Amy Sherman-Palladino on Bunheads, Gilmore Girls, and not making mediocre TV

Amy Sherman-Palladino on Bunheads, Gilmore Girls, and not making mediocre TV

Like fellow Roseanne writers’-room alum Joss Whedon, the television work of Amy Sherman-Palladino has always measured its success in the enthusiasm of its fans, not the size of its Nielsen shares. And so it was with bated breath that fans of fast-moving dialogue and patient storytelling waited during the summer of 2012 to see if Sherman-Palladino’s latest series, Bunheads (co-created with Lamar Damon), would live beyond its initial 10-episode order. It turns out that ABC Family was willing to air the further adventures of ballerina-turned-showgirl-turned-dance-instructor Michelle Simms (Sutton Foster), her mother-in-law Fanny (Kelly Bishop, a holdover from Sherman-Palladino’s previous series, Gilmore Girls), and their en pointe charges (headed by TV newcomers Bailey Buntain, Emma Dumont, Julia Goldani Telles, and Kaitlyn Jenkins). The second installment of the show’s first season airs Monday nights throughout the winter of 2013. The A.V. Club spoke with Sherman-Palladino about learning of Bunheads’ renewal from Deadline Hollywood, the network note that saved Gilmore Girls, and how Bunheads is hers “to fuck up.”

The A.V. Club: To clear things up: Are these new episodes a continuation of the show’s first season, or the beginning of its second?

Amy Sherman-Palladino: ABC Family has an interesting way of doing their seasons. They can cut their seasons up and keep calling them [one] season. I think Switched At Birth is on their 200th show, and it’s still their first season or something. It’s a weird system. I’m not quite sure exactly how it works, but technically this is the second part of our first season. Technically. I look at it like it’s a new season, because whenever there’s a break and people are away from it for a while, you need to wrap back up again—that’s kind of how I’m treating it. But on paper, it’s the second part of the first season.

AVC: And a significant amount of time has passed in the world of the show. “You Wanna See Something?” doesn’t pick up the morning after Michelle maced the entire cast of The Nutcracker.

ASP: Yes. It needed to pass, quite frankly. You needed to see what the fallout from something that big would be for everybody. And in a way, it was kind of good, because I felt like you needed a little bit of distance. You needed a little bit of catharsis. Hubbell died, and I know it’s cheesy and you’re like, “Oh people get over this shit quicker on TV,” but still it’s like, the guy died 10 episodes ago. A little bit of healing time to move forward onto new things is always a good thing just from an emotional, human-being standpoint. So much was invested in who this man was, and Alan Ruck is such an incredible love that his presence was felt very quickly and deeply missed. So in a way, the little break in the middle is a good thing.

AVC: But the ghost of Hubbell still hovers over the two new episodes ABC Family screened for critics. Is that going to be the case moving forward?

ASP: The ghost of something that could have been wonderful will haunt Michelle for the rest of her life. That’s human nature. Especially for someone like Michelle, who pushes happiness and connection away, whether she likes it or not. The concept of, “Hey, I could have had that. I could have been loved. I could have fallen in love with that man. He could have taken care of me and we could have been a good team together, but it never happened”—a lot of times that can form an entire lifestyle. [Great Expectations’] Miss Havisham was sitting in a fucking wedding dress for the rest of her life waiting for some guy to come pick her up and marry her. I mean, that can literally send you into the loony bin. Emotionally, Hubbell’s going to be there forever, in one form or another. He is the bond that brought [Fanny and Michelle] together. He’s the reason they are in each other’s lives, so while we’re obviously not going to be doing constant stories about Hubbell appearing in her dreams, I think that fuels all the drama.

AVC: It fuels changes for the character of Fanny as well. How would you compare the way she’s handling Hubbell’s death to the way Michelle is dealing with it?

ASP: It’s very different. Fanny was his mother; so, for Fanny, Hubbell was a real entity, a real connection. For Michelle, Hubbell was the hope and the promise of something better. It’s a different kind of relationship just naturally. Fanny’s more of a feeler than Michelle. Fanny loves rebels and high drama and she feels very deeply, and I think Michelle’s feelings are something that she would like to keep at bay. In “You Wanna See Something?,” where Fanny is, everything needs to change. She’s changing her life, she’s changing her house, she closes her studio, and for that moment everything must be different. That’s how she does [things]: in big, sweeping, dramatic gestures. Whereas for Michelle, she just goes back and hides. She goes back to Vegas and physically hides from the reality of what’s happened. Which is why they’re so good together—the gates that are up around Michelle while Fanny is in your face with drama and emotion and feeling is the fun of the two women.

AVC: How did you approach “You Wanna See Something?” without making Michelle’s return to Paradise feel like a foregone conclusion?

ASP: Well, it is a foregone conclusion. I would be thinking very little of my audience if I thought they’re going to believe Michelle’s never going to go back to Paradise. We know Michelle’s going to go back to Paradise. So my job as a storyteller, especially on a show like this—which is a character-study show—is to put less emphasis on whether she’s leaving or coming back and more on, “What are the next moments in your life, when this sort of thing has happened?” That’s how we treated it, because the interesting part of Michelle leaving is to see what really changed with Michelle coming to Paradise, and sometimes you don’t realize that change has happened, and then you turn away and go, “Oh, shit. That person coming into my life changed me, and now that they’re gone I realize how it’s different.” So it was like, “Okay, we brought this whirling dervish into this world of Fanny and the girls. The dervish left—what devastation does she leave behind?” That was what the first show was supposed to be, because you can’t build a show on, “Is she going to come back?” Everyone knows she’s going to come back. It’s more like, “What’s the journey before she comes back?”

AVC: And taking her out of Paradise makes it an extremely boring place for the younger characters. When the first episode of this half season opens, Mel is watching her grandfather and Ginny’s working real estate.

ASP: Well, Michelle leaving also took away ballet for them. And Michelle leaving was a deeper loss for Sasha than anyone else, because in Michelle Sasha’s finding a kindred spirit. And ballet is more to these girls than just, “We’re all going to go be in New York City Ballet”—because maybe none of them will be in New York City Ballet. It’s more of a touchstone. It’s more of surrogate family. When you take ballet out of their world, you’ve not just taken dance out of their world, you’ve taken their clubhouse, their Dead Poets Society. You’ve taken that away from them, and as a young person you look for those moments where you’re a part of something, where you’re comfortable in a group, where you can be supported by peers. That’s what childhood is all about—looking for somebody who’s not going to kick you in the head. Anybody. And that was what ballet meant to these girls, and without it they’re a little scattered. They’re trying to figure out what that means and waiting for it to come back.

AVC: That feeling contributes to the most powerful moment of “You Wanna See Something?”: Sasha is meeting with her boyfriend, then Michelle shows up, and Sasha rushes past the boyfriend to embrace Michelle. What was the mood like on the set as that was being shot?

ASP: Sutton was crying at the table read. Sutton is a very emotional person in that she feels these scenes greatly, which is why she’s so great in them. When we shot it, it was the last scene of a long day where we’re out at Calamigos and it’s cold and it’s wet, it’s muddy. It was weird—we’d been away, we’d all been apart from each other. And suddenly we’re all back together again. It was very emotional, but it was very cathartic because we were all coming back together again for eight episodes. Then we can all go back to our therapists until we find out we’re picked up again and then come back together.

AVC: Wondering if you were coming back after the first 10 episodes was a source of anxiety?

ASP: It comes with the job. This is a great job. It’s an insane gig to be able to hang out with actors and come up with stories and do shit like that. I can’t figure out where to put a comma, but I can write scripts, so it’s a delightful, absurd twist of fate. But what comes with that are the doubts. It’s absolutely no job security whatsoever. And you’re always waiting to hear. So the anxiety comes with show business. Sutton is no stranger to that, and I’m no stranger to that. 

I think it was a little hard on the kids. It’s their first gig and it’s sort of like, “What does this mean?” We’re going away, and [the network] picks you up when they want to pick you up. They don’t give you any relief. They don’t even give you a “nod-nod, wink-wink.” One day you get a phone call—or actually you read about it in Deadline Hollywood, which is how I found out. Nikki Finke found out before I did. [That] is the stressful part. It is frustrating because you want to plan. It’s hard for someone like Sutton because she uprooted her whole life from New York to come out here. It’s tough. But you know what? That’s the job.

AVC: Though there are upsides: ABC Family has given you a tremendous amount of creative freedom.

ASP: They’ve been great. [ABC Family Executive Vice President] Kate Juergens and I knew each other from Gilmore Girls because she was at The WB when I pitched Gilmore Girls—she was in the room. I am not a strange creature to her. She gets it. She’s saying, “I need something in this arena.” I came back; I said, “What about something like this?” We went back and forth. I wanted to make sure that we’re all on the same page. I said, “I’m going to treat this a lot like I treated Gilmore, which was, yes there’s a teen element. Yes, I want to do teen stories. Yes, our teen audience is super-important. But the story is about Michelle. She is our center. And I just want to be very clear.” And from day one, they’re like, “Absolutely. We’re on the bandwagon. Let’s go.” She loved Sutton. 

The unspoken agreement is it’s mine to fuck up. “We’ve given you the keys. You’ve got a parking space. There’s your office. Do what you’re going to do. Here’s the money. Do it for the money. If you can’t do it for the money, we don’t care how cute they are or how adorable they are or how many wonderful dance numbers you throw at us. We want the parking space back.” But other than that, it’s really [whether] the show fits into their world. If the show attracts their audience and then expands past their audience. That’s on us. We either do it or we don’t. At the end of this show, if it doesn’t work and they take us off, I certainly can’t turn around and say they had any [fault] creatively. I can’t turn around and go, “Well, they fucked it up.” They did not. From really letting me fulfill every strange, slightly disturbing notion that comes into my head, they have given me free range to do that, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

AVC: And that’s what enables you to, say, set a dance sequence to They Might Be Giants or Tom Waits?

ASP: Yes, exactly. Nobody calls and questions that. There are no discussions about that. It’s something that I had on Gilmore and when Gilmore went down, I thought, “Well I’m never going to have that again.” And I fought hard for it on Gilmore because Gilmore wasn’t handed to me. It was a battle. It took weekly phone calls of, “They’re going to fire you” before it finally calmed down into, “All right, just let her do it.” But this one was not that. This was “Here’s the notion. We all love it. We all love the pieces. Let’s see if it works for ABC Family’s world.” If it works for their world, then everybody wins. If it doesn’t work for their world, we all tried and we’ll have a cocktail at the end of the day.

AVC: Do you think you could make a TV series on other terms?

ASP: I hope so, otherwise I’m not going to be in business very long. Here’s the thing: I am not averse to talking about stuff, and I’m certainly not averse to notes. Notes can be a great thing. When I went in to pitch the Gilmore Girls pilot, the dinner scene was not in my initial pitch. And it was in the room with Susanne Daniels and Kate that they were like, “Boy, we’d really like to see that dinner scene.” And I said, “We’ll come off the first episode and then we’ll start those Friday night dinners.” They were like, “We’d really like to see the Friday night dinners in the pilot.” And I’m like, “Really? All right.” And I’ve got to tell you, without that dinner scene, I don’t know if Gilmore would have gotten picked up, because the dinner scene really encapsulated everything that show was going to be. All those family dynamics at one table in one elongated scene: the awkwardness, the comedy, the dynamics with Rory and her grandparents, the tension between Lorelai and Emily. It’s power plays. Everything was encapsulated in that dinner sequence. And that came about because of a note. 

So it’s not that you don’t want notes as a writer. What you don’t want is: You’re given a note, and for whatever reason you do not agree with that note. But it is not taken as, “This is a creative debate. We’re debating this, and in the end what’s best for the show is going to win.” There’s a feeling in a lot of these situations where the network gives notes, the studio give the notes, and if the writer does not simply take those notes, the writer is viewed as disrespectful—and that is the problem. The writer’s the one who was living with these characters. For an outside entity to come in and say, “We want you to do this,” and for the writer to not to be able to have the platform to go, “But if I do this, I think it’s really going to hurt. Tell me what your real problem is, and let me solve it in another way.” To not be able to have that sort of flexibility is the reason why I think a majority of television is incredibly mediocre. There’s just no single voice there able to cut through layers and layers of notes with many agendas. 

To be able to say, “I hear you. Is your problem really this? Let me think of a different way that isn’t cutting down something that I think is very important”—if there is no trust to be able to do that, a show simply cannot be good. A show cannot be dictated into being great. If a writer is simply a note-taker, then the show will fail. On a creative level, it simply will fail. And that is my only issue. My issue is not, “I don’t want a conversation.” My issue is not, “I don’t want you to have a voice in the show that you are funding.” My issue is if there can’t be a real debate about it and if there is absolutely no trust in the vision, why did you pick up that show in the first place?

AVC: But that conversation needs to exist, because television is such a collaborative medium.

ASP: It mostly does not exist. Where it exists, shows are better. Where it does not exist, shows are mediocre. You can see the notes. You see them. You see them from pilots of series. You see from an interesting pilot like V. That was a very interesting pilot. And then I saw the notes. “Make this a procedural.” How do you make this a procedural? It’s about aliens. “I don’t give a shit how you do it. That’s what we want. We don’t want them to be good and bad. We want them to be bad. We want it clear-cut.” You see the notes. And suddenly something that could be very interesting, very layered, becomes very one-dimensional and then it dies. Then it’s a lot of money spent for no reason.

AVC: When you were searching for writers, directors, cinematographers, and other staff members for Bunheads, was it important that they had some sort of background in dance—either working directly with dance-related projects or with films and movies that had choreography incorporated into them?

ASP: No, no. But when it comes to directors, they need to understand the rhythm. They need to have a sense of pace. I can help with the dance. We’ve got this wonderful choreographer, Marguerite Derricks, who’s around with all the dancers and she knows camera like nobody’s business. So there’s plenty of support involved in the dance. But what they need is a feel of movement. I need directors and DPs who understand movement, who understand that our camera moves, who understand that masters are our gods. We live and die by masters. We do not live and die by coverage. Our camera has to go: walk and talk. People moving around. We are not a static show. And that is an important element to find in people. Some people like their coverage and some people like their close-ups, and we’re not a close-up show. We are about air and space, comedy and energy and movement.

AVC: With that setup, does it help to have actors with stage experience like Sutton or Kelly Bishop, and thus understand the rhythms of performing something live? 

ASP: Absolutely. Look, this is a show where everybody does their own dancing—and it has to be because dancers have a different internal mechanism. Dancers also carry themselves differently. They walk differently. They sit differently. They pick up a bag differently. They wear clothes differently. And you can tell a dancer from a non-dancer. Which is why anybody who played Fanny had to be an ex-dancer. It was very tricky. It had to be. They had to be someone of that world or it’s not legit. Whoever played Michelle had to be a dancer. Whoever played my four girls had to be trained and know how to go to class. Had to be en pointe. They had to. It made casting extremely difficult for this show, but it’s the only way to make it feel remotely legitimate. There’s no way to do body doubles on this show. It just would never work. I’m not a big lover of body doubles anyhow. I love Anne Bancroft, but the scene in The Turning Point where she’s at the barre and it’s her from the neck up and the camera cuts away to somebody else’s waist and feet—I always feel cheated. I always feel a little cheated when I see that.

AVC: Liza Weil, who played Paris on Gilmore Girls, shows up on Bunheads in these next few episodes. It seems like you’re working your way pretty near the top of that show’s cast—what other Gilmore Girls crossovers are you hoping for as the show goes on?

ASP: Well, I tried to see Jared Padalecki in between Supernatural moments, but it didn’t quite work out. He had to go back to Canada too soon. There’s a few out there I’d like to get on it. I was dying to write for Liza again. I just missed her. Liza is comedy gold. Her instincts are perfect. Perfect! I just love her, and I’m so excited that she’s back in our world. We’re slowly but surely making the rounds. I want them all back. I want to work with all of them again.

AVC: From the perspective of someone who’s enjoyed both shows, it’s a thrill to see people like Liza or Sean Gunn speaking Sherman-Palladino lines again.

ASP: As a writer, all you want to do is write for great actors. That’s all. I have no other skills. There’s nothing else I can do. I have no other way to make a living. I would be in the snow dying with a cup in my hand and a sad dog at my side without this particular skill. So when I find someone like Liza Weil, who can talk and do the great things that she does, all I want to do is sit there all day long and write for her. It’s a gift.