Stephen Falk has written for ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK and WEEDS, and is the creator of YOU’RE THE WORST, an FX comedy series that’s – well, it’s genuinely funny is what it is, and that’s a rarity. Here’s what Stephen has to say about his experiences on his new show:
by Todd VanDerWerff
Stephen Falk first became known to TV fans for his work on two of Jenji Kohan’s series — Weeds andOrange Is the New Black, writing episodes for both. But those who get really into following the careers of TV writers might have known him for Next Caller, a sitcom he created that was to star Dane Cook. NBC picked that show up and produced four episodes, then declined to finish out its six-episode order or ever air said episodes. Falk wrote a semi-famous, blisteringly funny Tumblr post about the experience that made the TV fan rounds.
But this summer, he returned with his first “created by” credit to make it on the air, FX’s brilliant You’re the Worst. And to commemorate the end of the show’s first season tonight, Falk talked with us about some of the things he learned over the course of making that first season. What follows is in his words, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1) Trust the material, and trust your decisions
“What I mean by that is there’s a point where we would start to film and maybe a scene wouldn’t exactly work the way I thought it would, or maybe I’d get a note from the network about maybe the way an actor played this certain thing, and I would sort of get the yips. I’d go, ‘Oh, maybe I’m wrong.’
“Because my last show that I created [Next Caller] didn’t make it on the air, despite having shot four episodes and spent a lot of money doing so, I think there was a little bit of trepidation in me. Maybe I started to second guess. It didn’t make me really change anything.
“But now, as the network starts seeing the cuts and as the audience is finally getting to see them, some of those things that, at first, were like, ‘Is this too totally weird? Or is this actor maybe playing it a little big, or whatever?’ those are the things that sometimes get the most reaction. Or some joke I wanted to cut. I thought maybe I should cut back with the dumb joke, or too silly, or whatever. Those are the things that people seem to really like.
“Not that I didn’t make a single mistake in all the episodes — far from it — but I think I learned to just calm down and trust in my original decisions. Because even some of the casting decisions were not necessarily exactly what the network wanted. And in the end, they agreed that they were the right decisions, like casting our female lead.”
2) Even a romantic comedy is about world-building
“There was some pressure, since it’s a romantic comedy, to keep the focus almost all the time on Jimmy and Gretchen. I went through this battle with the last show, Next Caller, even more so. I was met with even more resistance [there].
“But I think what I stuck to was that we have to trust these side characters have to function as their own human beings and not just as sounding boards for the main characters, because that’s a trope I hate in romantic comedies. I said, ‘Look, I have to give these other characters more screen time and their own stories.’ Even not just Edgar and Lindsay, but Becca, and Vernon, and Paul. I needed time to make them all full human beings and have their own little storylines, little arcs. Or Sam, or even the bookstore lady, or the shop cat.
“I wanted these elements to all be there because what I kept saying was, ‘It’s world building, you guys. It’s world building.’ And the more we actually build an inhabited fleshed-out world where people are real people and not just plot devices, it’s going to only help the Jimmy and Gretchen storylines feel more impactful and real.”
3) When fighting to cast an actor you like, it helps to have a network that knows what it’s doing — and to give notes.
“To FX’s credit, they’re incredibly smart. They never said, ‘Look, you cannot do this, or you cannot cast this person [Aya Cash].” They’re not heavy-handed, but they have opinions. And I think they just didn’t quite see it at first. And I said, ‘Look, I think you’re wrong. Let me bring her in again.’
“I gave her some notes that addressed their concerns, and she was phenomenal. So, they were just normal. They had a slightly different vision in mind. Nothing super specific. But I knew what a tremendous actress she was, and how she had both sides — the sort of harsher side of Gretchen, but also a deep well of emotion — and she’s very, very vulnerable. And they saw that.”
4) Learn how to better cede control on set to the director
“I had worked with tons of directors in previous shows, but [here] we had three different directors, and they each did three episodes, and then one of them also did the pilot. We shot them in blocks, meaning we sort of were shooting episodes two, three, and four all at the same time. One day we may shoot a scene from episode two, then we may jump right into episode four.
“I think I learned to trust directors more than sometimes I did, because it’s a very strange relationship on TV between writers and directors, and it’s very opposite in film. The writer is in charge [in television], basically, but it’s the director’s set, and you have to give them the space to deal with the actors and do that. But in the end, you can pull them aside and say, ‘I don’t like how this is going’ or ‘I don’t like how you’re shooting this. Let’s do this differently.’ It’s a really fraught and weird relationship, and often, directors who come from features aren’t used to that, and they have a big problem with it.
“Like, my pilot director, Jordan Roberts, came from features. And it took us a little while during the pilot process to find that balance. But most of it involved me letting go of control. But also, I think it was very helpful for the show to let the directors really have the set and work with the actors. And I would address concerns directly to him. But for me not to feel like I had to be running around doing everything because I’m the only executive producer on the show, I created it, I wrote seven of the episodes. I have this very control freak nature, so it was great for me to find these wonderful collaborators and just let them fly.”