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We don’t write about TV episodes much, but Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is produced by video game publisher Ubisoft, and it’s a thoughtful comedy about a fictional game studio. And it is returning today on the Apple TV+ subscription service with a special episode dubbed Mythic Quest: Quarantine, which was written, filmed, and edited in quarantine.
Rob McElhenney, the co-creator, executive producer, and co-star of the series, said in a press briefing that the episode came together in a matter of three weeks, with most of the writing done in just three days. The half-hour installment depicts what it’s like for the game studio’s staff to work from home. And it’s going to hit home for a lot of game developers.
Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) struggle with solitude, while Brad (Danny Pudi) and David (David Hornsby) start a charitable competition. Assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) tries to explain video conferencing to C.W. (F. Murray Abraham) with mixed results.
I participated in a roundtable interview of McElhinney after watching the quarantine episode.
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To produce the episode, the cast and crew worked remotely in multiple locations across the country. McElhenney said his team consulted with Ubisoft to get real-world examples of game developers working from home. The episode sheds light on the challenge of mental wellness during lockdown, and it continues to straddle the dividing line between business and creative interests in a game studio.
McElhenney said the team will resume working on Season 2 for the show, which has been greenlit. The first season of nine episodes debuted in February. I definitely think this whole series is worth a look for gamers and the game industry. I suggest you watch the quarantine episode first and read this afterward.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Question: How quickly did this idea of a quarantine episode come together? What was one of the things that you wanted to avoid trope-wise when it came to the story?
Rob McElhenney: Well, from conception to final delivery was three weeks. It was very fast. The reason we wanted to do that was because we obviously wanted to drop it while we were all in this shared experience of being in quarantine, and we weren’t sure how long that was going to be. It does seem like it’s changing on an hourly basis. We felt like we should do everything we can to get this out as quickly as possible, and that’s what we did.
I think that would have been difficult, to pull that off under the best of circumstances. In these particular circumstances I’d say it’s the hardest production I’ve ever been a part of. But certainly it’s the episode of television of which I’m most proud, because of the way that it all came together through the work and ingenuity of an entire crew of people all working remotely.
In terms of the tropes that we wanted to avoid, we knew that we could take advantage, from a comedic standpoint, of some of the interface jokes that you were just going to get, because it’s an inherently funny way to communicate with people. However, we knew that we couldn’t just do Zoom jokes for 25 minutes. That would get old. It was already hacky by the time we started writing, because there had been a bunch of other shows that had already come on, SNL included, that did a great job right off the bat going live and exploiting that comedy. We thought, “Great, they did it, it was funny. Let’s figure out a way in which we can nod to that, but then tell an actual emotional narrative.”
Question: The episode speaks a lot to the mental health toll that quarantine is taking on many people. Why was that important for you to address?
McElhenney: We knew we could do something funny, and that would — I’m not saying that would necessarily be easy, but we knew we could achieve that, because as I mentioned, the interface itself, the situation itself, and the cast of actors that we have, we know that we could generate something funny. But we also felt like if we had this platform and this opportunity, could we tell a story that, at worst, brings a sense of levity and humor to people’s lives for 25 minutes? But at best, could make people feel less alone, which I think television at its best — stories at their best have the ability to do that. I know they do that for me.
It’s been interesting to me, how often I’ll get a text, a tweet, an email, an Instagram post from someone saying that they’ve been spending their quarantine watching Sunny, and thank you for the 14 seasons of episodes that just makes them laugh. “When things seem darkest, I know I can turn on this silly show and it’ll bring me some modicum of joy and humor for 22 minutes.” At best, those are the kinds of things we can do. Why not use that platform to the best of our ability to do it?
Question: When I was watching this, all I could think was, “Is this the future of Hollywood?” Are shows, for at least the next year, or even past that, going to be recorded from actors’ homes? Do you feel that’s actually going to happen, that maybe you’re a bit ahead of the game from standpoint?
McElhenney: The truth of the matter is we shot everything on the iPhone. At the risk of sounding like a commercial for Apple, we could not have done it without the technology of that company and those phones. This is not hyperbolic to say. It’s the truth. The camera in the most recent iPhone is better than the camera we shot Sunny season 10 on. It collects more information than we were able to do in Sunny Season 11 as well. The ability for us to do this is both technologically based, but then also just simple human ingenuity and stick-to-it-iveness, and desire to make something great under not-so-ideal circumstances.
I hope that this is not the future of Hollywood. I hope that we can be back together working again on sound stages. But I just don’t know. Anybody that pretends to know is not paying attention. From my perspective, I always want to come up with a plan and be ready for the worst- and best-case scenarios, but at the same time we have to be respectful of what the situation is, the experts and the people out there who do this for a living. As a television writer, I am not one of those people, and I respect science and scientists. I’m going to listen to them.
Question: I was curious if you spoke to any video game developers on how they’re dealing with quarantine. If so, who did you talk to, and what did you learn?
McElhenney: Our production partner on the show is Ubisoft, which is one of the biggest game developers in the world. When we were talking about the possibility of coming back and doing some kind of episode in quarantine, we first reached out to Jason Altman, who’s an executive producer on the show and works for Ubisoft. We said, “Hey, can we spend a couple hours talking about what’s going on? How are people navigating through this?”
As we all know, people are at home, and they’re watching television, watching movies, and playing video games in record numbers. It’s one thing for a television series to be up and running. All that work has been done. Now it’s just about upkeeping Hulu or Netflix. But the video game industry, they have to still figure out ways in which they can keep these servers up and running with new content and players continually signing on in record numbers. How do they do that remotely? How are they navigating that? What toll is it taking on those people? These are all the areas that we wanted to delve into in the episode.
Question: One of the things I love about the show is the dynamic between the characters. When you were filming all the different locations, was it difficult to still have that witty dynamic? How were you able to portray that virtually?
McElhenney: That was tricky. What winds up happening is you realize things you never thought of before, which is how much of our communication is based on us being in the same room together. Whether that be non-verbal cues or just the nuances that you can only pick up from a person when you’re in the same room with them. Those are the things we had to navigate.
Again, I still think that, for whatever reason, we were able to push through that and have a certain level of connection. We couldn’t see each other. None of the actors were able to see each other. We were looking directly into the cameras. But we could hear each other. There was something about not being able to see them, but being able to hear them, that made it a bit more intimate. It’s hard to explain.
We’re all on these teleconferencing calls all day long, and there’s something eerie, uncanny valley about it all. You’re not really in a room with someone. Just because you can see them, it doesn’t mean you feel that connection. But we are used to talking to people on the phone. Everyone that’s alive right now has been alive since the advent of the telephone. We have a frame of reference for that, whereas we don’t with this teleconferencing. It’s still odd to us, or at least to my lizard brain. For us to be able to communicate with one another just hearing the sound of our voices, for some reason it helps click. Certainly emotionally, if not comedically.
Question: How did you figure out how to schedule this episode as a one-off, as opposed to something that might have been part of the second season? How much thought went into that part?
McElhenney: A tremendous amount of thought, but it had to happen quickly. From conception to final delivery was three weeks. We wrote it in about three days. The production on it, once we actually got shooting, was not that difficult, but the prep work that it took to schedule everything was the most difficult part. We had to get three iPhones per actor to each actor in a safe, legal, and sterile way. We then had to upload two very specific pieces of software to those phones. We had to walk them through how to operate all the settings, both audio and video. We had to do location scouting virtually, in their homes, to find the right places and times of day to shoot. We had to do whole tutorials on sound, because people live in homes with hardwood floors or concrete floors or high ceilings, and the echo, which you don’t hear on a normal basis, sounds awful when you record it.
These are all the types of challenges we faced, all while also asking them to perform and communicate with other various members of the crew. All without leaving our homes. Nobody left their homes except for me, and I left for one particular scene where I was walking outside, but then I just walked right back onto my property and into my garage, and the person on the other end of that particular exchange is not me, so that’s a body double. That body double is Charlotte’s real-life husband, who is not an actor by the way. He suddenly forgot how to stand like a human being.
He could hear me, because we were all communicating through these earbuds, and I was saying, “Okay, just stand there.” All of a sudden he forgot to do what you’re supposed to do with your arms when you stand as a human being. He started to kind of raise up in this robotic way. I was like, “Stop, just stand!” The poor guy was such a trooper, because he’s not an actor. He has no experience doing this, and all of a sudden he’s not only acting, but he’s pretending to be me. He’s a 6 feet 2 inch, 200-pound Australian man, and I’m not. He’s got me in his ear telling him how to stand. Those kinds of things were a tad dicey.
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.
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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