“And now that I have your attention, I’ll begin.”
This is what Richard E. Grant says, staring out at you from your TV screen, in a medium shot, against an orange background, after a good 10 seconds or so of complete silence. Why the noted, Oscar-nominated British actor is addressing you, the viewer, is unclear; it is the first in a series of queries you will have as AMC’s Dispatches From Elsewhere begins, and a seriously odd way to start a series. All we know is that he promises to be a reliable narrator, and that because he knows we’re all very busy, he’s going to save us some time by compressing the backstory of a man named Peter. As played by the show’s producer/writer/star Jason Segel, he’s the sort of schlubby sad sack we’ve seen in a million movies and TV shows. This particular man who’s stuck in a rut, however, is about to impulsively take a tag from a flyer and call the phone number that’s scribbled on it. The question is not whether his mundane life is about to change so much as how.
And if you watched the show’s pilot when it premiered last night (and which Segel also directed), you may have found yourself wondering about a number of other things, such as: What is the Jejune Institute, the mysterious organization at the other end of that phone call, and why has it invited Peter to participate a quest to find a missing girl? is this thing even real? Who is Simone (played by trans actress Eve Lindley, a genuine find), one of three other people who are part of Peter’s team? Did someone really cast Sally Field and André “André 3000” Benjamin as their partners in crime on this search, or are we in the middle of a major hallucination? Was that Bigfoot who just started breakdancing on a rainy street corner? What the fuck is going on here?
This is exactly the space that the show’s 40-year-old creator wants you, the viewer, to be in: confused, curious, and more than a little off-balance. Segel wants you to have no idea what’s going to happen next, whether it’s the sudden appearance of a Sasquatch ready to bust a move, or a painting that starts talking back to a gallery worker, or a Betty Boop-style cartoon that details a possible hate crime in progress. That was how he felt when he saw The Institute, the 2013 documentary about a real-life art project in San Francisco that turned thousand of everyday people into scavenger-hunting sleuths, and he’d like to return the favor to whomever tunes in. After that, Segel says, he wants you to feel compassion. The four people at the center of this “quest,” which may or may not be an elaborate hoax, all appear to be extremely different. The question he most wants you to think about over the 10 episodes of this series is: How different are they, really?
The fact that it’s the brainchild of someone best known for his work in Judd Apatow’s comedies — he’s been a card-carrying member of the director’s rep company since Freaks & Geeks — and as part of the ensemble of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother for nine seasons makes it seem even odder. (It helps to remember that he also used his industry clout after the success of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall to make an old-fashioned Muppet movie.) To hear Segel tell it, however, he felt a need to turn some sort of creative corner and see what was on the other side of it. The answer, apparently, was a need to prod people to be nicer to each other, a reminder that there’s a magical world out there if you care to look for it, and a dancing Bigfoot. You have our attention, sir.
Where, exactly, does this come from?
I was trying to figure out what I wanted to write about next. I was in my early thirties at the time, How I Met Your Mother had just ended, and I was prepping for The End of the Tour [the 2015 movie about an encounter between a journalist and author David Foster Wallace]. And as I’m reading Wallace’s work, I found myself thinking a lot about: What is the point you’re trying to make when you do something artistic? What is it that your trying to express?
The question had me stunted. I realized that I had not done an artistic check-in with myself in such a long time…long enough that I didn’t know quite what I was interested in at that moment.
You used that same phrase at the TCA panel in January and in other recent interviews: “an artistic check-in.” It’s an interesting phrase.
A friend of mine once said, “Art is an act of self-exploration that you do in front of an audience.” And something like Forgetting Sarah Marshall is that exact thing for, y’know a 24-year-old. It was as sophisticated as I was capable of being at that age. You know: “Break-ups hurt.” [Laughs] I wanted to be as literal as possible in terms of baring it all, so I figured I’d do full-frontal nudity as well. Luckily, it turned out great.
But I realized I hadn’t thought about what the version off that kind of honesty is for someone who’s now an adult. I was no longer afraid of girls or trying to learn how to stand on my own two feet. I was so clearly in a different place in my life and I hadn’t challenged myself to think, “Ok, so what’s happening with me now” in such a long time.
Then I happen to see the documentary The Institute — and looking back, I probably acted disproportionately to the occasion — but I remember thinking, “Oh, this is the exact opposite of Fight Club!”
Sorry, how is it the opposite of Fight Club?
Think back to the beginning of every Roald Dahl book, or the Harry Potter story, where someone says, “You are destined for greater things.” But there’s a huge frustration in feeling that the world has passed you by and maybe you’re not destined for greatness, and in Fight Club, these guys are expressing that by beating the shit out of each other. It’s the same kind of thing that’s happening in our society nowadays as well — everyone is frustrated, they’re just beating the shit out of each other metaphorically.
And then here’s this group of people in the Bay Area who were saying, we’re going to use art, and community, and magic to mount our own act of defiance. You know: “I refuse to accept that other energy. I’m going to try and make the world better.”
How did you find out about the documentary? It’s not exactly a well-known doc….
Well…I was scared to watch actors acting when I was prepping for End of the Tour. I was already dealing with a lot of self-doubt about whether I was good enough to actually play David Foster Wallace. So I was only watching documentaries. It was like, do that or watch Edward Norton, and I was too afraid to watch Edward Norton. [Laughs] I wanted to watch people. And that’s how I sort of stumbled across this.
I was really drawn to the whole concept of it, so I called the guy who started the experiment in San Francisco — I somehow managed to get ahold of him. I told him I wanted to adapt it…and he basically hung up on me.
He said, “Not yet, and then he just hung up the phone. I thought, “Ok, so…that didn’t go well. I guess this is it.”
Then, about a month later, I got an email that just gave me a time and a location In San Francisco. That’s it: A time, a date and a place. I drove up the coast, and they put me through the induction, which was basically the same thing you see in the first episode. And at the end of it, I got another email that said, “We’ve been watching you, you do indeed have divine nonchalance…meet us tomorrow morning.” [Laughs] And then they gave me the rights. I just had to figure out how to adapt it at that point.
You were originally thinking about developing this as a movie, right?
Yeah, but I kept butting up against a few things. One was the missing girl — that’s fictional, and if you put all your chips on that as a narrative, you’re going to end with a whimper. You see it in the documentary as well. But it’s not about the story the Institute has set up as the backbone for what they’re doing, it’s about who is participating in the thing itself. Who is pulling that flyer and calling that number? Let’s profile four different versions of an existential crisis, and why this experiment might appeal to them. Think about The Wizard of Oz. It’s not about Oz. It’s about: that guy needs a brain, that guy needs a heart, that guy needs courage, she needs to get home.
Once I hit upon that, TV started to make a lot more sense. Because when people see the first four episodes, they’ll see we’re setting up who these people are. Then, for the next six episodes, they have to journey together to find what each of them needs.
It does almost feel like you’re kicking off a series with four stand-alone episodes. All four of the main characters are in each episode, but…
…But one of them is always a little further in the spotlight even when they’re all onstage. Yeah, that was the idea. It’s why Richard E. Grant’s character, the leader of the Institute, starts each of those episodes by saying, “Think of yourself as this person.” The plan, for me, was always to draw four opposing perspectives — look at how different each of these people are — and sort of assume that a viewer would naturally gravitate towards one of them. “I understand where Andre’s character is coming from. I’m that guy.” Then by the end of this, the goal was to have viewers saying, “Oh, actually, we are all of them.”
The other thing was that I kept wondering why you’d turn a three-dimensional living work of art — which is what these people in the Bay Area created — into something two-dimensional. That was an interactive experience. A movie is something you watch. I was never sure how to get past that. But the moment I hit upon using the TV model to tell the story, I felt like I’d overcome that a bit.
Well, there will be ways that someone can interact with the show which…reveal themselves a bit more later on. But I felt like the weekly model of TV made it less passive somehow. You know, I have nothing against binge-watching, but it can be extremely isolating. You sit in a room for 12 hours and do nothing but watch TV! [Laughs] When you do it the old-fashioned, one-episode-a-week way, you have time to talk about it. You can have a conversation around it…even if the conversation is, What the hell is happening? You have time to go, “What do you think this meant, or this meant? Did you like this?” “No. Did you?” “I loved it.” It felt like there was a possibility of creating a community around the show. That’s the goal, anyway. We’ll see if it happens.
Was the idea always that you’d produce it, you’d write it, you’d act in it and you were going to direct the pilot?
Honestly, directing was never something that I felt I needed to do…I’m lucky in that a bunch of my friends are great directors, so whenever I’d wrote something, my first thought was always, “One of my friends could almost certainly direct this better than I could.” But trying to communicate the tone of this back when it was in a state of nonexistence would be almost impossible. At that point, I thought, Ok, I should direct the pilot and create the tone of what I want to be going for here…once I have that, I can at least show somebody what I’m trying to achieve. It was easier to show and not tell.
And even harder to categorize.
Someone who saw it the other day called it “magical melancholy,” and I thought, I’ll take that. I’ll take that genre. That works. [Laughs]
Clearly, you’re not the first person to dabble in “magical melancholy”…
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Lots of [Michel] Gondry’s stuff. Yeah, for sure. I think it was B.B. King who said you start off copying your idols until you find your own thing? There are a lot of influences in this. David Lynch is in there, Tim Burton is in there…
You know what it is? It’s influenced by a number of directors who, when I watched their work, I thought, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were allowed to do that.” Do you know what I mean? This collection of people who weren’t necessarily working with a sense of strategy or a need to stay inside the lines. That was something I wanted to get back to.
What do you mean “to get back to?”
I look back at Sarah Marshall, and I go, here’s a 24-year-old guy that ended a studio-sponsored romantic comedy with a lavish puppet musical about Dracula. It’s like, who the fuck does that? [Laughs] And then, years later, it was: Where’s that guy? The one who didn’t know what the rules were and just wrote what he liked? I look at the artists I admire and that’s the one consistent thing among all of them: They’re just making what they like, what they think is their version of art. And then you’re welcome to like it or not like it. I wanted to be more like those folks.
Maybe there’s not a point to making stuff if you’re just interchangeable. And I look at these episodes and I know that, for better or worse, this is me. I’ve had a few big successes where I look at them and I think, I don’t really love that. Those types of things don’t feel nearly as good as something that may not be seen by very many people, but I think: I love that!
I think the mere fact of having Richard E. Grant introduce an episode with ten seconds of silence and then telling people he doesn’t want to waste 20 minutes of their lives so, hey, here’s a quick backstory — that doesn’t fell like it’s coming from someone who’s interchangeable.
The reason you have this puckish figure sort of guiding you through this world — as well as the fact that things may suddenly turn into a cartoon in the middle of a story, or revolve around some other form of unconventional storytelling — is that there’s just so much “content” out there. Even if it’s stuff I want to see, I tend to find myself getting bored and checking my phone 20 minutes in. I felt like I wanted to jolt you out of your comfort zone as much as possible with these episodes, so you’d be forced to pay attention.
If I’m being honest, it was kind of the same strategy I had when I did the full-frontal nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I can remember writing it and thinking, “I know what a romantic comedy is, and I know what usually happens. Everyone does. No one is expecting this to open with the male star being completely nude, standing there, totally vulnerable. As an audience member, you’re immediate response is probably: I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen in this movie now. That’s the storytelling goal in Dispatches as well.
I don’t want to focus too much on casting Eve Lindley, because the show doesn’t make a big deal about it — but it clearly adds a whole other dimension to what you’re getting at with the show, in terms of people figuring out their identity, where they fit in, living the life they want to live, etc.
I’ve said this before, but the only other time this has happened was when Russell Brand came in to read for Marshall. I’d originally written his part to be a straight-laced British author, like a Hugh Grant type. Then Russell came in, and gave me something entirely better…changing the script to fit what Russell brought to the table is what made the movie work. I felt the same way about Eve when she auditioned — Simone was not written as a trans character. She made Simone so much richer, more complicated, gave her so much more depth. It changed the whole project. The love story that emerges between Peter and Simone is … it’s one of the things I’m most proud of with the show. And that’s all due to her. But I didn’t want to make her gender identity her defining characteristic. It isn’t that way for Peter, or Fredwyn, or Janice, so why should it be for her?
Have you ever had one of those random everyday occurrences like Peter does — where you suddenly turn a corner and something so bizarre and out of the blue happens that you find yourself in a state of sheer, mind-altering WTF-itude?
Look, I was in a high school play and then suddenly I was a professional actor — I mean, my whole life is made up of moments like that! [Laughs] This morning, I had to do a morning show, so I found myself at a Stumptown at 6am, suffering from jet lag, That could have been a miserable experience. But I found suddenly looking at the city, which felt like it was still empty and quiet, and thought, “This is beautiful.” I ended up having a conversation with the barista as she was making the coffee. She was so lovely. I was glad I had that experience. Our lives are really made of these insane random moments. It’s really where you just choose to view life that way or not. I’ve missed so many of these moments because I just wasn’t in a Bill Murray state of mind. I’m trying to make up for that now.
You want to be open to the possibility that, should you walk down any given street, there might be a Bigfoot who’s popping and locking.
That’s from the real Institute experience. It’s one of the few section taken from the actual experiment. You were told to report to this phone booth, a voice on the other end of the line told you to dance, and then suddenly Bigfoot showed up. I just thought there was something so bizarrely beautiful about the whole thing.
There was something you mentioned recently about you being so lucky so early on in your career “that I didn’t have to do much thinking about who I was or why I was doing any of this. I had a blank canvas in front of me. I had no idea who I was or what I was thinking about. I went on a personal quest to figure out why I was doing this in the first place.”
I remember saying this. Yeah.
So having now made these 10 episodes, what do you feel you’ve learned about who you are as a 40-year-old? What did this artistic check-in tell you about yourself?
[Long pause] I turn in the finale tomorrow, so I’m still in it…I haven’t quite had the distance yet to figure that out. But I can say…it proved that I was still willing to write from my guts. I can still put myself out there and say, “This is what I think is beautiful.” I don’t expect everybody to love this show, or even like it. But I have a strong sense of faith that there are people out there who will really get it, and that it will be meaningful to them as it to me.
It’s a weird mixture of a sort of quirky ‘90s surreality — the Gondry/Burton/Lynch stuff you mentioned earlier — and this almost embarrassing sincerity. You know, “Follow your bliss, be yourself, be nice to people.” And what’s funny is, most people will probably be ok with the former, but feel like they don’t know how to deal with the latter.
Yes! Yes, exactly. The show is unabashedly earnest — there’s no wink-wink irony about it at all. We’re living in a time where everyone is afraid of being made fun of, everyone is afraid that they’re going to be told they’re stupid, and that you should trust no one because someone is trying to take all your shit. “Be on guard” — that’s the underlying message of everything. And I just wanted to do a show that asked, What happens if we let down our guard with one another? What if we could just be more vulnerable with each other? You said the word “embarrassing,” and that’s the scary thing about making anything, really. You are running the risk of embarrassing yourself by saying, “I think this is art.” And that’s usually where the really interesting stuff happens.
The most embarrassing thing you can do when you’re 24…
…is show your dick onscreen! [Laughs] Completely. And the most embarrassing thing I can do as a 40-year-old is show you my heart. This is the 40-year-old version of me baring it all.