One Piece Director Marc Jobst On Adapting the Unadaptable

Not even Marvel could prepare Netflix's One Piece director Marc Jobst for the fandom expectations to come.

One Piece. (L to R) Iñaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy, Emily Rudd as Nami in season 1 of One Piece.
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for One Piece episode 1.

Marc Jobst has built a rich career out of the wide variety of heightened genre television that he’s directed. Jobst was involved with some of the strongest original Marvel series on Netflix like Daredevil and The Punisher, while also tackling some of the streaming service’s other prestige fantasy properties like The Witcher and Jupiter’s Legacy. Jobst has dabbled in some extremely exciting worlds across these many series, but none compare to the epic undertaking that he’s experienced in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of anime sensation, One Piece.

Marc Jobst, working alongside One Piece’s executive producers Matt Owens and Steven Maeda, has helped bring to life a special world of superpowered pirates that many said was impossible. Jobst directed One Piece’s first two episodes and in honor of the show’s premiere, he gets candid with Den of Geek on the show’s unique obstacles, finding the grounded human element in extreme genre material, and the special lens that he created to help do One Piece’s visuals justice.


Den of Geek: Your directing career started in more grounded dramas, but how did you make the shift towards more heightened genre material? Was this always the direction that you wanted to go down?

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Marc Jobst: No, it was kind of a huge surprise to me. I think what happened is that I flew out to America to do my first American show, Hannibal. Hannibal is a really intense, psychological drama, but it’s also really heightened. That went really well and I had an incredible time on Hannibal. One of the producers on Gaumont International, which was producing Hannibal, was also a producer on Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove. 

I really pushed the boat out on that show. It felt like they had hit the brakes a little bit and I had an episode that allowed me to really release and do some sexy stuff. Then that producer moved over to Netflix and put me in touch with Marvel Studios, who had seen my work. They said, “You’re obviously good with actors, so why don’t you come over and do this Daredevil episode for us, that’s this intense two-hander that’s almost a stage-play.”  This was “New York’s Finest,” which has that big rooftop scene between Daredevil and the Punisher. 

There was a lot of nervousness over this episode because it’s very wordy and theatrical. They weren’t sure how to make it work within the Marvel Universe. So they brought me in and because I come from theater, I think my experience with actors could be used to lift that heavy dialogue scene between these two. Then there’s that huge action sequence down the stairwell, which also became quite infamous. From there I was getting phone calls to do all of these sorts of shows that I would have never previously imagined. I had this full career of intense dramas that then gave me this opportunity to get into these genre shows. It just felt like such an exciting way to learn so much and stretch your visual skills. I had to pursue it and here I am!

Hannibal was one of my all-time favorite shows, but you’ve worked on a bunch of horror and fantasy between Hannibal, Hemlock Grove, and The Witcher. It must be so freeing to get to tell these stories that aren’t limited by reality. 

In a way, of course it’s more freeing, but as a director you have to know when to seize the opportunity. That’s the key. It’s very easy to be intimidated by the studio that you’re working for–like Marvel Studios, this big, famous universe that you become a part of where they already have a very clear idea of what they want. Most of all, in my experiences with these studios, they just want you to surprise them. They know what they want and they’ll get what they want, but they really want you to surprise them. So it’s your job as a director to get in there and figure out what you want to do with the episode. The work is the same, in the end, whether you’re working on an intense human drama or a heightened genre-driven drama. What’s the story? Who are the characters? And what do they want? Once you start to apply that in every single thing that you make, it starts to become the same. Sure, the world, camera angles, and landscapes might have changed, but the rest remains the same.

One of the reasons they called me in on The Witcher is because we needed to cut through this fantastical world and really figure out the story. What’s the story of The Witcher? What’s that character and what does he want? Once that’s applied, you start to ground these two-dimensional characters in three dimensions. You dimensionalize them into some sort of emotional truth. This was one of the things that was the most important for me to achieve in One Piece. The translation from manga and anime into three-dimensions has been rocky in the past. So when you take on something like One Piece that is so loved by so many people–I thought the Marvel and Witcher fandoms were big, but One Piece, oh my word! It makes you go back to the basics: What’s the story, who are the characters, and what do they want?

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One Piece, and anime in general, is often regarded as a medium that’s impossible to adapt in live-action. Did you have much familiarity with these mediums in general? 

No, not at all. To be honest, I didn’t. Likewise with Marvel, when I went in there. To a degree, I think that’s actually a benefit. You can come at it with a freshness. I’m a story and character man. All of my work comes down to story and character. For me, there’s always a great danger when you do these high-concept shows that there’s too much time spent thinking about the world. All of the production time gets lost on how these worlds will be created and it’s very easy for clinical directors to get drawn into that. I come from theater, so I’m more interested in the actors and their character. 

In One Piece, I wanted to turn things around and figure out how to put the characters in the foreground. How do we cast it so that fundamentally the audience first and foremost falls in love with them, but then there’s also this amazing, unique world that they’re traveling through! It was my goal to do it that way and what I kind of started to learn how to do with that rooftop scene on Daredevil. If Jon Bernthal and Charlie Cox are getting through big 14-15-page dialogue scenes then they better answer what this is all about. It’s about Daredevil, who wants redemption. And it’s about the Punisher, who wants revenge. Okay, now there’s a throughline and a North Star that can guide us forward. I did the same thing with One Piece.

As the director of One Piece’s first two episodes you really get to help build the show’s visual language and set the foundation for what follows. Can you talk a little on developing the show’s look?

There are two very important things that I wanted to bring to the team. Once we started to approach the series as a production they become important elements for us all. Steve Maeda and Matt Owens’ scripts were full of character. They were warm-hearted, big-hearted, and optimistic. Luffy is such an optimistic character. The question becomes: how do you bring warm-blooded actors into what’s essentially a 2D world where they can do crazy rubber things. In 2D you can do whatever you want, which is so exciting. You’re not held back by the limitations of being human. When you go to 3D, you’re putting real actors into that and if you just try to replicate it then I think you’re going to fail. Matt and Steve have been very clever in their scripts to keep these characters’ special skills, but ground them in something really truthful and emotional. We had to cast actors who could do that, were warm-hearted, and could be very physical. I wanted them to be able to do loads of the stunts so I can do what I tend to do, which is long, continuous action sequences with single shots. 

That was the first thing that we had to do. The second thing is that when you look at the manga’s frames you see all of these weird angles. How do you reference that in live-action without exactly mimicking it? We wanted the live-action show to stand alongside the other two. We didn’t want it to be “and/or,” we wanted it to be “and/and.” You’ve got the manga, the anime, and the live-action, and hopefully they all work together to add value to this incredible IP. I loved those angles and frames, so I spoke to my DOP and said that I want to find special lenses that would help me accomplish these things. 

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We had some very special lenses that were made for us and had never been used before. They were large format MiniHawks. These lenses are super close focus. There was a lot of time I would be right up to the actor so that I could get that shot of that one eye or whatever. However, they’re also super wide lenses. Yorgos Lanthimos did The Favorite on these types of lenses. I didn’t want the fish-eye look. These unique lenses meant that I could go into these special landscapes, with character, get my character very close to them and travel into the world with them. It meant presenting these great visuals in such an exciting way beyond the standard wide shot and coverage. 

You really feel that. The action sequences in particular stand out because they’re not just that standard mix of quick edits where nothing has substance. You really let those battles breathe. 

One Piece is full of big action setpieces, but they had to be different than say Marvel or The Witcher, which is visceral, gritty, and dark. One Piece is much more playful. If Marvel and The Witcher is all about the punch–the hit. Then I wanted One Piece to all be about the journey to the hit. I was less interested in the hit and more interested in the choreography, dance, and playfulness of the characters on the way to that hit. Luffy is a character who wants to win, but he doesn’t want to hurt. 

The cast is so fantastic here. They have such infectious energy and love for this world, which is palpable from their interviews. Did you get to help with the casting, too?

Very much so. As soon as we started full production we started to look into casting because we knew it would be a global search. [Eiichiro] Oda had very specific ideas on where all of these characters came from in the world. We wanted to honor that as much as we possibly could. I knew how I wanted to shoot the action, so I knew that I wanted actors who could act and carry the drama, but could also be physical and carry this other side that I wanted to capture. By the way, through the entire production we had one camera operator who was just dedicated to the action unit. That’s very unusual for a production. They only worked with the action team and learned the choreography of the dance, which is something that I learned during the sword fight in the pilot. We had an operator who was dedicated to that fight for nearly three weeks so that he could learn the dance and help out with it. 

I wanted the actors to be physical, to be excited about being physical, and to be able to carry the choreography. If the audience doesn’t love the actors and characters then the rest becomes so much more difficult. They don’t fall in love with the world-building, they fall in love with the people. The chemistry of the crew was so important. We searched high and low to choose actors who we thought had heart, really, and passion. Actors who charmed us during the auditions, which you can’t just recreate on the screen. It’s either there or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it’s really tough. It’s the extra ingredient that makes the show magical. 

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You previously directed Black Sails. Was that experience helpful at all when returning to a pirate series that can largely be set on a boat?

Only by the opposite! We had a number of people from Black Sails’ team on One Piece. We’d be in production meetings and they’d bring in their Black Sails expertise and I’d always bring up that this isn’t Black Sails. Black Sails is a long lens show. Your frame of reference is totally different on that show. Not only that, but the big ship on this was painted pink with love hearts on the sails. You couldn’t get any more different than the dirt, grit, sweat, and blood of Black Sails. To be serious though, there are still tricks that you learn on shows like this that transfer over. The wind, too! Cape Town is very windy and quite often you couldn’t even put the sails up because it would be too dangerous!

You touched a little on your previous superhero work and even some of those shows, like Daredevil, are coming back through this new Disney+ lens. Do you have any thoughts on the more recent superhero fatigue that’s going on and why that may be?

The reason why I wanted to do One Piece is because it’s very different to any of those other superhero shows. It’s sunny. It’s positive. It’s about a world and a character, Luffy, who basically encourages people to believe in their dreams. Believe in your dreams. Believe in yourself. And believe in your friendships and be loyal to them. Luffy wants people to be who they want to be and he’ll even help them, like in the case of Koby. Koby wants to be a marine, which is the absolute opposite of everything that Luffy believes in. However, he tells him, in a beautiful scene, that he’ll help them. That’s special to me and why I wanted to be involved with this show. There are these big action setpieces and world-building moments, but also these lovely, intimate, honest scenes between two people who are struggling how to be. When Matt and Steve first sent me these scripts, that’s what I fell in love with. The world needs adventure right now. The world needs some positivity and some authenticity.

In terms of the other shows, Daredevil is an amazing show and Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio are just so good. I know that I haven’t had enough of them yet. Whether there’s an appetite for the rest of this or not I think is going to come down to lower budgets and more careful consideration on where that money goes. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

What was the most challenging scene that you shot in One Piece’s first two episodes? And is there a sequence that stands out as something that you’re particularly proud over?

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Well, Buggy was undoubtedly one of the most challenging. Shooting that scene was super complicated, which is exciting! Don’t get into the film business if you don’t want an adventure. How do the actors work with limbs that are supposed to be flying all over the place, but physically aren’t in the moment. The stunt choreographer for that sequence has such humor and cheekiness that’s brought to the sequence’s choreography, which really raised everyone’s games. He dared to be a little cheeky through it all and it paid off. That was definitely one of the most challenging. 

One of the sequences that was the most rewarding, in some ways, was the ending action sequence of the pilot between Axe-Hand Morgan, Luffy, Nami, and Zoro. It’s huge and goes on for a very long time. It needed to have different dynamics through it all, but it’s also the first moment that the three of them come together as a team, even if they don’t realize it yet. To keep that action sequence playful and continually uplifting, even after the hits happen. It was also just a huge challenge to establish the show’s visual language in that moment, but it’s all there. 

I’m just a big fan of Jeff Ward [Buggy] as an actor, too. The stuff that he does as Buggy is so unlike his previous work and he really sells the character.

I’m so glad to hear that because that’s a big character. What I love about Jeff is that this was a big tent–we had another 300 or 400 extras in that tent and it didn’t even cover half of it. It was enormous. If you’re going to play a character like Buggy then you’ve got to commit. When we did our first scene with Jeff he came onto the set and he just owned the floor. He took these scripts and he just spat out the lines. It was awesome and we were all blown away. “That’s Buggy, man. That’s Buggy.” He set the stage for this big character, which helps all the more during his showdown with Luffy. 

It’s still very early, but would you like to direct future installments of One Piece if there’s a second season and beyond?

Absolutely. I fell in love with One Piece while doing it. I didn’t know much about it, but then I did the deep dive and fell in love with it. You know, during the auditions there were so many people who said, “You have no idea how much One Piece means to me. It’s helped me get through some really tough times.” As a director, when you hear that, it makes you understand that this is just more than having a lot of fun. This really means something to people. We have to honor that and we have to land that side of the story that actually means something to people beyond it just being a lot of fun. To have that responsibility and to find actors who have that depth and are willing to live in that is incredible for me. I fell in love working with these people and I’d cross the world whenever to work with them again.

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Director’s Statement from Marc Jobst: Marc would like to state that he supports both SAG and WGA in their pursuit of reaching a fair and equitable resolution to the respective strikes. In talking about his work – past and present – he does so with unequivocal support for the highly skilled crews that make up the different unions (SAG and WGA included) and believes all should be valued and recompensed for the contributions they make in bringing these series and films to life.

All eight episodes of One Piece season 1 are available to stream on Netflix now.