EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Craig Titley, writer of Agents of SHIELD

 EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Craig Titley, writer of Agents of SHIELD

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With the end of the show, we tried to get in touch with some people from the series cast and crew. One of the people who answered us, was one of the screenwriters and also executive producer for the series: Craig Titley.

Here are the episodes he wrote for Agents of SHIELD, but not all of them by himself: 2×07 – The Writing on the Wall, 2×16 – Afterlife, 3×05 – 4.722 hours, 3×12 – The Inside Man, 3×20 – Emancipation, 4×03 – Uprising, 4×12 – Hot Potatoe Soup, 5×05 – Rewind, 5×13 – Principia. 5×21 – The Force of Gravity, 6×03 – Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson, 6×08 – Collision Course (Part I), 7×02 – Know Your Onions.

What made you became a screenwriter?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. At least since I got my first Marvel comic-book (The Amazing Spider-Man #135) when I was 8-years old. I’ve always been fascinated by stories and storytelling. Comics, movies, and television were where I got my first story fix. So I gravitated toward writing for those mediums.

How does it work the scripting process? The creators of the series think of what they want for the episode, and then you write it?

Jed (Whedon), Maurissa (Tancheron-Whedon) and Jeff (Bell) the show’s creators and showrunners are the creative driving force for the series. When a new season begins, they have a pretty good idea of what the arena and theme of the season will be and where it will end. But everything in between is a blank slate. So we all sit in the writers’ room for a few weeks to let our imaginations run loose and get more specific. After that, we slowly start building the season, one episode at a time. Sometimes we will go into directions we never anticipated, but always with the same ending in sight. That’s the fun of it — when the stories and characters take us in completely unexpected directions. Jeff Bell has a great saying: “trust the process.” And he’s right. It always works out and always gets you to where you need to be.

There’s no real plan for which writer will write what episode. It kind of happens naturally and organically, though sometimes you can tell that a particular story is more in line with a particular writer’s personality or voice. I always tended to get the slightly more quirky or off-beat episodes though often it was by coincidence, not by design. Or else I just made them quirky!

What is the feeling of writing a script, and then being able to see the director bring your script to life?

The best part of working on such a big show as Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is that you can dream up some pretty crazy things and then our excellent department heads and crew turn them into a reality.

Every time I walk onto the set of an episode I wrote and see the props and the set design, I get giddy. It’s really the best job in the world. You get to dream big and watch it come to life.

When a scene is directed, and it looks different than you thought it might look, do you tend on changing because it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be?

In general, we do so much planning and go over every script with a fine-tooth comb among ourselves and then with our directors and department heads that we pretty much know what we are going to get. Occasionally they are logistical problems or problems like running out of time on a location that will force us to improvise… but I have to say I have been blown away by the final product on every single episode.

Is there a difference between writing a movie and a television script?

Writing movies is a lonely sport. It’s just me alone at my desk with no one to bounce ideas off of. TV writing is a team sport. Even though there’s usually one name on a script, there are contributions, lines of dialogue, and ideas that come from everyone. We had a dream team on SHIELD. Every writer was brilliant, imho, and also very generous. We got along well inside and outside of the writers’ room. I think of them as my family now.

The majority of the writers suffer from creative block. Have you been through this in a situation you needed urgency? If so, how do you deal with that having to create all the time?

I deal with writer’s block quite a bit when I’m writing movies, but in television it doesn’t exist. Why? Because (1) there’s no time for writer’s block to exist! Everything moves at such a fast pace that you don’t have the luxury of getting writer’s block and (2) there are so many other big brains and writers on the show that if you get stuck you just run the problem by them and someone will have the great idea that gets you unstuck.

The majority of the scripts you did for AoS you did by yourself, but you also did some of them with other writers. What are the positives and negatives aspects of working alone and together with another person?

It’s such a team sport that when you get to write with another team member (usually because there’s a time crunch and it’s faster to split up the work) it’s always fun and takes some of the pressure off. I was thrilled that I got to write with Drew (Greenberg), Jeff (Bell) and Brent (Fletcher) because I’m also a huge fan of their writing. And Fletcher and I have a very similar, quirky sense of humor so that’s why Jed wanted us to write the “Fear and Loathing” episode together. At least I think that’s why. I’m pretty sure he just wanted to be amused himself by whatever craziness our two brains concocted!

You wrote the episode 3×05 (4.722 hours), and it is considered to be one of the best episodes of the show and the best os season three. How was the process of writing it?

“4,722 Hours” is my favorite thing I have ever written. I’m really proud of it.

Elizabeth Henstridge in scene for the episode “4.722 hours”

And proud of the way everyone upped their game to make this such a special episode. We all knew going into season 3 that we would tell Jemma’s story. We just weren’t sure if it would be its own episode or a B-story in another episode. It was a risky move to make an episode with just one of our cast members… and an episode that took place mostly at night. So I have to give props to Marvel TV and ABC for letting us do it. I think I had a firm grasp on that episode (of what it could/should be) early on so they gave it to me to run with. But I also had two other big brains in the room when we were figuring it out — Brent Fletcher and Monica Owusu-Breen. Generally it can take 1-2 weeks to figure out the shape of an episode (meaning: what will happen in each act, how one scene feeds into the next, etc.), but we had a general shape in 2 hours! Not the whole story, but a rough sketch of what would happen in each act. We were all in the zone on that one and I think it shows.

Episode 5×05 (Rewind) was also written by you. It is similar to 4.722 hours, where we see one character alone, trying to solve a specific problem. What was the best part of writing these scrips for Fitz and Simmons?

I think I got to do “Rewind” because I had also done “4,722 Hours.” Just felt right, at least for me, that I should close that loop, writing the Jemma story and the Fitz story. Writing “4,722 Hours” for Elizabeth was a real treat.  She’s such a great actress and we got to put her (and Jemma) through the ringer on this one. Jemma had to go trough a huge range of emotions: fear, despondency, hope, love, guilt, despair, etc. Elizabeth had to deal with all of that as an actor but also had to deal with all the physical demands – it was a hot, brutal shoot. The director and I both got heatstroke during the shoot, but Elizabeth kept on going. She was unstoppable, just like Jemma was in the episode. She deserved an Emmy for that one.

Nick Blood and Iain De Caestecker in scene for the episode “Rewind”

“Rewind” was fun because we got to throw Iain and Nick together again (after Nick had been away for a bit). They are friends in real life so they had a lot of fun together on this one. I’m a sucker for any kind of buddy/bro movie and I wanted this to be their “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” They are so funny together but they also brought a lot of real heart to it. They were happy to be reunited in real life and it shows in their performances. It was also a fun episode because this was Joel’s first big episode as Enoch and the episode where he got to explore and develop Enoch’s character. We got to watch Enoch come alive and become a real character during that shoot.

You also wrote 6×03 (Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson) which is one of the funniest episodes in the series. What do you consider to be the hardest part of writing a funny episode and an episode with a lot of tension and emotions?

Elizabeth Henstridge and Chloe Bennet in scene for the episode “Fear and Loathing on the Planet of Kitson”

A big part of writing “Fear and Loathing” was Brent and I trying to make each other laugh. And both of us trying to make Jed laugh. Which is kind of our everyday dynamic anyway. Once it became clear what this episode was going to be, Jed, with a devilish grin on his face, told Brent and I that we’d be writing it together. We were both stoked. There was so much laughter on the set during that shoot. Pure joy. Everyone had a blast doing it. Chloe and Elizabeth were both brilliant. It’s not easy to play “intoxicated.” It can easily go too far or not far enough. They played it perfectly. They both have amazing and natural comedic instincts.

How was it like to write an episode where it would be situated in 1931? Did you had to do any kind of research, to write something more accordingly to the decade?

We spent a lot of time researching the 1930’s for the first two episodes of season 7. The first thing we did was find a website of 1930’s lingo and jargon. That’s where the title “Know Your Onions” came from. I didn’t even know that phrase existed, but when I discovered it, I knew it would be perfect for that episode. Re-creating period settings is always fun for everyone… especially the actors. Walking on those sets really is like time traveling.

Scene of the episode “Know your Onions”

We saw that you were also a consulting producer (on the second and third season), a co-executive producer (fourth and fifth season) and an executive producer on the last seasons of the show. How much these functions helped then writing a script?

This is a complicated answer that has more to do with agents, deals and the WGA. But basically my job was always the same: help to generate and develop stories in the writers’ room and to be on set and produce the episodes I wrote.

The name of the episode usually says a lot about what’s going to happen, or to the series itself. How’s the process to choose the title?

The writers all pick their own titles on this show. Jed, Mo, and Jeff liked to encourage writers to take ownership of their episodes. Not all showrunners are like that. Most aren’t. I don’t know what the “title” process is for the other SHIELD writers but I usually know what I’m going to call an episode before I start writing it. I honestly can’t tell you where they come from. The only title I’m not 100% satisfied with is “Hot Potato Soup.” I wanted to do a riff on the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” since Patton (Oswalt) was playing three characters and it was a bit of nod to the zany comedies of that era (Abbott & Costello, Marx Brothers, Three Stooges…).

If you could describe your participation on the show in one word, what would it be?

In one word: LUCKY.

This really was the job of a lifetime. I feel lucky that Mo, Jed and Jeff invited me to join the writing/producing team after season 1. I feel lucky that I got to make 6 seasons with them. I feel lucky that I got to work for Marvel, a dream going all the way back to that issue of Amazing Spider-Man. I feel lucky that our teams at ABC (Network and Studio) were so supportive of the show. I feel lucky that I was able to work with such a talented and passionate group of writers. I feel lucky that they are now a very real family to me — a family that will continue long after the show… in fact, for a lifetime. I feel lucky that we had such a great and generous cast and a crew that was as passionate about their work as we were. I feel lucky that Jed, Mo and Jeff were such kind and generous people who set a tone that inspired everyone and encouraged everyone. They wanted everyone to feel like the show was ours as much as it was theirs. Words cannot express how grateful I am to them and for this experience. I am 100% serious that my years on Agents of SHIELD were so wonderful, magical, and life-changing that I now measure my life in two eras: before SHIELD and after. I even got a SHIELD tattoo when it was over to commemorate it. It is my first, and will be my only, tattoo.

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