Question: Could you go into more detail on how that final gag was structured, and how much rehearsal you needed to make sure that was going to take off?
McElhenney: That was probably the most difficult sequence in the most difficult episode I’ve ever been a part of producing. The way that worked was, I called our production designer, our special effects coordinator, our property department, and our AD team, and I said, “This is what we want to try to do.” It started off as 16 machines, and then we whittled it down to 12 I believe. I can’t remember, but it was a lot of machines. Then they were built by our special effects coordinator in his garage. He would then record a video of how to set them up each time, sterilize them, pack them away, and put them in a safe location.
It was picked up by courier. The courier dropped them off in a secure location near the actor’s home, right outside the actor’s home. The actor would then take it in with gloves, sterilize it, and set it up based on the video the special effects coordinator had put together. Once they had done that, they would hop into our Zoom call, our filming process, and then we would walk the actors all through the camera setup and the audio settings, making sure we were ready to go. We would run that particular machine and just shoot one machine at a time. We started with the first one, which was Ashly Burch, who plays Rachel. Then we just made our way all the way through, one by one.
You know the one we had the toughest time with? It was Craig Mazin, who plays Lou. He’s also the creator and showrunner of Chernobyl from last year. Few people know that. He’s a part of our writing staff, and also a very good friend of mine. He was just so unbelievably frustrated by this machine. I kept laughing, and he was getting angrier and angrier. I’m like, “Craig, you just won every award there is on the planet for making one of the greatest miniseries in the history of television, on one of the most devastating events of the 20th century, and you can’t figure out how to get toilet paper to roll from left to right?” It just drove him insane. We have it all recorded. We’ll be releasing that scene very soon.
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Question: I know you’ve been a bit busy creating this episode, but did you still find any time for yourself to play any games in quarantine?
McElhenney: It’s funny. Over the last month, really, because we’ve been just doing this, and still home-schooling the boys, there has not been a lot of time for recreation. I’m basically doing this all day long and then collapsing in bed, then waking up at 5:30 and starting it again. But very soon, very soon I will be jumping back into God of War, which I started at the beginning of quarantine and then had to put down. I was bummed about that. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for Last of Us 2, but I don’t want to put any more pressure on Neil than he already has to get it out. But I cannot wait.
Question: In an earlier interview you said you enjoyed pushing the limits of comedy, and that’s apparent from both of your shows. I wanted to know how you think this particular episode does that, pushes the limits of comedy for you.
McElhenney: I don’t necessarily know that I would think about it that way. Maybe I said that, but — I think what I was going for, I like the idea of just stretching the limits of expectation. Hopefully, and I think why Sunny has been able to survive for as long as it has, we’re continually surprising people. On the surface, and the reason why it took a long time for people to take to Sunny — it was that they thought it was something that it wasn’t, because of its profanity, because we’re certainly obscene in so many different ways. But as you watch it and recognize what we’re doing, or attempting to do, we’re not those people. We’re satirizing those kinds of people to a certain extent.
That’s really what interests me, the idea of extending that into this world. Where Sunny is a sort of live-action cartoon at this point, something that does not exist in the real world, the characters and the people of Mythic Quest, and the game Mythic Quest, you could make the case that these people exist in real life. We’re still going for big laughs. You see a lot of comedies now, certainly in the last few years, that are great shows, but you’re not laughing once. That doesn’t devalue those shows or movies or whatever as entertainment pieces, but I don’t see how that’s a comedy. If your intention is not to make someone laugh, but solely to engage and make someone cry or feel suspenseful, that’s fantastic, but that’s a drama.
Our intention is always, how can we make people laugh? But with this particular show, how can we stretch what people’s expectation of a hard comedy could be? Something that’s going for laugh-out-loud moments, but also some moments of quiet pathos.
Question: When I zoomed in on some of the camera boxes, at least for me, it spoiled the moment for a bit. Is there an unedited version of that where you just see it straight through?
McElhenney: It’s funny that you should say that, because — I’m going to bring Craig back up again. I sent an early cut to Craig. I was checking with him because he’s really smart and understands what we’re going for. He had the same exact reaction as you did. And then I said, “Well, you’re crazy. Both of you guys are crazy, because you’re wrong. Trust me, because it’s going to be better this way emotionally.” He said, “Yes, I understand, but trust me, the way that my brain works is different than the way your brain works, and I’m telling you, it’s going to be more satisfying to just see this thing operate all the way through without cutting into each individual box. What you have to do is cut a version of that together and then release it after you release the episode.”
Sure enough, I did that. I have it. It’s ready to go. For people whose minds work the way that yours and Mazin’s works, you’re going to get what you asked for. It really is pretty cool.
Question: Now that you’ve had to rethink things and do this quarantine episode, will that have any impact on Season Two?
McElhenney: Yes. However, it will not have nearly the impact that the pandemic has, or will have. The truth is, we had all 10 episodes written, and we were in the middle of shooting episode one when we got shut down. But just to give you an example of the kind of way that it’s going to affect season two, the first episode takes place at E3. We’re giving a presentation in front of 10,000 people. OK, well, that’s never going to happen, or not for the foreseeable future.
We feel like we’ve done an episode now that has tackled the state of the world and the pandemic head-on. We’re very proud of that and happy with that. Now, what we want to do as a show is probably the same thing that we’re all going to want to do when this is over, which is put it the fuck behind us. However, we can’t pretend like it didn’t happen. Yes, from a character perspective, from an emotional perspective, from story arcs, I think we’re fine. We don’t have to rewrite the entire season. But we will have to address, just from an operational standpoint, how workplaces are functioning. We can’t just all of a sudden say, “We did a quarantine episode, that’s it, now let’s pretend like it didn’t happen.”
If for the next, I don’t know, year, we’re all coming into a workplace wearing masks, or staggering, or no longer riding in elevators, or we have medical professionals who are just a part of our everyday life, or we’re getting our temperature taken every day–it’s just going to change every aspect of our lives in so many mundane ways. We have to honor that, or otherwise it’ll feel like the show’s not taking place in reality. But my guess is we’ll never say the word “pandemic” ever again, I don’t think. It just feels like people aren’t going to want to think about it or hear about it anymore. But they’re going to have to get their temperature taken every week. We should recognize that, and to the best of our ability make sure the show feels authentic to the experience people have every day.
Question: I liked the theme of the creative versus the business in Episode Five of the first season. I wonder how evolved your thinking is about that particular issue, in light of the more you’ve learned about the game industry, or the pandemic having an effect on that. What do you think about that conflict, and will we see more of that?
McElhenney: I’ve always found it fascinating. I also find it enraging in how juvenile I see that it’s often portrayed. Sometimes I feel like I hear a lot of people in our community huff and puff about how the big bad studio ruined their thing. The truth is that studios don’t ruin things. People ruin things. They allow their thing to get corrupted, or they corrupt it themselves, because they’re chasing something that they think someone else wants. Those two things can’t coexist. You can’t be chasing what you think someone else wants.
That also doesn’t mean that you’re so hard-edged that you’re not allowing for collaboration. This is what I’m always trying to impress upon our writers, who I’m training to become showrunners. Always take the notes. Every note is a good note. Every note you get is a good note. It gives you an opportunity to rethink a certain aspect of what you’re trying to do. Even if it’s absolutely ridiculous or obscene or completely dead wrong on its face, it’s pointing out something that this particular person is experiencing when they read or see your thing. Why not take a look at it, just for a second? Even if you then turn around and say, “No, I think they’re wrong,” great. All that did was validate your opinion that it is a worthwhile fight, at the very least, should it come to that.
What we were trying to present in that particular episode last year was, that character’s not wrong. She and he are working together to collaborate and create something that is theirs. This is their baby, their version of a child. He says a line at one point, as it’s slowly being corrupted, that without the work that he was doing, this would never have left her dream journal. That’s a reality. That is true. It’s always this constant reconciliation with–once somebody gives you money for something, then to a certain effect, they own it, or at least they have a piece of ownership in it, and you have to respect that. You have to.
Now, you can fight it out tooth and nail, and as long as you’re not fighting about ego, but fighting about the work–ultimately if there’s nothing you can do about it, there’s nothing you can do about it. But prior to that we have to respect that the intersection of art and commerce is why we all have jobs. That’s why we’re all able to do this. That’s why there’s this entire industry. We can’t ignore either side of that, so let’s just work together in collaboration and recognize when something is being corrupted. That’s my job.
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