Geri Cole: It’s so much fun. So let’s also talk about, there’s a fantastical element to the show that happens occasionally in Oliver’s casting sequence or Charles’ bugs and quirky hallucinations, was there a rule that you developed of when things would take this fantastical turn?
John Hoffman: It started, it was a really big leap and I knew, again, it was a really interesting process working on this show because I was throwing out some things and tossing some things out with a gentle, “What if we tried something like this?” I’d back away and go, “They’ll probably hate that idea.” It was more often than not almost across the board just welcomed, which the first time that happened I was with Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal in their offices very early on talking about the show, and talking about particularly, we didn’t have Selena yet, but we were developing the pilot and Steve and Marty we had, and I just kept on thinking I wanted this to be unexpected for them too and for the audience who loves them.
I wanted to give the audience what they do best, be funny, have that great chemistry, let that fly, but I wanted it also to go a little deeper, I wanted it also to recognize the higher level they go to in comedy and true reaches that they’ve both made in their own careers. So great classic comedy ideas, what is the thing that feels elegant? They’re both elegant comedians in my mind. So that notion, I found this thing I had been obsessed with for about a year before that was this beautiful dance piece to the Clair de Lune that was online, and it was this floating bouncing thing on a trampoline that takes you up the staircase, and it became a central part of the pilot and it became a thematic way of showing what was underneath the characters, that they’re all dying to bounce back into their lives a little bit, feel alive again.
Again, to the great credit of Dan and being able to say, “Here’s this piece I found and I look at it and I want to use it, because it feels like somehow Marty and Steve feel like a part of this feeling of this piece.” And boom, we went with it. Dan said, “Yeah, we should. Let’s incorporate it. Let’s do it.” So now we have this lovely bouncing moment that feels, to me, just elevated storytelling at times, to connect you to the feeling underneath it. That’s really where all of that came from, and then it went into the subconscious and being able to break open and be a little bit, great word, fantastical.
Geri Cole: That also makes me think then about the last episode where we get a lot of physical comedy with Steve Martin, on the other side of that spectrum. Was it just like, “Oh, we need to work this in. We need some classic Steve Martin in this.”
John Hoffman: It was sublime, right?
Geri Cole: Yes.
John Hoffman: It’s the greatest thing. There were these tremendous lovely reactions to that episode for his performance particularly too, and it makes me so happy because I think he’s so beautiful in the show. He’s a slow-burn build throughout the show in certain ways, that way comedically, because he’s holding more of the center of the balance between Selena and Marty, and Mabel and Charles, Oliver. But there’s a question, he’s 75 years old and I was like, “Steve, we’re thinking of doing this with the last episode, and what do you think?” He was like, “Oh, I’m all in, I’m all in.”
Then he actually walked down the Arconia hallway for me doing a thing that felt like All of Me, and back in the day, I’m like, “Oh, god. He’s still got it in every way, this is going to be a killing.” Once he said he was in, then we really were like, “Okay, let’s rock it. Let’s find a way to let him roll.” It was just very exciting, and I liked that last episode, I hope, I very, very much was hoping and wanting that to come together in a way that all threads, or most all threads at least, were coming together story wise, but also tonally. The fact that this moment comes off a very, very, very different toned conversation between him and Jan and what’s going on in that scene, and then boom, there’s this switch into physical comedy for him that I just wish everyone could be a fly on the wall on the set for those days where’s he’s throwing suggestions out to say, “What if I did this? What if I did this?”
One of my favorite moments, just to say it, was the moment on set, we didn’t have this in the script, but it was where he comes upon his phone and he pulls the pillow off and he pulls his phone out to reveal that he’s been recording Jan, and then he pokes his nose down and he stops the recording, and he’s incapacitated and he sets his head down and we didn’t have the line, but we knew we wanted Fields of Gold to play, Sting’s song on that, and Siri to pick up his words. So we were standing on set with only three minutes before we were going to shoot like, “Okay, what are the words that sound like Fields of Gold?” I was going back and forth with him and I don’t know, if you please just re-watch it, his delivery is so innocent and real when he says, “Siri, I don’t feel good.”
I just will never forget him doing that, because I thought, “This is the moment of all the hundreds of thousands of moments.” I felt so lucky to have Steve Martin and all of these people on the show, but that moment particularly, I could not have come near that.
Geri Cole: Yeah. Wow, wow. I have a bunch of followup questions, but I want to also make sure to get to the cast, because you just mentioned that Sting song and Sting was also in your cast. So obviously Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena, amazing, but also Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Nathan Lane, Sting, this feels ridiculous. How did that happen?
John Hoffman: It gets more ridiculous in season two, spoiler alert. Yeah, it’s going to be amazing. But yeah, well, you learn you have Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short in your show, you’re going to draw people to you, which is amazing, amazing. That was the gift here in a big way. Then it was the unfortunate time which we had to make this show and the world was living through, within the pandemic, but it also made everyone more available, sadly, but more than that it also, I think it was the most moving part of the whole experience for me was the fact that everyone came to play during this time when there were real risks involved.
Every day was a real tightrope walk for every production that was going during this time, and so I just felt so honored by everyone coming in and going through the protocols and putting themselves out there at a time when no one was doing that with real purpose. So I just thought it did things for the show in certain ways that made every moment matter, in a way maybe more than it would have. I know it’s how I felt, just palpably alive. To be in a space with each other and we get to do these things, while other people and while we’d been kept home and alone for so long, that energy underneath it was just thrilling. To watch people be funny on top of it, while all this was going on, it was just a real healing process I found for everybody.
Geri Cole: Yeah. It’s a very difficult time, but to make something that feels so, it’s such a great mix of grounded and it’s a murder mystery, but it’s also so silly and fun and all these things, is really fantastic. Let’s talk also a little bit about your process. If there’s any rituals you’d like to share, what practices that you feel like you’ve developed over time that have really served you, in terms of trying to be productive and/or be focused when you’re creating things.
John Hoffman: I love these questions so much, thank you.
Geri Cole: Thank you.
John Hoffman: No one asks that. It’s so funny, the writers’ room would immediately tell me to answer this way, and I will, because I talk about it a lot. It’s very strange, but my big ritual thing that I do every day that I’m writing the show, which is every day, is to not get out of bed when I wake up. I take 20 minutes, 15, 20 minutes just to lie there. There’s no pressure at that moment, you’re just waking up, you don’t really ask yourself to answer a question, you’re just in a space. For me, if I’ve gone to bed with questions, I wake up and somehow I can more easily find, “Oh, oh, oh.” In those first 20 minutes, than any other time of the day. So it’s become a thing.
If there’s a weird idea, usually it’s coming in those first 20 minutes of the day. Or if it’s a real linchpin struggle, what if we try this? For me, it’s a place of simplicity that my head has gotten to, that I’m not tied up with a bunch of other things that have been coming in throughout the day, and it’s your most private alone moment in a certain way before you start your day, and for me it’s like taking that time either way, whether that writing answer comes in those 20 minutes, somehow it feels like you’re grounding yourself. It’s a meditative space.
Geri Cole: That’s amazing, because as you were saying that, I was like, “Oh, my. Yes, I know that space.” I know those 20 minutes where sometimes I will be in those 20 minutes and be like, “Oh, it’s this, this is what …” Having just figured out the thing that I didn’t even realize I was trying to figure, but that the work that I needed to do or … Wow. Just trying to leave that space or recognize and appreciate that space, that you stay connected or are freer in that first consciousness space.
John Hoffman: Noiseless, a little noiseless. If you can have it, people with kids, people with dogs, it can be challenging.
Geri Cole: Yes.
John Hoffman: Grab what you can in those noiseless first moments, just for yourself and just to empty, on that empty mind. It’s a good place.
Geri Cole: Yeah. I always like to believe, and this is maybe going to get a little weird, but I refer to it as the ether, where there’s like groupthink cloud space where all the answers are, and it’s in that first waking space you’re pretty tethered to the ether, and so it’s like you can pull things down if you need to.
John Hoffman: Great way to think of it. I’m going to take that, that’s a great … No, I do believe in all of that. Any writer working knows the thing of the thrill of finding an answer or finding something that feels alive and kicking, or something maybe you might not have seen, at least not in this context, or maybe you have seen it but it fits here in this own new way for your story. But those light bulb-y moments, and however you get them, they’re the big thrill of the gifting that goes on around the writing that we all need, but we all wonder certainly at the beginning and throughout the process, are they ever going to come? So I just think it’s acknowledging that fear and then letting it go and opening up to whatever might come. Yeah.
Geri Cole: I think that’s a perfect lead into my next question, which is a question that I like to ask everyone who comes to the podcast, which is about the idea of success, because that sounds like success to me when you can trust that the answers will come and have the space and time to do so. So I like to ask everyone about success, because being in a creative profession it feels like an allusive animal, and so I’m always curious about how people define success for themselves and maybe how that’s evolved over time. Especially when they’re arguably experiencing success, do you feel successful in this moment?
John Hoffman: I love that question, I really do. I really mean it, it’s so central to what I’m feeling and what I’ve been talking about. I was just literally talking about this last night with a friend of mine, because I’m a writer who’s been working a really long time. Screenwriting first, segued into TV later than many people, and I care so much about the storytelling. All I really care about is telling the best story of this thing we’re working on, episode for episode. So that is really at the bottom of everything, and yet all those years of, we all go through lots of rollercoaster moments, and you have to hold in your head, always the hope of maybe, maybe, maybe my 10 or 15-year jaunt of a show in New York, wouldn’t that be something?
May not have happened, but here we are. But it’s that holding of the light, always there for yourself, because it really, anything is possible I think if you hold that up. But I also think now in this lovely moment of having the show come out, be watched in great numbers and received in a lovely way like this, to have people involved in it that you feel this great weight of responsibility, I hope they like it, I hope they want to do more of it, and to get over those hurdles, these are the steps along the way to feeling really good a bout what you’re doing. But it’s very interesting to me that in this moment of feeling like, “Oh, I’ve gotten to a place where here is the feeling that I’ve been thinking I was getting to or wanting to get to,” and it’s fascinating to me that it feels good, I don’t want to say that at all, but it’s not the thing.
There is no thing there, the thing is inside, and I’m still telling stories, so the thing I’m working on is the thing I’m working on, and the thrill I get every day is when a writer comes in with a great idea and I’m like, “Oh, my god. You’re the best.” There it is, and you’re working and you’re continually making the better thing. So the feeling of success, I don’t want to say is nothing, I feel thrilled, I feel so lucky and grateful to be where this who has brought me here right now, but I will say it’s been an interesting revelation to have it be in real context and feel like, “Oh, there’s no separate feeling. There’s no [crosstalk 00:32:18].” It’s all a part of a flow of everything.
Geri Cole: Wasn’t there going to be one big special thing?
John Hoffman: Where’s the crown? Where’s the crown of glory that you sit under and the sun’s always shining? It doesn’t happen that way. I still have my dumb hat on.
Geri Cole: Are we sure? I thought there was a crown.
John Hoffman: Exactly, exactly.
Geri Cole: No crown, no crown apparently.
John Hoffman: That’s a lesson any writer will tell you, it’s that thing of we’re always, I had in my head always of like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a place where they were just offering you things? When do I get there? When do they just, you’re the guy they go to with all of their best things?” Any time I’ve gotten into that thinking, it’s always been that moment of like, “Oh, that really doesn’t happen and a lot of times it’s not where you want to be.” Because you really, I find the real success, as you were saying before, the real success is when you feel like you’ve been connected to something that means something to you and you get to share it with the world.
If you get to share it with six people who read your screenplay, you’re sharing it. If you get to read it with people all over the world and it becomes a television show that people like to watch, there’s a real even balance, I have to say. Because the feeling is just that, you’re connected in a personal way, has it moved people? Has it connected? That’s all that really matters to me.
Geri Cole: Yeah. I feel like connection being the success, it also feels like a lovely parallel to the show where it’s like just the connecting to folks that you, I guess, aren’t assumed that you would connect to, is what we’re all striving for?
John Hoffman: Yeah. You bring your own personality and your own life experiences, and I’ve said this before, but this show is also born of a bit, not a bit, a real tragedy in my own life, and I don’t want to say my own life, I was close to this person when I was growing up and a year before this show came to me, I heard that my friend who I’d been out of touch with for years was in a murder/suicide situation in Wisconsin. So that led to me doing something like I’d never done before, which is I had to know what happened. How did he end up here? I didn’t know anything about his life and I went on a year-long obsessive journey to understand.
I met his ex-wife who I’d never known he was married to, I met his two kids who didn’t know existed. I was in his world and trying to sort out what happened, and there were so many questions around this. From the injuries that were involved in this case, the first impulse when you hear the injuries was to believe that my friend had shot someone and then killed himself. I had known him when he was younger and were very, very close, but I could not get that in my head as something I understood. It actually, by the end of this investigation, it reversed itself and I did find out that he was murdered actually. So there was this gut impulse about this that felt in some way reaffirming through the tragedy, that I understood him in some way and I did know him in a way, and there were things I didn’t know.
It’s all a lot of Mabel’s journey that’s underneath Mabel’s journey in our show, but again, I think when you tell stories, they’re redemptive, but there’s always a lot, not always, but sometimes there can be really deeper things involved in your experience on working on some things. So that theme of connection, my connection to my deep friend that I felt had separated, and now I was trying to do that again, to understand things more. So that’s underneath the whole show as well, so it’s all of these experiences that can come together I think if you’re open to it, to make a part of something that might not feel like it fits. That’s a very tragic story that I was working through, but it found its way into this odd little comedy.
Geri Cole: Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, that I think also speaks to people being obsessed with murder mysteries, this wanting to understand and connect to how, going from the journey from themselves to how someone could end up in those situations, and that’s an endlessly fascinating question of just wanting to understand think journey a person could take to end up in that situation. Wow. We’re running a little bit out of time, I do want to ask as much as I can about season two. I know we ended on this cliffhanger and I also was like, “Wait, did Mabel stab …” She did have the knitting needle. I’m not sure how much you are allowed to share, but what can you tell us?
John Hoffman: It’s so good, we’re so deep in it right now, we start shooting in less than two weeks.
Geri Cole: Oh, wow.
John Hoffman: We’re very excited. At the end of last season, we had obviously our main characters really step in it, or be dropped into it, and we’ll find out more about that. I would say a little bit of a tee-up for it is that the three of them are balancing in season two both the good side and the bad side of being talked about in New York City, and having to navigate the balance between who they are and what’s being said about them, and how to grapple with trying to own your own story when stories are existing out in the world that are painting a very different picture.
Geri Cole: Oh, my goodness. That’s fantastic. It’s like a mirror within the mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror of the murder mystery where it’s like, “Who’s the subject?”
John Hoffman: Exactly, yeah. We get very meta in the show, but it’s a challenge to balance that in here this year.
Geri Cole: Well, that sounds super exciting, and I can’t wait to watch. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Again, folks, sorry if you listened to this before watching, we definitely spoiled some things.
John Hoffman: A little.
Geri Cole: We can still go back and watch, because it’s a really fantastic show.
John Hoffman: Thank you so much, it’s so nice to talk to you, really.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw at Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at WGAEast.org and you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.