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Interview: Zander Lehmann, Creator of Hulu’s Casual

Casual, which premiered its first episode today on Hulu, begins innocuously. The first few episodes and funny and touching, but give rare glimpses of the drama and structure to come. Following a woman, Valerie (Michaela Watkins), her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey) and her daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) living together after Valerie’s divorce. All three encounter the pitfalls and heartbreaks of modern dating, soaked through an indie film aesthetic. That look came with help from Jason Reitman (JunoYoung Adult), who directed two episodes and executive produced the series. Cut Print Film spoke to the show’s creator, Zander Lehmann, about those dramatic shifts, the excellent cast, and Reitman’s involvement.

CUT PRINT FILM: Though Casual gravitates towards romantic relationship, the central trio is a family. What was the genesis of that specific brand of conflict?

ZANDER LEHMANN: We have a special family, my family. They’re certainly not as awful as I portray them in the show; my parents are both lovely. But, you know good drama comes out of people loving and hating each other and I felt like that was a good place to set a show. My sister and I are very close, so that relationship is based a lot on reality. We were living together for three years, and she started dating my best friend and moved in with him. That’s when I wrote the show. But we’ve always been close and always felt like we had a very strong bond. As far as the sort of love and dating life, I think that’s a reflection of my own hang-ups in dating and also all the other writers and producers adding in their pieces. I think the show ended up feeling amalgam of all of our experiences with our families and our love lives and I think that’s why hopefully it feels detailed and rich and nuanced in a way that we were trying to make it.

CUT PRINT FILM: That speaks to my favorite aspect of the show; it’s never didactic or preachy about “how dating is now”. It roots it all in the human experience these characters have.

ZANDER LEHMANN: First of all, thank you for getting that. It’s so important to us. The thing I really don’t like the most, I hate on-the-nose dialogue, heavy-handed messages beamed to me. The audiences today are too smart. If they see that they tune out, they go “oh I don’t wanna be preached to”. I think the best way to get a message across is to present something that feels like reality and present characters that are complex and that people can relate to on multiple levels and then you can sort of weave in these little moments of, not warnings obviously. But if you want to give themes to the characters and the show you have to do it in a nuanced way. So, look, Jason [Reitman] is incredibly particular when it comes to his characters, he just does not let any of that stuff get through. Anything that’s on-the-nose, anything that is heavy handed, he will strike pretty much immediately from the scripts. So I learned a lot of that from him. As we went along in the process, it became more intuitive and easier to write that way. I think the actors also really got the roles and you didn’t need to give them all this stuff to explain where they were coming from. I think the little moments they appreciated so much and they could embody them. And in that way you feel like you understand and it feels real but you don’t have to explicitly say “oh we’re fucked up ’cause of this or ’cause of that, this is the root cause of it and you shouldn’t do this because it’s gonna lead to bad things.” That, to me, is just a sign of bad writing.

CUT PRINT FILM: You mentioned Jason Reitman. How else did the project change once he came on board?

ZANDER LEHMANN: Well, Jason is, to his credit, I think one of the greatest directors working right now. And at first I was very hesitant to do anything except take every one of his notes because he’s done this for a long time and has an amazing track record. When he came in with notes, I would do them all sort of without question. I think as the process evolved it became more of a give-and-take in that we would both go back at each other with notes and thoughts and ideas and it became this wonderful creation that came from both of our heads, and also from the heads of Helen Estabrook and Liz Tigelaar, our other executive producers. They were just as talented, just as important. The four of us sort of worked as a group to get the scripts where we wanted them to go. And Jason was a huge part of that. He was in the writer’s room and he read every draft of scripts and gave notes. And sometimes we took the notes and sometimes we didn’t. I think for the most part we ended up taking them because he gives really good notes, he’s a smart guy. But he was by no means offended if we did not take every one of his notes. I think he knows in TV, there are so many scripts, there’s so much collaboration, you kind of have to let these scripts play out in ways that don’t feel obvious on the surface.

CUT PRINT FILM: Did you have any of the cast in mind when you were conceiving of the show?

ZANDER LEHMANN: I did not. I never have written to certain casts, or even to physical attributes. I didn’t want to hamper us in our casting process, I wanted to find people who read the words in the way that I had imagined they were read, and play the emotional beats in a way that was subtle but also effective. We read people for every role; we did a long, long casting process. Jason, again to his credit, was fantastic at casting. He knew immediately with Michaela [Watkins], Tommy [Dewey] and Tara [Lynne Barr], I don’t want to say he forced it through but he was the voice saying “these are the people guys, these are who we want. You may not have seen them as stars in other shows or other movies but they understand the tempo, they understand the voice, all of these things that I think really make the show feel special.” And ultimately everyone else got on board when they started reading it, and started acting the roles. “Oh, these are the people. They embody it, I can’t see anyone else doing these jobs.” So yeah, I’m so happy with how the casting turned out. And they’re all wonderful people too, which you don’t always get. Sometimes they are difficult and awful, but our cast is just a group of wonderful people.

CUT PRINT FILM: How do you think these actors once cast, especially Watkins, helped shape what the show ended up being?

ZANDER LEHMANN: Yeah, inevitably the actors will make the show their own because that’s why you hire them. I think the actors always brought things I never expected. It was the little looks, the subtle moments, the lines that I wrote that I didn’t think were funny that, when they read, became funny and the facial expressions and buttons they added in. I think for both Michaela and Tommy, this show was probably the least amount of improv they’ve ever had to do because the scripts were very tight, they were all going through this Jason, Helen and my filter. We had a pretty distinct idea of what, tonally, we wanted and story-wise what we wanted. So they would get the scripts, read them, and go “oh my god, I love this.” They would go through, and they would have a couple little moments of improv, or little tweaks to dialogue but mostly they stayed stuck to the characters that we created for them and then sort of added their own flavor. You know, Jason doesn’t really do improv. He mostly writes the scripts and has his actors do what he thinks is best. And I think they sort of took to that from Jason from the start. A lot of it was, yeah you’re a comedic guy, but you’re playing sort a more dramatic role at times, you gotta lean into this and trust us. We’re gonna get these great performances. Not everything has to be funny, all the things you sort of love to hear as an actor but never get to hear.

CUT PRINT FILM: The most interesting aspect of the show’s dramatic half is how it slowly reveals itself over the course of the season. At first this seems like a light, airy sitcom, but then you pull out these greater stakes as the episodes go on.

ZANDER LEHMANN: Well that was a big conversation for all of us and something that I really sort of fought for from the beginning. We sort of structured it like an indie film, where the first three episodes, maybe, are act one where you’re meeting these people, you see the world where they exist in, you get a sense of their characters and the little moments beneath them. But also, they’re funny, they’re fun, you want to hang out with them, you want to be their friends. Then the second act, which is episode four through eight, I guess, you sort of start to see the problems come out, all of the sort of tension and drama starts to reveal itself. And you get more dramatic and less comedic; there’s still funny moments but it becomes comedy that’s rooted in the characters and the drama of the situation. And then act three is sort of episodes nine and ten where it sort of all comes to a head and does feel more dramatic than the others. That was always intentional on our part, it was just a matter of: can you get people invested in the early part of the show, when it is largely light and comedic, and it becomes more dramatic. Hopefully it allows you, if you stick with the show, to appreciate these things as you continue to watch. You sort of learn more things as you go along, and I think that’s pretty cool.

CUT PRINT FILM: At what point in the process were you all locked into Hulu, and how was that relationship?

ZANDER LEHMANN: I had written the first two scripts, and had gotten Jason. And then we did some work on it, and took it out a couple of the networks and Hulu was aggressive and obviously wanted the show and made a nice offer for us to make ten episodes. And at that point it was theirs. We were sort of off to the races. Hulu, to their credit, has been a really, really good creative partner. They let us, at times, do what we wanted to do. And at other times, they gave us the notes we needed to hear to steer us on the right track. So I have nothing but good things to say about them. And that’s in a serious way, not in a bullshit, “they’re out network and I have to say nice things about them” way. I think they were, I don’t want to say surprised, but when they saw sort of the dramatic turn that the show took, I hope it was a pleasant surprise in that it wasn’t just this light, airy comedy the whole way through. I think if you go into business with Jason Reitman, you kind of have to know that the stories will take turns and get a darker and more serious. And I think we get there in a believable and earned way. So yeah, they sort of had to know it was coming, but I’m sure it was still a surprise when they saw where the story goes.

CUT PRINT FILM: My favorite episode of the season is the eighth, the Thanksgiving episode. Sitcoms have a long history of utilizing that holiday, and I was curious how you worked on tackling the trope.

ZANDER LEHMANN: It’s so funny that you bring it up. That episode was something that I pitched originally to Hulu in the early stages. It was an episode I always wanted to do, which was this family all together at this dinner table where no one really knows each other or why they’re there. It’s sort of the opposite take on the usual Thanksgiving dinner. And I think it’s the one episode that we really had to fight to get through. You know, you’ve seen Thanksgiving episodes before, it’s not a totally fresh, original thing, so I think it scared Hulu a little bit. Ultimately, what we end up with…I’m with you, it’s one of my, if not my favorite episode of the season. It’s essentially a one-act play. This whole family together in this house shot entirely in this one location and it’s all of the back-and-forth character moments, the ping-ping-ping, where everything comes to a head. I love it.

CUT PRINT FILM: Another strong aspect of Casual is the mother-daughter relationship. Gilmore Girls is one of my all-time favorite series, and this is one of the strongest examples of that type of pairing since that show.

ZANDER LEHMANN: That was a hard relationship for me to write because I’m neither a mother, nor a daughter. It was one of those things where, I knew what I wanted it to be, but not exactly how to execute it. And we’re really lucky; Tara, who plays Laura, the daughter, is really, really good. She’s way better than any 21-year-old has any right to be. And her and Michaela have this great chemistry. You feel them as best friends, in a way that makes it so powerful and emotional when they sort of split apart. A lot of the writing of it came from the writing staff. We had some wonderful writers. Liz and Helen, the other EPs, obviously they brought a lot of their own mother-daughter stuff into that relationship, to make it feel real and authentic. They were both sort of precocious kids who I think have adult relationships with their mothers. So yeah, I think it comes from a place of truth for them and I was on board from the start because it was the idea that I always wanted, I just needed help to execute it.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.