Mark Friedman on ‘Dispatches From Elsewhere’, Philadelphia, and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ of It All
Dispatches From Elsewhere, an AMC series starring Jason Segel, Sally Field, Andre “3000” Benjamin, Eve Lindley, and Richard E. Grant, wrapped up its first season Monday night. The show, which was created by Segel and shot in Philadelphia, depicted a group of wayward adults, brought together into a “game” by a mysterious entity called the Jejune Institute.
Based on a 2013 documentary called The Institute, the show had a unique visual style that was part David Lynch and part Wes Anderson, while also delivering frequent emotional payoffs, as well as a groundbreaking romance arc between Segel’s Peter and Lindley’s Simone – a trans character played by a trans actress. While the show wasn’t a massive ratings hit, social media chatter indicates that it’s landed especially well with a devoted audience.
We spoke with Dispatches From Elsewhere‘s executive producer and showrunner, Mark Friedman, last week, about the show, its use of Philadelphia, and how viewers have experienced the show in quarantine. (This interview contains spoilers for the first season of Dispatches From Elsewhere, including the finale.)
First of all, how are you handling all of this? Where are you spending the quarantine?
I’m actually in Northern California. I was in New York, when it all went down. I was working on a show there, I was running a show in New York and we shut down about mid-march, and I flew home the day we shut down. I loved being in New York, but I’m glad to be home.
I’m based outside of Philadelphia, so I recognized a lot of the locations and I know when you guys were filming, most of my friends in the city had stories about how they ran into Jason Segel, or they ran into Andre, or they saw the filming. First of all, how did you become involved with this project?
I had been working with AMC on a different project that didn’t go forward. And Jason had already been developing ‘Dispatches’ at that point. And because Jason had never really run a show before, and he was going to be wearing so many hats – he wrote it, he’s in it so much, he wrote some of the episodes and was directing the first episode – it was important to have someone who was sort of his partner in crime in this whole thing, and to have someone to bounce ideas off of.
When I came in a few of the scripts had been written, and the last episode had been written. So it was to combine the two pieces, and make some adjustments to the front part. Because we all knew where we were going, from the beginning.
Was Philadelphia already the location at the point when you came in?
It was already established at that point that we were going to be in Philly. Obviously, the documentary is based in the Bay Area, close to where I live. And I think Jason made a decision early on, and it was made with AMC, about not necessarily Philly, but it wasn’t going to be in the Bay Area for a variety of reasons. And I think since the show is always about showing the beauty, in a place that doesn’t always get the beauty shots, there were a list of cities that were more blue collar, and lunch pail, and interesting, there are places AMC shoots a lot, like Atlanta, because that’s where Walking Dead is.
But I think we made the right call, because Philly (hopefully it shows on screens), [has] so many locations, and so many murals. And even the way we tied in the ninth episode, that Simone paints a mural of Jason’s face on the side of the building. We laughed, because we were scouting a lot and we’d be driving around and we’d say, ‘Hey Jason, let’s go paint that one over with your face.'”
At one point we thought about hiring a local muralist to do something, but it got too complicated with locations. You can see that’s right off Rittenhouse Square, and they were very nice to let us shoot there a lot, in Rittenhouse, but I’m not sure the neighbors appreciated us putting Jason Segel’s face on the side of a building. And we joked with our locations guy, Troy Coffee, if we put Jason’s face up, how many hours will it last until someone puts a big X over it? So we decided to do it digitally in that case.
I know there’s a scene in the first or second episode where we see Simone walk up the Art Museum steps, which is of course the most iconic thing in all of Philadelphia cinema. But I don’t think, in any of the movies, that Rocky actually goes inside the Art Museum.
It was interesting because we did a press event in January, and there were a lot of reporters there at the TCAs. And there was a trans reporter, who made a point that it was such a big deal to have what’s normally been Rocky Balboa running up the steps, this male jock guy, to have a trans woman doing the same action was very impactful for the trans community.
I’d never put that together, and it was really cool to hear that. From what I’m getting, there’s been a really gratifying response to Eve and her character and her performance, and her chemistry with Jason. And all of that starts with casting, like you’ve gotta find the right person; and we did do, for that part, chemistry reads… You could see, the first time they read together, that they were going to be great together.
Was the Simone character always written as a trans woman?
Yes. When I read the first few scripts… [it says in the first script that] Simone is trans, and this is the last time that this will be mentioned. And so, on some level, Simone happens to be trans, but also, obviously, her story, some of the specifics of it, as it goes forward and her relationship, are very specific to the trans experience.
But it was important, to me and to Jason. It also changed a little bit when Eve came on board, because we’re two white dudes, we’re never gonna be the guys to tell that story exactly as it should be told. And there were definitely scenes where I felt out of my depth, and we would always talk to Eve about what she was comfortable with, what felt real to her. And I know that the date scene, the post-date scene between the two of them, was something that Eve had a lot of input into how that was shaped, so it felt real and authentic for her.
So, the romance, or rather the hints of the romance leading into the actual one for the two of them. I don’t know if I want to call it completely groundbreaking for cable dramas, but I know it’s something we’re not used to seeing. Was that something you set out to do?
I know that when I came on board, one of the things I said to Jason when I read the scripts was, “I want to see the two of them for the first time, in the first episode, and I want to be rooting the whole time for them to get together.”
Not just because one is trans, but because these are our two main characters, that this is like a love story for the ages, and the second we see them, the second we see them look at each other, we should know that that’s the journey that we’re going to follow on this show. And then, of course, it follows a classic romance, you know, boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy gets girl back by almost drowning in a tank. It’s all done through the Jason Segel Way, the most epically awkward and self-humanized way you can do these things.
We always saw the love story was a big part of it because the thing about the show was that we didn’t want it to get too convoluted. I have friends who tell me how hard it is follow, other people seem to get it instantly. I think it’s really about how it hits you as a person. We all decided – less plot, more character.
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CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.