Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz is a very, very tired man. For the past two years he’s been working like a dog to pull off the impossible: bringing back a television series that was cancelled seven years go due to pathetically low ratings. If that wasn’t ambitious enough, he’s also writing an Arrested Development movie that picks up where the new season (premiering on Netflix on May 26th) finishes up. It’s proven to be a monumental task, and he took 40 minutes away from his busy schedule to explain in great detail how everything came together.
Where are you calling from?
I just snuck away from the mix stage. We’ve been pulling 18-hour days trying to finish off the episodes.
There’s actually a frozen banana stand right outside our office in New York right now. It’s causing absolute chaos!
You’re kidding! I mean, it’s not a big deal because it’s just promotion, but it’s still kind of amazing to me. I can’t believe that anybody gives a shit.
The line is full of young people. Most of them probably didn’t even watch the show when it first aired.
Probably not. It’s kind of happenstance. There’s really two ways to look at it. The show just happened to coincide with this new way for people to get media. When we were on the air, there was very little DVR. The first year, we weren’t even sure if they would let us have DVDs. Back then they would only give those to hit shows. It was the combination of that and the audacity to put so much into those shows. It’s a disposable media, writing in general. But writing for television is like writing for the newspaper. Unless you have a hit, it’s gone tomorrow.
I was just watching the “Save Our Bluths” episode from the third season. I was thinking that would make the perfect hashtag, but there wasn’t even Twitter yet.
It didn’t exist. They didn’t even account for the ratings of the shows on college campuses. I do think that we were getting traction on college campuses, but Nielsen didn’t include them back then.
It’s funny we’re talking about 2003 like it was ancient history.
I know. We happen to be alive in this crazy time when everything is changing so quickly. Our children have no understanding of, “Oh yeah, I remember when eBay started.” It just doesn’t even make any sense to them.
How frustrated did you get during the original run of Arrested Development that the show was getting so much acclaim, but the ratings were in the toilet?
There were definitely times of frustration because the lack of ratings meant lack of other support, too. Not getting an audience meant there was a lot of struggle to change the show in fundamental ways. So, in that sense, it was frustrating.
I remember thinking, “All right, I’ve got Ron Howard leading this charge. I don’t know if I’m ever going to have this opportunity again, where I have a heavy hitter on my team that’s not the star of the show.” It was like writing a novel or something. You’re not really thinking, “Boy, I hope this is a giant, giant hit.” You’re thinking, “OK, I’m writing this novel now, and I’ve got to put everything I have in it. That’s the opportunity I have.”
Did Fox pressure you to make the show more palatable to a mainstream audience?
[Laughs] Yeah. Yes.
What changes did they want?
There was talk at one point that they wouldn’t sign up unless I signed a contract to simplify it by a percentage point. I forget the number. It was, like, a 30 percent or 40 percent simplification.
By doing what, exactly?
Well, that was my point. I was like, “I’m doing this in hopes of making the audience laugh. I’m not doing this to be arcane.” This was after the era of Seinfeld. That was such a phenomenon and such a favorite show of so many people, myself included. I wanted to do one of those. Whenever somebody tries to put their own voice out there, it is to be expected that there’s going to be some push-back. That’s just part of the deal. That’s part of the cause and effect of the universe. I never took it too personally.
For whatever reason, I did have that resolve of, “No, no, no. I’ve got to stick to this vision.” That sounds a little artsy, but it really was because I thought it would get laughs. After all is said and done, that’s what it all came down to. I think it’s funnier to have this extra thread going down with Tobias where he’s in a mole suit, despite the fact that we already have a guy in a jet pack, to use an example of perhaps overkill.
So the show gets canceled. They tear down the sets and you walk off the lot. At that point did you think you were done with these characters forever, or even then did you see a future for Arrested Development?
I really did. I mean, at that point it had been such a battle and it had gotten very, very difficult. It was a great fortune to have gotten this gorgeous, Academy Award-winning actress, Charlize Theron, to star in six episodes. You just don’t get that on a weekly TV show, and certainly not one with low ratings like that. I was like, “OK, they aren’t going to be able to ignore this.” And they ignored it. There was not a single ad. I was so embarrassed for her.
They also had no Emmy campaign, because the last thing they wanted in that third season was to win another Emmy. It was getting to a situation where they wanted to cancel the thing. It was not a money-maker for them. It had gotten very frustrating, since we’d done this really labored work of hiding the true nature of Charlize’s character. It was six episodes where the audience thinks one thing and the character thinks another thing, and the truth is this third thing. They all had to make sense and they all have to be funny, and they aired two in August and three of those in January. It did start feeling a little thankless.
When the show was canceled, I knew I wanted to do more. I love these people. It’s no more thinking you’re done with your family forever after going off to college . . . This never felt like an average job to me. There was so much laughter and so much friendship. At the time, Ron didn’t think it was a movie, and he was right. When you get a show canceled, it’s hard to imagine how you’re going to get a movie studio to put money into it.
It was a really a successful, sneaky thing to have Ron say at the end of the show that maybe it was a movie. That was more of an accident, but I really wanted to make it as a movie at that point. I just really wanted to get my foot in the door and have a really successful director say it. He wasn’t really on board, but then a couple of years later it started snowballing, and he did start to think it might be a movie. By then I was doing a number of things, and it was too time-consuming to do it. It wasn’t until December of 2011 that I started to really work out the movie. I realized, “Wow, it almost calls for a new form.”
Prior to that, did you give much thought to the characters’ fates after the third season?
I would say that anybody who works in television tends to collect information from their life to apply towards their television characters. That’s the difference between television and movies, in a way, unless you’re talking about James Bond or something. It’s so much more focused on character than story. So, as somebody who likes comedy and looks for funny things in life, I would often think, “Oh, that would be funny if it happened to Gob.”
The characters weren’t right in front of me, so the ideas would be a little bigger sometimes. I like to take risks when I won’t be accountable for them. That’s how Buster lost his arm. I was writing an email saying, “Hey, this season we should really try to do things that are completely unexpected. Bad example: Buster gets his arm bitten off.” It really was, like, I would never do that in a million years. Just a bad example, and sometimes you get the best idea from that kind of stuff.
Most shows aren’t ballsy enough to do stuff to characters that’s permanent.
I know. I really was reflecting on that. Like everybody else at that time, I had worked on sitcoms, and I was sick of sitcoms. It’s never really what I had aspired to do, so there was a kind of shift in my mind. I was like, “OK, what are the opportunities here?”
I always thought the main lie of Arrested Development was that in the main title it says something like, “And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything.” Then they’re sort of fine. They’re not working at Burger King. They’re living in a penthouse. [Laughs] No, they didn’t lose everything. They’re still people with regular lives.
I really tried to look at everything as freshly as I could, like losing the arm. I remember talking to Tony [Hale] about that. I was so excited. I was like, “Tony! I’ve got this great idea! You’re gonna have your hand bitten off!” And he was really worried. His first instinct, like anybody’s would be, was, “My hand? Well, how am I gonna do . . . No, no. Don’t take my hand.” I think it was my wife that said to him, “You’re still gonna have your hand.” She used to be an actress and she said, “Tony, it’ll be more material.” But it’s hard to get your head around that.
You’ve said you first thought about Arrested Development returning as a movie. How did that morph into a full TV season?
Here’s the short version, because this isn’t a very interesting story. I was ready to kind of sit down and focus on the movie. I already knew the movie would take about a year and a half, and it probably wouldn’t be a big paying gig. I knew how into it I’d become, so I was a little overwhelmed by the idea. I knew there would be a lot of work, not a lot of rewards, and the fans are going to be highly critical of it, and I only had three episodes of length to give them what they want.
It soon became clear to me that I had nine characters that the audience was going into the movie with some knowledge of – maybe a lot of knowledge. That was unusual. If you’re going to do a James Bond movie, you have to address Moneypenny and that kind of thing, but you’re not as interested as you are with a family. You’re not like, “Hey, where has Moneypenny been? Is she still with that guy who works in exporting?”
I started thinking that one of the compelling attributes of the show will be, “Where have these people gone?” Now the story has changed from what happens next to what happened in the last six years, and what happens next? Also, because it was about a family and because the kids are getting older, all those things are suddenly interesting parts of the story, and more interesting in many ways than bringing the family to Hawaii, which somebody had done.
By the way, I had this great idea where they find this tiki [like on The Brady Bunch], but to do it as a dark drama. Maybe some Kiefer Sutherland drama and use that same plot and see if anybody notices. Maybe he’s surfing at night when he hits his head . . .
Anyway, I started sketching it out, and I had this funny idea for Maeby. It doesn’t quite fit into the master family story, but it’s funny for Maeby, and I do have this funny bit for Tobias where he writes pop songs. He’s written a song called “I Kissed a Boy.” I just had all these crazy notions, and suddenly I was overwhelmed by the task of squeezing all these unrelated stories into a movie that has a central plot.
So I met with Ron Howard to say, “Hey, is there any way we can turn this into a trilogy?” He’s such a good guy. He was like, “I think it might be hard enough to get one movie made.” It was a good point. A studio might not want to spend $150 million on an Arrested Development trilogy. I can see that argument.
Ron was then like, “Why don’t you go back and work on the movie?” At the time, he was working on the Dark Tower trilogy [based on the Stephen King books.] He told me about it as I was leaving his office. He said, “I’m doing this Dark Tower thing, and it’s very, very complicated. I’m trying to get it to be a movie and then a TV show and then another movie and possibly another TV show.”
I said, “Well, that’s what I was just talking about.” He said, “Yeah, it’s hard.” So I kind of went off, and he also met with Ted Sarandos from Netflix. Ted was interested in us bringing back the series. If we ever wanted to bring it back, he made it very clear they’d take it. I was like, “Well, that’s never going to happen. These guys are all movie stars and they all have their own TV shows and I’m not going to be able to get them for some eight-month period. It’s just not gonna happen.”
Then I had this idea. “Well, what if there’s an anthology show?” I’ve been in TV for a long time, and one of the ideas that gets pitched a lot is the idea of an anthology show. Those really worked in the Fifties and Sixties with shows like The Twilight Zone, Route 66 and Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a different thing every week. You’re not offering Sam and Diane every week. They’re not gonna come back. I’ve loved that idea because you get to be really creative and stretch a little bit.
So I thought, “I might have an opportunity now because of what may or may not be an abiding interest in these characters. I could do an anthology series, like Maeby, episode 3 or George Michael, episode 5.” I just loved this idea. I could do it as a preamble. It could be Act One of a movie and I could get all my backstory out of the way.
If I had done this in the original pilot, we would have found out what Tobias’ life was like in Boston as a doctor when he lost his license for giving Heimlich to a guy who was just sleeping. I just loved this idea of doing the series and a movie. But I thought they had to live together. We can’t have one without the other, because otherwise we’d be cheating people. I’ll just be doing, you know, Tobias loses his license. It won’t be satisfying.
That began a year-and-a-half-long process of trying to get both these planks moving simultaneously. It involved trying to get the movie completed so that I could develop the TV stories that go in it and, more importantly, trying to get deals for both these things. As Ron predicted, it’s very difficult to get TV companies and movies companies, even in the same corporation, to be play ball together. It’s hard enough for them to get one project through their system.
It’s a really expensive proposition to say, “OK, now this movie can only happen if there’s a TV show. This TV show can only happen if there’s a movie.” The whole experiment started to become, “What do you do first? Who takes the first risk? And can someone other than me take it, please?”
I couldn’t afford to take two years and just write everything, do it all speculatively and then hope somehow this would all work out. I needed to make something real, so that was really, really challenging. I think I finally did have the OK to do the movie, but then when the TV series went, the movie company said, “Well, we don’t want to do it if there’s a TV series.” There was just a lot of back and forth like that.
Ron and I discussed this, and finally we said, “Let’s just say ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Let’s just do the show and see what happens.” And then it became incredibly challenging to make the TV deals. We couldn’t start the writers’ office and the production office without actor deals. We couldn’t get the actor deals without giving them dates. They all have obligations.
I was working on simultaneous storytelling – “This is what happens from 2006 to 2013.” The characters are going to bump into each other. You gotta know that George Senior is going to run into Michael. You can’t just have George Senior doing his thing. So, how do I say, “Hey, Jason Bateman, we need a guarantee of this week in August, and one week in December,” when I don’t know if I have Jeffrey Tambor for one week in December?
In the end, there really was just a force of will and determination by a lot of people to make this happen. Fortunately, everybody at 20th Century Fox and everybody at Netflix really wanted to make it work, and the actors wanted to make it work. It was still complicated, because there was really money at stake. Finally, in like 2012, it was a tough time in the economy. It was really a scary year, and I was thinking, “I am throwing good time after bad on this one. I mean, if this doesn’t happen now, I am eight months into not having taken another job, and I haven’t even started yet. We still have to write and make these things.”
I finally started an office later in 2012, and it took a long time to get the money flowing. Everyone was saying, “Well, can someone else task this risk?” I knew that I was the one that couldn’t afford to take the risk. I couldn’t afford to take another year. Fortunately, we worked that out with everybody at these corporations. I really hope this works, because I want a reward. I want to see this behavior rewarded. They all did what corporations don’t do. They all went out on a limb.
20th Century Fox finally said, “OK, all right. We’ll do it his way. But Mitch, you gotta try and get these actors.” They were nervous, as they should have been. It was a lot of money they were tying up.
But they must have seen the DVD sales and the Netflix streams and the groundswell of interest, right?
I think they were aware of that. I know they really wanted to do it, but it takes hundreds of thousands to get these productions going, and if you don’t know for sure, and if you hear suddenly – as we often did – “Oh, Jason Bateman took a movie from August to November” . . .
Then you’re fucked.
Then you’re fucked! And that happened a lot. All of a sudden, The Munsters or whatever that was called. Mockingbird Lane takes off on NBC. We were like, “OK, we gotta shoot all of Portia [de Rossi]’s stuff in August.” We thought we were going to lose her. [Mockingbird Lane wasn’t picked up.] So I’m quickly rewriting everything. I’m writing that stuff first, even though that was supposed to happen later. So the whole thing was an incredible act of organization. I’m so exhausted, ’cause it really was about two years of trying to keep what was blossoming into a very complex story in my head at one time.
We ended up with an eight-hour movie of Arrested Development where the pieces do kind of come together. Not only was the show told out of sequence, it was shot out of sequence. Half of the stuff is on green screen. There are scenes where there are two characters talking to each other. On one side, it’s Jason Bateman in July, and on the other side it’s Portia in November. It was these crazy, crazy things where everybody had to say, “Wait, she hasn’t gone to that party, so she wouldn’t have that makeup on, therefore . . . ”
I mean, it was just nonstop like that, and it still is. I just finished what’s called offline editing three days ago. We had to be locked at four a.m. two or three days ago. I think we locked at 3:59 AM. In the final moments I was still saying, “Wait! He doesn’t know about Buster! Let’s move that line!” It was insane. [Laughs] This is, to me, one of the craziest things of this. Again, it’s such a fortune that I get this opportunity, but this is an eight-hour show that has been tested in no way. No one has seen it. I haven’t watched it back to back. Everyone has seen pieces of them, and we’ve been delivering them out of order. There’s never been a screening of these back-to-back. I guess that’s usually the case with television, right? You pick the pilot and then the rest of them are an episode, one at a time. But those episodes are pretty heavily vetted.
You did have the entire cast on the set for a single day, right?
We had two, actually. During which, my favorite line of the whole experience was spoken by Jessica Walter. It just reminded me that, “Oh God, this is such a family.” We had all nine people. Wait, is it nine? I’ve never actually counted. Yeah, nine. They were all sitting in the room together and you’ve got to shoot all these angles, and probably the fourth setup is now facing the other way, towards Jessica and Jeffrey Tambor and other people. Jessica says, “Why is my stuff always shot last?” [Laughs] You know what I mean? I thought, “We’ve been back together for one day.”
It’s such a great family moment. You go away, you live your life, and you can come back together as a grown-up in your home and you’re having Christmas dinner, and somebody uses the word “always.” We haven’t seen each other in six years! It’s great. It’s hilarious.
We wound up having two days all together, and I quickly conceived of this other group of scenes that we had. I thought we could put all these people in one place and very fun things happen. Everyone is together in the same scene, but they’re having separate scenes and things are happening simultaneously.
The whole experience has been like that – just take the challenge and embrace it completely. You’ve got one actor when you need two. The challenge is that you’ve suddenly got all the actors together. OK, you’re shooting the last scene as the very first thing. It’s like, “OK, there are opportunities here. I can put stuff in the last scene that I haven’t figured out yet and just trust that I’m gonna figure out how it got there.”
All of this is going to be invisible to the audience, by the way. At least I hope it will be invisible. It just happened that the production was, you know, kind of interesting.
I spoke to many of the actors. They all told me they were very confused much of the time, but they had complete trust and faith in you.
Oh, that’s so nice. I wasn’t really doing the Woody Allen thing of, “Sorry, you can only have these pages.” It really took about three hours to explain the whole story, and I did it with a few of them. But then you only have so many three-hour periods. It would just end up tumbling out of me. It would be like explaining a Seinfeld really quickly. “So then George is dating this woman, but it turns out Jerry used to date her, and that’s why he’s upset. Oh, by the way, he bought this powder and this powder is what Elaine wants, and it gets in is eyes when he shows up at the . . . OK, action!”
How is success measured on Netflix if there’s no ratings?
Well, isn’t that funny? That’s the other big mystery now. I’m not Chuck Lorre, and I’m not someone who has gotten big ratings. If Chuck did this, he could say, “Hey, I need to know the numbers, because that determines how I bill.” It should really determine how we all bill, but what I love right now is that it’s off the table.
There’s one job, and that’s making Netflix happy with their investment, in terms of the financial part of this. Then there’s one job for me, which is making the fans happy. I think that’s kind of it. I mean, I obviously want to bring in new people, and I think the show will accomplish that. The show starts off slowly enough, and you get to meet each character. I think it’s a nice way into this world and this comedy, if people want to try it. But the success will be the people that eventually find it. I don’t even need them to find it immediately, truthfully.
I keep thinking, “What will determine success for me? Will it be if it gets good reviews or all the blogs go crazy?” No, because in the first three seasons, oftentimes the fans hated the shows when we put them out that night. Their first reaction was always, “Oh, I hate this one. Why Annyong? They’ve ruined the show.” Then they would kind of grow to like it. Then they’d say, “I hate this now. Why’d they do this Motherboy thing? I hate it.” Maybe just some of them hate it, but it’s still a weird thing.
Ultimately, we’ll see what kind of emotions I go through if this doesn’t work. For now, it’s kind of been about making it as good as we can and just focusing on that and being proud of it in a vacuum, which is what we’re used to.
Are you confident that a movie is going to happen?
This is definitely the first part of a bigger story. I know there’s more story and I’ve mapped out the story. I’m confident in how that will be. Still, I wouldn’t have predicted this Netflix thing years ago. The creative people involved in this want to do more together. The actors want to do more of this. I want to do more of this. The writers want it. I think every part of it will be easier, unless this is a giant debacle, which is also a possibility. In that case, we’ll do it as a little stage show.
Is any part of you worried that Netflix will crash that night because of all the demand?
Oh my God, it’s hard to know. I have no data on this. Sometimes I think the show is incredibly popular, and then other times I’m not so sure. I’m sure that when Drew Carey goes out in the world, everyone talks to him about The Price Is Right. He must think, “This is the biggest phenomenon in the history of mankind. I can’t go out to dinner without hearing about The Price Is Right. It’s all anyone cares about.” [Laughs] I try not to fall for it, because it still could be a very small group of people that just happen to be on social media. I don’t know.
My mom loves it.
Good. Well, the big secret of Arrested Development – and it was always a secret – is that the creative voices in it all came from sitcoms. We did not want to do a single-camera show like Sports Night, which I really liked, but I wasn’t interested in being less funny. I was interested in, “OK, let’s work harder now. We’ve done that thing on the stage with Golden Girls, where we re-write and re-write and re-write the joke until it’s even sharper and funnier.” The actors, like Jason, came from that as well. It was like, “Hey, let’s make it funnier, as opposed to less funny.” I think people, like parents, will appreciate that.
How important did you find it to bring back smaller characters, like Lucille Austero, or Kitty?
I thought it was pretty important. I mean, I also wanted to be very careful and not do a “Greatest Hits.” It’s a weird thing. Once you start doing too many of those, you’re getting a different kind of laugh. You’re just getting recognition. But we had so many characters, and so many of them work in the stories we’re telling, so in that case it was great to be able to pull upon . . . for example, if we needed a newsman, we had John Beard. A lot of them just worked in the story organically.
In the first three seasons, the characters were all pretty miserable and dissatisfied with their lives. Are they moving towards a happier existence as the show goes on?
I originally pitched a show about a family that lost everything and gained tremendously because of it, right? They lost their money, and therefore they lost the ability to separate themselves from each other and from society, and then, as a result, they’re happier. They’re going kicking and screaming into a happier life. Lindsay and Tobias are forced to share a bedroom, and that should improve their relationship. But then, of course, comedically you very quickly realize that you don’t necessarily want Lindsay and Tobias in a happy relationship. That’s not the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. So comedically, it’s hard to not have things go badly.
Also, I’ve liked the characters, to a certain extent, to reflect the time they live in. We’ve gone through a tough time in this country. We’ve created a lot of entitlement and then pulled the rug out from under it. They’ve not immune to that.
Now that you’re so close to the finish line after all this crazy work, how do you feel?
I’m still in it. It’s a funny thing. I am racing towards the finish line. I have two more 18-hour days. They’re really, really hard days. I want to, like, watch TV again. I want to be with my children. I know there’s gonna be another shoe that drops. All of a sudden I’m going to realize, “Oh, I don’t get to do that anymore. I loved that.” I wasn’t just trying to get it done. It was really great to find something funnier. We’re in post-production, and we really laugh a lot. We always say that about 20 percent of the jokes we find in post. That’s been great. I wish I could do it eight hours a day, and not 18.
Ideally, when do you hope to begin work on the movie?
I’ve got to see how this goes. I do have the movie all outlined. Maybe it’s not a movie, though. I don’t know. Maybe it’s another series? Maybe it’s something . . . I think I’ll probably dive into it pretty soon, if this is well-received.
So a fifth season of the show is possible?
Well, I can’t say because it’s not my decision. I can say, unequivocally, I want to do more with this show and with these people. Unequivocally. It’s designed with a closure to it, but also with a lot of avenues open for things that I think will be compelling.