How John Wilson Made the Perfect COVID-Era TV Finale

John Wilson in How to With John Wilson. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

The finale of John Wilson’s HBO series How to With John Wilson is called “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” and over the course of the episode, Wilson embarks on a mission to cook risotto for his aging landlord while also quitting smoking. The show is a comedic documentary, and like the rest of the series, the finale episode is full of strange, funny, small moments Wilson uses to illustrate his larger themes. He gets a stranger to teach him how to make risotto. He talks with a guy who drives a diesel truck about his truck’s pollution-belching exhaust pipe. He accidentally sets his risotto pan on fire.

What makes the episode particularly remarkable is that as Wilson struggles with cooking the dish and tries to distract himself from the difficulty of quitting, New York City goes into lockdown as the coronavirus crisis hits. Watching the episode for the first time, I was struck by how powerful it is to see COVID as Wilson depicts it — not as a breaking-news headline, but as something that changes an entire city’s behavior. It’s moving to see the pandemic through the very small, personal scenes Wilson captures.

“How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” becomes even more poignant as Wilson’s landlord is hospitalized, and he worries that he waited too long to take on this project, to make this meaningful gesture of how much he cares about her. When I spoke with Wilson before the finale aired, I did ask him how his landlord is doing now. But I also asked him about the experience of making this episode, and more broadly, how he tackles the process of creating a series like this, a show that’s painstakingly constructed but also relies almost entirely on coincidence.

What’s the timeline of building an episode of this show? How long does it take to gather all the footage so you can build into an idea?
Uh … it could take a lifetime.

It was a casual two years, but a hard 12 months, I’d say. It’s hard to say, because every single episode is different. Some were compact, while others were much more sprawling. The timeline of the clips span about two years, and … I don’t know, it’s just so hard to calculate, because I jump so frequently between different parts of the timeline without even realizing it sometimes.

What was the timeline of making the finale like? It feels like one of the much more compact episodes, both thematically and in terms of the timing.
Yeah, the risotto episode had probably the most rigid timeline, because it was day by day at that point. A lot of us weren’t really taking the virus that seriously before the shutdown began. We were in all these crowded spaces, so I was able to expand a much more compact timeline. But I couldn’t jump around as much in there, because you would notice. You could not fake the different ways that people were behaving. That was the strength of the episode — that maybe for the first time [the show] is on a historical track. The other stuff, you feel like you’re in this nebulous pre-COVID universe.

Footage of a corpse being pulled out of a house could’ve been shot in any year! 
Totally, yeah. That’s what I like to do with my stuff — I like to vacillate between feeling timeless and also aggressively dated, in a minute-by-minute way sometimes. It adds an exciting texture to the work, because you’re never really sure when you’re going to jump to a shared historical moment. Like the Hard Rock Hotel collapsing — that’s a point in time when you can look at a date and know when that happened. I like centering the work around moments that we all have a relationship with.

The way the episode is structured, it feels like you have this idea about making risotto for your landlord, and then as COVID lockdowns happen, the story has to change to reflect the new reality. Is that how it actually went, or was that an arc you were able to build in after the fact?
We were basically done with every episode except for the finale, and it wasn’t necessarily designed to be the finale. I was treating that episode just like any other episode, just seeing where this banal subject took me. It just so happened with how it fell in the production schedule that I was trying to quit smoking in this risotto episode, and then the virus happened. Who knows what the ending of the episode would’ve been if that didn’t happen. I never know what the ending of any episode is going to be.

One thing that felt so effective about it was that so much of the COVID TV I’ve seen in the last few months has been looking straight at the thing — Zoom episodes, social-distance plotting …
Yeah. I hate to throw shade, but the way that COVID has been acknowledged in pop culture, I think a lot of people are doing it the wrong way. I think the last thing people want is more Zoom interface in their life. The idea of spending all day on Zoom for work, and then watching a show that is also in Zoom, it feels like such a miserable cycle to be in.

I really wanted the COVID stuff to feel like a departure from anything else people are working on right now. That’s also the beauty of the format — that it can be reduced to a single person, and it doesn’t look any different, because it always looks like shit. So it worked in that way. A lot of my favorite documentaries and movies do this really well, and I’ve always admired their ability to do that. Like the movie Medium Cool, the way it fits a fictional story into this real historical moment of the DNC in ‘68. That was just so cool — it’s not that my story is fictional, but to have a really interesting thing happening in the middle of this global moment. I watched a lot of footage of 9/11, and the most interesting stuff is the stuff that’s not pointed at the towers. It’s all street level, and you’re seeing how people are behaving in delis and looking at TVs. That’s all the best stuff, you know?

I feel like with COVID, everyone’s pointed in the same direction, and I realized when it started happening that I had this opportunity to document it in this way that no one else maybe had the foresight to document it. I felt this incredible weight and pressure and responsibility to capture this extremely brief moment when everyone was really confused and the city was dark. I put myself in a lot of danger, at the same time.

Going through the supermarket in that one really long shot, I realized in retrospect that the biggest superspreader event of all was probably the first grocery store rush. Everybody was indoors. We were not wearing masks; some people were wearing gloves. That was a really frightening moment. Even the guy that I buy the pan from, at the yard sale. That guy — there were twins there, and that second guy that I pan to, I think he just had COVID. I checked his Instagram the week after I filmed that, and he was in the hospital with the coronavirus. I was staring straight at it in really claustrophobic spaces. Maybe that was irresponsible, but we didn’t know how irresponsible it was.

Oh wow, is he okay?
He’s fine, yeah. He’s alive.

I was just thinking about how you were able to look him up on Instagram after shooting, and how the series really forces this perspective where you present your acquaintances and friends and loved ones in exactly the same way you do strangers. Is it it difficult to negotiate presenting that onscreen?
I like to give everybody the same treatment, whether it’s my friend who I’m going to dinner with or Kyle MacLachlan fumbling to get into a subway station. I want everybody to have the same distance from me. Keeping it mysterious, making it a little opaque, makes it more interesting. I like just dropping into a conversation, and you’re not really sure how we got there but something interesting happens, and then we’re out of it just as quickly.

People get too caught up in trying to establish characters, and it makes it more kaleidoscopic to just be drifting in and out all the time. That’s what I do, every day. Like yesterday, I was just walking by the barbershop and there was this huge parakeet in the middle of the room, with a bunch of people getting their hair cut around it. It looked like a ceremony. I just went in there and started filming and I started talking to the guys in there, and then I left. Who knows if I’ll use it, but I don’t like to stick with anything too long.

When you film strangers, do you have to get permission to use footage of them in the show?
Yeah, that seems to be a common question about the show. Basically every single person with a speaking role has a release. Sometimes I make that really annoying for my production team, because I’ll be bumbling around, Mr. Magoo style, on non-official shoot days. I’ll just drum up a conversation with someone and get this really great moment, and then my producers have to track them down and visit them in person and get them to sign a release.

Some of the conversations you have with people seem incredibly awkward. Is that a difficult barrier to push through, making yourself talk to people in such a direct way?
Do you have anything specifically in mind?

I mean, the foreskin guy feels notable.
Yeah, I have no real problem with it. It doesn’t feel different to me — talking to the foreskin guy was like talking to the travel agent. Talking to the foreskin guy was actually way easier than talking to someone randomly on the street. I had emotionally prepared myself for that moment when he finally demonstrates the restoration device. What I was not prepared for was the dick pulley on the bed. That was not advertised.

What’s the writing process like? Do you start with an idea and shoot material for it, or is it more that the idea develops out of looking at material you already have?
It’s an extremely complex, exhausting process that nearly drove me to the point of insanity a couple of times. I have to write, edit, and shoot all simultaneously. That’s the only way you can do it, which is scary for a producer, because on paper, it seems impossible to replicate something that relies on so much coincidence. But somehow it worked, over and over and over again. I cannot explain why it worked, or how these things found me, or how I found these people.

I’ll shoot and I’ll have these tentpole ideas, whether it’s small talk or scaffolding. I’ll always have these ideas front of my mind, all the time. When I start talking to someone, sometimes I’ll cycle through a few different ideas. Sometimes they don’t care about scaffolding, or sometimes they’ll start talking to me about their divorce. Then we inventory all this material and shuffle stuff around to see where each moment would be most impactful in each episode.

The farther away from the concept the material is, sometimes the funnier it gets. But also after shooting all day, I’ll just go and watch all the B-roll that I shot, that the second unit shot, and make selects. The selects are usually just the inherently funniest, or most beautiful images for me. I try to write jokes to those pieces of footage. Sometimes the pieces of footage will be a punchline, so I’ll need to go back and write a joke leading up to that moment. But sometimes I’ll have to go shoot a bunch of stuff to ramp up to that moment.

We had a shot of the Two Guys Liquor Store awning. I was joking around with one of the second unit people, Nate Truesdell, and I was like “It’d be so funny if there was a guy restaurant for every number of guys.” He spent a couple days going out and shooting every guy restaurant there is. I guess he only got up to Five Guys, but you get the idea. And you need to move on.

Can you talk about writing the finale? Creating a story while the world is changing around you seems like a challenge.
COVID made writing that episode a lot easier. I was panicking when I was quitting smoking because I was already feeling crazy because of the withdrawal. I was worried that I wouldn’t have a satisfying arc here, and I felt lost. This COVID thing happens, which is such an insane natural story beat with all these built-in emotions, and it ended up making everything before it make sense in this weird way.

I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do with the exhaust pipe guy. [In the finale, Wilson has a conversation with a man who drives a giant diesel truck about why he enjoys driving a vehicle that pollutes so much.] Then COVID happened and the editor and I, Adam [Locke-Norton], are looking at this material and thinking Oh my gosh. This moment where he’s debating with himself about whether pollution is an individual or a collective responsibility — we all as a society are starting to deal with our individual and collective responsibility to suppress this pandemic. Sure, maybe one person not wearing a mask may not do much on the grand scale, but we have to zoom out. In this weird way, he foreshadowed the struggle that was incoming, and our responsibility to each other to wear masks.

When I was envisioning this series, I didn’t have a neat, tidy wrap-up in mind. I almost resisted it for most of the production. But then this very naturally conclusive thing happened that we all shared. It turns out that it did end up saying something profound about everything I thought I had learned about the course of the whole season.

How is your landlord doing?
She’s good! I don’t know if I can tell you exactly what she’s doing because it might be a spoiler for season two. I haven’t been greenlit or anything yet, but just in case.

Of course. I’m glad she’s doing well, though. Did you ever get good at making risotto?
I can’t tell if I got good at making risotto, because no one ever ended up eating it besides me and her. But she’s easy to please.

I was going to make risotto this Friday for the finale, but that might be the first time I ever serve it to anybody. I’ll let you know whether I’ve perfected the recipe.

How do you feel about the show now that it’s out in the world? What’s it like to watch people watching it?
It’s really surreal seeing people watch this and respond to it. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I would have very small premieres on Vimeo. I would just self-release a movie and there’d be some chatter about it for a day or two, but nothing ever like this.

But it doesn’t feel totally real, at the same time. It still feels like a prank. I look at my phone and I see people talking about it, but it still doesn’t feel real to me. I was recognized in the supermarket once, but that was pretty much it. That’s the only real-world evidence that the show is out there for me. It feels good to have it out there; it seems like a lot of people can relate to it. I hope it changes the way people see the world around them. I hope it makes people kinder to one another.

How John Wilson Made the Perfect COVID-Era TV Finale