For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this interview with Russian Doll star/co-creator Natasha Lyonne and co-creator Leslye Headland from the latest issue of Backstory.
Russian Doll was born from another project’s ashes. In 2014, actress Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler teamed up to create a sitcom for NBC titled Old Soul, in which Lyonne plays a former party girl who finds herself surrounded by friends twice her age. A pilot was written and shot, but the network ultimately passed. (The pilot did air on its own that fall.) Poehler was undeterred, insisting to Lyonne that they give it another go. “That is the triumph that is Amy Poehler,” Lyonne says of her longtime friend. “She doubles down when other people would back up. So we started discussions about taking a deeper dive: If there were no rules, what would we want to say?” They toyed with placing characters similar to those in Old Soul in a choose-your-own-adventure plot inspired by surrealist 1960s films along the lines of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Tad Danielewski’s No Exit and came upon a decided conceit: What if all the characters were at a birthday party that they couldn’t leave?
Lyonne also saw a chance to tell a semiautobiographical story in a very unconventional way, in the vein of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Before her career garnered a second life thanks to her role as inmate Nicky in the critically and audience-acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, Lyonne was struggling with addiction and was infamously hospitalized near death. She thought about ways to tell parts of her own arc through the eyes of this new character, Nadia. “We thought she could be a person who had tangible experiences with life and death,” Lyonne says. “And my well-documented misadventures allowed me to come at it from that angle.” To hone the idea and shepherd their vision, she and Poehler decided to bring in another creative mind. Enter Leslye Headland, the indie writer/-director Lyonne worked with on 2015’s Sleeping with Other People. “Weirdly, a lot of the world building was already done,” Headland says, tipping her hat to her co-creators. “They had hit on this idea that maybe [Nadia is] stuck at this party and she can’t leave or maybe the party keeps resetting but we don’t explain why. It was almost like a collection of short stories.” Headland started a mini writers’ room of her, Lyonne and sometimes Poehler—though the in-demand comedian would participate via email if she was unable to be there. It was during these sessions they hit on the key plot point: Nadia is forced into a never-ending time warp when after attending her 36th birthday party, she dies and must relive it over and over. And as she dies each and every time, be it by being hit by a taxi or falling down the stairs, she ends up in the same place every time—in front of the bathroom mirror at the birthday party. “We took the best of all these different ideas,” Headland says. “We put them all into actual plot points and set pieces and season arcs. I think once we found that, we all felt really strongly about the setup.”
The trio dug in to craft a pilot and rough arc and then pitched the idea to Netflix, which signed on and immediately greenlighted a first season. Six months later, the official—and all-female—writers room for Russian Doll commenced, including Headland, Lyonne, Poehler and longtime TV vet Allison Silverman (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Colbert Report). “It wasn’t something we did intentionally,” Headland says of the distaff dependence. “We did meet with male writers as well, but I don’t know if it was the tenor of the show or the fact that it was late 2017 and a lot of shit was going down in the industry. I don’t know what it was, but we ended up with this beautiful room of really opinionated and talented women. I was really grateful to every single one of them, considering I was not a seasoned showrunner.” Though Headland has built a career in filmmaking, this marked her first time in a television writers’ room since her first Hollywood gig on the 2010 FX series Terriers. And here, she had something at her disposal that few shows have—the star among the scribes. “Having Natasha there every day was a relief. Something as complicated as this, where she’s basically in every scene—it’s great to break the story with her. It’s really insightful.”
The show’s plot machinations are fairly complicated and given that the writers were dealing with their main character not only dying dozens and dozens of times over season one’s eight episodes but ending up back at the exact same birthday party every time, it got extremely difficult to manage the logistics. They even took up a wall in the writers’ room—not a whiteboard, an entire wall—to track the myriad time loops and demises. “The amount of obsessive work we would do in the room in terms of numbering and labeling each loop and each death was insane,” Lyonne says. “Then we would get into what each of those meant and how many things have disappeared from the fabric of space and time.” She recalls a funny moment when the writers delivered the scripts and production designer Michael Bricker said, ‘Okay, here’s a list of things that don’t make sense based on what you have here.’ That was pivotal to the creators seeing another perspective. “It’s mind-blowing to know you’ve worked as hard as you can, and even our minds working at full capacity and in full collaboration, we still had missing links. Of course, there’s a real beauty to that, where you understand in a real sense that human beings are necessary to one another and make each other better. It’s a very satisfying thing.”
Besides the time loops, the writers focused the most on the character of Alan (Charlie Barnett), a man the show reveals halfway through the series to be stuck in a time loop exactly like Nadia’s. The two come together and try to help each other out on their individual journeys. An “Alan” character was always a part of Lyonne and Poehler’s earliest work on the project, but he kept changing roles. At first he was a love interest for Nadia who worked at a JPL laboratory, then he shifted to a doctor specializing in Nadia’s condition. “He went through so many incarnations before he found his destiny as the character that he is,” Lyonne says. “He’s quite clearly perfect companion for this woman. He’s like the attorney to Hunter S. Thompson. If you’re going to have these gonzo adventures, you need this counterweight. It’s wild to think of how lost we were.” The writers also came to realize that if Alan was going to have the same problem as Nadia, they needed to figure out why they are both going through such angst.
And therein lies what separates Russian Doll from so many series. These two characters share a goal, but it’s not a tangible, it’s existential. It’s a willingness for both characters to shed the emotional baggage of their past and present and show a longing to be an active part of the world in which they live. “Against her will, [Nadia] finds out that maybe the answer to her problems is finding a connection with another human being and linking in to these bigger ideas,” Lyonne says. It’s a spiritual journey very much inspired by Lyonne’s own life and was always something she wanted to weave into the fabric of whatever Russian Doll was to become. To that end, on her first day in the writers’ room, she walked in with Viktor E. Frankl’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, which detailed his horrific time in a Nazi concentration camp and the psychotherapeutic methods he employed to emerge even remotely intact. Impressed with Frankl’s story, Lyonne saw deep-seated parallels to Russian Doll. “It’s about the sum of one’s choices and even asking what choice is. I think that’s very much at the heart and soul of our show.”
As the director of half of the episodes—though Lyonne helmed the brilliant season-one finale—Headland is most responsible for the series’ visual look. Her experience as a filmmaker and arbiter of tone comes in especially handy for the multiple deaths. Nadia’s demise in the first episode is violent and shocking and meant to terrify, however by the next episode there’s a montage of her falling down the same flight of stairs to her death that is played mainly for laughs. Then a few short episodes later, the deaths get dramatic again as the stakes get higher, culminating in one where Nadia is shot and killed by her surrogate mother, Ruth (Elizabeth Ashley). When asked about presenting the deaths in such different manners, Headland doesn’t hesitate. “I’m very experiential and feeling with my writing, meaning I can’t explain exactly why something should be the way it is,” she says. “I just feel it’s right. For the stair deaths, we knew that would be a montage of her dying over and over again. If you had asked me in that moment, I don’t know if I could articulate why we needed to make [those] deaths funny. We knew we needed to sell that she was actually dying in episode one, but we couldn’t keep that tone up for the whole season. The deaths have to become a part of the language of the show, and the trick, of course, was making them scary again. I think some writers are very literal, where they go, ‘We need a moment of levity here.’ Then there are people like myself, where I have trouble expressing that’s what we need but in my soul and experience I know that’s what it needs to be.”
The success of Russian Doll was instantaneous. Netflix signed off on a second season almost immediately, and the upcoming 2019 Emmy Awards showed immense love for the series with 13 nominations, including Comedy Series, Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Lyonne and two nods for Writing—Headland, Lyonne and Poehler for the pilot, “Nothing in This World Is Easy,” and Silverman for episode three, “A Warm Body.” When the creators first pitched the series to Netflix, they had planned for roughly three- season, although they admit the actual writing of the first season has somewhat recalibrated their thoughts on what future seasons could be. Headland was hired by Netflix to pen and probably direct the thriller Tell Me Everything, based on Cambria Brockman’s gripping debut novel. Though she has crafted the insightful and funny scripts for her directorial efforts, Headland considers herself a director rather than a writer. “Being a writer is such a bizarre experience,” she says. “Writing is like walking around a dark room and feeling around and explaining to someone on the phone what the room looks like: I think there’s a bed over here; this might be a lamp; this is a chair of some kind. Then you turn on the lights and some things you got right, but other things you were wrong about. Some things you thought were going to be so important, and some you thought you were right about nobody cared. You are in control and you know what you’re doing, but you’re always just a bit off. You’re never totally certain this is the thing that works.” One thing Headland is clear on: her high regard for Netflix. “They’re an awesome combination of the old-school studio system and a Roger Corman production: Here’s the money, just figure it out. With Russian Doll, they had a nice amount of guiding hand and financial support, but they certainly didn’t have any creative dictates—and that’s unusual when you’re working at that level.”
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