The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Isn’t Just a ‘Feel-Good Show’

Photo: Amazon Studios

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premiered its second season earlier this month on Amazon, is one of the most unabashedly colorful and kinetic series on television right now. And it also happens to be one where the creators and executive producers — the married team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino — often direct, co-write, and produce the episodes. It’s as much of an auteurist statement as a series like Atlanta or True Detective, although the light tone and emphasis on banter and shenanigans tends to obscure that. We spent an hour on the phone with the Palladinos, who are currently planning out the stories for season three, to ask them some specific (in some cases, very nerdy) questions about the look and sound of the show, the tone of it, and the overall vibe. Their answers were illuminating and surprising.

I wanted to start by asking about the first episode of season two. It opens with a two-and-a-half minute long take traveling through the department store, and it ends in the room with the telephone operators. Is that really all one shot or is there some digital trickery? And why did you shoot it that way?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It’s one shot till you go down the mail chute, which was a special effects shot, clearly. And then from the time that you hit mail chute into mail cart, there was no trickery there. We have a cameraman named Jim McConkey and his brother Larry McConkey. The McConkeys! They’re mad scientists of shooting, and they invent and rig all sorts of things. When I explained to Jim the way I wanted to do this shot — that I wanted to come from a letter hitting a mail cart and then I wanted to go in front of the girls and reveal Midge — they rigged up this magic thing, and there was duct tape involved.

Larry McConkey, is he the same guy who’s one of these acrobatic Spielberg-DePalma Steadicam gods from the ‘80s and ‘90s?

Daniel Palladino: Yeah, he did a lot of DePalma. And he did the Goodfellas oner shot where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco go down into the Copacabana. Both of the McConkey brothers are acrobatic and know how to do those things, and they’ve each done a lot of really, really famous shots.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: And they love finding new ways to use cameras.

In the second episode of season two, you have another spectacular long take. It starts with a Citizen Kane type of thing where you pass through windows, and from there it becomes this long tracking shot through the Maisel and Ross garment company. Please tell me more about that shot, and why you generally love these shots so much.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We both come from music. I was a dancer. [Filmmaking] is not how I was supposed to be making my money — my mother is horribly, horribly upset by this whole turn of events. And I think that I still approach my direction as a dancer, in a sense. I use dancers a lot as my extras because they understand how to move. Our scenes are generally not just people sitting and talking. A lot of times people are moving, sometimes very quickly. There’s a lot of motion, and that energy is what we like to convey.

That Maisel and Roth [factory floor] is this incredible, real space that exists. There’s so much history there, and all of these wonderful machines, and you just want to see every part of it. The best way to do that is to walk people through the room and make sure that you see them in their environment, because this environment, for Joel and for his father, is everything. This factory is the reason that they have been at odds. It’s the reason that Joel left his father and didn’t want to take over the business. It’s the reason Joel’s getting sucked back in again. It’s as much a part of the scene as the two men who are in it, and we like to show that.

And we like the fast pace. When you write dialogue that’s supposed to be said as quickly as our dialogue, if you did that all in cuts, you’d get a headache, you know? It’s like the old Howard Hawks screwball comedies. You can’t do dialogue that fast all in cuts, because people will just need to lie down and put a pillow over their head.

I was going to mention Howard Hawks and the screwball comedies, because that’s another big influence, clearly. Can you talk about that? People think of screwball comedy style as people speaking quickly, which is something you two are certainly known for. But is there a distinctive visual characteristic to screwball comedy?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, it’s space.

Daniel Palladino: It’s shooting shots [further back from the actors] than is usually done these days. And it’s then it’s about making sure the shots work well enough that you can stay in them for a lot longer than most TV and film directors feel comfortable staying in them, without cutting.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: On some other shows, actors wait to really act for their close-ups. They don’t bother acting that much in the masters [wider shots that directors can cut back to from close-ups], because a lot of times the masters really are just there to establish geography. The actors don’t do that on our show, because we’re staying in the master shots for a longer time.

By “geography,” you mean the master shot is there to tell the viewer who’s sitting or standing where in a scene, before you begin cutting to closeups of individual faces?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Right. See, on our show, the masters are the scene. We spend a lot of time on our masters. And then as we’re shooting the master, that’s when we decide what additional coverage we are going to need. We don’t do it the other way around.

Is the goal always to try and make a scene work in one shot, if that’s possible?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Depends on the scene.

Daniel Palladino: You can’t try the audience’s patience too much if you hang back all the time. There are times when it just feels like you want to be physically closer to the characters as they’re speaking, especially if a scene is a little more static and they’re just talking back and forth. There are certain things emotionally that play better in a long take, but there are also certain jokes that can play better if you have more cuts in a scene. Sometimes a cut can actually help a joke, even if the timing is great in the master. And that’s just something that we decide in post-production.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: But we almost never get coverage just to have it. We see the master, we rehearse it with the actors. We rehearse a lot on our show. Our actors are theater people and they like to rehearse, so we actually spend a great deal of time working it out, rehearsing, making sure everything plays, then rehearsing again with the camera. And by that time, pretty much, you’ve got a sense of, This is going to be a place I want to go in tight on Rachel’s face, or this is going to be a place I go in on Tony. And you’re not just shooting coverage you won’t need or won’t use. You’re not wasting everybody’s time.

You have some scenes that play big comedic moments in one long take, whereas most filmmakers would have done it with cuts. In episode three, around 16 minutes in, you’ve got this Steadicam shot when Abe goes into the art studio and sees the naked male model. A lot of comedies wouldn’t pass up the opportunity for a big, fat close-up of Abe reacting in horror to the nudity, but you play it in the background, with Abe recoiling and turning around to face us. Why?

Daniel Palladino: That episode was directed by Scott Ellis. It was one of the few that we didn’t direct, but I wrote that script and I told him I wanted to make the audience feel like they’re basically in that group following Abe. It would’ve felt a little clammy if you snapped right on to Abe’s face when he sees the nude model.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Also, sometimes cuts indicate where you’re going. When you cut to somebody for a big moment, sometimes you’re blowing your joke.

Was that a risk in this scene?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, because the audience already knows that model’s in there, so you’re waiting for whatever Abe’s reaction is. I think cutting to his reaction would have diminished the humor in that particular instance. A lot of our stuff is just about holding on time, holding on moments, making sure the moments happen really quickly and on top of each other, as they would if they were occurring right in front of you.

Let me segue now to ask about a different kind of long take. When you go out to the Catskills, you’ve got this scene in episode four as the Maisels arrive at the cottage. It’s all done in one shot, but it’s a static shot: when the principal cast members disappear inside, you hear them but don’t see them.

Photo: Amazon Studios

Seems like that would’ve been a perfect opportunity for another one of these patented Palladino tracking shots where you’re following the people through the interior of the house. But you chose to stay outside of it. Why?

Daniel Palladino: It was a little perverse for us to attempt it! There was something about that picture postcard cottage that made me want to try shooting this way. Also, people talk about our camera movement so much that Amy and I wondered, What if we just locked off the camera and blocked a scene where these people are just moving in? How would that feel? We wanted to see how long we could do a shot like that before it loses its potency. It’s like a two-minute shot, there are no visual effects in it at all. It is as you see it. The dialogue is basically as it was recorded in that scene. And it just seemed like a fun, different maneuver. Basically, Amazon’s continuing to pay for Amy’s and my continuing film school!

Amy Sherman-Palladino: That’s what we call it — Continuing Film School. Because we never went to film school!

You have a lot of musical numbers on this series, particularly in season two, and a lot of scenes where people are dancing. They’re dancing in the Catskills. The variety show even has a dance number. I wonder, is that a real dance that existed, or did you make it up for the show?

Amazon Studios.
Amazon Studios.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It’s made-up. We have a brilliant choreographer named Marguerite Derricks. She worked with us on Bunheads, and she’s like our third musketeer.

Daniel Palladino: I’d seen an old YouTube clip of some dances from the late 1950s, early 1960s, and weirdly, a couple of them were not smiling at all, so I told her, “Come up with a dance that’s crazy, wild, but none of the dancers should ever smile while they dance,” which is completely the opposite of the dancer’s training.

In episode six, when Joel and Midge dance together, the dominant color is blue. Why that color in that scene, and what kind of thinking goes into these kinds of decisions when you’re shooting a musical sequence?

Photo: Amazon Studios

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, David Mullen, who is our cinematographer, did all the Catskills episodes. He knows that we have great love of MGM musicals and Technicolor musicals. He’s a guy that really understands our dramatizations and our story and where the characters are emotionally at the moment. With Midge and Joel in the sixth episode, it was really about them both acknowledging that it’s over. They’re moving away from each other permanently, and it called to him for a blue, beautiful but bittersweet sort of lighting.

That’s a direct way to think of the scene. “The characters are feeling blue, so let’s make the scene blue.”

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Sometimes! Sometimes blue is okay! You don’t always have to make it complicated.

Daniel Palladino: Also, in that scene, you’re seeing the beginning of the end of the Catskills. We didn’t hit that point very hard, but the Catskills used to have 500 hotels of the kind we show in these episodes, and now the area has none. The Catskills was just starting to dismantle around the time when this scene takes place, and it took about 20 more years for it to all go away. So on top of what’s happening with Midge and Joel, this scene was our way of saying a sad goodbye to the Catskills.

Speaking of lighting, you’ve got two alleyway shots that I wanted to ask about in the first episode of the season. In the first one, Midge and Rose are in an alley and it’s got that MGM-Technicolor kind of quality. It’s red, green, blue, yellow — it’s got a Gene Kelly Invitation to the Dance kind of vibe.

Photo: Amazon Studios

And then the end of the episode, you’ve got Midge walking away into the alleyway after that phone call with Joel. It’s a shot framed in a similar way, but there’s no color at all. Why the difference?

Photo: Amazon Studios

Amy Sherman-Palladino: For the first alleyway scene with Midge and Rose, the look came about because of our production designer, Bill Groom. There’s all this research that Bill does about signage, and he learned that neon was very big [in Paris at that time]. So he was looking specifically for places that would have the opportunity to do a shot like that, knowing that David Mullen could light the shit out of that kind of thing. And we also wanted something that felt bohemian. Remember, Rose is in France, going back to her bohemian roots in a lively, clubby part of Paris. We thought the scene should have had color and energy because Midge was about to take that walk downstairs and go into the drag club for the first time.

And then at the end of that episode, the look of that alley shot was important because it was [Midge] putting herself and Joel back on equal footing. He’s saying, “I can’t be with you, but I acknowledge what you are and I’m here for you and you’re going to be okay,” and Midge is saying, “I love you, but I’m not going to give this thing up to be with you.” So the walk away needed to be cold, it needed to be lonely, and yet it also needed to be very strong. Halfway through, she puts her arms down and her coat flaps out like a superhero’s cape and she’s off to the races.

I’m also wondering about the batting scene in episode ten with Joel and Archie in the park at night. Are the actors incredible athletes who got solid hits on every single swing, or are some of those balls digital?

Photo: Amazon Studios

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Some of those balls are digital. Joel Johnson, who plays Archie, actually played baseball and he’s a very good ballplayer. They put protective gear on the cameraman, but he didn’t want to get hit in the head, so the actors had to throw the balls up and miss on purpose whenever he went in front of them. When he was behind them or to the side of them, then they could really hit the balls, but when he’s in front of them, they had to fake it.

What happens to the balls they missed? They aren’t in the shot.
Amy Sherman-Palladino: We have another genius, our special effects woman, Leslie, who we call Tink because she’s basically Tinkerbell. She told us, “Just have them throw the ball up so they throw it up, and then whiff it and let it drop. I’ll handle the rest.”

Daniel Palladino: Yeah, I think the balls stayed in the frame and they were able to paint them out.

In that same episode, you’ve got this sequence scored to Frank Sinatra’s version of “One for My Baby,” which, by the way, is one of my favorite recordings of all time, so thank you for using it.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It’s great. It’s a great song.

That sequence is the exact running time of that recording. Did you conceive the scene to be exactly that running time?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: No, that was a fluke and a freak, a scene showed us the right music for it.

What do you mean by that?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: There are times when you put a piece of music with something and it’s so perfect you couldn’t have planned for it. I didn’t plan to use that song until I got into editing. If we haven’t written a piece of music into the script ahead of time, which we do a lot, we’ll go into editing with the 5,000 iPod songs that Dan has — it’s a sickness, it’s very obsessive! — and we’ll sit there in editing and play around with different songs. Once I got the scene in place, it didn’t take long to get to that Sinatra song. Dan and I looked at each other and were like, “That’s it. We’re not going to make the scene any better than that.”

In that same episode, you’ve got a scene where Midge’s dad talks to her about Benjamin. We see her reacting from the back: her shoulders slump, because she literally hadn’t even thought about Benjamin when she accepted the offer to go on tour.

Photo: Amazon Studios

If there was ever a time to show the face of your leading lady, you’d think this would be the time. It’s a really big moment for her character. But you don’t show us her face. Why?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Because Rachel’s a good back actress! Rachel gives good back! But really, I always pictured the “Oh shit” moment from the back. I don’t know why, but I never even considered shooting her face.

This is perfect segue to talk about the art gallery. You’ve got a scene where Declan Howell takes Midge to see his painting, a rare privilege he doesn’t grant to many people. And she stares at the painting and says, “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” But the audience doesn’t get to see the painting.

Photo: Amazon Studios

Did you ever consider showing us the painting?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: No.

Why not?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, first of all, how are we going to get the most beautiful painting you’ve ever seen? [Laughs.] Every now and then, there’ll be a movie or TV show where someone’s a writer, and they’ll talk about this brilliant book they’ve written, and then they’ll do a scene where they’re reading from it and you go, “Ah, that doesn’t sound like that good of a book!” We didn’t want that to happen to us. We were really selling the idea that this was a man who has poured all of his beauty into one thing and has nothing left. Even if we commissioned ten of the greatest living artists on the face of the Earth, and brought Van Gogh back to life just for safety, I don’t know whether we could have pulled that off.

But also, because he was keeping his masterpiece a secret in a back room and not letting anyone else see it but her, I felt it more impactful just to play it on her and him rather than to cut to this thing with pretty birds on it and have the audience go, “Oh, that’s a nice painting, but I don’t know that it’s the greatest thing in the world.” The painting itself is not important. It’s what it meant to him, and it was what he was saying to her, that’s what the scene is about.

Let’s go deeper into the art-gallery scenes. In the opening scene of that same episode, you’ve start with a shot of Midge looking at a painting. The shot is matted so that it’s vertical. You’re not using the whole frame. You’ve created a square image with black on either side. And then the matting glides away, like curtains opening to reveal more of a stage.

Photo: Amazon Studios
Photo: Amazon Studios
Photo: Amazon Studios

Why did you shoot it that way?

Daniel Palladino: That’s a take on that very famous Norman Rockwell painting called “The Connoisseur,” where an older guy, sort of a Damon Runyon-type, is looking at a Jackson Pollock type of painting. We wanted to open the show on Midge’s back looking at a painting, as a reference to the Rockwell. And I think that was not scripted. That was a choice that was made in post, just because it would focus the viewer a little bit more on her and that painting.

In the scene that follows this shot, I feel like there’s something deeper going on. You’ve got Midge regarding a painting, which I assume is a painting by a man because all the big important paintings hung in this gallery are made by men. Then she goes back in this hidden room, where there are small paintings by women and nobody even knows the names of the artists.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We call it the “Afterthought room.”

Right, there you go! And then there’s a throwaway line from a man in the gallery as Midge walks past him. He says of a different painting, “It’s the coldness that gets you hung in the Whitney.”

Amy Sherman-Palladino: You think we’re taking on the entire art establishment?

I don’t want to start trouble here, but it definitely plays like a preemptive volley against people who decide who gets to be in the canon, not just of art, but of television and cinema.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: I think that’s what our whole show is about. Who decides what’s funny? Who decides who gets a voice? Who decides what you’re supposed to look like? Who decides what you’re supposed to talk about? Who is the person who decided women weren’t funny a gazillion years ago, and we’ve been living with that forever? If we have a theme to the show, it’s that. Decisions are made about art that are random, but they stick with you, and it takes certain people to break out of that and reverse the decision. That’s what Midge is doing: people decided that she should be one thing and she’s changing that. People decided that there’s a certain kind of art that’s important, and she’s changing that, too.

That opening shot is a painting of a painting, in a way. Art about art. It’s like you’re putting a frame around things for the viewer, literally as well as figuratively.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: [Laughs.]

I’m sorry that it turned into 3:00 a.m. in the dorm room here all of a sudden, but it’s your fault, you made the episode!

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We’ll go get some Top Ramen!

When we see that Asian woman at the very end of the scene who says, “Nice ladder” and takes a bite out of an apple — is that supposed to be Yoko Ono?

Photo: Amazon Studios

Daniel Palladino: It is Yoko! You’re the first one who noticed this! It’s hard to sell really, really young Yoko back in those days. This scene is set around the time that she was moving into the East Village and hanging out with that crowd.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It was a little tip of our hat to Yoko.

Daniel Palladino: We’re big Yoko Ono fans.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We like Yoko!

Daniel Palladino: We used her music on Gilmore Girls quite a few times, because of the whole Beatles insanity. She was a really progressive musical artist in her own right. She created sounds that were taken up by The B-52’s and by a whole lot of other groups. She doesn’t get credit for how influential she was.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: And she was heavily a part of that art scene in New York around that time. It’s just that she hooked up with John Lennon, and then the rest of her life was completely overshadowed by that.

Wasn’t their initial meeting at an art gallery, and there was something involving a ladder?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yes! Exactly! The ladder!

Daniel Palladino: He went to an art exhibition that had one of her conceptual pieces in it, a thing involving a tall ladder. At the top of it, there was a telescope or something that was pointed upwards, and he looked through it, and there was something written that was positive. I think it was the word “Yes.” It was stuff like that that made him fall in love with Yoko. Plus, she was really hot back then.

So, you’re nodding to a female artist who was traditionally overshadowed by her spouse, and who was accused of breaking up The Beatles. And then you’ve got your heroine going into this small room, the Afterthought Room, and buying a small painting for a small price. The art is made by a woman, and it happens to be a painting of a woman.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yup.

This is a seven-layer-cake of a scene here.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: You’re making us sound very smart.

Does it bother you when people don’t see all this detailing and layering?

Daniel Palladino: We like to think that people do see that stuff, but they don’t consciously know what they’re seeing. They maybe don’t consciously recognize what they’re seeing, but it’s having an effect on them.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: We get asked a lot, “Does it bother you that it’s just perceived as a feel-good show?” There’s an implication that, because the show has such a positive energy and our character is a joyous, bustle-through-life kind of gal, that there’s no depth, and that unless a comedy makes you want to stick a shiv in your eye at the end, it’s not art. Our feeling is (a) It’s supposed to be a comedy. You are supposed to laugh at it. That’s inherently what’s supposed to happen in a comedy. And (b) Just just because it looks beautiful, because it’s got musicality to it, because it’s funny and basically sweet, I don’t understand why that should be considered less artful.

You know, we’re giant Atlanta fans. We love Atlanta. But it’s tonally a completely different show from ours, with a completely different kind of story to tell. I do think that some people think of this show as “Oh, it’s the thing we need right now,” which is great. I need wine right now. And I will have some after I hang up. But this show is very carefully researched, and a lot of highly skilled artisans work in every area, from our costumes to our sets and our cinematography to our special effects and our actors.

Our actors! This isn’t a thing where they show up and look at a script and then go, “Okay, let’s do it!” Rachel Brosnahan sits with her notes and really works on those scripts. She does as much work on these scripts as she did when she did Othello! So if you don’t want to see it for what it is, that’s fine, but we know that even though there’s a joyous quality to it, and there’s a lot going on underneath.

I’ll close with a lighter question. If this show were a movie musical, what movie musical would it be?

Daniel Palladino: It could be The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a little bit.

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Well, I don’t know about that.

Daniel Palladino: What else? [Laughs.]

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Singin’ in the Rain.

Why Singin’ in the Rain?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: It’s got a lot of fluff to it, but it’s about something. It’s about the changing of an art form and the passing of a way of life. It has great, deep artistry to it, even though it’s mainly trying to entertain. You know, [Singin’ in the Rain director] Stanley Donen was very revolutionary with the way he shot dance. He was thinking about bringing dance and camera together a little bit more, rather than just putting the camera flat and letting the dancers go back and forth in front of it. There was a lot going on there. So we’ll go with that. It’s a little French, Cherbourg, with a little Singin’ in the Rain. Maybe throw in a little something depressing too, a little darkness.

Daniel Palladino: Sweeney Todd?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: There you go! Done!

In season three, Midge is gonna buy a straight-razor and start killing?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: Yeah, but she’s going to do it in a very joyous manner!

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Isn’t Just a ‘Feel-good Show’