How Legends of Tomorrow Pulled Off Those Epic TV Tributes

First time director Marc Guggenheim weighs in on paying homage to Friends, Star Trek, and Downton Abbey in that epic penultimate episode

By Lauren Piester May 27, 2020 2:00 AMTags
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Nobody does it like the Legends. 

As if this season's earlier unexpected crossover with Supernatural wasn't enough, tonight's episode of Legends of Tomorrow was an absolutely delightful trip through the TV universe, featuring trips to four different TV shows as well as a whole new world for the Legends themselves. And somehow, it was all pulled off by a first-time director, though he's no stranger to the show itself. 

Former showrunner and current executive producer Marc Guggenheim took a seat in the director's chair for his first time ever for "The One Where We're Trapped on TV," and it was both a dream and just a little bit of a nightmare at the same time. Not only did he have to adapt to basically five different directing styles (including a full multicam set up), but he also had to deal with some seriously big moments for the show. 

Behrad, Gary, and Sara came back to life! Zari 1.0 (the one lost when Crisis on Infinite Earths rewrote the timeline) came back, and Zari split in two so now both Zari 1.0 and Zari 2.0 exist simultaneously! Plus all of reality is at stake, not to mention the concept of free will. 

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Here's the gist: Charlie was left with no choice but to submit to her sisters in putting the loom of fate back together, and they used it. They took away all free will and Charlie made a deal so that the Legends would become characters in several different TV shows. That way they'd forget who they actually are and couldn't meddle, and the fates wouldn't kill them.

Zari, Nate, and Behrad all starred together in a show called Ultimate Buds, which looks an awful lot like Friends. Sarah and Ava star together in Star Trip, with Mick as the villain. Constantine, Astra, and Astra's no-longer-dead mother all star together in their own version of Downton Abbey. They also all ended up on Mr. Parker's Cul-de-sac at one point as they tried to escape the TV shows, while Gary and Mona helped to save the day from the outside. 

Eventually all their shows were canceled as the Legends refused to go back to playing their parts, and now, if Charlie is to be believed, the Legends are in serious danger in next week's season finale. 

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Guggenheim says the final three episodes of the season are a sort of trilogy all about Charlie trying to avoid choosing between her sisters and the Legends. Now the time has come for her to make that impossible choice. 

"At the end of this episode, we very clearly show that Charlie's attempt to have her cake and eat it too has failed, and that has thrown the Legends into loom world for an inevitable conflict with her sisters, and in that conflict, Charlie is going to have to make a choice, and it's the choice she's been trying to avoid making the entire season," he says. "Sparks are definitely going to fly."

On top of that, think again if you think this whole Zari/Zari/Behrad thing is finished. 

"The previous episode established very clearly that Zari can't coexist with Zari, and Behrad can't coexist with Zari, and here we have Zari, Zari, and Behrad, so we know something's going to happen in the finale. That trio is not sustainable, so the question of what's going to happen next I think is pretty firmly and loudly stated at the end of this episode." 

So we don't get to keep all three of them?

"I never said that," Guggenheim says. "I just said the previous episode said that." 

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So what was it like to bring this wild episode to life and which moment does he wish he could have done better? Read on for the rest of our interview with Guggenheim! 

E! News: As I was watching this, I felt like if I were a TV fan making my directing debut, there is no cooler episode to do that with. 

Guggenheim: It's funny you say that because I was thinking where you were going was, if I were a TV fan, this would be the most terrifying first episode to make my debut.

That too. 

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Honestly, it was fun to homage all these shows I love, but at the same time, it was completely terrifying. But maybe what's particularly terrifying is the fact that the script that Grainne Godfrey and James Egan wrote was so good. That was the part that scared me more than anything. It wasn't just the ambition of the script, it was the quality of it, because speaking as the former showrunner of the show, there's nothing worse than when a script comes in great and the director doesn't bring it to life on the screen. So I felt an enormous amount of pressure not to screw up the great work that James and Grainne had done. 

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Not only did you have to do all of these homages to shows, but you had to also find a new look for the regular show, and you weren't on many of the regular sets. How did you even start to figure out how that was going to work?

Well I will say, David Geddes, who's the director of photography, and his team did an incredible job adjusting lighting for each individual world, the art department did an incredible job. Just creating one of these shows would be plenty of work in the time that they had, but they had to create five different worlds and five different sets and it's not like they got five times the amount of time to do it. And for my part, my approach was to not tackle the entire episode all at once, break it down into smaller moments and bite-sized chunks. 

So like, don't think about the other four worlds. Just think about Star Trip and focus on how you want to shoot that. Part of what I wanted to do was have each of the shows, each of the worlds, feel like the thing we were homaging. So I knew I wanted to shoot Ultimate Buds like a multicam sitcom, and that drove what the set looked like. 

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With Downton Abbey, we wanted that long lens look, except when we're in the kitchen and we go handheld. We just tried to watch those shows and discern what their visual language is and then try to bring that into this episode. 

So did you go back and watch these shows? 

Yes. And the funny thing is I've seen Friends, I've seen Star Trek, I've seen Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. I had actually never seen Downton Abbey, and I really got sucked in. There were points at which I stopped watching it for the reason I was watching it and I just got sucked into the character and the story, and I would have to remind myself that I was watching it for a reason. 

And thank god for YouTube and iTunes. Those proved to be an incredible resource as I tried to binge watch all these shows but with a very different purpose. 

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What was it like getting those performances out of the cast, who were sometimes playing their characters playing other characters, and sometimes they knew what was up and sometimes they didn't? 

That was the trickiest part of the episode for me, which was there's like 86 scenes in the episode, and in each scene, there's a different combination of characters who remember who they are, who don't remember who they are, who are in costume but have a different got really complicated really really fast. Because we obviously shoot everything out of order, I was very afraid that I cut the whole episode together and it would feel emotionally schizophrenic. So to avoid that, before we would film each scene, even before we blocked or ran any lines, I would just sort of orient myself and the cast in terms of where we were in the story. I called it story time, like gather round kids, we're gonna have story time. 

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It's like you just came from this scene, and this is what you remember, and you're an Ultimate Bud in this scene, or you're a Zari 1.0 but you're in Gromulan makeup, just to make sure we knew where in the story we were, because we're obviously filming so out of order it's very easy to lose your bearings. But I think that proved to be very helpful to me and I think also helpful for the cast as well, and it allowed us to, I think, craft an episode that has a clean emotional through line. 

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I would imagine that resulted in some pretty good bloopers and behind-the-scenes moments. 

Oh, yeah. We really had a great time. We had a lot of fun. Things are always stressful when you're running out of shooting time, and I would always just try to make a joke of it, just because people tend to do their best work when they're laughing, and we all just got really into the scene and I think it showed up in the right places in the episode. 

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How did it feel when you did see the final cut and saw that all of your strategies worked? 

I remember sitting there in editing and I just kept saying to our editor, this doesn't suck! This doesn't suck! I also made the decision to edit this episode the way I typically edit, which is, I believe most audience members only see an episode once, so I don't watch down an entire episode before I start giving notes. I give notes based on my very first instinct, so I was going through the episode minute by minute on my first pass giving notes as I was going, and I was like, oh, I'm not fixing scenes. In editing a lot of times you're making things better, but there's other times where if you have a particularly bad episode, you have to fix the scene, and I wasn't doing that. We got to the end of it and it felt pretty good.

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You had a lot to deal with emotionally in this episode, like multiple characters coming back to life and Zari splitting into the two Zaris, but you also had four different TV shows to deal with. How did you make sure those moments were still as big as they needed to be? 

A lot of it has to do with the general approach with the episode, which is if I looked at the whole episode at once, it was too intimidating, so it really for me was about taking moments and making each individual moment as good as it could be, because my philosophy is if you do that, if you string enough of those moments together, you'll have a good episode at the end of the day.

I will say that the shot at the end where Zari splits, that was actually shot at the end of my very first day, and we used a techno dolly, and that's a piece of equipment that I had never worked with before, and I have to say if I could have any moment back of the entire episode, it would be that moment. I think it lands emotionally but I watched it and I feel my inexperience as a director, and I knew even as I was directing it that I was learning on the job, but unfortunately when you're in the 14th hour of a 14 hour day, and you're just trying to get it onto film, you don't get a chance to learn. I've never been involved with a single hour of television where I haven't wanted to take back at least one thing, and Zari splitting in half is one of them." 

Legends of Tomorrow's season five finale airs next Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CW.