Forever Creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard on the Genesis of Their Unusual Series

Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen in the surprising Forever. Photo: Colleen Hayes/Amazon Prime Video

The first thing that Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard knew about Forever, their new Amazon series, was that it would be a show starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. From there, the co-creators, who previously worked together on Parks and Recreation, built an eight-episode first season steeped in mystery, metaphysical comedy, and so many surprises that, with Amazon’s blessing, the show’s premise has been kept entirely under wraps so as not to spoil the experience of discovering its twists and turns.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Yang and Hubbard spoke about developing some of those twists and turns, the films and television series that provided inspiration for Forever, and how a “Catherine Keener–type” character wound up being played by the actual Catherine Keener. (Needless to say, there are spoilers aplenty in this Q&A so do not proceed if you haven’t watched Forever yet and want to go into it without knowing too much.)

The first thing I want to ask about is the genesis of the idea. What inspired the show?
Alan Yang: I sat down and had breakfast with Maya [Rudolph] and Fred [Armisen] about a year-and-a-half ago, and they were just interested in working together on something. They were a big inspiration, so I called Matt up and we started talking about ideas, and then we sent them some ideas. One of the ones they responded to was a half-idea that simply said: Maya and Fred are ghosts who don’t haunt people. We thought that was kind of funny. At that point we decided, “Well, that’s not really an idea, but what if we came up with an emotional spine that really worked with that idea?” What we came up with was the idea of a show about marriage, and this eternity being a metaphor for what it can sometimes feel like to be in a long-term relationship or marriage. That was the genesis of it.

How many other ideas did you pitch?
Matt Hubbard: There were a lot. Boy, I think there was one where they were in charge of a preschool in Silver Lake. We were all over the place. This was the one we kept coming back to because it was bringing up a lot of the questions, obviously, that people have about who your soul mate is, what a marriage is, what a long-term relationship is, regrets you have, and the path not taken. It just was the fullest area to explore.

AY: It was so tonally a premise that was unlike stuff that I had worked on previously, so I was very interested in doing that.

At what point did you decide to kill Fred’s character at the end of the first episode, and then kill Maya’s character at the end of the second episode? Was that pretty early on?
AY: Very early on. In fact, when we went in to pitch the show, we essentially just pitched the first three episodes in their entirety, just beat-by-beat what happened. What ended up being made was very similar to our pitch, so we already knew that going in. One of the things that made us the happiest about the idea was how slow it takes to develop. I think the trend now is for everything to be fast, fast, fast, speed it up, get through the narrative. But to slow play that was one of the few remaining surprising things you can do.

I was surprised a lot by this. One of the joys for me was that it just kept changing with every episode.
AY: We ended up getting a lot of cliffhangers in there, which was really fun. Again, we hadn’t worked on a lot of shows that did that in the past. As we were breaking these episodes we were like, “Man, some of these endings are really cool.”

MH: The other thing we had going for us was we knew, obviously, that Maya and Fred were going to be in the show. We felt like, “Okay, well most people just like them enough and it’s cool enough that they’re in the show together that we can get [the audience] to watch, and it will be hopefully something you aren’t expecting.” Amazon was completely onboard with hiding the ball, which is a real credit to them.

What’s interesting to me about this show is that it’s about people being resistant to change. Yet the show itself changes. It almost changes genres, especially in the third episode. I was wondering if that was part of the point, too, to shake viewers out of their comfort zone. Is that completely nuts or is that what you were thinking?
AY: It’s not only not completely nuts, it’s completely accurate. In a landscape where there are 3.4 million television shows — I looked it up, it’s actually the accurate number — why not mix things up and really throw the audience off their game? Why not have as many surprises as possible? I’ve never shot anything like the end of [episode eight], and I’ve never written or directed anything like [episode six]. That’s another genre change in the middle of the entire season. To me, episode one would be a show that I would watch, episode two is a totally different show that I would also watch, and episode three is a totally different show that I think I would watch. I thought that was really fun and exiting. It was a huge risk. Hopefully, we pulled something off.

In terms of the afterlife that you create, obviously there’s a lot of detail involved and there’s certain rules about how it operates. How did you decide what it would look like and how it would function?
MH: We had many, many conversations that were like, “Should the lamps be plugged in?” When you do this world-building stuff, you gotta deal with a lot of that. But I will say, on a macro level, we wanted to convey a feeling of isolation, especially that these two were really in this world alone. So we tried to find a street — that we did find in Simi Valley — where the houses were very similar and there were not a lot of trees. We took out the cars, we covered up the mailboxes, and we had those nice eerie mountains in the background. In our use of extras, other ghosts walking around was very spare and judicious. We wanted to really feel that there was a lot of space in this world, because sometimes when you’re in a marriage with someone, you feel like you are just alone in the world with them. That’s scary, but also, the other person is someone you need to hold onto. We wanted to convey that in this world.

AY: As far as the visual language goes, I put together a document of references to send out to the team — our cinematographer and production designer and our directors — which included images from some really great directors, like David Lynch, and Wim Wenders, [Krzysztof] Kieślowski, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Luis Buñuel. Not all of those translated one-to-one, but certainly we took inspiration from a lot of these great films and tried to imbue the show with some of that feeling, whether a literal representation or an emotional representation.

Do you remember which specific films you were looking at?
AY: Oh, absolutely. From Lynch, a lot of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive. There’s one scene, I won’t say which one, that’s essentially kind of a comedy version of a Mulholland Drive scene. Then Wim Wenders, we took inspiration from Wings of Desire, which I forced Matt to watch very early on. There’s a walk that Fred does in episode seven that’s very much inspired by a walk that Harry Dean Stanton does in Paris, Texas. There’s a shot that I ripped off from a Kieślowski movie called Blue, part of the Trois Couleurs trilogy. You know, you gotta steal from the best.

There were elements of the show that also reminded me of Lost. Am I off base or did that enter your heads at all?
MH: It totally did. I think one thing that was such a good engine in Lost was that they did not know what was going on. They didn’t know why there was a tiger — or whatever it was — in the pilot.

AY: Polar bear.

MH: Yeah, a polar bear. All this stuff kept coming at them. For us, story-wise, when you got to the afterlife, we both decided that there’s no guy who’s telling you what’s going on. They’ve just been planted there and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them, they don’t know what the rules are, they don’t know if they’re being lied to, and they don’t know if there’s God. That feeling that Lost evoked of not knowing your place in the world that is something that I enjoyed in that show and a little bit tried to put into this one.

AY: I don’t know that much about Lost. I didn’t see all of that show, but it definitely had amazing cliffhangers and they were geniuses at world-building, so hopefully this is some kind of comedy analogue, maybe? But I don’t know enough about it to say that we ripped off that show that much. [Laughs.]

I’d say it’s an homage. In the first episode of Lost, Jack was originally supposed to die, and they ended up not doing that. The fact that Oscar and June died felt to me like, “We’re going to actually do what Lost didn’t dare to do.”
AY: You’re saying we have way more confidence than those guys! [Laughs.]

I didn’t say that. Don’t ever tell Damon Lindelof I said that. There’s another thing that really struck me after I watched the whole show, too — so many good shows have come out the relationships created through Parks and Recreation.
AY: Yeah, that’s a really good writing staff! [Laughs.]

And none of the series are really the same. This show reminds me of The Good Place in certain ways, but they’re all different. I’m just wondering, what was it about Parks and Recreation? Obviously everybody was talented but it seems like there was a special chemistry there.
AY: Mike [Schur] and Greg [Daniels] hired great people, I think that’s number one. Number two, they cultivated and fostered a very, very friendly, decent, humane, fun atmosphere where people got along. I can’t stress enough how important that is. I feel like I’ve been incredibly fortunate because on that show, on Master of None, and on Forever, those were three incredibly fun writers rooms. Just — we had a great time. On this show, we did our best to work 10 to 5, work really hard when we’re there, let people go home and see their families and live relatively normal lives, but work hard when we’re there and just be civil, normal human beings.

MH: Those guys are just such class acts. They just show you how to run a show, how to treat people, how to be prepared, how to be decisive when you need to be, and how to listen to people when you need to. It can be a miserable job, but Mike and Greg know how to make it civil and are also unbelievably talented. You also just learn a lot from them.

AY: You learn a lot about working hard, but also having humility. What’s great about those guys is, you know, the best idea wins in the room. It’s not about your ego, it’s not about anything like that. It’s let’s do what’s best for the show, let’s listen to everybody, let’s make sure that no one is screaming. I’m very proud of the fact that our writers room was fun. We’re all buddies, and that’s how I felt on this show, on Master of None, and on Parks.

For the world-building aspect, did you talk to Mike Schur at all? Because he had to go through that same process with The Good Place.
AY: No. It was really funny, because Mike and I share an office on the Universal Studios lot and when he was coming up with The Good Place, he was pitching it to me a little bit. I ended up working on that show briefly and then directing an episode, too. It was really fun. We love that show. Basically, all I did was shoot Mike a text, like, “Hey man, we’re doing a show and two people die in it, but it’s going to be as different from your show as humanly possible.” Early on, Maya was like, “I think I’m going to guest on The Good Place, is that okay?” I was like, “It’s totally fine.” Because the tone on this show is so radically different from The Good Place, I wasn’t worried at all. Our show’s slower paced and it’s moody and all these things that The Good Place — which has a very, very strong voice of its own is not. The shows have this tiny Venn diagram intersection of content, but in execution, tone, performance, all that stuff, it’s just so different.

Do you know whether there will be a second season? Have you given thought to whether there’s more story to tell?
AY: We have talked about potential ideas for season two because we’re crazy people and we like working and we love these characters, so we have some interesting ideas. But it remains to be seen. If we get the green light to do some more, it could be fun.

I spoke to Catherine Keener about that recently, and she said she didn’t know. I told her I’d find out for her.
[Yang and Hubbard laugh.]

When you were writing Kase, did you have her in mind?
AY: We definitely did. She was our number-one choice, the only choice. In the writers room, we were like, “Kase is this mysterious, cool neighbor who really entices June, and she’s like the coolest person in the world. It’s a Catherine Keener type.” In the writers room, we just started calling [the character] Keener. Then we went to Maya and said, “What about Catherine Keener for this role?” She’s like, “Oh, she’s a friend of mine. Maybe we could get her.” We sent Catherine the script and we wrote her a letter, and she was very, very, very into the script. She called us back and said she wanted to do it. It was a relief and it was awesome.

MH: Keener is amazing. We had a table read early on, where we read all of the episodes.

AY: All eight episodes!

MH: Her first line is “Hello.” Literally, she says “hello” when she opens the door. During the table read, she said it and everyone just started laughing, because you just so got her [in the role].

AY: I think it might have been “hi”? It was two letters! Two letters, one syllable.

MH: You have to be very good to get that reaction from the word “hi.”

I imagine there are some rules about the afterlife that you know about but that haven’t shared in the show yet. Is that a fair assumption?
AY: We certainly had very wide-ranging discussions. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we talked about for episode eight. You wouldn’t believe the stuff that we thought [Peter Weller’s character] the Traveler might be able to do. We had all of these ideas. With any show, it’s like an iceberg, where the stuff onscreen is 10 percent above the surface, then all of the discussions you had are 90 percent below the surface that you’ve built up on.

MH: It was like, “Okay, what powers does a ghost have?” There were times where it was like, “What if they touched someone and they can see their memories?” It just started to become like they were gods, so it was all about restraint. It was all about making sure that they could do certain things that living people couldn’t do, but were also still human in that they weren’t Zeus or something.

As far as Oceanside is concerned, how did you create that world? I found it a little disturbing for reasons I can’t even put my finger on.
AY: We wanted to create a world that was kind of what they wanted but also a little horrifying. This is a very strange reference, but we talked about the strange party that Tom Cruise’s character finds in Eyes Wide Shut and how off-putting it is. Obviously, that one’s for very clear reasons. But this, we wanted it to be a little bit stilted and a little bit odd. It doesn’t mean that it’s a bad place, because I think Oceanside is the right place for some of these people, but it’s the wrong place for Oscar and June. We wanted to toe that line.

I just want to give a special shout-out to Obba Babatundé and Julia Ormond, who play two very strange characters that they probably have never had to play before. There’s a scene that actually got cut out, I believe, where Maya’s character just flies a kite with Julia Ormond’s character on the beach. They just fly a kite together.

MH: It was like, “Is this Burning Man? What is this place?” We eventually came upon, the people there are forgetting who they were when they were alive, which we thought was interesting. I think that’s weird and eerie, and hopefully it came across.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Forever Creators Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard on Their Series