You Co-Creator Sera Gamble on Tonight’s Shocking Turn and Creating Charming Psychos

Photo: Lifetime

Spoilers ahead for tonight’s episode of You.

What do you get when you mix modern love, social media, and some sociopathy? The answer is Caroline Kepne’s psychological thriller You, which has been adapted into a Lifetime series by co-creators Sera Gamble (The Magicians) and Greg Berlanti (too many shows to list).

In tonight’s episode, creepy protagonist-social media-stalker Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) turned a dark corner in the bookstore’s basement cage, murdering Benji, the douchebag hipster who’s been sleeping with the girl of Joe’s twisted dreams Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and not treating her well. That may read a little bonkers, but You is a surprisingly addictive story that asks viewers to question the most innocuous Instagram posts and root for the romance between Beck and the disturbing Joe.

Vulture spoke to Gamble in her office at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood about how the show’s absurdities help set its quirky tone, what she’s learned about social media and privacy in the process of making the show, and why we’re all such suckers for love.

A few people get hit in the head in this show, but they’re okay. 
They’re not okay though. My father was a neuropathologist. I grew up hearing a lot about brain injuries, brain tumors, things that can go wrong in your brain. That was just dinner table conversation for my whole life so it’s really a go-to for me. I really enjoy exploring what happens to your character when they get knocked upside the head. It worked famously on Supernatural. We probably knocked those guys out 100 times. They probably have severe brain disease from the number of concussions they’ve had, and they’re basically okay once they shake it off ‘cause they’re very macho guys. But on this show, we make a much bigger deal about the fact that he’s injured and he’s in pain. He’s in that cage.

Benji’s dead now, though. I thought he was dead, for sure, when he got hit in the pilot.
It’s almost worse when you realize what’s really going on, huh? The thing with Benji is that he is injured, he’s in pain, he’s in that cage, and it turns out he’s withdrawing from some recreational substances. I really feel like the second episode, as much as anything else, is a showcase for Lou Taylor Pucci, who’s a brilliant actor. We shot most of the scenes in the cage in order so that he could have that momentum. That was something he and Lee Krieger, the director, really protected. In [tonight’s] episode, we pulled away everything that Benji had layered on top of himself: all that hipster money, privilege, control. We stripped away all of the protective layers off of him by the end of the episode, and the fact that he’s injured in that cage is just part of it.

After all he goes through, death by peanut oil is brilliant.
That’s from the book. Caroline has a really funny, sick sense of humor, I must say. But we were debating how long to keep him in there, and it’s an interesting conversation in a writers’ room of what is the balance of creepy to normal guy that you wanna hit when you’re talking about a normal guy who has a man locked in a cage in a basement? We road-tested the idea that he’d be down there for a little longer, and then we realized that we really needed to intensify the experience. Joe’s craftier than he thinks. I think Joe surprises himself with how good he is at it, right? In moments. The thing I was sure from the start was that as soon as he killed somebody, we had to get into Joe thinking about what to do. If something weird and terrible happened in my life, and I accidentally killed someone, or killed someone, what would I do? What do you do when there’s a body in your house? Joe’s not a professional expert. He’s not Dexter. He doesn’t know what to do. I was like There needs to be an entire episode just about what the fuck do you do with a body?

So we’re not going to learn that Joe has killed in the past?
You may or may not learn that. I don’t wanna give it away.

Will we see his backstory this season? There are only ten episodes, so I wondered about that.
Some of the characters move with us to Los Angeles for season two. I don’t wanna spoil too much ‘cause I think it’s probably pretty clear that by the end of the first episode not everybody makes it out of season one alive. But within these ten episodes, you do start to understand a lot about his relationship with Mr. Mooney, who took him in at the bookstore, and you understand a lot about his relationship with his parents because of the way he talks to Paco and the stories he relays. Then we also flash back a little bit, and in episode six you will learn about Candace, the young woman who broke his heart before he met Beck that he’s talking about in the pilot.

There’s so much ground to cover in ten episodes.
I love it busy and jam-packed. I like to have a little too much story. I’d rather burn through story quickly than bore you. I just have a feeling, for a show like this especially, Greg and I talk about it a lot, if you’ve got a great idea, you’re spending it now. It’s that sort of smoke ‘em if you got ‘em feeling. You’re not saving anything for later. I think audiences can kind of smell it if you’re toying with them. Just hang in there for six more episodes and it’ll get really good. No. That’s not how we do it. We want it to be really good, and in your face right away. I don’t wanna make people wait to understand why a show is compelling and why they need to come back and watch. I feel like your first episode has to plant a flag, you know?

How closely are you sticking to the book?
Fairly closely.  We have a bunch of new characters and not every character meets the same fate as they do in the book. I’ll say that. But there’s a lot that was very plot-driven and clear in the book. Caroline has a background in television, so when she plotted the story of the book I think some of those wheels were turning in her head.

There are so many things about the show that on their own are ridiculous — like who would do that? — but somehow it all works together because of the tone you’ve struck. Can you tell me about the thought process behind some of those choices, like the fact that she has no curtains on a first-floor apartment that faces the street and he stalks her from two feet away with no disguise?
He’s gotta be in that frame. [Laughs.]

It doesn’t take me out of the story, but I do wonder why she never sees him.
’Cause it didn’t take you out of the story when you were watching How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, and it didn’t take you out of the story when you were watching Say Anything ... We were purposely filming a lot of that stuff exactly the way the great romantic comedies do it. You’ve Got Mail, right? There’s a long list. We watched them all. All the Maid in Manhattans, right? We’re leaning into those. They’re very familiar to us. You’re watching a lot of the visual cues of the love stories you were hardwired to root for from the beginning. We all saw those from very early in our lives, I think. So, part of what we’re playing with is the idea that this is completely acceptable storytelling. This is not just acceptable — it’s peak romance in a lot of ways, and exactly the way he’s doing it. We’re just telling you that there is a far more David Fincher-y aspect to what he’s doing than was ever acknowledged about Matthew McConaughey in any of those movies.

I think the tone of the show is certainly irreverent and, at times, it’s very funny. At times, it’s absurd because love is absurd and because toxic masculinity is absurd. I mean, all of these things are absurd. We’re not trying to make light of the actual subject matter. This is a way of talking about this subject matter. I’m grateful that there’s so many very serious, on point conversations happening around this stuff right now. I think it’s a time when we wanna talk about that. I was just reading articles about men in power this morning on my way to work but I think part of what we do as artists, and crafts people in television, is that we turn these ideas over and over in our heads and we make stories out of them. And stories have a lot of different tones, and that helps us absorb and think about how we feel in new ways. You can hold a lot of different mirrors up to this conversation.

And he tells us in the pilot that he will make mistakes.
That moment when you put her panties in your pocket — that was a big moment I felt was maybe a mistake on your part. [Laughs.]

Or laying on her bed, snooping on her computer when you have no idea when she’s coming home.
Masturbating outside her window! Or, as the cast and I like to call it, the first of the masturbation scenes of the season.

Maybe if she had curtains!
I like the way Elizabeth Lail bristles when people ask her about that. She’s like, “How about there’s a guy outside the window, jacking off? How ‘bout that?” [Laughs.] I didn’t have money for shit when I was Beck’s age, trying to make it in Los Angeles. I gotta say, if it was a choice between getting a sandwich and finding a shirt for the job interview that didn’t have a hole in it, and putting curtains up, who gives a fuck about curtains? It’s a quiet street, you know?

But her bed is right there.
Yeah, the couch, actually, is where you see all of Benji, but I feel like her own level of awareness of privacy is not as it could be, and that is true of many of us. I don’t think that there’s anything extraordinarily egregious about it but because we’re watching the show, we’re like, “Okay, those are some big, naked windows.” But the truth of having your shit together at all when you’re a graduate student with three jobs and not enough money to cover your expenses, the idea that you’re gonna be like Let me stop and make sure that the décor is as it should be … I didn’t even password protect my phone until I was halfway through pitching this project.

I tell this story a lot but when Greg and I were pitching this show to various networks a while ago, it was before I had the version of the iPhone that has the thumbprint version. It’s dating this process, but it was a couple years ago that we were bringing it around and we would lightly stalk one person in each room that we went into. So, if we were in HBO we might know that a certain vice-president or a certain exec would be there, and we would just go online and we would read all about him, using only what you can glean from Facebook, Google, be like, Oh Susan Rovner at Warner Horizon, we know what day of the week you tend to visit your hairdresser. It was really creepy and very easy to do. I might never be hired again at a lot of those places ‘cause I really freaked some people out. But Greg and I did that. Greg, who’s the most delightful charming guy, would pull out this piece of paper out and start telling people about themselves. We walked out of one of those meetings to the lobby. I pull my phone out and swipe it open, and he goes, “Your phone is not password protected.” It’s a pain in the ass. And he’s like, “You’ve learned nothing.” And I’m not 22. I’m gainfully employed. I have plenty of money for curtains. I’m just not thinking about it. Uh, now I’m thinking about it because the research for this show has shown me that anybody can find your docs. Anybody. Even if you’re not on social media, if enough of your friends and family are, your privacy is gone.

When I talk about this with journalists, they’re very quick to question the little mistakes that Beck makes here and there, the security measures she hasn’t taken, but I guess I wrestle with that a little bit because, sure, she’s not the world’s foremost expert on how to protect herself. She’s also not stupid. This is a cultural shift that is so massive, and I feel like it says something about our culture. That the first thing we do is we go, you know that 23-year-old woman, she’s really fucking up. Isn’t she? If she were smarter this would not have happened to her. People wanna turn this into a cautionary tail about a dumb girl every fucking time. And it’s just not that. First of all, the guy is unhinged, and second of all this could happen to any middle-aged, white male. So I feel like one of the points of the show is how quickly we are to forgive the white guy in the center of the story, and how quick we are to judge the girl. And when people ask me these questions about why doesn’t she have curtains? It’s like, she doesn’t have curtains for money reasons, and plot reasons that she’s busy, but can we talk about why that’s always the first fucking question? Does that make sense?

It does.
I’m naturally kind of a private person. So I’ve always struggled with how much of myself I should put out there. But as I’ve been working in this business for the last decade, it’s become increasingly kind of a mandate. That you have to share, live tweet, give behind the scenes looks. So that’s a tension that’s real too. How much of myself do I keep private? How much do I need to put myself out there for my career? Beck is also dealing with that. You gotta put those namaste things on your Insta if you’re gonna be a yoga teacher. She’s kind of in an impossible situation. We kind of all are. On the one hand, yeah, you can look someone up. You can look on their Instagram. You can see what they look like, at least, with a filter on. You can see what they like, at least that they’re admitting to. But I think short of the technology to come that allows us to walk inside each other’s brains, I think that the essential tension between your exterior self and your private true self that you hold inside will always exist. And the technology that’s around us right now is kind of giving us a fake feeling that we know people better than we do, but really it’s the 2018 version of the same masks that we’ve always worn.

You know, this iteration of the #MeToo movement happened when we were in production on season one. Greg and I had written the script and invented the situation with Beck’s professor years before Harvey Weinstein made the news, but he was in the news while we were cutting the episode. I was reading a lot of people’s opinions online. And again, we’re very quick to say, Well, why was she there?. Why would she have put herself in that situation? And I don’t think that we’re gonna be able to change everybody’s bias or change the culture with this show, but I was gratified in that moment to at least be working on a show where what you see is that you can be smart. You can know everything you need to know, and be in a situation that is really, really difficult to maneuver. Beck is as well-equipped as anyone. She is as deserving as anyone. It is really fucking hard to maneuver through something like what she’s dealing with, with her professor. And what is the alternative? No goddamn graduate degree? That’s crazy. But those of us who are women who have lived on planet Earth for a few years, we’ve been in those situations. Everyone has a story. So, if the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone lures people in and then they watch and they’re like, oh, you know come to think of it, if I were in her situation I don’t know what I would do either, that’s great. I don’t think there is a perfect way to get through that and get everything that you need and want and deserve.

Was finding the right tone to strike the most challenging part of the series? Sometimes Joe’s thoughts are amusing.
It was something we had to find. Luckily, the book was a great initial road map for that, but really you just have to trust it. I think the important thing was to trust that it was gonna be a lot of disparate tones, and that it was gonna move between them, and that we weren’t gonna be precious about it. The thing that we were always mindful of is that we needed these scenes to serve both purposes at once. We needed this to feel like a real relationship on some level — granted a very twisted, very unhinged love story — but really telling that story. And also really telling the thriller story of what he is doing behind the scenes. Every scene as much as possible had to serve both plot masters, if you will. Both tonal masters.

I think I have a pretty dry, snarky sense of humor in my head when I’m walking though the world. And, for better or for worse, I think this comes out in a lot of things that I personally write or am part of, because I have yet to be in a situation so dire that some very fucked up dark gallows humor doesn’t creep into my head. The example I gave in season one of The Magicians when I was sort of encouraging everyone on The Magicians to pitch their craziest stories was that when my father died, and I was in the funeral home, the funeral director was giving his like super empathetic soft, gentle-voiced explanation of the coffin. He left the room and my mother and I took one look at each other and we just started to crack up. There was something so absurd about it. It was a little too much like Six Feet Under. So in my mind, I make the pop culture reference in my mind and there’s something I find ridiculous about a guy trying to upsell me on a casket. It was one of the worst days of my life and I was on the floor laughing. So, that is just how I process pain and stress. So it probably infects a lot of my characters.

What’s been the scariest thing you learned in the process of developing this show in terms of how people interact now and how much access we all have to each other’s information?
How privacy’s dead, you mean? [Laughs.] Just how easy it is to find things about people even if you’re not particularly adept at using these tools. At the most you spend seven bucks online to get someone’s records, but it’s not hard and it’s easy to weaponize. I don’t think most of us are being as careful as we should be, just across the board, all ages, all genders.

And I’m also more aware that we are also exposing the people around us when we post an Instagram story, when we geo-locate a photo and somebody else is in it. That really was driven home, especially lately because some things came out about Facebook and how they gather data. I don’t have a great pitch for how we as a culture should deal with it. I just think it’s a really big shift. I’m not the smartest with it always. I’m destructible and I don’t always think it all the way through.

But I would say there is one other thing that I was really confronted by, when making this season. I’ve always considered myself to be a very independent woman who is somewhat immune to some of these romantic tropes or more old-fashioned or patriarchal notions of what love should be. I have never subscribed to that particular kind of thing in my personal life and have enjoyed living a more unconventional life and was raised by parents who were always very adamant with me that what was most important was my mind and that relying on a man was passé thing for the previous generations. And in writing this, and rewatching all of my favorite movies, I also have hard wiring to root for the romance. And that even knowing everything about Joe, I still find myself rooting for that maybe these two crazy kids can make it work. Maybe if he just puts the hammer down for good and she sticks around and focuses then maybe they’re kind of right for each other. I can’t believe those thoughts are going through my head!

You Co-Creator Sera Gamble Talks Twists and Charming Psychos