behind the scenes

How Maniac’s Creators Approached Mental Illness

Scene from Maniac. Photo: Michele K. Short / Netflix

Spoilers throughout for Netflix’s Maniac.

Say what you will about Maniac, but it doesn’t lack for ambition. The new Netflix mini-series is ostensibly an adaptation of a Norwegian show about a delusional man in a mental institution, but director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer/series creator Patrick Somerville took only the slightest shred of the original, planted it in fertile ground, and it blossomed into a piece unlike anything else in serialized storytelling. In it, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone play troubled 30-somethings in a New York City that somewhat resembles our own, but contains bizarre, retro-future technology and odd business ventures, including a pharmaceutical corporation aiming to make therapy obsolete through an experimental procedure that cure all mental ailments.

When Hill’s Owen and Stone’s Annie embark upon a trial version of the process — which is coordinated in large part by Dr. James K. Mantleray, an onanistic scientist played by Justin Theroux — they find themselves trapped in a series of elaborate fantasies while the whole operation gradually melts down. The fantasies hop gleefully from genre to genre, yet the whole endeavor retains a thematic cohesiveness and never loses its momentum. To learn more about how exactly they made Maniac, we caught up with Fukunaga and Somerville to talk lemurs, working with Sally Field (who plays Mantleray’s therapist mother, Dr. Greta), and the art of futuristic masturbation technology.

What do you see as the divergence point between our world and the world of the series? It’s not completely divorced from us: like, you have somebody singing Sting in it. Clearly some of our history overlaps with their history. Is it like, in the ’80s, we stopped inventing things?

Patrick Somerville: Something happened in the ’90s.

Cary Joji Fukunaga: There were culture references that take place in culture now that we took out. Sting is ’80s. For example, Madagascar. We took it out.

You referenced the movie Madagascar?

Fukunaga: At one point, yeah. And also Taken.

Somerville: And Ordinary People a little bit too. The break that we always talked about was somewhere in the early ’80s.

Fukunaga: Or potentially ’90s. Whatever our IBM era we were kinda looking in. But there are nods to it. When Annie says, “I got a van. I got a man who has a van.”

Somerville: At one point, she was watching Taken earlier in that episode and she got that idea from it. I think, too, it’s also just sort of figurative. There’s a break, but at the same time, it’s our world now in terms of the ideas that lay behind AdBuddy and Friend Proxy and Dox Stop. It’s all just dressed up in a different way. Hopefully, it’s relatable to now.

Right, it’s like the Justin Theroux monologue at the beginning: There are parallel worlds, but human impulses are the same in all of them.

Fukunaga: That was the idea. Where he says every connection creates a new reality, it’s like the idea that, at some point, some connection happens and this is where this world went.

I have to say, I’m mentally ill and really admired the way you guys handled mental illness in the show. How did you approach that topic?

Fukunaga: Thank you for sharing that. From the very beginning, we were like, We cannot set this in a mental hospital. We did not want to make mental illness the butt of a joke by any means. Beyond even this project, there are things I want to do to try and destigmatize mental illness and address it in the workplace and figure out how to create more sensitivity around it.

Somerville: My wife is a psychotherapist and my dad was a neurologist. The mind has always been a part of my life in some way, if it was my dad lecturing me about it when I was 5, or my wife and my dad debating about psychotherapy versus pharmaceuticals. My wife was a consultant on the show, too. I think my personal life, from my side of that conversation, we said, Yeah, let’s make a show that looks at this in a different way.

What struck me was that the series isn’t exactly anti-therapy or anti-medication. It’s anti-arrogance.

Somerville: Anti-quickness, and anti-easiness, I think, too.

You have these characters who, by the end, realize that it is a long process. Being aware of that gradualness is important for mental health.

Somerville: And people who know that you’re worried about that, too. At the end of the show, part of what’s helpful to Owen is that Annie is aware that this is a part of who he is and something that he is struggling with. [He] needs a friend to know that about him, and that is just not true at the beginning of the show for him.

So, I want to talk about something just as serious: the SuckBot.

Fukunaga: No, you mean the SuckTube.

Sorry, SuckTube.

Fukunaga: The PoopBot is for the sanitary stuff and the SuckTube is for … other stuff.

Somerville: We didn’t do the SuckBot yet.

Fukunaga: The SuckBot is in development.

What went into the creation of that scene, that device, and the erotic Atlantis simulator? Fuklantis, I think it was called?

Somerville: One of the early writers, Mauricio Katz, told a story about going to this kind of eco-recovery lodge, and a woman spoke of her erotic fantasies having to do with Atlantis. That got into the show early, and then there were all kinds of different versions of what the VR was. Then they really built it.

Fukunaga: The thing is, you have to go through a lot of legal stuff to even get things cleared. We were going to name it something other than “SuckTube,” because there is no way …

Somerville: We were never going to clear “SuckTube.”

Fukunaga: Never going to clear “SuckTube.”

Somerville: And then “SuckTube” cleared [snaps] like that.

Fukunaga: So when it came down to functioning, we were dealing with 1980s technology. Was it going to be a 5.25-inch floppy? A 3.5? We decided to go with the bigger floppy.

How did you put together the stand-alone episode with the lemur caper?

Fukunaga: The lemur thing was probably the quickest and fastest-accepted idea.

Somerville: That was the earliest delusion idea. I think the first conversation Cary and I had was about Raising Arizona — that energy, but also there was another littler known Nic Cage movie, I can’t remember what it is called, but he’s basically a mean businessman and he flashes into a domestic situation. [Editor’s note: It’s The Family Man.] Anyway, Cary and I had an initial conversation. Nick Cuse, one of the writers on the show, wrote a draft of that, we worked on it together, gave it to Cary. It just felt right in that moment, for two characters who didn’t know each other, to make them be married and to start getting into the gonzo elements of the show. We’re doing a lemur here and we’re going to insist on it.

Fukunaga: Also, infusing energy. It’s a purposely slow beginning to immerse the viewer in the world without necessarily bombarding them with exposition. When you don’t have exposition, it’s a little slower getting into it. We knew that there needs to be a payoff for that, too. We had to increase the energy and the pace with which the episodes are going to roll out.

Somerville: There was also figuring out the strange roles of the delusions, in terms of when Annie would pop through Linda. Annie’s emotional life would be put on the table. I love that episode because it hides it until she gets to that scene.

And it happens so seamlessly. She’s talking, and all of a sudden, she’s talking about Annie’s life, not Linda’s.

Somerville: That’s Emma. Emma’s performance in that scene …

Fukunaga: I think it was just one take.

Somerville: She just crushed it. She just got it. When she does, you don’t tell her a thing.

What was the most challenging delusion to pull off?

Fukunaga: I think the seventh and eighth episodes were really the toughest ones to pull off.

Those are the elf ones?

Fukunaga: Yeah the elf, and also Owen in the Mob family. Those are tough because at that stage, what exactly does confrontation mean for them? What has GRTA mapped out for them? That gets so hyperintellectual that it takes away from the enjoyment sometimes. Trying to find something that was a subtle nod to that, while still being a separate adventure that would end in reuniting them again, it was really tricky to shoehorn. It just had all of these obstructions, in terms of the execution and writing of it.

Somerville: Not to mention to keep it fun. That’s the core terrors you associate with mental illness, but it’s supposed to be fun. That was a lot to do at once.

In the Mob story, you have this extremely serious and violent A-plot, and then the charmingly weird B-plot with the girl whose skin gets so hot that she radiates heat waves.

Somerville: I was always trying to really introduce insane things in the absurdist mode and Cary’s restraint was very good. Especially in that episode to make sure that we stayed closer to a realism vibe.

Fukunaga: We don’t want people to ask if they should still even care about what’s going on at this point.

Somerville: At some point, you just stop giving a shit because it doesn’t feel like there are rules.

What sticks out in your mind about working with Sally Field?

Fukunaga: How down she was to kiss her son. [Laughs.]

Somerville: More than down. She was pushing for more! [Laughs.]

Fukunaga: Her first day was actually voicing GRTA live. I like doing sound live on camera. I don’t like someone trying to record it later. So she was there on the microphone, kinda like voice of God, doing GRTA, and she brought this sensuality to the role that I was not expecting.

Somerville: A gentleness.

Fukunaga: A gentleness and sensuality to the role and a maternal energy that was verging on being slightly sexual.

Well, she had to be a computer that can fall in love.

Fukunaga: Yeah. It’s always a joy to watch people that are so pros. She knows comedy. She knows drama. She knows what she is looking for and hones in on it and does it.

Somerville: She has done this for so long that whenever I was walking up to Sally to talk to her about something, I felt like she knew what I was about to say before I said it. Every time.

Fukunaga: What was that moment in episode five where she has the book? I needed her to do something and I didn’t even tell her. I was trying to get Jonah to exit in a way that the camera would end on her pivoting around.

Somerville: She knew what you wanted before you even said it.

Fukunaga: She knew what I wanted before I even said it. Then we went to the second take and I didn’t even tell her and she landed right where I needed her to be. And it was like six in the morning by the way, we had been shooting all night.

Somerville: It was a gift from Sally Field.

She arguably has the best line in the entire show: “Gas up the Miata.”

Somerville: That’s a Cary Fukunaga line.

Oh really, that was you?

Fukunaga: That was actually my … it’s a nod to people I know.

Somerville: Specific people? You’ve heard that? Someone said that before?

Fukunaga: No, I just know a lady. She does a lot of film screenings in New York and she has a Miata.

Why all the Don Quixote references?

Somerville: It’s a very on-the-nose reference, but it’s one that served us well. Don Quixote is about a person struggling to tell the difference between his subjective reality and objective reality. Just to throw that big heavy book on the table at the beginning of the series is a way to say, We are interested in these ideas. It comes back in episode five, hopefully to deepen the conversation about what Annie is doing, how she’s living in a subjective world, and maybe she needs it to hold on to to pull her out of it.

Cary, did you have a particular shot that made you shout, “Yes!”

Somerville: Cary Fukunaga does not go, “Yes!” [To Fukunaga] You pull your bud out of your ear, you look at [assistant director] Jon [Mallard], and then you do this: [Nods solemnly.] Or he’ll say, “Yeah, that’s good.”

Fukunaga: Usually, I’m like this. [Sighs, places his head in his hands in exasperation.]

But seriously, was there something especially hard to pull off?

Fukunaga: Strangely, some of the smaller things. Getting the camera to pull off of the GRTA computer fluidly into the spindle that goes into the experiment room was a shot that took a long time to do. Just weird, balletic, micro-moves.

How about the uninterrupted shootout sequence?

Fukunaga: No, we did that in like four tries, five tries.

Really?

Fukunaga: Yeah, we had rehearsed it a little bit, but …

Somerville: There aren’t cuts.

So that’s not CGI wizardry? It really happened in single takes?

Fukunaga: Oh yeah, but that’s exhausting. You can’t really do it much more than that, so it is what it is.

Cary, you just got tapped to direct the new James Bond movie. What will you be looking for in a Bond villain?

Fukunaga: I’m not ready to answer any of these questions yet, but I am super excited about it.

That’s what I figured. Back to Maniac, why did you pick “Every Breath You Take” for the scene where Jed makes everyone uncomfortable at the engagement party?

Fukunaga: We went through a bunch of different ideas for the song, including opera at one point, which we thought would be a poetic moment for Owen’s character. Ultimately, that’s one of those songs, I think even Sting himself said it was one of the stalk-iest songs he ever wrote. I’m paraphrasing. It just felt like Jed is so emotionally tone-deaf. It was the perfect song for him to sing to his future wife that is mildly imprisoning. Owen can see that and it’s just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s also very meta because Trudie Styler, who plays his mother, who’s dancing right next to him, is Sting’s wife of 26 years or something.

Holy crap, I totally didn’t make that connection.

Somerville: She’s heard that song a few times.

Fukunaga: Yes, she’s heard that song a few times.

Somerville: That’s real acting for her to be, like, into it.

The show is very dense with references and world-building. Do you have a detail that you hope people will notice, but think they won’t?

Somerville: I do, for sure. Nobody is ever going to notice it. In the first episode, Jonah said, “Somebody invented a new type of ham,” which to me, I don’t know why, is the funniest thing. It got zero laughs when we watched it in London. Cary was trying to take it out of the show for months. I was like, You’re leaving it! You’re leaving it!

Fukunaga: That’s compromise, man.

How Maniac’s Creators Approached Mental Illness