Patrick Somerville knows about expanding the edge of the TV frontier. The novelist and screenwriter wrote for HBO’s The Leftovers, which began by exploring the aftermath of a Rapture-like event and soon evolved into a multi-faceted meditation on relationships and human nature.
Similar to that show, Maniac (whose 10-episode debut season is now on Netflix) is about much more than it initially seems. Based on — but very different from — a Norwegian series by the same name, it depicts an alternate reality set in a close replica of present-day New York City. It details experimental drug trials whose down-on-their-luck participants include the show’s lead characters, Owen and Annie, played by Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. In establishing the drug-trial framework, the show brandishes plenty of Brazil-meets-Michel Gondry absurdist flourishes: An animatronic koala bear plays chess in the park against a human opponent, and imaginary services such as “Ad Buddies” and “Friend Proxy” put a disarmingly analog spin on the modern age of social-media hookups and ad-targeting.
Maniac isn’t content to disappear down a sci-fi rabbit hole, however. Stone, Hill and a strong supporting cast including Justin Theroux, Sally Field and Julia Garner (The Americans) mine deeper human themes of fraying family bonds, grief and self-worth. As Deadline’s Dominic Patten put it in his review of the show, Maniac “may seem to be aiming to blow your mind … but it really touches your heart.” Most critics agree, and the show has quickly burst onto the fall scene as one of Netflix’s buzziest and most highly binge-able titles in recent memory.
I sat down with Somerville to talk about the show’s origins, the high-caliber talent in the cast and his collaboration with Cary Fukanaga, the newly minted James Bond director who co-developed the series and directed every episode. The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. And if you have not yet binged (it was released this morning on Netflix), beware: a few spoilers lie ahead.
DEADLINE: How did the Norwegian show become this version of Maniac?
SOMERVILLE: There’s a core concept in that show that we transcribed and used, but it’s very different. That happened for a bunch of different reasons. Anonymous Content brought their project to Cary, and Cary brought it to Emma, and they together brought it to Jonah, and it was very loose at that stage. There wasn’t really a take. It was just sort of like, “We can do a show that has delusions and different interactions with different genres in different worlds about two people.” But the Norwegian show doesn’t even have that setup, really, so already it was sort of fracturing.
DEADLINE: And had you ever met Cary before you started working together?
SOMERVILLE: We hadn’t. We met on Skype. … In one of our first conversations, there were two reasons why we got along. One was we were interested in developing a heightened reality for the baseline of the show as well as these other delusions. That is a fundamental departure. Also, neither one of us wanted to set it in a mental institution because we agreed really up front that mental illness as a source of the humor was not what we wanted to do at all. The Norwegian show is compassionate about mental illness, but just the basic DNA of that show got laughs out of crazy people. I wanted to tell a story about mental illness through Owen’s character but just a different way.
DEADLINE: There’s a visually rich aesthetic to the show. Each frame conveys a lot of information in an arresting way. How much of that did you put in the original script? Or was it more the product of collaborating with Cary and the crew?
SOMERVILLE: The first scripts planted a lot of conceptual seeds that laid the groundwork for what ended up being an unbelievably collaborative prep period over the summer before we started shooting. Ideas like Ad Buddies and Friend Proxies and analog versions of things we know and animatronic koalas and stuff like that. Those were all in the scripts. How to represent them visually became an incredibly complicated conversation but also one that started changing the ideas as well.
Production designer Alex DiGerlando’s stamp is all over this show in terms of just what each of those scenes look like, what the lab looks like especially. Cary, Alex, the props team – everyone started participating in this weird thing that started happening on the show. After a while, everyone started to understand, “That is Maniac” or “That is not Maniac.”
DEADLINE: And what kinds of qualities did Cary bring to the process? He obviously knows episodic storytelling, having done the first season of True Detective, along with making feature films.
SOMERVILLE: Having Cary to solve those problems was a revelation, especially in television, where you’re often meeting a new director every episode. Cary and I speak and sort of imagine in a different language than each other, but we were also telling the same story. It’s almost like two different languages of computer programming and both of us were telling the same story in our own ways. When it was really working, there would be an idea in the script that he would lock onto and interpret visually and make it better in the visual realm.
DEADLINE: How does the show benefit from being on Netflix? Do you think it’s good to have all 10 episodes available at once, compared with the one-at-a-time approach at HBO?
SOMERVILLE: They took a lot of risk allowing us to make a show that has a certain tone to it. They know as well as any old-school TV exec that if you make a show with a, it will make a certain set of people very excited and it will completely block out a certain set of people. That’s scary to a network that’s trying to capture everyone, but I don’t think it’s scary to Netlfix because they aren’t trying to capture everybody with every show.
DEADLINE: Is this a show about drugs? Or is the drug trial really more of a device to get us inside the consciousness of these characters?
SOMERVILLE: I don’t really care about drugs. I care about the debate about what our brains are and what drugs can do to our brains, but the specifics of how the pharmaceutical industry operates is not what Maniac is focused on. It was a way to get us to the kind of story we wanted to get to. The fact that this was how we got into the storytelling added this thing that we could do, which was to have Sally’s character be present and offering a different point of view about what healing is than what [Theroux’s doctor character] Mantleray was saying about the mind.
I remember this professor I had at grad school in this cognitive science class said, “The brain will be solved.” He was just dead serious. Putting the core of that into the debate and then [Field’s character] Dr. Greta can say, “Not only are you incorrect but you’re incompetent philosophically about how the mind operates.” But I think it’s just the backdrop of the debates that are going on.
DEADLINE: The show seems to be riffing on this long-standing film and TV trope of the doctor in the white lab coat, who brings rational science into the story and adjusts the characters’ perspectives.
SOMERVILLE: But they have insane ideas, too! They’re totally wrong. It was fun. Justin is so big and comic on the show. It’s always funny to me when people are insisting that they know that they’re right.
DEADLINE: You have all of this vividly imagined visual territory you’re presenting but also these very naturalistic scenes. How did the actors manage to bridge those two? Did you have to give them any guidance about exactly what you were going for?
SOMERVILLE: Everyone knew the tone of what the show was. All the major actors had read everything. They knew the show was absolutely bonkers. What we were asking them to do was to play emotional realism against that, to ground it. We had to have true interpersonal moments between them. It’s a credit to the cast, too. That’s a lot. The idea at the front end was always, “Let’s make a show as imaginative and strange as possible that still is approachable in terms of normal feelings and the normal things that people go through with their families.”
DEADLINE: But in some cases, the actors are having to bring emotion as these wild things are happening around them. We’ve all seen bad results when actors are doing everything against a green screen and trying to emote when talking to a tennis ball. So when you have Jonah Hill in his apartment and there is all of this hyper-real New York cityscape, how did you make him aware of his surroundings as he was playing the scene?
SOMERVILLE: That was all forced perspective. That was all back there.
DEADLINE: So he could see it on the set?
SOMERVILLE: The whole reason he ended up later in the series jumping out the window and into the miniatures is that all that stuff was there. We were like, “Let’s just have him go into that world.” That’s an Alex DiGerlando idea that Cary got very excited about. Him suggesting that they build out that whole miniature perspective.
DEADLINE: There’s also a physical sensibility to many of the visual effects.
SOMERVILLE: The spirit of the first episode is an analog reimagining, that became a key part of the production: How do we do things practically? Cary as a director loves doing things practically. Sound, for example. When Owen is using the intercom at his apartment building, there’s an actor offstage speaking into a mic. That was all happening. Cary just can’t stand doing things later that he could do then.
Very early in the first draft of the script, there were more digital things flying around, it was set in the near future. But as that process over the summer happened, we went more and more analog. But the idea of the Ad Buddy was like my fear of going to a place we have all seen before. So I always try to solve those problems.
DEADLINE: Why is the show set in New York?
SOMERVILLE: Well, for one thing, Cary, Jonah and Emma all live here. But also just, c’mon, it’s New York! There’s that feeling here of walking around the streets and clearly everyone is going through their own deeply subjective experience. It couldn’t be anywhere else.