Pamela Adlon (‘Better Things’) on being inspired by the California wildfires for Season 4 [Complete Interview Transcript]

Pamela Adlon finished her fourth season as the star, director and writer on FX’s “Better Things.” She has received two Emmy nominations for her work as an actress on the show. She was also a guest star this past season for “This Is Us.”

Adlon spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz in May about the water motif in Season 4, bringing Lance Henricksen to the show and how this season was different from the first three. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: As usual, I find that every single time we talk, the first thing I have to ask is there’s always some kind of motif running through the season and this season, the water motif that really seemed to be prominent with the rain and then how it ends, which we won’t talk about, but where did that idea come from? Talk about that.

Pamela Adlon: Last year after we had those crazy wildfires we were in such a state of panic and terror in California on the whole that the rain started coming and it was such a relief that I kind of felt like I conjured the rain and every day it rained I felt so grateful and calm even though I would feel bad because we have such a huge homeless population and then after rains come floods. I needed that rain so I knew that when I started Season 4, I went into the writers’ room and I said to them all, “It’s raining this season, the whole season.” Also, on a card on the board I wrote, “Steady rain,” because I really wanted the Warren Zevon song. It was a theme. You’ll see as it comes through and then Phil is sneaking swims at the neighbor’s house and the water all comes to a head, I guess.

GD: It seemed to me like this season was, I don’t know if I would call it a midlife crisis, but it seemed like the weather was all relating to this change going through Sam. Is that how you saw it?

PA: Yeah. Every single year, everybody’s changing, so I just was thinking about the fact that she’s been driving around like this and I’ve always had a fantasy of getting a classic car, so one of the things that Phil Rosenthal always said to me is, “Write what you want into your show. Write the things that you want,” so I was like, “Fuck it, I always wanted an El Camino,” so I put that in there. I don’t know, those things scrabble together, which is what happens as you get older. You realize, “Oh my god, the next decade that I’m gonna hit is 60. What is that number?” You feel so crazy and destabilized. It’s almost like your life starts accelerating and you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down!” But that’s the way life is and that’s just the way I’ve always presented the stories in the show.

GD: We have to talk about that El Camino scene because it viewed almost as if you were stepping into a Western to a certain extent and of course you had that great cameo by Lance Henriksen.

PA: Oh my gosh. I wrote him a letter and he was so moved by the letter and then his manager told him, “You don’t have a choice. You’re doing this show. I love this show.” So basically I got one of my heroes to come do this scene and it was right when we started shooting the whole season and it was so hot and it was pretty much out in the Agoura Hills area and it’s like a Western town set and it’s meant for our people to use, people who are doing productions, so we had this little Western ghost town and then I had Lance Henriksen and this dog and this El Camino and all these other cool cars like that green Aspen. It was an unbelievable experience. I was happy to just have met him and the fact that I got to work with him and he’s such a pro, I couldn’t believe that he came to play and it was just a lovely little scene. It’s one of my things in my brain that I’m a doomsday prepper about. I’m like, “You gotta have a landline, you gotta keep gas in your tank.” He was that come to life for me, the old prospector who’s gonna save the world. Sexy old prospector, I should add.

GD: (Laughs.) The other highlight of the season for me really was the New Orleans episode. I have to imagine both from a writing standpoint and a directing standpoint, that had to be quite a logistical challenge shooting that episode. Was it as challenging as I’m thinking or did it turn out easier?

PA: Oh yeah, we shot all the interior New Orleans scenes in Los Angeles and getting Randy Rainbow, my god, when I finally got him on the phone, I was like, “Randy, I’m your people. You don’t understand how much you belong in this show.” He goes, “My mom loves the show. I’m gonna watch the show.” If it’s possible that anybody can busier than me during production it’s him because he’s churning out this content, but it was just a lot of logistical problems. We shot it, it was the last stuff we shot of the season so we got to New Orleans in December. We finished shooting December 20th. Where we started with Lance Henriksen in the desert, and it was so hot, we finished in New Orleans in December and it was freezing. I had to cut a scene for the safety of the crew and the cast. It was incredibly complicated and my first AD, Maria Mantia, worked with our location manager, who is like the mayor of New Orleans, Dave, was so awesome and literally I changed my clothes in the store where the woman’s kicking the guy laying on the streets, saying, “Get up, boy, we don’t do that here!” And I run into that store, go into the back, change my clothes, run out, run down the quarter to Jackson Square, jump out of a van while one of the PAs is shouting, counting down, “5, 4, 3, 2,” I jump into the front of the second line, Maria hands me a giant beer and the band starts to play and we start walking through the quarter. I had no idea what I was running into about the second line. I almost collapsed. It was like that. I think in one day we shot the Acme Oyster Bar, we started there are six in the morning, and we just piled all of that stuff in, Voodoo shop, Acme, Geraldine Singer, the realtor, bumping into nobody on the street.

GD: I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but that actually brings up something that I’ve always wanted to ask you. You started really taking the full reins as a director in Season 2 and you’ve directed every episode since then. How have you changed as a director over these last three seasons?

PA: You have the experience, so I learn not to take it, if somebody says to me, “I don’t think I can do that,” that, to me, is not a no. If there’s a door that is closed to me, I will try to get it open if I know that it’s the right thing for the show. In terms of having the freedom to know that if an actor has shut down and say, “Can we move a location, we can change this,” so we don’t have to say goodbye to an actor that we’re completely in love with for a location. In terms of music choices and soundtrack it’s always a battle ‘cause it’s money and it’s rights and it’s, “Do I wanna sit down and write this letter and really wage a campaign so I can get this? Is it worth it?” It’s been four seasons of a crash course in how to direct a show like this.

GD: Are there scenes that you look forward to shooting? I can imagine, what comes to mind is the kitchen montages where Sam’s cooking. Are there situations that you’re like, “Oh, I can’t wait to shoot this”?

PA: The kitchen stuff’s fun because we’re cooking and what I do is I shoot the scene and then I just cook the meal after, so I just have my guys like Forrest [Stangel] and my camera people just point the camera, and Forrest, who’s one of my camera guys, he used to work at the Food Network so he knows how to get when I sprinkle the salt and all of this and he gets the sizzling food. It’s very satisfying to do that kind of stuff. When we were making peppermint ice cream, I didn’t know what I was doing, “Get the mix and some vanilla ice cream and some chocolate powder,” and then I saw the agave and I thought, “That’s gonna look cool.” I didn’t know how it was gonna taste but it came out really, really good. Everybody loved that. The whole crew lined up.

GD: One thing that I don’t know why it caught me off guard this season but the relationship between you and Diedrich Bader, it struck a chord. What is it about those two and what is it like with you and Diedrich?

PA: I’m so glad you asked me this question, honestly, because for me, it is the purest love, Sam and Rich. It’s just this incredibly close, unconditional love and it’s so touching for me because it’s enough. I’m not in a relationship and I have my friends and my friendships so to see this pure love, Sam and Rich are together. They are a couple, even though they don’t do it or kiss on the mouth or whatever. They’re as much of a couple as anybody and seeing Rich so broken down and shattered at the beginning of the season and Sam being there for him and lifting him up and then Sam’s kid, who is like his kid, and then at the end seeing this big gorgeous man who’s gone through this fire be there for Sam, it’s an incredible thing. Sam and Rich forever. And in terms of me and Diedrich, he’s over the moon. He loves it so much and he gets to do the greatest work ever.

GD: A lot of people when you get to the end of the fourth season of a show, we always ask showrunners about, “What are you thinking about…” Does it get harder or easier to come up with ideas once you have a show running for several seasons?

PA: Well, this is the first time for me. I guess this season felt like I was accruing all the stories and the details and for me, a lot of it is detail, little things that I’ll write on the board, like, “Bird in the house” or “Forgiveness,” “Steady rain,” and then you sit there and you throw all of it in there and say, “I wonder if this all goes together. Is this a cohesive thing?” And this season was definitely the most cohesive in terms of a storyline that I’ve ever done and I don’t wanna say but now that it’s almost over, the last episode’s on Thursday, it just felt really good and I knew how the stories were gonna play out. I knew what it was gonna look like. I knew that when I put “Martha” in the New Orleans script, I literally wrote, “He goes over to his gamma, he says, ‘Gamma, do you have something for me?’ She pulls out a microphone, says, ‘I believe this is for you, son,’ and then he says, ‘This is for my husband,’” and I wrote, “And then he sings Tom Waits ‘Martha’ and we all die.” So that sentence in that script, and also Joe Hortua, who wrote the script, that was just the part that I put in, that’s like Atlanta burns in “Gone With the Wind” ‘cause that wedding was just incredible. I just love that this man is singing this song to his newly betrothed… I was so excited. I was excited about New Orleans. I could see the rain, I could see Sam kicking Phil out of the van in the rain on Mulholland, which is just so (chef’s kiss). I love when Sam abuses Phil. It’s kind of my favorite thing.

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