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

    Syndey Freeland on a stool with her dog Echo

Filmmaker Sydney Freeland, executive producer of Marvel Studios’ upcoming «Echo,» with her dog, Echo.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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

The Navajo filmmaker grew up on comic books — “specifically Marvel comics,” she says — and as a teenager, she wondered how these superhero stories would make great movies. (Hollywood would eventually agree, given that these days several studios release several suggestive superhero comics a year.) Freeland’s love of comics and drawing even played a role in her decision to study fine arts in college.

But the teenager never imagined she’d grow up to work on Marvel’s first TV series centered around a Native American protagonist. Partly because the concept of becoming a filmmaker didn’t exist for Freeland back then.

Launching in full on Disney+ and Hulu on January 9, “Echo” follows Maya Lopez, a young Choctaw woman who heads back to her hometown after a (violent) fallout with her former crime boss. The series was he announced even before Maya, played by Alaqua Cox, made her official debut in 2021’s «Hawkeye» as a formidable local gang leader and one of the few prominent Deaf characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

«I found out about (‘Echo’) like everyone else,» says Freeland, who serves as an executive producer and director on the series. «I read (the announcement) and thought, ‘I’d love to be a part of this, but there’s no way in hell I’m getting a call.'»

Needless to say, she is very grateful that she did.

For Marvel Studios head of streaming, television and animation Brad Winderbaum, it was a «short jump» between introducing Maya in «Hawkeye» and wanting to hear Freeland’s take on the character.

Winderbaum met Freeland years ago when Marvel was looking for a director to helm «Black Widow» (2021), a more grounded spy thriller with a family theme. While the studio moved forward with Australian director Cate Shortland for the film, Freeland left an impression.

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

Maya «is a more grounded, grittier character from the streets who had a traumatic past, a violent past, taught violence by her mentors,» says Winderbaum. “It’s not an arc about a villain becoming a hero. It’s an arc about a woman struggling with her past and finally being able to face it. That was part of Sydney’s vision from the beginning.»

Alaqua Cox on a motorcycle

Alaqua Cox plays Maya Lopez in Echo.

(Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

During the 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, she’s «definitely ready for people to see it.»

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«What I’m most excited about is that people are seeing Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez,» says Freeland, who has nothing but praise and admiration for the show’s lead role. «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.»

The five-part «Echo» series takes place shortly after the events of «Hawkeye,» with Maya on the run after turning on the powerful criminal Kingpin, aka Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), her uncle, for killing her. her father. With New York in the rearview mirror, she heads back to her hometown in Oklahoma on her motorcycle to reconnect with her family and community and understand her legacy.

Bold and violent, «Echo» is Marvel Studios’ first TV-MA-rated series. (Past TV-MA series like «Daredevil» — which introduced 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, meaning projects with more stand-alone , character-driven, street-level stakes that don’t require exhaustive knowledge of the wider MCU.

In addition to these Marvel milestones, «Echo» also marks the first time Freeland was able to bring together two distinct, formative experiences that never crossed paths in her youth.

“I grew up on comics and I grew up on powwows, but those two things never overlapped or intersected,” says Freeland, who grew up on the Navajo Nation reservation. “With this series, we smashed those two things together, (and) it was both scary and exciting.

As part of the sprawling 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 earlier work, such as her debut feature, the indie drama «Drunktown’s Finest» (2014) and the Netflix heist comedy «Deidra & Laney.» Rob and Train” (2017) – both premiered at Sundance. All three projects are in their own way meditations on family and legacy.

A woman in glasses and long hair is looking at the camera.

Filmmaker Sydney Freeland says she tends to gravitate towards «characters who are different and operate on the edge».

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

As an Indigenous and transgender storyteller, Freeland says she’s drawn to marginalized characters rather than those with «average experiences.»

«I find that I’m particularly drawn to characters that are different and operate on the edge and are different because that’s where I’m from,» says Freeland. “I found myself relating more to those characters.

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One of the first things Freeland wanted to do when she came aboard «Echo» was get involved with the Choctaw Nation, the people who will be portrayed in the series. So she and her fellow «Echo» creatives traveled to Durant, Okla., to pitch the project to tribal representatives and ask for their permission — an approach Freeland says most Hollywood productions don’t take when telling Native American stories.

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

«I think there’s a common misconception about Native Americans in the US and Canada that we’re all one big monolithic group of people, and that’s so far from the truth,» says Freeland. «I’m a Navajo, I’m from New Mexico, and the tribe we’re portraying is the Choctaw.» The languages, cultures and traditions of these two people are so different from each other.”

She knew that Maya’s status as a villain and the show’s violence and dark themes might make «Echo» a tough sell. But members of the Choctaw Nation understood the series’ goal to tell a deeply human story, and Freeland says they were «wonderful partners and collaborators along the way.»

Another priority for Freeland was to start taking American Sign Language classes with members of the «Echo» crew. In addition to Deaf actors portraying Deaf characters, the series also had Deaf writers and consultants behind the scenes. In addition to helping with communication on set, what the production team learned in these lessons also helped inform some aspects of filming, including how to frame certain shots.

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

Portraying Maya in «Hawkeye» was a staple of Cox’s Hollywood resume before she got her own Marvel spinoff. And the actor says that Freeland helped her the most in developing the character.

Alaqua Cox signs a scene from "Echo"

Alaqua Cox says interviews with Sydney Freeland helped her develop her character «Echo.»

(Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

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

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Winderbaum describes Freeland as a fearless and fiercely collaborative filmmaker and one of the «least rigid» he’s 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 draw our attention in a way that I thought was very rare and actually very brave as a filmmaker,” says Winderbaum. «Under Sydney’s direction, there was a sense of community throughout the production where she was always open to ideas.»

As can be expected with these larger franchise projects, Freeland keeps spoilers in mind and discusses certain details, such as whether Maya has any superpowers. But he teases that «by the end of the series, the name ‘Echo’ will make sense.»

One of the scenes in the series in which Freeland has invested the most involves an action set-up around a sporting event. Set in the time before Columbian Exchange in America, it features indigenous characters from all corners of the continent. Freeland says it was both exciting and rewarding to be able to build and render what that world could look like. Standing on that stage, Freeland had a rare moment to absorb it all.

«Often you don’t have a lot of time to sit and think and process a film,» she said. “But that was the moment I felt incredibly happy and overjoyed.

There’s also a big episode that revolves around a powwow, which required the «Echo» team to recreate one from scratch in Georgia, with vendors, dancers and all, where it was filmed for several nights.

«It was incredibly important (to me) that we portrayed it in a way that was familiar to my experience growing up,» Freeland says. «The second night it started to feel very lived to the point where in my mind I was actually at a powwow … and I had to snap out of it (to remind myself), we’ve got to get our shots and make us days.»

Freeland, who has also been a cameo director on a number of television series such as «Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,» «Rutherford Falls,» «P-Valley» and «Fear the Walking Dead,» says she approaches every direction. as an opportunity for her to grow as a filmmaker. She also points to her time as writer-director on the first season of «Reservation Dogs,» which helped her approach «Echo.» After mulling over the idea of ​​what a Native American TV show should look like or be about, she said the show’s co-creator Sterlin Harjo suggested that the writers create something they would want to see as children.

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

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