Hulu’s sublime Pen15 manages to turn the most awkward kind of humor into riveting and relatable comedy. Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, the half-hour series stars Erskine and Konkle, who play their 13-year-old middle school selves. Their performance is unnervingly accurate, adding to the heightened cringe factor of the show. In its second season, Pen15 waded into the emotional trenches of Maya and Anna’s coming-of-age, including pursuing crushes, discovering the pros and cons of working on the school play, and briefly believing they’re both witches in episode three, “Vendy Wiccany.”
In a recent podcast interview with IndieWire, Zvibleman and Konkle discussed how this episode subtly addresses mental health as Maya and Anna escape the latter’s parents constantly arguing with each other by imagining themselves as powerful beings. The A.V. Club spoke to Zvibleman about filming “Vendy Wiccany,” the discoveries he made about his craft while directing season 2A, and Pen15's critical success and Emmy buzz.
The A.V. Club: “Vendy Viccany” (one of The A.V. Club’s favorite episodes of 2020) is beautifully shot and a bit different from the usual episodes. What was the experience of setting it up?
Sam Zvibleman: It was a dream to direct an episode where we can play with genres. The episode has these witchy themes, so we got to play with shadows, darker tones, and darker colors. We also got to be in the woods, which was exciting. Most of our shooting usually takes place in classrooms or Anna and Maya’s homes and bedrooms. Myself, our Director of Photography Andy, and Assistant Director Roger worked really hard to time out the day so that we’d get this beautiful backlight on the girls cutting through the trees during each scene, which worked out beautifully. Sometimes you have to cast a spell for magic to happen and sometimes you have to plan it. We did both. I am quite pleased with the results.
The A.V. Club: What made the team decide that you’ll direct every episode of Pen15 season two as opposed to season one, when you directed four of the the 10 episodes?
Sam Zvibleman: It was because I was writing the episodes with the team and I just knew the show well. In the second season, it really felt like we hit it so close to what we had aspired it to be. We also had to edit the episodes very fast. We had such an aggressive turnaround from when we shot to when we had to air that there was a trust in me that we wouldn’t have to re-edit stuff and it would be closest to what the team had envisioned in the writers room. I also felt that in season one, I had filmed the last four episodes, and I was getting stronger and better and keyed in as we went along. And then we had to stop, so doing all the episodes gave me an opportunity to find the rhythm and the episodes also got stronger. We were firing on all cylinders.
AVC: How different was it this time around to take charge as a director from beginning to end?
SZ: It was scary. There was a lot of responsibility because while making the first season, we didn’t know if anyone would even see the show. It was so small, the budget was so small, no one besides a couple people at Hulu were paying attention to what we were doing. Then it became a breakout hit, which was shocking. There’s all these people who adore the show so much now, and it was in my hands for season two and I felt like I didn’t want to ruin it. What I found is that I just had to try and help Anna and Maya focus on the truth of every single scene.
We had so many problems with season two initially. Our schedule was supposed to start filming on a Monday, and the Friday before, the fires took away our main locations for the pool party in episode one, “Pool,” and the same house was supposed to be used for all the Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) stuff. So the schedule completely flipped. The same thing happened again when the Santa Ana winds took out one of our locations in the woods. Every curveball was thrown at us so it became difficult in the beginning. We hadn’t prepped those scenes at all, so it was like shooting from the hip, which is scary to me because I like to have an idea of what I’m going to do and communicate about it with all the other departments. It became this free fall. Then things settled down and by that point, Andy, who is also one of my best friends, we got on the same page and understanding of what we wanted out of this new season. I wanted it to feel like its own album, a bit different from season one. That became my way of taking the pressure off.
AVC: When you were filming, what were some of your goals to help push the story forward from behind the camera?
SZ: My goal was to let Anna and Maya just behave and act in front of the camera and be less controlling over camera moves, and let it be about observing the truth of the scene. There are moments when aesthetics take over, and I was very careful about when to make it about visual storytelling. I hope that this helped make certain moments shine. Anna and Maya’s performance is the strength of the show, that much became clear, so my goal was just to let each of them do their thing.
AVC: Have you discovered something about the craft of directing with this show, especially with season two?
SZ: In the first season, I storyboarded almost every shot with pictures. This season, there was so much to do, my hand would fall off if I tried to do that. I also wanted to try a different approach this time of discovering stuff in the moment. There’s also times when Anna and Maya didn’t see it the way I wanted to do a shot and they wanted to try other things, so I tried to play jazz this season and find more in the moment to improvise shooting the same way they would lines. Personally, it helps me to have an idea and finish on time and be efficient. But I now have this incredible amount of experience, like bootcamp almost, in trying to problem solve and find something interesting to capture in the moment. Most of the times, things come up in filming that you cant plan and shouldn’t plan for. Now I have this meld of knowing how to do intentional visualization before hand and execute it and I have this other style of watching things unfold and find the best during that time.
AVC: As a director, how do you work to bring out the cringe aspect of the show, which is obviously present in the dialogue already?
SZ: It’s funny but Anna, Maya, and myself, we’ve never used the word cringe for the show until others pointed it out. We were always looking for the truth in awkward moments, it’s how we view the world and live our lives. We’re always after that, and the truth can be cringe-y, I guess. It’s uncomfortable because it’s real. I’m always looking for ways of doing things differently storytelling-wise that I haven’t seen before. An example of that would be in episode seven, “Opening Night.” They’re doing the play and what most shows would do when Anna helps Maya remember her line, you’d cut to the audience and everyone behind the scenes just being relieved and the show goes on and goes well. Something that I feel like is my addition or way of seeing it is let’s show the play behind the play, and it became this opera of sorts. It’s strange but it’s coming from a place of expressionism without doing it in a traditional way. It’s what excited me because it stands out.
AVC: Pen15 is critically acclaimed and getting a lot of awards buzz. What was your favorite episode to work on as a director that you’d want to submit for Emmy consideration?
SZ: I’m proud of the work we did. The other stuff feels strange and unreal, even now when I read about it. We didn’t get to have a big premiere where people are laughing, crying, reacting, or applauding, so it’s always fun when Maya and Anna tell me “Oh, so and so reached out,” or “Oh, Charlie Kaufman likes our show.” I just know how hard we worked. I felt like the finale, “Opening Night,” and episode six, “Play,” really represented the potential of the show in terms of all the different tones, the strangeness, the drama, the emotions, the dance. I’m proud we put all of that in and really took a big swing stylistically and artistically.