Pamela Adlon just concluded her third season as star, director, writer and producer of the FX comedy “Better Things.” The multihyphenate has earned two consecutive Emmy nominations for her performance as Sam Fox in the series.
Adlon recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz about having a writers’ room on “Better Things” for the first time, how she blends comedy into the series and what’s to come in Season 4. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Pamela, Season 3, many critics are saying this is the best season yet and when we spoke last year you were just about to start writing this third season. It was your first season with a writer’s room, per se. Now that the season is behind you, how has this experience of having a writers room been?
Pamela Adlon: It’s amazing. I love the whole thing and now I’m in my second writers’ room for Season 4, which is so surreal because I feel like I’m still pregnant with Season 3 because the finale hasn’t aired yet. It airs on Thursday and I’m writing Season 4. So I’m having Irish twins television series babies right now. I love the experience. I love saying my ideas that I have into the room and hearing what other people have ideas about bring into the room. It’s a great exchange when people’s minds are open and they’re turning each other on, brain-wise.
GD: Looking at Sam’s journey this season, when you went into this season what did you go in wanting to explore with her?
PA: I wanted to show this process… Not even a process but a thing that happens to us when all of a sudden we go, “Oh, well that’s different. Oh, this changed My body changed. My kids are growing up.” We originally were talking in the room, I said, “I wanna see Max falling apart. I wanna see Phil falling apart. I wanna see Frankie falling apart. I wanna see Sunny falling apart. I wanna see Sam falling apart.” From there, it all became something else. You see Max going to college and she’s going for it and then you see her slowly chip away and end up coming back home but she actually is succeeding in the thing that she wanted to do even though it looks a little sketchy. She’s achieving something. She goes to this suss motel but she actually ends up with a beautiful portfolio of photos so she’s achieving something in another way that wasn’t the original plan. Then, of course, the thing with Phil and Duke, everything that happens to these characters is something that has a big effect on Sam. Sam is just going through basically her own big life changes like the hot flashes and going to the gyno and getting a colonoscopy, all of these things that are typical middle age stuff but still has her regular life to deal with. I guess it’s just a fun way to show weird things that we have to do and have to go through in a funny way, hopefully.
GD: One of the highlights of the season for me was the episode where Sam gets together with her girlfriends and at one point she says, “I can’t remember what it’s like to un-tense.” There’s some really interesting dialogue that the women have about all these things that are happening in their lives and saying that there’s not a place to talk for them to each other about it. Was that a moment that you really, really wanted to have? There’s almost an improvisational style to that scene. How much of that was written? How much of that was improvised?
PA: I wanted to shoot it like a [John] Cassavetes movie. I wanted it to feel like a really fluid, indie doco style kind of thing. I had this beautiful house with this garden and these women feeling so excited with this greeting and everything. So when the women got there I had them all come into my trailer and I said, “How do you feel about yourself at this point in your life?” That was something that I did when we did the scene at the restaurant as well. The scene at the restaurant, the girls’ night out, was the first scene that I ever wrote for my show. I just had it on ice until this season. Then, the girls’ night in was something that I really wanted to show women having this intense bonding time and this expression of, “What happened to me.” So when the women got there, I cast Cree Summer who I’ve known for 30 years. We’ve been doing voiceover for 30 years. She hadn’t been on-camera in 25 years and I took that girl out of mothballs. She is so fabulous. I didn’t know Judy Reyes until I cast her in the show and we spoke, nor did I know Rachel True, and Rebecca [Metz] was obviously in the show. I said, “Who here’s a mom? Who’s not a mom?” And we all talked about that and then we talked about our bodies and then I sat us on the stairs. When the sun was going down, I said, “The sun’s going down. Let’s sit on the stairs” and you can see us from behind looking at this beautiful view and we’re talking about our bodies and we’re smoking and vaping and drinking on the stairs and then we kind of just relax into it. That whole piece was an improv. Then, when we got down to the pool, that’s all very much scripted and then there was some stuff we couldn’t get to, so I said, “Let’s talk about being invisible.” We did all the scripted stuff and then I would throw something out to the girls. I would say, “Talk about how you feel about, remember what you said about this.” I would throw something out and they would be able to do it. It was an incredible experience because some of the scripted stuff worked, some of it didn’t, some of the improv stuff worked, some of it didn’t. We were able to weave together this beautiful, choppy, and it came out exactly the way I wanted and then the husband comes home with his stupid friend and Sam’s all like, “I don’t fucking care about you.” Sam’s being sassy and then to hear her friend say, “I actually love my husband,” it’s one of those things. That’s sacred space. It’s really hard to get women together to unload and so the fact that those guys came home early, I just think it’s so funny ‘cause it sucked so bad.
GD: One of the things that I find so repeatedly interesting about the show is that you weave this line of the comedic and the real in a way that it never feels like, “Oh, there needs to be a joke here.” Do you write the show just with the emphasis on reality? How do you craft the comedy in this show?
PA: It’s hard. It’s hard because I love to have all these giant feelings but then I’m like, “That’s not funny. I’m crying all the time. Crying because I’m feeling.” There’s just certain ways to, if you have a scene and an end beat, you go beyond the end beat. That’s what I’m trying to do in the show. Usually, when you go beyond the end beat, you feel an extra feeling and then you go over here. Then it’s really funny. It kind of feels like the conversation you have in your head with yourself in your car after a terrible thing happened or a confrontation or something happened at a store or something happened at work. You’re driving home and you’re like, “Ooh, I wish I had said that! Ooh, wouldn’t that have been bad if I said this? Oh god, that would be so nasty if this happened.” So all of those afterthoughts are a lot of what goes into the comedy of the show.
GD: We also saw Sam in the workplace more than we really have at least in a different way than we have in previous seasons with the film and then with the play reading. Was there a reason that you wanted to specifically put her on this big film set with all the issues and the egos? What was the impetus for that particular story?
PA: I wanted to show being in the workplace and being one of hundreds of people who are working on a project and not being an above-the-line person. Sam’s in the same boat as the hair and makeup captain and the background actors. They’re all being treated the same, which is poorly. This is an age-old story, workplace abuse of power. It was fun to do that. I could incorporate different elements of things I had been involved in over the years and the movies I’ve made. I was able to put Doug Jones in a monster costume, which was a dream come true, and show what these people endure and how people need to be taken care of because everybody’s there for a reason. They’re all working towards one common goal. It’s like the haves and then the everybody else doesn’t haves. There’s really no middle class on a film set.
GD: The vanishing middle class continues. So with that in mind, I read something recently that Diedrich Bader was saying your set is the happiest set where nobody is ever angry or anything like that. You being at the head of it, what do you attribute the happiness on your set to?
PA: (shows bag of Twizzlers)
GD: Yeah, that would work for me, too.
PA: (Laughs.) I don’t wanna be there for 18-20 hours, number one. I have a family that I wanna get home to just like almost every single other person on the set. Knowing what you want. I know what I want. I’m open to collaboration. I feed my crew four times a day. That’s a big one. I get the fruit guy. I get the taco man. Everybody feels taken care of. Everybody feels heard. It feels very safe. I’ve been on a lot of sets and I know the feeling I wanna have when I come to work. Also, I’m a mom. So if I’m having a party or I have an office or I have a set, I know what I wanna do and how I wanna make it feel to make people feel comfortable there to operate at their highest level.
GD: Just purely from an acting standpoint, you’re three seasons into this. You’re working on your fourth season. What are the most challenging scenes for you just from an acting perspective?
PA: I guess when I have a lot of people and guest stars it’s challenging for me because I’m the boss and I want to give everybody my time but I need to make sure all my department heads have my time. So sometimes I have to sacrifice time with my actors when it’s the case but I guess that would be the most challenging, and having too much dialogue for myself. It literally doesn’t matter if I wrote every single word. It’s like if you write a report and you have to do it in school and put the paper down. You’re totally fucked. That’s why Season 4 I was like, “Maybe Sam’s just reacting to everything.” Not much to say.
GD: You are the boss. You can talk to somebody about that. You’d probably be talking to yourself. I also just wanna touch on, at the heart of this, Sam is a mom. Those scenes with the three girls that play your daughters, what do those scenes mean to you? She faces every frustration with these girls and yet, even at the height of her frustrations she is such a devoted parent. How do you create those relationships with those girls?
PA: I wanna show life the way I see certain things, whether I’ve lived it or not. This is how I look at things. There’s always a dark edge of humor to everything because being a parent, you feel like you’re getting everything wrong. If your only feedback is from your kids, you can feel like a real douchebag sometimes. You’re like, “Well, I screwed that one up again and I screwed that one up.” If you are lucky enough to get together with other people who have kids or who have friends who have kids, then you can go, “Oh my god, that happened to me. My thing’s not even as bad as your thing.” Then you can start to feel better. I feel like parents need to give themselves a break and also give their kids a break and the advice that I give everybody that I still don’t take myself would be, “Don’t take it personally.” And I could beat myself in the head every day. “Don’t take it personally.” It doesn’t matter. You can never be as heartbroken in your life or as mad in your life as you can be with your kids.
GD: I know you’re in the early stages of planning the next season. Where would you like to see Sam go in the future that you can share?
PA: I don’t know, on a lunar mission? (Laughs.) You said in the future. I don’t know. I’m two weeks into the room and I’m trying to figure it out. At the end of the day, it’s one foot in front of the other and keep going. Keep the anxiety away. Stay positive. Stay gold, Ponyboy, Sammyboy. I’m trying to figure that out right now, though. We have a theme.
GD: That’s good enough for me. Pamela Adlon, thank you so much.