As you might have realized from the trailers, Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet is a charming little sitcom about a suburban realtor who turns into a zombie. Drew Barrymore, sunny as ever, plays the victim of zombie-hood, while Timothy Olyphant, best known for dramatic turns in Justified and Deadwood, is her dopey, morally compromised husband. The surprisingly high body count is courtesy of creator Victor Fresco, who cut his teeth writing for shows like Alf before creating his own conceptually ambitious fare in Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Better Off Ted. Ahead of Santa Clarita’s bloody debut, Vulture caught up with Fresco to talk about writing for Netflix, why Timothy Olyphant is the perfect California dad, and how he convinced Drew Barrymore to lie in a puddle of fake vomit.
My first reaction to the show was surprise, in that it’s really about Drew Barrymore dying and turning into a zombie. How did you arrive at that pitch?
I wanted to do a family show with something at the core of it we haven’t seen yet. I like relationships where people love each other, and in the show, Sheila and Joel love each other unconditionally. Then, what happens in the relationship when there is a problem, when something goes a little bit askew after many years? You know you’re staying with this person because you love them, but how do you adapt to that? In another time and place, it would’ve been that the in-laws move in and cause crisis. I wanted to do something that was a little more fun and wild.
The other piece of it was the narcissism that I think zombies represent. Zombies have this out-of-control id. They want what they want whenever they want it — the ultimate narcissists. How do you get what you want all the time and still be able to function in a relationship? The other side of that is, of course, she feels empowered, which is a good thing. You should get what you want, but what is that balancing act between getting what you want, demanding what you want, but also being okay if you don’t? How do you live with other people around you?
Being a zombie becomes a form of self-actualization?
Yeah, exactly, right. She’s growing through it. Through the ten episodes, she’s becoming more empowered and more confident and comfortable with who she is.
Were you thinking about Santa Clarita as a potential network show when you were first writing it?
I wrote it on spec and we never sent it to networks. It was always intended to be streaming or cable, because we wanted to get a little more graphic than you might get on network television. It’s just a little bigger than an idea they would typically embrace.
Because you’re on Netflix, you can do these really gruesome scenes. In the first episode, for example, Drew Barrymore is vomiting all over the place. Was there a limit on how far you wanted to go with it?
I think the husband was our way in. If Tim [Olyphant], or [his character] Joel, is reacting with care and love and he’s not saying, “Yuck, get me out of here,” I think the audience goes with that. I like doing something big and then playing the reality of what would really happen. Yes, that scene was a big moment, but I think it’s played how it would really happen, perhaps. Beyond that, I like the idea of what would happen if you were a realtor in the suburbs and you woke up one morning and your wife was eating human bodies. How would you react to that? Not “it’s an outbreak” and the army comes in — it never gets that big. My first show I ever worked on was Alf and that was a little different, but it was a big idea played between this family, which I liked.
They find a way to make it normal.
Which I don’t think is unusual. I think that’s kind of how we live life. Big, horrible things happen, or can happen, and you try to normalize them so you can keep going.
Santa Clarita Diet stays within a fairly standard sitcom structure, though you do have more freedom to experiment on Netflix. Was that a structure you wanted to keep using?
Well, I love not having act breaks. The network act break thing is very artificial in comedy. To do a show in 21 minutes and to act-break every four minutes and have this big moment — for me, it’s not a good structure. It’s not putting the story first. I can also take more time. It can be 25, 28 minutes. It can be 32 minutes. They don’t want it wildly short or wildly long, but you do have that leeway, which I like. That’s a huge liberty, to not have to get to the exact second every week.
But I do come out of network. There’s a certain way that we learn and we do things and I’ve learned a lot coming out of network. I wanted to stay in half-hour. I understand that world better. But it was liberating. And we can have act-breaks; we just don’t go to a commercial. We can have a big moment, ten pages in …
It just doesn’t have to happen so regularly.
Network is really … they added another act break! There’s now a fourth act that used to just be a tag, but they want content in there. It’s kind of technical, but they made it this four-act structure, which, I think they killed themselves. I don’t know if anything has really worked since they did that. It’s all dictated by the need for more commercial breaks. We don’t have any of those limitations or restraints.
Let’s talk about casting. Drew Barrymore is such a recognizable actress. Were you looking for a particular tone for her character? She has to pull off being endearing and likable, while also violently murdering people, which not something a lot of people can do.
So that was No. 1 why we were drawn to Drew, because we wanted someone sympathetic, who you would root for. She is that. In real life, you root for her. I always have. She’s a joyful person, which is nice too. That projects onto the screen. When Drew read it and wanted to sit down with us, I was really excited because I think she’s wonderful and I can’t imagine anyone else in it now.
She does a lot of physical comedy, especially with all the gore.
Yeah, I think that’s what she was drawn to. There’s a lot of difficulty as an actor to lie in cold, smelly, fake vomit for three hours — which she had to do when we were shooting that scene — and not complain and be a total trooper about eating all kinds of weird stuff that she’s eating and doing stunts. It was rigorous.
I never really thought of Timothy Olyphant as a comedic actor until I saw The Grinder, and you cast a bunch of other Grinder actors for Santa Clarita. So my first question is, did you cast him from seeing him in that show?
I loved him in Deadwood. He’s always been on my radar as an actor. He’s great and I like him, obviously, on Justified. I worked with him years ago on My Name Is Earl; he did a guest stop. He was funny and really different than what he usually plays. I did see him in Grinder, also. Then, when I met him, he’s a very different guy than he plays in Justified or Deadwood. He’s much more jovial, outgoing, almost feels more like a surfer dude. He doesn’t surf, but he’s got a very positive, uplifting, funny energy. I felt like that hasn’t been tapped. Plus, he can be dry. I love dry humor.
He’s got a very California-suburban-dad thing going on.
I grew up in California, so I know that kind of person. I think they exist probably everywhere. On one level, he was the center of his high school, the handsome guy who probably had a lot of girlfriends and was the quarterback and finds himself, 25 years later, in a life he doesn’t dislike, but not the one he would’ve chosen. He’d never imagine himself being a realtor. I think a lot of folks end up in a life and a career that might not be terrible, but it’s just not how they saw it going.
For a while, Netflix’s marketing of the show didn’t mention Drew’s death or the fact that she becomes a zombie. Was that a decision you were involved with?
Yes, I was involved in that. Netflix has done a great job marketing, and that’s not my area. It felt like the secret of the show was going to get out, so we were going to try to do the marketing around the secret and keep it a secret. It’s going to get out anyway, in the age of internet. Why not just lean into it? It’ll help us because it’s different …
And then you can start to wink at the secret in the ads?
I think the Diet ad just has a line like, “Eat whoever you want.” It’s sort of intriguing. You’re not really sure what this is. But it would’ve been very hard to not market it like a family comedy in the suburbs. I think people would’ve known anyway.