From director Anna Mastro and based on an original story by Alex Litvak, Andrew Green and Austin Winsberg, the Disney+ original film Secret Society of Second-Born Royals follows Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), a rebellious teenager whose royal lineage makes her second-born status something of an afterthought to her family. But when she learns that she has superpowers because of a genetic trait attributed only to those that are like her, it’s up to her to find her inner superhero and create her own legacy.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Anna Mastro talked about how she got attached to direct this project, blending the royal family genre with the superhero genre, the elements of the story that most spoke to her, the journey she’s taken as a director, how much the script changes over the course of making the movie, assembling this team of young actors, setting up a possible new franchise, and what she’d like to do next.
Collider: How did this project and script come your way? Was it a random opportunity or were you looking for something like this?
ANNA MASTRO: Well, I’m always looking for inventive coming of age stories and I am always looking for things that involve action and teenage girls, especially. I had been looking for something to do with Disney for awhile and an exec who works there had been my boss’ assistant at an agency, probably 19 years ago, and every job she goes to, she sends me a project. This project, I thought was great. I thought it had so much potential. I thought it was pretty interesting. I loved the idea of doing original IP, especially for Disney. And so, it seemed like this really cool opportunity.
It’s cool because it’s this original thing, but then it also blends the royal family genre with the superhero genre, in a way that seems really new.
MASTRO: Thank you. That was definitely the goal. I just wanted to elevate what’s been in this space before but doing it in a different way and with a really diverse cast. I think that was exciting.
Were there elements about the story itself or the specific characters that most appealed to you and that you thought were most interesting?
MASTRO: Yeah, I love that idea of a kid in that coming of age genre, who’s looking for their place and they feel like they don’t fit in, within their family, within their world, and within their friend group. They just feel different and it makes them feel like something’s wrong with them. I think a major theme about this movie is that when you figure out really what makes you different or unique, that’s what makes you special and you’ll figure out what you can do with that. That theme was the one that really stuck out to me.
You directed a movie early on in your career, but then did a lot of episodic TV prior to doing this movie. Was that something you intentionally set out to do, to get more experience on a wide variety of projects, or was that just where the work was?
MASTRO: It was a little bit of where the work was. When I made my first show, it was the last season of Gossip Girl. It was my very first TV job and I worked really hard to get it. It wasn’t as cool as it is now, to be an episodic female TV director and I didn’t know that. I just wanted to do this show. I had made a short that was a musical that was written by Neil LaBute and Teddy Geiger had done all the music, and it was this cool experience. And then, I shadowed a lot and Gossip Girl happened. Right after that, the first movie happened, which had zero budget. And then, I was looking for the next thing. It takes a really long time to put a movie together on your own and TV was starting to have this whole really creative renaissance, in terms of what it was about and how you could do it. It could see really cinematic and that was celebrated. I really wanted to work in that world. It just took a long time to build up that side of the career. I was always looking for another movie to do but once you step out of one world, it’s hard to get back in. It just happened that way. I’m not sure that it was on purpose.
What did you learn from working on so many different projects and varying types of projects? Was there anything that you feel you learned about who you are as a director, from doing all of that work?
MASTRO: Well, you get a lot better and you get a lot faster, for sure. Every job teaches you at least one new thing that you can take with you in your little box of tools. I learned a lot. I think what I learned about TV is that it’s very hard to get new opportunities to break the box you’re in or the genre you’re in. After I did Gossip Girl, it was very hard to get another show, even though I’ve done so many commercials and music videos and a movie, at that point. And so, I ended up having to shadow again. And then, I did a lot of Jane the Virgin but I couldn’t really get action. So then, I had to do an action short, and I got in with Marvel. You keep having to reinvent yourself and keep showing new work to get the next thing. It does finally catch up with you but it really takes a long time to find your way through it, especially if you wanna keep trying new genres and new things, which I definitely did. I really feel that way about movies, too. I really wanna keep making different movies and telling different stories.
With this film, were there any major changes that happened, from the first script to the time that you started shooting it?
MASTRO: The script changed a lot, from when I first got it to when we actually started shooting it. And then, it changed a lot, after we shot it to when we finished it. There were many evolutions in creating what everyone hopes is a newer franchise, selling that world, and establishing those rules. The first script I got had a lot less action in it, in terms of their training montage and figuring out who they are and having these bonding experiences. We tried to really amp up the character development. And then, when I got into post, what I realized was that the stakes really needed more shaping. Each step of the way, I would look at it, and then look at it with Disney, to see if we had the opportunity to keep making it better, and the answer was always yes. They were extremely helpful. I got really lucky, in that sense that they really wanted it to be the greatest movie it could be. They didn’t hand me a script and go, “Here, shoot this.” They were very down to keep tweaking it and working on it, which it needed. It was a great script to begin with but we got to make it better, and the writers were game. They were really helpful and really part of the process, so it was fun.
What was the casting process like for this? It seems nearly impossible to find one actor to center your story around, but then you also had to come up with a team, so how did you know when you had your team together?
MASTRO: The chemistry of the team was really important for me. The team work and the team working together was definitely another theme of the movie that was important to me, so the chemistry of what that team was, was really, really important. Peyton Lee had done Andi Mack for Disney, so they were very familiar with her before. She was very much the first piece of the puzzle, and an amazing actress and human being. At 14, to be shooting with this incredibly smart young person who corrects my grammar and is willing to try anything felt very lucky. There’s not really a kid on the planet with as much chemistry as Niles Fitch has. He’s just so charming, so handsome, so cool, and so aware, so he was a great add. Faly [Rakotohavana] is so funny and his sense of humor really brought a lot to the group. The first time Isabella [Blake-Thomas], who plays January, read for the role, it was almost like watching a different person and you could tell she was so excited. It was really hard to watch all of the other people read, after she read. The second she read, I knew she was that part. And then, Olivia [Deeble] is Australian and she read in a tape, and Roxana was a really hard part on the page to not just sound ridiculous. She brought a level to it that was so over the top and so well done that it was hard to even consider someone else after seeing her. She’s this magical unicorn. I really like love all five of the kids and the team together is great. It was really exciting to bring them all together.
The role that Skylar Astin plays is tricky because he could easily have become the annoying adult, but he’s still very likable. Was it hard to find exactly what you wanted for that character?
MASTRO: He was the last piece of the puzzle that came together. Austin [Winsberg], who had done the story for the original script and is one of our producers, does Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Skylar was on that, so he suggested him. His timing is so good and his ability to try stuff and his professionalism, being the ringleader of these kids, was so refreshing and just such a compliment to the whole thing. It was really fun. He took a character that, on the page, was written one way and he brought like a real human side to it. It’s hard to visualize on the page. It reads a little bit different than how he embodied it, which made it super special.
This group of kids are seen one way by their families but a very different way when they’re put together and told that they’re actually superheroes in training. They go from being the second born in a family where they aren’t sure what their place is, to realizing they’re a part of what could be something really cool. What did you enjoy about getting to see, in showing that journey that they all go on, especially for kids out there who might feel like they don’t know what their place is?
MASTRO: It’s a really universal theme. They’re not all royal and they’re not all superheroes. They’re all just figuring out who they are, which is buried in what their powers are. As they train, their power actually affects their personalities, like when Tuma realizes his power and realizes how he’d been misusing it and he advances as a human being and finds this great humility. Matteo realizes that he has the power to communicate with these creatures and can really make a difference, he gets more confident as a human being and confident in relationships with friends and that maybe a girl could like him. Roxana has a bazillion million followers on social media but in terms of having real friends in real life, she hasn’t had that before. Each one of them develops these human qualities as their powers advance, and layering that in and getting to figure out a path and a journey for each of them in an arc that felt complete was the challenge. That was the challenge with the actor, with each scene, and with the story itself. And then, we had to make sure to have this climactic ending, where you could really feel that they’ve gotten to a level that they definitely didn’t start at. That’s why that training sequence and all of those things that echo through their lives is really important and was the most fun for me to make.
Even though these kids don’t have their own individual superhero suits, they do have a uniform. Was it challenging to figure out what that would be and to have it work for everybody?
MASTRO: Yeah. Because they also have a training component to the suit, pretty early on in the process, we decided that the world of Illyria had the colors of emerald green, royal purple and gold. It was this very royal feeling thing that’s reflected everywhere in the world. And then, basically everyone who was on this side of saving the world or being in service of the world would have dark blue and chrome metallics on their look, with the Secret Society being the highest level of that. We took these materials that had great texture and really worked with the production designer and visual effects to compliment the suits. They’re multi-dimensional in their function, not just their form. They had to look good on people. They had to reflect the light well. They had to be comfortable enough to play out action sequences and world saving events in. That’s where we started. Disney is very particular with their costumes. It’s a big deal for them. We’re all really thrilled with what we ended up with. I think they’re bad ass and cool. They look stunning on all the different body types, and having different body types in the movie was very important to me. I don’t wanna make a world that is full of unattainable model-looking humans. All of our kids look different, and that was important. It was cool that we actually landed on something that works for what they had to do. They look cool and the kids were very comfortable in them. We even got James (Skylar Astin) in there. He’s got a couple of scenes in the supersuit. It was really fun.
Obviously, this story is being set up to continue on. Would you like to direct another one of these and keep telling this story, or are you looking forward to seeing what somebody else would do to continue the story?
MASTRO: There are probably two more chapters to this story and I would be very excited to be part of figuring out where it goes. Hopefully, I’ll be directing it and figuring out the story. I do think that there’s a three-part chapter to this little franchise here.
Have you thought about, beyond this, what you would like to do in the next steps of your career? Have you thought about other types of projects that you want to take on?
MASTRO: Yeah. I definitely wanna do a bit of an origin story, in terms of a female superhero piece of IP. I’m working on a project that I can’t really totally talk about yet, that has that exact element going on with it and that I’m very excited about. We had a very on the lower scale budget for a movie like this, so I’d like to work with a bigger budget. Also, it’s just about getting to tell a story. I love the sub genre of female coming of age. I would also love to make something about teenage mental illness because I feel like that has not been seen by a lot of audiences and there’s a whole generation of teenage girls now, sitting at home and really having so much time to reflect on how internal they feel about the world and themselves, and probably feeling like there’s no one out there who understands them, when there’s like a lot of that going on.
When you do anything in the superhero realm, how daunting does it feel to continue to find new ways to explore the genre?
MASTRO: You really have to jump into the world and seek truth. It’s about what feels real for this world and this character, and what they’re going through. If you challenge yourself every step of the way and you surround yourself with great creative talent, there were a lot of components of this movie, and we had to figure all of that out. Getting a great production designer, costume designer, and visual effects supervisor, and really having a lot of those conversations, led to figuring out the colors of our kingdom, the skyline of our kingdom, where our kingdom is in the world, and what language they speak. It was about asking all of these questions and going from the world up. It informs a lot but it’s very cross-departmental. It starts in your head and then it becomes alive as everyone works together to really make it happen. It’s a bit daunting. You’re always racing the clock. You never have enough time. You just hope that your intentions and your heart is in the right place, and you go out and search for truth from the world. We really challenged every component of it.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is currently available to stream at Disney+.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.