David Jenkins: Yeah, well we have the same manager. My manager threw me at him. He caught me, the idea. We talked on the phone, hit it off. He talked about master and commander. I talked about 24 hour party people because I thought we could maybe combine those vibes, maybe those are two vibes that could be in the show. And then you just… Oh, cool, you hit it off, like enough of the same things. The conversations go well. So I don’t know, we maybe… I had the idea, brought it to him, he liked it, then was able to take it around as a pitch being like, “Hey Taika’s interested.” And then people actually then want to buy your pitch as opposed to want to kick it around and develop it. And then I think… I don’t know, maybe Taika and I talked about all told maybe five hours here and there before I started writing the pilot. I kind of ran the break of what happens in the season past him.
And then he’s great because he’ll come up with… He has great ideas and even a throwaway idea from him is great, like the Stede reading a story to the crew, that was his. He’s like, “Oh yeah, maybe he reads a story to the crew because he misses his kids and yeah, he reads a story at night.” And you kind of just riff with him in yes ands and you have to bring the framework and the guts of it and then he interjects these great things that doesn’t always go that way with the star executive producers, sometimes they give you ideas that don’t quite fit. All of Taika’s ideas fit. And I think that a good thing about him is it isn’t a ton of face-time or involvement, but it is a lot of, “I will put myself fully behind your idea,” which sounds simple, but it’s revolutionary. Very few people produce that way.
Alison Herman: Totally. I mean was, you mentioned the pitching process, I was curious just what that was like, taking the show out and being like, “We want to make a pirate comedy that’s also a romance, but isn’t really strictly anything.” What was the process of just explaining it to all these, I guess at the time, pretty new outlets would probably be on your tour rotation?
David Jenkins: I think just a one pager. What it is, I tend to boil stuff down to genre. So it’s a workplace show and a romance on a pirate ship and maybe true crime, there’s a true crime element, let’s say, because he’s like the Walter White of the sea, even if he doesn’t do the same things. And then really just very quickly being like here’s what happened in the guy’s biography, he met Black Beard and this is the story of their adventures, basically. And then the thing that makes the difference is you’ve got a really good kernel of an idea, a really good genre, and then you’ve got this amazing EP who’s going to direct it and then it’s a safe bet. Nothing’s a sure thing, but I think it made a lot of people just go like, “Okay. Yeah, that sounds cool.” No one was ever like, “Can it not be a love story?” I was expecting that, but none of that. It was just like, “Ah, cool. That sounds good.”
Alison Herman: Yeah. I mean, I hear a lot about people who pitch shows as roadmaps. I think Yellow Jackets come to mind, they famously were like, “We have five seasons and we pitched it in the room and it was 35 minutes.” I was wondering if either if you had a roadmap, either one that you talked about during the pitch or just now that you are at the end of the first season and looking at the second season, if you knew where the story was going ahead or how long it might run?
David Jenkins: I’m real leery of roadmaps. And not to take away… I mean, if it works for you, great. Anything that works for you and it allows you to make something and have it be good. Good. Do it. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, great. I think, for my mind, I don’t ever want to be, “I have five seasons of a show in my head,” because that means I’m going to be a different person. Five seasons, what is that? That’s maybe seven years away. I’m going to be a totally… I’m a different person every year. You’re slightly different. And then if you’ve staffed the room well, they’re going to give you ideas you never thought of. So I don’t really know how you say you have five seasons of a show if you’re getting people that are going to challenge you. I don’t know what anybody else says, I’ll just speak about me. I feel very hard saying…
And then there’s the thing where I just don’t like to disappoint myself and I feel like we all have ideas that we take out of scripts. Everything falls… Every kernel falls out eventually that you love, there’s stuff that stays and then there’s stuff where you’re like, “Oh, I can do better.” Or it was bay leaf and it comes out. So I don’t know, to me, I think I have a notion of where I’d like it to go. I think they did buy a Bible after I wrote the pilot and sold it. I think it was part of the pilot deal, they bought a Bible. So that just means then you really do go like, “Okay, what happens in the first season?” And then you write these little thumbnails of each episode, knowing that you’re going to change all of it.
And then I was surprised at how much of it we kept. The arc of every episode, I knew I wanted Stede to go back to Mary at the end, I knew I wanted Stede and Black Beard to have this slow burn that turns into love. In real life, they took the act of grace and became privateers. So I thought that would be… That’s great all is lost beat. But in terms of knowing in the pitch, I don’t know how people do that. I’m amazed if they can do it and they really do that, fantastic. I’m envious.
Alison Herman: On the subject of spontaneity, something you spoke about in an interview that I was really interested in was the supporting cast and saying, going forward, we actually know how to write for everyone’s comedic superpowers because… at least initially, you’re sort of writing into a void.
David Jenkins: Totally.
Alison Herman: But it made me think about how clearly the germ of this idea was this relationship between Black Beard and Stede, but as you mentioned, a ship has all these people and there’s so much potential in that. And when it comes to just populating that blank slate, how did you think about the kinds of characters and crew members you wanted to have bouncing off of Stede and Black Beard on this journey they’re on?
David Jenkins: I don’t know. That’s such a weird… That’s a good question and I don’t know how that happens. I think it happens pretty… I like ensembles very much and I really love Robert Altman movies and I really love Wes Anderson movies and I just love things with a deep ensemble, Paul Thomas Anderson movies. And it’s just look around in your life, in your workplace, in your family, in your friends, and then you get to throw all of it into it. And there’s archetypes because it’s a genre, there’s always… I like genre because there’s always archetypes. So there’s a sea captain, that’s Buttons, who’s kind of like a Willem Dafoe-ish sea captain.
And then you’re looking at what is the character… What does the main character need? Who does he need to bounce off of? And then you come up with a character like Oluwande, who’s there to manage Stede and process him and probably functions like Jim in The Office, slightly. And then I think you just put all these different aspects of yourself into these different characters and you don’t realize you’re doing it until you’re writing second season and you’re like, “Oh wow, okay. This character does this thing that I do. That’s interesting.”
Alison Herman: Yeah. I accidentally wrote myself a clone on the page.
David Jenkins: Or just a clone of an aspect of you or you’ll say something that a character says and you’re like, “Oh, okay. That’s what that is.” And then it’s also creating these things is the process of giving them away because I play all the characters in the pilot and in the first season of the room and when we’re breaking and when I get to rewrite scripts and adjust stuff, I play all the characters. I get to play Stede, I get to play Buttons, I get to play Mary, I get to play Black Beard. And then as you populate it, it’s not yours anymore. And you’re handing it… To hand Stede over to Reese is like, “Stede’s going to be safe and he’s going to be really good.” And then there’s another part of you that’s like, “I don’t want to let him go. I know him so well.” So it’s a weirdly intimate process for me to transfer that to a cast. And then it’s also wonderful because when you see that they take such good care of them and they become their own people, it’s a good feeling.
Alison Herman: Of course, I think that’s attention that comes up a lot in this podcast. The idea of writing is a solitary activity, but TV is inherently collaborative and how you get from A to B is tough sometimes.
David Jenkins: It’s freakish. I mean, I don’t know. Yeah. It feels like you go from being alone, to now you’re surrounded by 200 people.
Alison Herman: Well, there’s also this other handover that happens where the show is yours and then it’s yours and all your collaborators, but then the show goes out into the world and it’s yours, but it’s also the audience’s. And with this show in particular, there was just such an intense, very positive fan response. I know fan art is all over the internet. And as someone who hatched this idea all on your own, I was really interested in what that was like for you to experience, to watch all these people take the story into their own lives.
David Jenkins: It was just cool. It was just cool. I mean, it is that thing where you’re giving it to the actors and then the actors get to have that experience of giving it away because of all of the fan art and the audience’s interpretation of their characters and then the level of scrutiny and the level… scrutiny’s too hard because it doesn’t feel like scrutiny. The level of attention and attentiveness, I guess I’d say, where it honors all of us. I mean, people are interested in the tiny costume decision or they’re interested in a small detail of the set. And those things go through the entire production and it’s just great. It has its own life.
And I think you need to just A, let it have its own life. Don’t fight it. And B, just enjoy it. Enjoy it as long as it will stay positive because we all know these things don’t stay positive forever, but while it is… it’s fine, everything dies, but to enjoy it while it’s happening and to see that there is this level of catharsis. It’s incredible. It doesn’t get better than this. This is the reason you make these things.
Alison Herman: Was there any moment or any particular active fan tribute or detail someone picked up on that made you… that really drove home for you? Like, “Oh, this seems to be resonating with people in a very real way.”
David Jenkins: I know that there are profound moments and I really need to think about what they would be specifically and I would probably have to go through my Twitter likes to remember them. But there was one moment where we were out, not many people were talking about us. I think we’d been out a couple weeks and I was a little bit like, “Shit. Why aren’t more people talking about the show?” And then the episode…
They released them in chunks and the finale chunk was going to be released and somebody I think tweeted or on Tumblr said, “Are you going to watch it tomorrow? It’s the gay super bowl.” And that was just the first thing where it was like, “Oh cool. Okay. It is going to catch. People are into it. They do believe the relationship is happening and they’re invested in it.” And that’s really neat where you feel like there was a ground swell building up. And then just generally someone will just give an analysis of something and it’s spot on. And even more than that, it’s something you hadn’t even considered, but is true about your own thing. And it’s cool. It’s cool. People are so smart.
Alison Herman: Yeah. The gay super bowl’s like you de-throned RuPaul’s Drag Race.
David Jenkins: It was crazy. It was crazy. It was a relief because I was like, “Oh, this show isn’t landing.” And it was like, there was that period where people were like, “It’s a bromance. They’re not going to really kiss.” And then making it on the other side of it, it’s like, “Okay, it’s a kiss. It’s a high school theater kiss, basically.” It’s not that deep. And I kind of was like, “Oh, maybe we’re here, where they’re going to kiss and it’s going to be a non-event.” It’s just like, “Oh yeah, they love it. Cool.” While we were making it, I in no way thought it was going to be… what’s the word? Gratifying is not the right word, but maybe comforting. I guess there was something comforting about it to people and I didn’t anticipate that and I’m really glad that was seen that way.
Alison Herman: Yeah. I mean, to be totally honest, I was one of the people who didn’t necessarily pick up on the show when it first, first came out, but then within a few weeks I heard enough people being like, “You got to watch this. It’s great.” And I took them up on it. I’m so glad I did. But I think there was a very interesting interregnum period that happened between when the show actually aired and when it was officially picked up. Obviously there was some timing around announcing it on June 1st, the start of pride month. But you gave some interviews at the time where you were very candid about, “I don’t know any more than you do. We’re just waiting for the phone call.” And obviously it’s happening in the middle of this very chaotic merger where a lot of people are experiencing a lot of uncertainty. But now that you’re kind of on the other side of that, I was wondering what that period was like for you?
David Jenkins: It was hard and it was a hard period for all of us, for Garrett Basch and Dan Halsted and Taika Waititi, the executive producers, hard for the execs internally, I get the feeling, because they believe in the show. And all of this stuff is out of everyone’s control. I mean, a merger’s a merger and these mergers they happen more and more often now. And yeah, it’s one of those things where you’re just… you’re literally trying to plan your year and your finances and I’m in New Zealand right now. I’m here for four months. I’m glad the show’s picked up, but it’s like a life disruption that you have to plan for because you’re just trying to figure out what your Fall is going to look like.
And then there’s the other part of it where I’m sure they have their own specific frustrations on their own side of it, but not having access to metrics is a real problem that we have to solve and we can’t kick it down the road, it’s got to be solved now because you feel, whether it’s accurate or not, you feel as a show creator like you’re playing against the casino and the casino is going to tell you whether you won or lost, but they’re not going to show you their cards. And that’s like, “Well, what’s up guys, are we in a business relationship or what, are we business partners or no? We are sometimes, but then sometimes not. And I get it, there’s a whole legitimate thing on their side where they’re protecting proprietary… but I would bet that it’s being abused. And I think that when I have to turn to an outside analytics company and hire them to figure out how we’re doing or get some metric, that’s the real problem for me and I think it’s something the Guild needs to sort out, unfortunately, because I don’t think it’s going to be sorted out any other way.
Alison Herman: Is that something you’ve done, hiring an outside analytics company?
David Jenkins: No comment. But these trends in our business create these other needs and markets. And a market that’s being created now is private analytics so that we can tell how the product we’ve made is performing because our business partners won’t share that information. That’s new. Nielsen was there, but that’s doesn’t exist for this. So then this niche market is going to come up and already you’ve got Parrot Analytics and you’ve got others and you’ve got to have something because it’s just a void, then. You release it and you’re like, “Geez, are people watching it? Are they not?” Twitter. Twitter’s not the real world, but then at the same time, if you’re getting a lot of engagement… So I think just to feel sane and just to be able to tell each other, “Hey, we did a good job. People are watching this thing. People are liking this thing.” Right now, you have to almost, or literally, hire a company to do that for you because your business partner will not provide you with that information.
Alison Herman: Yep. That’s definitely frustrating.
David Jenkins: Further than that, I would call it a labor issue.
Alison Herman: I would agree with that assessment. Something you said earlier was that the good thing about being a first time show runner is that you never have to be a first time show runner again and I feel like it’s probably similar that the good thing about making the first season of a television show is that you don’t have to make the first season again.
David Jenkins: Yeah, kind of.
Alison Herman: Well, now that you’re making season two, obviously one major difference it sounds like is that you are making it in New Zealand, but what other changes to your process have you made and how are those changes, if any, informed by insights from making season one?
David Jenkins: Well, I think the move to New Zealand is consequential because it’s far. So it was easy in season one, relatively, to be like, “Hey, cool, let’s get Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen and Will Arnett, we’ll do it. Because you’re there, you’re in the mix, and it’s really easy for someone to be like, “Oh yeah, I can give you a few days to do that.” So just in terms of guest stars and casting, that’s a real challenge because now it’s like, “Oh, okay, I need to fly to… I need to go to New Zealand? For how long?”
So that’ll be interesting to sort that out. And there’s so many good actors who are based here and getting to know them and all of that is also… that’s good, interesting. But I don’t know, season two of a show is, to me… to be able to have publicly seen the fan base process of this show and what they responded to and what they didn’t and what they picked up on, it kind of helps you see what is important in this narrative and what is resonating? And then to be able to go down those avenues and then they help you… It’s like they’re helping you process a dream you had. And somehow that helps you… I think it helps you make a clearer, better second season, but we’ll see.
Alison Herman: Yeah. I was thinking for guest actors, I was like, you got Lorde, you got Jemaine Clement, who else is going to be a local?
David Jenkins: Honestly, we’ll see who’s in Australia and we’ll see who’s in New Zealand.
Alison Herman: I’m sure you can get Cate Blanchett to hop across the pond.
David Jenkins: Yeah, yeah, no, she’s dying to do the show. Cate’s always calling me. She’s calling me now. I’m going to put that on mute, I’ll call you back, Cate.
Alison Herman: All right. Well, I’ll let you pick up your call from Cate Blanchett because I think we are right out of time, but thank you so much for joining me, congratulations again on the show and I truly cannot wait to watch season two.
David Jenkins: Thanks, Alison. I really appreciate it.
Alison Herman: All right. Take care.
David Jenkins: Okay. Bye.
Outro: On Writing is a production of the Writer’s Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon, our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer, tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stockboy creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms @WGAeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.