Sentimental fans bade farewell to “Smallville” last week, but Al Gough and Miles Millar, the creators and original executive producers of the show, said goodbye back in 2008 when they exited after seven seasons. That didn’t really sap any of the emotion they felt watching the series finale and Tom Welling’s final performance as Clark Kent after a decade in the role.
“You don’t go into any TV show thinking it’s going to last a decade,” Gough said. “There are so many hurdles to overcome just getting a pilot to air. You’re doing it season to season and it’s hard to see the big picture in a way. I went back to my old high school about two years ago and there were kids there that were 17 and had been watching the show since they were 7 or 8. You realize that for this generation, for many of them, your work is their interpretation of Superman. For young people, you have given them their version of Superman and for some fanboys of the future, this will be the canon, which is funny to think about considering how much heat we got at the beginning.”
Millar added that “there was so much hate” in the months leading up to the show’s premiere, most of it aimed at the tone of the series, which some would describe as “Dawson’s Creek” with super powers. The idea that “Smallville” was daring to tinker with — or subvert — the clearly defined mythology of Superman presumes that there is a clearly defined mythology. The truth is that since 1938 every aspect of the hero has been tinkered with month to month in the comics with changes both big and small to the hero’s personality, costume, origin story, supporting cast, career, powers and visage.
“What gave us confidence was reading the history and realizing that Superman has always evolved and sometimes radically so,” Millar said. “And this was just the latest evolution, and one needed to make him credible and relatable to a new generation. The challenge of the show was finding what he would do every week. He’s in high school and he’s in a small town. So what’s he going to do? The idea of [Kryptonite-created threats and mysteries in the community] was controversial but how else could you make a show? He’s a farm boy, how do you find opponents and mystery? The meteor shower [and the side effect on the region] gave us something beyond dealing with high school bullies and crop circles.”
Millar said that Welling was the core of the show’s success: “Tom is such a great guy and he had such a great work ethic. His dad was in the car business in Detroit and he really brought a dedication and willingness to work with him. The first time we met him after the show was picked up we told him, ‘You’re the leader on the set, people will look to you.’ He was always willing to take that on. And filming in Vancouver, I think that helped, to be away from the vortex of Los Angeles. It made it always about the work.”
One thing the pair needed was a star who could play an earnest hero in an ironic age.
“We didn’t try to make Clark cool,” Gough said. “He’s not cool. He grew up on a farm. He actually gets along with his parents and he’s a good kid who tries to do the right thing. He has a secret and pressure on him but he is a sweet kid. The thing was to make him relatable. He’s this alien from another planet who can do almost anything. He’s impervious to almost anything.”
Gough and Millar made their mark in town with “Smallville” but they were also writers on “Spider-Man 2” and “I Am Number Four” and the producers behind “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” which earned surprisingly upbeat reviews. Now they are in a new spotlight as the creators of the new “Charlie’s Angels,” which was just picked up by ABC and stars Minka Kelly (“Parenthood“), Rachael Taylor (“Grey’s Anatomy“), Annie Ilonzeh (“General Hospital“) and Ramon Rodriguez (“Battle: Los Angeles“) as Bosley in a show that seems to have more in common with Jack Bauer’s shadowy world than McG’s glossy universe.
“This is not the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ series of your mother or the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ of your sister, this is a really valid, stands-on-its-own-feet series with a mythology that can sustain 100 episodes,” Millar said. “We were tentative about doing it. After doing the ‘Smallville’ thing, we had plenty of reason to think, ‘Why get into this kind of thing again? Why approach another brand like this, another iconic title where people are sort of waiting to watch you fail?’ We had said no, in fact, more than once. But then we relented…”
Gough picked up the conversation without missing a beat: “…we found an entry point we liked and when we pitched it they liked that, too, so we decided to try it. It is such a challenge, though. These things are so big. The challenge is to surprise people. They see the projects coming from a mile away and they come into it tired of hearing about it and they bring all these preconceived notions. People tune in to watch you fail. Hopefully you surprise them and surprise them enough that they come back. But right there at the beginning it’s a car crash mentality. When ‘Smallville’ started, certainly, it was that.”
Millar said that, like “Smallville,” there’s plenty of history with “Charlie’s” — the 1970s adventure television show and then director McG’s films in 2000 and 2003 — that can be both a boost or a burden to a new-look revival.
“There were those two iterations: the series in the 1970s was the sort of feminist, girl-power series with very capable women doing amazing things while going undercover and then the movies had a sort of camaraderie. They work on the chemistry of the actresses, who had an infectious charm and were clearly enjoying themselves up on the screen even if the story elements were over-the-top and cartoony. This new iteration feels very contemporary and surprising in that it’s grounded. It’s not the movies. They’re real people, they get hurt, they bleed in this world.”
Gough offered some surprising compass points as far as the tone of the show.
“‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘Casino Royale’ were kind of the tone bars, so the fighting that’s done was all real and the girls were doing all their own fights and without wire work,” Gough said. “There’s no slow motion, there’s no stunt doubles in the fights because those scenes are so visceral and in close. We hired Rodney Charters, who shot ’24,’ to shoot the pilot. Again, people have an expectation of what ‘Charlie’s Angels’ is and we want to subvert that in a way. Still, it’s ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ it’s three beautiful women, detectives solving crime and kicking…. It still has that. But like ‘Smallville’ there are ways to build something that has the familiar but brings something new in.”
Gough added that for many young viewers this new show will arrive without the baggage of history. That was a lesson learned in “Smallville.”
“When ‘Smallville’ started, the last iteration had been ‘Lois & Clark’ but when we showed the pilot to teenagers … they were watching videotape at the time and we had to stop for a minute when there was a glitch, and [during the pause] the boys told the girls that they were watching a version of ‘Superman,’” Gough said. “They had no idea. None. If you took the name off of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and showed it to them it would be the same thing. They have no sense of that history or if they do they won’t bring it in with them. The lesson is the new thing has to stand on its own feet even though it’s part of a legacy with the larger brand.”
– Geoff Boucher
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