Daniel Zelman on Netflix’s Bloodline and Darkness on Television
Recently on a day when I was not feeling particularly well I watched the entire first season of Bloodline, the Netflix drama created by Daniel Zelman and Todd and Glenn Kessler. The show feels quite different from their previous collaboration, Damages. I love the slower pace and, additionally, Bloodline appeals to my fascination with families — the relationships between siblings and parents, and the impossibility of breaking from one’s familial role.
Opening with family members convening for a celebration, Bloodline is set in the Florida Keys, and it has an impressive cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shephard and Ben Mendelsohn. Thinking about the show but also television in general and how it’s been changing, I sat down Zelman and had a long, winding conversation in which we discussed Bloodline, binge-watching, reality TV, darkness, family dynamics and how my recording device looks like a weapon. (Note: spoilers below.)
Zelman: [referring to my recorder] That looks like a Taser.
Filmmaker: Yes, I’m going to Tase you at the end of this interview. This is that kind of interview.
Zelman: I just like how that will look – it will say: “Filmmaker: Zap. Zelman:…” No response, just “dot dot dot.”
Filmmaker: I watched the first season of Bloodline straight through, like a twelve-hour movie. I’m interested in talking with you about how much film and television are starting to blur in terms of how they are consumed.
Zelman: You know, we get asked that question a lot. Because obviously people are interested any time it feels like there is some kind of tectonic shift in the way things are either made or consumed, and clearly there is some major transition going on. I actually think it started a long time ago. I feel like in some ways it’s kind of a false thing that’s being talked about right now. The reason I say that is because people were binge-watching Damages years ago because of TiVo. I understand that technically it wasn’t being made with that in mind —
Filmmaker: But I was actually including that in my question, the time pre-Damages but post-our childhood.
Zelman: For sure, and I think it even started a little bit maybe before [TiVo] with DVDs because The Sopranos on DVD sold so many copies, and I think it’s impossible that everyone who bought the DVDs had seen the show. So, basically, they were watching the show all at once, but I do think that obviously it takes time for habits to change for the entire audience.
Filmmaker: Right, but even if you watch The Sopranos straight through it’s still, episode, episode, episode. It doesn’t feel like a twelve-hour movie.
Zelman: No, but I think that started to creep in in ways – I mean I don’t think we would have written Damages that differently. It was frustrating for us to have to recap a lot. That’s always the worst feeling, to feel like no one’s going to know what we’re talking about unless we have a character sum it up. In that respect, yes, we were still writing it in the old model. We would have to kind of reset certain plot points and story points. I think if you do that now it feels old fashioned, like you’re annoyed. [The viewer is] like, “Shut up.” You know?
Filmmaker: With Bloodline you also had an unprecedented 13-episode deal.
Zelman: Yes, we knew that we had 13 to do. It’s interesting because you’re telling a story, whether it’s being done in weekly chunks, or 13 at once; you still have to have a beginning and a middle and an end. So in that sense it’s not different. You need a concept. Which is maybe not what you want to hear. I actually feel when I go out into the world and people interview us they get disappointed when we say it’s not that different in certain ways. But for me that’s the truth when it comes to imagining an overall story. Where it’s different for sure is in the editing and in how each episode ends – you know, when you have to hold an audience’s attention for a week, you feel like you have to end with something more spectacular or more cliff-hangery or something. When the next episode is just a click away it can be much smaller. That was something that we struggled with a bit for Bloodline because there were times where we still, I think, had an older impulse to end with something more cliff-hangery. But at the same time we were very happy to have the option of not doing that. So when it came to writing individual episodes and imagining the arc of an individual episode I think it affected the writing.
Filmmaker: I’m not disappointed at all. Maybe I shouldn’t have referred to how it affects the writing. Maybe I should have said “how it affects the creating.”
Zelman: I guess in our experience the performances and the editing in some ways lead the way. Obviously that’s ridiculous, because you have to have a script first, but for me the script is just a blueprint. So, I don’t really know what I’m making until I’m in the editing room and I’m actually watching what the actors are doing. Bloodline is more character-oriented than Damages was. It’s about a family, so you have to get to know who that family is. It’s very hard to know exactly where you want the story to go until you know who those people are. I wouldn’t say that our fundamental idea changed. But the experience of making it was totally unknown. I felt like it was a leap of faith into something. One of the things that we absolutely talked about was going slower. We felt like before some of the thriller elements take over that we wanted it to feel more like a straight-ahead family drama. We knew that was going to be slower than what a lot of audiences are accustomed to. We also knew where we were going to take it. So in the first episode everyone is arriving for this celebration, and we wanted to create this sense that on the surface it’s kind of like paradise. We knew that while you were watching that it was not going to have any inherent plot interest. When we got to editing it, we tried so many different things – for the first episode we always wrote those little flash forward pieces and the voiceover but we moved those around a lot. We took them out, we put them back in, and that’s what I mean when I say we figured out in the editing.
Filmmaker: I could watch it be slow and be happy with that for a long time.
Zelman: We were at the Berlin Film Festival with it and it seemed to get a positive response when we screened it. Of course, you know, who’s going to say negative shit to you at a [film festival]…but one guy did. There’s always some guy. This one guy stood up and he was like, “Um, ah, I don’t like it.” He was a young guy – I would say mid-twenties to early-thirties or something. He was like, “I didn’t like it, you lost me, it was boring.” And then he said, “Who is the target audience for this?”
Filmmaker: And you were like, “Not you.”
Zelman: I actually said, “Well, it was you, so now we have to start all over.” So, I know that some people will have that experience with it. And we knew that going in. But what’s interesting about his question, “Who’s the target audience?” is that we did not think about that once. We didn’t have a single conversation with Netflix about who the target audience is. Now, they’re not advertising based, so why have that conversation? But certainly with Damages we had those conversations, and we were aware of our demographic.
Filmmaker: Before I started recording, we talked briefly about how dark television has gotten. I’m interested in that. It seems like shows now are so violent and graphic. I watch TV, and I’m like, what happened to Cheers?
Zelman: The landscape of television seems pretty amped up. The reason this fascinates me is because I get comments all the time: “You’re so dark. I had no idea you were so dark, the show’s so dark.” And I’m like, “What?” I mean it is horrible what is happening on a lot of TV shows — really twisted, almost depraved. Right? There is like a kind of depravity to it, which, you know, I’m all for in certain ways, but that always seemed like a niche thing.
Filmmaker: Well, that’s the thing, now it’s not, “I can choose that.” It’s, “That’s what’s on.”
Zelman: Right, you can’t avoid it, and people say that we’re dark. I think people experience what we’re doing as truly dark because there is no sense that it’s all solved in the end or it’s all taken care of.
Filmmaker: You are actually trying to examine how people behave. I guess what disturbs me about some of the other shows is that it’s just to show you something titillating that for me isn’t titillating, which makes it more sinister. What do you think it’s about that all these shows are on TV?
Zelman: I don’t really feel qualified to have an intelligent answer to that. I can only say that what it feels like to me is that it has to do with attention span and people’s threshold for being stimulated constantly going up.
Filmmaker: Is that the same reason that people love reality television?
Zelman: Some door has been opened for gratuitous negativity on television to be entertaining. I met someone who was telling me about “frankenbiting,” which is taking audio from completely different places and putting them together. It’s not like I was ever under the illusion that what I was watching was real [on reality TV shows], but I was shocked. How you could actually sit there and do that and feel okay with it seems really twisted to me. It feels dystopian. But we may be romanticizing the past – were there certain shows that actually –?
Filmmaker: There used to be some fucked-up shows. I mean, I Dream of Jeannie was fucked up.
Zelman: He had a slave.
Filmmaker: Yes, that’s a fucked-up show.
Zelman: But that’s innocently fucked-up. I think there was a lack of sophistication probably in realizing what that actually meant. It’s just as insidious perhaps, but the people who were putting it on weren’t doing it with that in mind. I guess the thing to me [regarding reality TV] is that there is a difference between dark and tawdry.
Filmmaker: I agree. I guess dark I actually love.
Zelman: Yeah, me too – but when I see something that is dark, I don’t even experience it as dark, because I experience it as truth or something. Or at least I acknowledge that that’s what the creator’s going for. This other stuff’s not going for truth. There’s no attempt at truth. One of the reasons we wanted Bloodline to be very slow is that when you get there you don’t feel like it’s just being done for the sake of it. They could have killed their brother in the first episode, and then that’s a story about getting away with it. When we decided that we were going to try to tell a family story where one sibling is killed by the other siblings – when is that sibling killed? Is that how the show starts? Is that the end of the first season? That’s a decision you have to make. I can’t say this for sure, but perhaps if we were in the old model of one episode per week, we might not have thought we could get away with it happening so late, because if that event defines what the show is, how can you wait until the end of the first season to define what the show is? It’s almost like the show starts in the second season. We did however choose to tease that early, so people thought, “Okay, this is going somewhere.” If it were a two-hour movie where they kill their brother, we would not have, at the beginning of the story, let the audience know. But when it’s 13 hours – well that is a long time, so we felt like we did want to help the audience understand what we were trying to accomplish.
TV is a mass medium. It is something that we struggle with because while we love good television, probably our favorite things are great independent films. For some reason that’s still what we would turn to as models. We talked a lot about the movie The Celebration. Another movie that we talked about was A Separation. The reason we talked about that movie is because you watch something unfold incrementally. These people are just living their lives, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about their lives, they have ordinary problems. It starts with a separation, and one little thing just keeps leading to another and by the end people’s lives have been destroyed, but incrementally. Everyone is trying to do their best, people are just trying to do their best with what they’ve got, and things end up in a terrible place.
Filmmaker: Can you talk more about wanting to create a show that has fratricide at its center?
Zelman: We were fascinated by the roles people play in families and how you get stuck in them. And they just kind of follow you around. You can go out in the world and people can perceive you a certain way and then you go back home and you’re just this other person – it’s so hard to escape it. Even if you’re someone who is so sick of your family that you’re going to move halfway across the world so you never have to see them again – well, the reason you did that is because of them. It’s inescapable, you’re either falling into that role and embracing it or struggling against it. Either way, it’s defining you. There’s this kind of a fantasy that happens when there’s a problem child, or that person in the family who you just kind of wish wouldn’t come home for Thanksgiving. Things would just be easier, right? What we did was we took that to an extreme. The fantasy is: the family would be better if you could get rid of that person. But of course that’s nonsense, because they’re carrying the negativity of the family, they are carrying some scar or issue, and it’s placed on someone and because it is put on that person, you get to feel better about yourself. So, what if you took that to the extreme? “Ok, we’re actually going to get rid of that person.” Then of course you have to examine for the first time who you really are because you don’t have that person anymore to play that role. So, how do the roles shift? How does your own perception of yourself shift? That was the point of exploration. You have a chair, and there are four legs of the chair and one of them is wobbly. You’re like, “Well if you get rid of the wobbly leg it’ll be better.” But of course you need the fourth leg, even if it’s wobbly, or the fucking chair doesn’t work. What does a “black sheep” really mean? What is a “black sheep” in a family?
There was a time when people looked at the black sheep, and in our minds this was kind of how Sam Shepard’s character viewed it. He never expressed it this way, but it’s that expression “the bad seed.” What that means is, “Well, there’s nothing I could do about it, it was a fucking bad seed. It came out wrong.” And we always thought that he probably looked at it that way. That used to be an okay way of looking at it. That’s like the pre-psychology way of looking at things. Which, fuck it, maybe is healthier. I don’t know. Danny’s character then became fascinating to us as the person who is simultaneously extremely angry and resentful but can’t break away, needs the contact and so won’t ever really just say, “Eh, fuck you all – I’m going to go live my own life.” They always come back – they still need something, [like] approval, which of course is natural. But that dynamic is heartbreaking.
Filmmaker: They always say that about little kids, and I think that adults are just little kids that got much bigger, right? They say if they can’t get positive attention, they’ll try to get negative attention. They’d rather have negative attention than no attention at all.
Filmmaker: So that impulse in a character like Danny’s makes sense to me. Like, “Okay, if this is what you expect of me, then I’ll give it to you.”
Zelman: And that was the whole thing about the woman that he brings to the party: “I’m going to show up with armor.” That’s his way of taking the upper hand immediately [by] saying, “I’m in control here, and you have to deal with that, and because you’re dealing with that, it’s deflecting for me.”
Filmmaker: And for me that conversation about the girl was the conversation where I felt like, “Okay, now I understand everyone’s role in this family.”
Zelman: It does two things; it slows things down a bit, right? It also in some ways makes them all unlikeable but identifiable too, right? It is the set piece of the whole episode. It was fun and easy to write. You know, plot sucks. Plot is fucking impossible, and it’s no fun. Every once in a while when you figure out a puzzle in a certain way, it can be satisfying, but in general it blows and I hate it. That scene was so easy. It’s everybody’s family dynamic in some way, and one of the things that was interesting in making it was that every time we met with actors, it very quickly became clear how universal it is. I think that helped us get certain actors, because they were like, “Oh, yeah, I can relate to this.” The other thing we constantly come up against with our work: our characters almost never say what they mean.
Filmmaker: Because people never say what they mean.
Zelman: But it can confuse people because people take scripts really literally. “Well, he’s saying this.” And to us it’s obvious that he means the opposite. No one is doing what they are doing for the reason that they say they are doing it. So in this story one of the things that came up was, “Why is Danny dealing drugs? Does he need money? Does he need this? Does he need that?” And “He knows he’s going to get caught.” “Well, isn’t that kind of stupid?” “But, he wants to get caught. He wants a confrontation. He can’t wait for that moment where John catches him and confronts him.” “What is he expecting to get out of that?” “He doesn’t know, he just needs it.” And Ben [Mendelsohn] is the greatest because Ben will be like, “Of course he doesn’t know.” We were very much on the same wavelength with Ben. He prefers approaching things obliquely.
Filmmaker: I don’t think we understand the first thing about ourselves.
Zelman: Exactly. One way I experience the characters is as colors. Not that I could assign them a color. But what I mean is that in a scene there’s a certain balance of energy that is almost like music or colors. You have a feeling about what that balance of energy is that might be similar to if you’re balancing colors in a painting.
Filmmaker: Could you talk more about genre?
Zelman: This may go back to what you were saying about how 13 in a row can affect storytelling. One of the things I’ve learned, although I’m not sure if I’ve learned the right lesson, is that when things are separated by a week the genre has to be pretty consistent because you’re tuning in every week to watch this thing. When the episodes are right next to each other, if this episode is a kind of different world than that episode, I think you can go with that more because it’s all of a piece. I hope we took advantage of that to some extent. I like that that is potentially a new possibility. It’s not necessarily a comedy or a drama. In our case it was thriller/family drama. So not every episode is a thriller. That was a huge thing: what is an episode of this show? One of my hopes is that binge-watching will open that up even more and that shows can just kind of wander much more because you’re just going with it. I’ve found that when I binge-watch things I’m fine if an episode just kind of ends abruptly.