Let’s get this out of the way first — here’s the latest on the “Arrested Development” movie. According to series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, who delivered the creative keynote address to kick off the 2013 New York Television Festival last night, the plan is now to do the movie at Netflix, then bring the show back for another round. This plan, Hurwitz noted, “has been approved by no one” and he didn’t “want to be presumptuous,” it’s just what he’d like to do. He sees the approach as a more likely way to get the very busy cast back together for four months rather than the longer production time required for another season — as he explained, the deals required for the latter could take around two years, and most of the cast members have first position deals elsewhere.
Hurwitz has had plenty of opportunity to talk about this still theoretical feature over the storied lifetime of “Arrested Development,” as the cult favorite comedy series went from three seasons on Fox to a second life on Netflix this year after years off the air. But what’s notable, listening to Hurwitz speak about the show and his approach to television, is how thoughtful and passionate he remains about the medium that obviously has offered him some serious ups and downs. Here are seven highlights from the candid, entertaining talk, which was moderated by New York Magazine editor John Sellers.
Hurwitz still struggles with self-consciousness about his work. “Life is choice and choice is loss,” he noted, and that can be paralyzing, even after his years of working in the industry. It’s “very easy when you’re a creative person to just wait for the right thing,” and a challenge for him has been to just dive in and to realized that “some perfect version of ‘Arrested Development’ probably doesn’t exist.”
Hurwitz said that this plagued him even back in the episodes following the pilot, which was well received, and when the show returned courtesy of Netflix there was an added pressure in resurrecting a series that had gone out, critically at least, at the top of its game. “Like anyone that dies young, no one goes back and says, ‘Do you know who wasn’t a very good actor? James Dean.'” “I just constantly had to say, ‘Oh, fuck it, what do I care?'”
Constraints can be good for you. “The more constraints I have, the more opportunity I have to fix those constraints,” Hurwitz pointed out, and while season four of the series, on Netflix, came with greater freedoms in terms of length, content and form, it had its own challenges. Netflix “created this great creative opportunity,” he continued, but “built into it was that we didn’t have all the actors at the same time.” The situation was “not preferable” to having all the actors together, but it freed him up to try out new approaches to structure. “Originally it was just going to be an anthology of truly separate stories,” but slowly the idea of crossovers, of callbacks and call forwards emerged to created the complicated whole that was season four.
But they can also be problematic. One of the most interesting stories Hurwitz shared was about “Running Wilde,” the short-lived 2010-2011 sitcom he created for Fox, reuniting with “Arrested Development” actor Will Arnett. “It had gotten to the point in broadcast television” where, Hurwitz explained, “they’ve sort of fetishized how difficult I was. Why did you cancel the show? ‘Well, Mitch is crazy.'” “I had a very clear vision for ‘Arrested,'” Hurwitz said, but “afterward I was really open to taking notes.”
On “Running Wilde,” Hurwitz continued, “for whatever reason I decided the lesson I was going to teach [Arnett] is ‘take the note.'” This lead to their doing nine drafts and being told by Fox chairman Kevin Reilly “this doesn’t work for me, I want another premise.” (“You betcha, we’ll do another premise,” they would respond.) Hurwitz claimed he actually got a note that suggested if he thought of something that he hadn’t seen before, that felt fresh, “just don’t do it,” with Reilly telling him “I want to make this show a hit.” Obviously, the result was not. “Somewhere in there you have to find a way to be open — to not be defensive,” Hurwitz concluded, but that doesn’t mean not standing by your vision.
Hurwitz was initially resistant to the idea of binge-viewing. Before it was decided that all the episodes of “Arrested Development” would be made available at once, as has become the tradition for Netflix originals, Hurwitz wasn’t completely into the idea — “But don’t you want them looking forward to it each week?” he claimed to have asked the company, who told him that all at once was how people were watching “Arrested Development” on the site. It did change his approach to the fourth season in terms of storytelling, something he felt “I did not prepare the audience for” — “what it had become was a novel” in which he didn’t use the same approach he had on traditional television, of packing everything into the first episode. There are some drawbacks to binge-viewing, he mused, noting that when he first started watching “Mad Men” it was on the air, and the week in between installments left him time to contemplate. “Once you started watching them back to back, you’re watching plot — you lose some of that.” On the upside, he noted that its thanks to these new ways of watching that we’re seeing more “shows that fundamentally change, when television was about fundamentally staying the same.”
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t been in touch about Fakeblock. Asked about one of the season four storylines in which George Michael (Michael Cera) launches/is forced to launch a startup company centered on privacy software, Hurwitz noted that the “Social Network” influence was a sign of the times. Over the years that the series was in limbo, “the story kept changing depending on what was in the popular culture.” At one point, inspired by the Angelina Jolie movie “The Changeling” and the fact that Michael Cera wasn’t available, Hurwitz noted they wanted to to make a film with Jonah Hill in the role of George Michael, with Michael (Jason Bateman) saying, Jolie-style, “He’s not my son!” and Gob (Arnett) claiming otherwise.
Hurwitz isn’t sure how to create characters. Instead, he says “really, character is what someone does more than who they are. I can be sarcastic or I can be fearful — it doesn’t really matter until something happens. What we’re really wired for as a special is story.” For “Arrested Development,” he explained, “I did try to start with some givens” — like there being a family, and maybe they suffered somehow, they lost their money, and he built it out from there. He noted that while it might sound pompous, he likes to use a paradigm that he’s spoken about in interviews before — that all characters are really either a matriarch, patriarch, craftsman or clown. In the case of “Arrested Development,” that would be Lindsay (Portia De Rossi), Michael (Jason Bateman), the academic Buster (Tony Hale) and the magician Gob, a “family equipped to do nothing.”
The “call forwards” the series made its own were a reaction to the constraints of television. Having come up through traditional sitcoms like “The Golden Girls,” Hurwitz explained that in “Arrested Development,” “certain things stylistically were an outgrowth of my own frustrations” after “so many years of seeing the reset” at the end of each episode. He wanted the universe in which the show existed to not reset — when you break something one week, it’s still broken the next. Hence the blue handprints or the Saddam Hussein photo, the foreshadowing of events that wouldn’t become meaningful until episodes later, a particularly risky move when, at the time, “the show wasn’t even on DVD” or in reruns and the call forwards to something that hadn’t yet happened were “something that an audience couldn’t get until they rewatch it.”
But some of the things are just serendipitous, Hurwitz admitted, not all planned. “The more stuff you throw in there, the more of a chance you have of making connections — we got to look more ingenious than we were.” That said, he promised, “I just came up with a thing that’s going to look like that’s why they do the chicken dance — we’re going to look like geniuses.”