One of Jason Reitman’s gifts as a filmmaker is tuning into idiosyncratic voices who speak to him, from writer Diablo Cody (“Juno”) to Zander Lehmann (“Casual”). Lehmann and Reitman have the same agent, so Lehmann knew that Reitman wanted to check out TV. He waited for the director to read his script about two siblings who live together as they explore online dating. His patience was rewarded.
With the first season of “Casual,” Hulu gave Reitman, Lehmann, and executive producers Liz Tigelaar (she runs the writer’s room) and Helen Estabrook (she masterminds production) plenty of leeway to create the 10-episode, half-hour series. “Rather than one person leading,” said Lehmann during our video interview at Reitman’s Sunset Boulevard office, “we are fortunate that four of us all have a voice in it.”
Thanks to three charismatic, skilled actors—Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey as siblings Valerie and Alex, and Tara Lynne Barr as Valerie’s daughter Laura—the series is as dramatic as it is funny. “Zander’s voice was so clear,” said Reitman. “The voice of the characters was so clear on the page, that we needed to find someone who knew how to sing the notes. Michaela was the first one who walked into the room. She was fantastic. ‘That’s how its supposed to sound!’ Tommy walked in: ‘He gets it, he knows what we’re trying to say.'”
Reitman loved the idea of having your sibling as your soul mate: “What if no matter what relationship, whether friendship or romantic relationship, the person you want to go back to is the person you came into the world with, someone in your family?”
It’s fascinating in the first season that when Valerie, who is in the midst of a fractious divorce, considers moving out of her brother’s house, you root for the family to stay together. “Your sibling is your first love,” said Lehmann, “the one you grew up with. Your parents are on a different level. In our world they reverted back to their first love, they are alone in the house and can do whatever they want in the house. They are not allowed to act on that first love. They are looking after each other and satisfying each other.” (Lehmann and his younger sister have lived together and are very close.)
In order to find the drama in these situations, Lehmann admitted, you can’t always make the characters happy, even if that’s what the fans would like to see. This rare show doesn’t lose its original voice in group-think. It feels authentic partly because it’s willing to take its characters to the brink of discomfort. High-strung Valerie, especially, often acts more like a teenager than her daughter, which leads to intensely emotional complications.
“People want more happiness and for the characters to succeed,” said Lehmann, who insists that the best drama comes from “them not getting what they want. You straddle a line, you can’t give the characters happiness or you wind up with boring stories. You give real moments of happiness and joy, but real drama comes from characters not getting what they want.”
Lehmann added to the mix the character of Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), who is based on a friend who started dating his sister, who becomes “a sweet and humanizing” force on the show, when sometimes “the characters can come off cold and make decisions they don’t agree with, so we don’t have to feel too cynical.”
TV neophyte Reitman enjoyed the learning curve of the writers’ room, and found himself working on sound stages for the first time in his life—he had always shot films on location. He made sure to build an elaborate set for a multi-tiered house —which becomes a central character in the show—with plenty of windows and trees and light for depth and visual interest, and to move the cameras around in a fluid style that does not feel like wides-and-tights formula television. “All of us wanted this to feel like a long indie film,” said Reitman, “broken down into episodes. You could watch it in five hours or watch it broken up.”
Lionsgate and Hulu “were supportive and wanted to build the show,” said Reitman. “It never felt like we were having the wrong conversations. I had heard horror stories about a zillion executive notes that lead to a product that doesn’t reflect the screenplay we all fell in love with.”
Together they all wanted to make “something that felt low key and thoughtful and naturalistic,” he said, from the color palette to the wardrobe and sets. “It feels real, and gives comedy an opportunity. We’re straddling a line that feels honest and dramatic-funny without feeling goofy.”
Technology is part of the dating world, something Reitman tangled with in his film “Men, Women & Children;” on “Casual,” Tommy runs a dating site. “You can’t tell the story of modern relationships without it,” said Reitman. “I spend half my days looking at my phone. If you told the story of ‘The Breakfast Club’ or ‘Election’ today, you would have to have them on the phone all the time. That’s just who we are.”
Going into Season 2 (June 7), the series is still pursuing relationships, “whether romantic or familial or work friendships,” said Lehmann. “What drives the show is the humor. We’re looking to do more stuff outside the bedroom, at the workplace, at the school, with new friends and new experiences, more episodes and more time to tell a story.” Breaking free from the insular house opens up the world.
Next up: Reitman will reunite with Charlize Theron on “Tully,” an independently financed Diablo Cody script about a mother of three who binds with her new nanny. And he will continue working on “Casual.”