Known for helming such films as Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights, prolific director Gina Prince-Bythewood brought her talents to the pilot for Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, the latest television output for the comic powerhouse.
Adapted from the comic book canon, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger is the story of Tandy Bowen/Dagger (Olivia Holt) and Tyrone Johnson/Cloak (Aubrey Joseph), two teenagers from very different backgrounds who find themselves burdened and awakened to newly acquired superpowers which are mysteriously linked to one another. Tandy can emit light daggers, and Tyrone can engulf others in darkness. They quickly learn they are better together than apart. But their feelings for each other make their already complicated world even more challenging.
Prince-Bythewood says it was an easy decision to come aboard to direct the pilot. “There were a couple of reasons I decided to do this. First, it’s Marvel, I love the Marvel universe and wanted to be a part of it. I also have two black boys, and they had been vocal, B.P.P — Before Black Panther (laughs). They were vocal about where are they in this universe, desiring to see themselves and questioning why they weren’t. So when this came, and one of the heroes is a young black boy, I absolutely jumped at it.”
Executives made several smart and strategic changes to the story, which switched the backstories of Tyrone and Tandy and moved the setting from New York City to New Orleans. On the latter, Prince-Bythewood said, “The creator Joe Pokaski talked about the fact that New York is well-protected. They have enough superheroes (laughs). He thought about New Orleans, and I love that changed because it reflects what the characters are going through. New Orleans is a city that has had so much triumph and heartbreak, and it keeps getting knocked down and building itself back up. It is iconic and eclectic. The fact that we could shoot there and have it set there is a big deal as a director because you can use the city and make it a character, and we wanted it to be as important as the physical characters and use the environment, the moodiness, the colors and the edge that New Orleans has.”
The Prince-Bythewood-helmed pilot features a cold open which shows the characters’ chance meeting during their childhood where they seemingly acquire their superpowers. Aside from that, Tandy nearly loses her life in a drowning that takes her father’s, and Tyrone sees his brother gunned down by police. It’s intense, emotional and all of it happens before we even see the Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger title card. “I remember reading it and being excited by the structure,” the director said. “The fact that we put up front how it happens, but to continually flashback…it’s like you get the beginning of their powers and then you flashback and you get a little more story and a little more story. I like for the audience to be challenged and given the opportunity to figure things out and not be ahead of the writers. For me, I know it drew me in as a reader, and my hope is that the opening draws the viewer in, as well.”
I raved in my review of the show about how Holt and Joseph are incredible standouts and very worthy of leading their own Marvel series. Prince-Bythewood echoes those sentiments tenfold. “I love those two so much. It really started with the audition process. It was very, very scary. It was Friday, and we didn’t have the cast, and we were supposed to leave for New Orleans on Monday. I’m always an optimist. I honestly believe everything happens for a reason, and the right actors will come at the eleventh hour, but this may have been the scariest it’s ever been. We were having trouble finding real teenagers that had the chops and look and feel of these characters. It was essential that they were real teenagers. Showing authenticity is important, and if you have people that are 27 and 28 as teenagers, it’s not going to be right.”
For this series, in particular, the casting was of the utmost importance. “We were trying to do something different in the Marvel universe, so this was significant. It came down to that day, and Aubrey walked in. I loved him immediately. He just had a depth and edge to him but also vulnerability. When we put him and Olivia together, it was this immediate crackle — chemistry you can’t create if it’s not there. And it was there immediately.”
“I wanted to test their chops, so I had them do this improv, it could have been a disaster (laughs). They just met their characters, but they knew them so well, and they were feeding off of each other. It was honestly one of those beautiful moments as a director when you see it. And they just rocked it. All of us looked at each other at the end of it, and we were like, ‘I just want to watch them all day!’ What’s also great about working with young actors, especially these two, is that they are so hungry. They want to be good. I did so much rehearsal and improv and digging deep into their characters with them — things they haven’t done before as actors. It was exciting to push them as far as they can go. They loved every minute of it. They did their own stunts — which is important for this because we all see Marvel films and see those special effects and stunts, and I didn’t want anything to look corny or cheesy because we didn’t have Marvel movie money. So we had to go old-school with the stunts, and they were down. I can’t say enough about those two, and they authentically dig each other. They support each other, and thank God.”
The show does not shy away from digging into meaningful topics, and it is done in a way that juxtaposes how Tyrone and Tandy operate in America as a young black man and a young white woman and those stark differences. The director says this makes the show super timely, considering the state of the country right now. “We are in trouble right now. It is a scary time to be in America as a person of color, as a woman,” she said. “For me, as an artist, I really believe that more representation in film and television can absolutely change things. There is such as a divide and otherness right now. People don’t know each other, and in some of those cases, people don’t want to know each other. So the more that we can put ourselves up on screen in a diverse way and show that we as a people are not a monolith, that we live and think differently, it is important. I have two black boys, and I’m scared to death to share that fear and hope people can empathize, and when you can empathize, you can fight against it, and that’s when real change happens.
Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger debuts in a special two-hour premiere on June 7 and will air on Thursdays nights.
Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum.