Revision Mode: Co-creator Leslye Headland on Russian Doll
You start with a character, or a situation, perhaps, and then…what? You work out the next step, get through maybe a scene, or an episode, or a first act, and larger themes and ideas emerge. And then, realizing that what you’ve done is all wrong, you rip it all up and start over.
When the eight episodes of Russian Doll—the New York East Village–set fantastical time-loop drama starring Natasha Lyonne and created by Lyonne, Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland—dropped on Netflix earlier this year, my social media feeds all exploded. Everyone seemed to be watching this show, its storyline connecting viewers who’d normally be strewn across all the micro-niches produced by this saturated era of Peak TV. And while Russian Doll is the only show since Twin Peaks: The Return I’ve watched in its entirety, I wondered why so many of my various filmmaker friends connected to it as much as I did. Playing a tough, acerbic game designer, Nadia, there’s, of course, the extremely winning Lyonne, who as an actress came up through independent film going back to Tamara Jenkins’s Slums of Beverly Hills. There’s the clever high concept—Lyonne’s character repeatedly dies and comes back to life at her own birthday party, eventually teaming up with a similarly afflicted man, Alan (Charlie Barnett), to discover what’s happening to them. There’s the justly celebrated killer soundtrack, which skips from Harry Nilsson to Gang Gang Dance to, in the finale’s glorious split-screen, Arthur Lee and Love. More likely, I thought, it’s the panoply of themes, genres and storytelling modes the film’s concept allows for, from millennial comedy to science-fiction to videogame narrative to Jewish parable to psychological drama.
But there’s another reason, I realized, which has to do with this publication’s audience, which consists primarily of filmmakers and aspiring storytellers of all stripes. Russian Doll’s constant looping back and beginning again is the perfect metaphor for the creative process, one that’s inevitably less about the “eureka moment,” as Headland—also executive producer and director of half the episodes—explains below, than about a constant questioning, reworking and refining until themes, character and story all lock into satisfying place. Indeed, what makes Russian Doll so intellectually engaging as well as emotionally affecting is how it dramatizes the way in which storytelling is not just something done by artistic creators. All of our lives, it realizes, are a series of rewrites striving for that one final draft.
Headland came to independent filmmaking from theater. She adapted her play Bachelorette into a 2012 film starring Kirsten Dunst and followed that up with the 2016 comedy Sleeping with Other People. But our interview below, which covers the show’s creation, writing for Lyonne’s autobiographically tinged character, and mapping out the various time loops, begins with Headland explaining why it’s television, not film, that has made her into a director.
Filmmaker: In a previous interview you said, “TV was my film school.” But you had directed two independent films—Bachelorette and Sleeping with Other People—before directing television, so I’m interested in hearing more about what TV was able to provide for you that independent filmmaking could not.
Headland: I had a very odd trajectory into filmmaking—I made two films before I had ever made a short, been in a film class or even shot a web series. I had no idea what coverage was or how to read a one-liner. The fact that the two movies are even watchable is kind of shocking to me. [Going into those films,] the thing that I did understand from directing and then writing theater was performance. I understood how to write a scene. I also understood blocking and dynamics and all of that kind of stuff. I just didn’t know how to utilize the camera within those things. So, I’m really indebted to my first two DPs, Doug Emmett and Ben Kutchins, who really walked me through it.
After I wrapped Sleeping With Other People, I got the opportunity to do a couple episodes of television, and I realized there was so much I didn’t know technically. And so, it was really important for me to get really humble and [say], “I don’t actually know how to shoot a scene. I know instinctively a lot of stuff, but I don’t know how to execute it, and I also don’t know how to communicate that to my crew and department heads.” And now, after what I’ve learned in TV, I’m interested to make a feature again because I feel like I’m a completely different person.
Filmmaker: Do you think that—and I’m not sure if it’s the correct word or not—but this sort of naïveté that you brought into the process was beneficial in some ways?
Headland: I’m sure. I ran into Isla Fisher, who was in my first movie, Bachelorette, and she said, “I loved making that movie.” I was like, “You know, I always wanted to say, ’I’m sorry, I really didn’t know what I was doing.’” She was like, “No, I didn’t get that feeling at all. You were very clear. You knew what you wanted.” So, I think a little bit might just be me being a cinephile and knowing how good [those movies] could have been. But what is great about that kind of naïveté is that, especially as a writer, you don’t know what you’re not supposed to do, like write a character that’s completely unlikable. I didn’t get that information from film school or from books about writing or making films. So, in a way, I think [that naïveté] is kind of helpful, but at some point the charm kind of runs out and you do have to just be good at what you do.
Filmmaker: And then, the segue into TV. What prompted you to take that direction?
Headland: I had made these two movies, but they hadn’t shot me into a different stratosphere. And I don’t think that had anything to do with anything. It could have been the quality of the films. It could just be where we are in indie filmmaking. It could be that I’m a female. Who knows? But for whatever reason, I felt like I had made two very proficient films and was still proving myself in the feature world. And that’s not what you’re taught. I was a child of that mid-’90 s boom. You make two tiny movies and then get your chance. No one called me with my chance. But TV called. They were interested in [hiring] female directors. I would have fans at a production company or network, and I started popping up on shortlists. So, when TV called and said, “Hey, what’s up? Do you want to make some money?,” I was like, “Yeah, I guess so. I also don’t really know how to block a scene, so let’s do it.” And whenever I would go to do an episode of television, someone would come up to me and say, “I loved Bachelorette.”
Filmmaker: What were the first steps? What was your first TV job?
Headland: I did a show by Jonathan Ames called Blunt Talk. I did three episodes of Frankie Shaw’s show SMILF. I was the producing director of a reboot of the film Heathers that ended up being on the Paramount Network. I just directed two episodes of the first season of Black Monday. I did two pilots—one didn’t go at ABC, and one I just completed for Fox, an hour-long with Jason Katims and Annie Weisman.
Filmmaker: And how did you connect with Natasha, Amy and Russian Doll?
Headland: Natasha had a small part in Sleeping With Other People. We hit it off, and she would always be talking about this show she was going to make with Amy [Poehler]. But they didn’t officially ask me to come on until two years later, in 2016. At that point, there were a lot of ideas, like it took place in the East Village, and it was about a party. There were different versions. There was the Exterminating Angel version, where no one could leave. And then there was a version Amy pitched that was like a Scenes from a Marriage version, where you’d see [Natasha’s character] go home with a different person—or no person—every time, and then when you started the show again you’d be back at the party and none of that stuff would’ve mattered.
Filmmaker: And how did you land on the, for lack of a better term, Groundhog Day concept?
Headland: Oh my god, whenever people ask me this question, I always think of that scene in Chaplin where Robert Downey, Jr. [is asked], “How’d you land on the bowler hat?” And he’s like, “I saw the hat in the closet, and a ray of sunshine was coming down on it.” “No, really,” [they say]. And then [the movie] just shows a sped-up version of him trying on every single hat. That’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t some magical moment. It was several months of Natasha and I meeting and breaking the story and going, “What’s the most interesting version of this?”
Filmmaker: When watching narrative I’m always more interested in emotional continuity than logic continuity. Russian Doll is very successful at both, but particularly the former. So, it’s fascinating to hear that the high concept, if you will, that everyone talks about was landed upon last.
Headland: Oh, I agree. We said this a lot in the writer’s room: if we can nail this emotionally, then the audience will follow.
Filmmaker: So then, what was the emotional continuity question that the Groundhog’s Day repetition solved?
Headland: We had a Camus quote in our original pitch to Netflix: “Life is the sum of all your choices.” And [we wondered] if having endless choices is actually a good thing or a bad thing? But then, it eventually ended up becoming more what Douglas Hofstadter writes about in I Am a Strange Loop. I’m going to butcher this, but it’s essentially how being a human being and having a soul is about repetition. You’re kind of driven by your subconscious lizard brain, but any time your conscious human soul brain comes in it’s going, “Oh, right, I’m a person. I’m a person.” So, as Alan says in the show, “We are what we repeatedly do.” The idea that we would be stuck in this loop is not necessary the story of Groundhog Day, where there’s a person stuck in his own personal hell. Nadia is stuck in something that’s not necessarily hell. There are endless choices. She doesn’t necessarily have to stay where she is.
So, it started out as a solution to [the question], why do we repeat things even though we know they’re bad for us? We can basically do whatever we want. Why are we choosing to do what we’re doing right now? Part of [the answer] is habit, which is something your consciousness forms because of stimuli, because of past trauma you’re trying to avoid, because that’s the easiest way from point A to point B, like from your house to the F train. And after a while, that trip to the F train becomes not a habit but a subconscious urge, meaning you are always going to make that left when you leave your house. But once your subconscious takes hold of that habit and it becomes an urge, it becomes something that you can no longer control, like addiction, destructive patterns, isolation, agoraphobia. Sometimes these things are inherited, sometimes they’re brought on by trauma, but ultimately at some point you chose to do these things and then at some point you lost the power of choice.
Filmmaker: Repetition, control, why we make the choices we do—all language and terms that relate to therapy of one kind or another.
Headland: Exactly. As a queer woman who pretended to be straight for 35 years, I definitely have experience with those things. When I talked about that time in my life, I would say, “I’m in the closet,” but that’s so strange because it didn’t feel that way to me. I felt totally, totally free, and having sex with women was just this thing that I did, you know? You don’t know you’re in that prison until you see what actual freedom looks like. I think that what’s fun about the setup of Russian Doll is that it’s basically saying, are you as free as you think you are? If cornered, what ultimately is the thing that’s holding you back? Did the solution to your problem become the problem at some point?
Alan’s solution to his anxiety, the fact that he doesn’t feel like a good enough lover to his girlfriend, a good enough son to his mom, the fact that he’s feeling inadequate, is to avoid—to either shut people out or not leave his apartment or pretend to be somebody else. But at some point the solutions become his problem. They become the thing that is actually causing him the most pain. But because they initially started as these habits that were positive, [he doesn’t] recognize that the subconscious has taken over and is basically screaming for help. And so, in Russian Doll, Nadia and Alan get to answer that call. We get to visualize that it’s like to answer your subconscious self and say, “What is it that you need?”
Filmmaker: How much of what you’re saying now were things that you were directly thinking about during the whole creation of the show? Had you conceptualized this as cogently as you just laid it out? Or were these things that you came to as you broke down the storyline?
Headland: I don’t know if it was as cogent as what I just said to you, but certainly, emotionally and instinctively, that was what Natasha and I really felt. I feel like we knew it pretty well. I think the harder part is how do you show that?
We had other writers, who were indispensable, like Allison Silverman, Cirocco Dunlap, Flora Birnbaum and Jocelyn Bioh. There were a lot of arguments where someone said, “This doesn’t make logical sense to me.” Or, “That makes logical sense but not emotional sense.” It was just a lot of women debating and going like, “Is this going to work or not?” Natasha was kind of like the brain trust, and I would have to answer those questions or I would say, “You know what? I don’t think we need to answer that question. [And that’s because] it’s something that, emotionally, the audience will understand.” For example, when Nadia cuts the rotting orange in two and opens it up, that’s an overly simplistic way of describing the fourth dimension. Like in Event Horizon, Sam Neill folds that piece of paper and then sticks the pen through it. He’s like, “This is time and space.” Well, that’s not actually what it is, but as a viewer, because you’re at least partially emotionally invested in the film, you understand it logically. And so, at some point, somebody has to make that decision to go all the way and explain something or just use a kind of shorthand. And when it’s logic versus emotionalism, you don’t want to get too logic-y because then you’re explaining the magic trick [to the audience]. The audience loves being tricked, but it’s a delicate balance that usually, to be quite honest, doesn’t work. So, I was shocked that it did.
Filmmaker: And then how did management of this complex narrative filter down to the key crew?
Headland: Our script supervisor had a huge spreadsheet that had each loop in it, and each loop had a letter. And once we got to Z, it went to AA. And once [the world] split into two dimensions, it became AA1 and AA2. Our production designer had an entire wall full of everything that happened in each loop and at what time.
Filmmaker: How many loops were there?
Headland: Between 22 and 25. We skipped a couple of letters that were confusing, like “I” and “X.” But it was our script supervisor, Melissa Yap-Stewart, and our script coordinator, Isabel Richardson, who were able to crack the code, so to speak. We had a huge loop meeting with everybody, and I was like, “OK, in the loops from A to K, these are all the things that are happening. And then from K onward, all animals have disappeared.” Once we decided to take things away, we had to really track. You only really start to feel it in [episodes] six, seven and eight, but things are being taken away since episode one. And then we had really meticulous people like Michael Bricker, our production designer, and Allison Silverman in the writer’s room to [ensure that these decisions were] implemented in these particular ways.
Filmmaker: I recently saw Claire Denis’ film, High Life, and noticed in the credits that she had a black-hole consultant. Did you have a philosopher or any kind of consultant work with the production to advise on any of these topics?
Headland: I mean, we all read certain things. We read a book by Ellen Ullman called Life in Code. She’s a female programmer, one of the preeminent programmers, and her book helped us understand how a female programmer thinks. She talks about what programmers think of humans, which is very interesting—the way they’re kind of isolated from the rest of the world. She talks about how, when you’re interfacing with machines as opposed to people, little by little you lose that connection with other people. Hofstadter was a really big help to me. Man’s Search for Meaning was something Natasha spoke about often. One of the things that helped me get inside Natasha’s head was that she sent me a lot of reading material and articles she found interesting. And I don’t know how many of them really ended up falling into the actual product that we made. It was more like trying to get into the brain of a person [who] thinks the way that she does.
Filmmaker: That leads into my last question, which is how much you were guided by autobiographical details from Natasha’s life when devising the story? Was her life or persona something that was consciously riffed on?
Headland: Yes and no. I think if Natasha had wanted to tell the story of her life, she could have done that, and everyone would have been on board. But I think she specifically wanted to create something that was personal but not autobiographical—to give people an opportunity to relate to her as opposed to watch her, if that makes sense. So, I feel like even if you haven’t had her experience, you can relate to the show, which I think was always the goal for her—to have something that embodied her taste and her personality and her persona and a lot of her personal experiences but that wasn’t so autobiographical or exploitative of her experience.