When it comes to the complicated minutiae that ultimately leads to romantic trouble, few writers handle those moments as well as writer-director-actress Sharon Horgan. The Catastrophe and Divorce creator, when asked to write and direct an installment of Amazon’s new anthology series Modern Love, didn’t necessarily want to tell another story about relationships and the tiny moments that make and break them — but that was precisely the thing that kept pulling her back toward the New York Times story she ultimately chose from the pile sent her way.
Ann Leary’s “Rallying to Keep the Game Alive,” a story of love and tennis and being married to an actor, on its surface is much more about a marriage on the brink of collapse, as the kids grow older and an empty nest is imminent. What elevates the story — besides its central couple, played by Tina Fey and John Slattery — is Horgan’s ability to exactingly, and hilariously, show how anxieties, assumptions, and tiny misunderstandings make communicating in relationships that much harder. And how, by finding our own way to play the game, we may end up happier than ever before.
So Vulture hopped on the phone with the effusive and playful Horgan to discuss working with Tina Fey as a fangirl, the tragedy of not being introduced to Ted Allen, and what Ann Leary’s husband — yes, Denis Leary — might think about his game of Denis Tennis getting such a spotlight.
I’m interested in what draws you to portray the ways relationships are burdened by the things often left unsaid.
I was really excited about adapting [this story] because it was really beautifully written. They sent me a bunch, and that’s the one that really stood out, even though I was trying to avoid doing a very sort of “couple story” because of Catastrophe and Divorce. But that particular one kept winking at me: There’s so much going on in it about how we disappoint each other in tiny moments, almost without even meaning to. Because over time you can become careless sometimes, and there was a strong element of that in there. But it was also just the whole setting of it. Not necessarily the therapy so much [laughs], but the idea of playing that game. I enjoyed how playing that game could go from a battlefield to something more beautiful.
You’re an excellent writer of big fights, but this story feels more about how, through tiny moments, people find themselves fall in or out of sync.
Yeah, there’s a lot of simmering in their emotional stuff. But just because the heat hasn’t been whacked up and boiled over doesn’t mean it’s any less. There is sparring, I guess. I think part of the reason why I liked the idea of that is because of the tennis. The back and forth of it, the therapist’s room, the ideas around how things that don’t get discussed or aren’t dealt with, over time, can become a real problem. I felt there was a way to punctuate this dance or whatever with the tennis scenes, where you can expose a lot about them, about who they are and how they work and, eventually, how they try to fix it.
Like Denis Tennis!
Yeah! And there were so many nice things in there that were there for the taking. But I had to create around it so it felt like a story that had a beginning, middle, and end. Because really, I’m quite traditional when I write, and have probably gotten more traditional, in that I like things to have a proper structure and know where they’re going, and for there to be a narrative, a climax, highs and lows.
I know you pull a lot from your own personal experiences in your writing. Did you do that here, or talk to Ann Leary at all to do that?
No, I did not talk to Ann, and I’m not sure she would’ve wanted that. [Laughs.] I plotted out what the story was and played around with the timeline a bit more, and pulled out the stuff I really loved, like the March of the Penguins and the penguin couple moment, and the therapy, of course … But ultimately it felt kind of thin, so I left it alone for a while and then I had a think about their family. Because there are loads of reasons why people grow apart, or stop talking, or stop including others in their lives, so I just found a route I thought was an interesting one based on who Ann is married to.
Yes! The unspoken Denis Leary of it all!
Outside of the fact that it’s Denis Leary she’s talking about, I started thinking about that world and how you can be marginalized from it, or caught up in it, and the insecurity that comes from that. Of being onscreen, being relevant and then no longer relevant, and how that affects your personality, how you feel, and the people who love and are around you. All of that is particularly made up, but I was thinking about the source.
But having Tina Fey and John Slattery playing those roles must’ve been a hilarious, peak New York experience.
[Laughs.] It was all of that. And to be filming it in autumn was such a gorgeous time to be catching on film. I have been in awe of Tina for years and her biggest, borderline-psycho fan. And just having watched Slattery for years thinking he’s the funniest man in drama and why he isn’t doing more comedy. But it was just a fucking pleasure because they’re both so nice and fun and good at what they do. And into it — they’re both really into it and happy to play around. It was genuinely one of the nicest experiences I’ve had because I started out very nervous! When you meet people you look up to and you’re having to tell them what to do … First of all, it’s just like the weirdest imposter syndrome times a hundred. You realize you have to sort of slap yourself and say, Just fucking get a grip! Because you can’t do that job and be shy about it. So I think I started out a bit shy and it quickly changed, and I think we all enjoyed it and had a blast.
How did the Ted Allen cameo come about? It perfectly showcased how burdened their relationship is by not being able to communicate, and it felt very New York.
I wanted to have a moment where you kind of got a pretty picture of her life over the last X amount of years. I wanted to have somebody she might have actually enjoyed watching on TV show up and [have her] not get the chance to say hi and remain nameless in that situation — to show the awfulness, the awkwardness, and the fact that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation behind it. I didn’t want the audience to ever think one was the good or bad guy, it’s just a bit of a mess because he didn’t know the other guy’s name. And in regular, normal life, we all like to watch cooking shows. It was a tragic and funny scene, to upset you a bit and make you laugh.
Something this installment really nailed is how, in seeming defeat, these two end up trying in tiny ways neither of them anticipated.
Well, he always had a quip at the ready, but it’s a defense mechanism. It’s not deliberately awful. And I think in the therapy sessions I tried to show that; there was talking, but mainly it was a lot of accusations, and he never really listened to her on any kind of level. And after they decide they’re done, that’s it; that’s when there’s nothing to lose, really. But then there’s that sense of So what do we do now? Well, you go get something to eat if you’re hungry, because even though you just ended a marriage, you still need food in your belly. She finally thinks, I’ll tell him how awful he makes me feel. And of course that conversation could’ve happened before, but it’s really hard to expose yourself like that, to say, “I’m persona non grata in your life, and this is how invisible and awful it makes me feel.” There may have been versions of that conversation before, but maybe not as raw, because for the first time he’s just listening, eating his soup, and not talking, and she gets to finally finish the conversation. In a way, after he apologized, it felt okay to just leave it like that, and then, through the magic of TV, jump forward and see that their [former] fear from The March of the Penguins is now their reality … and it’s kind of okay.
And it’s wrapped up so well in that final tennis match.
My big fear was not being able to capture it onscreen the way it was written, because it was really poetic and beautiful. That sense of they’re finally beginning to hit the ball to keep the game going rather than to win, and the sun’s coming down on the day, but not wanting the match to end. The day we were filming it, I was like, Shit. Tina and John are great and can play, but it was really tough because they had to hit it back and forth to each other perfectly like seven or eight times in a row, so they were swearing while blinded. But they did it!
Did you get any comments or talk to Denis about it?
[Laughs.] No! I don’t even know if they know that we’ve made it. But, oh, I hope they like it! I hope Ann’s pleased and Denis is happy. Having inspired Denis Tennis, he should be proud of that!