Chloe Bennet, Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen shoot a scene for Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Director Roxann Dawson, second from left, talks with Clark Gregg, while script supervisor Dawn Gilliam, right, shows them the script. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Chloe Bennet, left, as computer hacker Skye and Ming-Na Wen as agent Melinda May get last-minute touch-ups before shooting a scene. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Clark Gregg, as agent Phil Coulson, films a scene inside the command center of the Bus. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Between scenes, Clark Gregg shows Ming-Na Wen a recent press clipping on his phone. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
A camera operator focuses on Clark Gregg and Ming-Na Wen during filming. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, who plays agent Melinda May, watches a monitor on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Before a scene is shot, Clark Gregg's mike is adjusted as he talks to Chloe Bennet. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg catch up on text messages while on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, Chloe Bennet and Clark Gregg joke between scenes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Ming-Na Wen, Brett Dalton and Chloe Bennet between scenes. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Inside the command center are Brett Dalton, left, Chloe Bennet, Ming-Na Wen and Clark Gregg. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
Prop books on the set. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)Link
The cloudless August morning was so warm and tranquil it could have been plucked from the mind of a dreaming pilot.
It was a lucky turn for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division agent Phil Coulson and his team of operatives as they flew a massive Helicarrier to a remote corner of the globe to apprehend an elusive target who’d stolen contraband goods. Clad in his trademark tailored suit, Coulson warned his recruited S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that the mission wasn’t going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances.
It was a sentiment he repeated more than a few times, as Clark Gregg replayed the scene for the cameras inside a Culver City soundstage, filming what will be the fourth episode of ABC’s anticipated new series, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which premieres Sept. 24.
Each take required the 51-year-old actor to descend the same spiral staircase, then stride along a wood-paneled corridor toward a high-tech command center. His costars Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet stood close beside him as he shared key details about the suspect and her crimes (none can be repeated here; to have access to that sort of information, you’d need Level 7 clearance, obviously).
Later, during his lunch break, Gregg did point out one benefit of flubbing a line and having to head back to the top of the stairs to begin the scene again: Extra cardio.
“I have the butt of a 45-year-old,” said the actor, whom TV audiences may remember from the sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
Outgoing and genial, Gregg moved through a hectic day with the spring in his step of a man reborn, which, technically speaking, he is — Phil Coulson, who first traded barbs with Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man,” died in Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster hit “The Avengers.”
When it came time for Marvel Television’s first foray into live-action, however, Whedon found a way to resurrect the character. The “Avengers” writer-director wanted Coulson to serve as the center of a six-person team that also includes martial arts expert and skilled pilot Melinda May (Wen), wisecracking civilian computer hacker Skye (Bennet), black ops specialist Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) and tech wizards Fitz and Simmons (Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge, respectively).
The show arrives with the sort of outsized expectations that develop after successes like this summer’s $1-billion-plus hit, “Iron Man 3,” or “The Avengers,” which now ranks as the third-highest-grossing movie of all time. If “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” whose pilot episode cost about $12 million, fails to soar, it would prove an embarrassing stumble for ABC, which needs a hit in an ever fragmenting entertainment marketplace.
For the last two seasons, the network, which like Marvel is owned by the Walt Disney Co., has finished in fourth place in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. The new one-hour show faces fierce competition in its Tuesday time slot, going head to head with CBS’ popular procedural “NCIS,” the highest-rated scripted show on television last year.
“We hope that our audience understands that our ad line is our description, which is, ‘Not all heroes are super,’” said Marvel’s head of television, Jeph Loeb. “We’re not going to have 30 Iron Men show up. The idea of this is not that it’s a genre show but an hour of compelling television.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D.,” the international espionage organization, was first introduced in the pages of Marvel Comics in “Strange Tales” No. 135 in 1965, around the same time James Bond movies and TV series like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” were glamorizing the international spy trade. For the purposes of a weekly television show, especially one connected to the larger Marvel Comics universe without being tied to the adventures of any given superhero, the secretive institution offered plenty of creative fodder.
Loeb had been mulling the idea for a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” series for some time, but the concept came to seem especially viable in the wake of a short film titled “Item 47,” which prominently featured the agency and was included on “The Avengers” DVD.
Whedon was tapped to oversee what would become Marvel’s first live-action television show — the Marina del Rey-based company has a portfolio of animated series including Disney XD’s “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble” and “Marvel’s Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.” (The punctuation motif extends even to the backs of the “S.H.I.E.L.D.” actors’ chairs on set.)
The mastermind behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the cult sensation “Firefly” turned to his younger brother and sister-in-law, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, to flesh out the concept, which included Coulson’s return, and the characters who would support Gregg’s agent, all of whom were created specifically for the series.
“I would say it wasn’t even an hour before we had the main six sort of mapped out,” said Jed Whedon, 37, seated beside Tancharoen in the series’ elaborate lab set where Fitz and Simmons spend the majority of their time.
The Whedons and Tancharoen enjoyed a shorthand, having collaborated on the short-lived Fox series “Dollhouse” and the 2008 online musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” The trio shares an ear for clever dialogue and quick humor, as well as some of the same preoccupations with telling poignant stories about lovable misfits searching for emotional connection.
The pilot, which Joss Whedon co-wrote (with his brother and Tancharoen), directed and shot in Los Angeles and Paris last year, picks up where “The Avengers” left off, after the epic Battle of New York, in which aliens flooded the skies over Manhattan. The result is that now everyone, not just S.H.I.E.L.D., is aware that superheroes — and supervillains — are real.
“It’s a world where things are out of control and forces have been unleashed that feel bigger than we’re ready to handle,” Gregg said.
Coulson seems to believe he’s recently enjoyed a tropical holiday, not that he’s actually back from the dead, a mystery that Jed Whedon and Tancharoen say will be addressed as the show unfolds.
“It will be a slow burn, but not so slow that it will drive everyone crazy,” Tancharoen, 37, said.
San Diego’s Comic-Con International, the annual pop culture expo that celebrates all corners of fandom, is a place where Joss Whedon is as revered as a benevolent king. It was there that the filmmaker first introduced the entire “Avengers” cast — including Gregg — and this past summer, he and Gregg returned to preview the first “Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.” episode to rapturous applause and raucous laughter.
“To me, they’re the final judges,” Gregg said. “If they don’t like it, it’s a problem.”
Although Loeb too was heartened by the response, he acknowledged that the series will need to reach well beyond the core fan base to have a real shot at longevity. To that end, the show is built around self-contained stories that require no previous schooling in the Marvel universe, although some inside-joke references are included.
“We make a concerted effort to not make the show about mythology,” Loeb said. “Obviously we want you to watch every single episode, but you should be able to feel like if you sit down at Episode 4 you’ll know what’s going on.”
Gregg, for one, believes the show’s humor (and some cool gadgetry) is key and will help attract viewers beyond the comic-book die-hards hoping for, say, a reprise of a CG-heavy Chitauri invasion, or a cameo from the Hulk.
“I like the darkness of a ‘Dark Knight’ every once in a while, but there’s something about the way [Marvel movies don’t] take themselves too seriously, it really allows you to take bigger risks,” Gregg said. “You can have someone drive some crazy winged contraption as long as someone’s there [to say], ‘Are you seriously going to wear that outfit? You’re not going out in that.’”
– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex
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