Pamela Adlon (‘Better Things’): Directing every episode of Season 2 was ‘trial by fire’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Pamela Adlon added the responsibility of directing every single episode of Season 2 for FX’s “Better Things,” on top of writing and starring in the series. Having already won an Emmy for her voice work on “King of the Hill” on top of multiple nominations for her contributions to “Louie,” she added another nom last year in Best Comedy Actress for the first season of “Better Things.”

Adlon recently spoke with Gold Derby contributor Tony Ruiz about the daunting task of directing each episode of Season 2, how she drew on personal experience for the “White Rock” episode, and how Season 3 will be different. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Pamela Adlon, Season 2 of “Better Things,” as if you didn’t know enough on the show with just starring in it and writing it, you decided to direct every episode. First of all, what were you thinking, and second of all, how on earth did you manage that?

Pamela Adlon: I honestly never really had ambitions to direct. It was all trial by fire for me, and so I was there every day anyway so it’s just like, why not take this on? I didn’t feel daunted or scared of it until I did an interview at the 92nd Street Y and Ali Wentworth was interviewing me and she said, “Are you gonna direct an episode next season, too, or two?” And I said, “No, I’m gonna do the whole season.” And everybody kind of gasped and I was like, “What?” That’s the only time I got scared but I gotta tell you, it was just an incredible thing for me to discover that it was something that I could do and the thing that everybody told me was the key is that you’ve gotta know what you want and you have to be able to answer questions and make decisions. That makes people feel confident, so that was part of it for me and I love it so much. I’m a mom, so naturally I like to take care of people and it’s not about being in control. It’s about this one singular vision. That was it, that I was able to execute my season that way and it was a dream.

GD: So when you tackle something like that, is there something that you want to be as a director that maybe you didn’t get from other directors you had worked with? Was there a goal that you had in how you wanted your set to run?

PA: Yes, it was massively important to me that people felt respected and taken care of. I learned years ago, I did a show called “Tracey Takes On…” — it was Tracey Ullman’s show — and I was a brand new mom. My oldest daughter was just a baby, so this is about 20 years ago, and Tracey had two kids and her whole goal at the end of the day was to be home at least for dinner and she said, “Otherwise, what’s the point?” And I watched this woman star, direct, she had written everything, run this set so efficiently and quickly and so I remembered that. I also, as an actor, I know what it’s like to be wasting your life away in your half banger or three-quarter banger and you’re not home, you’re not with your kids and your family. So I really wanted to honor that and it’s almost like it could be a model for how to do things in an efficient way and everybody’s happy. I like to be happy when I’m at work and people don’t need to waste so much time. And it can be fun. I feed my crew four times a day and we eat well. A fed crew is a happy crew. And, I take my pants off every day at lunch. For 20 minutes I get into Sam Fox’s bed and I close my eyes and most of the time I pass out. And if not, then I just rest, and that’s what helps keep me going for the rest of the day.

GD: So now switching to Pamela the actor, so much of this season I felt like there were so many moments that felt so real, and I have to wonder, were there particular challenges with this season as an actor that you came up to and were like, “Wow, what have I written myself to do here?”

PA: (Laughs.) Yes. The eulogy was hard. We were all kind of… I wouldn’t say dreading it, but it’s just like going to the doctor. You know you’re go through something difficult, and tapping into the feelings and the emotions there was really intense. Hours and hours, everybody was just crying their eyes out that day and the kids, I had to kind of get them to connect in that way and it was a big, big moment for everybody. That was one of those things that you’re like, “Oof. I don’t know about this.” Always doing the stuff with the ex-husband, with the deadbeat dad, is kind of prickly. In terms of the other things that are challenging for the kids, it’s just amazing to watch how they grow as actors. I’m so proud of all of them. Hannah [Alligood] came in this season, her first day, her first scene was the monologue that she whispers to me at the bar mitzvah, and that kid just nailed it. She just nailed it, and I’m so proud of all of those guys.

GD: And you have those heavy moments but you also have these uproariously funny moments. I’m thinking particularly of the scene with you coming back from the hardware store and the guy kisses you. What was shooting that particular scene like, because I was wondering how many times you said the words.

PA: I actually wanted to just cover the shit out of that scene, because I knew I wanted the picture of Sam and Jeff from the side because the back of the window of that truck, the International, that gorgeous truck, looks like a TV screen. And then I had it from this angle and that angle, so I just covered it. I never imagined that I would use as many “noes” as I did. That was the brilliant editing of Deb Simone and she and I were able to kind of cut them down and it was so many but then it was like the economy with which were able to finish it. But, incredibly satisfying. Greg Cromer’s face, look at his face, look at his eyes. It’s still hilarious. God, I loved that. Love the outcome.

GD: And one of the other highlights I think of the season is the White Rock episode. Where was that shot?

PA: In White Rock.

GD: It was actually shot in White Rock?

PA: Yes. And I did my Gold Derby from White Rock last year.

GD: Oh, really!

PA: Yeah.

GD: It seems like such a personal story. Not just from your character’s perspective but from the kids’.

PA: Yeah, my family, I have people in White Rock. So I used to go to White Rock on spring breaks with my kids and we would have an amazing restorative time and my aunt and uncle lived in White Rock for many, many years and so it was kind of like our escape and there’s train that goes through the town and then I would read ghost stories to my kids when we would go there and stories from the Pacific Northwest and all of that. We thought we saw a cowboy spirit at the train station, so just all these memories of things that happened there. When we were at the Museum of Anthropology, there was a guy who was a First Nations chief who came in and he was screaming at all of us. And my oldest daughter was really little and he said all those things that Ray Thunderchild in my show says, and so it was just these memories and things put together, very special times and a special place. I’m glad you liked that one.

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GD: I related to it, particularly the family. We used to go to Tahoe quite a bit over the summer and going to the same cabin all the time. And that’s one of the things that I think about your show, I read that you said somewhere that when your show stops being relatable that’s when you’re done. How do you know when a moment isn’t relatable? How do you check yourself and check the scripts? Is it just an internal feeling that you have?

PA: I can only go by the way I feel. So instinctively, I’ve been collected art since 18 years old. I never studied art or art history. I just know what I like, and so the same goes for me in terms of my show and the stories that we’re telling, because if it feels authentic and real to me, I feel like it most likely will work in my show. Spit. Knock on wood. All my weird things. I have to think that if my bullshit detector goes off, then it’s not gonna work, so hopefully when I’m saying relatable, I don’t just mean to my life, I mean to everybody. I’m trying to make stories that people are going to go, “Oh.” It’s just real moments, are what I feel as relatable.

GD: So between all of the episodes, is there one episode that you feel like is your best episode this season, either as a director or as an actor? Is it the graduation episode with that amazing dance sequence at the end?

PA: I love it so much. So many months of planning went into that. I love “White Rock,” too. I wanted “White Rock” to have a different value. I wanted it to feel like a film, something different. I love the graduation episode. On the whole it’s extremely satisfying, that entire piece. The whole “it takes a village” in the semi-circle around Max, saying, “I’ll take her, I’ll take her,” and just the emotions and the tears and Phil saying, “I’m taking you to tea,” it’s like the most bizarre thing, and then the elder abuse when I push my mother up the driveway, which, I can’t get enough of that (laughs). So funny. My mother loves it. I don’t elder abuse my mom. I do cook for her every single night.

GD: I can also identify with that, too.

PA: You can?!

GD: Yeah, my mom has taken to saying, “Kitchen, go. You’re the cook now.”

PA: I love that!

GD: And I love doing it. So looking ahead, you’re gonna start production on Season 3 when, in July I believe?

PA: Yes.

GD: So this season is gonna be different in that you have a writers’ room. I read that it was Phil Rosenthal that gave you some advice about how to deal with the writers’ room. Tell us about that.

PA: Phil has been an amazing coach for me and he’s a dear friend. Phil’s a room guy so he would say, “You don’t even understand how great it is to have a writers’ room,” and I always kind of have been like an anti-room mentality, because my dad always wrote on his own and I always wrote on my own, or just with one other person. So this was foreign to me, Tony. So I just was afraid and apprehensive and then reading stuff, you’re able to see people’s abilities and then, you’re putting people together. So I felt like I was making a table at a wedding. Do you know what I mean? Because I was like, “Oh my god, are these people gonna like each other? Is the chemistry gonna be there?” So I met one person and I thought they were fantastic, had a great voice, but I thought their personality might not go with these other people, so that’s what informed me putting these people together. It’s a relatively small room in terms of other shows. There’s five of us, including me. It’s been an amazing experience and I gotta say, I don’t know if I’m gonna go back. I really like it. I like the camaraderie and like Phil said, it’s the most un-lonely feeling you can ever have.

GD: Well, I can’t wait for Season 3 and I’m glad to hear that the writers’ room is an enjoyable experience for you. Pamela Adlon, I could talk to you forever. Thank you so, so much and best of luck.

PA: Thank you so much, Tony!

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