Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for Season 2 of RUSSIAN DOLL

Host Geri Cole talks about the Netflix series RUSSIAN DOLL with co-creator, writer, producer, director, star Natasha Lyonne, and writer-producer Alice Ju They discuss how the series uses religious philosophy to work on both literal and metaphorical levels, taking the show from “Groundhog Day” to “Quantum Leap”, and exploring the nesting doll of dealing with grief. Warning, there are spoilers.

Natasha Lyonne is a New York-based actress, comedian, director, writer, and producer. Her diverse career in film spans cult classics such as SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS and BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER to smash hits like the AMERICAN PIE franchise. Her first foray into television was on the critically-acclaimed Netflix comedy-drama ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK from 2013 to 2019, in a role for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy. She is a co-founder of the production company Animal Pictures.

Alice Ju is a New York-based writer and producer. She has worked as a staff writer on the critically acclaimed series THE OTHER TWO and RUSSIAN DOLL.

Their current project is the Netflix series RUSSIAN DOLL. The series follows a cynical game developer named Nadia, who is struck by a car and dies leaving a party that’s being thrown in her honor. In an instant she is alive again and transported back to the party earlier, only to die again moments later. She tries to find a way out of this strange time loop, eventually encountering another person experiencing the same thing. In Season 2, Nadia is 10 days away from celebrating her 40th birthday when the 6 Train sends her back in time to 1982. She soon discovers she is trapped inside the body of her mother, who is pregnant with her. Nadia decides to pursue the gold Krugerrands her mother lost that same year, to change the course of her family’s history.

OnWriting is hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys. She also performs sketch and improv at theaters and festivals around the country. 

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole and you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America ,East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series, talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more.

Today, I’m thrilled to be discussing the Netflix series, Russian Doll, with co-creator, writer, producer, director, and star, Natasha Lyonne, and writer producer Alice Ju. In this episode, we talk about how the series uses religious philosophy to work on both literal and metaphorical levels, taking the show from Groundhog’s Day to Quantum Leap, and exploring the nesting doll of dealing with grief. We cover a lot with Natasha and Alice, and warning, there are spoilers. Here’s the interview.

Well, ladies, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your amazing show, Russian Doll. Congratulations on season two, Natasha also congrats on hosting the season finale of SNL.

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah, sorry. Alice was there. Alice was there. We got to make sure.

Geri Cole: Nice.

Natasha Lyonne: And we’re always watching. She gave me extensive notes. Soon as I came off stage, I was like, this isn’t really a rewriting situation, it was live.

Geri Cole: It’s kind of, that was it. That was it. But actually I guess so, yeah, how are you? You seem busy. How are you guys holding up?

Natasha Lyonne: You know, fairly well. Alice is also writing on Poker Face, the new Rian Johnson show that we’re doing. And so, I was shooting that till last night. I want to say I got home, the sun was coming up. So, I got home around 5:00 AM, and then I woke up and I do what I do on Saturdays, which is I start Zoom paneling. Whether or not there’s even, that’s just my routine. It’s important to have a routine. And I just, Saturdays are for Zoom panels.

Geri Cole: Got to get them in.

Natasha Lyonne: So, I’m only a bit awake, but I like to be sort of on my back foot for this kind of a thing. Maybe it leads to the truth.

Geri Cole: Excellent. Alice, how are you doing?

Alice Ju: Great. I mean, I had COVID again, so I think…

Geri Cole: Oh yeah, me too. Me too.

Alice Ju: Yeah, hard to top what Natasha’s up to, but I think that maybe does it. Yeah, but it’s been great to see the reception to the show and exciting to be watching dailies with Natasha in them again, a couple years after Russian Doll production. So that’s basically what I’ve been up to.

Geri Cole: Man. Okay. So let’s start actually-

Natasha Lyonne: How many times have you had COVID?

Alice Ju: At this point, two. But I would love to get up to 10 or even 12 by the time this is over.

Geri Cole: Wow. Ambitious.

Natasha Lyonne: That’s why they call it lucky 21. Now I have not had COVID yet, a single time, but I’m convinced it’s because I have organic black lung and so, I think that the COVID is maybe scared of my system and doesn’t know how to find a way in. Is the only theory.

Geri Cole: No, no.

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah, the COVID’s like, you know what? Keep it. She’s handling herself.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That’s a good thing? Yeah. COVID’s hilarious. I’ve also had it twice and it’s been…

Natasha Lyonne: Harrowing. We were talking about, I was in this panel and everybody was talking about their Zoom rooms, whiteboards, and obviously we had, in this second season, we had our sort of our writing period. We had a nice house. The house was infested with flies and rats, but otherwise nice. We kind of handled that. We had whiteboards everywhere. We had a nice library. We would sit and we would watch things. Everybody would come over, we would watch Apocalypse Now and all the things you need for a half hour comedy.

And then of course, we went to New York, Alice and I, and we were in a pre-production and then COVID came, and then what followed was this really wild, secondary period that I’m sure happened for… I was just on with Stefani Robinson, What We Do in the Shadows, and Jen Statsky, and Hacks, and a bunch of other wonderful women. And everybody was sort of talking about that weird secondary chapter that happened of the COVID rewrite. We’re in, I guess, Alice heard me say many times complaining, like, I created a TV show, not a pandemic. This sort of, how do you want us to kind of play this game of reigning in the sort of scope of the show. And so, but Alice, I was just talking about us in this sort of Zoom room with the bad wifi, and that it would just be Alice and I, and our writers assistant, Lizzie Rose, who became a credited writer on the show because it was just so extensive that the amount of work that was happening in that sort of second chapter. And then this kind of third chapter of actually getting them to be production sort of shooting drafts and all that. So, I’ve been on the ride this morning already.

Geri Cole: Man, actually, I want to hear more about that season one house, which it seems like-

Natasha Lyonne: Oh, it was, I just mean, at the top of, in season one, we had the room in New York only, and also some of those episodes, we started shooting and we didn’t really have seven or eight yet. In part because Netflix sort of blew up the back half of the season, because they had another show at the time that they thought was going to be really huge. I won’t mention what its name is. And they said, oh, there’s kind of the ending, the resolution is sort of similar. And I remember Allison Silverman, who’s kind of our head writer and Leslye Headland, who’s of course our brilliant show runner from season one, and the co-creator of the show along with Amy Poehler. And who’s now doing Star Wars this season. So we were all horrified. We were like, there’s no way to bring back the end of season one. So we went into sort of shooting this puzzle box show in season one without an act three all together, which looking back is pretty wild.

But this year, yeah, we did the sort of phase one of the writer’s room kind of was out in Los Angeles where a lot of our writers were based, and then pre-production was in New York.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow, wow, wow. It’s like flying the plane while you’re building it, building the plane while you’re flying it. I don’t know what the expression is, but that’s wild.

Alice, can we talk a bit about your background and how you got to the show, because you just came on for season two?

Alice Ju: Yes, I had written for the other two on HBO Max previously and I was doing sort of more hard comedy, but I had just come out of getting a relatively useless philosophy undergrad degree. And I had-

Natasha Lyonne: At Harvard.

Alice Ju: I had always thought I would go to grad school and become an academic. And I was sort of like, not sure if I would start applying or something like that. But when I started working for Russian Doll, and I had loved season one so much, Natasha essentially showed me everything that you want to do, that you would want to do in grad school or something like that, all the things that you want to say, believe it or not, you can do that in a half hour comedy. Which is exactly the kind of like maximalist out of the box thinking that Natasha has.

And so, ever since then, I’ve been kind of like thinking about writing in a completely different way and thinking about storytelling in a different way. And I think you can see that in season two of Russian Doll, because a place where Natasha and I kind of like intersect is at that point. An unconventional understanding of story where the show has a lot of meaning baked into every line in every single frame. And Natasha is so meticulous about every tiny, little detail. And that really intersects with a way of interpretation or understanding story that comes from the religious, which is very baked into the show. There’s a version of the story that is literal, and then there’s another reading of the story that is simultaneously true that is metaphorical. And then even more layers on top of that.

And I think that’s why we ended up with such a strange season, but what I love about it is there’s one way of looking at the show that is Nadia literally gets on a train into the past and goes into her mother’s body and all of that. And there’s another reading of the show that is about a woman who’s coming up against the loss of the last maternal figure in her life and she’s not ready to contend with that. And so, she’s thrust back emotionally into wrestling with the questions of her past and she’s not able to show up in the present.

And the last chapter of the show becomes about grief. And we talked a lot in the room about how the process of grief sort of is dislocating time and makes things non-linear. And yeah, I think that is a long way of answering how I went from wanting to get a philosophy PhD to doing this. Because you can tell, it’s like that balance of dark and light, and getting very deep, but then having this kind of like wacky, existential Colombo character that takes us all through it.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Which it absolutely does. And now I was like, oh, that makes perfect sense. So it’s like, there is so much fault and just specifically, I don’t know that you can do it in any half hour comedy. You can do it in this half hour comedy, which you guys do beautifully. So yeah, I did want to talk a little bit about, but I feel like you’ve probably already talked a ton about season one and sort of how you got into that. Season two, yeah, it feels like goes off the rails. Where it’s like, and also I was like, oh the sixth train being a wormhole, it feels totally believable. How did you go from, I guess, time loop, the concept of wanting through the time loop to this time travel that we do, and also spoiler alert, sorry if you haven’t since season two, but you should watch before [inaudible 00:09:56].

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah. I mean, well, and just to say that when I met Alice at our… My Rudolph and I have this company called Animal Pictures, and we have this little weird house in the valley, and I just remember Alice showing up and of course I’d read her samples and stuff, but I was like, holy shit, this is just on a… Alice is like the embodiment of Russian Doll. Also a pound for pound, just as a writer who is also just so comedic in addition to being just that heaviest human being alive is so much, and it’s so much fun for me to get to be on this ride together, because it was, like you’re saying, we really are sort of, it’s theological, it’s philosophical, it’s existential, it’s ridiculous, it’s surrealist. It’s super Abel Ferrara grounded, New York gritty.

So, there’s a lot of different games being played and sort of really be able to journey down that rabbit hole with somebody is like, for me, the great joy of my life. I’m happy that people like the show, but artistically speaking, to have that partner in crime is huge. And yeah, I mean, I guess on the silliest level, the elevator pitch for season one is kind of a Groundhog’s Day. Great, now let’s go to Quantum Leap. And however, of course, season one is not about that at all. A lot of people who sort of have not watched the show I think will say like, oh my God, it’s Happy Death Day or Groundhog Day, or season two is Back to the Future or Quantum Leap.

And I think what we like to do with the show is sort of play with that sort of that known language and those conceits and those tropes as a way of essentially jumping ahead to the next thought so we don’t have to spend all this time on, I mean, we’ve written hundreds of drafts of this show this season. And just to say, a lot of those early drafts had a lot of the math of how do you get to the train, and what happens on the train, and the rules of the train. And essentially you begin to feel, over time, more interesting, impactful story rises up and that sort of wants to get the meat and potatoes of the script. Because we know the language of these conceits from the history of movies.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I was going to say, how did you guys sort of work through those rules? Because I feel like you do a really beautiful job of being very grounded, a very grounded show in a lot of ways, but then also like clearly very fantastical and sort of going back and forth between the two.

Alice Ju: I think when we came into the season, Natasha had come in with this idea that we would do Quantum Leap with Chloe Sevigny, who plays Nora, I think at the time she was pregnant with her first kid and we were sort of very worried about shooting around Chloe’s pregnancy, and then obviously COVID hit, and then she ended up wearing a prosthetic for the actual shoot. She came in with that. And then obviously, so we know we’re going back into the past and we know there’s like a nested, a second take on what a Russian Doll is. And I think we spent a lot of time, thinking about what the mechanism of time travel would be at all. We had several different pitches on the table, one of which was the subway, and I think maybe a couple weeks into the room, Amy Poehler was sitting in and we were sort of like laying everything out for her. And Amy was like, of course it’s the subway. Why are you even considering anything else? And then it just became really true from that because so much of the season is about the underground, and the subterranean, and what that means in terms of the unconscious, and then having that play out sort of like literally. And the kind of like layers of filth and grime and history that are baked into the New York City subway.

And I think, we were at a time, like Natasha was saying, very concerned about rules, but then we sort of talked a lot about dream logic in the room and this idea that we should use the mechanism only when we want to sort of take it and extrapolate a larger question about what we are dealing with in terms of family history or intergenerational inheritance or something like that.

And so, this idea of this half broken down, but constantly running thing in our subconscious that contains our mother and our grandmother, and all of that is unpredictable and hard to corral, but we take it every day. Just felt very correct. And then as the season went on, we started thinking about who do we blame for all of this? Who set off the chain of events that leads to the present? And it just dovetails really well with the MTA, having no conductor and not really anyone in charge. And everyone’s sort of like passing the buck to everybody else.

And then it ends up, at the end of episode five, with this kind of like grounded metaphor of just you go from car, to car, to car and it’s just your mother, your grandmother, and endlessly all the way down the line. And there is no one driving the train. There’s no one pushing things forward. It just is the same sort of recursion over and over.

So I think it was always about setting down the rules that we needed and keeping the feeling of stepping on the New York City subway today and never losing that, as Natasha was saying, able for our New York, but then not muddying the water so much with a, like maybe more conventional sci-fi story about trying to unpack the exact sort of rules outside of the emotional story we were trying to tell.

Natasha Lyonne: Well, and off that, I would say that baked into the DNA of the show’s title is this idea of a Russian Doll and a level deeper. So in a sort of time loop game of a reset point and it’s sort of a video game show, obviously, you want to go a level deeper. And season one is of course posing the question, how do I stop dying? Season two is posing the question, how do I start living?

And in many ways, I think people talk a lot about the show, probably conflating my own personal experience with addiction as if that’s the full core of the show, but on a deeper level, I think it’s actually about PTSD in a way that Nadia and Alan have that in common, and I think I became very curious. I remember, Allison Silverman, who’s our brilliant writer on both seasons. I remember she had brought in Octavia Butler and sort of this idea of a different lens on time travel. You know what I mean? The different lenses through which we see it, and this kind of question around is not a version of sort of trauma that you kind of you walk into a room and the air in the room changes in this sort of subtle way, of this very minimal human interaction, where suddenly you are thrust back in time to a moment in seventh grade that was awkward, where you felt like an outcast. And you don’t know why you’re suddenly having this awkward interaction where internally you’ve sort of shut down. And that is its own form of living, waking time travel.

In the same way that sort of season one is repeating the same events, expecting a different result. And that that’s the definition of sort of addict insanity. Here we have this version of playing with the nature of trauma in real life that sort of thrusts us back in and out of time. And again, like Alice was saying, vis a vis grief, or unresolved, unreconciled sort of historical events. That whole it’s hysterical, it’s historical, whatever, essentially means in that moment, you are thrust back to another moment. And just this idea, additionally, we were also getting into a lot of sort of like quantum physics books and readings, and no one’s saying they’re a quantum physicist. And again, just to stress that Alice is being humble about her origin story, but of course, it is this kind of the duality that she’s Harvard not only the philosophy of it, but also ran the lampoon there, which is really the essence of kind of the dual game that we play on the show that’s very fun, which is these big thoughts and then sort of surrounded by this kind of deeper thinking.

So I don’t know. It’s a long way of saying that we’re playing with a lot of ideas all the time there.

Alice Ju: Yeah. And I would add the flip side to Silverman’s PTSD sort of hole that you drop into, I’ve been thinking about recently, is that experience, but suddenly realizing that you have become your mother, which is, I think, something that we all, you know? I feel like, I’ll be taking out the laundry in a certain way and then suddenly snap and see myself in the mirror and think I have become my, and that’s just something about that like posture that brings you back. And for a character like Nadia, who obviously starts the season with a lot of resentment that she hasn’t gone through with her mother, I think it’s both of those things at once. And that’s kind of the comedy and tragedy of it.

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah and it does really make us laugh the idea of, [inaudible 00:19:20], I think it’s like, you’re really stressing your brain to be like, Jesus Christ. You launch a first season with the stakes of dying, literally, what is worse? And I think for many of us, it is the idea of becoming my own mother, and then on a sort of secondary sort of comedic level, it’s kind of, oh, we all talk about this, the game and writing inciting events, and yada yada. And it’s like, well, the ultimate inciting event is just being born. Let’s face it.

And so, the idea of kind of kidnapping of self in order to sort of resolve an issue is just so impulsive and insane. And so, clearly would inevitably fracture time, because we know the rules of other movies that we’ve seen. And then for Alan, who’s like loves rules so much to kind of witness this. And of course then the revelation we had just before Christmas in the room of how do we show breaking time in a show that doesn’t have the budget for Godzilla and sort of tidal waves and Chrysler buildings falling over? Oh, of course we have our own game, the party, and that is this kind of sort of cataclysmic sort of event of season one is being back at this fucking place you’re stuck in forever. So that’s how, of course, we got there to show that probably anarchy is not as much fun as Nadia might think.

And the quantum physics thing was just to say there was this book by this guy, Carlo Rovelli called The Order of Time, in season one, a big inspiration by this quantum physics book, this guy, Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop. And then in season two, it became this idea of the order of time and he would talk about the arrow of time and this idea of why can I remember the past, but I can’t remember the future? And I think that became also sort of really fun for us on the many levels Alice is talking about the video game, the trauma, the grief, the ways in which we’re thrown through time as human beings all the time.

Geri Cole: Man, I have so many follow up. First of all, this room sounds fucking amazing. And also, yeah, I feel like you just made me think of, and I don’t know that you guys are allowed to talk about season three, but I’m like, is season three, are we playing with the future? Because it feels like we could. In terms of time travel and/or being able to stop time. Anyhow.

Let’s talk about the character of Nadia, because I feel like it’s a character we haven’t seen before. I feel like she makes sort of poor decisions enthusiastically, which makes me feel represented on television. And yeah, and I do think a lot of people just sort of assume that she owns sort of your mannerisms or how much of it is you. Let’s talk about the development of that character a little bit.

Natasha Lyonne: Well, just to say, it’s always funny, the evolution, because in the writer’s room, I’m like a hobgoblin, and bad posture, and I’m just like a chain smoking, I don’t know why they feed you so much sweet greens in this business, but it’s disgusting and it needs to be stopped, you know? And I’m just so like stressed out and my only relief is the crossword puzzle and my posture is actually upside down. And then we go into prepping that is very intensive and it’s sort of the budget, and I love directing so, so much. And so we start really, it becomes sort of like the vision of the thing, the storyboarding of the thing and it starts to get inspired, but still it’s own phase.

And all of a sudden then we show up on Sunday. I remember the first day Alice was there and we’re kind of we’re in the funeral car and it’s so weird, because suddenly I’m this third creation, which is Nadia who seemingly has had so much in common. But in fact, I don’t know, I’m like this middle aged boss lady in a Yankees cap who’s been in showbiz for 35 years and is very seasoned, obsessive. And then she comes in and she’s like this freewheeling Sam Kennison, with the big hair and the big lips and like, oh I love that they over draw my lip. I look like Joan Crawford and I love it.

And I remember sort of, I’m a little bit like shaky on those first days, but then I remember that she has so much space to kind of be both very, very deep and very grounded and very sort of throwing away asides and the emotional range of that character is quite sweeping, and yeah, I would say that Nadia is much more sort of reckless than me. Usually I’m writing her from a sort of point of view of it’s almost like five years after I’ve gone through that experience on a personal level. And it’s less about the specifics, I guess, the tangible events of our lives are actually quite different primarily in that I’m not a time traveler. Although I wish I was.

But on an emotional basis, sort of removed from the specifics of the details, it’s really that that I might, I guess, we’re always working to articulate, which seems to be especially I do have a real journeyed kind of checkered life and everything. And in my journeys, there is a lot of commonality in the human experience that we don’t really talk about because of shame. And so, we I really just use any details I can of my personal life to make something feel hyper specific, such that we’re able to kind of more globally identify because the specifics feel so dialed in. So in a way they’re not really, I don’t care about them so much. Really what we’re after is the more universal, emotional experience that for Nadia and Alan that’s why, the goal is to sort of show you a wide swath and say, hey, here’s where these two people meet each other. And what is really a universal experience of just being a human being and being alive. A thinking, feeling person.

Alice Ju: Yeah. And I think approaching the character as a writer, I definitely can’t speak to inhabiting the character as well as Natasha can, obviously. But I think, especially coming in on a season two, it’s a very interesting challenge, because in season one, she can present as a normal human being who hasn’t gone through any metaphysical crises before the events really hit. And in season two, she’s done it before. So there is a version of her that is almost kind of this Dante-esque or like Dante meets like Neo-Noir detective cipher, where they are confident, they are leading you through the story. It’s not about their sort of panic about encountering such kind of like a metaphysical rupture.

But at the same time, as Natasha always says, she’s on her own case. She’s not solving some other third mystery in the world. She’s solving the mystery of her own existence. And that’s obviously like emotionally incredibly difficult and tough, and requires the range that Natasha has.

And it’s just, it’s hard as a writer to toggle between the two. And I mean, Natasha can pull it off, but to throw off the one liner and then to be able to be brought to tears by being in your mother’s apartment or something like that. But I think I always look to the end of the long goodbye, the final scene of the long goodbye when you’ve seen like Elliot Gould go through the whole like cool guy, detective solving the case. The lone good man in the world gone bad. And then in the end, when he realizes that his close friend is the one who duped him all along, the story that feels like it’s an outer world caper or something like that suddenly turns inward. And to try to be able to capture that exact emotional turn, I think is something we try to do with Nadia, obviously in a different kind of Neo-Noir, but yeah.

Geri Cole: Man, this is incredible. Let’s talk also about the relationship between Nadia and Alan, because there’s a line when they first meet in that elevator that just felt so romantic to me when she was like, it was like I die all the time. And it was like, oh, me too. And their relationship feels romantic except they don’t seem like lovers. And I feel like it’s such a beautiful relationship. Can we talk about that development and how you guys [inaudible 00:27:39]?

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah, it’s funny, I saw some comments. Somebody was like, how come they’re not dating anymore? And I was like, did this person watch the first season? And I just said, obviously Charlie is incredible. And for me, I would say as a freewheeling, New Yorker, that is the sort of like the beauty and the depth of my sort of platonic friendships. And you do usually end up like, oh, you try it one night. Maybe it’s not a match, but now you can talk about all things together. And who knows, maybe they’d hook up again, but ultimately, what they found in each other is that they really they see each other. It’s kind of this survivor. It’s this weird language of like two people on a lifeboat and it kind of never goes away. And we talked a lot about that in the room.

Season one for Nadia is very clear. She’s sort of a defiant nihilist who moves towards connection with another human being. And in that connection finds a way out. And in season two, it’s kind of like, do they hang out every day? Probably not. They’re trying to sort of almost forget this. Maybe for a while they really did, but what they have together is that sort of like the emergency contact idea of like, you’re the person who really knows the contents of my soul intuitively, and I yours. Even though, externally, we wouldn’t mix because of this classic odd couple sort of your tidy, I’m a mess dynamic, you know? And yeah, I mean, she runs hot, he runs cool. We’re always playing that game with production design and the red and the blue, and the whole game of it. But ultimately, it’s like their souls see each other in this way that is beyond space and time of kind of like, this is a reason to go on living, stay in the fight. It’s like this idea that we can’t sort of see ourselves. That’s obviously a show that deals so much with one’s reflection in the mirror and being able to see self and being able to tolerate self on that basis.

And the idea that a true witness, I cannot see myself. I have a distortion where I cannot see self correctly. But in your eyes, I can see you the way you see me. And I think that Nadia gives that to Alan, and Alan gives that to Nadia, which is this idea of like don’t quit, baby. We’re in this together.

Geri Cole: Which is so romantic.

Natasha Lyonne: It is.

Geri Cole: To me like, it’s like, that’s the true.

Natasha Lyonne: I mean, on a deeper level, it’s like the most romantic. And of course this season, they were also sort of getting that sort of deeper reflection, like we all do in adulthood. At a certain point it’s kind of like middle age hits, you don’t know when you became an adult, and Ruth dying is this symbol of are you going to show up for your life? And be here in this present moment of this very adult responsibility where the child becomes the parent. And Nadia’s sort of saying like, no, I can’t hang. I’m not there yet. And it’s sort of dropping out, hanging out with Annie Murphy who wouldn’t want to. And it’s all fun and games until it’s like, no, you’re going to get the lesson, whether you’re dragged kicking and screaming, or you get on that bus willingly.

And so for Nadia and Alan, they kind of are brought to this sort of deeper understanding of self. That’s also a journey that they have to walk alone, but will always be kind of, this idea of sort of spooky action at a distance. Of this sort of double slit experiment and all this kind of vague sort of quantum physics type stuff. But that really ultimately means they are forever linked and bound for reasons unknown, just the way we are in life, that we go through all this stuff and we kind of fall apart and come back together as adults and who we’re meant to be like linked to seems to be ongoing.

Geri Cole: It also feels very true. It’s just like, I feel like I’ve certainly come across people. I’m like, oh, there you are. All right. It’s just such a beautiful thing.

Let’s also talk about, man. So many follow ups. Let’s talk about the character, of course, because I feel like it’s such a wild character that also, I feel like, you guys sort of deal with the issues of mental health. I feel like, and not in a traditional sense in this show. And so, because I feel like he really represents this outside perspective. That’s not tethered to anything that feels very exciting and also fun. Can we talk about the development of that character?

Alice Ju: I mean, Natasha can speak to where a Horse came from in season one. I can talk a bit about season two.

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah, I mean briefly, I knew a guy named Horse who ran around Tompkins Square Park and I’ve been friends with Brendan Sexton III since the nineties, and obviously somewhat of a mythological figure. But I say go off Alice, go off.

Alice Ju: Well, I think in one sense, obviously he functions as, and I think this came from season one. I remember, I think hearing Leslye referred to him as the trickster God. And there’s reference to Pan, there’s reference to Horse as the ferrymen in the end of the season where Nadia and Alan sort of have to give up there are worldly possessions in order to sort of cross over into another world. And what I really enjoy about Horse is like you have that reference. Such an ancient reference and then you bring it completely into the modern day where Horse is a very sort of openly transactional kind of character who lets us talk about commerce in an unexpected way. I think my favorite line of season one is when he talked about how he invented the dark web in the nineties and then dropped out of society or something like that.

And he’s not sort of like a magical guide or something like that that is leading Nadia and Alan to some sort of enlightenment. He very much has his own motivations. And I think in this season, something that we didn’t end up getting to shoot, partly because of just the COVID realities of production, was we had explored for a really long time this concept of the underground. Both literally and sort of politically. And we obviously have that in Alan’s storyline with the underground gathering of the East Berlin students and tunneling underneath the Berlin wall. And in the forties and in the eighties, two things we weren’t able to actually get on the screen were this idea of families who fled the kind of the Holocaust and unfriendly regimes in Hungary who had hid in the sewers underneath Budapest. And they lived like entirely outside time where they lived an inverse version of time, because they could only go out at night and that they would be sort of in the darkness in the day. And that was incredibly interesting.

And then in the eighties, within New York, there was also a large group of people who lived underneath the Freedom Tunnel, what was at the time, this abandoned tunnel running down the West Side, which is now an Amtrak tunnel. And I remember as a teenager, breaking into the Freedom Tunnel with my friends to see the last bits of graffiti that were like painted by the great artists of the eighties and nineties, just as the Amtrak Corp or whatever was washing them over. And we sort of wanted Horse to be someone who, unlike Nadia, was maybe a part of this community. I think at the end of seven we have him saying like, I live down here with my wife, like fuck you. What do you think you’re doing coming into my space. And this like total rejection of the order of time as it exists above ground and this complete lack of fear around the sort of mundane everyday things that we all live by up here. And as something that I wish I had made it in as I think Allison Silverman put him gathering [inaudible 00:35:42] off the tracks and getting a Lehman Brothers mug from back in the day or something like that and picking that up and selling it.

So yeah, I guess the answer is he sort of serves as all of those things at once. And then at the end he sort of leads us to the water, which obviously is the river, [inaudible 00:35:59] river, like sticks, like baptism. All of that. And yeah.

Natasha Lyonne: Oh yeah, we party in that room. All the time.

Geri Cole: Damn guys. Let’s talk about, Natasha you also direct, and I feel like this show is so cinematic. What is your approach, or rather, is there a scene from season two or anything that you’ve shot that you feel like especially has translated well from page to screen?

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah, I mean-

Geri Cole: And what’s something that totally changed from like from page to screen?

Natasha Lyonne: Look, I love this show on a deep, deep level. It means everything to me and the collaboration on this show is extraordinary. It really is like assembling the Avengers and we all push ourselves to the outer limits of what we’re capable of. And this season, the producing director is this guy, Alex Buono, who I met through Documentary Now!, who I just am absolutely obsessed with. And Alex’s history is also, he was a cinematographer for like 16 years. And we do have, of course this extraordinary cinematographer, Ula Pontikos, who’s brilliant. And we have this incredible production designer, Diane Lederman. And I say all that to say that with Alex, it was like, we’re really able to get to the end of an idea. So I would say that for me, sort of the joy of Alex as a partner in directing, and Alice, as a partner in writing, is that we would have these grains of an idea and they understood so deeply what they were that together, we would be able to realize them and bring them to life and get to the end of that thought in a real way, rather than just sort of saying, oh no, that’s too radical. It’s not possible.

And then we had these incredible people that were actually able to truly execute them. Meaning we would spend endless hours doing extensive story boarding sessions, a lot of this, there were times during the early days of the pandemic. And I remember Alice and I would be on these weird Zooms and we didn’t even know what Zooms were yet. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with Jodorowsky’s Dune the Documentary, but it’s also obviously the password in season one to get into the bar. And I love that documentary so much, but by the end it becomes just a, it’s a coffee table book of like, Moebius, I think that’s his name, sort of storyboards and they never get to make the movie. And there were times that COVID sort of prep, reassembling where none of us let go of the vision of the thing. I think in many ways, because a future was so uncertain altogether, in terms of just life in general. So it was like this tangible thing to hold onto, even though we weren’t sure if we were going to get to make it. And I was like, well I guess it’ll just be a book of storyboards with writing and that’s okay.

And so, I say all that, I say I’m like, I’m blown away that the thing exists on such a deep, like I’m very, very moved by it all. And seeing it on the big screen at the premiere with everybody and people laughing, they can really pick up all the nuance of all the Easter eggs. And anyway, so yeah, I guess I am really proud of that sequence, that sort of liminal space that Alice was just talking about from the finale that we wrote, because in part just because they showed us these pictures, in the room of like location Scouts in Budapest, and we were like, that’s it, those look like neural nets. That’s what we want. And then they said, oh no, you can’t shoot there because of COVID. And I’m just very, I think it’s very funny and I’m proud that I really stuck to the guns of that living the dream sort of seventies auteur style saying, I think we should shoot there. I mean, if there’s been a photograph of it, even though they’re saying it’s shut down, I believe we’re going to get in there.

And I just kept saying it and just sort of like, yeah, I think we should just commit to that though. And they kept telling us to rewrite it and it’s never going to happen. And sure enough, we got there and just by holding on to that dream, the next thing I know we’re standing in the cisterns and U was lighting it, and it’s gorgeous. And of course we then had to rewrite some stuff, because nobody accounted for the acoustics in the cisterns. You can’t hear anything. So that sort of scene changed a bit, but I find it so satisfying, my soul really calms down when I see that sequence of like, ah, we got it. We saw that vision, we drew it on paper, and there it is. Just like we said it would be. And I feel very sort of calmed by that in my soul.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That’s wild. Also, I love that you’re like, yeah, no, I’m going to just keep saying that’s what we’re doing and that’s what we’re going to do.

Natasha Lyonne: Yeah. I mean, I think that to me is always like the point of reading all these books. That’s why you want to be a student of things is so that you remember that there’s a lineage. You know what I mean? So if watch Hearts of Darkness, you’re like, oh, I see. So you can make some things in this life, or you read some of those books and you’re like, oh right. So there’s a bit of leeway to how sort of things get made, you know? And so, I always find that helpful to realize other people, you know what I mean? Have had to work really hard too, and you just stick it up.

Alice Ju: Yeah. And it’s pretty remarkable that Natasha, in the room pretty often encourages us to not think about the production realities of this type of show and what people expect. You have the budget to make a show that is a Friends in New York City sitcom plus or minus a little bit. And then obviously Natasha is like, I see the cisterns in Budapest and we’re going to go there. And we had done so much research about, like we loved the idea of going deeper and deeper. And we had done so much research about what is underneath the subway tunnels in New York, and it’s water and we were like looking at these photos from spelunkers who go down there and kind of bring back these like really, it’s like such an eerie mixture of the industrial and the natural to see the streams of water through. And we discovered that there are all these like holes underneath the city that civil engineers call voids. That they just kind of patch up and don’t fill in and hope that they don’t collapse, which we have Alan’s grandmother working in.

But I think now having worked on a bit more shows and seeing what kind of budgets other kind of sci-fi shows have and what Natasha and Alex and Ula and our whole crew were able to do with the material constraints that we had and the ambition that they had, is really, really remarkable. It’s like taking what you’re given to make friends or something like that and saying like, no, we’re going to make this expansive multi period sci-fi epic. And I mean really kudos to them, I think.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Also, wow what? There’s things called voids?

Alice Ju: I know, I was really-

Geri Cole: That doesn’t surprise me.

Alice Ju: Yeah. I was really on a lot of like civil engineering forums from the Web 1.0 era. Like clicking page after page, seeing these engineers commenting about like, oh, just had to like fill in it or something like that.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Alice Ju: And we found out that the Astro Playstation, that kind of famous like little like green building that you enter into was actually modeled after the Hungarian, or actually specifically the Budapest subway stations. The designers sort of lifted one thing from the other, which was kind of like a late in the game discovery that it just really, you know, New York is just so much a composite of all these immigrants from all these different places cobbled together into the thing that we have. And it’s cool to see that reflected in the things that we’re seeing too.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I feel like I also, the show does such a beautiful job of really capturing New York City’s equal parts magic and trash. Really, it feels like it’s…

Natasha Lyonne: I like that, magic and trash. That is a whole vibe.

Geri Cole: Equal parts, equal parts.

Natasha Lyonne: But it is. There’s like, I mean, I think we’re so lucky that the people that watch the show seem to really enjoy the kind of nitty gritty of the details. But yeah, I think the things that people think are fantastical are usually practical and sort of vice versa in a weird way. Meaning it in like, Alice was just talking about it, but even in Germany with like the ghost stations and you’re just like what the hell are the names of it? So you got voids in New York. You got ghost stations in Berlin. What is happening in this crazy, crazy world we’re in. So yeah, that’s always, that’s what we say.

Geri Cole: Yeah. He was like, well, we didn’t make that part up.

Natasha Lyonne: That’s what I’m saying. You know what I mean? We don’t make the rules, we’re just writing them down. It’s just-

Alice Ju: Yeah, yeah. I think it is just like a realization of adulthood that there is nobody in charge and you have to take responsibility. And our whole world is just cobbled together, piece by piece and barely holding on by a thread. And you just have to make your way in that.

Geri Cole: It’s like the frightening reality of like, oh, is there no grownups? Am I the grownup? Shit. Yeah. So also since this is a writing podcast, I’d like to, if just briefly, if you guys want to talk about your writing process. If you have any sort of rituals that you’d like to share, is there anything, like do you just sit down and bang it out? Do you go for a walk? Do you need a certain arrangement of…

Natasha Lyonne: Well, Alice is a real, like Alice is hardcore. I don’t even know how you, like Alice has written so many drafts of this show. Also, like I, there was this one period that was pre-COVID and she would get locked up in a room with headphones on and she would literally pound out just a full script that was based on, sometimes we had these, I remember there was this point where we were about to be in production and we got notes at the last minute, and she just banged out like a full script in like 48 hours that was excellent. And then we had to kind of go back in after all like this whole sort of, essentially again, this season, our act three, sort of got thrown out. I mean, it’s happened both years. I’m guessing it’s not as uncommon as it seems, but on more general basis, usually I think we were doing something that’s fairly traditional, like of breaking a story in a room and sort of getting it down and turning it into an outline. And there would be a writer’s draft. And then there would be sort of notes from the room. And then we would go into secondary drafts, and third drafts, and eventually punch up and that kind of a thing.

It’s just that in a weird way, COVID threw a lot of that out the window as we got to the end of the room, which honestly was not that dissimilar from what happened in season one. You kind of slow burn by starting with something very formal and sort of normal. And then you get hit with a major note from Netflix and everything becomes very intensive. Would you say that’s true, Alice?

Alice Ju: I think so. I think, like personally as a writer, I think I’m fairly masochistic in that I can just go write the drafts and I enjoy being the flow state, and I’m not precious and it can be thrown out. And I think that’s a good skill to have when you’re on staff and you are not the showrunner, and you’re really writing to serve someone else. And that’s something I really enjoy.

But I think as a room, our process is like, there’s a very organic element to it, which I think is true of all rooms, maybe more so in Russian Doll because we have this thing that we’re building and we have this structure, but every script is sort of open until the end. And we’re constantly coming in with new realizations, or a new piece of reading, or an image that we saw browsing the internet or something like that. And we’re thinking like, oh, that could go there. And this connection, we could connect this and this, and lines and whole scenes are getting changed up until the end. And I think that’s the type of surrealism or magical realism that we do in the room is really that back and forth between people who are very logic brained and letting that kind of dissolve into the dream logic that we end up using for the show. And at times I know, I remember Allison Silverman brought in Brian Eno had developed these cards called Oblique Strategies, which are just like a deck of cards and each has kind of like a oblique phrase or something like that. And they aren’t meaningful on their own, but they can jog something or trigger something.

And so, we kind of went back and forth between that type of work and the like, okay, let’s sit down and really hammer out what the structure of this scene or this story is at the same time. And so, it does feel like a living thing that we don’t necessarily have control of, that we sort of like birthed altogether as a room or something like that. And it really has a lot of pieces of all of us in it that grow and become something else. So the way I’m describing it makes it seem kind of like it unholy, like Lynchian, like a baby or something like that. But it does kind of have that, it’s like the Eraserhead baby, if we had all made it [inaudible 00:49:28].

Geri Cole: Not a bad thing.

Natasha Lyonne: I will say it was also really interesting just to watch this SNL process, because it’s so compressed. Where it sort of, I was like, holy shit, this is what we do as sort of writers, creators is you take something and it’s basically just this shared, this small team has to just believe in it, while it’s still, like Alice is describing this like amorphous mercurial sort of non-thing, but everybody’s got to hold on to those scrambled eggs long enough and believe in it hard enough that it will materialize. That all of a sudden it’s kind of like, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it’s tight, tight, tight, tight. Watching something go from like a hundred sketches. And then within four days become like 12, or eight, or whatever it is, is a radical process just because it’s so compressed.

And it’s like that brain trust has to really believe in the thing, because it’s so scary in those times where it’s not concrete yet. You know what I mean? And definitely, we had a lot of stuff like, you know, Alice and I would just be on these calls, like, holy shit, man. We had a lot of scheduling stuff because of COVID that we just didn’t have control over. So badly as whatever, when you’re making something you want so badly to be in charge of the destiny of the thing. But we were at the mercy of other people’s schedules, and other people’s shoots, and other people’s COVID shutdowns. So, we would be like having these brainstorm sessions where we would essentially be back burnering, if we end up losing this character, we’re going to have to rebreak this entire story. And we would be both of us, like heartbroken on the phone, like, yeah, I guess it would work, but it’s just not ideal, is it?

And then they would come through and the contract would be official, and their plane tickets, and we would be like celebrating. We can keep it! We keep it all! And then still, once that was sort of in, I guess, in many ways, sort of the most joyous work is kind of now we’re just in the fine tuning game of like, maybe we’re trying to kind of cut a page and we’re just making everything juicier, and more specific, and more dialed in and more jokes. That final phase of the shooting drafts, it’s very fun when it’s like first idea that’s exciting and insane, and it’s very fun to be like, now it’s all the way. It’s about to be photographed, it’s official.

And then there’s a lot of phases in between that are just like this roller coaster you got to ride where some days you’re like a king and other days you’re the biggest loser in the world. It is a wild ride, because it’s also like, you’ve got to get, I think, for Alice and I it’s like the joy of it is also like, we’re brutally honest with each other, you know what I mean? So it’s like really no, if something is genuinely bringing us joy, we’re so elated. And if we’re kind of like trapped up against the wall with an idea, it’s like, ah, geez, man. How are we ever going to get out of here? I mean, I got to say like, I love it. There’s nothing as… It’s really like a thrilling adventure to do something like this at this level, with this particular team, you know?

Geri Cole: Man, it sounds like a thrilling adventure. So it sounds like I have time for one more question. So I have to ask you guys, this is a question that I love to ask everyone who comes on the podcast, because I like asking this question. And it’s about the idea of success, because I feel like in creative professions, and all aspects of life, but specifically often creative professions, the idea of success feels like a destination you’re never arriving to, or at least for me. And I feel like, a lot of folks, it can feel like this. Yeah. A location you’re never going to arrive. So I’m curious as to how you guys define success for yourself and how that may have evolved over time.

Alice Ju: I guess I have had a much, much shorter career than Natasha, so it’s definitely still something I’m figuring out. But I think a lot of my friends in New York are sort of in the indie film world and they’re making the projects they really believe in on a shoestring budget, and they don’t care about maybe the version of success that you are surrounded with when you are like in LA. And everyone’s talking about like, who’s pitching what, and who’s doing what, and all of that. And I really admire the way that my friends go about making their art, because it is about the art first. And I think if it’s not about the love of the writing and your relationship to the writing, or the filmmaker, or whatever it is, you’re never going to have peace or something like that. You’re always going to be chasing something external. And it’s always going to be something that’s outside of your control or something like that.

And I have this one friend who makes these micro budget films and he says, I can make a film for a very small amount of money. I’m going to live a long life. I want to make one great film in my life, and it can cost $10,000 or whatever it is. And I think I’ve really taken that to heart where it’s like, I really want to develop my craft. I really want to learn to be better. I want to learn with the best, but in the scheme of my life, if I make one great thing, that to me I feel satisfied with as a writer, a filmmaker, or whatever, then that’s enough and I’m going to remove myself from the Hollywood rat race and all of that.

So yeah, I feel very blessed to have a lot of sort of young friends that are far braver than me when it comes to making their art. But yeah, that’s sort of where I’m at now.

Natasha Lyonne: For me, I would say it’s having been there and been to the top of the mountain, I guess by that, I just mean like American Pie is the number one movie in the country. This random thing that I have no affiliation with, and it’s kind of like, okay, so now you’re at the top, who cares? And having then dropped out for basically a decade and returned again, and yada yada. It’s like I know there’s no, there there sort of on a spiritual basis. And I really do believe in this kind of, I know it’s already, and I apologize, but I do believe in a sort of quest for the truth and a quest for meaning and that I feel so lucky that it’s like Universal, Netflix are throwing money at essentially this brain trust of like assembling this team that is again, this season, it’s an all female writer’s room, which is, it sort of just happens for some reason. And it’s like the biggest brains and the funniest, most complicated women I can find, you know? And then we just go after it to really try to say something. You don’t get a lot of shots at life, or you get that creative freedom to actually say something.

And like Alice is saying, it’s not really about winning or losing. It is about actually making something. For me, as like a weirdo, outcast teenager who sat in the back of the class and felt uncomfortable in my skin. It’s very, when I would see, or hear, or read something that made me feel seen and less alone, it was everything. It was like the reason to go on another day. Like life make sense. And I always feel like for us, that’s what we’re trying to do is just lessen that load. That Albatross, that these kids are carrying around just a little bit. You got shame around the untreated mental illness in your family unit, whatever. We’re talking about it. You feel uncomfortable in your skin. You’re not sure how to hack it. We’re here for you buddy. We’re fine. We like being that show that can reach people on an individual basis, because if you look at the statistics, if you look at the news, it’s like people are dropping like flies, and it feels like life can be too much or inundated with all this information constantly that’s completely overwhelming. It’s like the country’s built on this weird foundation of lies. We’re supposed to kind of just constantly pretend isn’t happening.

And it’s a worthy endeavor to just make the thing, to make it to say what you want to say, because I mean, that is the whole show, right? It’s like we live and we die and nobody gets out of here alive. So I’m not sure what the big win anybody thinks they’re going to pull off is on a purely material, superficial relative plan. It’s got to be a little bit deeper as an endeavor, you know? So, we try. We try our best, and hopefully it connects with a few people.

Geri Cole: Wow. Guys, geez Louise. Thank you so much for talking with me today. This is such an amazing show. I really feel like, can you put a camera in your writer’s room? Because I feel like the conversations you must be having are incredible, and they should be recorded for a separate thing.

Alice Ju: You would just see flies coming out of the walls of our like infested evil rock house.

Geri Cole: Flies coming out of the walls? Man.

Alice Ju: Yeah.

Natasha Lyonne: It’s just me walking around the fly swatter and like 40 whiteboards that are completely dense with maps and weird…

Geri Cole: Yes, I want a video of all that. I think we could all use it. Yes, thank you. Thank you so much for making this show. Thank you so much for talking for us today. Are we allowed to talk about a season three? Can we expect a season three? Is there…

Natasha Lyonne: And we don’t have that kind of power, you know? And so, may the gods be with us. I don’t know what to tell you. I wish we were in charge, but such is not the way the game is played.

Geri Cole: Well, let me know if there’s someone I can send harassing tweets, texts. I don’t know. Harassing messages too. And I’ll…

Natasha Lyonne: Thank you.

Geri Cole: I’m on board.

Natasha Lyonne: Thank you. That sounds fun. We should do that.

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 Stock Boy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at And you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

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