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Lake Bell on the Rural Fantasy of Her New Farm-Com Bless This Mess

Lake Bell. Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

Lake Bell’s first feature as a writer-director, In a World …, focused on a woman trying to break into the male-dominated field of movie-trailer voice-over, a plot that echoed her own experience of being a female director. Boys’ clubs are omnipresent in Hollywood — guys are friends with guys, and give jobs to their friends — but Bell likes a challenge.

“I’m super used to being a fish out of water. I always like the feeling of being thrust into a community or culture that I wasn’t familiar with,” she told Vulture. “I always have gotten off on that. It’s really exhilarating, and partially why I’m an actor.”

That fish-out-of-water drive and its roots in Bell’s real-life experience are built into the premise of her new show, Bless This Mess, about a New York City couple (Bell and Dax Shepard) who move to the country to make a go of farming — despite the fact that neither has grown so much as a succulent before, and Bell’s character is deathly afraid of cows. It’s a scenario rooted in what Bell sees as an increasingly common back-to-the-land fantasy among modern urbanites, and one she and her Bless This Mess co-creator Liz Meriwether found particularly resonant in the context of a “young marriage.”

Ahead of Bless This Mess’ premiere tonight on ABC, Bell spoke to Vulture about developing the show with her longtime friend Meriwether, what happens when feminists marry, and the challenges of leveling the playing field for behind-the-camera crew members.

What farm experience did you have before creating this show? You’re a city gal …
I am born-and-raised Manhattan, and I definitely have that in the fabric of my being. But my mom and I moved to Vero Beach, Florida — which is a small barrier island in Florida — when I was 12. And it was this tiny town that embodies the small-town ecosystem that I was not privy to in New York. For me, it was a really massive cultural shift and adjustment, for my mom and myself. A small town with a main street and cheerleading. I was like, “What’s cheerleading?” I’d only seen it in Sweet Valley High books. I thought it was the most amazing thing. There was definitely an adjustment period, and I’ll never forget it.

What do you remember most about that adjustment period?
I remember this one story: My mom wanted to continue my fencing. And this sounds truly pretentious, that I was doing this really esoteric, strange sport. But I liked it. So she looked in the Yellow Pages in Vero Beach for fencing. She found one, called him up. He answers, “Hello, fencing!” And my mom says, “We’ve just moved here from New York. My daughter’s been taking fencing for three years now. She’s still what I would consider a beginner. Do you have classes for children?” And he was totally silent on the other end. Then he said, “Lady, we sell it by the yard.” That was a very earnest mistake that encapsulates what our experience was like in this sweet, small little town.

You’ve done absurdist comedy like Children’s Hospital. You’ve done grounded comedy like In a World … You’ve done a Nancy Meyers comedy. Is there a particular comedic tone that feels most at home for you?
Part of what I love about what I do is that I can play in a multitude of different genres, and types and tones of comedy. I enjoy playing a comedy because it makes me smile at the end of the day. Especially this day and age, putting the radio on and listening to NPR can be pretty challenging. So it’s nice to go to work and goof around a little bit, knowing the purpose of your work is to make people laugh and feel good. That feels, in a strange way, really important right now. For my own preference, I enjoy throwaways and little improvisations coupled with broad slapstick. Liz and I both are drawn to that, staying very grounded and measured and real in all of the stakes. Taking it very seriously and being able to be small and subtle so that we can earn ridiculous moments where I’m afraid of a cow. It’s nice to have that kind of duality.

Let’s talk about the cow. Because that’s baffling to me, that someone could take a leap of faith and trust that they wouldn’t freak out at their first encounter with a cow.
We found a lot of fodder and fun in the idea of doing a fish-out-of-water story: people who are steeped in their neuroses, transplanting those people to a farm or a rural environment.

I actually have this dream, as many of my friends do. The world is really crazy right now, in all different aspects of our society. There’s a mass of very controversial and difficult-to-swallow subjects that we are forced to pay attention to on a daily basis. I dream about unplugging, especially since our brains are so inextricably linked to our technology. There’s this fantasy, a desire or romance of just unplugging and leaving it all. What are we doing living in these boxes on top of each other, steeped in anger and claustrophobia? We should appreciate our planet and tune into what’s real. I talked to Meriwether about that and she was like, “I know.” She grew up in Michigan, and there is a romance in thinking back on it.

My husband is from rural Louisiana, a bayou town. He grew up completely unplugged from urban civilization. He would go to the grocery store in a little speedboat that he’d take back and forth. My husband and I definitely have this fantasy of upping and owning a piece of dirt on the planet and raising our children there and living off the land. But let’s dial back to the reality of who his spouse is.

You’re making Bless This Mess with Liz Meriwether, whom you’ve known for a long time. What is it like creating with a friend?
Liz and I have been friends for a very long time, since No Strings Attached. She wrote that, and I was in it. While shooting we were both sort of like, “Hey, you’re cool. I’m interested in your sense of humor.” We became pals. We were sitting on a couch hanging out, and I said, “Would you ever want to do a TV show with me, because I feel like if I was going to do it, the only person I’d want to do it with is you.” And she said, “Hell yeah. Let’s do this.” And it was literally that simple. We spitballed some ideas, and we had this camaraderie in being in sort of young marriages. We’ve both been married for a few years, but there are so many things we are investigating about our partners. [We talked about] what that first year of marriage was like, and being a very type A person married to someone who lets stuff roll off of them. Our husbands are very “We’ll figure it out” guys.

I am also married to someone much more chill than me.
That happens a lot, I think. It’s a complementary thing.

Something I have trouble with sometimes is figuring out the balance between the give-and-take of a marriage with some abstract feminist notion of “asserting myself.”
That’s something we’re enjoying in the writing of this show, investigating gender roles. Because part of what’s really interesting about more rural communities is that there is this very earnest and old-school way of doing things that works very well. And there’s something to be said for it. It’s controversial to say, but both sides are kind of right. The ultrafeminist New Age way of looking at gender assignments, and then a more traditional community. There, women are led one way to do certain things because they’re good at it, and men are led to do other things because they’re good at it. I do think there’s merit in both; it comes down to each individual. You can be a feminist and still like to do housework. It’s okay, you might just be really good at housework.

I consider our household very much gender-neutral, even in the way that we raise our children. Very much politically correct, if you will. But that said, there are certain things I like to do. Being born and raised in New York, there are certain things I like to do in the home that my husband does not care about. I chalk that up to my personality. I prefer to do the cooking. But then I have a really good friend who, literally, her husband does all the cooking because she’s terrible at it.

Speaking of feminism, let’s talk about inclusion behind the camera and on crew. I know that’s important to you and Liz.
It was really important to me, especially being on the board of Women in Film for many years. I wanted [the show] to be a part of our initiative to systemically work toward gender parity in our industry. The key word being systemic, i.e., when you’re in a power position or a position to hire. It starts with the lists that are being made, when making those big decisions about department heads. Everything trickles down. If you’re interviewing three men for a position just because “those are the guys we always go to,” and they’re great and it’s easy, then it just takes a little more effort to interview three women who are qualified and right for this job. And then you just see who vibes with the rest of the team. It doesn’t matter if you hire the man or the woman, you just have to give people the opportunity.

How hard was that to enact on the ground?
It was really hard, actually, in the network system, to enforce that. Things move so quickly, and there is a sense of “Well, these are the people we always work with.” It’s easier because the contracts are there, and they know how the rhythms and requirements work within the system. I had to say, “Look. It’s going to be on me too, to take on three extra meetings. It’s a time suck, but it’s literally nonnegotiable.” We have to create an equal playing field for these hires. We met with three male DPs and three female DPs, and all the three female DPs were working. We wound up with a DP that I love, who’s a guy. But for our production designer, we have a lady. Most of the department heads are female.

I think diversity has a lot to do with this, too. I am constantly looking around sets and seeing a lot of faces that look like me. That feels antiquated at this point as well. It’s just not reflective of what the industry should be. Art is inherently inclusive, so we should make it a priority. That way the next generation and the generation after that gets a frame of reference that says, “Oh, everybody gets to work in this industry.”

Do you feel like with the growing press around this issue and with things like the 4 Percent Challenge, that conversation will get easier to have?
I honestly am a little disappointed that it’s not in the room more. In the film world, maybe it’s a little more prevalent. But in the network and TV systems, I don’t hear it talked about very often. It doesn’t feel like it’s in the room and being talked about, or that people are excited. How it rolls out is usually in results, which is great and ultimately what you want. The good news is that half of our directors for this season are female. The majority of our writers room is female. So that’s cool. That just happened. We didn’t have to try, and that is encouraging. I feel really good about our creative team, but we can always continue to ask for more and do better. Never consider that the work is done, because we have so far to go. The tipping point hasn’t occurred yet.

Last question: Do you still fence at all?
[Laughs.] I have not fenced in a bit. Are you challenging me to a duel?

Yes! Épées at dawn.
Meet me on the corner! No, I unfortunately have not fenced in a while. But it would be a really good new workout craze. It’s really good for the abs and the glutes. You’ve really got to get down low. I could see a “Funky Fencing” class, like hip-hop fencing. That would be terrible. But hey, everyone is looking for that next big workout. This could be our cash cow.

Lake Bell on the Rural Fantasy of Farm-Com Bless This Mess