A first-time showrunner when Casual bowed in 2015, Zander Lehmann was thrust into a new world with new responsibilities, alongside executive producers Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook and Liz Tigelaar—the latter, the only TV veteran among the bunch. Quickly picking up the process, the Casual creator found an easy rapport among his peers, with tasks divvied up organically amongst the series’ four voices.
With Season 3, Lehmann was excited about a variety of interesting casting additions, and the fact that 9 of 13 episodes were directed by women. Speaking with Deadline, Lehmann discusses the dynamics of collaboration behind the scenes, his experience with the emotional Season 2 finale and what lies ahead for Alex, Valerie, and Laura.
When you began work on this series, you were a first-time showrunner. How has your experience on the show evolved to this point?
In Season 1, I knew almost nothing. By Season 3, I know more things, but ultimately, I have been surrounded by really smart and competent cast and crew and basically been handheld throughout. I think that really speaks to both the network and studio and also the other producers who have let me find my way in a process that’s not intuitive.
I’ll mention Helen Estabrook, our executive producer, who basically runs production, and then Liz Tigelaar is the executive producer who runs the writers room. I essentially have two other showrunners with me, and between the three of us, we divvy up these duties. I could not do the show without them—and I think they couldn’t do it without me, obviously—but we make up this sort of three-headed monster that is able to tackle all these things.
From your understanding, is this notion of three showrunners splitting duties on a series an unusual scenario in television production?
Yeah, I think it’s different. I know other shows that have situations where there’s a show creator and they’re paired with a showrunner, but I think having three of us who are all really focused on different elements of the process—really four, if you count Jason [Reitman], and he is the creative vision of the show…He obviously picked the look and shot the first two. He shot two episodes every year.
Jason, Helen and I, none of us had done television, and Liz had done TV, so it feels like we were marrying this sort of background in indie film. I think given all the different pieces, this is the best version for us that we’ve determined works for this particular show.
Hulu and Lionsgate are nice enough to let us figure out that process and do it on our terms, because I think a lot of places would have said, “No, you can’t pay four executive producers. Go have one boss, and have it all go through that person.” They sort of understand, this makes the process easy, and it keeps us on schedule, making good scripts for them.
As you wrapped Season 2 of Casual, what was it like to be in the room, with the death of the family patriarch?
That’s one of my favorite episodes we’ve done. We had a thought going into the season that that’s sort of where we wanted to end, but we weren’t sure we could pull off the emotionality, and buy the emotionality from characters who oftentimes bury their emotions, or are glib, and keep things pretty deep.
We were very happy with how it turned out—the cast works really well together. A lot of Season 2 was pulling them apart in these different ways, and that episode is a nice way to return them to this place where they are of a piece.
It was an emotional scene to shoot. We had people on our crew who had actually gone through this, who had had parents who had assisted suicide, and basically, we leaned on them to make sure this felt as authentic as possible and asked them exactly what that process was like. I think that led a lot to the feelings of authenticity and also the camaraderie where, if you’re sharing this stuff with the crewmembers and with us, you sort of have to respect it.
Physician-assisted suicide is a hot political topic, with California being one of the most recent states to legalize the practice. What is your thought process, in terms of the ways in which you integrate contemporary issues into the DNA of the series?
We try to present these things in the most authentic way possible, and that has helped us explore things that have probably in other TV shows not been explored, just because we’re not as beholden to plot or story, I think, as some other shows might be. I think we rely a little bit more on atmosphere and tone, and in those ways, we can get around some of the barriers that having a really plotted, structured story can lead to.
I like to think it’s sort of impressionistic at times, where you’re getting a sense that they feel a certain way, and we’re trying to lead you to feel that way with them and empathize with them, but we’re not saying “This is how you should feel, this is our message, this is right.” I think we never say, one way or another, whether something is right or wrong; it’s just this is the way that people feel in the world today, and we want to capture that spirit.
Can you talk a bit about the trajectories you set out for your characters this season?
Season 3, to me, feels like it’s a lot of new worlds for all of our characters.
Laura, in particular, is going out into the world. She has been stuck in the world of high school and teenagers, and at this point, we’re sending her off, because she feels like she knows well enough that she can handle it, and we’re going to show her a world of adult life that she hasn’t seen.
On Valerie’s end, we’re going to see a new version of her. She has a bit of a crisis early in the season, and it leads to a shift in identity and causes her to really branch out. I think for the last two seasons, she has these moments where she tries on these different masks, but she’s always who she is. This season, we’re going to shake the core of who she is, the foundation of that, and I think that will allow her to experiment and try to do things that are less of what she’s been doing.
On Alex’s side, we wanted to break him down. He’s a guy who has floated through this series, half-assing through his job, and falling into things, and out of things. I think this is the season where, for him, we want to feel like there are consequences to his actions, that he is a real person who suffers real things, and doesn’t just have everything work out for him. He is sort of on his heels this season in a way that we haven’t seen.
They’re all in different spaces, but they’re still in the same orbit. They’re still around each other’s world, but I think that’s the essential nature of the show, is these characters are trying to move forward and be healthy, but they have this magnetic pull back to each other which keeps them from their goals.
One way to transition characters into a new world is to introduce an entirely new batch of characters who can provide further complications in their lives. Season 3 has had a lot of interesting guest star additions.
Yeah, we have some really interesting guest stars this year. Chace [Crawford] has a couple-episode run. He’s very good, doing something that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before out of him.
For us, we read every role. We don’t really offer based on names, so we find who does the best read. Surprisingly, it’s people you often don’t expect. Jamie Chung is in a couple episodes; we have Judy Greer who’s in for a big portion of the season; we’ve got this young woman, Maya Erskine, who’s really funny and really good. We’re bringing in a lot of people of different backgrounds, and different looks and vibes, to help bounce off of our characters, who at times can feel like they’re all a bit of a piece.
There are a couple of Season 1, Season 2 people who have come back and have a pretty major impact, which I think feels like real life. The people you think you’ve moved on from come back and surprise you, so we’re going there again too.
This season, the directors are predominantly female. Is that an organic reaction to the series, with its two female protagonists, or a response to what is happening—and not happening—in the industry?
First of all, my writers room is mostly women. There’s six of us—there are four women, and me and one other guy, and the other producers are women, so it’s a pretty female-centered show, and we’ve always felt like this is a really great place where directors who have operated in the independent film space, but haven’t had a chance to do episodic TV, can come in and do the version of an interesting, cinematic look, but in a TV series.
Lake Bell is doing two episodes; we have Gillian Robespierre, who’s doing two episodes. Carrie Brownstein did two episodes, Lynn Shelton’s back. It’s all these people who have a really interesting visual style, and we do obviously look for women first, because I think the nature of this business, the deck is stacked against women in directing, and we feel like there are a bunch of really good women directors, and we should obviously take a run at them, because if we get these great, interesting indie filmmakers, why not?
As far as the show goes, we have the best directors, I think, around, and the actors tend to love the people we bring in. A lot of the directors are actors, themselves—Lake and Carrie are both actors. These are people who can speak the actor language, and we think that’s really important. It’s an actor-driven show. So that was an intentional thing that we’ve been trying to do, and I think every year we’ve managed to get more women directors. By the end, who knows? Maybe we can get a full season of women, but we’ve got nine of 13 this year, which is pretty good.
They spent a couple weeks in the writers’ room with us to really get the process. They were involved with all the scripts, and saw how we broke them; they wrote the outline, just like any other writer. They got the full experience and were treated just like any other writer, which was, I think, fun for them. Both Tommy and Michaela, they’ve written before, and they’ve had their own shows—we weren’t throwing a Hail Mary, saying “I hope you can do this.”
We knew they could do it, and we felt like this season was the time when you can take some chances and promote some people. We have some people who are stepping into new roles this year, and we felt like it was something that would be fun. They’ve written a really fun, funny episode that I’m happy to say I did not have to rewrite.