The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 415 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are going to skip the usual bits because today we are joined by two of the executive producers of HBO’s remarkable and award-winning comedy series Veep. David Mandel serves as showrunner. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer. It is such a pleasure to have you both here talking with us about your amazing show.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Thank you very much.
David Mandel: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Craig: How about this? We are coming up in the world. I’ve got to be honest with you, John.
John: Yeah. We’ve had Alec Berg a couple of times.
Craig: Which is not great.
John: No, but I mean–
Craig: Not great.
John: But to have the better HBO comedy.
Craig: Well, so Alec Berg used to work in a three-part writing partnership with Dave Mandel and Jeff Schaffer.
David: A three-headed monster.
Craig: Correct. And as everybody used to say, Alec Berg was the worst of them. So we would always get the worst. And now we have – and I guess Schaffer is in the middle.
David: I mean, show 600 you might get Schaffer.
Craig: We’re working up to Schaffer. Working up to Schaffer. But now we have world famous television star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. And we have the greatest of all Mandels in Hollywood. Sorry Howie.
Julia: Hey, you know what?
David: I’m a fan of Babaloo. But anyway.
Julia: Mandel means almond. You know that right? OK.
Craig: It’s true.
Julia: I forgot to tell you that I took pictures of packaging at the grocery store where it said Mandel Mandel. Anyway, never mind. You can cut that part of the show out.
Craig: No, no, that’s staying.
John: That’s crucial.
David: Leave that in and let’s expand on it.
David: Expand and sort of improv.
Craig: If you were fully Jewish, we had a little discussion of our Jewish provenance which happens when you’re discussing comedy. Mandelbrot is almond bread, right?
David: It’s kind of gross.
Craig: You know what? Like most Jewish pastries, disgusting.
David: It is a treat that is not much of a treat.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a treat relative to the things we’ve suffered as a people.
David: Like they gave it to us at Hebrew school and, yuck.
Craig: Here you go. Doesn’t this remind you of something good? But it’s not.
John: I hope that today we are going to talk with you guys about some things—
David: This is of interest to screenwriters, yes?
Julia: Yeah, really.
John: That do not include almonds. You probably don’t get asked so much about the process of writing your show and putting together your show, so we really want to dig into some process stuff. I want to talk about tone and likeability, which is a thing that Craig and I get hit on a lot.
Craig: Yeah. The number one complaint that I have about notes, whether it’s from a studio or a network, or when people ask us what do I do about this, the big complaint is my character is not likeable enough. And I always think like good, you’re on the path to success.
Julia: That note is a red flag to me. Likeability is overrated as a virtue. In fact, it’s not a virtue – certainly when it comes to writing comedy.
David: It’s blandness. It’s literally blandness.
Julia: Or drama for that matter.
Craig: Agreed. Agreed.
David: There was some executive back in the day in the Seinfeld days, not connected to Seinfeld, but the writers who had come from other shows and what not. And I literally don’t even remember who it was, but I just remember there was an impression of this person giving a note which was sort of like having listened to a script and then going, “Mm, I don’t like our guy.”
Craig: “I don’t like our guy.”
David: “I don’t like our guy.” And that was this sort of—
Julia: Oh, I know who that was.
Craig: Well, we’ll take that off the air.
David: OK. Fascinating.
Craig: But it is essentially a torpedo aimed at your work because the entire purpose of drama or comedy, and I think it’s particularly clear in comedy, is to underline the absurdity and the brutality of the human condition. And I’m not interested in doing that with people who are nice. I don’t mind people who are truly good. Those are interesting characters. Like Saints can be interesting in their own way. It’s like that line from Into the Woods, “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.” It’s such a bad note.
David: They just want to round those sharp edges off. And like I said I just keep going back to blandness.
Julia: Well, also, I mean, very fundamentally if you’re really reading a good story or watching a good story, dramatic or comedic, conflict is what you need, right? Aren’t you looking for that? And how does likeability fit into conflict?
David: Yeah, conflict. And I would add to that and then choices. Choices based on who you are.
David: And if you’re just likeable or whatever, well then what are your choices? What are you faced with? And it just seems like it eliminates a lot of those things, too. Or at least interesting choices I guess.
John: Julia, can we start with you and start with the sharp edges of Selina Meyer and sort of where that all came from and the initial discuss of this character Selina Meyer, the idea of doing a show. Can you take us back, that’s 2011. What is that initial conversation about the show like?
David: It was drinks with Armando right?
Julia: Exactly. It was drinks with Armando. It was pitched to me that – he was developing a show about a female vice president who was miserable. So I thought, ooh, that sounds like, oh, I can’t believe that this is – immediately I was drawn to it conceptually. We were supposed to meet for a cup of tea or whatever, just to chat it up. Anyway, three hours later we’re still yacking and we got along really well and I was pitching to him in this meeting ideas about behavior and in that meeting a couple of things I pitched were then worked into the script actually that were fundamental. Like the bending of the spoon that was made out of cornstarch and so on and so forth.
And so we got along really well. I was familiar with his work because of In the Loop. I had seen the movie. I did not know The Thick of It, however, which was this series about parliamentary politics. And so then he wrote the script and he folded it in and then I remember getting this script and loving it. Although at that point they hadn’t made a deal with me, so I was like, god, I hope they’re – some of my ideas are in there and I hope they include me in this show. But anyway, they did. And it was fabulous.
John: A lot of our writers who are listening to this show, they’re going to be meeting with an actor. They’re going to be meeting with an actor who they want to involve in a project and it sounds like he had a general vision but he also included you in from an early stage.
Julia: Totally. Yes, exactly. This was his—
John: You felt like the match was right?
Julia: Yeah. And I grew up in Washington, DC. They’re in New York. But I was very familiar with inside the beltway culture. Too familiar really. And so – and also I’m active politically, so I’ve been on the campaign trail as a matter of fact. I had experience to bring to this, which I think was intriguing to him. But his style of making entertainment was really intriguing to me. Because the gritty quality of his work was something that I was desperate to do.
And then off we went and we made this pilot and we rehearsed for I want to say something crazy like two weeks.
Craig: Oh my god, what a luxury.
Julia: Oh yeah. Can I say, so much rehearsal for the pilot and then subsequent – I think we made six or seven more episodes, yeah, seven. And rehearsal for that as well. So it was just gobs of rehearsal, which was fantastic. And the cast that we put together were very adept at improvisation which was very important to Armando. He really, really wanted people who could think on their feet and work on script from an improvisational point of view.
Craig: It seems to me that there are some actors that writers understand instinctively they can partner with in this way. And then there are others that you can’t quite do it with. And I’m sure you’ve noticed this along your path, too.
Julia: Oh yeah.
Craig: You know, some actors really are kind of receivers of stuff and they perform and they may have questions about it. But there is a writerly kind of actor. And one thing that’s always indicated that to me is an actor that has things to say about the other characters.
Craig: That they understand everything actually comes out in relationships, not just me, me, me, but how does this work with the other person. And so early on I have to assume that you were talking with Armando not just about Selina but about everyone.
Julia: Oh yeah, completely. 100%. I mean, I was there for the casting of everybody other than Anna Chlumsky who had already been hired, because she worked with In the Loop, and so he was a huge fan of her. So she was on board. But everybody else we sort of went through the process and improvising and doing scenes in the audition with everybody who came through.
And in fact some of the people who didn’t get the roles as regular cast members subsequently came back as huge players in the show. Dan Bakkedahl, Brian Huskey, just to name a few.
Craig: You end up with kind of a theater troupe surrounding—
David: And I know from talking to the guys that they had like – you know, Armando had done a lot of research and definitely sort of created these archetypes.
Julia: Tons. Yes.
David: But then obviously in the casting process the vision of what you think someone is going to be and then Tim Simons walks in and that’s not what you thought Jonah was, but then that becomes Jonah.
Julia: Well, Jonah was written as a tiny, I believe, balding, overweight guy.
Craig: Nailed it. [laughs]
John: So talk about that rehearsal and the improvisation part, because one thing I’ve heard about your show is that after a table read or during a table read there’s also an opportunity for the actors to sort of experiment. What happens in that process?
Julia: Well, just so you know, there was one way of doing it frankly with Armando and that worked really well, and then Dave come on board season five and that shifted. And neither one is better than the other, it just was a shift. And everybody was able to do it, which is great.
David: I think one led to another also in that—
Julia: Yes. Yes.
David: Because of the improv and the improvisational style of the early days which allowed I think all of the actors – this is just my take on it – I wasn’t there. But allowed the actors to imbue the characters with so much of their own stuff and really take possession of them. Then when you walk in in season five, I’m the first to say, a lot of the heavy lifting was done. And a lot of these characters were a lot more set in stone. And if you look at who the characters became in sort of season three and four they’re very different than who they were in one and two. Not in a bad way, but you can see in sort of the first season—
Julia: The evolution.
David: Everybody is a little similar. And then they start to find who they are.
Craig: And so you have the advantage of writing now for characters that the actors had sort of improved their way towards.
David: Yes. So I get this sort of slightly more – I shouldn’t say slightly – these more complete full-fledged people to play with. But I will say from talking with Armando who I spend a little bit of time with and he was just so gracious and wonderful with the handover and emailed and spoke on the phone and I flew to London. And then I think that first year I went to, he was getting an award at one of the comedy festivals – it must have been Montreal. And I went there and we did like a thing together there. And he just works differently. I mean, forget about who went first. He definitely experiments and looks to find things.
And one of the things I remember when I took over the show, it was like you have to have three editors. And I was like, OK. I don’t–
Craig: Seems like a lot.
David: Yeah. Seems like a lot. But you need three editors. And I was like, all right. And we hired three editors. And I worked with an editor and I finished a show and I went to the next set and I finished a show or whatever. And somewhere along the way I realized, oh I see, when he’s looking at all of this footage he is looking for stuff and he’s finding it in there. So he’s giving some notes in one edit room and moving to another edit room, and moving to another edit room. That’s just not me.
I am far from the most organized writer. I am a procrastinator. I have many, many bad habits.
Craig: We’ll get into those.
David: But at the end of the day the way I learned to write, which really from Seinfeld into Curb, you know, really Larry and Jerry but especially Larry, outline, outline, outline. And structure, structure, structure. And so I map the season out and it’s a pretty hard map. And things move from episode to episode, but when you look at our whiteboards, like at the end of the season it’s sort of like, oh no, no, no, it was all there. Do you know what I mean?
Craig: It was planned.
David: And so I didn’t quite need three editors. And obviously I think my scripts were certainly much more the script. But that being said, again, because I have these wonderful creatures, we would pick – maybe sometimes more pick and choose scenes to throw on their feet and try out and play with. And always good stuff came from that. And almost as a rule we always picked what I sometimes thought were the harder scenes.
David: And we always picked anything with you and Hugh. And you and Hugh scene was something we always almost took almost three shots at. We put it on its feet, did a big rewrite off of that and discovered so much stuff. Rewrote it, then put that back on its feet. At that point hopefully maybe even on the set. And then maybe a little fine tuning.
Craig: It would be a crime to not with those two together.
David: Yes. And so much, the physical – like a lot also the physical stuff that is never—
David: It’s hinted at in the script but it’s just not till you’re there that you get that kind of stuff.
Julia: Just to back up to the Armando process for a minute, when we were originally like in that first season and we were doing rehearsal and I just remember all of us were terrified. It was pretty scary. Because, you know, there was a script and we’d read it. And then he would say, OK, now just throw those out. Everybody come up. And let’s just – let’s pretend it doesn’t happen that way. Let’s pretend such and such comes through the door who wasn’t originally in the scene and needs this. And everyone was just sort of – it was scary.
But then after a while you sort of got used to it. And meanwhile writers are there taking notes furiously. And if anything works, you know, it gets folded into the stew. And this happened quite regularly. But that is to say it was also very written. So I don’t mean to imply at all that the show wasn’t written by the incredible writing staff. But it was just – we just came at it a slightly different way.
So the ability though to sort of think about a scene wholly was very much strengthened during that period of time. And it was something we could apply working with—
David: And I’m fascinated by that, but I would rather kill myself than work like – I just couldn’t even—
Julia: And by the way we tried it, didn’t we? We tried it like exactly that. That was not a good fit.
Craig: How was it for your anxiety level? Was it good?
David: Well, I’ll give you the [double] which was we read the first I think three scripts, or I can’t remember, I think we maybe didn’t read the third one. But we read the first two and we were scheduled to read three. I think it was like the Monday after they won the Emmy. And it was a goddamn disaster. And I know exactly what was wrong, but it was horrific.
And so then in a world where nothing was working we attempted our version of the Armando system because Chris Addison who had been a director in the old world and then we had him on that first episode sort of did—
Julia: Applied those same—
David: Applied the version. And to me it was just people marching in circles. I mean, I just remember going like blech. Because it was just like OK now you’re with a doctor. And the writers, the non-British writers, because three British writers had stuck around, but then I had put together this other team. And we’re all just looking at each other like—
Craig: What is this?
David: Yeah. And I knew what to fix. But for me it was just not it.
John: Now, back up though because both of you had worked on multicam. So in multicam traditionally the room has created a script. There’s a reading but you’re rehearsing over the course of that week. Isn’t that sort of the process that you’re getting to there where you’re trying a scene, you’re putting it on its feet, and writers are rewriting it?
Craig: Larry was pretty strict, right? In Seinfeld he was fairly strict?
Julia: Strict-ish. I mean, if we came up with shit in rehearsal and if it was good—
David: And you guys with Andy came up with a lot of business.
Julia: We came up with a lot of business.
David: Which became a lot of comedy that wasn’t necessarily in the script.
Craig: But it wasn’t, I mean, my understanding – like Seinfeld wasn’t like Curb for instance?
David: Well I was going to say no. Seinfeld had scripts. Curb has outlines. Although they are outlines that – and I always try and point this out. They’re like six, seven-page outlines that any writer worth his salt could take home and turn into a script in under 24 hours. It’s all there. It’s just not laid out. But it’s all there. And in some cases it’s all there plus we’ve got a couple of like secret things that we didn’t put in but we’re sort of saving for take three. So we’ve got even additional stuff.
But what I was going to say, just to back it all up somewhere, is the way Larry and Jerry ran the “writers’ room” is there was no writers’ room. Each writer was sort of individually crafting their episode, pitching their stories, and then being sent off. When Larry left Jerry rigged a sort of mini-version of the same system which was individual writers writing their episode and bringing it back in. And then in lieu of Larry and Jerry going through the script and sort of rewriting and making it better we did sort of a baby mini-room of usually Jerry, the writer, and then some combination of senior management so to speak.
But very much not the sort of group room write that I think has sort of—
Julia: That is the norm.
David: That has [ruined] the sitcom form in a lot of – you know, the reason that you’re not seeing multi-cams. But the process of, I guess, that week thing, it is different. This was really sometimes just wholesale just throwing things away and just going what if now you’re over here. I mean, I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But my one day of it, it was very loose.
Craig: Well it didn’t fit your—
Julia: It was very loose, but at the same time it was also not loose. It was a different, I mean, the looseness was important sort of fundamentally for a feeling of what you were doing. And it definitely informed, it was that gritty thing. So people talking over each other the way people do in life which you don’t normally see actually anywhere really.
David: Robert Altman movies.
Julia: Yes, exactly. Which I love. And that all stayed and we kept that in place. And in fact I would say when Dave came onboard and then moving forward from there, you know, sometimes I would say to Dave, “Is this feeling too written? We need to zhoosh this up, which is the word I use for it, which is to just mess it up, zhoosh it, make it—
David: Especially in that world of like take five. Everybody has kind of got it down. But it’s getting a little my line your line. You know what I mean?
Craig: Yes. Take the polish off. Go faster. My favorite direction of all time. Faster. Something about speed people start to lose a little bit of that sense of line-line. They will start to overlap. It will – I don’t know, I just always find that—
Julia: Speed can be really helpful. It can open up something that you didn’t realize. It really can.
Craig: It’s almost now you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Your instincts start coming out.
David: Seinfeld was crazy fast, and Curb was faster. And Veep was fast before I got there. And I think we made it faster.
Craig: Speed is wonderful.
David: I mean, I always think about like Billy Wilder, like One, Two, Three. You guys know that movie?
Craig: Yes, great movie.
David: Just boom, boom, boom, boom. And not only do we squeeze every ounce of air out of it in the editing room. Also by the way just to try and get more stuff in. But on the set I guess in that next step of the process which is when you actually get to the set, we’re getting it on its feet for the camera blocking. We’re making changes. And any hole that’s there, how do we jam another line in? And plus the realization—
Julia: Or behavior. Or behavior.
David: By the way, both. So there’s behavior here. And Richard is throwing a line away there behind her that she never hears. And it’s just all there. And we’re jamming it full.
Craig: Then you get that sense, and I love this in comedy. And it’s something that you can start to do on the page, but ultimately you do have to work together as a troupe to get it done. The sense of overabundance. We’re not short on jokes here. In fact, we have too many for you. If you miss something, good. Watch it again.
David: Watch it again. And every time people are like, oh, I have to stop and go back I’m like great. Fantastic.
Craig: That’s wonderful.
David: And in fact when we sometimes do these screenings, we’re always sitting near each other when the audience is getting to see it. And obviously it’s so fun when you do like a screening for a theater because that level of laugh is wonderful. But we’re always a little bit upset when they miss that second joke.
Julia: Oh, shit, they missed it. Shut up! Shut up!
David: They’re laughing too much at joke one and it just blew by them.
Craig: Good. Love it.
Julia: Yeah, totally.
Craig: Love that.
Julia: But it was also this idea too of things having an imperfect veneer over it. So, forgetting a line, or saying things wrong, or whatever, we carry – I mean, we just blow past it and maybe can use it because it seems real.
David: Right. If somebody screws up a line or stutters on it, Julia is more likely to make fun of the character in the scene.
David: Which then may become something but now all of a sudden she’s jumping down, whatever, I’m thinking of like Matt Walsh’s thing. Jumping down his throat. But it feels very real. The other thing, too, is – and again this ties into I think sort of the—
Julia: Sorry to interrupt. I think that’s where that aye-aye-aye—
Craig: Came from originally. Because he actually did it?
Julia: No. He just said something dumb and I just started making fun. [makes stuttering noises]
David: And then he said please don’t do that and then you’re off to the races.
Craig: That’s the best thing you could possibly hear. Please don’t do that.
David: But I was just going to say and then this sort of Veep sort of doc style, also the same thing to this messiness which is we are big and wide at times where other shows would be close. We are close but we’re on the other person. We’re on the reactions. Because so much of—
Craig: Where it’s at.
David: Exactly. It’s all reactions. And so that kind of stuff. Or obviously that moving camera thing where you’re getting a little bit of both.
Julia: Pieces of this.
David: And not necessarily ending the scene on a joke, or at least a joke-joke. Sometimes even just maybe an angry storm out that just sort of Peters out with everybody feeling—
Craig: Avoiding the traditional rhythm.
Julia: Yeah. And we are always very careful, because we got burned a couple of times, actually I think just once, to get a hyper wide shot. Because the wide was our friend. And also in so doing I would add we got away with a lot of broad performance. Because if you’re hyper wide you can do it.
David: You know, and occasionally you have a line and you go, well, that’s feeling a little jokey, you pull back about ten feet it’s a lot less jokey.
Craig: No question.
John: Can we talk about Selina as the center character what she wants seems to drive everything. It drives the whole ambition of the series. But within every scene it’s so focused on sort of what Selina wants. The thing she’s trying to get someone else to do. Or that she’s hungry. Or that she needs this thing that’s in her bag.
Craig: [laughs] She’s hungry.
John: So as you’re writing scenes is that pretty much always top of mind. Sort of like what she wants, what each of the characters want in that moment, what they’re trying to do?
David: I don’t know if it’s specifically that. But I guess I’ll go macro for a second which is – especially in the first season Armando had sort of written it into this sort of exquisite corner which was the Electoral College tie. So, so much of coming into the show – and this goes back to when Julia and I first sat down with this idea of maybe I’ll come in and do this – obviously we were talking so much about Selina and really the bigger picture of just how badly she just wants the presidency. And so in some ways I can’t say that we’re sitting there going, no, no, it’s all about what she wants in any individual scene. But that paintbrush, even in the season where she wasn’t in the White House just drives everything.
Craig: She’s defined by her wanting.
David: Yes. Exactly. And that’s definitely something we’re just always thinking about. Plus, I guess just a general, again, this for me goes back to Larry, which is just every scene has to move things forward. Something has to move forward. You can’t just—
Julia: Masturbate for a while.
David: And in our first season—
Craig: What a shame.
David: Once we got going and we sort of rewrote those scripts and everybody was very happy and we solved it all and we went going we reshot one scene from the first episode which was a scene of – Selina had this giant stress pimple from the tie, sort of the way George W. Bush had gotten sort of his own weird boil thing. And we shot of scene of her with the doctor, the president’s doctor. A very funny actor whose name is escaping me right now, but he was really funny. And there was some funny weird energy between him and Tony Hale, being possessive of each other. And this very funny way that like a lot of fans thought—
Craig: They were into each other.
David: It was all to do that was wonderful. But the scene was sort of dead on arrival.
Craig: It didn’t change anything or move.
David: Yes. Exactly. And we ended up – and it was something that kind of slipped through the first time, because there was fun dialogue and stuff about the pimple and all that kind of stuff. Second time through and it wasn’t until like sort of again you sort of realize it watching it in the editing room it’s like we know how to fix this. And it was just like add three more characters and add some—
Julia: Other conversations.
David: Yeah. There’s a disaster in the Midwest.
Julia: Flooding or—
Craig: Which led to a background thing that’s going on.
David: Which led to a funny conversation about favorite disasters.
Julia: Favorite disasters is unbelievably irreverent to say the least.
David: And just a whole bunch of other stuff. And the doctor dialogue and her dialogue with him and the Tony stuff, none of that ever changed. It’s just now—
Craig: Takes the pressure off of that stuff to be funny on its own.
David: The fear of trying to continue to govern, to be presidential, to seem presidential. That all now comes into this scene. When it was just talking to the doctor you lost – even though the scene was in the Oval you lost that, again, that feeling of she is obsessed with how do we get through this tie. And those things all come through.
Craig: Yeah. Well it does seem like once you have a character that is defined by this wanting that you’ve learned something about her which is – it’s too limiting to say that a character really just wants to be president. That’s a person that just wants. Right? So that never goes away. We kind of have this sense that people that really want to be president are trying to fill a hole that will never be filled. So everything is trying to fill the hole and it will never happen.
David: And one of the great things, and again I think this connects a little bit to coming in in season five that maybe you don’t do in season one is coming into the show as a fan of the show, but also now it’s season five, again, some of the stuff we started talking about right in that first sort of – and there was a series of them. I feel like – I don’t know, two or three lunches. And it sounds silly, but a lot of those conversations just informed the three seasons we did together.
David: We didn’t know how long anything was, but the journey, the losing the tie, then ultimately the idea of losing the tie to another woman. Then the notion that the show would transform yet again into former president of the United States and then into the window opening and her throwing things away. All of these ideas, I mean, were in those early conversations. And we were so simpatico about like what to do with this thing. But in there was this initial idea that ended up being the fourth episode of the season which was Selina’s mother who had been mentioned – and again the fan, I remember thinking about these things.
David: Mee-maw had been mentioned three or four times.
David: As this hateful character. And we sort of had this idea of like she dies. And now season five we’re going to start digging into where do these wants come from.
Craig: Right. What’s the origin story here?
David: Why is she like this with her daughter? Well I’ll tell you why she’s like this with her daughter. Because her mother was even worse to her. And what’s her relationship with her dad? Well she thinks it’s good, but why is she with so many shitty guys? Because it wasn’t so good. And you get this chance to kind of dig in. And I do think – and again, it’s not good or bad or better or worse, it was sort of I think the three seasons we did together we got to kind of dig into that stuff in a way and start to – I hate to say it was home life, but you got a little more into the characters.
Julia: And I apply that, too, to other characters on the show. We were able to dig into Gary Walsh’s life.
David: We met his parents.
Julia: Anna Chlumsky’s life. My god.
David: Mike having babies.
Julia: Amy Brookheimer. Yes.
David: All of these things.
Julia: It was fun to delve.
David: And it was just a chance to kind of, because that’s what – I guess I’ll simply say I was both – that was what I was interested in. And it was an opportunity to also make it a little different.
Julia: Widen it out.
Craig: Yeah. Because they had already done the stuff that you have to do first.
David: A thousand percent.
Craig: Because there’s no context for it.
David: The second episode can’t be Selina’s mother’s funeral.
Julia: Nobody gives a shit.
David: But four years in–
Craig: Nobody Gives a Shit. That would have been a great title for that episode.
David: You start to kind of go, oh, this is interesting. Yeah.
John: Let’s talk about the plans for this season. So the blue sky-ing of what’s going to happen this season. Because you could have had a plan for like these three seasons, but then there was a break and there’s a new president. A whole bunch of stuff has changed. So when it came time to really think about what are the episodes of this season what is that process like for you, for the two of you together? What was the discussion like?
Julia: Well the first big discussion was are we doing seventh season and out or an eighth season and out. And that took a lot of personal, you know, there was turmoil in our hearts and souls over that. But we made the right call because I should say we did have an idea if we were going to do another season what that trajectory was if we were to do a season eight. So then when we decided it’s a season seven it was a question of crunching those ideas into season seven.
David: And again a lot of this all just starts with us sort of either, just phone calls sort of in the offseason, or even occasionally an email. But usually leads to a phone call. And sometimes she’s calling me going I had this thing that was funny. This could be a Selina thing. And I’m going, hey, I’ve been thinking about this thing of like this. And so a lot of it just starts like that during the sort of maybe – during the editing process. When I’m editing and we’re seeing each other to go over cuts and stuff. But it’s free form ideas as these things do.
But I always – this is for me – I always like to – when I go into a season I like to kind of know what the first scene is and I like to know what the last scene is. And that last scene also secretly informs the first scene of the next one if that makes any sense.
Craig: Absolutely yes.
David: And so we started talking, again, about how do we end this, how do we figure this out. And I will admit in my own mind I was pushing for two. It’s a good job. I like it. I like working with these people.
Craig: Sure. You have a lot of debt. Gambling debt.
David: Gambling debt. But as the show often does it was like – it was like one of those things where you start putting it up and it’s like, oh, it’s one. And it just was.
Julia: Yeah. Story dictated it.
David: Yeah. So we talk through a lot of stuff. I start meeting with the writers. We have a lot of special guests. We bring in all these people. It’s almost like a little salon.
John: Let’s talk about some special guests.
Craig: I was one of them.
David: That’s right.
Craig: I was a special guest.
John: What did you talk about?
Craig: Ted Cruz.
John: All right, oh great.
Craig: The worst politician in the world – well, second worst politician in the world.
David: Exactly. He’s looking really good now.
Craig: Let’s not get crazy.
David: But when Jonah became a congressman, when he won, and then we were going into the notion of what’s next for him, and it led to his sort of mini Tea Party revolt. And we were sort of definitely kind of stealing a little Newt Gingrich, a little Ted Cruz and whatever, we brought in the Ted Cruz expert. Because we had this idea that we wanted Jonah to be the most hated member of the House of Representatives. And so we thought the most hated member of the Senate would be a good reference point.
Craig: No question.
Julia: In its inception the show relied tremendously, heavily on research. So, in the very beginning we went to DC and met with this person and that person. I mean, you can’t believe it. It was like field trip after field trip, in the best way. And we all did it together, writers and cast. And this happened every season and then when Dave came aboard we did another Washington trip.
David: When I took over we did a Washington trip as well. We took all the writers to DC. We were in the White House at like nine at night. I mean, we were in the Situation Room at like 10:30 at night on a quiet Wednesday or something.
Julia: We spent a lot of time meeting with consultants and lobbyists and chiefs of staff. I mean, really just a ton of people.
David: And the nice thing is obviously people are fans of the show from both sides of the aisle. So we had Mitt Romney in after he lost. And he was fascinating, but one of the most fascinating things for me just story wise we sort of said to him like what’s it like to lose. And he definitely – we stole a couple of lines from him. We definitely took some things. But one of the best things he said was he talked so much about—
Julia: If you’re explaining you’re losing.
David: Yes, exactly. And we just put that right into the show.
Craig: Wow. If you’re explaining you’re losing.
David: There were little phrases. Anytime anybody used a phrase, I remember somebody said simple block and tackle politics. And it’s like Ben is going to say that. So you get little bits of dialogue that give you that authenticity. And then obviously you just get stories. So that for example the Pod Saves America guys came in and told us about Obama flying to the wrong airport. And we know that’s—
David: Literally opening scene of the season.
Craig: Can’t not do that.
David: Sorry, back to Romney really quickly. He talked so much about the comfort of this large and extensive family sort of giving him solace that it was so clear like, oh, Selina would have no solace. It was sort of like a—
Craig: They were going to leave her alone.
David: Yes. It was just like oh my god she’s going to lose her mind. And we started the season with the notion of her coming back from basically the looney bin. And in those things you just get these wonderful pieces of reality that go into the stew.
Craig: That’s great.
John: Can we talk about the second episode which is the Aspen one, the Discovery Institute? What was the genesis of that idea? Just getting you out of the normal backdrops?
Julia: Well, I mean, because it’s a reality. These – what do we call them – retreat conferences led by billionaires.
David: Or you hear about these weekends in the Hamptons where like Kamala Harris is going to the Hamptons and she’s throwing a giant party.
Craig: Jeffrey Epstein used to attend quite a few of these.
David: I’m sure he was quite the guest.
Craig: Oh yeah. Not anymore.
David: And so again these things come at us and it seemed like just again obviously an interesting thing and this is – I’ll throw this out which is we started with a ten-episode season that was so complicated from a production standpoint that the episode shooting went from six-day shoots with three cameras to eight-day shoots with four camera.
John: Four cameras.
Craig: What do you do with the fourth one?
David: Our DP David Miller, I mean, he found usage—
Julia: Killed it. He killed it.
Craig: To be honest with you I’ve never seen a single cam four cam.
David: It was incredible. And it allowed us to – especially now that the group was back together, so you’re in a table or an office scene.
Craig: That makes sense.
David: That fourth camera is picking up extra coverage.
Craig: Tables are the worst. The worst.
David: But not with four cameras. Four cameras makes it a little easier. But as it grew and we ended up going, OK, I think from a – I hate to say – budget reality we’re going to crunch the season a little bit. I think in retrospect I do wish maybe one or two of the people hadn’t been at that retreat and just maybe a little less of a – it was almost a bottle show. And that’s not a bad thing. But in a seven-episode season when I look back on it I wish it maybe wasn’t quite the bottle. I wish maybe – and again the perfect writer’s hindsight. I wish maybe we had moved Amy and Dan going off on the abortion into that episode, taking them out of. I think it was a luxury in a ten-episode season. Again, this is all hindsight.
Julia: It’s all right. It’s all right, Dave.
Craig: No, I think you should torture yourself over it. Forever.
David: I will. I will. Do not worry.
Julia: He is.
David: But again it came out of this reality. It came out of this notion of—
Julia: Money driving politics.
David: Trying to show money. Exactly.
Julia: Money. Money. Money.
David: Basically we have that line in there somewhere, Ben says to you, “You’re going to have money so dark it’s going to get shot going into its own apartment.” And that was, if you had to pick a line of what is this episode about, that is what that episode is about. It’s about the money and all of–
John: And setting up the season. It’s also going to be the Chinese influence and a lot of other things that’s going to happen. Basically asking the question is there anything Selina Meyer won’t do. And the answer is, of course, she will do anything she absolutely—
Julia: The China thing by the way was set up in season five.
David: We were setting that up in season five. I don’t think we necessarily knew obviously, well A, we didn’t know the Russians were going to interfere in our election. So I can’t say to you we 100 percent knew how it was going to play out. But all of that Tibet stuff has been a constant thing.
Craig: It worked out great for both of our shows in its own way.
Craig: What I did not predict was that the Russians would explode another nuclear reactor and lie about it.
David: And lie about it for about, what, eight days or so?
John: HBO did really well by you getting that to happen.
Craig: And then have Scandinavia detect it.
David: Again. Almost the same way.
Craig: Sort of embarrassing.
David: A little smaller.
Craig: Thank god.
David: But where I was going to bring this all back around to was, so, let’s back up. Summer 2017, yeah, Summer 2017 we mapped these ten episodes out. When I’ve got it on the board, maybe not perfect-perfect, but at that point Julia has heard most of it, but not all of it. And then she and I go through it together and she adds her stuff and we move some more things around. And then at some point we get HBO to kind of sign off on it. And then we start writing the episodes.
And I think we had read like three or four episodes when it was September and we won the Emmy and the next day—
Julia: Breast cancer arrived.
Craig: Yes, yes, yes.
David: And we ended up shutting down.
Julia: How do you do?
Craig: Hello, breast cancer. Welcome.
David: And I don’t want to gloss over that period but I guess jumping forward when we were shut down Trump enters the second year of his presidency and as I sort of think about it he got very comfortable. Like all of a sudden like if you go back to that period he really steps on the gas. The lies go up. The craziness goes up.
Craig: All of his minders have been eliminated one by one.
David: Exactly. And so year two is where he really goes crazy. And as bad as it was in that kind of like it can’t get any worse, it started to get a lot worse.
Craig: Every day.
David: Yes. Every day.
Craig: There is no bottom.
David: And so now as this is kind of happening and I can remember these feelings in January and I will also say it also ties into, I think January is when you – forgive me if I’m not remembering exactly right – but somewhere towards the end of January you kind of got a thumbs up on the chemo had gone well and things were good.
David: So knowing all is well and we’re going to – I don’t know when we’re coming back, but we’re coming back, it’s like what is this show? So many of the staples of what we did and talked about–
Julia: The bad behavior. In the pilot episode the big scandal is she says hoisted by your own retard. That’s the pilot episode.
Craig: Yeah. That wouldn’t even be a blink today.
Julia: That’s nothing.
David: It almost cost her her career.
Craig: Right. And that’s nothing now.
David: And the construct of Selina being constantly hoisted on her own petard, or retard, is a constant throughout the show in a way that it affects her. But it just seems like consequences have gone out the window. The notion of this is how we are secretly, but in public we’re different.
Julia: Public we’re somebody else.
John: So all of these sort of Veep staples go out the window.
Craig: He’s blown them up because you can’t compete with him because he’s real and he’s worse than you’ll ever possibly be.
David: And then let’s go further. Our incompetent staff seems like geniuses compared to who he hired and vetted.
Craig: And this kind of goes to an interesting thing about comedy, we’ll go back to unlikeable characters, unlikeable characters aren’t stupid characters. In fact, you need to be rational in some way to be funny. Your rational pursuit may be insane. In other words the thing you want may be crazy. And the depth you go to and the lengths you go to. But it makes sense at least internally.
David: Or at least you can function to realize I’ve screwed up.
Craig: Correct. You have a sense of shame.
David: And that can create fear. Shame and fear.
Craig: This guy would be the worst character in a show ever because he just makes no sense. He doesn’t remember anything he did. He feels no shame or guilt. He would be a C or D character. I mean, he’s not even – he doesn’t even have what Louie De Palma had in Taxi. Like every now and then Louie would have a conscience.
Julia: Yeah. He’s too broad.
Craig: He’s too broad.
Julia: He’s too broad.
John: And he’s running the country. Yeah.
David: So all of this happens.
David: And now we’re starting to be able to get on the phone every now and then a little more. And I remember having this conversation of like I’m worried–
Craig: How do we compete?
David: And we were worried even when he won, but we kind of got away with it because it was our she’s not in office season.
David: We had shot most of that season, we were in the middle of I think our sixth or seventh episode, the Georgia episode. I can’t remember the order. We were mostly through the season when he won. And when we aired that season thank god she wasn’t in office because I honestly believe had she still been president—
Julia: We would have had a real problem.
David: And we’d been putting up these episodes of Mike doing bad press briefings.
Craig: It would have been embarrassing.
David: Yes. We would have looked very out of touch. And so my fears were not just what are we, what is our relevancy, how do we not seem out of touch, how do we not seem old fashioned, but also how do you deal with this, because so much for us when we are mining interesting real political history we have distance. Even when we did the Florida recount, I mean, we had distance. And we’re living in this thing. So it was a full reevaluation of I guess taking a darker paint brush and just going if we’re talking about the quest for power and this is now the example of just this insane, insane quest for power, and if Selina Meyer truly was willing to throw away love at the end of season six, what else is she prepared to do? And where can we go? And also why should she lose? Because our original version of it was she was going to lose the presidency yet again and then eventually become a vice president to Sam Richardson.
And so why does she lose when horrible people all over the globe are winning?
Craig: Correct. In fact, yeah, that’s the trend right now.
David: And dare I say some sense that I guess maybe was wistful but now I don’t necessarily think is true which is I guess early on I had this vision sometimes that at night he went up to his room and maybe was a little scared or like what am I doing here, which I now no longer think that’s even possible.
John: Oh no.
David: But that inspired at least the notion of let her make these decisions and then suffer consequences.
Julia: The consequences. Right.
David: And so we changed – I don’t want to say we changed everything, because on a story point of like where we went and the things a lot of it stayed the same.
Julia: But actually certain fundamental things really changed. I mean, people got shall we say killed off episode by episode until at the end of it we’re—
David: We got very Godfather and Godfather Part II. Which is by the end the family ain’t around anymore. And this idea which was at the end of the season she would be with no one we knew. I mean, we knew them but none of the regulars would be with her.
Julia: None of the core group.
Craig: She’s killed her whole family.
David: Yes. And she has to kill Fredo. Because as we started to think of well what can she do that’s bad, talking about her passing bills and what not, or burning down a forest, it’s relationships. And so who is the person she would never – and you get there. But it was a process and a real journey. And then, of course, if we’re playing all this darkness how do we also keep it funny? So it got very brutal but it got very funny in a really dark way.
Julia: And it got pretty dramatic, too.
Craig: Which is why it all kind of comes together and ends well.
David: Thank you.
Craig: I mean, not for necessarily the character—
Julia: No, no.
Craig: But ending a show is really hard. I personally, I don’t care, I love the last episode of Seinfeld. I do. At least I think I understand what was happening there which was essentially the show was saying these people you’ve enjoyed all this time are terrible and they deserve justice. They deserve it. Because they’ve done terrible things. And I thought that was wonderful. It was like a great way of a show kind of accounting for itself.
Julia: I could never really get an opinion about that for myself. I had never had an opinion about the final episode other than I enjoyed making it so much. Which I did. But in fact I know it was a controversial episode for a lot of people, but I think we were sort of set up in such a way that people would be disappointed regardless.
David: It was sort of a Game of Thrones of its time.
Craig: It’s hard. It’s really hard to end something that is designed to not end.
Julia: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
David: At the time I remember thinking, or the one thing I took from it and sort of I guess applied to us, which was it was what Larry wanted. Forget everything else. It’s exactly what Larry wanted. And all I cared about was there was a moment sort of like as we were finishing the cut of like we really like it. And the rest will happen or not happen as the world goes.
David: Both in every phase, just the stories, the outlines, first draft, second draft, on its feet, rough cut, locked cut. And kind of we like it.
Craig: You’re accountable to yourselves. That’s the most important thing. I mean, then you can defend anything because there’s nothing to defend. We like it. We love it. We’re the same people.
Julia: Yeah. We like it. I think it’s funny.
Craig: Right. We’re the people that made the thing that you love. And we love this. So take it or leave it.
Craig: Exactly, yay. But as it turns out I think it’s considered one of the best series endings.
David: When people do like it, don’t get me wrong, it’s quite nice.
Craig: No one likes it.
David: I was prepared for—
Craig: Sure, of course.
David: Like I said, to me the two most important people were me and her. And then I kind of had like a couple of my high school buddies in mind. This is aimed at them.
Craig: And where was I in there?
David: You’re like number 36.
Craig: That’s not bad actually.
David: It’s not bad. I only know about 35 people though.
Craig: I know. That’s still, I’m OK with that.
David: But I mean, I don’t know, when you make something for the world, what is that going to be?
Julia: You can’t do that.
Craig: Well I think it worked out great. It is considered, and I think reasonably so, and well deserved, a really good ending for a series that had been going for years and also had gone through so many changes. Sometimes those are the hardest things to end. When characters have gone through these wild journeys. You saw with like Dexter was sort of an infamously poorly-received ending where he had gone like seven, eight seasons, and then just didn’t quite figure it out I guess.
David: I think one of the things that also again going back to like you get to build on what was there in the past, I think one of the things that has always helped Veep is that despite the show being called Veep she stopped being Veep in season three.
Julia: And they blew up the premise.
David: And yet it was completely different every year and yet it was always this woman who suffered from having been the Veep. And the notion of—
Julia: And how we ended. She gets to be president, but something is off, isn’t it? So, she will never be satisfied. She’s a fundamentally unhappy human being. And she thinks X is going to give her joy. But she’s wrong.
Craig: I mean, there is a wonderful irony in somebody who is miserable because they’re the vice president because the presidency is right there. And then they get it and they still feel like the vice president. Because there must be something more. And there isn’t. And that’s when you realize you’re kind of in hell.
David: The life of a writer.
Craig: Yeah. The life of a writer. Exactly. It never ends.
John: So it’s the end of this series, but it’s not the end of what you guys are working on.
Craig: Oh no it is. They’re done.
John: They’re done?
Craig: Oh yeah.
Craig: I mean, I don’t think anybody – they’ve burned so many bridges.
Julia: Bonbons. Champagne. That’s all it’s about.
Craig: Actually sounds pretty good.
John: Julia, what will we see you in next? What’s the next thing we’ll see for you?
Julia: I don’t know. What do you got? I’ll do anything.
Craig: OK. Well let’s get to work.
Julia: I made a movie on the hills of Veep called Downhill which is a remake of Force Majeure.
Craig: Oh wow. Yeah. Love that movie.
Julia: Yeah. And I did that for Searchlight with Will Ferrell and, yeah, Faxon and Rash directed it. So I’m in post-production on that right now.
Craig: That’s a heavy—
Craig: Well, I mean, it’s a great movie. But it’s really, that casting is fascinating to me.
Julia: I know.
Craig: I mean, I assume it’s not tonally similar?
Julia: Ish. Not completely.
Craig: Slightly funnier I would imagine.
Julia: Yeah. But, it is a dramatic film with comedic elements to it. But I would say it’s more drama than comedy. And it’s more comedy than the original.
Craig: Got it.
Julia: So that’s what I’m doing. And then trying to decide my next move. Maybe one of you boys has something I can do.
Craig: Chernobyl season two.
John: David, what are you working on next?
David: I have been gloriously taking a break and I will keep taking a break hopefully for about another month or so.
Craig: That’s nice.
David: I signed a deal with HBO and I obviously hope to create something. I’d like to start from scratch on something and then hand it off to some other schmuck later on about four seasons in.
Craig: Right. You want to Iannucci it is what you want to do.
David: Exactly. It seems like a really smart move.
Craig: And continue to collect money I would hope.
David: Oh yes. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Craig: God, how do you get that where you don’t do anything and they give you money?
David: Or I’ll get Schaffer to run it.
Craig: Get Schaffer to run it. Of course.
David: But, you know, look, everybody works hard. I was fried when we were done. And I have just recently been able to put sentences sort of back together.
Julia: Yeah. It was a hard show to make. I mean, we were really wiped by it.
Craig: That makes absolute sense. But tremendous success with it and really when I say tremendous success the only kind I really care about is creative success, because I don’t think I own shares of AT&T. So, it’s really just the creative success of it. And it is so lovely to see – that’s why we wanted you guys to come on together. To see actors and writers working together in this way where they are both writing and they’re both weirdly acting also. It’s like it all gets sort of blended together in this lovely and unique mixture that ends up with something like this. Where there’s not another show like this. I can’t imagine another one coming along. It’s got its own fingerprint. And I think that’s why it was so successful.
Julia: I consider myself very lucky that Dave – or I don’t consider – I am very lucky that Dave came onboard because we had worked together before, but never this intimately. It was as if we always had.
David: Yeah. I mean—
Julia: From the get go, right?
David: You know, I use the word, I mean I call her, she’s like my writing partner. I say that. And I will say, and I think I’ve said this in an interview somewhere or whatever, but it’s true. And I can truly remember it, which was when you were in the chemo stuff and obviously chemo is chemo, whatever.
Craig: No fun.
David: I would occasionally email you but I didn’t want to bother you also. But I was so palpably aware of how much at that moment we actually spoke every day and then weren’t.
Craig: You missed her.
David: Yeah, I don’t know what else. I mean, it was crazy. And I just realized like, oh, like we’re not speaking and I was sort of just losing my mind.
Craig: That’s how John is going to feel about me.
John: One day.
Craig: I’ve decided that’s how he’s going to feel about me. And I don’t want to have to go through chemo for it. Honestly. I would love just a long flu, like a two-week flu. But towards the end of those two weeks—
David: He starts to really miss you.
Craig: He’s going to feel an ache.
John: As I cycle through guest hosts and eventually it’s like, you know what, it’s just not the same without Craig.
Craig: You know man? Have the flu again. It’s working out better. For you and me. I like it when people explain to you that something is working better for you when it’s not at all. But mostly me.
John: Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did today’s outro. If you have a question you can write into firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you very, very much.
David: Oh my gosh, thank you so much.
Julia: Thank you.
John: And have a great rest of your season and a great rest of your vacation. I cannot wait to see your movie.
Julia: Oh god, I hope you like it.
Craig: I’m gonna.
Julia: You are?
Craig: Yeah. I decided. It’s happening.
Julia: Oh goodie.
John: One ticket sold. Thanks.
Julia: Thank you.
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