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Winter 2015 TCAs: The Cast and EPs Talk HBO’s Togetherness 

Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

You had me at Mark and Jay Duplass. If you haven’t seen Safety Not Guaranteed, you are missing out an a truly strange and original movie. I was a fan before that, but I wasn’t sure they’d ever focus on a small screen project (other than The Mindy Project, which they’re great in). So when I heard they were bringing their brand of humor to HBO, I knew I’d be tuning in.

The cast and EPs attended the Winter 2015 TCAs and talked about making Togetherness, the character dynamics and what’s really at the heart of their show.

On the process of making Togetherness.

Jay Duplass: “Basically what we do is write full scripts and we’re very intentional and obsessed with plot. But once we get on set ‑‑ I mean, we hire brilliant human beings who are funny and know depth of character and are obsessed with human beings the way that we are. We encourage them to accomplish their goals within the scene however they feel is the smartest and most wily and most specific to their character.

A lot of times, it usually comes back to the dialogue that we’ve written. But for us, it’s really important to create a sense in the room that anything can happen in this moment and these guys know that when they walk into a room, anything could happen to them. I guess we’ve figured out, Mark and I have, over time from listening to what you guys say, that that sense that anything can happen can only really exist if, in that room, that’s really true.”

Mark Duplass: “Honestly, the more we learned how to write for the specific dynamics between the characters, it got a little dialed in. The girls were really, really helpful for us. I feel like it’s the first time we’ve had a story where you have four equal protagonists and we really wanted to set a challenge to ourselves to really write the women up as best we could. They help us get the rest of the way and the improvisation helps with that a lot.”

On working from a script, but being able to improvise.

Amanda Peet: “Mel and I, have talked about how we think it’s really weird, because Jay and Mark are such brilliant writers. In my experience, people who are that good don’t come to set and say now go ahead and go off the rails. So we would sometimes look at each other and just be like, ‘Are you sure? What you wrote is so much better.'”

Melanie Lynskey: “Yeah. We would have to fight to do a scripted version.”

Amanda: “Yeah. So you’re in the opposite situation that you’re usually in with really brilliant writing, which is you’re fighting to keep the writing. Most writers are really ‑‑ I’m married to one and most of them are very protective of their words. Like I said, it’s incredibly unusual to be in this position. But it’s a delight and it makes you feel really trusted and it’s really fun and scary but exhilarating.”

On if the majority of Togetherness was improvised.

Mark: “We go in with a full script. The actors are always encouraged to try and re-say any lines that feel false to them but, most importantly, to really just pay attention to the person across from them, because a surprise could come up at any moment. I think that what ends up happening. The actors come up with ideas, but Jay and I behind the monitors will also come up with ideas.

So, for instance, when the girls in the second episode were talking about some of the marital and sexual frustrations that Michelle is having with my character, which, by the way, is totally weird just having her talk about me while I’m behind the monitor — but we’ll deal with that later. At some point, we were watching her frustrations and she was talking about how she wants to shake Brett out of it. Jay looked at me and he was like just say how you want to punch him in the face. Melanie just threw it in there right in that moment in the mood she was in and it just came right out and it was so natural and spontaneous. It’s our opinion, or at least our taste level, that that’s the stuff we really love.

Somebody once told us this thing. Our first movie was The Puffy Chair, that we made in 2005. Somebody said ,’I feel like you put a microphone in my apartment and you recorded the last fight I had with my boyfriend.’ That’s really what we aspire to with these shows. The improvisation is used as a means to get some of that intimacy and that feeling of, I guess, in the best way possible, a sense of honesty in the way the characters are relating.”

Amanda: “But just to be clear, the scripts are complete and they’re ‑‑”

Mark: “Stop defending our scripts. We hate our scripts. Why won’t you throw them away?”

Amanda: “You see.  This is what goes on.”

Mark: “This is what we do on set, yeah.”

Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

Melanie on Michelle Pierson.

Melanie: “Michelle is a complicated person. The thing I really loved when I read the script initially is you feel like, oh, okay. It’s this thing where the wife is just over sex, but then you discover she’s actually a very sexual, complicated person who has a lot of stuff going on. She’s just at a point in her life where she’s looking around and thinking what else could it be or what else could it have been? Did I make the right turns in my life? Did I make the right choices? I think it’s something that everyone can relate to.”

Mark on being the writer, director and star of the series.

Amanda: “He’s God.”

Mark: “What? I’m God. Well, actually, there are multiple gods and I’m all of them, I think, is really what it comes down to. I don’t know. This show is ‑‑ and I’m not just saying this — so unique. There is such a soup of all of us feeling like we’re in this thing together.

Jay and I are a little off of our feet making long‑form storytelling content. It’s our first time doing this. We got a lot of help from Casey and Mike and Steve and all the guys at HBO saying this is not a 90‑minute movie. You don’t have to close the story out. Keep those balls in the air and we’re like, ‘Oh, shit. You’re right.’

So this thing felt very much like a collaboration the whole way. It’s hard for me to define our roles very clearly a lot of times. It feels like you’re in a high school drama program. We’re all just putting it together and it’s very vital in that way.”

Steve on Alex and Tina’s chemistry.

Steve Zissis: “I have a noun for that. It’s a man‑gina. A guy that’s friends with a girl that he likes but it’s just friendship, he’s a man‑gina.”

Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

On what to expect from Alex and Tina’s friendship.

Amanda: “We feel like there’s something here that is beyond the regular pure buddy kind of thing. Right?”

Mark: “Yeah. I mean, we can speak a little bit to that. We asked Amanda to come in and read with Steve to really see what the chemistry was like. In about the first 15 seconds, Amanda was dragging Steve across the floor and he wouldn’t get up.

They were screaming at each other, but they were laughing at the same time. There was something just intrinsically so exciting about the natural chemistry between Steve and Amanda that we actually did a lot of rewriting of the characters and what their dynamic was based on just these two. As they grew throughout the season, we continued to dial that in. It’s been one of the more dynamic relationships in the show, so we have a lot of different places we want to go with them. We don’t want to talk too much about them here. But for us, it’s definitely sky’s the limit with these two.”

On the un-glitzy and unglamorous side of LA.

Jay: “In terms of general setting and breeding ground of Los Angeles, it’s hard. I’m so microcosmic. It’s hard to speak to the generalities.

Mark and I live on the east side of L.A. I live in Eagle Rock where the show is set. As a lot of you know, that is the last Los Angeles neighborhood before you hit Pasadena. It’s really like the fringe of Los Angeles. A lot of people jokingly call it the place where hipsters go to die or the place where hipsters go to have children. Some people think that’s the same thing.

We love that it really is almost like a way station. It’s like the last realm and our characters, I feel like, have one foot in Los Angeles and one foot out. One foot in Hollywood. One foot out.

They’re not sure if they fit in. They’re not sure exactly what they’re doing. They’re not sure if they want to fit in. They’re really on the fringe of things and that’s why we felt it was important to set it in that particular neighborhood.”

Mark: “That being said, on top of that — and this may be somewhat controversial to say — but, the location is not terribly important to what’s really at the core of the show.

For us, we wanted to make a show that’s representative of the way that Jay and I see the world. For better or for worse, we’re constantly striving to be closer to the people we love, our spouses, our children, our friends, our parents. We want to be embroiled and have that intimacy that makes for a great life.

As soon as we get it, we immediately are like ‘Get us the fuck out of here.’ I want to eject and go on a trip by myself. That dichotomy, no matter how much you understand it, it’s still there and it’s sad and very funny to us. I guess when we started cooking up the show, that really was the core of what we wanted to make.”

On the bounce house business.

Jay: “The bounce house thing is a thing that someone we know was and is doing. We thought it was the most tragic and hilarious thing in the world. The person who was doing it was a seemingly dignified human being that was having to make deals down in the industrial sections of town and what better person to do it than Amanda Peet?”

Mark: “I know and not to be too heady about it, but it’s a wonderful metaphor for what we love about the show. It’s very, very funny and very, very goofy to watch and then you sit with it for a little while and you’re like, “Ooh, there’s some deep sadness in this as well.’ The duality of that sadness and the funny is kind of what we’re trying to do here.”

Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

On why the location of this show doesn’t matter.

Jay: “We care about the inner worlds of people. That’s why most of our show is shot in close‑ups. I mean, we deal with it on another level with visual storytelling. We love visual storytelling. We appreciate it. We’re still obsessed with the Coen brothers, but our stories are not told with images and with visuals. They’re told in the faces of these people.

When you have incredible actors like this who understand the full complexity of what it means to be a human being and be a total idiot and totally brilliant at times and all those things, that’s what we’re obsessed with. That’s all we really care about shooting and we do have to set it in certain places.”

Mark: “Got to be somewhere.”

Jay: “Yeah. We appreciate the level of specificity and we know a lot about what it means to live on the east side of L.A. and Eagle Rock and it is a way station. But ultimately, the whole show is in these four faces and that’s what we love and care about.”

Mark: “The first alternate title for the show was Togetherness: sensitive people and the sensitive ways that they feel their sensitively. And [HBO] was like just call it Togetherness and we’re like, ‘All right, fine.'”

Edited for space and content.

Togetherness premieres Sunday, January 11th at 9:30/8:30c on HBO.

Series synopsis, from HBO:

Brett and Michelle are struggling to rekindle the spark in their relationship, which has puttered out from the stresses of marriage and children. When Brett’s friend Alex and Michelle’s sister, Tina, move in with them, the foursome engage in a tragically comedic struggle to follow their personal dreams, while still remaining good friends, siblings and spouses to each other.

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