‘Echo’ combines Sydney Freeland’s culture and love of comics

When Sydney Freeland was in high school, she often got in trouble for doodling characters like Spider-Man and Venom in her notebooks.

The Navajo filmmaker grew up reading comics – “specifically Marvel comics,” she says – and as a teenager she thought about how those superhero stories would make great movies. (Hollywood would eventually agree, and today several studios release multiple superhero comic book tentpoles a year.) Freeland’s love of comics and drawing even played a role in her decision to study fine arts in college.

But that teenager never imagined that she would get to work on Marvel’s first television series that centers on a Native American protagonist. This is partly because the concept of becoming a filmmaker wasn’t something that existed for Freeland back then.

“Echo,” which will be released on Disney+ and Hulu in its entirety on January 9, follows Maya Lopez, a young Choctaw girl who returns to her hometown after a (violent) fight with her former crime boss. The series was announced even before Maya, played by Alaqua Cox, made her official debut in the 2021 series “Hawkeye” as the formidable leader of a local gang and one of the few notable deaf characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“I learned about [‘Echo’] the same way everyone else did,” says Freeland, who serves as executive producer and director of the series. “I read [the announcement] thinking, ‘I’d love to be a part of that, but there’s no way I’m getting that call.'”

Needless to say, she is very grateful she did.

For Brad Winderbaum, head of streaming, television and animation at Marvel Studios, “it was a bit of a leap” between introducing Maya in “Hawkeye” and wanting to hear Freeland’s take on the character.

Winderbaum had met Freeland years earlier during Marvel’s search for a director to helm “Black Widow” (2021), a more grounded spy thriller with family themes. While the studio moved forward with Australian director Cate Shortland for that film, Freeland had left an impression.

Freeland’s vision: keep Maya and her story complicated and unapologetic and lean into the shades of gray.

Maya “is a more grounded, braver, street-level character, who had a traumatic past, a violent history, who had been taught violence by her mentors,” Winderbaum says. “It’s not an arc about a villain who becomes a hero. It’s an arc about a woman who struggles with her past and is finally able to face it. “That was part of Sydney’s vision from the beginning.”

Alaqua Cox plays Maya López in “Echo.”

(Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)

During a press day in December, Freeland notes more than once that it’s still “a little surreal to talk about the project in the past tense.” But after being in post-production for so long, “it’s definitely ready for people to see.”

“What I’m most excited about is for people to see Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez,” says Freeland, who has nothing but praise and admiration for her series star. “There’s a lot of action in our show, but one of the things I’m most proud of is how emotional some of the scenes are.”

A five-episode series, “Echo” begins shortly after the events of “Hawkeye” with Maya on the run after turning on powerful crime lord Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), her uncle, for killing his father. With New York in the rearview mirror of her motorcycle, she returns to her hometown in Oklahoma, where she will reconnect with her family and community and understand her legacy.

Brave and violent, “Echo” is the first Marvel Studios series with a TV-MA rating. (Previous TV-MA series like “Daredevil,” which featured D’Onofrio’s Fisk, were produced by Marvel Television, originally for Netflix.) It will also be the first to be released under the studio’s new Marvel Spotlight banner, which will mean projects with more autonomous, character-driven, street-level stakes that don’t require an exhaustive knowledge of the broader MCU.

But beyond these Marvel milestones, “Echo” also marks the first time that Freeland has been able to bring together two different formative experiences that never intersected in her youth.

“I grew up reading comics and going to conventions, but those two things never overlapped or intersected,” says Freeland, who grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation. “With this series, we put those two things together, [and] “It was both terrifying and exciting.”

As part of the expanding MCU, “Echo” is one of Freeland’s biggest projects to date. But despite its franchise bona fides, “Echo” also very clearly shares its DNA with Freeland’s previous works, such as her first feature film, the indie drama “Drunktown’s Finest” (2014) and the Netflix heist comedy “Deidra & Laney.” Rob a Train” (2017): Both films premiered at Sundance. All three projects, in their own way, are meditations on family and legacy.

A woman with glasses and long hair looks at the camera.

Filmmaker Sydney Freeland says she tends to gravitate toward “characters who are different and operate on the margins.”

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

As an Indigenous and transgender narrator, Freeland says she is more drawn to marginalized characters than those with “average experiences.”

“I’m particularly drawn to characters who are different and who operate on the fringes and are different because that’s where I come from,” Freeland says. “I identify more with those characters.”

One of the first things Freeland wanted to do when she joined “Echo” was interact with the Choctaw Nation, the people who would be portrayed in the series. So she and her fellow “Echo” creatives traveled to Durant, Oklahoma, to present the project to tribal representatives and ask their permission, an approach Freeland says most Hollywood productions don’t take when telling stories about Native Americans.

The goal was to start a dialogue with the community because I wanted to incorporate Choctaw language, culture, and history through the perspective of tribal members to tell an authentic story.

“I think there’s a common misconception about Native Americans in the United States and Canada that we’re all kind of one big monolithic group of people and that’s very far from the truth,” Freeland says. “I am Navajo, I am from New Mexico and the tribe we portray are the Choctaw. The languages, cultures and traditions of these two peoples are very different from each other.”

I knew that Maya’s status as a villain and the show’s violence and dark themes could make “Echo” a tough sell. But members of the Choctaw Nation understood that the series was intended to tell a deeply human story, and Freeland says they have been “incredible partners and collaborators along the way.”

Another priority for Freeland was to start taking American Sign Language classes with members of the “Echo” team. In addition to deaf actors playing deaf characters, the series also featured deaf writers and consultants behind the scenes. In addition to helping with on-set communication, what the production team learned in these lessons also helped inform some aspects of filmmaking, including how to frame certain shots.

“I’m excited for people to see authenticity on screen,” Cox says through an interpreter. “Because when I was a kid, I didn’t see that authenticity. I’m excited that kids in the audience can see themselves portrayed on screen. “I want them to feel like we can do anything and they don’t have to feel stuck.”

Playing Maya in “Hawkeye” was the entirety of Cox’s Hollywood resume before landing her own Marvel spinoff. And the actress says that Freeland was the one who helped her develop the character the most.

Alaqua Cox signing in a scene from "Echo"

Alaqua Cox says conversations with Sydney Freeland helped her develop her “Echo” character.

(Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios)

“Because I was still so new to this world of acting, I didn’t even know how to ask the right questions about how to relate to the character,” Cox says. “Syd always made sure I was okay and comfortable with my own limits, and she just wanted to make sure the lines were appropriate and that I liked them. She always liked that she made me feel very, very comfortable.”

Winderbaum describes Freeland as a fearless, fiercely collaborative filmmaker and one of the “least rigid” he has ever worked with.

“She was very honest with herself and with us as producers about what she thought was working, what wasn’t working, and where to direct our attention in a way that I thought was very rare and really very brave as a filmmaker,” Winderbaum says. “Under Sydney’s leadership, there was a sense of community throughout the production in which she was always open to ideas.”

As can be expected with these larger franchise projects, Freeland is aware of spoilers and discusses certain details, such as whether Maya has superpowers or not. But he does anticipate that “by the end of the series, the name ‘Echo’ will make sense.”

One of the scenes in the series that Freeland was most invested in involves an action scene surrounding a sporting event. Set in a time before the Columbian exchange in America, it features indigenous characters from all corners of the continent. Freeland says it was exciting and rewarding to be able to build and portray what that world could have been like. Standing on that set, Freeland took a rare moment to take it all in.

“You don’t usually have a lot of time to sit and think and process on a film set,” he said. “But that was a moment where I felt incredibly happy and full of joy.”

There’s also a great episode revolving around a reunion, which required the “Echo” crew to recreate one from scratch in Georgia, vendors, dancers and all, where they filmed over several nights.

“It was incredibly important [for me] Let’s portray that in a way that resonates with my experience growing up,” Freeland says. “By the second night, I started to feel very vivid to the point where, in my mind, I was actually in a meeting… and I had to get out of there. [to remind myself that] We have to get vaccinated and brighten the day.”

Freeland, who has also been an episode director on several television series including “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” “Rutherford Falls,” “P-Valley” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” says she approaches every directing job. as an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker. She also points to her time as writer and director of the first season of “Reservation Dogs” as something that helped her approach “Echo.” After mulling over the idea of ​​what a Native American television show should look like or treat, she said the show’s co-creator, Sterlin Harjo, suggested that the writers simply make something they would have liked to watch as kids.

“I tried to take the same approach and thought about what would resonate with me when I was a kid watching a Marvel TV show about an Indigenous character,” Freeland says.

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