Smallville: A Look Back at "Justice" with Writer/Director Steven DeKnight
UPDATED WITH BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO: As Smallville prepares for its final season, Earth's Mightiest looks back at the making of the classic season six episode "Justice," which brought together members of the future Justice League. Writer/director Steven S. DeKnight reflects on the making of that episode.
STEVEN S. DE KNIGHT REFLECTS ON "JUSTICE"
by Edward Gross
After spending considerable time in the Whedonverse and working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Steven S. DeKnight joined the staff of Smallville, where he served as co-executive producer of 66 episodes, including season six’s “Justice,” which brought Clark Kent together with the show’s versions of Green Arrow, the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman. Most recently he's been serving as the guiding force of Starz' Spartacus.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: Since you wrote and directed “Justice,” what was its genesis?
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: The idea for “Justice” had its humble roots in “Run,” the first Smallville episode I ever wrote when I came on board in Season Four. That’s where we introduced Bart Allen, aka The Flash (or Impulse, as we were forced to refer to him later due to a DC request). We all loved the irreverence the character brought to the show and wanted to bring him back at some point down the road. We had a vague concept of Lex capturing him and putting him in a huge jar. “Flash in a Jar” became our shorthand for the episode, but it was two and a half seasons later before it all came together with the introduction of Green Arrow. Once he was established, our world felt like it had moved closer to the comic book mythos of costumed heroes. From there it was a short leap to not only bringing Bart Allen back, but also Victor Stone and Arthur Curry. And hey -- why not do it all at once and whip up a proto-Justice league?
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: Would you say there were a lot changes in the episode’s evolution from concept to filming?
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: Once we knew we were going to tackle the early formation of the Justice League, I dove in and started trying of come up with a story that would be entertaining, give each hero his moment, and be cost effective. That last requirement proved to be the toughest. One hero is expensive -- five all in the same episode would be astronomical if not handled carefully. My angle was to concentrate on Bart, who I believe Clark had the strongest emotional attachment to based on their interaction in “Run.” My pitch to Al and Miles was pretty simple: Bart returns, Bart gets captured by Lex, then Clark, Green Arrow, Cyborg, and Aquaman have to rescue him in Act Four. That way we can save all the big money for the assault on Luthor Corp. As for changes, there were a lot of little tweaks, but nothing major. We briefly considered Clark going up against a 33.1 krypto freak while trying to rescue Bart, but quickly realized there was just no way to squeeze it in -- or afford it. There was also a brief underwater sequence where we saw Aquaman bust into the facility, but we had to cut it late in production due to budget and time constraints. Overall, however, the script held up surprisingly well all throughout the process.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: In the past you and I have discussed how certain ideas have sometimes been diluted before they make their way to the screen, and I’m wondering if that was a problem this time out.
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: I’m happy to report that no dilution occurred on this one. Excitement was high across the board, from the studio to the network and all areas in between. There was one scary moment when we were literally a day away from filming and we were still $100,000 short of what we needed to shoot the script as written. Warner Brothers came through just in the nick of time, but if they hadn’t it would have been a very different episode.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: How different?
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: Well, that fourth act would have been an assault on Lex’s library. And a very brief assault at that.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: Overall, what was the experience of directing this episode like?.
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: Directing this one was definitely a pressure situation. Not only did I have the awesome responsibility of bringing the beloved Justice League to the small screen, but I was also still smarting from my last directorial effort which I thought, quite honestly, I had done substandard work on. So I really threw my back into “Justice,” knowing I had something to prove (mostly to myself -- I’m by far my biggest critic). Every part of directing “Justice” was a massive, daunting process. The budget was big, the action was big, and the mythos was gigantic. From the start, I knew I wanted to try some out of the ordinary camera work, like the pull back from Aquaman in the mainframe room, or Clark’s rescue of Bart. And much to the credit of Al, Miles, and Ken Horton (our amazing executive producer in charge of post production), everyone was willing to give me the latitude to go for it. Not that everyone was convinced I could pull it off after that exploding baby fiasco (“Ageless”). I’ll never forget the email Al sent me right before I headed up to Vancouver to start prep. Short, sweet, and to the point: “Don’t f*** it up.” But once I got on the set, I could feel something special was happening. The air was charged with excitement over what we were attempting to do. And that excitement continued on through the entire grueling shoot, even when halfway through I caught the mother of all colds and actually lost my voice for the first time in my life. I had to yell “action” and “cut” through a bullhorn so the cast could hear me. But I was still having the time of my life. Hell, it’s the Justice League. They could have wheeled me out on a gurney and I would still have had a smile on my face.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: Was there a lot of discussion early on in terms of tweaking DC characters before they appear on the show?
STEVEN S. DEKNIGHT: We always tried to stay as true to DC characters as we could when bringing them onto the show. Some tweaking is always involved to make them fit into the world of Smallville, but it’s always done with the blessing of DC Comics. There is no set process, really. We just start kicking ideas around and see what works in the context of Smallville and the DC Universe.
EARTH'S MIGHTIEST: How did Green Arrow come to be on the show and what impact do you think he had on the show and on Clark last year?
STEVE S. DEKNIGHT: At one point we were talking about bringing on either Green Arrow or Green Lantern. Green Lantern was a cool idea, but his power ring would have required massive CGI work, so ultimately it he just wasn’t feasible. Not to say Hal Jordan will never make an appearance, but perhaps it’ll be in his early pilot days before he slides on the ring.
Once we decided on Green Arrow, the jitters set in. Bringing the character to life could have veered into a bad Men In Tights place, but our costume designer put together a brilliant interpretation of his comic book outfit, and I thought it turned out fantastic. As for his character, Oliver Queen/Green Arrow added a much needed counterpoint to Clark’s nascent heroics. Green Arrow continually pushed Clark to see the bigger picture, to look beyond his own backyard. And by the end of season, the two heroes came to respect each others’ point of view. Clark saw his future through the eyes of Green Arrow, and even accepted the idea of being part of a larger hero community.