A Conversation with Agents of SHIELD Declassified Author Troy Benjamin
Keeping track of all the developments in any given season of Agents of SHIELD is no easy task. Between documenting new costumes like HIVE, new ships like the Zephyr-1, new Inhumans like Lash and Hellfire, and new alien landscapes like Maveth, an archivist author like Troy Benjamin must be at the top his game to be able to assemble all of these details. Back for his third Marvel book — Agents of SHIELD Declassified Season 3 — Benjamin has again compiled the most extensive looks at SHIELD yet! I had the chance to chat with Benjamin about this wonderful book, and what other Marvel projects he might be involved in (spoiler alert, he’s already begun Declassified Season 4!) We hope you enjoy our interview with Benjamin and that you pick up your copy of Agents of SHIELD Declassified Season 3!
1. This is your third special behind the scenes book for Agents of Shield, how are you feeling after your third release?
Sleepy… and hungry. But that’s pretty par for the course. I’m pretty much always tired and usually always hungry. But in all seriousness, I’m so proud of these books. Not only have they been a dream come true, but with each book I’m learning a bit more, really finding a good rhythm, and figuring out how to parse things out evenly so that people who want a quick reference to the episodes have everything they need, the folks that want to analyze the episodes and the development of the characters get some in-depth discussion from the creative team, and those curious about the nuts and bolts of what goes into creating the show behind the scenes feel satisfied. It’s tricky because traditionally these amazing hardcovers are art books and the text supplements the incredible concept and production art done for the Marvel Cinematic films.
But the television publications break the mold a little bit: they’re one part art book, another part episode guide, and then the title clearly states that it’s “Declassified” so you want to make sure there’s info in there that isn’t available anywhere else.
It’s a bit of a juggling routine to make sure it’s all covered in the pages that publishing is kind enough to allocate to us. So on the first book, we were really trying to figure out the format — and in a record amount of time. For the Season Two book, we took what we learned from the first and honed things in and really built on the format. And then in this Third Book, myself and the editors are seasoned veterans now, so we really got to play with the format and focus on packing it with as much content as humanly possible.
2. For anyone not familiar with how you got started on this project, can you share how you were asked to write this Declassified series?
As many people do, I’ve worn quite a few different hats in my entertainment career. I started out as a producer’s assistant where I was rolling calls, reading scripts and writing coverage, and running to get coffee and bagels – then decided that I really wanted to learn as much about physical production as humanly possible by documenting it, so I switched things up and became a DVD/Blu-ray special features producer. What does that mean? Basically all of the cool featurettes and documentaries that are on the disc, I would propose, shoot, edit and produce those from start to finish. And it was great because not only are you learning the craft from a variety of film crews, but you’re also shooting and assembling short and longform content at the same time. It was an amazing crash course in filmmaking. Around pilot season, the good folks at Walt Disney Home Entertainment had hired the company I was with at the time to work our magic and cover the filming of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot, and then later the rest of the season after the show was picked up.
I can’t say enough about how amazing each and every member of the cast and crew on the show are, from the pilot to the end of the season they really gave me unprecedented access and treated me like a member of the family.
Around the mid-season hiatus of the first season, I was sitting down having lunch at the catering tent with three of the producers on the show, Megan Thomas Bradner, Sam Thomas, and Emma Fleischer and conversation turned very introspective. Sam asked me what my dream job in the entertainment industry would be and I told them that I’d always wanted to be like Don Shay, Jody Duncan and J.W. Rinzler: three authors who have written amazing books on the making of some of my favorite films. As physical media has started taking more and more of a backseat to digital streaming, sadly those in-depth documentaries on the making of films and TV shows have started disappearing, but with “making of” books, you can cram everything and the kitchen sink into them. If I remember right, the response to that was, “Huh. That’s awfully specific.” And then conversations shifted to talking about watercooler television shows. About two weeks later, Megan, Sam and Emma called me and said, “Hey! Remember when you said you wanted to write making-of books? Want to do one for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?” And the rest, as they say was history.
3. Season 3 carried with it so many incredible moments — from Simmons’ time on planet Maveth, to the birth and death of Lash, to Ward going full Hive — what were some of your favorite moments from season 3 to explore and write about it in this book?
Boy, you said it – there was A LOT in Season Three that went down, and a lot of it was really amazing to chronicle. I’m always amazed at what they do on that show on a weekly basis because they’re essentially producing a film with every episode – amazing sets, outstanding cast, make-up, special and visual effects, music, there’s a lot of moving parts so it’s a dream for someone documenting it all. Some of the biggest things they did in the third season make for the meaty parts of the Declassified book.
For example, in “4,722 Hours” the crew was out filming in Death Valley in the middle of one of the hottest heat waves Los Angeles has ever experienced. So there are a lot of great stories in the book about what a trooper Elizabeth was through it all, while bringing in an unbelievable performance.
Like you mentioned with Lash and Hive, there was outstanding make-up and visual effects work done for both of them, which we get into – but with both characters, there was such an emotional roller coaster for everyone that I loved getting perspectives from people in front of and behind the camera on the impact these transformations and tragedies were having on the show. Because the cast and crew are such a tight-knit group, the entrances (and departures) of cast members was particularly interesting to hear everyone discuss.
4. Walk us through your writing process: are you on set during filming? Do you have to wait to see what happens when the episodes air? Do you get to visit the set and conduct interviews during filming season?
Step one: procrastinate. Step two: panic. Just kidding to my amazing editors Jeff and Sarah, I promise I’m working hard! The first step is getting the scripts and reading them over with a fine-tooth comb, then looking at the schedule and seeing when key moments or set pieces are being filmed. Then I’ll go on set and observe as much as I can. I like to be a fly on the wall and just see how things are done, while also taking notes as I discover things happening. I’ll be writing both the episode synopses and the behind the scenes entries as we go and occasionally getting some one on one interviews to capture some thoughts in the moment. Because of the nature of filmmaking, things change and are constantly fluid so I definitely watch the network aired episodes multiple times and make changes as necessary. Depending on the schedule of everyone involved, I like to do several waves of interviews so that I get thoughts in the moment, then with a little bit of distance, then at the end of the season looking back on everything as a whole.
Especially with a show like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where there’s so many wonderful twists and turns, there’s usually quite a bit to talk about at the end of the season after everything is out in the open.
It’s funny, looking back on Season Three, I had so many interviews with the cast (who were just as much in the dark as I was) as to who was going to end up wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. jacket and holding the cross necklace. Everyone had theories. And it was only in the last couple weeks that we all knew how things were going to shake out. It’s a lot of fun being on that ride with everyone.
5. With a show like Shield, where the core team can fluctuate, what’s it been like getting to know these actors and characters, as both a writer and a fan?
In real life, the cast of this show is absolutely amazing. It’s funny, they make me feel like a rock star every time I’m on set. When I was in the world of EPK and DVD, I’d worked on a few films and their sequels where I don’t think any of the cast could have picked me out of a line-up when all was said and done. But each and every member of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cast is just so lovely and so caring, that they not only remember my face and name, but ALL of the names and faces of the fans and people that they meet along the way. It’s a little surreal to be on set observing stoic Agent May in the midst of a scene, just exuding power and strength in the face of so much hardship — then the director yells, “Cut!” and Ming-Na catches sight of me and immediately smiles and says hello.
As characters, it’s been amazing watching fans embrace Coulson and his new team of characters just as they’ve embraced so many legends in the Marvel universe.
Having been lucky enough to document the cast traveling down to San Diego to unveil the pilot episode to the world for the first time, not knowing how the audience would react, to now watching as fans come up cosplaying as Agent May or Fitz and Simmons, it’s been incredible. And it couldn’t have happened to a better group of people. Having been lucky enough to document the cast traveling down to San Diego to unveil the pilot episode to the world for the first time, not knowing how the audience would react, to now watching as fans come up cosplaying as Agent May or Fitz and Simmons, it’s been incredible. And it couldn’t have happened to a better group of people.
6. Were there any new things you got to do or include in Declassified season 3 that weren’t in 1 or 2?
Since it’s always a bit of a juggle of balancing things, there are some departments and aspects behind the scenes that we haven’t been able to really feature in previous books – so in Season Three I really wanted to focus on the sound department and the process of creating the sound of the show from start to finish. That’s a new feature that’s in there. I’d say the other main difference between the third season’s book and its predecessors is the amount of interviews that were done for this third book. It’s really packed with first-hand accounts from cast and crew, maybe more so than the years prior.
7. What are your plans for Declassified Season 4?
Nothing has been confirmed quite yet, but I can say that the evolution of the regular characters, obviously the huge character adds in Ghost Rider and several others, and all of the twist and turns of Season Four sure has been a lot of fun to be watching as a fan. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the season heads. And the fourth season of the show has been incredibly complex from a filmmaking stand point: car chases, huge VFX sequences, there’s certainly a lot to cover.
8. Part of you work on these books includes exploring the airplanes, cars and tech of the show — on a scale of 1 – 1,000, how excited are you to write about Ghost Rider’s Hell Charger?
Do you get to drive the car in order to write about it? That’d really influence the numerical value I’d place on excitement. Just saying. Oh, who am I kidding – I’d probably stall it out and embarrass myself completely if I were in the driver’s seat.
9. In a race of Lola vs. Lucy, who would win and why?
You know, I don’t know that there can be a clear victor in that race. Obviously, each car has their special traits and tricks up their respective sleeves. And it all depends on who is behind the wheel. But since I’m a big Back to the Future fan, I’m usually a little partial to cars that have had hover conversions so…
10. In addition to working on the Declassifiedseries, you also work on a line of Marvel comics. What can you tell us about that?
Absolutely! I’m lucky to be a small part of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe writing staff that has been working on the Guidebook to the Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Mike O’Sullivan, Daron Jensen and the rest of the encyclopedic knowledge of the writing team has been a treat to work with and they’re really putting something special together. Essentially it’s a monthly comic along the lines of the OHOTMU books that provide the definitive reference to the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since “Earth-199999” really has become an intricate tapestry of its own continuity, the end result is a really great reference guide to see how everything has connected and progressed since the original Iron Man film. The Age of Ultron book just came out and several more (plus a hardcover compilation) are on the way, everyone should definitely check it out!
Agent of SHIELD Declassified Season Three is currently available to purchase on Amazon.
The Guidebook to the Marvel Cinematic Universe series is available at your local comic book store or digitally on Marvel.com or Comixology.