Behind Kissing Your Sister, Catherine’s Selina Meyer Documentary on Veep

Julia Louis Dreyfus and Anna Chlumsky on Veep.

Spoilers ahead for the latest episode of Veep.

While Selina Meyer has endured a season of one embarrassing blow after another, her daughter Catherine—the newly raw-food vegan and lesbian who still has not mastered how to keep her hair out of her face—is enjoying a real banner season. She fell in love, inherited the kind of money Scrooge could probably scuba dive into, and completed her first documentary about her mother’s historic (and, for Selina, tragic) presidential election: Kissing Your Sister: The Story of a Tie. How do you make a fake movie that still feels like a real episode of Veep? Vulture talked to showrunner David Mandel about writing and shooting the fake film, how Catherine is probably more like her mother than she will ever realize, and why Selina’s presidential dreams were doomed from the start.

Were you conscious throughout the season of when Catherine was in the room, so you’d know what footage you could say she’d shot?
We establish early on that Catherine is shooting this documentary, and we make jokes about people telling her to get out of the room. We let it go away, having established it, but in our mind, she was constantly shooting. We didn't know where she was, or when, but it always going on.

Where did the idea for Catherine to make this documentary come from in the first place?
There's a rich tradition of these documentaries that exist by the children of famous politicians. There was one done by Alexandra Kerry, and there's one I think Nancy Pelosi's daughter did. Nora Ephron's son did a Nora Ephron documentary. They’re people using their access to something to tell a story that only they can tell because they're the child of the person. So that was some of the inspiration, and the references in the past to Catherine's filmmaking in general.

We loved the idea of the parallel story of Selina's election—this tied election we've been building to all season—and it would also really be about Catherine herself, and her relationship and her life. What we 100 percent knew was, it was going to be, I don't want to say humorless per se, but earnest. There is an insane earnestness to Catherine that we knew was going to be there.

How do you balance wanting to make an entertaining episode with the fact that Catherine is not supposed to be a good filmmaker? How bad do you let it be in order for it to be funny, but not bad in a way that makes it unwatchable?
It's very tough, because she's not a good filmmaker. And if you watch the episode, if you think about it, if she had pieced anything together, she heard all about Tom's plan way before Selina did. You want to make it bad filmmaking where that's the joke. It's subtly bad. It's subtly unprofessional. If you look at the episode compared to a regular episode, it's not quite as sharp. It's a little blanched out, color-wise. We played with the shutter speed. I don't think anyone will sit there and say, “it's amazing what they did with the shutter speed!” But some of it hits your head in a way that you're not seeing something as polished.

The rest of it just came with doing a scene and really trying to cover it the best we could with one camera, and knowing purposefully we would miss bits of language and action, because it's her trying. And this is an interesting thing about Catherine: In her own way, it's easy to go, “Selina is awful and Catherine is good.” But in a certain way, Catherine has a lot of her mother's attributes. She is as self-centered as her mother. So in a way, one of the things about the documentary [is] the story of her and Marjorie, which is technically less important to the historical story she's telling, begins, for Catherine, to take center stage. She loses the movie she's supposed to make. I'm sure she thinks she's making the more interesting film. But ultimately, the movie she set out to make about the historic tie ends up taking a backseat.

I loved that in this crushing moment when Selina finds out that the vote is going to the Senate and she won’t get the presidency, Catherine shoots it like the more important thing happening is Marjorie showing up to apologize and say she loves her.
I love that you love that. That was our goal, which is that the thing we have been waiting all season to discover happens deep in the background while she's dealing with Marjorie.

I imagine most people in the Obama White House are very deferential and kind to Sasha and Malia, and would never trash talk the president to his own kids. But I assume you don’t want to be so realistic that it’s not funny anymore. How do you figure out how all these staffers talk to Catherine?
We've tried to walk the line. Someone like a Jonah responds the way a Jonah might, which is with a little less tact. Ericsson has a real grudge against her mother, so he speaks that way. With a lot of the others, they're trying to be more deferential, but there is a familiarity with Catherine. A guy like Mike has been there for years, as has Gary, and they've been with her long enough that the lines blur. If you've seen the Anthony Weiner documentary, we were a little worried. You watch that and there are parts where they go “everyone get out of the room,” and it's like our documentary. You get used to the camera and then you forget the camera is there, and things start to get said on camera, and you're not trying to be rude to the president, but that happens.

And it’s not like Selina treats Catherine well, either. She wouldn’t ever intervene to say, “Don’t talk to my daughter like that.”
It comes from the president a little bit, too. I’m sure the Obamas have done a better job of protecting their kids.

We see the documentary as an episode of the show, but in the world of Veep, who is seeing this film? I’ve been waiting for it to get posted on YouTube or something and just humiliate (and possibly incriminate) so many people on Selina’s staff, and maybe even Selina.
It will be addressed in episode ten, but not in the way you think. 

How much of the interviews are scripted? Did any especially good improvised lines end up in the final cut?
Our actors have been living with these characters for so long, and it's such a facile cast. It’s not always whole cloth improvisation as much as ideas that we talk about and then they bring them to life on screen. One of my absolute favorite things is, Selina's talking about her mother's method for not having bad thoughts: “Shove them in a box and bury the box in your head.” That's an idea we talked about, but that performance and those specifics are all Julia [Louis Dreyfus]. I love the way she scratches at herself as she's talking about it. This weird, nervous energy to it. It's the perfect version of Veep, where we have a great script and we're able to play around.

We learn a few tidbits about Selina’s backstory, both in the episode and on the website for Kissing Your Sister. Do you all have some official version of her biography stashed away somewhere that you’re referencing, or does this stuff get written along the way?
There's no official biography, just little bits and pieces in episodes, and we continue to throw things on top of it. This was a season where we started to add little specifics here and there about the characters’ real lives. This year, for example, it was mentioned that she went to Smith; I'm not sure that ever had been previously mentioned. That was the other fun part of this, the chance with some of our main characters, to get a little baby sense of their lives outside the Oval, which is not something Veep has done a lot of. 

Everyone but Sue, who is the only person smart enough to not consent to be in the documentary at all.
It’s perfect Sue: “I do not agree to be in this film.”

I noticed that last season’s ninth episode was also a break from form. Is that a Veep thing, or just a fluke?
It was never specifically a Veep thing, but as we were planning the season out, I realized last year’s nine was the testimony episode, and this one is going to be a different episode. I don't know if it's a thing, but maybe it's a thing now.

In one of the extras, Selina talks about how she and O’Brien and Tom James were all the in Senate together, and as you mention, Mike and Gary have been with her for years. Would you ever do a flashback episode?
It’s something we've definitely talked a little bit about. It was really fun going back to the news footage of her early Senate victory, and we loved her look and Gary's look. At some point this season, it went away; there was going to be a story about a war monument for animals that had served in the military, which believe it or not is a real thing in England, and it was going to have started when she was vice president. We were going to do an opening scene that was a five-year ago flashback to when she was vice president working on this thing, and then jump to the present day to see where it was. It went away, but it was an interesting idea.

Can you talk through one of the last scenes of the episode? I was really blown away by it: Selina finds out about this crushing loss, and she goes to the Red Room to be alone and accidentally runs into a White House tour. And you just see her feel all these conflicting and contradictory emotions at once.
What can I tell you, first of all, we have that rare pleasure of, that is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We were practically crying on the set.

This is a giant loss. This is her worst nightmare yet, and it was the thing she's been working for in her entire career, and it's gone in an instant. And not only gone, but as Ben says, we're looking down the barrel of a Tom James presidency. In some cases, words don't suffice. So the idea that she just needs to get away from other people and walks away was the start of it. At one point, we had played with the idea of, perhaps she's purposefully searching out that tour group, and that went away.

But it was the idea of running into the regular folk, the voters, and seeing the thing: This is what she's about. And what I mean is, she exists like a shark who, instead of moving and breathing in the water, she lives off of the adulation of the regular person. It's a big part of why she wants to be president. It may not be the most noble of reasons, but it is a real reason. And that mix of her at the end, getting this recharge from these people and knowing that this is going away and this, in a weird way, is one of the last times, if not the last time, that she's going to get this, because she's no longer going to be President of the United States — that's what you see in her eyes: This is great, and oh my God, I'll never have this again, and I better make it last. Only Julia can play 11 different emotions at once. We can write that and say “go do it,” but it's very few people who can.

And she is still so awkward when she’s talking to regular people.
But in her weird world, that is how you talk to regular people! I refer to it as her A Star Is Born moment. She was smiling, but her heart was breaking. I was blown away by it. You do get the sense that she's going to stand there and take a picture with everyone.

At what point were you certain Selina would lose the election? Did you ever seriously consider a victory for her, or would that have gone against the ethos of the show?
When I first started meeting with Julia, when HBO approached me and I learned about the tie and all of that stuff, for me, very quickly, I felt she had to lose. I'll simply say, had the tie not come up, if that hadn't happened for another season, I had no problem with her being President of the United States. Let's say Hughes had quit earlier and she was president longer, I enjoyed her as president.

But the second she was running for president, I believe the character and the show is funniest when she is striving for things and can't get them. If, even in a tied election, a weird congressional vote, she somehow won the presidency, it was ultimately giving the character what she desired, and nothing would matter because she would have been president on her own. And to deny her that made her miserable and therefore funny. It's funny because it's brutal, and I think that's what the characters respond to. The more that gets dumped on them, the funnier the show can be.

When she was vice president as opposed to president, you could sort of have a little more fun with the incompetency of her team. Some of the situations were more vice presidential, and on a lower level. When she was president, there were definitely times when you think, they can't be THIS incompetent. You start to go, what would the president be doing today? Maybe something about terrorism. Well, that's not funny. The presidential stuff is a little more real and a little harder to enjoy sometimes. That was a secondary thought. The first one was, you can't give these characters what they want. It's funnier to give them adversity. Comedy to me is having these walls put up in front of you that you can then run into.

There is this degree of indignity with being vice president that is inherently funny. Even vice presidents who do important work also have to do the most absurd, dopey things. Joe Biden can spend the morning giving a speech about campus sexual assault, but then in the afternoon he’s at, like, an ice cream food truck talking about waffle cones.
Even vice presidents who are really partners with the president, they end up doing things where you just go: Wow, that's a vice president job. With the president, there was a scene we tried to do in the Situation Room and it's like, ugh, this is supposed to be about a captured terrorist and the incompetence of the CIA, and there were many issues, but part of it is, you wonder, is it just not that funny? Because now you're talking about certain levels of national security. We found good stuff for her, as president, but it was slightly more difficult.