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John August: Bonjour et bienvenue. Je m’appelle John August. Et voici Scriptnotes, un podcast sur l’écriture pour le cinéma et des choses qui intéressent les scénaristes. We are speaking French because we are supposed to be in Fontainebleau as part of Serie Series, and annual conference billed as “the meeting place for European series and their creators designed by those who make them. So, the scoop is that Craig Mazin and I, we had our plane tickets. We were planning to go. But then there was a pandemic. So, like all things it moved online to Zoom. So I thought we would take advantage of being on Zoom to reach out to some showrunners, some creators, we couldn’t have otherwise gotten.
So, we are talking to the creators of two of my favorite series. And since Craig doesn’t watch any TV I drafted another creator of another series to be me co-host. That’s you, Aline.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Je m’appelle Aline Brosh McKenna.
John: Now, I feel so often Aline like you’re just always the extra person on the show. We don’t talk about your amazing credits. So, I’m going to take a moment here to acknowledge your credits. Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting the novel The Devil Wears Prada and co-creating and showrunning the Emmy-award-winning comedy series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Aline also directed the final episodes of all four seasons. Her feature film credits include 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, We Bought a Zoo. She has a production company. She’s busy doing a thousand things. Aline, it’s a pleasure having you here always.
Aline: Good morning. And this week I will be the Joan Rivers to Scriptnotes.
John: So it is 7am as we’re recording this here in Los Angeles. But our guests are scattered throughout the world. Let us welcome the first. Anna Winger is an American writer and producer who lives in Berlin, Germany. She’s creator of the television drama Deutschland 83, Deutschland 86, and the acclaimed Netflix series Unorthodox, which I recently watched and loved.
Anna Winger: Hello.
Anna: So nice to be here.
John: Anna, now what time is it there?
Anna: It is 4pm.
John: Let us also welcome our next guest. Tony McNamara who is an Australian writer for film and TV. His credits include the medical drama Doctor Doctor and The Favourite which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His limited series The Great debuted in May on Hulu in the US and in other channels in other markets which I am so fascinated to talk about. Tony McNamara, welcome to the discussion.
Tony McNamara: Hi. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: And what time is it in Perth, Western Australian?
Tony: It is about 10:15pm.
John: Wow. So thank you for staying up late for us.
Tony: That’s OK. It’s a pleasure.
John: So, Anna and Tony, both of you had shows that debuted kind of in the pandemic window. And so let’s just start with that. So, you’ve made this project which has taken months and years to sort of put all together. You have this plan for how it’s going to launch and then suddenly the world stops. Tony, what was it like for you launching The Great in this space?
Tony: Well, I mean, it was strange because we were even post – like we didn’t finish shooting till – I think we were shooting in Italy on February 23rd or something. So, we were sort of doing post as it all started up until – I mean, we delivered like two weeks before we dropped. So it was strange not knowing. I mean, it was strange because I was supposed to do post-production in London and then, you know, my family, we all decided we’d go back to Australia. So then we were doing post at night remotely from London and in the morning.
So it was all weird because there were a lot of big Zoom calls with composers in LA and, you know, editors in London. So that was the strangest part. And then by the time it went out the world was so strange, nothing seemed strange, you know.
John: Yeah. Anna, what was your experience putting the show out? Because was the show all finished and ready to go by the time everything locked down?
Anna: We delivered it in the middle of January. So by the time it came out it sort of coincided exactly with the first couple of weeks of lockdown. The realization like all these events we had planned, all the travel, blah-blah-blah, all of it was canceled. And everybody was at home. And then the show came out, which it launched on March 26th on Netflix. And it was – I have to say it was an amazing experience because the other show that I make is on around the world, but it’s on at different times, like it’s not the same channel. But because this is on Netflix it just kind of dropped in 190-something countries at once. And since everybody was at home there was then not only this global drop but this kind of global conversation on social media about what people were watching. And that was kind of a miraculous experience I have to say.
And, you know, of course I’m sitting there on the WhatsApp chat with the actors and my collaborators and we’re all trading things we’ve seen on social media. And everyone has all this time to kind of talk about it. It was a different kind of collective experience than it is to sit around and drank champagne together at a festival. But it was also kind of strangely intimate, I guess.
Aline: It was one of the first things that I binged. I think I binged it in the first – like as soon as it came out I binged it. And I will forever associate it with that feeling of like being stuck and also confused. You know, we were still trying to figure out how everything works and how are we getting food. And they’re out of Corn Flakes at the market. And it was a scary time. And to be watching a show about someone’s liberation and freedom and search for those things was kind of a perfect – and then it was really like a period of a couple weeks there where every single person I knew was watching it and talking about it.
Anna: That’s very nice. I mean, you can imagine we made a show in Yiddish. So, we were also like no one is going to watch it. There was a moment of incredible panic when we thought – I felt like I had to travel around the world and kind of push it into people’s – you know, you just don’t know how these things are going to go, right?
And it was already challenging because it’s not dubbed in any language, so it’s always on Netflix in Yiddish and the English is dubbed but not the Yiddish. So it was, you know, we just thought what if no one watches it with subtitles? But if nobody can deal with the Yiddish or whatever. So it was an amazing and unexpected experience that so many people kind of got into it.
John: Now, one of the reasons why I want to have both of you on together is because weirdly you made similar shows. If we want to take it from the perspective of they’re both shows about young brides who are caught in situations beyond their control who are trying to figure out how to find authority and voice. Yes. To try to figure out how do I take control of the situation. They work very, very differently, but it’s still that same vibe of like, you know, a teen bride coming into her own power.
Tony, I was reading some of the backstory on this. It sounds like you had studied sort of Catherine the Great before. You had thought about her as a character but what was the genesis of this particular series? When did you know that, OK, I really want to focus on her story and fictionalize parts around it? What was the start of that?
Tony: I guess I [a random] play about her, which was sort of the start of her coming to Russia and then it was also about her when she’s much older. And then I think sort of dabbled with that thinking it could be a feature. And then eventually I just was working in TV a bit and I really was like – I think my wife went this should be ten hours, or 20, or 30, or whatever we hope it’s going to be. And then, of course, my wife is always right about such things.
So I sort of looked at it and I thought about her and coming to Russia and, you know, waking up and thinking who have I married and I’m in a foreign country. And somehow you’re the character who then goes what I’ll do is I’ll take that country over, even though I don’t speak the language. She seemed like an amazing character and it seemed like a fun – you know, and I felt like I had a good sort of fun way to tell it, I suppose.
Aline: When you have an idea do you know this is a movie, this is play, this is a TV show? Does it come to you in its form? Or does it come to you as a story and then you figure out the form?
Tony: More and more it seems instinctive, but because I’ve worked in theater and used to always everything started as a play. Now I sort of instinctively can tell how big the story is. But not always. Like this I thought of as a feature for a long time. And it was as soon as I then thought about TV I was like how dumb I’ve been to not see that.
But sometimes you just see the story and you’re sort of like – you know, someone optioned it as a feature when it was a play, so it became a feature. And I think once I put my head into it and thought what do I think it is it was much more like, oh, well it just makes sense. It’s a TV – it’s a story that takes place over a long period of time and she changes massively. And it didn’t seem to do her justice to do a feature.
John: Now, Anna, your story could have easily worked as a feature. I mean, it’s short as a series goes. So when did you decide that this needs to be a series rather than try to make it as a feature?
Anna: I would say I actually worked back the other direction which is that because Deutschland 83 was my first series, I previously was a photographer actually. I had a totally different career. So, the thing is I think that originally we thought maybe we’ll make it a longer series. And then I made the decision that I wanted it to be shorter. And that’s – I have never written a movie, so that’s not something, you know, I’ve only written a series. And once I wrote a novel.
Yeah, I would say now it’s kind of a hybrid because I come to it as a series writer. I think I think in chapters. You know, writing a novel is a lot like writing a series. Whereas I think writing a movie is a lot more like writing a short story. And, you know, when you have that kind of long view of the story and how it divides up in kind of propulsive for lack – I know that’s a really TV word – but you know chapter storytelling. I think that when I looked at this material I felt like – and we invented a lot of it. You know, we had the source material which was wonderful but it wasn’t really activated because it’s a memoir. It’s in someone’s head.
And then we made up I would say 70% of it kind of around these characters from the book. And, yeah, I don’t know. Somehow I hit on the idea of four hours. And I don’t know how to explain that except to say that it seemed like fun to sort of milk it for like maximum emotional tension in a sort of short-long period of time.
Because had we spread it out over ten hours this particular story, I just didn’t think we needed that much space. And even though – it’s funny, because it’s a very unpopular thing to suggest. Like, everyone is like, “Well why not make more?” Netflix is like, “Why not make more?” And I was like, no, no, I think it’s four hours. But a movie would have been too short, or it would have been a bloated movie.
I think it’s important that it’s episodic, but again it’s really like the length of The Irishman, do you know what I mean?
Anna: I guess it’s a hybrid. But now I think everything should be four hours, because it was really sort of delicious to write and make it and to have this deep dive into material in a way that was like one year. You know? It wasn’t like writing a series over many years. And it wasn’t – so I actually – I’m thinking about form. I’m not like Tony. Tony has written so many plays and so many amazing things. I’m new as a writer. I come to this, as I said, from visual work. So it’s fun to think about how you tell stories in different forms and which stories lend themselves to different forms. I like to think about that now.
John: Also just even this past week I’ve been out pitching on a series and that conversation about how long it is, which used to be like, oh, it could be 22 episodes, it could be 13 episodes, in this last week I’ve been able to say like it’s between like four and six hours long. It’s an exciting thing to be able to pitch because it does change your relationship to the amount of work. The amount of work that I myself personally could do versus having a writing staff and having the whole assembly.
Now, Aline, you come from doing longer series. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was four seasons of 20 episodes each?
Aline: It ended up being 62 episodes. Which is not a ton for television, sort of average in a way. I mean, if you can get to be a continuing series. I never intended to that. I mean, we had no intention of doing that. We were going to do four seasons of eight to ten, something like that. But then when we got on a regular broadcast network that’s what, you know, we needed – we did two seasons of 13 and two seasons of 18. But I’d always written movies and so I think what’s a lot of the exciting things that have happened in television have been pioneered by the writers, not the business people.
And so the idea that you would tell one story over a long series, one unified story, that doesn’t resolve every week is something that really comes from writers wanting to do that. And it’s Dickensian. It’s those long, long novels. Breaking Bad, or–
John: The Sopranos.
Aline: You know, Sopranos. That sort of got the audience used to that. What’s exciting to me now is I haven’t seen a lot of four-episode series and it comes from you, it comes from the creator, and it breaks ground for other people to say, “You know what? I really think it’s this.” John and I came up in a Hollywood that was very specific about formats. And because of streaming and cable and international productions you really get to say, “No, this is what I think this story is.” And look at Unorthodox. And then look at shows that have done 100. You know, you can design it. And it’s the creators that have brought the pieces to what they need to be because the creators are driving the business process so much more.
John: Tony, can I talk to you about the format of The Great? Because I’m watching it in the US on Hulu, so I’m streaming it, it’s all available, all the time. But as I watch the shows they seem to have act breaks.
John: And as I look it’s playing on different networks in different countries. Does the show have commercials in some markets?
Tony: Yeah, it does. Even on Hulu in the states. We had to turn in five act breaks. They weren’t prescriptive about – because I’ve worked on shows where it was very prescriptive. You know, the old network kind of model where it was like the minute, you know, you were down to the minute it had to be in. It was much more like we just need five breaks. And that was simple as us going, you know, literally like we’d write the script and then just throw in five breaks even nine or 11 pages. Oh, about then.
But I never thought of that too much, except occasionally I’d think [unintelligible] any good those breaks. But I felt like it was OK. I think it was just because it’s serving a big marketplace with a lot of different platforms and, you know, some places have ads and some places don’t. You sort of have to do it and hope that it doesn’t impact the show too much, I guess.
John: With that show, with that model, you have financiers and you’re selling to different markets and so all that stuff had to happen ahead of time. So you had outside money and then you have Hulu as one of your buyers, one of the places that it was going to end up.
Tony: Yeah. Hulu was our original plan, who I sold it to originally. I had the pilot and then I took it out with Alan. Hulu is where, you know, they really loved it and I really thought they were great. So that was the start. And from there we go to studio. I sort of did it the other way around. I didn’t have a studio until after I’d sold it. And then I sort of looked for a studio who could sort of take some of the costs with it and take it out internationally.
And that was where MRC came on. And then they sort of started selling it I think while we were making it really.
John: OK. And Anna at what point did Netflix come onboard with this project? And had you had other places you were thinking about taking it? Or was it always a Netflix or die kind of?
Anna: You know, I pitched it to Netflix and then they bought it and then I never really pitched it to anyone else. But that was also partially because I’m in Germany, right. So, I’m in a slightly different conversation. I’m writing in English. I’m here. And Netflix had sort of rolled out recently in Germany at the time. And we had met many times about doing something together. And we make Deutschland 83 actually for Hulu also. And we also have act breaks. It’s funny to hear that.
I actually find it kind of useful. In the writer’s room in particular I find it really easy to talk about things in terms of act.
John: Yeah. In terms of like how things are hanging together and how you’re getting through stuff. It’s great.
Anna: I mean, I know it’s uncool, but it makes it a lot easier. If you know there’s no act three how do you talk about in a group about a bunch of scripts without, anyway, I’m used to it. But we write it with act breaks but it’s on basically different broadcasters all over the world. And so it’s on, I don’t know, 150 countries and almost none the same – a couple of them are Amazon, but that’s it. Otherwise it’s really like local broadcasters.
I thought it would be kind of interesting to try the sort of one – a different experience. Because we also, even the first season we had different logos in different territories. It really predated the era of streaming. So, it was like sometimes people even weren’t sure it was the same show. So, in a way I liked the idea of trying to work with Netflix and seeing like, OK, what is it like to make a show and distribute it and that’s it. And there isn’t these sort of separate relationships or separate press relationships or rollouts.
So, you know, for me it was an interesting experiment because we made it with Netflix Germany, even though it has very little German language in it.
John: That’s great. Well, let’s talk about language. Because Tony one of the things I find so fascinating comparing your two shows is that Anna’s show is characters speaking all these different languages and what language people speak is a very important part of the plot. And you made the decision that everyone is speaking English and we’re not going to sort of acknowledge that people are speaking different languages. At what point in the process did you decide, OK, we’re just going to kind of ignore language in our world?
Tony: It was pretty early. I think during casting. It was down to like casting agents going what do you want them to do when they cast. Do you want them to speak with Russian accents? And I was sure I didn’t want that. I guess I just wanted – in the end I was just looking for a uniformity so that everyone felt like they were in the same world. So we went with the sort of [RP] English accent. Because it was also about rhythm. Because the comedy in the show is very – like the way I write is very rhythm driven. So I was very aware of everyone having the same accent and it being easy. And it just had to work for the ear. So once I heard a few things, [Nicholas] kept going, “I just think I should be the only one who does the Russian accent.” And, you know, so we thought of that.
And then, you know, someone pitched why don’t we do Hunt for Red October the way basically they’re talking Russian and you push in on Sean Connery and slowly it morphs into thick Scottish brogue.
But in the end it was more rhythm and just how do I create – I’m creating a world that’s not historically accurate. I just wanted to make it so that all the comedy would work.
Aline: That worked as a stylistic choice for me because it was almost like looking at a beautiful miniature in a museum glass box thing. It sort of had an aspect of being just a little bit stylized, like a beautiful cuckoo clock or something where you can sort of look at all the little pieces. So, having it be unified aesthetically in one respect sort of creates a baseline of unity that you can embroider all these other things that you’re doing, especially visually and production wise.
Tony: It was a unifying point to the thing. And the tone of the show. And so it was all for those reasons I guess.
Anna: It also elevates it in a way out of heritage drama or any kind of—
Anna: In a way that for me was really satisfying. I mean, it’s funny because I live in Germany, right, so everyone is like, “But Catherine the Great is German. Why isn’t she speaking German?” And I didn’t even think about that. I felt like it was part of the flavor of the piece and the creation of it and the kind of artistry of it was that you had made it your own language. That’s what I loved about The Favourite, too, which is of course that is England, but it wasn’t England heritage drama. You know, it was your version of England. It was its own place. So, the language, I hear you.
Aline: Also the royals live in, especially in that time when you’d be sort of plucked from one country and say, “Well you’re Catherine of Aragon. Welcome to England and Henry the VIII. Good luck.” And she’s dislocated and they sort of have a common language, the royalty. I mean, I wonder if they still do. But there is sort of a common language. Certain courtly languages that you would be assumed to speak.
John: Now, let’s talk about the actual productions behind these because, you know, Anna I know you had a complicated production where you went to Williamsburg to shoot the New York exteriors and then everything else came back to Berlin. And Tony I’m curious how much you were shooting episode by episode versus block shooting parts and sections. So, Tony, let’s start with you. The decision that you have these ten episodes. I assume you had ten episodes written before you started production, or was there still writing while you were in production?
Tony: Yeah, there was still writing while we were in. I mean, we shot a pilot as a sort of proof of concept. Then I came in, we had nine to do. And I think I always wanted to do – I didn’t want to write all of it. So, I think we had maybe six or seven written. And I wanted to leave the last two till quite late. Because I just wanted to see – often you’re not sure what’s going to happen, what dynamics are really going to work. There’s 12 main cast, so I wasn’t 100% sure. I started roughly knowing how I wanted to end the season. And roughly knew what was going to happen. So I felt like I knew enough. And then it was just like I’ll wait and see what happens and then I’ll quickly write the last two, hoping I’m not too tired to do so.
Aline: Who financed the pilot?
Aline: Oh, Hulu. OK, so you came in meaning – I thought you – so when you say you came to Hulu with a pilot you had a script?
Tony: Yeah, a pilot script. And then sort of green lit the pilot and then we delivered that. And then they green lit the show.
Aline: Got it. You’ve never been through that pilot process?
Anna: I’ve only ever written like the whole thing and then shot the whole thing like a movie. With Deutschland we do that, too. We’re working with really small budgets, so it’s a very different production process than in the United States. We write the whole thing and then we divide it all up and then we shoot it by location. And that’s true with everything I’ve ever – I mean, that makes it sound like so much, but everything I’ve done so far we’ve always done it like that. So that wasn’t even something – we’ve never been writing while shooting and we’ve never shot in blocks. So that’s – I’ve never done anything like that. So, it’s a different way of looking at it.
I guess in that sense we always produce as if it were a movie. And in terms of, it’s true, we shot in New York at the very end of Unorthodox. Like we shot all the interiors in Berlin and then we went to New York for three days and shot exteriors. But that’s no different from how we shoot Deutschland. We just shoot by location.
John: In your case, Anna, you have the whole thing already done. And you have one director who is going to be shooting the entire project. Unorthodox was one director for the whole thing, correct?
Anna: Yeah. Because it was only four. With Deutschland we always have multiple. But yeah.
John: And Tony you had more classically a series of directors, different people doing different things. You needed to have tone meetings. You had to make sure that everyone was shooting the same kind of show. How early in the process did you know what your main sets were going to be, what you were going to build versus what was going to be practical? Tony, for you what was that decision?
Tony: Once we had the pilot green lit – we didn’t build anything for the pilot obviously because they were expensive builds. So, once we were green lit then I think I had two months with Francesca di Mottola, production designer, and then we had studios. So we shot like 70 – most of the interiors are our place in the East End of London. Next to Tesco. So it’s kind of like weird, terrible Dickensian falling down studio and then you walk in and it’s this beautiful Russian palace everywhere.
So we had a couple of months of pre-building, working out, you know, and writing scripts, thinking ahead about visually how I wanted the show to move. Because you’ve got no director at that point. So it sort of her and I deciding how, you know, I wanted the show to move in a certain way and the camera to be able to move. And so we ended up building in these massive spaces that would let us build rooms into rooms into other rooms so it felt a bit less like a set. Because we weren’t going to move much. We just shot there and in Naples. We shot a lot of exteriors at a palace.
Aline: It was beautiful.
John: It was because you were Netflix-Germany that you were probably doing all of your interiors in Germany. But what was the decision process for what was going to be shot practical versus things you were going to build? How early in the process were you figuring that out?
Anna: Pretty early because we knew we were going to shoot it in Germany, so the question was we went to New York a couple of times and picked all the exteriors. And then built the interiors in New York to match them. So that was relatively straightforward. We did a season of Deutschland where we shot in South Africa and in Germany, so we had done that before. So that was sort of – in a weird way that was kind of similar. And I think really visually I guess because as I said I come to writing as a photographer. So I often can really see it before I can write it. You know, a lot of storytelling is also through how it looks. And I usually work with kind of visual formalists who are cinematographers and directors, or I choose to work with people like that.
So, I would say the imagining how to execute it in this case, but in every case, was a big part of writing it actually. That’s maybe why I find it very strange to write without any perspective on when we’re going to shoot it, because I guess the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay is the execution of it. And I like that part of it, too. It’s like when Tony was just describing, doing the scripts and imagining how the camera is going to move through the sets. That’s a huge part of writing it, too, you know.
John: Yeah. Some of my favorite writing has happened when I’ve been on a set, where I physically have the space. It’s like, OK, I can imagine. Here this doorway is going to be fascinating. It’s a great opportunity for this moment to happen because of the actual space that I’m in. As a person who mostly writes features rarely do I know what those locations are going to be. But the times that I have done TV or had standing sets to know that I can go back to this thing, or this is an opportunity, or could literally imagine – rewriting this scene while I’m sitting on this set is great.
Aline, I mean, you obviously – something like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend you know exactly what your sets are and you know what your pattern is going to be. You can plan for those moments.
Aline: Well, I was just thinking, Anna, how often do you write things that don’t get shot?
Anna: Haven’t done that yet. But that’s only because I’ve only been doing this [unintelligible – crosstalk – echo]. You can give me some therapy later. But it’s this feeling now where it’s like, oh, we just didn’t write all [unintelligible – echo].
Aline: Well that’s, I mean, the reason I’m saying that is welcome to Hollywood. I mean, it took me seven years to get my first movie made. And my husband used to say, “You’re so frustrated with the document production business.” Because a lot of Hollywood is producing documents, putting brads in them, and then stacking them on a shelf. You know? Or that used to be. Now you just put the PDF in a file. You know? And so just to hear somebody say like “Oh, I’m always writing thinking of how it’s being produced” is like what a wonderful thing, what a wonderful sphere to be in because so much of Hollywood is building prototypes that are – and I just recently – there’s a script that I wrote with someone else actually ten years ago. And we went back and reread it and we were like this is pretty good.
And every executive, every executive that had worked on it was gone except for one. And who had been more junior at the time. And she sort of reread it and we relaunched it. And it’s like Toy Story. You know, it’s this poor little thing that was sitting on a shelf and then it got – you know, it was waiting and waiting for somebody to try and pull it out.
And, you know what, it might get thrown back in the bin. And that will be so sad. But I think one of the things about international productions is they produce, that’s what I’ve noticed. My friends who are like – they don’t – we have so much R&D in the American system. There are so many unmade scripts. And especially in the television business where, you know, they’ll commission 100, shoot 20, and then if those don’t get picked up they’re garbage. They’re just garbage, never to be seen again. And it actually – it really kills me.
I think you could do an entire season of television development where you just went to the executives and said, “Give me the five favorite un-shot things.” And they would be glorious. You know?
So this cycle that we have in America where we just, you know, just the garbage-ification of scripts I find heartbreaking. And I don’t think they do it in other countries because it’s expensive.
Anna: Yeah. Something I think about a lot actually is just kind of the difference in the way we do things. Because of course it’s nice to be paid a lot of money for what you do. And, I mean, I’m not arguing against that and to have a lot of money to work with in production. But there’s also maybe a give and take around that. Because if you’re working with lower budgets and you’re kind of a little bit nimbler on your feet then it’s easier in a way to push something through.
So there is, I mean, like the Yiddish. Now everyone is like, “Oh my god, I have like six new ideas in Yiddish.” It’s like, believe me, nobody was going to make this show. You know?
Aline: Well that’s what makes me laugh is I have talked to so many executives who are like, “Oh my god, are you watching Unorthodox? I’m obsessed. It’s my favorite show. I want something just like Unorthodox.” I was like, “You do this week.”
Aline: I would love to have seen anyone a month ago going, “Four episodes. Yiddish. It’s kind of heartbreaking/sad in a very specific sub-culture. Shot in Berlin.” I mean, many years ago I went to have a meeting with a producer and a huge Adam Sandler movie, Water Boy, had just opened. And I sat down, which is nothing like anything I write, and I sat down and he said, “What I really want from you is another Water Boy.” [laughs] And I was like, “Go see it. It’s there. You don’t need another one.”
But it’s funny how people retroactively say, it’s the same with The Favourite. I hear a lot of people citing that as something and I think, OK, I’m sure there was a heated bidding – I mean, I don’t know the commercial circumstances. But that’s another great thing is you’ve set a template for other people in terms of the scale, the language, and that’s wonderful.
Anna: Well I’m looking forward to the sequel that you’re going to make now about the downfall of The Devil Wears Prada. I mean, just in the strange news cycle we’re in, I bet you a lot of people are rewatching that movie right now.
Aline: Well, publishing is completely different. I think we caught the last wave of – not the last wave – but those were the waning years of print. You know. And I love movies about newspapers, magazines, and all that stuff. But when was the last time that you bought a physical magazine? Or a physical paper?? I mean, I read the paper but even I only get it three days a week now. So that sense of that’s your object, which was so much of what that movie was about in a way, the transfer of the object—
Anna: But I watched it recently with my 16-year-old. I mean, it’s so good. And she absolutely loved it. I mean, the crazy part was she wanted to go work at Vogue tomorrow. It’s so bizarre, right? It’s like, wait, it makes you want to work there? But just given all the press now about Conde Nast is just going through a big tumultuous period. It’s interesting to think about what the addendum to that film would look like.
You know, it’s another era, right? It’s the end of something. I don’t know if you ever read a book called The Imperfectionists.
Anna: It was about the end of a news – it’s by Tom Rachman. It’s about the end of a newspaper in Europe. And it’s so good. That’s something I would have loved to write as a series but it always seemed to have been optioned by somebody else. But it’s so good. And the end of basically the Herald Tribune but as told through all the many different people working there. And it’s really funny and very tragic. And really great.
John: Well that’s a good segue into – let’s talk about POV. Because you’re saying that The Imperfectionists has multiple people who have storytelling power. The choice of who has storytelling power in both of your series is so fascinating.
So, obviously with yours you have Etsy who is sort of the center of it, but you make the choice that other people can drive story. In The Great it’s Catherine’s story. It’s Peter’s story. But making the choice about which characters can actually drive story is so crucial. Who can have scenes that are just by themselves? Tony, how early on in the process did you know that, OK, well it’s centered around Catherine’s story and her journey that these other characters can drive things? Was that right from the very start?
Tony: A little bit. I knew in the first episode no one could drive – the choice was no one could drive story except her. And I had a rule for myself, it was like unless every scene – even if she’s not in the scene the scene is about her. And the scene exists because of her. And I held onto that. Sort of as we got into episode two and three I started to run Nick’s own story. And then as that happened and I sort of slowly branched out to some of the others. So it became sort of a cascading thing where as we got to the midpoint of the season you start to get, you know, Aunt Elizabeth. You get these other characters that are actually – they’re sort of running their own tiny stories.
But whenever I board it it’s – I’m always very, very conscious of her and that almost – but that was always the rule is generally there are stories that aren’t about here, even if they look like they aren’t, they will be, you know.
John: Now, are you boarding a second series for this now? Are you boarding another season for this? I don’t know where you’re at in the process for The Great?
Tony: We’re just waiting to hear if we get another one. I mean, I’ve got a sort of rough shape and I’ve got some – you know, it’s like whenever you do a first season of something you end up with a lot of, oh, that would be good for season two. So, you know, I’m just starting to reread those pages and going, boy, we’re really mental. Why did we think that was good?
John: Stop me if I’m asking questions that you don’t sort of know or shouldn’t say, but is the decision entirely a Hulu-based decision? Because since you have other markets and other people who are buying in other markets. I don’t even know if you’ve debuted in all of the different markets yet. So how would that decision come about?
Tony: I mean, at the moment [unintelligible – echo]. Yeah, we have debuted in almost probably, I don’t know, 100 countries maybe. So I know it’s out in most territories at the moment. So I’m just waiting on Hulu really to see if they want to do it again. It’s sort of that thing where you’re roughly boarding it and you don’t want to do too much in case it doesn’t happen.
John: Yeah. I was on book tour in Scandinavia two years ago and I was out with some of my publishers there and this young woman who worked at the publishing company was talking about The Haunting of Hill House, which was on Netflix, and how much she loved Haunting of Hill House. And it struck me as being so unusual that this is a series that had just come out at that moment, but it had come out worldwide in everyone’s native language. And so the whole world was having the same experience of watching one show, one piece of entertainment.
And you have some of that through Hulu, but you don’t have the same like on one day all around the world people are watching exactly the same show. Whereas Anna you do have that. Like that’s so exciting about debuting on Netflix where it’s just one place that everyone could see the thing at the same time.
What is it like getting that feedback sort of all together as one thing?
Anna: They bring their own experience into it. And actually the thing that has been most moving for all of us who made it has been the way it’s crossed borders of faith and culture. Like it’s been really popular in Latin America, among the Catholic world. In India in the Hindu world. In the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. We’re really proud of that, you know, because it’s a very sort of Jewish made show. It’s sort of Jewish from inside out in every way. And everyone involved was kind of on the spectrum of the Jewish diaspora, if I’m on one end and Esty is on the other, then there were sort of everybody in the middle. And we had a really lively conversation about sort of Jewishness, about our sort of extended international culture and all of that on set and also in the writer’s room.
And it’s just been so satisfying actually that it connected with people who have no contact with Jewish culture. You know, it’s one thing that’s popular in New York and with my mom’s friends, etc. But it’s something else to hear from people in, I don’t know, Saudi or Turkey or India who wrote us these amazing notes about how they identify with it, how they see themselves in it. Men. Women. It’s like not just women.
You know, at a time when we’re all alone at home on our sofas, right, a lot of people identified with it coming from really different places. Maybe that was also, I’m sure, it was also partially to do with the lockdown. But it was still a really pleasant surprise. Maybe part of the Netflix – maybe everybody who makes a show for Netflix experiences that. I just had never been in that situation before.
John: I know of some people who have made shows for Netflix and felt like the show came out and no one saw it and it didn’t make a ripple at all. And so that’s always one of the things I’ve been worried about with trying to make a show for Netflix is that I could come out and just no one sort of sees it or knows it. It doesn’t click the way your show did and it doesn’t create a conversation the way yours does. It just sort of disappears and it never shows up in people’s home screens. And it never sort of – it doesn’t land for people.
So, I’m so happy it did for Unorthodox.
Anna: I don’t know how to explain it.
Aline: In my case it was Shtisel. Because I loved Shtisel and every time I watched Shtisel Netflix was like, “You’re going to love Unorthodox. Just trust me. Trust me. No, trust me. The second you’re done here, just go right over there.”
John: The algorithm didn’t have to work very hard to get you from Shtisel to Unorthodox.
Anna: Still in our sort of core audience. But is Shtisel popular in India? I have no idea. You know, they don’t share that much data. So it’s not – like we’re all sort of reading between the lines about that. Can I ask Aline a question about music?
Anna: I wanted to know how involved you were in the musical numbers and what that’s like as a writer to sort of write songs.
Aline: Well that was part of the whole fabric of the show. So the writing of the series and the episodes kind of drove the music. So we had parallel writer’s room, one big one and one little one. And we had the one that was writing scripts, which informed and spoke to the songs, and then Rachel who starred in the show was also in the writer’s room when she could be. And one of our writers, Jack, was also one of the songwriters. So we had three songwriters, two of whom were in the writer’s room with me. And then I was sort of the – I mean, I contributed to maybe 20, 25 songs or something as a lyricist, but I’m not a musical person.
But I sort of supervised the integration of the music into the – well, we all did, really. So the story has to drive the songs. We almost never had a song and then jammed it into a story. It was like – so there are songs that are on the dust heap because with the old scripts, there’s a little Toy Story of dead songs. Because the story changed and so we couldn’t use the songs anymore.
So like there was a scene that had been written where the character comes in and says, “I’m taking antidepressants and I don’t feel great.” And she feels stigmatized a little bit. And then everybody in the café says, “I’m on antidepressants. So am I. So am I. So am I.” And the script went to Rachel and she looked at it and she goes, “Well thank you. This is a song.” And, you know, they went off and wrote the song.
So, sometimes it was very clear. The story gave you a song. And sometimes there were ideas for songs, like we did a song called Don’t Be a Lawyer, which I had been begging them to do some version of that for a long time. But since I can’t write songs, it was kind of a fun, interesting – I was the songwriting Doula I used to say. So we had three songwriters and I would sort of – we would need them to go into production you know. So I would walk around going, “Come on, you can do it, it’s right there. Do you need a back rub? A soda?”
And the worst thing I could do would be to try and write some lyrics for them and then it would really be like, no, no, no, no. Sometimes giving something to someone that they can say no, no, no to is a great way to, you know, “Oh, just let me do it.”
It was part of the fun of the process. And we happened to have these three incredible songwriters all of whom had other jobs on the show. Rachel was acting, working on the scripts with me. Jack was in the writer’s room. And Adam was also producing all the music.
Anna: What an amazing achievement. I mean, that just sounds so hard.
Aline: Thank you. You know, we have a lot of institutional memory for something that no one will ever do again. That’s what’s interesting about it. I know how to do that. We all figured it out eventually how to smooth out the process. But it’s not relevant to anything else. To do that exact thing. But it was fun for me because I’m a music fan and then they were very kind to me about my notes being like, “This sounds a little crunchy and a little sour.” [laughs]
I was sort of describing it like it was my dinner. And I think in some ways that was less annoying than if I had been trying to pretend I knew musical terms. I think it’s sometimes the same on set. You know, I’ve noticed a lot of directors who want to have a lot of swagger about going to the department heads and pretending that they know the jargon as well or better. And in some ways I think it’s annoying when you’re the person who is the expert to have a director come over and sort of – you know, as opposed to saying what you want it to feel like or making suggestions that are more of a feel thing. And then allowing the person who has the expertise to say, “Yeah, you want this.”
I’ve noticed that I think sometimes when you do that it’s out of your own insecurities slightly that you feel like, oh, I’ve studied up and I want this exact… – You know, they probably have a better sense of the new, whatever the new thing that came out that’s going to be able to give you the effect that you want. So, sometimes when you’re creating something just having kind of a language which is a more general creative language can be – is part of your job and can be quite helpful.
Tony: I find that with composers a lot on shows.
Tony: Because that’s just like so far from me that now I just come clean really fast and go, “I don’t know how to talk about music and I don’t know anything. All I’ll be able to tell you is what I want it to feel like.” And it is an easier conversation because then they don’t feel like you’re in their patch. You’re just trying to get across as ineptly as you can and then they feel sad for you that he’s so inept. And so, you know, it kind of works–
Aline: How annoying would it be if you didn’t really know, but you were saying, “I feel a descending A.” You know? And they would be like, “This jackass showed up and asked for the wrong thing.” And I feel like one of the things that holds people back, particularly women, from directing is feeling like they’re not going to be able to open the lens case and pick out, you know. But you don’t have to. There’s somebody there who wants you to get your mitt out of that anyway and wants you to come over and say, “This is what I’m feeling. Let’s look at this together. What do you think is best? What’s the newest thing?” And giving people confidence to speak in that more general feeling sometimes is the most helpful thing you can do for your collaborators.
It’s sort of like you don’t need to give people line readings, writ large.
John: Now, one of the most important collaborations you’re going to have as a creator/showrunner is with director. A director or a series of directors. Can we talk a bit about what that collaboration should look like and best practices? But also some tips for making sure that relationship works well. Tony, as you’re talking with a director for The Great what are those conversations like? Obviously a pilot director is going to be one conversation maybe. But then later directors. How do you find that balance between this is what I, Tony, want from this scene versus what the director might be approaching a scene with?
Tony: I think it’s like – I mean, it’s sort of a harder thing because they’re sort of there for the least amount of time out of every one who is working on the show. You know, they’re dropping in and everyone is up and running. So, it’s kind of – like on our show, particularly like just and [unintelligible] just do it as much as possible where I was coming from and what the world of the show was. And the pitch of it. As long as it was truthful was our thing. It’s like comic truth/dramatic truth. Just don’t reach.
So I think it’s a lot of – like in the end it became rolling conversations. It wasn’t like we’ll have a tone meeting then and in two weeks. It was much more like – I was just like let’s just talk all the time. I don’t mind if we talk every day. So there was a lot of – so I tried to spend time talking about the script.
And it depended how much the director needs. Like you start to read how fast people are getting it, or how experienced they are. Like Colin Bucksey did three eps for us and he’s done everything. He did Miami Vice. And he won an Emmy for Breaking Bad. So, you know, he picks it up really fast. And he’s a lovely guy. So, it just depends. You’re just trying to get – showrunners, it’s like you’re trying to dip another human’s brain in your brain and hope when you pull them out they’ve got some of it so that they get it.
So it was also they can be their creative best without feeling – like I never want to feel too on top of directors. I just want them to understand what we’re doing. And I let them go direct. I don’t want to direct it.
So, for us it’s like just lots of conversations and lots of checking in about where they’re at with things. And also heads of departments often feedback if they feel like the directors aren’t quite on the same page as us. Though I really trusted them, so they would occasionally go, “I don’t think we’re on the same page. This isn’t sort of the show but that’s what’s being asked for.” And so then it’s just a conversation of that’s not the show, this is the show. Particularly first seasons where people haven’t really got anything much to look at, you know.
John: Anna, what was your experience with directors? Obviously you have one director for all of Unorthodox, but on Deutschland you’ve had multiple directors. What is that collaboration like?
Anna: I love that collaboration. Because, again, I don’t want to be a director. It’s funny because people ask me that all the time because I was a photographer. They think it’s like a natural progression. But to me I feel like I already kind of did that for so long. And I think it makes it richer. I like the conversation. There’s certain things that really matter, like choosing someone who has the same taste. And taste is a big thing. It’s like a big blob. It’s not just what it looks like, although I think that is sort of a visual form or visual style, an attraction to a kind of – you have to agree on something and both see it on how it looks.
That’s also, of course, the cinematographer, gaffer, all that. But it’s also a question of subtlety. You know, with Unorthodox for example there would have been many different ways to execute the sex scenes. Let me just give you one example. It was very important that we had – I think there was a lot of things about the humor that we had to really talk through. We had cultural things we had to unpack in order for Maria to understand what it was that we wanted out of certain scenes and what are intentions were in the script. We talked those things through a lot.
But at the end of the day I think we had a common taste and an idea about restraint in the way you were going to show some of the things. It could have been different. We could have approached the whole thing in a different way. And Maria is the star of my other show. Did you know that?
John: I did not know that.
Anna: We have a collaboration that’s really intense anyway. So then she directed Unorthodox but she’s not in it. I knew already from working with her as an actress how good she was with other actors. That part of it was very clear. Because she even elevates other actors in her performance in the scenes in Deutschland. Do you know what I mean? Like I’ve seen how–
Anna: Yeah. But she had made a movie in between the first two seasons of Deutschland. She made an art house film about the life of Stefan Zweig who committed suicide in Brazil in the ‘40s when he left Europe. It’s called Farewell to Europe. It’s really beautiful. And I loved the look and feel of it. So it wasn’t just Maria, it was also the cinematographer and production designer for that film. Like the three of them who have a really close working relationship all worked on Unorthodox.
John: You’re bringing a team back in who knows.
Aline: One thing I can suggest, and this may not be necessary on some show, but we would sometimes have people show up who hadn’t seen – I mean, the first season we had some directors who had really not seen much of the show. And, you know, people are busy and they may not have seen every single episode of your show. So we created a look book just, you know, stills from the show laminated and broken down into the types of coverage we favor and the types of things that have worked well for us. So there was a reference thing that you can put on the prepping director’s desk, you know, right when they get there so that they have a sense of like the kind of things you favor and have worked well for you and that you feel like are important ingredients.
I think that’s more important in regular series television where you have people who are kind of winding in and out of things that have long standing and maybe they’ve not seen every single episode. But it’s helpful to have – I found that helpful to have that as a jumping off point.
John: Well, Aline, it sounds sort of like you were coming from making almost like kind of factory television. There was so much that had to be done. You had to be able to slot people in to do stuff.
John: And some of the shows we’re talking about now are a little bit more artisanal where they are–
Aline: Right. That’s why I’m saying, but it still might be helpful to – you can even have your editor cut together a little reel that says like, OK, here’s our–
John: This is what it feels like.
Aline: It is the difference between artisanal cheese and–
John: And fantastic Kraft.
Aline: It is helpful to have. In comedies sometimes people came in with ideas for funny shots. And that was death for us because we had these musical numbers that were really pushed comedically. So we couldn’t really push anything comedically in our real world. It had to be very simple. So we developed a bunch of – just a visual language that would orient people. But I would think people who are showing up to direct The Great have by and large seen the series. But you never know.
Anna: It is kind of amazing that they hadn’t watched the show before they directed it. How can that be?
Aline: Sometimes – there were people who had seen – I mean, in the beginning especially when we had not aired. But also, you know, people are busy. They see one or two and they think “I got it.”
John: Well, also, the classic broadcast directors would just hop from show to show to show to show. So like last week they were doing a CSI. Now they’re doing Aline’s show. And that’s a thing that’s just so different how classic American television was made.
Now, usually on Scriptnotes we would do a One Cool Thing where we recommend something to the audience, but I’m not sure whether you guys all got the memo about One Cool Thing. Does everyone have a One Cool Thing, something to recommend to people?
Anna: I have a One Cool Thing, but it’s extremely random.
John: That is exactly what a One Cool Thing should be. Anna, what is your random One Cool Thing?
Anna: I mean, I actually thought it was something to watch.
John: Watch is great as well.
Aline: Yeah, it’s great.
Anna: Well it’s this documentary, at least it’s on Netflix here, I’m assuming it’s on all over. But you can check. It’s about the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight. And it’s about how it was written by this guy in South Africa and it was then sort of stolen from him and traveled around the world. I mean, the story is ultimately about how his children were paid for it. But it is an amazing, I mean, if you’re interested in music it’s an amazing story about how a melody that is very specific, right, was misunderstood. Like the lyrics were completely misunderstood. It was about something completely different. It was misunderstood when it was translated. But the song, the melody is the same melody. It’s about post-colonialism. It’s about apartheid. It’s about the music industry. It’s about many things.
John: That’s amazing.
Anna: It’s one of those deep dives into something where you’re just like, whoa, that was so interesting. And, I don’t know, I like watching stuff like that. So, I was thinking it’s something maybe people wouldn’t think to watch, but it’s very good.
John: Excellent. Tony, do you have a One Cool Thing to share?
Tony: At the moment all I care about is swimming in the ocean. That’s my One Cool Thing.
Anna: Isn’t it winter?
Tony: It is winter. That’s what it’s sort of cool, because I’m the only one in there not in a wet suit.
Aline: Oh my god.
Tony: My relatives who – I don’t live in Perth usually. I’m like some weird eastern state person. So whenever I come here I have to swim in the Indian Ocean. Because I grew up near the Pacific Ocean, but I like the Indian Ocean. So I guess my One Cool Thing is the Indian Ocean.
John: The Indian Ocean.
John: It’s the biggest One Cool Thing we’ve ever had.
Aline: I have something, so I mean, I know we’re kind of past this phase of the pandemic, but you know everybody was baking these amazing loaves of bread with the yeast and the rising and the whole thing. And it’s just too hard. And especially now that we’ve moved out of that. But we’re still pretty much confined in the states.
There’s a recipe for beer bread. Do you know this John? OK. In the New York Times there’s a recipe for beer bread. And it’s really cool because it just has – all you need is flour, baking powder, salt, a little bit of sugar, and a beer, and some butter. It’s got five ingredients. And a little bit of cornmeal for the pan. It’s really fast. It’s really easy. And it’s really delicious. And allows you to make bread with beer, which is fun. It’s on the New York Times cooking site. And it will allow you to say to people that you baked a fabulous loaf of bread. Which right now I think given the state of what we’re processing in the world I think bread Instagram has receded. But if you want to take pictures of it, feel cool, feel like you baked a loaf of bread. There’s something very primal about having baked a loaf of bread.
John: Definitely. My One Cool Thing is – we’ve all seen the deep fake videos where they take one actor’s face and swap it with another actor’s face. And those are really remarkable. But the same computer techniques that do that kind of stuff can be trained not just on faces but on anything. And so my link is to Algonuts. It’s by Eric Drass who is an artist. And what he did is he took 18,000 Peanuts comic strips and trained the computer on those. And so it can now generate its own Peanuts comic strips, like algorithmically. And so I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, but it looks like Peanuts but it doesn’t make any sense. And Snoopy will have two faces and yet it looks exactly like a Charles Schultz Peanuts.
So I always find it fascinating when computers will try to create art and it feels like just a good, creepy, sort of mid place of a–
Aline: Does it come with weed?
John: It should come with weed or some sort of dissolving acid tab for your tongue.
Aline: Yeah. Just a gummy. They mail you a gummy. The right gummy.
John: The right gummy and it will all make sense. But it was so weird how you could sort of feel the DNA of Peanuts in it even though it’s not clearly Peanuts. And raises all the issues of like what is copyrightable and what is not copyrightable. And is the feeling of Peanuts copyrightable?
So, I’ll put a link in the show notes to that because it’s cool and strange.
This was delightful to have this conversation. I want to thank you both for joining us at such strange times of day for everybody. We need to thank our actual conference who we’re theoretically at. We need to thank Marie Barraco, Marie Cordier, Louise Deveaux for helping us put this together. We would love to do this in person next year, if next year happens, or whenever people can gather together as groups to do this kind of thing.
Aline: I think we do this and then we go in the ocean.
John: That’s what we do. We just dive. We dive right in.
Aline: From here to the ocean.
John: Scriptnotes is produced every week by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Eric Pearson. You can send in your outros and your questions to email@example.com.
On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Aline, you’re on Twitter now.
John: Anna or Tony, are you on Twitter? Do you want a social media handle for people to reach out to you?
Anna: I’m not very good at Twitter, but I am @annawinger.
John: Tony do you check the Twitter?
Tony: No. I’m not on the Twitter.
John: So smart. Such a good choice you’ve made there in Perth. You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at johnaugust.com. We also have the Premium episodes with bonus segments at Scriptnotes.net.
And that is our show for this week. I want to thank you both very, very much for joining us. It’s an absolute pleasure and thank you for making the shows you’ve made. They really brightened up some dark weeks here during this lockdown period. So thank you for that. And we cannot wait to see what you guys do next. Thank you so much.
Aline: Thank you so much. Great to meet you both.
- Check out Serie Series and also find the video recording of the session here!
- The Great
- Algonuts by Eric Drass
- Beer Bread
- Remastered: The Lion’s Share
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- Anna Winger on Twitter
- Tony McNamara
- Aline Brosh McKenna on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Eric Pearson (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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You can download the episode here.