The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and this is Episode 584 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, let’s imagine you wrote a bestselling novel. Everyone wants to turn your book into a movie or TV series, but you decide no, you really want to do it yourself. How would you even begin? On the show today, we have someone who faced that exact scenario and absolutely killed it. Taffy Brodesser-Akner is the writer of Fleishman Is in Trouble, both the book and the limited series, and now she’s here with us. Welcome, Taffy.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here.
John: I watched your show and I immediately knew that I wanted you on. You’ve done so much press and publicity for this. I’m sure you’re absolutely exhausted, but we’ll talk about some different things than I think you probably talked about on any of your other 19 podcasts, interviews, articles, I hope.
Taffy: This week, and it’s Monday.
John: This week. It’s only Monday. I want to get into how this became a book and then became a series, but I also want to look at characters and really dig into what characters are trying to conceal and protect, which I think is a really interesting lens to dig into for Fleishman, how you tackled making a series and running a series when you’ve never done it before. Plus, Megana has picked some questions that are going to be really good for you to answer, just because you know special new things.
Let’s get into it. Taffy, talk to us about Fleishman Is in Trouble. I had not read the book. I had just started watching the series on Hulu, loved it, caught up all of it so I could watch the finale in real time as it was happening. My husband and I set aside time to make sure we watched it live and real. What is the genesis for Fleishman? Where did the notion first come to tell the story?
Taffy: That is a great question. Thank you. I am a journalist first. I was working at GQ and the New York Times. I have contracts with both of the magazines. One day, around the time when I was 40 or 41, suddenly all of my friends started coming to me and telling me that they were getting divorced. It got to the point where I knew that if I hadn’t heard from somebody in a few months or in a year, they were going to tell me that they were getting divorced. Nobody ever comes to you and tells you they’re divorced in a weepy way. They tell you when they’re ready to tell you. I would sit down with each of them.
I was so interested in this, mostly because I come from a family of colossal divorce. We’re the greatest divorcers in I want to say the East Coast, but I’ve also lived in California, so I’m going to say we’re the greatest. We’re number one.
John: Absolutely. Any coast, you’re number one. Would you say you’re a family that’s very likely to end up in divorce? Is that why you’re the greatest?
Taffy: Statistically. I have three sisters. Two of them are divorced, one of them for a second time. My parents are divorced. My mother divorced the man she remarried. I have a sister who is ultra-Orthodox, and she is married. We all work hard.
We all work hard, the fact of marriage, because we have all observed the same thing, and this is what I was observing then, which is that all these people, they were as happy as I was on my wedding day. What happens with marriage is that it’s two people, and therefore it’s a kind of sedition to ever talk about your marriage. Therefore, when there are problems, you don’t know if your problems are bigger than other people’s. You read between tea leaves. How many metaphors is that?
John: You were reading tea leaves.
Taffy: That was several. You’re welcome.
John: You read between the lines or you read tea leaves.
Taffy: That’s how bad it was. I was reading between the tea leaves and trying to figure out how can I escape this fate and what is new about divorce, how did I get to the age where people were getting divorced, what is new about it.
Also, they would show me their phones, and their phones were wild. They had apps where they were… My gift is efficiency, like an economy of motion. I could walk through my apartment and everything is where it needs to be. It’s my only economic skill. I looked at these phones, how you were allowed to date now without going somewhere, without showing up, without getting dressed, and all I wanted was to hear stories about it. The thing I thought was, I will go to GQ, and I will tell this story, because that’s what I do. I tell the story at GQ.
John: That was my question, is because you were hearing these tales, and you’re a journalist, so naturally, this is a great story to report.
Taffy: I called my editor one day after seeing the most recent friend’s phone. I was like, “We have to do this story about how people are dating on their phones now.” He said to me, “You don’t always sound like a middle-aged housewife, but right now you do. Our readers wouldn’t even… They’ve never dated other than that. They wouldn’t even understand it.”
I had a first-generation Jdate account. My handle was matzahbride. We had advanced so far to the point where now I have these amazingly beautiful friends who can’t even get eye contact at a restaurant, because it’s not protocol. It’s almost like Edith Wharton’s New York, where you’re not allowed to go over to someone anymore.
I called up my editor, and he was like, “This is not a good idea.” I was about to call my editor at the New York Times Magazine, because that’s how my contract went, that if GQ didn’t want a story, the New York Times could have it. Right before I did, I thought about what a New York Times Magazine story was going to look like with this. It was following some guy for a year, implicating his ex-wife and his poor children, him pulling out right at the end, and it being a sad story, when it’s not sad. It’s really wonderful when people free themselves from something that isn’t working for them.
I sat down at a Le Pain Quotidien in Manhattan and I started writing. I can’t remember if I had 10 or 30 pages. I’m a very fast writer. I can’t remember if I had 10 or 30 pages by that first day, but I had them. They didn’t change once. I wrote this as a novel.
John: You have all this experience of your own family, all of your friends. You’re describing this as this new world of dating, divorced people, apps and stuff. That’s in Fleishman Is in Trouble, but that’s not the bulk of Fleishman Is in Trouble. Fleishman Is in Trouble ultimately is a… There’s a mystery to it, what actually happened. There’s the contrasting notions of whose story it even really is. Did you know that as you started to do these first 10 or 30 pages? Were you discovering it as you wrote it?
Taffy: I thought I was going to write something that was a meditation on marriage, but what it turned out to be was… In journalism, I write mainly profiles.
John: I’d actually like to get into that for the Bonus Segment. I really want to talk about the celebrity profile. Let’s dig into that in the Bonus.
Taffy: Gotta be a Premium Member to hear all about the profiles. I’m a Premium Member by the way. I’ll be able to listen.
John: Thank you.
Taffy: I know that novels are hard to write. The way I kept this in my head as a manageable project that I was doing while I was also still writing for GQ and the New York Times, was to think of it as a profile. Then the same thing happened while I was writing it that happened in every profile I wrote, which was that I started to wonder what the other people in the story would say, which is a crisis of journalism.
It’s 2016. One of the places I work, the New York Times in particular, is being crucified and berated for not having covered the country well enough. Then once they start, people are angry that they’re covering the country well enough. You can’t do a profile on a Nazi.
I thought about profiles in general. My personal crisis in profiles is that there is no way to tell a story about somebody without creating sympathy for them. The minute somebody takes up the mantle of telling somebody’s story, there is no way around sympathy. Sometimes when you make people feel sympathy for people they don’t want to feel sympathy for, they hate you for it.
I don’t do a lot of politics, so my personal crisis around this was, I’m listening to a celebrity, he’s talking about his ex-wife, for example, and everyone knows who his ex-wife is. He’s talking about his new wife and how happy he is. He’s implicating the ex-wife. You start to think, should I call the first wife? I don’t know. Some people say yes, but I say anyway.
John: Let’s talk about the characters you chose to embody these different points of view. We have Toby. He is newly-ish divorced as the story started. He’s a dad with two kids that he shares with Rachel, his ex-wife.
At what point in writing the novel did you know that these two central characters were actually going to be narrated, their story of what’s actually happened was going to be narrated by a third person? Was that third person always you? Because she seems like a placeholder for you in that she is also a journalist working at a men’s magazine. When did you know those three characters were going to be the people we would follow through the story?
Taffy: I always knew that the Libby character was narrating the book. In the first place, I had done it as a third-person book. Then at the end you would realize that one of the characters had narrated the book or had written this book. Everyone I gave it to, all these smart readers, did not realize that, so I had to go through and change it and make her into a first-person character. I always knew that. I always knew this was going to be written.
There’s a famous thing of journalists and their first novels. Usually, it is so close to the thing that they do. Whereas you would think it might be about celebrity that I would do this, actually it was about profile writing, because the reason I write about celebrities is mostly because that’s what people are interested in. I think I’m a partisan of the profile but not necessarily the celebrities.
John: When you’re writing a profile though of a person, you are reporting facts. Basically, you’re seeing stuff. You’re getting the interviews. You’re figuring that stuff out. With the case of Toby Fleishman, he is a hepatologist. He’s a liver doctor.
Taffy: He’s a liver doctor.
John: He’s a liver doctor. He’s not a real person. Were you interviewing real liver doctors to figure out what they need to do? What was the decision to make him this medical specialty?
Taffy: I’m a Jewish woman in New York. I have all sorts of specialists at my fingertips. I called up a few doctors and asked, “What is a disease you could have where if somebody had looked at you more closely, they could’ve seen it, if someone were paying attention, they would’ve seen your disease?”
There were two of them. One of them was an osteo disease where you have blue sclera. Bone doctors are not so interesting. Personally, I’m sure they’re fine. The liver is a very romantic organ. It regenerates once it’s injured. It forgives you. I just fell in love with this disease.
John: Metaphorically, it works really well.
Taffy: It just worked very well. I have a friend who’s a nephrologist, which is close enough, because there are very few hepatologists. It’s literally close enough. Abdominally, it’s close enough. He guided me through this. I read all about it. I’ve since gotten a lot of letters from liver doctors who… You talk about representation. All seven of them feel very seen.
John: You knew who Toby was. When did you decide Rachel’s arc? We’re going to go in very light on spoilers for this episode, because we want people to watch this.
Taffy: Do it. Good. Thank you.
John: When did you know that Rachel was going to be missing and what had actually happened? It very much feels like in the early portions of the story that this could be like she’s dead in a ditch someplace.
Taffy: I had to work so hard to signal to the… I always picture the reader or the viewer as someone who’s about to be disappointed, who could cut and run at any moment. I was so worried about a Gone Girl, like, “Oh, am I reading Gone Girl?” and the marketing of the book and all of that. It was so important that we not convey any sort of thriller aspect of it, which is why…
I’ll tell you, in the book, the reason I did that, the reason she’s missing is because I could write forever. I have a million words in my fingers. If I didn’t have a plot… At a newspaper, I have a limit on the amount of space I’m given. I go for twice that much. Then in this, it could’ve gone on forever. I needed a plot.
The plot is, what if this inconsiderate ex-wife… Because all of the wives from all of the ex-husbands I was hearing from, they were all so inconsiderate. The husbands were angry, and the wives were inconsiderate. If you’re a journalist and you’re looking for the common theme of everything, it was the husbands were angry but also wanted to know why their wives were so angry all the time. Anyway, [inaudible 00:14:29].
John: Early on, you knew that was going to be the plot. You knew that ultimately the story was going to be told by Libby, and so you had to go back through and make sure the reader understood that Libby was telling the story. Ultimately, and this may be different for the series than for the book, you realize the whole reason we’re actually hearing this story is because Libby is going through her own crisis.
Taffy: It’s exactly the same. You have not seen a book and TV experience that are redundant like they are. You have read the book, John. The reveal is, you’ve read the book.
John: You’ve read the book. That’s a very natural segue into really this process of adaptation. You’ve written the book. You’ve found the right publishing house for it. It goes out. It becomes a huge success. People in Hollywood immediately start wanting to say, “Oh, let’s adapt this into a book or into a movie.” What were those sorts of calls like? What were you thinking about early on? I’m sure even when you first turned in the manuscript and you got the initial reaction from editors, publishers, you knew that somebody was going to want to make this into something. What were your instincts, and what were those first calls like?
Taffy: I didn’t think anybody would want… I thought it was too internal a story. I have friends who have written novels. I saw the kind of thing that was getting optioned. Rachel is a theater agent. This story is, in the end, so much about middle age. I don’t want the listener here to be cynical, but if you are looking to reach the Hollywood optioning segment-
John: Put an agent there, yeah.
Taffy: Middle-age, wealthy people, also an agent. That’s what I think happened, because I can never say to myself, “Hey, maybe you wrote a good book.” I’m just incapable of that. Probably I had quadrants. It’s a three-quadrant book.
John: You have Craig Mazin Disease, where you don’t believe that anything you did was actually good in and of itself. That was just some sort of dumb luck or-
Taffy: I was looking forward to talking to Craig about that.
John: Craig is off doing press for his show now [crosstalk 00:16:32].
Taffy: He’s off telling people that nothing he did was good.
John: Yeah, that’s what it is.
Taffy: I understand that. Here’s what happened. In the interim, when I wrote the book… The thing you didn’t ask… You’re asking very dignified questions about plot, but you’re not asking the undignified questions about financial desperation.
I was a very good freelancer. I made my year every year. Then April would come, and I’d realize, “Oh my god, I have to pay for camp.” Camp always blindsided me. Always 17 times more than you think it should be. Sometimes I would teach a class. This year I decided I’m finishing this novel. I knew for sure that I was a journalist that enough people were interested in, because I was having meetings with publishing houses about nonfiction books that I didn’t want to write. I knew that I could sell a book for camp tuition. I was just going to do that. I sell this book.
In the interim, the New York Times hires me full-time. I get hired. I start doing more interviews. I put the book, even though the revisions are due, on the side, because I have this new job, this new, big job. One day, I interview Jimmy Buffett, not Warren Buffett, but Jimmy Buffett.
John: I know Jimmy Buffett.
Taffy: Of course, but the story I’m going to tell you, you’re going to be like, “Did she mean Warren Buffett?” because I started talking to him about money.
John: Jimmy Buffett is also a theater producer. He was one of the producers on Big Fish, and so I know him through that context.
Taffy: Was he?
Taffy: That’s amazing.
John: It’s a weird, small world.
Taffy: I loved the Big Fish musical. When they’re running at the end… Anyway, I talked to him about money, because it seems to me that he has created this laid-back lifestyle that he now has to support with constant work. I say to him, “I’m having this struggle myself, Jimmy Buffett, where I feel that I’m successful, but I’m broke. Why am I broke all the time?” He said, “Margaritaville, when I wrote that song, I saw the reaction to it and I knew it was going to be a child that supported me in my old age.”
Taffy: I cartoon-like ran out of the room. There’s dust there. I go to do my revisions, because I realize Fleishman is going to be a child that supports me in my old age, no matter what it does. If it sells three copies, it could become something. If you’re wondering if I remember the question, I do not.
I go and I do and I hand in my revisions. I’m still at the Times. People start calling. So many people start calling. That I had never pictured. People are telling me what it means to them. I call my husband, and I say, “Claud, I had a child that’s going to support us in our old age.” People start talking about what they would like to do with it. I think I’ve had enough magazine stories optioned that I have a real zen about it. Once you sell it, it is no longer yours. You just have to deal with that.
All of these great writers are talking to me. They have such good intentions. All I could think of is, A, I’m jealous, and B, that’s not how you do this. You like this for the wrong reasons. I don’t ever say that out loud, and I hope none of them are listening, though I’m now thinking about the logic of that. Whoever’s listening, it wasn’t you.
John: All of them had fantastic ideas that were great.
Taffy: They were fine ideas. Their ideas were great. Then I get a call from my agent. I said, “I’m in the middle of a Marianne Williamson story.” Then I’m in the middle of a Tom Hanks story. I go to Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks tries to option Fleishman. I said, “I can’t even listen to you.” It’s crazy. I’m like in a movie about someone who wrote a book.
Then I get a call from Sarah Timberman and Susannah Grant. Of course, those two are absolute legends. I took the call just to have the call and tell them how much I love them. The first thing they said was, “How are you thinking about this as a screenplay or a TV show?” I said, “No one had asked me what I think, but it can’t be a screenplay, because you need a certain amount of time with Toby, so that you could really become partisan to his side. That is time. I can’t think of a narrative trick that would do that, other than pure here’s six episodes. You need to commit to the bit.” They said to me, “You would have to write it.” I cannot tell you how low the threshold was to me believing. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you’re right. I do have to write it. I do have to write it.”
I said, “If it’s going to be a TV show… “ I write alone. I’m very concerned with people liking me. I know that if I’m in a writers’ room and people have ideas, I’ll be more concerned with not putting down their ideas. I hear stories about how people feel bad all the time in writers’ rooms, and feel good, but I’m so worried about the feeling bad. I said, “I could write it by myself.” They said, “It’s a lot to do.” I said, “I’m a newspaper reporter,” which is not true. I’m a leisurely magazine writer, but I pull out, “I’m a newspaper reporter,” when it’s convenient.
John: You wrote 30 pages in a sitting.
Taffy: I am a very fast typer. I can write as quickly as I talk, but I can’t read as quickly as I talk. What is that? Another bonus segment for another time.
Taffy: Everyone else fell away. Everyone was so wonderful. The people who made it to the end, I said to my agent, “Tell everyone that I’m writing it myself,” because there were still all of these bidders. Immediately, half of them were like, “No, thank you. We’re out.” Sarah and Susannah just… I now know the kinds of conversations that must have gone on.
In fact, I will tell you that when it came down to shooting it, Sarah Timberman left her home in California and moved to New York for the year to be on set with me every day, which I had first thought was wonderful fun and now realize must have been a negotiation with the network and the studio who were like, “Are you crazy?”
John: She was the [crosstalk 00:23:36].
Taffy: She’s like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” There are a lot of promises that are made in that stage of optioning, and they kept every single one to me. That’s what happened.
John: Susannah Grant, former fill-in cohost of Scriptnotes. She’s went out to Austin Film Festival. Good person, screenwriter. For folks who don’t know her credits, she did the Julia Roberts movie, Erin Brokovich, but she’s also done-
Taffy: It’s the Steven Soderbergh movie. Back then, the idea of a woman writing a muscular movie like that was mind-blowing.
John: She also had a really great series that at that time would’ve just come out on Netflix, which was terrific.
Taffy: Unbelievable. It was both of them. It was Sarah and Susannah. This was what they were going to do next. Unbelievable, you couldn’t stop clicking to the next thing. Even though my husband and I do not love a sexual assault show right before bed, we couldn’t stop.
John: Not the ideal time. You had never written a novel before. It turned out great. You had never written a TV show before. How was that process? How did you learn about the actual mechanics of a TV script? You’d read a thousand novels. Had you read the teleplay form before?
Taffy: John, I learned it by watching you. I’m not even kidding. I’ll tell you. I went to NYU for dramatic writing, and I learned how to write spec scripts for sitcoms. Then I was so quickly unsuccessful at it that I went into… I saw an ad for a soap opera magazine in the New York Times, and I went and worked there. Everything changed. I would read screenplays a lot. I love reading screenplays. Also, I have a little group of film critics that I hang out with. We table read screenplays sometimes.
John: Wow. That’s really nerdy. No one does that.
Taffy: It’s the nerdiest. Just throw us in a locker. We just sit there. We started with Michael Clayton during the pandemic. I would read these things. I think that my journalism was successful because I paid attention to storytelling. First of all, you can in a profile, because it doesn’t have the same news imperative that everything else does. The idea of a beginning and a middle and an end and suspense and callbacks, those were things that I knew were successful through journalism, that I had learned through screenwriting. Also, I have listened to every episode of this podcast.
John: Oh my gosh.
Megana Rao: Wow.
Taffy: I even listened to the compendium ones that are collections of the thing I just heard.
John: The Megana specials.
Taffy: I love those. I love those. I loved seeing Megana’s rise to on-air personality. I love all of it. I read a lot. Then I had Sarah and Susannah. I don’t know what other producers are like, but I know that there’s a variation in editors. They read everything. There was no feeling bad about getting it wrong. The first script had 20 pages of VoiceOver in what I now see as a hilarious way but at first was like, “What do you mean? I thought we said we were doing VoiceOver.”
It was not easy for me. It was not an easy adaptation for me. The book was already written. When it came down to it, I knew what the moments in the book were where you would maybe end an episode, although the question I had before is how do you make this not suspenseful? I was going to have three episodes before Rachel was spotted. Sarah and Susannah launched a real campaign to talk me down to two. They were correct to do that.
John: Let’s talk about the breaking down of what was going to happen when. Was that a process that was entirely you? Was that with Sarah and Susannah, the three of you together at the whiteboard, figuring out how things split up?
Taffy: First of all, it very much follows the book. Second, we were supposed to get I guess green-lit is the word, which I literally thought someone was going to call up and scream, “You’re green-lit!” or something or a light would show up. It does not happen that way. You just have your lawyer and your agent check in 20 times.
The pandemic happened. I thought, “I’ll go back to the New York Times, because New York Times probably needs/wants me or tolerates me or is obligated to me or can’t fire me because I’m union.” FX, which was very enthusiastic about Fleishman, all of their blood cells will go to the shows that are already in production. It was such a crisis. I also knew that if I went back to the Times and I was on a story, this pandemic was only going to last six or seven weeks.
Taffy: I was asked, “What if we assemble a mini room?” I had listened to all of the Scriptnotes episodes. I said, “I don’t know if that’s okay. Is it okay to have all of these writers do this?” The answer was, sometimes writers like to do a thing like this in between projects or maybe just for… Everyone in there was far more experienced than I was. That’s first of all. It’s a few weeks. It’s a pandemic. You don’t know who needs health insurance. Also, what we decided was that whatever happened, they would get credit on the show. We would negotiate for their credit so that they would not be this anonymous group.
Taffy: I’ve heard this on Scriptnotes. Susannah and Sarah were like, “Whatever happens… “
John: Those folks would get some sort of producer credit on the show, even if they [crosstalk 00:29:31].
Taffy: We couldn’t give them a producer credit unless they came and rendered-
John: Actually produced, yeah.
Taffy: We made them into consultants, although one of them, the Cindy Chupack, came and was a co-executive producer. I have minders on the set for the fact that I’d never done this before. We talked and talked. It was such a beautiful experience. It was like my book had all of these best friends. We talked about what we could change and what could be different. Ultimately, I left it with, no, the book is enough.
The book is written in such a way… By the way, you didn’t read the book, though you did because you watched the show. It really does follow. Everything happens in the same order. There is no trick that’s different. In the show, there’s a deepening of one of the tricks, but I don’t want to spoil it. In the Bonus Segment, I’ll spoil it. You can opt in or out at the very end.
John: Is it Toby’s daughter that was [inaudible 00:30:29] changed?
Taffy: The only thing that’s changed, you’re right, is that while I was doing this, I was in this mini room for 10 weeks, I was planning my son’s bar mitzvah. We would talk about it. I would cry in the mini room, which I guess is de rigueur for someone in a mini room.
John: Very common, yeah.
Taffy: Then I ended up inviting them all to the Zoom bar mitzvah. I didn’t know that this bar mitzvah would be such a big deal for me. I wrote it in. You’re right. That’s the only thing that’s different in the show.
John: Great. I only know that because I listened to you on the Slate Working podcast, which I listen to all the time.
Taffy: I love that Working podcasdt.
John: I actually TED Talked about doing some Working podcasts. There was a transition point, because remember [inaudible 00:31:14] he created the Working podcast and would interview waiters and such. I just loved it back when it was still just like… People’s jobs weren’t even creative or fancy jobs, just normal people jobs. I had a few conversations about maybe doing some Working episodes, but that never came to be.
Taffy: You mean on that podcast?
John: On that podcast. I would just be like David Plotz. I would be the interviewer, because I love interviewing people about what they do.
Taffy: You’re great at it. I think we should talk to them.
John: We should talk more about that.
Taffy: Let’s have a call after this.
John: Just because I’m curious about how things work with other people, what was it like for you to be on set? I remember my first time on set was on the movie Go. I remember walking up, being like, “Man, there’s a lot of trucks around. I wonder what’s going on.” It’s like, “Oh, crap, these are here to make my movie,” and just feeling like, “Oh, am I allowed to eat this craft service?” It was crazy. By the next day, I was shooting second unit, because we were already four days behind somehow.
Taffy: “By the second day, I was firing the craft services people, and I was like, ‘How dare you?’”
John: How did you navigate suddenly you’re in production? I recognize the directors on the show. You had really very smart directors working on the show.
Taffy: The greatest. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were our first block directors. Alice Wu was our second episode director. Then Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman did four episodes. John and Val did three. They all knew that they were with somebody who was an authority on the material and yet would not know half the words they were using.
It’s funny. Being a completist of your podcast, I used to think it was so gracious when you would say “our movie.” I thought, “That’s so nice. I would be saying ‘my movie.’” No, it really is our thing. I had this authority on the material. I was always there. I was there for every minute of shooting, except I attended one parent-teacher conference.
Everyone was extraordinarily kind to me. The minute I walked onto set, the one thing I understood immediately was that there was not even pretending I knew what I was doing, that it would be an insult. The PAs were more experienced than I was. It would be an insult to everybody if I… I’ve never even been anyone’s boss.
It’s pretty profound to suddenly be in charge of making decisions about material, because I didn’t realize that once you’re in production, so many of the decisions are about people’s welfare, not just their safety. Everyone’s concerned with safety. The first AD is always concerned with safety. I had these great first ADs, Adam Escott and Vanessa Hoffman, who also understood that I didn’t know anything and would explain things to me. No one had to explain anything quietly in a corner, because I was not embarrassed to not be an authority on this. I was apologetic. I didn’t want to slow us down more than I had to.
You’re looked at with so much authority for the first time. I’m used to being the scrappy person in the middle of the night, closing a story at the New York Times, saying, “What if we make the picture smaller, then I get some more words in there?” The answer to the nature of that ridiculous question is, “Yes, we’ll do whatever we can to help you.” Then you realize, that means that that guy who lives in New Jersey won’t get home, and that even though there are those rules, there are not really that many rules.
Right before, there was talk of an IATSE strike. Then when I got on set, I was shocked to see what a set is. I’m a newspaper reporter for this conversation. I couldn’t believe how long the hours were and how efficient it’s made for the sake of cost-effectiveness and time and getting people out and getting actors to their next projects and making sure that you have room in case someone gets COVID or everyone gets COVID. I found it so shocking and scary.
I was very lucky that Sarah Timberman was there with me every day. I was very lucky that she made sure that Cindy Chupack and also our consultant producer Becky Mode were there, because I instantly went to, “Let’s just send everyone home. I’ll cut this all into a dream sequence, and you send everyone home.”
I had to also learn to create efficiency. I want to tell you, on a craft level, what that meant was that… The first few episodes I had written had a lot of scenes. People would say, “These are big scripts.” I’d say, “Thank you,” not really knowing what that meant.
John: A ton of scenes, or was the script itself long?
Taffy: No, it was not long. It was not long.
John: It wasn’t long. It was a lot of short scenes.
Taffy: It was a lot of short scenes. Once I saw, wait, so that’s how long it takes for these hardworking people, there are nine of them, to set the lighting up and to change an outfit, and wait, you need a new outfit, the mechanics, the absolute physics of it were so shocking to me in a way that I don’t… I guess I never really thought it would happen, and I didn’t think about the practicalities of it. Starting in Episode 4, which we’re on set by then, the scenes start getting longer, because also, I start to see what actors are capable of.
John: I suppose you were trying to control everything from the page originally and just making sure that everything was exactly how you envisioned it, and you realized when you actually had people doing things that you don’t necessarily need to have all of the little short scenes and obviously all of the VoiceOver, because I know that the VoiceOver, you’ve said it before, drops down dramatically once we get to Episode 4.
Taffy: By the way, then I see these actors who are so amazing at talking to each other. I start putting in these eight-minute scenes that then they kindly make fun of me for, because that’s a lot. I have to say, I’ve seen the show, and I feel like each one of them works. These actors are really good at being watchable.
John: Now, Taffy, as a longtime listener to this show, you know that something that Craig and I both enjoy doing is playing Dungeons and Dragons. We talk about Dungeons and Dragons repeatedly on this.
Taffy: Yes, I do. I have questions about it, because I cannot believe that you have room for hobbies. I cannot believe it.
John: We have new next-door neighbors who moved in during the pandemic. They had us over for dinner one time. They said, “Can we ask you a question? Why on Thursday nights is that upstairs office light on until midnight every Thursday night?” It’s like, “That’s because that’s when John plays D and D, every Thursday night from 8 p.m. to midnight. That’s D and D, of course,” which we play on Zoom. Even when Craig is gone for recording a podcast, like today, the Thursday game is probably going to happen.
John: We do prioritize that.
Taffy: Good for him.
John: It’s important. I was reading a new D and D book over the weekend called How to Defend Your Lair. It’s the third book in a series called The Monsters Know What They’re Doing by Keith Ammann. What’s fascinating about his book is he’s talking about all characters, whether they are little monsters or bandits or kings, they all are trying to protect something. In the case of D and D, they’re trying to protect their life, they’re trying to protect their loot, they’re trying to protect some lore.
I was thinking about this interview I was going to have with you. It feels like the characters in Fleishman are desperately trying to protect things. In trying to protect things, they end up making some bad choices. I look at Toby. Toby’s trying to protect his kids, obviously. He’s trying to protect his career. He’s juggling how to protect both his career and this. He wants to protect his ex-wife to some degree. Also, he wants to protect his own identity and sense of self-worth, of self-identity. Can we take a look at the characters in Fleishman from what they’re trying to protect? Is that a useful way to think about the choices and the motivations characters make?
Taffy: That’s so interesting. Yes, because so much of Fleishman is about protecting your point of view. The thing that Fleishman ultimately is about, and I have 20 answers for that, but in this case the thing that Fleishman is ultimately about is the fact that everybody has a point of view about what happened, and everyone deserves for it to be heard. The consumer of the story is not fully informed unless she knows all of those points of view.
This goes back to magazine interviewing. If you don’t ask too many questions of somebody, if you don’t just bombard them with all the questions, and you just let talk, you see that people form the thing they’re saying to you as a case that they’re making. Everyone is making a case to their righteousness even when they know they’re wrong. They’re not lying. They’re saying, “Here’s why I’m a defensible person.” Everyone in Fleishman just wants to protect the idea that their crisis is legitimate, that their point of view is valid. That’s all.
John: With the case of Rachel, who makes the decision to drop off her kids and disappears, she is trying to protect her career, obviously. She’s trying to protect her trauma to some degree. She’s trying to protect that the reason she ended up this way was because of something that somebody else had done and it wasn’t entirely her fault.
Taffy: I would go even further and say that what Rachel is trying to say and how Libby builds her story when she speaks on her behalf, is not that the thing that happens to her is her trauma. I’ve never spoken about this before. I feel like her trauma is a lifetime of abandonment, the apex of which was the thing that happened to her.
We are not led to believe that the divorce is as big a crisis for Rachel as it is for Toby. Then we find out that, no, all the more so, not only is she divorced, but she’s abandoned. She’s been abandoned since her mother died. She’s been abandoned since she was in the hospital room trying to give birth. The thing I guess she’s trying to protect is that she wasn’t as bad as she’s being made out to be. I guess we all are.
John: She’s trying to protect this little flicker that’s still inside her that she identifies as herself. Her primal scream is about trying to rekindle that or at least protect that little thing.
Taffy: In the last episode, Toby says to Libby, “You were supposed to be my friend.” That is like what is the essence of friendship. It’s that I have decided that your version of things is that version. That’s friendship, right?
John: Aw. We could obviously go on for another hour here, but we have some questions from listeners that we thought would be really good for you to answer with us, because you’ve listened to [crosstalk 00:42:30].
Taffy: I know. I’ll make sure I’m not even redundant.
John: Let’s start with Martin from Australia. Megana, can you help us out?
Megana: Martin asks, “I was reflecting on iconic character names such as Ellen Ripley, Hans Gruber, and Travis Bickle, and I’m interested in your thoughts about how to choose an apt character name in a screenplay. Is a name something that organically occurs to you? How far can you take creative license in the choice of a name without it feeling like an artifice? Is there anything specific to think about when choosing a name?”
John: Taffy, talk to us about the names that you chose for these characters, because in journalism, you’re stuck with the names people have in real life. For this you had free reign. Were these the original names for all these characters?
Taffy: These were the original names for all these characters. There was some push back to changing Toby Fleishman’s name because it was too New Yorky. Does anyone know what that’s code for?
John: I think we all know what that’s code for.
Taffy: I’m very interested in a real name and not a forgettable name. John Ryan is a very strong guy, but he was born to be strong. Toby Fleishman was born to lose.
John: Born to be overlooked there. Character names we talked about on the show before. When I was picking the names for Arlo Finch, I couldn’t start writing until I knew the names for each of those characters and made sure that they were each distinctive, that you weren’t going to get any of them confused or conflated between the two of them. I think you were doing the thing where none of the central characters have the same first letter of their name. You’re not going to blur them and forget them because of that. It’s very confusing that Libby is played by Lizzy Caplan. How often on set did you say Libby versus Lizzy and mean the wrong thing?
Taffy: Always, and nobody cared, because we were talking about the same person.
John: In the edit, did you ever find moments where they referred to her as Lizzy rather than Libby? Did that ever happen?
Taffy: Never. Never once. Never once.
John: Professionals you hired.
Taffy: I had all professionals.
John: That’s the trick.
Megana: Wait, so was Toby the name that you initially had during that time you were writing at Le Pain Quotidien?
Taffy: Yes. It was the first thing I put down was the messiness of names and the way Jews in general are named after people. Rachel is Rachel because you end up with a biblical name. Libby is the most Jewish form of Elizabeth. Toby is just a name that someone was like, “I guess we have to name this person after this person.” Then Fleishman, I liked something that couldn’t have been conceived as a character name, like Lipschitz. I would’ve done Lipschitz in a minute, but I was given good advice that you need people to be able to search it.
John: Also, I think Chicago has claimed Lipschitz forever. (singing)
John: Lipschitz. It’s important. What is Taffy short for?
John: Stephanie. How long have you been a Taffy versus a Stephanie?
Taffy: I was named after a Taffy whose name was Stephanie but had been called Taffy from the time she was young, because her brother couldn’t pronounce her name. I was named after her, so I was named Stephanie but always called Taffy. However, what Taffy is to Stephanie, other than me, everyone’s who’s a Taffy from Stephanie, that’s their story. I know this because I’m in a Facebook group for people whose name is Taffy. I was added to it. We all just give testimony.
John: Love it.
Megana: Aldo asks, “While watching Deep Impact, in the scene in which Oren begins to go into the recently bored hole, we hear Andrea say, ‘Suit pressure 3.5.’ I imagine the dialog is not there necessarily to drive the story, but rather just to embellish the technical aspect of the scene. We always hear you say the dialog should drive the story. With that in mind, how do we strike a balance between dialog that drives a story and dialog that only dresses up the scene?”
John: That’s actually a really nice question from Aldo, because yeah, screenplays are also full of stuff that is there because it’s real and because the characters would actually say it in the moment. Taffy, in your show, there’s a medical aspect to it, but it’s not ER. It’s not full of a lot of doctor jargon. There’d have to be some moments that just feel… How did you think about that? How did you balance this is what they would actually need to say in the moment, even if it’s not on character?
Taffy: I had a medical consultant who helped us. We were so concerned with what this isn’t. It isn’t Gone Girl, but it also isn’t a medical procedural. Once we got on set, Rob and Shari, John and Val, they expressed concern in the first day we were shooting hospital scenes, that this seemed too much like a hospital show and that it would be misleading in the pilot, or a medical mystery. Right then, we inserted the idea that they speak in hospital drama cliches. They say back and forth to each other, “Don’t you die on me,” or, “I’m not here to play God.” That was born on the set out of that crisis.
John: Great, so just actually to put a hat on it so that everyone sees they’re aware of these things would be.
Taffy: We get it. We’re sorry. We get it, and we’re sorry.
John: Let’s see if we can get one more question in here.
Megana: Chris asks, “I loved watching The Bear and thought it worked really well as a series of mostly half-hour shows. In the UK we’ve also recently had Mammals by Jez Butterworth, another half-hour show. I’d be really interested in why these writers chose this length, even when free from the constraints of a linear TV schedule. What do they feel it gave them? What are the challenges? Half-hours are the traditional length for comedies, which often feel baggy when they’re longer. It’s also the classic length for soap operas, but most UK and US dramas tend to be an hour or more. Does it also say something about the way that we consume shows these days that people are looking at the half-hour again?”
John: Taffy, for Fleishman Is in Trouble, how long are the episodes? Did you have to hit a certain length?
Taffy: I was told to stay in the 40s to 50s mark, although Episode 7, I think it’s 70 minutes. We couldn’t find anything to cut from it. I think that the answer to this… By the way, I’m watching with a newly critical eye about, in awards season, how things are classified. Transparent was a comedy, a devastating, devastating comedy.
I think it actually has to do with money. It is less expensive to shoot half the amount of stuff, but you have to have enough episodes to make it worth it. I wonder if 30 minutes is a hedge. I think that people really do begin with wondering what the story needs. If you look at The Bear, I do wonder one of the many reasons it landed so electrically is that it was I this one claustrophobic location. I wonder if that would’ve felt too much one place, but I don’t know. I don’t know.
John: From early discussions with Sarah and Susannah, did you always know it was about 40 minutes? Did FX tell you that you don’t have to do classic act-outs, but there will have to be moments where commercials could be inserted?
Taffy: No. They told us there would not have to be that. Then when Hulu came in, they were like, “We have some news.” We didn’t have to write toward. We just had to find the places. We had great editors who found the most painless places for that. I will say that I don’t know anyone who has ever heard one of my 80-word sentences… I don’t think anyone looked at me and said, “That’s going to be a pithy half-hour.”
John: When you’re talking about the length of things, we tend to think of comedies being a half-hour.
Taffy: You know what? We’ve thrown out so many rules.
John: We have.
Taffy: Now we’re hostage to these awards categories. That’s what it really is. I’ll let you finish, because it’s your podcast.
John: Fleishman could be seen as a comedy. There are episodes like, “Oh, that’s funny.” You have people who are talented at being funny, at yet also it does not feel like a comedy. I could see the argument for choosing to enter it as a comedy, the same way Transparent was technically a comedy.
Taffy: That’s a good idea. Maybe I’ll call someone after this and ask about that. I think it’s just entered as limited series, which eradicates all of that.
Taffy: I don’t know, because I also think that it’s a very specific thing. It has a precedent. It has a Woody Allen, Erica Jong, the New York, divorced sex, Jewish comedy that’s also devastating and hopeless and sad has a precedent. I did not pave this ground myself. I guess the word sometimes is dramedy. I always feel dramedies are lighter. I feel Fleishman is a little devastating. I don’t know. All these rules are being thrown out. Why are there still any remaining?
John: Get rid of everything.
Taffy: Burn it down.
John: The first dramedy I remember was Thirtysomething, which I can see the argument for-
Taffy: I love Thirtysomething.
John: Love it too. So good. God, when that one character dies completely unexpectedly-
Taffy: Are you not spoiling Gary’s death? Isn’t that what you’re doing?
John: I’m not spoiling it. I’m trying to remember it.
Taffy: You can’t even find it. It’s not even streaming. Tell the world. Remember Gary’s name. His name was Gary Shepherd, John. John, his name was Gary Shepherd.
John: His name was Gary Shepherd. He rode off on a bicycle on a snowy day, and [crosstalk 00:52:27] oh, don’t slip.
Taffy: By the way, do you remember that episode?
John: Oh yeah, I remember it.
Taffy: Everything you need to know about dramatic storytelling is that they’re waiting for Nancy’s cancer determination, but Michael, his best friend, says, “You really should not be on a bike anymore.” He’s in a car. Oh my god, I’m so upset.
John: It’s so upsetting. I’ll say that had a huge impact on Big Fish ultimately, that death moment. I remember afterwards, one character has to call somebody else to tell him what’s happened. That became the phone call moment in Big Fish.
Taffy: We’re not spoiling Big Fish either.
John: No. I would hope that a lot of listeners have seen Big Fish, but I’m always surprised people have not seen Big Fish.
Taffy: How dare they, first of all?
John: How dare they listen to the podcast?
Taffy: It’s the greatest. Also, wait, I was raised in a Hasidic household. My mother became Hasidic when I was 12. I used to sneak into the basement. We still hid a TV. I used to sneak into it and watch Thirtysomething so that I would know how to talk when I was an adult, because all I was hearing was Yiddish and Hebrew.
John: Amazing. Wow. How much that could’ve shaped you. Fleishman Is in Trouble would not have existed if it had not been for this secret TV hidden in the Hasidic household.
Taffy: I know. I know. Thirtysomething really walked so that I could stumble.
John: This could go on forever, but we need to get to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a New York Times story that came out today as we’re recording this on Jodorowsky’s Tron. There was a movie out a couple years ago called Jodorowsky’s Dune, which is basically… Alejandro Jodorowsky was this director who had dreamed of making a version of Dune. He had all this artwork that he had done for it and had hired all this people to do it. He never ended up shooting it. It was gorgeous. There’s a really good movie people can see about it.
Frank Pavich, who directed that movie… This New York Times story is looking at all this artwork that was generated for Tron. I’m going to show this to you right now. This is all artwork for a movie that does not exist. It’s gorgeous. It was all generated by Midjourney, the AI thing.
John: People just typing in and saying “Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Tron,” and this is a computer thinking about what his version of Tron would look like. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Taffy: It’s magnificent. Wow.
John: As we talk about AI frequently on the podcast, yes, there’s a degree to which it is jeopardizing the lives of production designers and artists and stuff like that, and you could say it’s zapping creativity. Sometimes, you can enter some stuff in and get something that’s actually really inspiring and makes you think about like, oh, wow, that’s such a very different way to do stuff. I remember when we first had Dall-E in the office, we would do things like Wes Anderson’s Spider-Man, and so you’d have [inaudible 00:55:21] Wes Anderson-looking Spider-Man.
Taffy: It’s everyone in a bow tie.
John: This is just way beyond what I’ve seen this stuff happening. It’s exciting, and people should check it out. I guess for listeners at home, Taffy, can you help us describe what we’re actually seeing here, because it’s not actually-
Taffy: It’s in the opinion section. It’s an interactive I guess testimonial of what the art is. The art, it looks like Tron. It’s really interesting, because talk about adaptation. You would think that Tron would look a little bit more out there, but this holds the Tron brand intact. I’m looking at lot of sci-fi references here and the light-up suit. How do you describe this? It took this guy 20,000 words.
John: We’re used to the stripey suit aesthetic of Tron, the light suits and the ribbons of things, but here, they almost get bigger and bigger and bigger. The color seems very different. It goes into these oranges that are not Tron-like at all. It’s just spectacular.
Taffy: So beautiful. Everyone should go look at it. Everyone go look at it.
John: Everyone go look at this. Taffy, do you have something to share with our listeners?
Taffy: Sure. My One Cool Thing is this book that is coming out, that will already be out by the time people listen to this. It’s called Vintage Contemporaries by a Slate journalist and podcaster named Dan Kois. He wrote the Angels in America book. He co-wrote it with Isaac Butler, who does the Working podcast. He wrote this great nonfiction book called How To Be a Family a few years ago, where he took his family around to different countries to try to figure out if we are raising our children and doing childhood correctly.
This is his first novel. It is so squarely and unapologetically about a coming of age. He wrote from the point of view of a woman a coming of age as a literary assistant in New York. The timeline goes from 2003 to 1996. It does something so beautiful and so magical that it really had me clutching my heart at the end. I can’t believe how good this is.
John: Oh my gosh, I’m excited to read it. Dan Kois also was original host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting [inaudible 00:57:56]. A good Slate family reunion of things there.
Taffy: He’s pretty great.
John: Vintage Contemporaries?
Taffy: Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois.
Taffy: Yeah, K-O-I-S, being published by Harper Collins. We support their strike. You should buy this book, because we also support authors. It was a privilege to read it in galleys.
John: Speaking of galleys, you have another book. What’s next for you?
Taffy: My next book is called Long Island Compromise. It’s about a family on Long Island, a wealthy family that loses its money 30 years after its patriarch is kidnapped. He gives the money away. He gives all of his money away, the money which is supposed to symbolize both safety and danger. It asks these two questions. It asks is money safety or is money danger. It also asks does a certain amount of wealth and success doom your children to an idle life, and is it better to come from something meeker and therefore your children can thrive. The immediate answer is everyone should be rich.
John: Everyone should be rich at all times. Socialism for all. This being your second book, what were the pressures to compare it to the first book? Immediately, did everyone say, “Gotta get the rights now.” How did that feel different with the second?
Taffy: There have been some preemptive bids. There is nothing that could hang over your head and force your failure like a preemptive bid. In fact, I thought about scrapping the… Do you know the Book Thief? You know the guy?
John: Oh yeah.
Taffy: He claimed to have my book, which was insane. I remember saying, “I want to find him and ask him how does it end.”
Taffy: “If you have it, is there a version that you have? Is it good? Does it turn out good?”
John: “Give me the first sentence of Chapter 13.” That would be great.
Taffy: “How did I resolve the mother character? Does she seem like a real person in the end?” There were a lot of pressures. I always bet on failure. I made sure to sell this book on the eve of Fleishman coming out. It has been written for a while, but its revisions have been waiting out. It should be out by now. Then I made a TV show, which was the most consuming thing I’ve ever done. It’s going to come out. I don’t know.
It’s very funny, because the one outstanding question I had about it was should I have Libby, that narrator who’s kind of me, should I have her narrate this. Philip Roth did it. He had Nathan Zuckerman. It was torture. The worst thing about the torture was that I was so decisive about everything else. The one good thing you could say about me is that I’m so decisive.
Then the show finished on December 29th. My family, we went skiing so that I could not be wandering the streets of New York, asking people if they’d seen it. They took me off the streets. On December 30th, I was on a ski lift, and suddenly, I was like, “Of course she shouldn’t narrate it,” and I was free. I was freed from Fleishman. Your projects really have a hold on you.
John: Then we drag you right back into it.
Taffy: I know. I know. Now I’m reconsidering everything. Thank you for asking about it.
John: An absolute pleasure having you here on the show. Thank you for talking with us.
Taffy: This was so fun. This was a dream come true.
John: People should either or both read the book Fleishman Is in Trouble, watch the show, which is FX and Hulu.
Taffy: Then read it again, watch it again.
John: Then read it again.
Taffy: Then re-subscribe to Hulu. Then write your Congressman.
John: All these things will happen.
Taffy: Thank you for having me.
John: If you could stick around for the Bonus Segment, because I want to talk to you about celebrity journalism.
Taffy: Sure, because you’re a journalist too.
John: Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Ryan Gerberding. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You will find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing.
We have T-shirts. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments. We’ve finally figured out what happened to Episodes 500 through 515. We got that sorted out. If you missed those, they’re back. Thank you again, Taffy.
Taffy: Thanks for having me. This is great.
John: Taffy, you have interviewed all sorts of famous people. We mentioned a couple of them along the way. Nicki Minaj.
Taffy: Oh my gosh.
John: Andy Cohen. How do you get started in this? You mentioned Soap Opera Digest, Soap Opera Weekly? You were doing that.
Taffy: Thank you for asking about that. My first job was at a magazine called Soaps In Depth.
John: We gotta go deep.
Taffy: The reason I can enunciate it like that is because you’d call people up and say, “I’m calling from Soaps In Depth,” and they’d say, “Soaps and Death?” You’d say, “No, Soaps In Depth.”
John: The Ps are important.
Taffy: I worked there for a year, and I wrote profiles. Then I was poached by a larger soap opera magazine. I do mean larger.
John: Physically larger.
Taffy: Physically larger, called Soap Opera Weekly. Ultimately I was fired from there on June 5th, 2001. Later, I would pretend it was a post-9/11 layoff for my dignity. I started writing personal essays as soon as my son was born, because I didn’t want to leave the house, and I wanted a writing career on my own terms. One day I was just done writing personal essays. I pitched a profile at the New York Times Magazine, and I got a yes. It was Zosia Mamet.
John: She was starring in Girls at this point?
Taffy: She was starring in Girls. It was the second season of Girls. It was my first profile. I just loved doing it. I had a great editor named Adam Sternbergh at the New York Times Magazine who, I handed in one that was terrible and he just very deftly said to me, “Oh no, here. There’s a scene, and then there is the bio section.” Then from then on, I just… He taught me how to fish.
John: What is the structure of a really good one of these?
Taffy: Thematically it is, “Here’s something I saw. Here’s why it matters. Here’s why this person matters.” What he told me was, it’s a scene and then it is an evaluation of what is newsworthy about this person right now, and then it’s their bio section, and then it’s the return to the examination and what you decided about it. I took that and went with it. I had very kind editors. I was sent to Nicki Minaj, who fell asleep while we were talking. I wrote a story about what I would’ve asked her if she had been awake and what I think she would’ve said. I spent a few days on a tour bus with Billy Bob Thornton on his band. I spent five years asking Val Kilmer for an interview. I spent some time with Bradley Cooper in the run-up to-
John: A Star is Born?
Taffy: Star is Born, and Tom Hanks. Really, I feel like I don’t know who I haven’t interviewed. I would write long interviews.
John: You are a character in the interviews to some degree too. You have to expose-
Taffy: I’m a character the way Libby’s a character.
Taffy: Libby, by the way, to tell this story, in the novel and in the show is someone who quit her job and stayed home. I didn’t do that. It worked thematically. Journalism is always true. The I character in those profiles is the aspects of me that are like the reader, that would help the reader, because I hate chummy profiles. I hate profiles where they’re clearly friends and going to hang out after this. The profile is, here, reader, is what you would think if you were sitting here with me, which is I think what journalism is supposed to do.
John: Also screenwriting though is putting you in the place that you actually believe that you are in that room with this conversation happening around you. It is scene setting in the same way, which is different than other classic journalism could be, where it’s [inaudible 01:07:02] I’m going to tell you a story rather than let you know what I saw, what I heard, what it’s like to be in the presence of this person.
Taffy: It’s what it’s like to be in the presence of the person and why the person matters. By the way, the more famous they are, the more it’s not even about the person, but the person that the person has become in light of all this fame.
John: In agreeing to be a member of this partnership to do this celebrity profile, they are also aware of the game too. They are choosing what parts to show to you. It’s gotta be complicated.
Taffy: It’s hard to ask factual questions, because you have to ask yourself, why would this person even tell me this? In fact, if you’re quiet, what you’ll find is that by the time someone is famous, they have some sort of gripe or understanding of who they are in the world that they would like to correct. If you listen carefully, that is what they are trying to tell you. You have to listen very carefully for it, or else you are just bombarding them with questions about their divorce or about their scandal. There’s always one thing they’re afraid you’re going to talk about.
John: Craig will never listen to this Bonus Segment, because he doesn’t listen. If he were to listen and two years down the road somebody wants to do a profile of him, what advice would you give to a Craig who is going to be profiled by somebody, who won’t be your equal, obviously, but-
Taffy: Thank you.
John: … is going to attempt to do Libby’s job, Taffy’s job. What would your advice-
Taffy: That’s a great question, or you. Have you had a profile?
John: Years ago, but it was written by a magazine. It was just the WGA [inaudible 01:08:41].
Taffy: The thing I would say to him, interesting, advice for Craig on doing that. Craig is such an interesting talker. To deal plainly and openly with the person as a fellow writer is the best move. What’s very interesting to me is that, especially over these last years where we had a president who had this open, warlike contempt for journalists, it was shocking to see that contempt reflected in actors. There are people who have told me they don’t trust anything a journalist said. It was like, “What, journalists? What?” That’s shocking to me.
I think that the conversation you can have, if you’re with someone who does not seem like they’re manipulating you… Because also journalism isn’t a monolith. There are people who are looking for something ugly, but most people aren’t. Most people just want to hear what it’s been like for you. That said, I always prided myself on getting people to open up to me.
Disney, because of their COVID protocols, wouldn’t let us have any rehearsals for the show. I tricked everyone by taking them out to dinner so that they could meet before they had to play best friends. We would have these outdoor dinners. Disney, they were outdoors. They would talk to each other. Within 10 minutes, they were telling each other their deepest secrets. I was quietly devastated. I didn’t do anything. Nobody told me anything. That’s the thing. A journalist should never think that anyone’s telling them anything, really should just wonder why they’re saying what they’re saying.
Craig, who is headed for this, should just deal openly and kindly. Damon Lindelof was very, very nice to me and answered every single question I had. It was during a complicated timeframe. It was the first time he was doing interviews following Lost. It was for The Leftovers.
John: I knew Damon well. Particularly during that time, it was tough grappling with what he even wanted or what his relationship was like with the fandom.
Taffy: The thing that I take away from my experience on set of Fleishman is that it seems to me an exquisite kind of ironic punishment that in success you should want to spend all day being someone else, and your reward for that is that you have to sit down with an asshole like me and tell me things that you don’t know how I’m going to use. It’s very impossible to keep in your head. I found this in my interviews, because you just want to answer the question, because you want to be polite. It’s very impossible to keep in your head the breadths of people who could hear something.
John: I want to just close up by just turning this back on you. We gave advice for Craig. Now there are profiles on you. That’s gotta be strange too. Do you sit them down and tell them, “Here’s how you interview me.”
Taffy: I did that once. It’s a findable story for Cosmo that’s called Taffy Brodesser-Akner Really, Really, Really Wanted to Write This Profile. I have been chastened and I don’t do that anymore.
John: That’s great. Taffy, an absolute pleasure talking with you.
Taffy: This was so fun.
John: Thank you so much.
Taffy: Thank you.
John: Please come back whenever.
Taffy: Sure, I’ll see you next week.
John: Next week.
- Fleishman Is in Trouble on Hulu, and the book
- Taffy’s GQ Celebrity Profiles
- This Film Does Not Exist By Frank Pavich for NYT, Tron reimagined by AI in the style of Jodorowsky’s Dune, images by Midjourney
- This Voice Doesn’t Exist – Generative Voice AI
- VALL-E Neural Codec Language Models are Zero-Shot Text to Speech Synthesizers
- Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois
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- Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Ryan Gerberding (send us yours!)
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