TV Insights, Observations and Obsessions from the NYTVF
Check out our Q&A series with Fest Founder Terence Gray (and others), designed to provide submitting artists and TV fans with insight to the current development landscape. If you're thinking about submitting to the NYTVF, this is for you.
Earlier this month, 2016 Festival Development Partner Seeso released its original series Flowers, a comedy-drama about a melancholic family. Will Sharpe, the writer and director of Flowers, recently spoke to the NYTVF about the show and talked through the development process, giving insight into the world of the Flowers family and balancing his many roles on the project (he also plays foreign exchangestudent Shun in the show).
First of all, congratulations on the success of Flowers. Can you tell us a little about what the development process looked like for the show, and how the series may have changed as you got closer to its completion?
Thanks! Initially, I spent a bit of time putting together a thirty-page treatment, trying to give a sense of the characters and the look and feel of the show – I just kind of got sucked in and splurged it all onto this big document. Then I wrote a couple of sample scenes, which ended up being the first two scenes of the series. I sent these to Naomi De Pear at Kudos, who took it on as Producer. We shot the pilot in November 2014, which is now most of Episode 1, and that was probably the point at which things really started to come to life. We found this beautiful ramshackle house. We secured an incredible cast, who were all funny but also brilliant dramatic actors. All the ingredients sort of came together on screen, and we started to get a more vivid sense of what it was that we were all making. Or maybe we'd talked about it so much in preparation, that we all had quite a vivid picture in our heads already – but this just gave us the confidence that it could work! So then, when it came to writing the series, though I had already fleshed out a rough arc before the pilot, it meant I could tailor it to the actors (and the house), which I always find is quite a helpful way of working. Of course stuff was constantly evolving, throughout the writing process, right through the shoot and post, but there was never a major change that took place where suddenly the whole show turned into something different.
The pilot episode immediately brings the viewer into the dark comedic tone, with Maurice’s suicide attempt and Deborah’s frenetic attitude. Where did your inspiration for the Flowers family come from? Did your vision for each family member change as you were writing each episode?
A sense of the world of the show – and a bleary image of the house, which eerily was probably really quite close to the house that we ended up shooting in – probably came first. And then I think the idea of Maurice being a children's book author arrived and I thought it made sense for that to bleed out into the show as well. So I guess I wanted the family to seem like a sort of weird, slightly fucked up version of a fairytale family – like they were stuck between heightened fairytale fiction and just normal messy everyday life. The biggest step in the evolution of any character I guess is always when you first see your cast play it, which is always incredibly exciting. One thing I noticed straight away was how Olivia [Colman], Julian [Barratt], Sophia [Di Martino] and Daniel [Rigby] are all incredibly likeable performers. And that unbreakable warmth might have encouraged me, subconsciously, to feel like I could take the difficulties and the awkwardness and the more uncomfortable sides of their personalities a little further. The visions for the family members didn't exactly change in the course of the writing, but I definitely knew that, as the series progressed, we should start to find out more about who these people really are. All the characters in the show are sort of versions of an archetype, but they're also, in the end, all human. So I suppose I wanted it to feel a bit like you meet these weirdos and then start to understand how, basically, they're all just the same as the rest of us.
The show has a great juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy — we especially like the moment in Episode 2 when Maurice gets recognized as the author of The Grubbs books by his mother’s doctor. How did you work to balance the tone of the show and keep comedy at the forefront?
This balance of funny and sad was one of the first things we talked about and it continued to be something we discussed throughout. My personal taste is that I find it difficult to be moved by drama if it doesn't have a sense of humor, and I don't really find comedy very funny if I don't believe that these are three-dimensional characters with feelings, problems, a proper story and so on. But, in the end, it was sort of a case by case process. It was always important to us for some moments, which were difficult, uncomfortable or sad, to sit as just that – as difficult, uncomfortable or sad. And sometimes we would throw a moment away quite lightly, if the heaviness seemed somehow premature or inappropriate. We often got different options of performance and then in the edit we would try shape the episodes so that it never got too heavy or too silly for too long – counterpoint is so important, I think. And of course sometimes I think comedy can make a sad situation feel sadder. The other thing to say is that all of the characters in this show are suffering in some way, but we never wanted to be laughing directly at their pain – more at the unfortunate situations they end up in. People are always very keen to try to put things into boxes – which is it? is it a comedy? is it a drama? which is it for crying out loud!? But it feels like more and more shows are being allowed just to be themselves and not worry too much about genre, which is great. I love Transparent, for example. And I thought it was interesting, as well as funny, when Andy Samberg made a joke at the Emmys about how "Orange Is the New Black is now technically a drama, while Louie is technically jazz" – I think the landscape is changing..
You worked with some amazing talent on this project, including Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt. Did having them attached to the project have any effect on the development of the series? Was there any improvisation while shooting or did you stick to the script?
Yes, we are extremely lucky to have worked with such an outstanding cast. I think, more than anything, having – for example – Olivia and Julian in my head when writing just meant that I had the confidence to write emotionally quite ambitious scenes, because I knew they would be in such good hands. The best thing about Olivia and Julian, as well as the rest of the cast, is that they are really skillful comedic actors but they also have great range and depth. So part of the challenge and part of the fun was trying to make use of the whole spectrum of abilities that this cast had to offer. There was some improvisation, though not as much as I'm used to having. I think partly this was down to time – there wasn't often time to do it – and partly also down to the fact that Naomi, Katie [Carpenter – Script Editor] and I had drilled these scripts so hard that, by the time of shooting, they were pretty tight. That said, we did sometimes do some improvisation and often to great effect. It never really changed the shape of a scene, but we'd just get some nice little moments of texture to embellish a scene with. For example, there's a big argument scene towards the end of Episode 4. We tried to shoot that in a very loose and flexible way, using minimal lighting to let the actors go wherever they wanted. We did a lot of takes and many of the takes were "loose passes" where the actors were free just to make stuff up. Peppering some of those moments in I think really helped to sell that argument as quite raw and realistic, as well as funny.
The tone shifts in the last episode, and things may be looking up for the Flowers family. What's next for the world of Flowers? Is Shun ever going to write Tarantula Woman and Mr. Gay?
[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
For me, the end of the series is about the power of surrender. About how accepting that a situation is difficult can actually be really empowering. I first pitched Flowers as an ultimately uplifting show about melancholy. So, for me, the ending is kind of bittersweet. Maurice realizes he is glad that he didn't die. And Deborah, who is so terrified of unhappiness and always so desperate to control her own and everyone else's emotions, realizes that things are not perfect and, to her surprise, that that's okay... Maurice is obviously not "fixed" or anything, but there is a feeling that he might want to work towards making a change, which is a big step. The question, I suppose, is how it all plays out. The feelings of love and hope at the end of this series could last ten years, or they could last a mere ten minutes! As for Shun, I'm sure there are other bizarre manga characters up his sleeve, but, in terms of fiction that exists within the world of Flowers, he and I are probably most interested in the future of Grubbs (the books which Maurice writes about a family of goblins).
You’ve worked on both sides of the camera – how do your experiences as an actor influence your work as a writer and director (and vice versa)? When you’re wearing so many hats, does it make focusing on the task at hand (specifically in production) more of a challenge?
Acting is a such a strange job; it really is hard to explain how vulnerable it can make you feel, having to stand there and expose your inner workings over and over again in front of a crowd of people and, basically, a staring machine (the camera). So I definitely think it helps massively to have had a sense of that when directing. I think also, when writing, I know what it feels like to be given a part that feels under-written, or under-thought- through, so I tried really, really hard to make sure that everyone had a full character with something to play. I sometimes think of it a bit like, when you're driving, and you think cyclists are crazy swerving in your way and then, when you're cycling, you think the same thing about the people driving cars. So it's always healthy to see both points of view! And literally doing both is a good way of getting a proper sense of what it's like to be the other person. But I have sort of always worked like this. I wrote a full length play when I was seventeen at school, and I wrote and directed that as well as being in it. And then just carried on from there. So it doesn't seem that strange to me. Sometimes in big group scenes it was a bit of a challenge. And obviously it means that I have to watch stuff back if I'm in a scene, which adds a bit of time. But I'd often go to Naomi or Jamie Cairney [the DOP] if I was on camera for quick feedback. Also we tried to keep a very non-hierarchical atmosphere on set, so everyone was sort of free to chip in. Often when I was in a scene with Julian, for example, we would just talk the scene through and kind of work it out together.
The NYTVF’s primary goal is to provide indie creators – many of whom are in the “emerging” phase of their career – with opportunities in the industry as a whole. As a writer, director, and actor can you offer any advice to indie storytellers looking to get their big break?
I think it made a massive difference on Flowers that everyone involved was so much on the same page. I think if you feel yourself getting into a situation where not everyone is trying to make the same thing, or wants to get the same stuff out of it, then it's probably best to get out sooner rather than later. But the main thing is just keep going. Keep failing. And don't expect anyone to hand you anything on a plate. It really does feel like it's just an endurance test. The sheer amount of rejection that people in any kind of creative industry are expected to deal with is kind of insane. Maybe it comes back to the idea of surrender? One really important realization for me was that: just because I'm working really hard, it doesn't mean that anything will necessarily come of it. Once I gave in to the idea that I had to keep working and be cool with it possibly amounting to nothing, it kind of got a lot easier. Suddenly it was just purely about the work, and that was quite liberating in a way.
Season 1 of Flowers is available exclusively on Seeso!
Check out previous downloads here:
Comedy Central Insights - 5/6/16 | 2016 TV Town Halls Advice | 2016 Bento Box Interview | 2016 truTV - Marissa Ronca | NYTVF Best Comedy Animals Heads to HBO | Q&A with the Jamz | Alumni Q&A (Richard Keith and Erin Cardillo) - 5/29/15 | Alumni Q&A (Damian Lanigan) - 5/29/15 | Chicago Comedy Panel - 5/18/15 | Big Laughs at Just For Laughs - 5/5/15 | Alumni Q&A (Whatever Linda) - 3/27/15 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/27/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/19/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 8/6/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/30/14 | Insights from the intern bullpen - 7/24/14 | Rory Covey of My Damn Channel's Honchos - 4/10/14 | Drama advice from Siobhan Byrne O'Connor - 4/3/14 | NYTVF Alum Danny Abrahms - 3/21/14 | Drama Advice - 3/13/14 | Advice from Chicago - 3/10/14 | Unscripted LA Panel - 2/25/14 | Drama Development - 2/20/14 | MSN Development - 2/12/14 | Casting - 2/5/14 | The Network Development Process - 1/29/14 | History Development - 1/15/14 | Comedy Formats - 3/18/13 | A&E Pipeline - 4/3/13| Fox Script Contest - 4/10/13 | From Film to TV - 5/17/13 | Lifetime Unscripted - 9/4/13