If you like comedy series, odds are Ken Kwapis has helmed one of your favorite shows. The man’s been behind the camera for “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Malcolm in the Middle” “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and more. Most recently, he’s played an integral creative role in the Showtime comedy “Happyish,” serving as director for multiple episodes and executive producer on the full first season. Yet — despite the ever-mounting appeal of the small screen — Kwapis has directed a number of feature films, as well, and he’s been doing both for most of his career. Landing his first directing gigs in TV and film during the mid-’80s, Kwapis has kept his dual mindset throughout his fascinating career. Films like “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “He’s Just Not That Into You” are right there on his resume between “The Bernie Mac Show” and “The Office.” Kwapis took a few minutes to speak with Indiewire about the changes he’s witnessed in the industry in regard to transitioning between television and film. Below, he also discusses the unique challenges of making “Happyish,” the polarizing reaction the series has faced, and his upcoming indie film, “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
“Happyish” had a long road to its first airing. I was curious when you came on board — if you shot the original pilot as well, or if you only shot the one after Steve Coogan came on board.
So, I was present at the creation of this series. Shalom Auslander came to me and my producing partner, Alex Beattie, about three years ago and said to us that he was interested in developing a story based on his experiences working in the advertising world. And when he started to describe some the things that he had seen and heard, I found his story both so hilarious and disturbing, I said very quickly I’d like to help you develop this. Alex, Shalom and I took the project to Showtime; Showtime fell in love with it. Shalom had not written anything for television before. He is known as a fiction writer, and a longtime contributor to the show “This American Life.” You can hear his segments — they’re really fantastic — but he was new to screenwriting. And certainly new to developing a television series. So Alex and I chaperoned Shalom. We brought the project to Showtime. […] I remember when he sent me the rough draft […] It was so on-target, so biting, so real, and so disturbing, so much about what’s happening right now. I was thrilled, and so was Showtime.
So pretty quickly we started looking for someone to play the lead. Philip Seymour Hoffman read the piece, he loved it, and Showtime needless to say was thrilled with the idea of producing Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first foray into television. Philip and I got along wonderfully, but Philip wanted to choose his own director, and his choice was John Cameron Mitchell. Philip did not want me to go away — he wanted me involved, wanted me to produce it — but he just felt comfortable with John and wanted him to direct that pilot. So I was certainly involved and oversaw the post-production of that pilot as well, but I did not direct it. So Showtime greenlighted the series, and two weeks later, Phil died…within a month of Showtime announcing that we were moving forward with the series, he was dead. So for many months, we were just emotionally at sea, I mean…we had no idea. It was just hard to move forward on every level, but Showtime really believed in the project. They really believed in Shalom’s unique voice, and they encouraged us to start thinking about who we could cast in that role.
Needless to say, it is not easy to replace someone as powerful as Philip Seymour Hoffman. We talked to many actors, some of whom didn’t even want to attempt to fill those shoes. For quite some time — I would say nearly eight months — we hadn’t made any progress, until Steve Coogan read the script. And literally within a day after he read it, he called and said, “I love this piece” and “I’d love to be involved.” Showtime — the head of the network, Dave — called me in early November and said, “We’re on. I want the pilot by Christmas.” So suddenly, after months of being in the wilderness, we had emerged, and we had quite a task; we had to redo the pilot, recast most of the roles, shoot it, and deliver it by Christmas. I was editing it over the Christmas holiday. As soon as they came back in January, the network not only loved the new pilot, but ordered nine additional episodes and again David Nevins told me we’re on the air on April 26th. [laughs]
So we’re suddenly jamming. The good news is that while we were looking for a new leading man, Shalom Auslander was writing scripts. So by the time we shot the pilot, […] he’d written drafts for most of them. So we went into production in February, shooting those nine additional scripts, and I directed four of the 10 — I directed the first three, and the season finale, Episode 10. […] Anyway, we had to really move quickly. On top of that, many of the episodes have complicated animation or visual effects. In Episode 1, there is a nightmare scene featuring the Keebler Elves. In Episode 2, Kathryn Hahn’s character’s mother appears in the form of a talking Amazon package. Episode 3 — perhaps our most ambitious piece of animation — is Coogan’s interaction with a computer-generated gecko who may resemble a certain iconic advertising gecko. [laughs] And so on, and there’s more to come in that vein.
I’m glad you’re telling about all these elements because I feel like “Happyish” is one of the more ambitious comedies I’ve seen in a while. I’m curious about how you went about setting the tone for the show. It’s such an important thing to do in that pilot episode, and — as the director and the EP — there’s a lot that goes into it from your end.
Well, let me talk about the visual aspect first. I very much wanted it to have a completely cinematic approach. Again, the director of photography, Ben Kutchins, and I wanted it to be stylized — wanted it to feel like it was always taking place in the real world, now. We really wanted to give it a rich, cinematic look, and specifically light with the idea that comedy doesn’t need a certain kind of lighting. That’s an awkward way of putting it. Let me put it better: there are a lot of truisms about the way comedy should look, and we tried to ignore all of them.
That’s number one. And in terms of performance style, there is as much drama in any given episode as comedy — sometimes more drama — and we tried to not be afraid of that. There are certain expectations that viewers have when they watch a half-hour television show, and in the case of “Happyish,” we didn’t want to be afraid of things that were uncomfortably real; not necessarily funny all the time, but painfully relatable. We also realized that this was a show that probably polarizes viewers, and that’s probably a good thing. That’s not really an answer to your question about tone, but I think that, for example, Steve Coogan’s character is literate. He’s waiting for a train into the city reading a book by Albert Camus. So there’s some people who might think that certain kinds of literary pretensions have no business in a half-hour television show, and we feel like, “Well, why not? Why shouldn’t you have a main character who can quote from Charles Bukowski?” — which Steve’s character does at the top of Episode 4. Again, that’s something that hopefully adds up to something that both in terms of its reality and richness of the look, in terms of intellectualism, flatters the viewer. It would be nice to think that that smart people are looking to see our show. [laughs]
How much of that had to change or did change when you had to reshoot the pilot. I mean, you took over as director so you had to make decisions on your own that were either in line or different than the other director’s. You had a new cast, so you might have had to accommodate for that. Were there any changes between pilots that you felt as a director really helped the show?
I think that, for instance, whenever you have a chance to redo something, you naturally find ways to improve it. Ways to sharpen certain story points. You sort of fine-tune things. Even setting aside the circumstances, that we lost our leading man — which you can’t really set aside, but setting that aside — this sort of gave me the opportunity to examine all the choices we made and see what could be improved. In many of the cases, some of the staging is identical to what it was in the original pilot. But also, there’s new cast members. We recast almost every role. […] But in terms of the tone of the thing, the real point was to keep it real. There are things that, for instance, Bradley Whitford says: “You gotta hand it to Osama Bin Laden. How much did 9/11 cost, a couple hundred grand? I couldn’t even make a web film for that.” Okay, so then that’s a very outrageous thing for anyone to say, but Shalom says he heard similar things sitting in creative meetings [in the advertising agency]. So the goal is, how do you cast people who can make that feel 100 percent real, not farce? Whitford knows how to try to to take things that outrageous and make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on real people in a real place. It would be easy to turn things like that into farce. It might be funny, too. But the thing is to make you feel like, “Wow, this is what it’s really like at these agencies today.”
Did you guys go into this with any expectation of what people would think? Did you expect the mixed reactions that it’s received? It seems to be made — considering you tell somebody to fuck off every episode — with a certain attitude.
I think that we felt it wasn’t worth doing unless it was done boldly. There were no half measures here. If you’re gonna go out on a limb, go out on a limb. And we had the backing from the network that encouraged us to do so. I think that it’s fine if there’s divided opinion. That’s fine. There are some people who will take outrage, and that begins with the main character thumbing his nose at God, to put it mildly. For what it’s worth, in Episode 3 of “Happyish,” at no point do we suggest that God doesn’t exist. So, Steve Coogan’s character certainly questions the quality of God, but at no point do we suggest God doesn’t exist. I was talking to someone about this, and I was saying, “I think we’re following in the great tradition of leaders like Job, who had the audacity to ask God ‘Why?'” There may be some people who will just dismiss it as sacrilegious or blasphemous or needlessly outrageous. But in fact I think underneath it, once you scratch the surface of it, it’s a half-hour of television that is […] posed to answer questions that should be raised.
And that’s honestly my favorite thing about it. Especially over the last year, I’ve found myself really drawn to shows that address big questions that need to be discussed in different ways and engage different audiences to do that — to get the conversation going on a bigger spectrum. It’s something that’s hard to do in 30 minutes in a comedy, and that’s what really attracted me to the show.
Well, I am super proud of it, and I’ll say that the other thing that’s important to me is that I as a director I really relate to Thom’s dilemma — to that moment in a person’s life where you suddenly feel irrelevant in your own life. Or you’re spending a lot of energy keeping up, when keeping up ultimately may not make you happy. And it’s certainly the case in entertainment or advertising, where there’s such pressure to “stay ahead of the curve” and “have an edge,” and I think one of the things I find sort of relatable about Thom is he does it, he does it well, but he hates himself for doing it well. [laughs]
As someone who’s always done TV and film work, I was curious if you’ve noticed kind of a change in the last decade in the respect given to TV directors, and that ability to go back and forth. Or maybe it’s just easier now to work in both worlds?
Well, it’s all of that. I mean, I remember the beginning of my career, you were actively discouraged from going into film. People would say if you’re a feature film director, why would you possibly want to go into TV. Or conversely, if you’re a television director, good luck trying to make feature films. I feel like it’s completely the opposite now; that when I worked on a show like “The Bernie Mac Show” or “The Office” — both of which I helped launch, I would talk to the writers, some remarkably talented writers, and I would say, “Wow, you should develop a feature.” And for many of those writers, I realized that the fantasy was no longer making a feature; the fantasy was setting up your own show. It was doing “The Wire.” “The Wire,” people would say, “my dream is to do something like ‘The Wire.’ My dream is not to get a development deal at some studio to make a feature film; my dream is to do ‘The Wire.'”
So I think that it’s shifted so dramatically. I think it’s also, along with the new flowering of television, the major motion picture studios’ output has shrunk. They don’t release as many films. And the range of material they produce has also shrunk. Narrowed drastically. There are films I’ve directed that studios would no longer make. And of course the independent feature world is wonderful, but again even that is incredibly daunting. What’s interesting to me is that you look at the careers of people like Lena Dunham or Jill Soloway, for example, who come out of gate with a feature like “Tiny Furniture” or “Afternoon Delight” and what’s their follow-up? It’s really fascinating.
And there’s also no question that at least in terms of comedic material, there’s no studio in the world that’s going to make something even remotely satirical like “Happyish.” You only can do that on television. The great films that we admired growing up like “Dr. Strangelove” or some of the great Hal Ashby satires like “Shampoo,” there’s no studio on Earth that would make those films now. Satire is always difficult to get off the ground, and there’s no possible way that a studio would take a gamble on something like “Dr. Strangelove” now. And that kind of film is also equally difficult to do in an independently financed way because it requires a certain level of budget and scope.
So where do you go? Series. And I don’t mean to be doom and gloom about it because I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to go back and forth between features and series. And they feed each other — I take what I learn from one and bring to the other. But I mean gosh, it’s really true that there’s been a tectonic shift in talent and where talent wants to be. And the other thing, too, is studios let the adult audience go away. Adults have gotten out of the habit of going to motion pictures. The studios let that happen. The studios lost the adult audience. When I go to a dinner party, I will rarely hear a lively discussion about a movie somebody saw over the weekend, but I will definitely hear a lively discussion about the latest episode of “Mad Men.” Again, I have to lay some of the blame at the feet of the studios. They lost the audience.
Can you tell me about the differences in making something like “Happyish” — a TV show that got ordered suddenly and sped into production — versus your latest independent feature, “A Walk in the Woods”?
One of the wonderful things about television in general, but this series in particular — you didn’t have time to be precious about anything. You have to think on your feet. And that often produces really creative decision-making. That as opposed to: sometimes there will be feature films that will be 10 years in development before you finally get to shoot them. But in the case of “A Walk In The Woods,” I came aboard at the last minute. Robert Redford and his producing partner Bill Holderman had shepherded that project for a long time. There were different directors attached. So I came on very late. So for me, there wasn’t time for…we went and shot it very quickly. It’s a modestly budgeted film. And for me, it’s my favorite kind of story. It’s a road movie. Except there’s no road. [laughs] And there’s no cars. It’s two guys on foot. It’s a journey of self-discovery. It takes me back to films that I loved as a young film student. Films like Wim Wenders’ “Kings of the Road.”
To me, part of the difference between shooting “Happyish” and shooting “A Walk in the Woods” was also “A Walk in the Woods” is very much a big-screen story. Yes, it’s a very intimate story — it’s really about the relationship, the friendship between two men — but it’s also about the natural world. The Appalachian trail is the third main character of the film, of the story. So it was great working with my longtime cinematographer John Bailey to sort of — and shooting partly in 35mm — to photograph the environment in a way that is served best on the big screen. “A Walk in the Woods” will not look good on your phone.
I hope more people realize that as we go forward. It’s getting to the point where I’ve talked to too many people who end up watching movies that are clearly made for the movie theater on tiny little screens, and it’s just sad.
Well, your engagement with a feature is completely different when you’re in the inner sanctum of a movie theater. And especially with a story like this where the environment is a major character — working on “A Walk in the Woods” gave me an opportunity to think about filmmakers like David Lean. “Lawrence of Arabia” is a perfect example of a film that could on one hand not be more expansive in terms of its look and on the other hand not be more intimate in terms of its dramatic focus. So I mean, again, “A Walk in the Woods” gave me a chance to apply some of the lessons I learned from masters like David Lean. I can’t wait for you to see it.
“Happyish” airs Sundays at 9:30pm on Showtime. “A Walk in the Woods” is scheduled to open September 2 domestically.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmys contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners or somewhere in between. More importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]