Last night, Mitch Hurwitz kicked off the ninth annual New York Television Festival, and Vulture had the honor of interviewing him onstage. The highlights include how he came around to casting Jason Bateman in Arrested Development, how the idea for a seal to bite off Buster's arm came from a throwaway e-mail, and how Netflix both opened and constricted his creativity. We present the full transcript of the interview between Hurwitz and Vulture senior editor John Sellers here, for those of you who weren't there.
After Netflix got involved, and said yes, did you ever have an “oh, shit” moment where you thought, Oh my god, now I actually have to do it?
Hurwitz: I have those every second of every day. I think it’s a big part of being a creative person. I’m sure you guys have experienced that. You know, you have to commit to something. I’ve said this before, and it was said to me, but life is choice, and choice is loss. And it’s very easy I think when you’re a creative person to wait for the right thing and to start getting self-conscious about how you are going to express what you do and what’s special about you. I would say in general, a lot of times the answer is that you just dive into something and you find your own voice through that process. I will say, Arrested, I had to remind myself that it was a great joy, that even when we did it, we were both making fans and upsetting fans. It did sort of die, and like anything that dies young, nobody goes back and says, “You know who wasn’t a very good actor? James Dean.” But you know that had he stuck around and done the movie version of a Neil Simon play or something, people would start to be like, “Oh, James Dean ...” So, we did have that it kind of died young. It was actually really good for me to kind of say, “Oh, fuck it, let’s not be precious about it.” Which I had to do even after the pilot, I had worked so hard on the pilot, and it was embraced by the critics, an experience I had never had. I immediately got self-conscious about episode two, and I constantly had to say, “Fuck it, fuck it, what do I care? Fuck it.” I think that’s an important voice you have to shut up your super-ego with.
When you started putting season four together for Netflix, obviously the parameters of how it was going to work were different than it would be with a network. Was that actually in a way limiting, because you could do anything?
Hurwitz: I just realized, you’re the voice of my super-ego. That’s why you look so familiar. [Audience laughs] You’re the guy always telling me that it’s not good enough. [Audience laughs] Well, fuck you, mister! [Audience laughs] There is something there, though, and it goes along with me saying that you don’t wait for the perfect creative opportunity. I’m saying this to myself, too, by the way. I’ve by no means mastered this, I’m going through this now trying to find the right project and everything, and it’s an ongoing thing. What I came to realize is that some perfect version of Arrested Development as it exists for me, for the actors, and for the audience and everybody together, probably doesn’t exist. Very specifically, the more constraints I have, the more opportunities I have to be creative to fix those constraints. I’m sure people experience that all the time. This is what I’m doing, this animated short for this TV festival and now you throw yourself into it and try and really give it everything you’ve got. And with that particular thing, it kind of created this great creative opportunity because built into it was that we didn’t have all the actors at the same time. That almost kind of freed me up, I would still say that it’s not preferable to having all of the actors at the same time, but it freed me to say, “That’s what I’ve been given — now what can I call upon in myself to deal with that specific problem?” It really became energizing and joyful and thrilling to embrace that and say, “Oh, you know, there’s a chance here we can have separate stories.” Originally it was going to be an anthology of truly separate stories and I started to play with the idea of, well, they can overlap. And then the next step was, well, there is a great opportunity to overlap, make the audience think that the story is one thing, and two episodes later show them that the story is something else, and have them also realize that it is too late for the characters who have taken actions based on that scene. For me, it was this really great lesson in trying to let go of this elusive perfection and create with the materials you’ve been given.
Did you think about the binge-watching aspect?
Hurwitz: Well, it’s funny — I did end up embracing this idea. At the time, it wasn’t clear that they were all going to be delivered at the same time, and that’s the Netflix model, to put them all out there at the same time. Netflix has consistently looked at this stuff with fresh eyes. They were looking at it and saying that this is how people watch Arrested Development, they watch it back-to-back. And I tried to be forward thinking, and I love playing with the form and messing with it. But I was thinking: “But don’t you want them looking forward to it every week?” and all these old thoughts. Once I understood that it was all going to come out at the same time, it did again change the storytelling opportunity that I had tried to take advantage of. I felt like in many ways I did not prepare the audience for this because I was so much in post-[production] hell, doing it all at once, and right before the show came out I thought, “Boy, I really have not said what this is.” What it had become was a novel. I was like, I have this unique opportunity here, people are going to get to watch eight hours of this, they are not going to spend the next six months having this doled out to them. So, I’m not going to do what you do in TV and throw everything that you’ve got in the first episode and make it live on its own. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that they’re going to watch this whole thing. So the storytelling changed. That first episode became much more like chapter one of a novel than episode one of a series. And I didn’t prep you guys, and I’m really sorry about that. [Audience laughs]
That’s so nice to hear. Finally.
Hurwitz: It’s okay apparently. [Audience laughs] The Netflix model, it’s indicative of the opportunities that are out there now, I think, to change. We know that the concepts that people write about and depict are always the same. From Plato’s Republic on — well, maybe Plato’s Republic is not the best example [Audience laughs], because those act breaks are so weak and not that funny (well, there’s one funny part when he’s trying to get out of the cave) [Audience laughs] ... What an idiot, Plato [Audience laughs] — for the most part you are dealing with jealousy, you are dealing with love, you’re dealing with hatred, you are dealing with revenge and all of these sort of classic things. And what changes is the medium that gives you opportunities to get at it in a different way. So I do think [that with] this streaming idea, you’re losing something. [Earlier at the NYTVF], we covered this [thought that] “life is choice and choice is loss.” You’re losing something, and what you’re losing ... We were talking about this backstage — when I first started watching Mad Men, I saw it on the air, and afterwards I would be left to kind of contemplate the episode. Like, wow, that storm that is coming in really is the sixties, and she’s going under the table, she’s sort of hiding from the inevitable. But then when you start watching them back-to-back, in a funny way, you’re watching plot. You are still picking up some of that stuff, but you’re really more interested in if [Don] is going to form his own agency, because that is how our brains are wired to track story. Sometimes you lose some of that, but I do think you gain in this new media a chance to tell a story differently and let people see, if you look at Breaking Bad, a character evolve. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about Netflix, if you look at the shows that they’ve done from Orange Is the New Black to House of Cards, they are shows that fundamentally change, whereas television has always been about always staying fundamentally the same. Episode 600 of Two and a Half Men is basically like episode 4; that’s what you’re buying … you know it’s going to be the same thing. So I think it’s kind of exciting to see how stories can change.
Did you have conversations with them about just releasing two or three first?
Hurwitz: Yeah. I was still hanging on to some old ideas about how in episode ten you find out a big cliffhanger about who the other person is in the romantic triangle. There was one in episode five, but it all kind of got mixed in there together. It was George Michael. [Audience laughs] And that was weird because we spent so much time thinking as writers, Oh, this will be so much fun for an audience to get to. They’ll think one thing and then we’ll set up clues that it’s somebody else. And, actually, there wasn’t time for them to think about those things.
But they’ll think about them later, when they watch it for the fifth time.
Hurwitz: Yeah. Storytelling works that way, even if you read ... I know you don’t have children. You hate children? [Audience laughs]
Yes, I hate children. [Audience laughs]
Hurwitz: It shows in the work. [Audience laughs] Even when you read the same story to children to every night, and it’s your brain reading it: “And the other one is going to be brick. Wait and see, the other house is brick — they can’t blow it down.” [Audience laughs] Our brains do, every time we experience that story change, so you do have a little flexibility there.
You told us back in 2010 that you used to spend roughly 40 hours in post for every twenty minutes of the original Arrested Development run, due to tinkering with it at the end. At what point for this new run were you satisfied with an episode? Or did you tinker with it until the very last second?
Hurwitz: Post-production was always the same experience for me. I’m sure you’ve taken your own stuff into post-production, where you’ve worked so hard on the script and you start of hating it, but you get it to a place where you’re happy — and then you get on the set and it’s awful, and then you fix it and you start becoming proud of it, and then you see the first cut and you just want to kill yourself. [Audience laughs] You have to remember that it’s a first draft again. It’s a first draft, how would it not be [bad]? But I would just be devastated and would just walk around the whole Fox lot. I would be talking to my wife, Mary-Jo, on the phone, and she would be like, “Maybe this one is just not that good.” Like arrghh. [Audience laughs] Such a bitch. [Audience laughs; note: Mary-Jo is sitting in the second row.] It actually kind of freed me up to get back in there. So post is amazing. If you do it right or do it wrong, you can use it as an opportunity. It’s great fun. The more that there is something that exists, the more fun that is to work on it. I always think that writers get it the hardest, because we don’t get something on our doorstep like everybody else does [with] “Oh, I can fix this.” Writers, you know, are starting with nothing really, so post is a great opportunity. On this one, Troy Miller and I — the great Troy Miller, who has kind of been an independent producer and director for ages (he’s done Flight of the Concords and he did Mr. Show, so he’s the real deal and we’re friends), and we sort of partnered together on this as co-directors and with him as a producer — we shot it all, every day for 88 days, and there was no time to stop and edit. And we had nothing to edit, we had just pieces of things. On day one, we shot something for the last episode, and so it was all spread out. So then the post happened all at the same time, and I was really rushing to get it done, and all I had was three months, and even to me that sounds like a lot, but the first episode took me three weeks. The math doesn’t work. [Audience laughs] I think I can get through three episodes. This can’t be. At one point Ted Sarandos, who runs Netflix, who has just been such a great pal and is the one responsible for bringing this back, goes, “Well, it’s conceivable you could keep editing, while we’re streaming.” There goes the rest of my life. I’ll just do that forever, until I'm an old man. [Audience laughs] Cut to me saying, "Don’t we have one where he smiles?" [Audience laughs] And there are more tools in post as you know. We started doing things, everyone does this, but we were split-screening to get the timing better between two actors, and then I started pitching up things, like, “We never got him asking this as a question!?” [Mimics a character’s line-read being manipulated in post-production] “What are you talking about? What are you talking about?” [Audience laughs] Sounds like a question. There’s only going to be options. Right? There’s only going to be more of these things, we know it, it’ll be phrased as a question? It was a very intense post period and very intense period of storytelling but that was also a great opportunity to kind of say, “I can make things make sense in a long-term thing.” You know, I can take things out of the last episode and put it earlier. It’s all about manipulating the truth.
That’s what writing is.
Hurwitz: That’s what we’re doing tonight. [Audience laughs]
Speaking of which, let's talk about Michael Cera in the writer’s room. How was it working with the younger generation of writers? Is there a noticeable difference in the way they work?
Hurwitz: Yeah, like, they don’t know my Laverne and Shirley references. [Audience laughs] Michael Cera, as you guys know, Michael Cera is not exactly the younger generation. He’s such an old soul. I don’t even believe in that stuff and he’s been around. He’s so funny, and such a delightful guy and it’s so impressive to me that he has gotten a lot of other opportunities and he kind of said, “Let me use this as a learning opportunity. Let me do it as a graduate school.” I really started off thinking, “Oh, this is great, let me just do this for him so that he can have this experience,” and we very quickly ended up relying on him. Like, oh, you know, “Michael’s on the set today and we don’t have him in the writer’s room.” It was funny. In that particular instance, I don’t think I can extrapolate what it’s like working with millennials, because he doesn’t have a phone. [Audience laughs] Also Arrested Development is kind of his first language. That was the other interesting thing. So when he pitched something for Will Arnett, [it was] just great joke material. He was raised doing it. I will say that even us old guys and the young people in the room, we were all really — you know, physical age doesn’t matter — energized by the creative opportunities and the fact that we were in some new territory. And we really go into it like, Can you set this up here? And pay it off in five episodes? Is that too far? Can we turn this on its head and make the good guy the bad guy? All of that stuff, everybody was onboard with and having fun.
Having gone through this experience, do you think you can go back to network?
Hurwitz: Well, first of all, is there anyone from a network here? [Audience laughs] Doesn’t look like they are. [So I'll say] absolutely not. [Audience laughs; note: He is clearly joking.] No, no, they’re different things. They are totally different things. [Netflix] was a blessed experience; it really was a great choice, and really kind of an overwhelming experience, too. It had gotten to a point in broadcast television where I really was, in a funny way, and I’m going to get myself in trouble here, they sort of fetishized how difficult I was. I think this weird thing happened with the show where it got canceled and then it got a following, and when people said, “Why did you cancel the show?” — and it’s just my own thing, but — I have a feeling that [network executives] said, “Oh, Mitch is crazy.” [Audience laughs] Because by the time I would bring back shows to broadcast television, they were really worried about me. And, ironically, I did not take a lot of notes [on Arrested Development] — I was always open to suggestions and things, but I always had a very clear vision for Arrested — but on the things after that, I was really the opposite of that, and really open to taking notes. One in particular was Running Wilde. That was Will Arnett’s show, and I sort of think of him as a little brother, and love him, and we had this great experience together, and for whatever reason I decided that the lesson I was going to teach him as my younger brother was that you take the notes. You don’t whine about it, you just do the best you can given what you’re given. We did like nine drafts of Running Wilde, and Kevin Riley who ran Fox just kept saying, “Hey, I understand if you guys don’t want to do another version of this, but this doesn’t work for me, and I want another premise.” And Will would look at me, and I would say, “You betcha we’ll do another premise.” It was just so misplaced. And it got to the point where I was in a production meeting once we got the show up and running, and it had changed so many times by this point, and I was given a note — I won’t say who gave it — but the note I was given said, “Mitch, if you think something is a good idea, or it’s just like a twist you haven’t seen before, or it just feels special or fresh, just don’t do it.” [Audience laughs] And I said, “Kevin! Oh.” [Audience laughs.] And he goes, “I know, I know, I know — you can make fun of me for saying that. It’s an easy target. But you know what I mean. You’re hurting yourself.” And I got it. I appreciated it. [He meant] “You know, I want to make this show a hit.” I did, too, so I went back into the writer’s room and we were like an hour into working and I had this true moment where I said, “You know what would be funny? Never mind ...” So that doesn’t work. That obviously doesn’t work. Somewhere in there, you want to find a way to be open, to not be defensive, to trust your own creative energy enough that you can go with criticism or suggestion, but also so you can be clear on certain things. It’s funny — this was after Arrested Development that I learned this lesson. But, anyway, I think there are now opportunities where there’s a chance that people will do stuff like what you guys are doing with your independent projects, and get acknowledged for the voice of that, instead of trying to get your voice to kind of fit into something else.
Can we talk about “The Final Countdown”? That classic song by Europe from the eighties? Was it always in the script to use that particular song, or was there another song that G.O.B. was going to use for his act?
Hurwitz: It was in the script. It was not mine … ugh, I hate giving credit to others. It was Brad Copeland’s idea. I actually didn’t know the song, but we were definitely hitching on — one of the things that had become fun about doing the show was that I was trying to do what The Simpsons did with live action, and The Simpsons spent a lot of time — I knew people who were writers on it at the time, and they would say, sometimes, we spend an hour on the title, which I thought was so impressive. As a viewer I was always so disappointed when there wasn’t background stuff. Like, when a car was just a car. So suddenly during Arrested it was like, I know it takes a second longer, but let’s find a funny sign ... So I did put a lot of that stuff into the script. And we spent a lot of time thinking, “What’s the right song?” and Brad was the one who came up with “The Final Countdown.” And then the other funny thing is that I was pretty hands-on trying to guide that show in the first year. I was in the writers’ room exclusively, but I would run back and forth to the set — I wasn’t directing yet. And the one thing I had cheated on, because you can only do so much in the script, was that G.O.B. does a magic show, and I was like, I’m not just going to send G.O.B. to do a magic show — Will Arnett, he’s a stage actor, he’s not going to just, you know, bring out the egg face. And we were shooting and suddenly I realized, Wait, it’s Tuesday, we’re shooting the magic show. We’re shooting the magic show, and the only thing that was in it was “The Final Countdown.” And we had the set made, and I even made sure we had the guy there who had some silks and some stuff, so I could get down there and we could find some things. And I went running down to the stage, and I saw Will with a knife in his teeth, and I thought, Oh, he’s fine. He’s got it. Dancing into the fan … oh my god. It’s almost like the more you prepare, the more help you can get. You know what I mean? Like, we’re so prepared on so many things and then finally he got a chance to come up.
Are you an expert on magic? Because your Twitter icon is Doug Henning.
Hurwitz: Doug Henning is my Twitter icon, that’s very impressive that you know that. Particularly given how little I tweet. Yeah, I always liked magic. I was always embarrassed by liking magic because I liked the fact that they’re just lying. You go into this thing — and they’re just lying! There’s no way. And as I kid I used to buy — even older, I would buy … I would read on the thing, “Take a ring from a spectator.” You know, there’s this great patter, too, the patter section. Anyway, I would read, “Take a ring from the spectator, it disappears, it shows up on another spectator — there are no fake rings. Only one ring is used.” And I would just sit and rack my brain. You could rule out wizardry. What could it be? And you would send away for it, and it would be 45 dollars — and in the package you could feel two rings. Of course there are two rings. What else could it be? Even with “not two rings,” there are two rings. So I just always thought it was such a funny thing. And also the fact that most people go out and they just live their life and whatever happens, happens. Particularly with people in comedy, you’re funny at whatever the thing is. Magicians, they start their day by like, strapping a magnet to their knee just in case they want a spoon to move. A packet of milk on the shoulder … and then pass the whole thing off, like, “I’m James Bond.” No, you’re walking carefully so you don’t kill a bird. So it’s just such a funny, ridiculous thing. And yes, I love it.
Did Mark Zuckerberg get in touch with you about Fakeblock?
Hurwitz: No, isn’t that funny? I really wanted him to … because Michael Cera was always confused with what’s his name —
Who was in a movie about magic just recently.
Hurwitz: Oh, yeah, I know. You know, we put off making the Arrested Development movie for so many years, because we couldn’t get the pieces together, we couldn’t get people to fund it, so the story kept changing sort of by whatever was in the popular culture. And for a while there was that movie The Changeling out, where Angelina Jolie — who seems so nice by the way, she seems great — she had adopted this boy and her son was lost and came back, and her whole thing was, “This isn’t my son,” when in fact she was crazy. And at the time Michael Cera was unavailable to do the show, so I really at that point wanted to make the movie with, like, Jonah Hill, as George Michael. And just have Michael be like, “This isn’t George Michael.” I just so wanted to do that and have G.O.B. be saying, “Nah, that’s him. That’s how I remember him.” So, it’s just like the spin of the roulette wheel, like it stopped while Social Network was out. So, yep, there we go — it’s going to be about The Social Network. But I think if we waited one more year, that story of Fakeblock would not have been able to happen. And Anonymous — we got Anonymous in there. And hey, I know you’re not supposed to tell us, but how many people here are in Anonymous? Just a show of hands? How many Anonymous members? Oh, come on! Come on. I really wanted to, like — I remember the writers were scared, because we did this thing at the end of one of the episodes where you find out that Anonymous is now going to be a character in this thing moving forward. And even in the writers’ room we were like, “Eh, this is really risky. What if they screw up our wi-fi?” And I was like, “It’s okay! They’ll like it! They’ll like it.”
Are we going to see in the next year or two, reports that the movie’s being made?
Hurwitz: I’d like to start some reports tonight. So, this is the thing about the movie. I’ll tell you the whole thing. Most recently, I was talking to a reporter at Rolling Stone … we have a friend who works at Rolling Stone, and I was talking to a reporter there, and they were talking about something else, like favorite shows, and I was talking about the Bill Maher show. And then he said, “What’s going on with the movie?” And I said, “Well, the one thing we want to avoid is that there’s any press on this, because it got out of control, last time.” Like, people who’d say, “Maybe the movie’s coming,” and then there would be press, and it really just served to piss off the audience because it seemed like we were just teasing them. [But I told the guy at Rolling Stone] “But yeah, I definitely want to do the movie,” and then that was, like, the headline. “Movie’s Coming …” and it was like, “Argh, I’ve done it!” when I used to get so mad at Jeffery Tambor [for saying], “Oh, I talked to Mitch. He wants to do it.” So, here’s the thing. We developed this whole story, and the idea was: Let’s do basically act one of that movie at Netflix. And it grew. But the idea was originally, let’s do this funky little thing where there are these webisodes, with one character at a time, and then we’ll still do the movie. But for the fans, there’s some backstory out, and more interest in seeing, maybe, what Maeby’s been up to than just the two minutes we would have been able to give it in the movie, before the whole plot starts. And then, as I started to do the Netflix show, it became irresistible because it was like, We’ve got now eight hours of this Netflix show, and in the best case scenario the movie is an hour and a half, so I guess we’ll put more in the TV show. But still, it always moved up to a movie show. So the experience was so great with Netflix that it was sort of irresistible to all of us to say, “Well, let’s keep doing something with Netflix. Let’s keep doing some sort of series for Netflix.” The problem here is — and I don’t mean to be coy about this — there are all these [roadblocks]. A lot of the actors are on other shows, so they have existing, primary contracts. Tony Hale we could only get for three episodes because he’s on HBO’s show, which is a great show, Veep. And also, we don’t … I mean, the percentages, stuff like that, but the property is owned by 20th Century Fox. So it’s not like we can just take this to Paramount, and take this to Warner Bros., and do the things you can do to get a movie made — see if you can get a couple people interested, and drive it that way. It really is owned by Fox. They could let go of it — which would be unlikely. So I’ve always been very, very cautious about talking about it, because I don’t want to be presumptuous. All I’ve been able to say is, I really want to continue with this, and the cast really wants to continue with this. So my latest thought that has been approved by no one — and I’m already paranoid that I’m going to hear, “Oh, are you telling people that you’re bringing the show back? We don’t have the ... ” — you know, Adam Berkowitz will say that to me. My agent’s right there [thinking to himself], “What were you doing up there?” Do you mind coming up here and, as I’m saying this, signing off on it for legal reasons? No? So, basically what my new thing is — because it might be tough to get the cast together for, like, the four months that you would need to make a series — to try to get them together for four weeks sooner, and do the movie that is the story that we’ve been building up to in the show. And then, bring the series back after that. It’s not my decision but it’s what I want to do. And the reason I’m not saying, “Hey, let’s just go do the series next” is because I’m worried it will take two years to make all those deals and it will just mess with people. It’s like this weird tease to all of us and to the audience, and all that. So the goal is to do a kind of movie-for-Netflix type thing, and then go into a series.
You know you could just train the camera on a lot of the actors over a weekend, and have them improv, and people would watch it.
Hurwitz: Yeah, I know.
You could make a lot of money doing something like that. Once.
Hurwitz: Yeah, no, no, no. Listen, I know you’re specifically talking about that Alia Shawkat shower-cam thing that we kicked around — but it’s a different kind of entertainment than I was thinking. But it’s cool. Millenials will love it. They’re so funny. They’re so funny. I remember I used to watch Seinfeld and think, What are the chances of getting four such funny people together in April, or May, or March really, when you’re trying to cast a pilot? The TV industry still works in this crazy system where everybody’s trying to get the same actors at the same time. And when we did Arrested we had three weeks to cast it and we didn’t even have anybody in mind for, like, the normal guy. And I was like, Well, this is great. I can just skate another year, we can start the process, and push it back. And then we did, miraculously, find these unbelievable unknowns, and some knowns, who were just so special … Arnett, you know, was like a dramatic guy. This dramatic play he was doing that had just fallen apart, and even his agent said, “Well, you know, he’s kind of more of a dramatic actor,” and it was like, Well, we can make that work. Cut to him doing the chicken dance, with this insane, insane commitment. And Michael Cera, I’d seen Michael Cera in a pilot — forgive me, because I’ve told this story, but I just love what it says about Michael Cera. But, I’ll make it super-brief. I had seen him in a pilot and I reached out through the casting director, like, “There was this kid in this pilot, can you please try to track him down.” Two weeks went by, and we’d seen all these kids. You know, kid actors in Hollywood, a lot of them come up through that Disney channel, or back then it was Barney, so you get really, like, these hammy kids. Precocious, you know? So I’m waiting to hear, and finally the casting director says to me, “Great news: Michael Cera likes the script.” And I’m like, “Who’s Michael Cera?” “The kid that you wanted us to get.” “That was Michael Cera? We’ve been waiting to see whether this 12-year-old likes the material? Good. Uh, I’m glad he likes the material.” And, you know, that’s Michael Cera — you know what I mean? Only Michael Cera would be as a 12-year-old, “Yeah, I like this. This is good.” It’s such an important part — television is so much about continuing to work with people, and I mean, that was just fortune. All of them.
Can we drink from the river Bateman for a second?
Hurwitz: Yeah, yeah.
I’m a longtime fan of his, from the early years. Silver Spoons. And It’s Your Move.
Hurwitz: Yeah, because that was kind of right in your face. That was like, “It’s Your Move.”
When you were going to cast him, were you like, “Okay, bring me the guy from Teen Wolf 2”?
Hurwitz: No, no. I will share this with you, because I think that it’s important to check your prejudices. And you guys know I’m a white supremacist, right? So I’m not checking all my prejudices … but Jason Bateman — I didn’t even think of him for the part. In fact, we were talking about Jeremy Piven, and I was really like, I don’t want to get punched. I just had this vibe like he was going to punch me. He’s so good, but at some point, season 2, he’d be like, “my guy’s not gay” — punch. But anyway, Ron Howard and I were now new at this point. We were like, “Who are we going to get?” And I saw on the call sheet for that day that the casting director put together a list of people — they reach out to agents and agents send people, some of you may know this. And Jason Bateman was on the list. He’d just done about eight pilots or short-lived series in a row. And I had that prejudice. I actually did not really know Jason Bateman’s name, but I saw his name on the list, and I was sort of like, “I don’t really want to do the Jason Bateman pilot. You know, I feel like this is so special. It’s like a novel, and it has all of these weird elements. You know? And the network’s going to make me use Jason Bateman.” “Do you want me to tell him to go away?” “No, no, no, he can come in and read.” And he was great. He came in and did exactly what he does on the show. He was just, of course, the smart, funny, dry, hilarious, great guy we know. And I ended up chasing him out into the hall, because at the time I was producing another pilot, and he was going to read for that, and at the time I was like, “Yeah, put him on that,” because it had the multi-camera, and I had to run out there and tell him, “Don’t go on the multi-camera thing.” You know, I was just involved in it in a non-writing way. So I’ll get sued now, probably. But, then I brought him to Fox with a big smile on my face for [Fox executive] Gail Berman, and she said, “Well, I don’t want to do Jason Bateman …” and I said, “I thought you were going to force me to do this, but no, no, he’s great.” And of course she saw him, and it was instantly like, “Oh, he’s wonderful.” So that was a really good lesson for me. You know, we all have these biases, if you think about it, like, the people who you like — I mean, that happened with Breaking Bad. He had been around a lot. He’d not only done Malcolm in the Middle but I’d worked on a lot of sitcoms and he was always like guest actor as the doctor. And, you know, he was really good and everything, but I could see myself being the executive producer of Breaking Bad and being like, “No, we don’t want the Malcolm in the Middle guy. This is a really good show.” And I mean, who could be better? What a brilliant actor. So, you know, we want that extended to us. We just have to extend it to other creative people, too.
That’s a good point.
Hurwitz: Really I’m trying to see you in more, multi-dimensions. I know I pigeon-hole you, as the super-ego.
I want to expand. I’m not just your super-ego.
Hurwitz: You could be my id.
Maybe that’s it ...
Hurwitz: Rage for it.
Okay, I can’t be your id.
Hurwitz: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s not your—
That’s not my thing. So, we are going to open it up to questions to the audience, because that’s when chaos happens. So I don’t know how we are going to do that.
Hurwitz: Just anybody raise their hand.
Audience question: I was wondering if you could talk about creating characters. How much do you think about making them likable, sympathetic, giving them challenges? Do you care, do you not care, how do you address that?
Hurwitz: I was talking about this a little today. Because, it’s so easy for me to be full of shit in response to that. Because I don’t completely know how to create characters. Because people talk about characters, people say, oh, ‘character is everything.’ Forgive me if you heard me say this today, but really character is what someone does, much more than who they are. And the example I used today, was, I can be sarcastic or I can be fearful, but it doesn’t really matter until there’s a story — until someone comes in and holds us hostage. And if I’m sarcastic, it’s like, ‘there’s that character that says things that could get them all killed.’ And if I’m fearful, I’m the guy that’s saying, ‘wait!’ and that becomes funny in its own thing. So I actually try to start with what the story is. And that too is a process. But I just think, even though we talk about character, what we’re really wired too as species is just story. It’s what keeps us interested in things, it’s how we turn these crazy, random firings in our brains at night while we sleep into a story. Our brain’s just trying so hard to say, ‘then that caused me to do this,’ so it’s a funny thing. Like in the example of Arrested, I really did try to start with some givens. You know, we’re going to do this show about family, maybe they suffer somehow. And that starts—oh, they lose their money. Who’s a good person to lose their money? Maybe it’s somebody who’s toed the party line and is ready to be successful. It kind of builds out from story. And then you do get to have some flights of fancy, of course. You do get to collect other pieces. I did know somebody who lost their medical license because they gave CPR to someone who was sleeping, but it wasn’t like [Audience laughs] I’ve gotta to do a show that has that guy in it. Right? It wasn’t until that I was like, ‘okay now there’s a daughter, she’s gotta be married to somebody – he should also have lost an opportunity to make money.’ It’s really once you start laying out your story and for me it can be very – one of the things I did to create characters in Arrested was I used this –I don’t know how to talk about this - it’s borderline pompous – it is pompous. So, forgive me, but it was a tool. You try to find any way to get at this. So I used this paradigm that I learned in college in some psychology course, matriarch, patriarch, craftsman and clown. Now this foursome appears all through literature and all through pop culture. And being a beatle’s fan it was really like, ‘Oh, matriarch and patriarch, it’s Paul and John.’ And craftsman is George. And clown is Ringo. It’s like, ‘Oh! Yes!’ So I always liked that. Even in Seinfeld. I’ll bet if you looked at successful foursomes, it exists. Leave It To Beaver, to go way back, is a really literal one. And I just wanted to use that so I started thinking like, ‘Okay, patriarch and matriarch are Lindsey and Michael. Craftsman, oh maybe I’ll do like an academic. And that also will tell the story of a family that is just equipped for nothing. And then I needed a clown. And you would look at the show now – all that stuff is kind of buried – you would almost think Buster is the clown, because he’s clowny, but it was based on the fact that he was an academic and then the clown is the magician because magicians and clowns are kind of the same thing. They kind of run in the same circles.
They’re all liars.
Hurwitz: Frauds. So I started there, that was just a trick. I actually did a pilot once where I tried to do superego, ego and id just to get myself going. And just because I knew if I had something that primal at the heart of it, then it is going to be very clear how these people function in their life. And then of course you try not to be on the nose with any of it – you try and forgot it. But you do get the sense if you were right now sit down and try and create a funny little comic skit, that if you were to have id, that’s a pretty good character – id would be a fun one. This guy can’t shut up, he’s not contemplative. James Caan from The Godfather, he’s id. The ego is maybe Michael from The Godfather. Superego is maybe Don Corleone — you start to see how the pieces will have a natural way in which they play off each other. But to me it is much more as I get older and I have done this more, creating characters is much less of a flight of fancy and much more of a how-do-you-tell-the-story. And so if I’m going to tell a story about a young couple in love, well, in a very basic, basic way, he’s going to need someone to talk to. Maybe the guy is really passive-aggressive - maybe that guy is in love with her, and you just start building it around the story.
Audience question: Are there any hit shows now where you basically see your influence?
Hurwitz: Good question. That’s so nice of you to ask. Whenever I’m tempted to, I have to quickly remind myself that I stole so much from, you know, The Simpsons, Larry David, and The Larry Sanders Show. Nobody talks about The Larry Sanders Show. I forget to talk about The Larry Sanders Show, especially when people will say, ‘Hey your show is kind of breakthrough and new.’ And I was like, ‘Nahh.’ The Larry Sanders Show was breakthrough and new. Of course as a person sometimes I will really want to say, ‘They’re doing my joke. That was my joke!’ There’s a thing on Modern Family where a guy set on a bus bench and it revealed something when he got up. I was like, ‘We did the bus bench! We did this!’
You own the bus bench!
Hurwitz: But that’s just ego and the better part of it is, like, what a privilege to be part of truly the flow of that. I wouldn’t have been able to do Arrested Development at the start of my career. And you guys are going to do something way past Arrested Development, using that. We now know you can have some unlikeable characters, we now know you can do some Verte. Now we’re going to take it into this regard. So, but that’s nice of you to ask, and it’s thrilling of I see it, except for that bus.
Audience question: Hi, have you ever done anything with a character you’ve regretted?
Hurwitz: I’ve done a lot of things with actors I’ve regretted. [Audience laughs] Yeah. I would say, um, well, regret is a tricky word. Here’s a big secret: nobody knows what wasn’t. So there are occasionally times and I have to think about this while I’m writing sometimes. I have this notion of a perfect thing and this isn't it. Those things really bug me, if they’re generic. And that’s why if you look at Arrested, there are funny restaurants, you know, Swappigans — I spend time with those stupid things because it just bugs me if their names are boring, stuff like that. And sometimes I get a little too bogged down in that and I have to remind myself, it’s like, ‘Nobody knows what it wasn’t.’ Nobody’s going to see the scene in the restaurant and say, ‘Why aren’t they swapping food for materials?’ [Audience laughs] Also, like, Buster losing his arm was a good example for me, because I was trying to free myself up of the constraints of television and I was writing an email to the other writers when I decided to do that. So I gave myself permission to make a mistake and I said, “Would you guys this summer really think about — don’t think about somebody dating somebody else — but really think about stuff like, I don’t know, bad example: Buster gets his arm bitten off by a seal?” I really just thought I wrote a funny email. And then it was like, ‘Oh fuck it, yeah he gets his arm bitten off by a seal.’ [Audience laughs] And then Tony freaked out. By that point I’d gotten so on board with this idea of having him lose his arm, and I ran into Tony [name] at one of the events – Buster – and I said, ‘You’re going to lose your arm! I’m so excited.’ And he was like, ‘What? No, no. I use that all the time – I use it when I act, I don’t – that’s my whole thing.’ And my wife, Mary-Joe, do you remember – you said to him, ‘Tommy, he’s not going to cut off your arm.’ [Audience laughs] ‘You’re going to get more material, you know, you’re going to get more material because you have one arm.’ And he was like, ‘Yes, more material.’ And it was true. I actually did give a lot of thought to — is this impulsive, is this crazy, and it’s like, it’s nothing. It’s nothing. It’s pretend. Why not, you know? Take off his arm. Away with his arm! So, I was worried about that being a mistake and it ended up being a benefit.
Vulture: Wait — so you didn’t do that joke based on “loose seal” sounding like Lucille?
Hurwitz: No, a lot of times — that was the other fun thing about Arrested. We got to look more ingenious than we were. In fact, when I met Ricky Gervais, who I’m so impressed with, he said, ‘I don’t know how you came up with the name Lucille and then a year later and you had him, and there was even mention of a seal in one of Buster’s episodes early on — I was like, Oh, if he only knew. Chance favors the well prepared. The more stuff you throw in there, the more chances you have of making connections and looking like, ‘I did that.’
Audience question: I guess my main question is like, Will you marry me? [Audience laughter]
Hurwitz: Of course we will. It’s a we situation. I am married but of course we will.
[Continuation of question] Part of what I find so addictive about Arrested Development is the easter eggs that you hide for your fans – there’s smidgens of blue everywhere when Tobias is blue, and then George Sr. is blue, the wall. Obviously part of it would be due to chance but how far in advance — you talked about setting up jokes — but how far in advance do you set up easter eggs that you know are going to keep recurring – none of them knows what a chicken sounds like, none of them can use a hammer.
Hurwitz: ‘None of them can use a hammer’ – it’s not their strength. [audience laughter] Well, I would tell you, I just came up with a thing that is going to look like, that’s why they did the chicken dance. I’m so proud of it, we’re going to look like geniuses – my experience was, like really learning the basics in sitcom, which was great for me and also I was very restive during. There were things that were hard about it. So there were certain things stylistically that were an outgrowth of my own frustration – just things that were – having done so many years of sitcoms and seeing the reset of every show – I did intentionally want to include the idea, which seems so simple now but at the time felt a little radical, like ‘Oh the world doesn’t reset. How interesting to do a thing where if they break something one week, it’s still broken the next week. It’s such a silly little thing but it did tap into something with an audience too. They were like, ‘Oh, so this is real. We’re being sold a world, here.’ So it worked on that level – it kind of did what I would hope it would do creatively. And that particular thing with the blue paint, they kept painting over it, and I wouldn’t always get to the set, I’d be in the writing room. ‘Where’s the blue handprints?!’ ‘Well, we cleaned them.’ We finally had to do it in paint because they just kept changing them. There was an audacity to it, because the show wasn’t even on DVD and it kind of was me, like this could be my last chance, this is my show, I don’t know when I’m going to get this chance again – nobody’s watching it, but I might as well throw everything I have at it. One of the things I really got into just amusing myself was this idea of a “call forward” – that you would talk about something that an audience couldn’t get until they rewatched it, which was audacious because we weren’t even in reruns or on DVD. They’re really hard to do because you got to get this whole army on board. Can we set up, we need a picture of Saddam Hussein at a kitchen island that’s just like the Bluths’. Because if we last 26 episodes it would be really great to say that they don’t model homes for Saddam Hussein. And in fact when we wrote the first season, I was so capricious with my time – you have like 6, 7 weeks before you go on a production, which is like just a knot in your stomach. Pretty soon the thing is moving forward and you better go fast. And I used up about 3 or 4 weeks just theorizing about what show it was and trying to come up with, is there some crime that the father can have committed that will later on explain why he didn’t want to fight for himself in this smaller charge, which turned out to be treason. We finally came up with it, after like 4 weeks we were like he built model homes for Saddam Hussein and then it was like, ‘Great, we’ve got the last joke of episode 26.’ [audience laughter] Shit. And we never recovered, but I don’t know, you have to waste that time somehow.
Audience question: What advice do you have for young writers? I know personally I have a problem finding regular time to write.
Hurwitz: I’ll bet, yeah. I do too. The dirty little secret is that no one wants to do this. [audience laughter] I remember being asked when I was in high school what do I want to do when I grow up and the answer is so indicative – I would like to have been a successful playwright. [audience laughter] I think I’d like going into restaurants and signing things. And then we also know that there is a great joy once you’re involved in a creative enterprise and it’s deferred gratification. You know it’s there. We were talking backstage, when I’m not productive, everything bugs me, I feel like how am I going to rule the universe – you know, this guy has got this show and I want to have ten shows - this guy has got another show – the truth is once I’m working, it’s plenty, it’s enough for me, I actually love it once I’m engaged in something, but it’s very, very hard to get that engine moving. And the glib response is, you just gotta do it. The not-so-glib response is like, you try to find ways – I try to find ways that I can comfort myself in doing it. I’m not an expert on this. There are people who will go home tonight and write a short story. [Whispered] won’t be you and me. [audience laughter] So you find ways in which - sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s a partner, sometimes it’s somebody who’s not in your field. I’m fortunate enough to have an agent – the agent does that with me sometimes. I’ll think, ‘Oh, well I’m going to come up with this premise and I’m going to sort of sit down with the agent and go over it and sometimes when I’m with the agent I’ll just come up with the premise – you find the thing that can make you effective. It might be a partner. It might be. It might be giving yourself permission like I did in that email to say ‘bad idea’ because I think at the heart — somebody’s not cracked this — but I think at the heart of being hesitant to sit down and write, whatever that means by the way. Is writing dialogue or is thinking? When do you come up with the premise? I think a lot of that stuff is fear of what if I found out I’m not who I thought I was? I have this identity for myself as a writer and the only thing that can happen is that I chip away from it. You know, I’m going to find out, ‘Oh my idea is stupid.’ ‘I knew it! I knew I didn’t have a good idea.’ And I think if you give yourself permission to just say, ‘I’m going to give myself some bad ideas here. I’m not going to hold myself up to this standard of whatever my notion of myself in the future is. Let me just see – and by doing that you get to find out whether it’s fun for you. And, again, forgive me because I said this today but it helps me. I think of there being two conditions that creative people go through. I think it’s fear and curiosity. And the people that always impress me are the ones that are curious about what they’re going to do next, so John Lennon is loved by all the mothers because he’s the boy that I’m okay with my daughter dating in the Beatles and they write these lovely pop songs. He for some reason doesn’t say, ‘Shit. But what if I do something edgier they won’t like me anymore.’ He says, ‘I’m curious about psychodelia, I’m curious about primal scream, I’m curious about my own feelings about myself, inadequacy. That’s where creativity comes from. You’ve got to shut out that fear cause it’s your enemy. Yeah. Okay. [applause]
Sadly, we have to stop here.
Hurwitz: I wish we ended on a joke.
We have a call forward, right? Didn’t we set up a joke that we’re going to pay off now?
Hurwitz: Did we? I feel like I’ve overused it but we could kind of say what I said about fear is the enemy. Ladies and gentleman, representing fear, my superego. But that’s not that nice.
I represent fear. You can see it in my face. We really appreciate everyone coming out for this.
Hurwitz: Yeah, congratulations everybody for doing this festival. It’s so wonderful.
I really want to thank Mitchell Hurwitz for being here. [Applause]
Hurwitz: How dare you embarrass me in front of these people!?