Will Scheffer speaks candidly with Susan Kouguell about the Getting On series, adapting material, collaborations, and more.
With their fingers on the pulse -- actually ten steps ahead of -- societal happenings and hot button topics, co-creators, executive producers, and writers on their Emmy and Golden Globe-winning HBO series Big Love, Will Scheffer and his partner Mark V. Olsen are fearless when tackling “difficult” subject matters in their television and film projects. With humor and pathos, Scheffer and Olsen continue to confront timely and challenging issues with their new series for HBO’s Getting On.
Will Scheffer is a playwright, writer/producer and filmmaker. His plays have been produced and developed across the country, including Playwright's Horizons, Naked Angels, The Public Theatre and Ensemble Studio Theater, where he’s had four plays in The Marathon. His first screenplay In the Gloaming, starring Glenn Close and directed by Christopher Reeve, was produced by HBO in 1997, and won many awards, including five Emmys. An attorney and member of the New York Bar, Mark V. Olsen has created, written, and produced several screenplays, teleplays, pilots and miniseries. For HBO, he wrote Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, Cabrina USA. In 2010, after being published in Best Plays of 1999, Olsen’s play Cornelia opened at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. Together, Scheffer and Olsen produced the independent feature based on Scheffer’s play by the same name, Easter in 2002, and that same year they created HBO’s acclaimed drama Big Love.
KOUGUELL: The HBO Web site synopsis describes Getting On: ‘The show follows the daily lives of overworked nurses and doctors as they struggle with the darkly comic realities of tending compassionately to their aging charges in a rundown, red-tape-filled hospital extended-care wing, blending outrageous humor with unexpected moments of tenderness.’ Anything else you would add to this description?
SCHEFFER: The show is about relationships -- as all our shows are -- the power struggles that come out of marriages between couples, or among small groups of individuals that work together out of choice or necessity. Getting On is about healthy and unhealthy codependence. It’s about love. It’s about how women in largely patriarchal systems learn to take their own power. It’s about class struggle and how it goes largely pushed into unconsciousness in our society and it’s about how the elderly, illness and the death experience is also compartmentalized in our society.
Getting On is largely about how we all deal with the process of aging and how we all care for the elderly. Like taxes and death, Mark and I think eldercare is becoming an unavoidable reality in our lives whether we like to deal with it or not. It’s becoming a shared fact of our existence, and Getting On tries to create a funny, safe place where an audience can find humor and compassion in that reality.
KOUGUELL: British television series like The Office have been successfully adapted for American TV. Getting On ran in Britain from 2009 – 2012. How did you come upon this show?
SCHEFFER: Mark and I had seen it in London while we were taking a vacation from our last season of Big Love and we were both dealing with caring for our aging mothers. We fell madly in love with the series and coincidentally had been working up a show of our own, set in the world of American eldercare. When we saw it we thought we should just adapt this series for American television. It’s an easier way to pitch an idea, and of course it gives us all this glorious material to work with.
Joanna Scanlon, Vicki Pepperdine, Jo Brand and Peter Capaldi, created an amazing show about the healthcare system in Great Britain and we felt it docked in perfectly with the kind of dark comedy we had in our heads about managed care in America and all the firsthand experiences we were going through with our moms.
KOUGUELL: What challenges and inspirations have you found while adapting this series?
SCHEFFER: The largest challenge, of course, is how to reimagine the characters and situations of the British version for an American audience and not to just “do a translation.” I think it was harder to translate a British show into American English than it might be to translate a Danish format such as The Killing or an Israeli format, such as In Treatment or Homeland.
You can be deceived into thinking you can just Americanize the dialogue and that is a huge trap when you love the original material. We had to fight that impulse. Also, we had to take the style of the British version, which is extremely “jump-cutty” and roughly assembled and improvised, and work backwards, almost to create our own “docu-comedy” style. We knew we weren’t going to do The Office but we didn’t know how challenging it would be to structure a script and a season the way we do and then make it look rougher. We love the result but it was extremely challenging for us as writers and for our entire creative team to discover our own style.
Our inspiration was largely drawn from our own ongoing experiences and then the actors we cast and the creative team we assembled. Adapting for these actors became a sublime treat and working with artists like Migel Arteta, Pam Martin, Tami Reiker, Jim Denault, Heather Persons, and also a lot of our Big Love team also was invaluable. And we had Jane Tranter, Julie Gardner, and Amy Hodge from BBC Worldwide as producing partners and they were incredible to work with. We got so much creative support from them.
This show (more than any other we’ve worked on) was a collaborative effort. Michael Lombardo, Casey Bloys and Francesca Orsi were very involved in our editorial process and I think this (sometimes uncomfortable) creative mix of smart people actually made the show different and better than what our vision alone foresaw. This was a rare instance of a lot of chefs in the kitchen actually producing a better stew.
KOUGUELL: How have you made it your own?
SCHEFFER: It was impossible not to make it our own. We lived a lot of what is seen on the show. Mark’s mom was in a small boarding care facility, which we were lucky to land her in when she developed dementia, and we had to bring her out to Pasadena to be near us. The caregivers and women there infuse our show. That was where we found tenderness and compassion. My mom was in the New York City healthcare system. She lived in a great assisted living apartment building, but when she got kicked out of hospitals and into Medicare “Rehabs” or what they call “skilled nursing facilities” the experience wasn’t so compassionate.
We used all of our personal knowledge of hospital life (which is considerable) and researched the hell of American geriatric care. We also imbued the show with our style and taste, which I would call simply: “Laughing and crying is good to do at the same time.” We cast actors who were vivid and real and very un-TV. They were all so talented and fiercely brave. We shot each episode in only three days. It’s unlike any TV show or film we’ve ever done.
KOUGUELL: Talk about your adaptation process.
SCHEFFER: We definitely started with all of the original material. We had no scripts though, so we had to first transcribe all the episodes from film (or video, as it were). We then picked and chose the material we knew was gold and worked endlessly on how we could compose a season structure -- knowing we had to compress their first two seasons of nine episodes into our first season of six.
We had some strong ideas of what we needed to do in order to achieve an American version as we had our ‘make someone happy campaign,’ which was based on our research of the Disneyfication of hospitals. We also knew we wanted to shake up the pilot and create a real dramatic reason of why there was a new head nurse (Patsy) coming into the ward and why Dr. Jenna James was stuck over here.
The British show has all these gold nuggets but since they worked in a more improvisational mode and we’re much more scripted, we had to take their nuggets and weave them into our structural considerations. Also, once we saw how the pilot worked with our cast, we identified a kind of idea of what each episode should have in it, to fulfill what we saw as a winning episode structure.
Our cast was so talented we knew we could always have a physical slapstick element and real emotional stakes side-by-side. We wanted each episode to have a laugh out loud scene that played against the dark comedy and realities of what happens in an extended care wing.
Also, the show was rebuilt in the editing room. We actually took more time to edit an episode than we did to shoot it. We had plenty of material but we essentially rewrote the show many, many times from before production, through rehearsals, and then in the editing room. When we completed the first episode I turned to Mark and said, “Oh my God, we actually made a black comedy.” Something which we knew was really hard to do and we made one that had a heart.
KOUGUELL: How do your characters in Getting On depart from the original British series?
SCHEFFER: The characters are very similar to the original ones except of course they are completely different. Jenna James is Doctor Moore in principal, but Laurie Metcalfe brings a fierceness and virtuosity to the role that makes the character’s inner life more roiling with insecurity. We began to see that in the world of the show, all the other characters saw Dr. James as imperious and incompetent at the same time, but failed to see what the audience saw -- a woman who is falling apart inside.
Nurse Dawn, as played by the multi-talented Alex Borstein, became more co-dependent, needing to always please Jenna, and also blatantly psychologically immature. Her core is the same as Joanna’s wonderful Den, a woman without an inherent self-esteem but I think our Dawn became more outrageously confused.
All our characters are less constrained and polite than the British cast. I would say that you see “America versus our British cousins” in the way all the characters become more visceral. DiDi differs the most. In the British show she’s played by the amazing comedienne Jo Brand, as a retiree coming back into the workforce. Niecey, in what I think is a transformative role for her, is younger and of color. I think she retains what Kim (Jo Brand) is to the show, its tender heart, but somehow Niecey manages to bring her comedy skills yet delivers such a subtle earthiness to her performance; she is the beating heart at the center of the show.
It’s a hard question when I answer it, because in a way I see that the characters essentially are the same but completely different at the same time. It’s in the writing but it’s what these actors brought to all their roles. There was only one right actor for each of these roles and they all give award-worthy performances in my book. They just made the characters their own, which is what you want from an actor and we began to write to who we saw they were becoming in the parts. I think the old saying about casting being 99 percent of a successful production was what we knew we had to achieve for this show. It was really hard to cast, but we held out for the perfect actor for each role and they delivered.
KOUGUELL: What drew you to this material and why did you feel that it could be ‘translated’ for an American audience?
SCHEFFER: The British show is about the “National Health” and three women who are “getting on” in years, and also together. Our show translated that into eldercare, a women’s ward. It’s a subtle but profound translation. If you compare the shows they look like -- well sisters.
We just knew that we had to do this show. We wanted to create a place where our friends and family, our audience who we knew was aging and dealing with dementia and death in their loved ones, could come and laugh. Even if they were afraid to watch us, we knew once they did, they would want to be in our world with these characters. It’s scary but it’s life. And it can be funny and sad at the same time. It hits close to home and that’s a good thing.
KOUGUELL: This is the second HBO series you and Mark have collaborated on as executive producers and writers. Describe your work process and collaboration.
SCHEFFER: We are a married team so when we do a show we are with each other 24/7 365 days a year. Mark and I talk everything through but don't actually write together. We take turns on drafts, passing them back and forth for multiple revisions. Sometimes I'll write the first draft and he'll revise and sometimes he'll write the first draft. On set it's looser and we'll have to revise together but we prefer to actually write in our own space. The "fantasy" image of having desks facing each other and tossing lines back and forth doesn't work for us.
We definitely complement each other and make a good team. And we’ve survived thus far. The marriage seems to get stronger in the roil of collaboration. It does test our mettle, though.
In production we do everything -- from writing, to casting, to directing, to editing, to selling the show -- we’re there and uber-controlling. But we’re also extremely collaborative. We want to create a “safe set” and work environment where everyone wants to be. When people enjoy coming to work they do their best work. We make sure that condition is met. We treat everyone the same, including ourselves. Even though we get to be the auteurs, as it were, we treat our PAs the same way we treat our DP, and we submit ourselves to the same conditions we expect from our team. We give ourselves over completely to a show. I credit Mark with expecting a standard of excellence. We depend on each other for different aspects of the work, but Mark’s ability to focus and dig is one of the things that make our collaborations successful. He’s my “closer.”
KOUGUELL: You describe the show as a ‘docu-comedy’ – please detail.
SCHEFFER: The British version was so raw and the camera just followed the actors and it was all done 360 degrees, with natural light and there was no worry about continuity and we loved that feel. So in principal, we tried to recreate that. We shot the same way in a real location. We used only two cameras and our DP’s operated one and moved constantly around a 360 space with natural lighting. We felt that the show’s essence was in that “seed.” It felt like a documentary. We wanted the audience to feel like they were observers of life.
It turned out that we had to do a lot of “reverse engineering” to make our show. It became a different beast. Our show still is very gritty and it jump cuts -- but we learned we had to write in the jumps. We had to structure them. That was really hard to figure out because the British show was more “assembled.” We had to write in those moments when the scene was jumping and we began to have a principal that the jumps furthered the dramatic action of the scene. We did this in the editing room, too.
Our show had to become its own animal, and the “docu-comedy” style that we identified in the original became a different kind of “docu-comedy.” I think the two versions complement each other. In a way, we did with the British show what we do together as writers. We collaborated with it. We make a good team.
“Docu-comedy” is not The Office; it’s not an imposed, hand-held camera style. It’s an ethic. It’s more about trying to capture the truth of what it feels like to be in the midst of the insanity of crisis. What it feels like to be in that world that lives between life and death all the time. It’s about surrendering to it and reveling in the surreal quality of it all. Finding death as being a vital part of life. Not shying away from it. Living into it.
To learn more about Getting On go to: http://www.hbo.com/getting-on
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com .