Robert Carlock knows how to write a good role for Tina Fey. After all, he’s been doing it for almost 20 years, starting back during Fey’s time leading “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” a segment that longtime “SNL” writer Carlock produced. The pair eventually branched out beyond “SNL,” thanks to “30 Rock” (which Fey created and Carlock both wrote and produced) and later Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which the duo created together. But their latest venture, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the Glenna Ficarra- and John Requa-directed take on war reporter Kim Barker’s experiences living and working in war-torn Afghanistan, brought plenty of fresh challenges.
Carlock adapted Barker’s memoir for the film, and the final product strikes a tricky balance between comedy and drama, all centered on Fey’s performance as Kim. A workaholic reporter who signs on to cover the war in Afghanistan, Kim finds herself caught up in a world far beyond her wildest dreams, complete with its own mores, codes and a whole mess of new people. But despite a slew of commercials that play up the film’s comedy, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” doesn’t shy away from portraying some pretty tough stuff, and the resulting film — one that Carlock happily admits was vastly cut down from its original incarnation, and blessedly so — is a real feather in both Fey and Carlock’s caps.
Carlock recently sat down with Indiewire to talk about making the jump to drama, how he translated a real life to the big screen and what’s next for Kimmy Schmidt.
You and Tina have worked together on so many projects over the years. When did you realize that the two of you could pair well together?
We’d been at “Saturday Night Live” and didn’t really write together that much, but then when she’d started doing “Update,” I was producing “Update.” That was the first time we really worked together. Writing at “SNL” is often a competitive endeavor, but when you’re doing that segment, it’s its own little oasis. Everyone wants it to be good. Jimmy [Fallon] and Tina, I think there were three writers, an associate producer and me, and that little team just wanted the segment to be good. Of course people wanted their jokes to get on instead of other people’s, but that’s healthy competition.
When you stripped away the, “Oh, your sketch is bumping mine,” we realized that we were very in sync in terms of what we thought was funny and in terms of what we thought was required to make it as good as it possibly could be. I did not think it would result in this partnership, which has been just fantastic. You know when you meet those people and we’re seeing this in the same way and we’re disagreeing in the right way. She’s the best.
“SNL” does seem to be this strange incubator where people are thrown together and expected to craft something massive.
It’s also a place where anyone who’s worked on it has a shorthand about how things are done. As a baby writer there, you get a sketch on and you have to go produce it. That’s sort of terrifying, but also great and you get to make mistakes. Hopefully, not so many that you don’t get asked back [laughs]. You don’t wanna make mistakes. You want your stuff to go to air.
Anytime you meet an “SNL” person, they’ve done that job. And a lot of writers don’t get to do that job. It changes your perception of coming at it from a purely writing standpoint. It took me a while to figure out what actors want and to write for actors, as opposed to wanting actors to do what I wrote. That’s something “SNL” forces you to do among other things. I learned a lot of that from Tina actually.
The film has a very tricky tone that isn’t being accurately sold in the trailers. How do you feel about the marketing?
It’s a hard movie to sell. I actually thought the theatrical trailer was a pretty accurate description of what the tone of the movie is. The commercials are focusing on her journey. And I get that — it is about a woman having a journey. Given the context, people aren’t expecting “Eat, Pray, Love” or a romantic comedy, but I think it’s tricky. I know a lot of smart people are working on it.
When you were adapting Kim’s book, how did you navigate putting that tone on to the page?
Carefully, but it was a really fun challenge. [On “30 Rock,”] I’d spent a lot of time making stakes out of, “Is the show gonna go on?” Or, “Where’s Tracy?” Which is the most fun I’ve ever had.
Being able to do something where the stakes are, “Oh, we might die” [was different]. But the point of it and the point of the book, in a lot of ways to me at least, is that people are still people in those settings. And people still have stupid hookups and people laugh and have friends and get disappointed by friends and worry about their job. In some ways, because I knew that outside the door there were always people dying and that would always be there, it couldn’t be a super jokey thing, it couldn’t be joke rhythm, it couldn’t be reaching for jokes. The jokes had to come out of what people were talking about and experiencing.
So did a lot change along the way? How does the final film look compared to your last script?
I think their first cut, which was really fun to watch, was two hours and 40 minutes, and that’s not gonna happen. Se’re not “Wolf of Wall Street” here, but I think the great thing is those guys managed to shoot so much. With some added stuff along the way. I think the final script was 130 pages, and that included days when we are blowing something up and that’s all you’re doing that day. And yet they got everything and it looks amazing.
I think they knew we got everything, so that we have the tools to boil it down and make a point of it. 130 pages is too long a script, but it’s the kind of movie that needed to be shot long. They had the ability to move quickly and still get tons of takes and great performances.
There are a few scenes in the film that carry some heavy drama. Are you surprised when you see that stuff on the big screen and the impact it has?
I’m not surprised, as in I know how good Tina is, and I hope this movie opens people’s eyes to how complete her skills are and her ability to communicate humanity in unlikely circumstances isn’t limited to people liking Liz Lemon. It was also hard to make her a human being sometimes [laughs]. Not having written a lot of things like that, it is fun to see that stuff up there and such good actors and their heads are so big in movies. Usually on TV their heads are littler than real heads [laughs]. In movies, they’re much bigger.
How closely did you work with Kim when you were adapting the book? Was she heavily involved?
To her great credit, she was and she wasn’t. She was there when I needed her. At our very first meeting, where I was trying to plan to broach the fact that I had to make stuff up, but hopefully make stuff up that comes out of her experience and I have to combine characters, and she pre-empted me and she’s been so generous. As a writer, she’s been so generous about what I had to do to her life to make it a movie. And to her book too, to cut out more than half of the book. She was very helpful in a number of ways.
Then she was a great resource when I was able to connect to some of her friends, and a number of people that had been over there. So I could get my head around, “How can I write this dialogue? How can I write a Marine talking to a reporter?” I had to at least get that confidence built up to do that. At a certain point, she did me another great favor, because I had so much fun researching it and talking to these people and reading about that world, that at some point we met for drinks and I asked for something else for her and she said, “I think you are over-reporting this.” [laughs] Which I took as, “Okay, maybe I’ve asked enough of the right questions that she was just like ‘go write the damn movie,'” which was very helpful.
Are you interested in doing more adaptations now that you’ve done such a tricky one?
I can imagine that with a less understanding author that can be a less creatively rewarding experience, where you can feel more constrained. I loved delving into something. As opposed to most of what we do in the room is try to combine a bunch of brains. There is so much material you have to put out with a TV show. With Tina’s schedule, I was able to spend a year and a half with this and with this world. That was new, and I liked that. I think the next thing I do I want to have a little closer to home.
What was it like on set?
Great. John and Glenn were very inclusive. Feature film is not a writer’s medium, and they were very inclusive. I had to get used to a little bit of the letting go. I’m used to being on a set and turning to the director and saying no, and fortunately we have a lot of great directors who put up with that on the TV shows. These guys had also spent a year with it and given great notes during the rewriting process. And it was their thing. Like with Kim handing it off to me, I had to get used to that, but that was also freeing. There were some days where it was just like, “I’m gonna have a nice lunch and hang out on the set with Tina.”
And watch them blow some stuff up?
And watch them blow some stuff up. That was fun. [laughs]
And there’s that great scene where Tina’s shooting off the guns.
I missed that day. I really wish I’d been there for that. Tina Fey with an AK-47.
She seemed so filled with joy and such glee.
[Laughs] Yeah, she claims it didn’t move her at all. But that wasn’t just acting.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” comes back for a second season on April 15. What’s going to be different this time?
Everything is constantly different for Kimmy. Everything is new for Kimmy. The fun part of that project is letting her move forward without ever letting her become a different person. We always want her to be that strong, optimistic, open to the world, nothing-can-beat-me person, even when she learns the lesson some things can beat me. Sometimes there are things you can’t get over, people you can’t fix.
A lot of singing this season. There is a whole episode of made-up showtunes this season, so you have that to look forward to. And, yeah, Kimmy makes some personal steps. There is so much we haven’t done with her doing these 13-episode seasons. Going into season three, there is still so much she hasn’t done.
Now that you are fully integrated with Netflix, has the production process been any different?
Yes, in that they want the episodes to be longer, considerably longer. Network [standard] is 21 minutes and they want 26 minutes, and I think our episodes averaged to around 27 minutes. We were always telling three stories, but now the stories are a little bigger and we are cutting fewer things we like. Netflix gave us an extra day to shoot, instead of a five day shoot we were shooting six. So it’s more. It’s tricky. We are used to working under that restraint of, “How do we get to this artificial number?” I’ve never seen anything that’s at its best version at its longest. We were under very little pressure to cut, but we had to impose that pressure to make it tighter.
I think we really liked season one. And that was the tone. There are spots where NBC sales would have had a problem and the censors would have had a problem. Our main character doesn’t curse and doesn’t take her clothes off particularly much. It’s not like that’s gonna start happening. Sorry, everyone. [laughs] So, it’s still very much the same show. I always say it’s not like we wrote a broadcast show to begin with, so it fit perfectly on Netflix, and God bless Universal for helping us get there. And hopefully it continues to fit there. I think it’s a little woollier, a little weirder this year, but hopefully it’s the same show that people took to.
I think we felt really good about the way that pilot had ended, with that last scene and hope and them singing. But I definitely think being able to revisit it immediately if you were intrigued helped. At the end of the day, all 13 of those episodes help explain who she is and what we are going for. I think it definitely did.
Recently, NBC did a James Burrows special that featured five of the “Friends” together for the first time. You wrote on “Friends” back in the day. Do you think there is any space in the world for a true “Friends” reunion?
In a just universe, wouldn’t there be? That would be fantastic. I’d watch it.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” opens on Friday, March 4.