Director Stephen Surjik talks words + numbers and children in Netflix’s ‘Umbrella Academy’

ATM: In this series, a different approach was put on the children in their naming process. They were given numbers, but in our society, we are given words and not numbers.

SS: I came to the project as someone who had already read some of the original work. The scripts were a little different. They were faithful with this aspect. The aspect with the numbering of the children was by their adopted father Colm Feore. The kids showed up like divine intervention. There were these virgin births and all these children were showing on the planet. They had never had sex or had a mate before. This one man went around buying all the kids and trying to put them all together. He had a sense of a future for them. This future they would have powers that would be important in saving the world that was going to develop in the future.

He gave them numbers. The father gave them numbers instead of names, but this was diabolic. They loved their father but hated their father. It was a love and hate relationship. The opening of Umbrella Academy is showing these brothers and sisters conversing on their original home, the home their father gave them.

They all talk about how their father was and how they hated and loved him. I loved this because it was very much like real life. We love our family members such as our fathers and mothers. There are aspects of them that we both love and aspects of them that we hate and regret. In this group, they were all given numbers and did not like having numbers. This how it came to pass. He gave them these numbers to keep track of them as an old fashion father.

ATM: Different societies and cultures have unique naming systems. In Russia, the son takes the father’s middle name. In Scotland, the son takes the father’s father. The second son takes their name after the mother’s father. In Korea, the names are typically given two parts. In Somalia, they have no three names and no family related names. In India, Hindu names are based on the child’s position of the planets at the date and time of birth. The style of the naming for the children in this show fits in the uniqueness of the naming systems elsewhere in real life.

SS: In first nation tribes the child does not get a name until they earn a name. The child has to describe some behavior or reflect some kind of function in order to gain a name that they receive. In the case in the series, the film gives them numbers, which is demeaning. It creates damages in the developments of these children.

ATM: Because in America’s culture, we have the Jr, Sr, and roman numerals for males, but not females. However, in Canada it is forbidden and against the naming law to attach symbols to a name. Whereas, in the society in this series, they go by numbers only within this family.

SS: Yes, it is interesting, but it is demeaning. They resent it as grown adults that they have numbers. They have names and do not always refer to themselves as numbers. They subsequently earn their own name. There are certain who this is all they are. “I am Number Five.” He does not resent this because he is so busy doing different things. We never hear his opinion on it. There was a burial scene to bury their father. It was like a memory service. They wanted to say things about their father. The Chimpanzee was the only person saying something kind about the father, but he did not even have many good things to say about him.

The father did a lot of important things for this family. There was a rumor in the mythology and the story about the reason the father died was to commit suicide. He wants to bring the siblings back together for the task that was at hand, which was saving the world. Maybe the father was so busy to put them together because he could no formulate a family correctly. His housekeeper/wife, which is also demeaning as well was like a robot. You notice she starts to evolve out of her robot mentality. She starts to gain her feminine insight. This is important because this is a real discuss worthy character.

ATM: Would you agree that Number Five is seeking a different identity than his own because he is concentrating on his life and not on the diminishing name?

SS: Exactly. I do not know the exact answer to this because I am not sure where the series is going. I do believe this is largely at the root of this. We are talking the narrative that is unraveling the real identity of these characters. This is proven to be good writing. This is what I found in this series because when turning the page, you find the best part of the character. As you read more about them, find out more of their conflict, and more of their aspirations, you learn about the aspect of their personalities that are familiar to you. You recognize they are struggling to find out who they are much like we as readers are on a daily basis.

ATM: Which of the children seem to take on a weak personality?

SS: They take turns. Each of them, depending on which episode. You learn about the father in the first episode and his incarnations. As you go through episode one you learn what the father has taught them as a group. The underlying question is about what is more important? The group or the individual? The age-old basis we have in our society and culture. When is it the individual person’s right to live their aspirations? When do we receive the aspirations and the security of the group? This is something that comes in the show if we are talking about it on a societal perspective. Later, when we get to episode five and six, we find out about Klaus character.

He is a character who struggles with drug addiction. He is in clubs all the time. He had a relationship with another man in a different place and time. He wants to conjure this person and resolve the issue. He wants to find out what his responsibilities are in this regard because he is struggling with it. The only way he can come to grips with it is claiming his body, treating his addiction, and conjuring the past. If he sees the past clearly, then he can affect the future. This is great in terms of writing. This is a very insightful and exciting theme to play with.

When I first read the scripts, I did not dig deep. I just read the front of them. I went, “Oh, here we go. These are exciting characters.” As I got into it, I saw the first episode. I went, “Oh my God, this is really about something.” One level there is a diabolical cartoon character. On another they are becoming characters as an adult drama. This is not common in this kind of entry. We do not get to go deep and just play on the surface. 

ATM: If the deeper we go we become more creative, then why do we stay on the surface?  

SS: I agree.  There are several things at play. Someone once said, this is general whether it is a story in entertainment or a song with a narrative in it, “What is it that makes it so compelling for us as viewers?” I am obsessed with film, narrative, and music. Why is it that we listen to these stories and films? And after generation after generation we are mesmerizing by the narrative? The characters change slightly but the narratives stay the same. Oddly someone said we love narrative because it makes meaning out of chaos. This is the stuff structural anthropologist and semiotic say, which is the reason we love narrative.

It gives the meaning and turns it into a sort of understandable sequence of events that make sense to us. This includes the happy and sad ending, but it can be a tragic ending. Through narrative we interpret the universe behind us, and it is largely chaotic. It gives us anxiety. When we watch films, hear a nice story, and or song, we make sense of this chaos. Suddenly there is meaning to it. We watch films so we can enjoy through the proximity of a new kind of work through the universe. It is largely artificial, but it gives us a comfort. There is nothing wrong with this because life is hard. If we just take it day in and day out, then we will not make it. We need a break. There is nothing like a great entertainment story to get you out of your head and have a great laugh or enjoy a moment. This is why in a nutshell.

ATM: The reason we look at these materials for generations and generations is because it was super creative. It derived from a consciousness that is different than our normal consciousness of our time. We as human beings want to stay focus on this. It becomes medicine for the things that is happening in our lives. The material that gets seen after generation and generation happens because it came from people who used their super consciousness mind.

SS: This was the concept that . . .

ATM: Psychoanalysis Carol Jung.

SS: You are right. He had an idea on psychology.

ATM: When someone is tapping in this type of mind while saying something, or writing a song, making a film that is so creative. They are working in a mindset that is so pass the conscious mind that we normally see. We look at it and want to hang on to it.

SS: We are talking about more or less of the same thing. When talking about super consciousness and awareness, there is a lot that comes into play. In this show, the way they play past and present and travel through time, is almost like they are in this notion of a multi universe theory of these universes that are growing at the same time. These concepts are really big ideas. The ideas the writers are dealing with is almost like they are going on a carnival ride. We jump on to go to a trip in the past and future. They are dealing in the world of the super consciousness. I am familiar with Carol Jung’s super consciousness.

ATM: I just had an epiphany. Technically, the writers are writing material and entering another place that is not of our world. But also, when putting the pencil down, they come back into this type of consciousness. If it is written on paper someone is reading it with the mindset of the normal consciousness of our society, then they will look at it to say, “Hmm, this is different.” The person that wrote it views it as creative, but it is normal in their eyes. This is because they are in another conscious place far from our normal conscious place and they are acting in the super consciousness mindset. When they come back to understand why someone would view their work “different,” would you agree this is them working in a multiuniverse?

SS: You are right. I follow it. Yes, it is. One person experiences a different experience depending on when they are standing. The inventor of this universe, which are the creators and writers of this world would be aware of this universe. They are inventing these details and someone else might getting in or not in this margin of this universe. But you are saying someone is having a multi universe right within their own experience.

ATM: Right because you are traveling through the consciousness. It needs a name. We keep saying the definition. I will call it and coin it multi-universal consciousness. Multi-universal consciousness happens every time you are watching television and movies, you are traveling out of this normal consciousness world and tapping into the consciousness in another world. It happens during every piece of work we watch, see, and hear.

SS: I understand. This is very interesting. Even in the story, Five comes back from a time travel. He says, “I see what the future has to offer, and it is not good. We have to do something to change it so it will be good for everyone.” There is so much contradiction in this idea that we can change the future. But at the same time, we can change the future by doing certain things. By making positive choices in our lives. It is a positive kind of story. At the end of it we want to find out if they succeed in their quest. We are going to go to another chapter in Umbrella 2 to find more. There is really a multi universe idea going on as a new character goes through a different scenario in the same time frame.

They are finding this universe has changed and is different. We do this in episode 6 and 7. We are with Cha-Cha and Cameron are in their universe. In another episode, one has been given a task to kill the other one. The next episode this whole job that they have given are flipped. Now, it is Cameron character trying to murder Mary J. Blige’s character Cha-Cha. It is in the same place and time, but we are looking at it in a different episode. They are challenging and exciting scenes to direct. They leave the cast and director scratching their head because they want to do the right thing. It is all there, but you have to dig hard. And you are digging hard. You are getting a lot out of this, which is great.

ATM: It makes you think what exactly a universe is. It also makes you think what is deemed normal when it is shown in different consciousness or universes. A lot of universes are being shown in this series and also our universe in real life.

SS: This is what you brought to the party here. When we watch it, it is also a new universe and a new experience. I was saying this in the production. “Just is like a multi-universe we are dealing with here.” And they would look at me and laugh. It is true. They only laughed because no one responded to this kind of comment. When you watch it there is another form of a universe because it includes the universe, we live in. And every universe that everyone lives in. This is very insightful of you.

ATM: How does the effect of their supernatural behavior affect their approach to love?

SS: In the chase of Sheenan’s character, aka Klaus he lost touch with someone he was in love with. He traveled in time and met someone and fell in love. I do not know whether he is gay or not. This is not the issue. He fell in love with someone and this person died. It was during the Vietnam War. He needed to go back to resolve the relationship. To figure out how he loved him and how this person was doing. This is an event everyone is familiar with, which is falling in love. Someone people are and some are not. In order to conjure this person, he has to be sober. While he is intoxicated and on drugs, he cannot bring back the people he loved. He cannot bring back his father to find out what he missed.

He cannot bring back his lover to find out what went wrong. He struggles with these human conditions until he can overcome his personal problems. In the moment, he can conjure up the person he loves and have closure on it. I know “closure” is a Hollywood term and it does not really happen. We all want to be able to visit those we loved.

ATM: Would you agree that the father killing himself to bring the children together is an act of sacrificing, which is done in tribal cultures?

SS: Yes. He sacrifices himself for the betterment of mankind. And he sacrifices himself to help focus his family on what their job is in life. Their job is to save the world. I know this is a diabolically arch. The fact of the matter is this being their cause. If they had not come together, then they would have not known what was going on unless the father did this. The only reason we know this is about the character who can conjure the dead. He conjures his father. He died of a drug overdose in a club.

He goes into a trip and runs into his father. His father talks to him on the other side. He tells him what happened and that he committed suicide and why. He tells him that he has to put them together, they have to do their job, and this is why they were out on the earth. It sounds like it was driven by tribal behavior. Someone as the elder in the family gives up their life for the continuation of the family. This was a great interview. It was refreshing. It was unusual and exciting. We do not usually get to talk about aspects like this. I am glad you talked about it. It is a show that deserves this kind of excitement.