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Writing Steven Universe taught director Kate Tsang to take movies anywhere she wants

The director of Marvelous and the Black Hole on turning her Beetlejuice fandom into a movie for her inner kid

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

After working on the writing teams for Steven Universe: Future and Adventure Time: Distant Lands, first-time film director Kate Tsang is no stranger to the inner workings of coming-of-age stories. Steven Universe: Future in particular tackles emotional expression, as the title character grapples with processing the trauma of his past and the question of what his future holds, once he doesn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders. While the first drafts of Tsang’s script for her movie Marvelous and the Black Hole were already written before her time on Steven Universe: Future, working on that show helped her approach her rewrites.

And Tsang says if there’s one big thing she learned from her days on those projects, it’s that she shouldn’t be afraid to embrace sincerity, or to create the stories she feels the world needs, even if there isn’t a previous show she can emulate.

“I could write what I wanted to see,” Tsang tells Polygon. “It didn’t have to quite exist yet. I feel like sometimes sincerity is not as desired as edginess and bleakness. With Steven [Universe], that’s what I love so much about it. There’s a heart to it, and there’s an optimism. I wanted that for my film as well.”

steven and greg looking up at the ceiling Image: Cartoon Network

Marvelous and the Black Hole is a coming-of-age story about prickly 13-year-old Sammy (Miya Cech) and surly stage magician Margo (Rhea Perlman), who takes the angry young girl under her wing. The two begin an unlikely friendship as Margo teaches Sammy how to perform stage magic. In the process, she falls neatly into the tried-and-true trope of a wise old mentor, à la The Karate Kid.

But there’s a key difference in Marvelous and the Black Hole that Tsang identified when she was looking at other works in a similar vein.

“I had so much difficulty finding an actual comp[arison] that would work for this relationship, because there aren’t actually that many intergenerational-friendship stories between two women,” she explains. “And especially not two unrelated women. It’s usually a grandma and grandchild, but there are no [stories about] two people from different walks of life that are women coming together.”

an older woman in a teal jacket and bright pink blouse stands next to a surly teenager dressed in all black Image: FilmRising

Tsang wrote Margo to have a certain grit that would play nicely against Sammy’s edginess. Margo needed to be someone who wouldn’t coddle her, and wouldn’t be afraid to call her out. When it came to casting the role, Tsang had Perlman at the top of her list. She’d grown up watching Cheers, where Perlman plays smart-mouthed waitress Carla.

“When you think of someone with tough grit and heart, that’s Rhea,” says Tsang.

Perlman and Cech carved out a unique relationship. Tsang says she didn’t really give them specific instructions in developing their characters, because it was more important for them to spend time together, develop their chemistry, and figure things out on their own. Instead, she took the two of them to magic shows, and curated special playlists for them, based on their characters.

“We had some Joy Division on Sammy’s,” laughs Tsang. “It was really emo. And then Rhea had more classic soul music as well. And some Frankie Valli.”

a surly girl dressed in all black with a black eye Image: FilmRising

Sammy is absolutely the sort of character who would listen to Joy Division and other “emo” music. She wears all black. She rarely smiles. She defaces school property and gives herself stick-and-poke tattoos across her thighs. She’s angsty and angry and impulsive, struggling to process the grief of her mother’s death. She’s rebellious and unapologetically angry, but balanced with enough heart that the audience understands where she’s coming from. For Tsang, creating Sammy came from a very personal place.

“I was that Sammy, and I just never saw her anywhere,” Tsang says. “Growing up in the ’90s, I never saw anybody that quite reflected who I was, in terms of an Asian American actor or a role for them. I loved Lydia Deetz [in Beetlejuice]. That was who I wanted to be, who I felt most akin to. Same with Edward Scissorhands. I wanted that for my younger Asian American self. I would love her to have Sammy. And so I wrote her into being.”

Marvelous and the Black Hole hits theaters on April 22.