Not many TV series would risk spending their opening moments in silence as viewers stare into the eyes of Richard E. Grant, but AMC’s new Dispatches From Elsewhere isn’t most TV series. Created by Jason Segel, it’s inspired by the 2013 documentary The Institute, an account of the Jejune Institute, an art project/immersive experience that roped in curious San Francisco residents in the early part of the 2010s. Segel’s fictionalized version unfolds in the Philadelphia home of a similar project, which attracts four disparate people who respond to flyers seeking subjects for experiments in dolphin communication and other unusual research.
Segel plays Peter, a music-streaming-service employee who’s starting to question if there’s more to life than the lonely rut in which he’s found himself. Drawn into the Jejune Institute’s circle, he’s joined by Janice (Sally Field), Fredwynn (André Benjamin), and Simone (Eve Lindley), each of whom has their own reasons for following the clues left by the Jejune Institute and theories about the Institute’s underlying aims.
This is Segel’s first television series since the end of How I Met Your Mother in 2014, and it’s a departure not just from that series but from past projects he’s written, like The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Segel and his collaborators work in a style and tone he’s never tried before, one filled with strange turns, philosophical digressions, surreal asides, and a bittersweet sense of whimsy. That’s partly attributable to being at a different point in his life, as Segel explained to Vulture.
(Note: This piece contains spoilers for Dispatches From Elsewhere, but none beyond the end of the first episode.)
Not many series are based on documentaries inspired by strange alternate-reality games. What led you to create Dispatches From Elsewhere?
I hadn’t really written anything from scratch since The Muppets and I was sort of blocked about figuring out what I wanted to write. As someone in their mid-30s, I was no longer scared of girls or learning to stand on my own two feet, the kind of stuff I had written about in my 20s. And it was interesting, because the very fact of not knowing what to write about was making me realize that I hadn’t really checked in with who I was in a decade. I had really just been rolling with work, How I Met Your Mother for nine years and a string of romantic comedies. I didn’t really have to think too much about what I wanted to write about.
And then I saw this documentary about this real art experiment that happened in San Francisco, and I was thinking about what kind of art I wanted to make. And I thought, It’s this, it’s something that tells us that where we’re more together than we are apart. Something that tells us that there’s magic if we’re earnest enough to be open to it. And so I went after the guy who created this real art experiment and he handed the rights over to me and said he was interested in seeing this thing change form into a narrative. He wanted to watch the idea evolve, and so I sort of took the baton.
Was it always a plan from the start to focus on four characters, or did that come about as you went along with the project?
It came about when I was trying to crack how to tell the story, because I was writing it as a movie for a while. But I kept feeling like I was missing something, because the movie version was just focusing on the fictional narrative of the missing girl. And I just kept thinking, Something’s missing from this story, because everything we’re talking about is going to end up being fake. And then it hit me that what’s true is why people are doing this in the first place. Who is pulling a flyer and why? What’s missing from people’s lives that they participated in this grown-up scavenger hunt? And then it hit me that I would draw four different versions of existential crises and model this thing a little bit after The Wizard of Oz.
One of the most striking moments in the pilot is toward the end when Octavio [Richard E. Grant, whose character serves as both the head of the Jejune Institute and a recurring narrator] announces that you should shift your focus to a different character. At what point did you realize it had to be about more than just another guy facing a crisis as he approaches middle age?
I think one of the goals of this series as it goes on over the ten episodes was to present four seemingly different, diametrically opposed characters and challenge you to identify with each of them. And then slowly over the ten episodes, we hope to prove that these are all us. We’re all of them. At first you’ll probably identify with one character most, but by the end, hopefully you’ll feel like all of them.
Was it always your plan to play one of the characters?
Yeah. It takes so much energy to write something, to bring it to reality. It’s years. So if I’m not going to act in it, it’s probably not the best use of my time.
How did you approach the writing of the possible romance between Peter and Simone?
Well, I tried to approach it like romance, two people falling in love. I’m not being coy with that answer. It really was my approach. I just wanted to show two people fall in love with each other, with all the complications of any two people falling in love with each other. That was the goal and how we wrote it and we certainly made sure that we had a diverse and inclusive writers’ room and did all of our due diligence in terms of representation, and Eve contributed a huge amount of her experience [as a trans woman] to that love story.
Eve Lindley’s been around for a little bit, but it’s a big role playing against three established cast members. How did you cast that part?
We held a casting call and Eve came in and I have to say, from the moment she started reading those lines, I knew that I had found my Simone, and that I would rewrite the part wherever needed to bring out these qualities that Eve was blessed with on her own. She’s an amazing actress and she made the part more complicated and gave Simone more depth than I ever could have managed on my own as a writer.
One of my favorite moments in the early episodes is when Simone visits Peter and he says he’s embarrassed, and it takes a moment for her to process what he’s embarrassed about and realize it’s not about her. Can you script that, or do you wait for filming for that kind of thing to happen?
I come from the Judd Apatow school. So I write as strong a script as I possibly can and then am open to anything happening organically when we’re shooting. Those tools that I learned with Judd definitely have served me well my whole career … Most of my scenes are with Eve, and in the scenes that matter, that needed to be honest as possible, there was huge amounts of improv. With scenes that are moving plot forward it’s easy to stick to the script, and probably helpful to do so, because there was also an intricate mystery there. But the emotional scenes we improv huge amounts of them.
There’s an interesting tension to that mix of very carefully planned sequences and then improvisational acting. Did that tension ever get in the way of the series?
This whole series was uncharted territory for me. The whole experience felt a little like you had jumped into a moving river and your job was just to not bump into shit. We were really navigating as we were going.
Did it get easier as the series progressed?
No. Because the episodes get increasingly complicated and it’s a really, really ambitious show. And so maybe you’ll see as the episodes go on. We build to a pretty remarkable climax.
My understanding is that there were several different cities in the mix for possible locations. How did you decide on Philadelphia?
Philly seems like a perfect metaphor for the theme of the show. It’s known for its blue, gray, Rocky movie grit. But in reality it has more murals than any city in the country because of its amazing mural arts program. There are beautiful mosaic alleyways, if you happen to turn where you would normally just walk past. And so to me it felt like exactly what we were trying to say and show there’s beauty all around you, but sometimes where we’re just missing it.
Did you have much experience with the city before this series?
No, I had taken a school trip there to see the Liberty Bell when I was kid. That’s about it.
Once you settled on Philadelphia, did that change the writing of the show or your plans for it?
Yeah, the show is very much about interacting with the city that you are in. So once we settled on the location, I then set a big trip to Philly with a location scout and we rewrote everything for specific Philly locations. So it was all about Philadelphia, the character on the show. And it was all about bringing out the beauty in Philadelphia as well.
Did you always have Sally Field in mind for her role?
I originally wrote that part in honor of my mom. I usually write everything from some sort of personal experience, and I felt like this period of my mom’s life — where she has been a devoted wife and mother for most of her adult years and then all of a sudden is now at an age where she has 20 years ahead of her, but this role being an active mother is sort of giving way to something else — was really, I felt, unexplored and fertile territory. And so I wrote the part as a love letter to my mom and then I just got incredibly lucky to get Sally Field to agree to do it.
The season opens with a long, silent shot of Richard E. Grant. There’s animation and break-dancing and sasquatches. Was it hard to explain what kind of show you wanted to make when pitching this?
Well, I don’t really pitch anymore because I always feel like a door-to-door salesman. Like, you’re just saying, “Please believe me!” So I always write now. I just write on spec. And then that way I have something I can show. I just feel more comfortable that way. Probably not the most advantageous model for me, but it’s how I feel most comfortable. But in terms of making the show, that was one of the reasons I felt like I had to direct the pilot, because trying to explain the tone of it to somebody, as you’ve seen in the episodes, it’s a tightwire of magical melancholy that I felt like I needed to give an example.
The setup for the show means it’s filled with clues, and the four protagonists all have different ideas about what may be going on. That kind of encourages viewers to unravel the clues themselves to figure out the underlying truth of the series. Do you encourage that kind of approach, or would you rather people kind of just go with it?
No, this show is designed to be interactive. Not only in terms of watching the show. If anyone wants to engage further, we’re going to offer ways for people to participate in the show, if they’re intrepid enough to go down the road less traveled. You have to keep a keen eye on the episodes. I don’t want to say too much more.