that came up early and I prepped it for two months. I did all the story points for it. And it was basically a version of the Passport to Pimlico. It was like a rip-off of that. It was about Wayne and Garth finding out that their little place in Scarborough was in fact no longer part of a sovereign country and they make double currency — it was funny! And a really great script. Right before we went into production the studio said to me, “We can’t do this. We don’t have permission from the people.” So, we had to start again, and they had to rewrite the script from scratch. So, if you can imagine that was a very stressful time for me. And I really didn’t enjoy that part of it because the timeframe was too hard for me because I get this page and then I’ve got to build the shots and I have to figure all that out. It was just too stressful. So, I didn’t really enjoy that aspect of it, but I certainly enjoyed the experience. It was a great adventure that I make no apologies for.

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