“Portlandia” remains one of television’s most oddball series, committed both to the craft of filmmaking as well as the absurdist notions of executive producers Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and Jonathan Krisel. The show has always been a labor of love for its creators, one in which they’ve been involved intimately since the beginning. Brownstein in particular stepped up for Season 7, directing two episodes for the first time, in addition to writing and acting.
Before IndieWire got on the phone with Brownstein, she sent over a list of her five favorite sketches, two of which were part of episodes she directed. We discussed what went into the making of each episode, with Brownstein revealing why she prefers not to be in sketches she’s directing, the surprising depth of empathy she has for the characters she plays (even the Men’s Rights Activist) and how she didn’t mind the way in which one of her favorite sketches overlapped with a recent episode of “Black Mirror.”
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Hotel Room Explanation, “The Storytellers” (Episode 1)
A young woman (Vanessa Bayer) tries to check into her hotel room, with some help from a very helpful hotel clerk (Armisen). Director: Carrie Brownstein.
“I think we always relish having someone with the nimbleness of Vanessa on the show. We’ve been so fortunate to work with some of the best improvisers and comedians around them. Vanessa is one of those really brilliant performers — she and Fred have an innate chemistry together from being friends in real life and working together on ‘Saturday Night Live.’
“When I’m directing, I really enjoy not being in the scene — that allows me to really focus on performances and composition. You know, see it from a more holistic perspective. It was an incredible joy to watch them in that scene.”
How much footage did they actually shoot? “We could have made a six-part television series just from the footage we had. We really like the simple set-ups, because it allows more time for performance. When the sketches are more location-based or require more technical camerawork or choreography, the performers don’t get to delve as intensely into the scene and there’s not as much room for tangents or improvisation. But in a situation like this, we are basically just setting up the cameras and letting these people explore these characters and explore the scene.”
What About Men?, “Carrie Dates a Hunk” (Episode 2)
Men’s rights activists Drew (Armisen) and Andy (Brownstein) sing a ballad protesting their oppressed status as straight white men. Director: Jonathan Krisel.
“A big thing of the season was this notion of masculinity and gender. I think they were two themes that we explored in a variety of permutations. And we were thinking a lot about people who come into this world assuming a certain amount of privilege and inheritance and cultural relevance, and seeing themselves as the center of a narrative that’s kind of been written for them throughout history.
“There are these two guys who suddenly don’t see themselves in a society that’s slowly changing — the dismantling of the binary, moving towards an examination of the patriarchy. So we wanted to have these characters who felt a fragility within that environment and were lashing out against it. So they kind of came into fruition last year because we wanted to explore some of those themes.
On the casting of the video’s extras, who perfectly embody who you might expect to identify as a MRA: “We very explicitly want very real people. We’re not casting for good looks, we’re casting for people who are interesting in their authentic selves and embrace the kind of weirdness we want from them.
“We have an amazing casting director who is local and he really has an acumen for pulling from the local pool of talent. Simon Max Hill is wonderful and we have an extras casting guy, Adam Rosko, who is also great. We really rely on them for filling out the world of the show and yeah, that video is a good example of really nailing our requests.”
That said, they don’t think of the casting in terms of stereotypes. “I think you start getting into trouble when you start to assume what [an MRA] looks like. I think when we were talking about those sketches in general, we were realizing through anecdotal evidence that a lot of the men in our lives were also feeling vulnerable, sort of as if they were willing to admit it because culturally we are shifting away from perhaps white straight male dominance. It wasn’t just the alt-right guys online, it was people we knew, who were just having to reconsider their own lives and position.”
Massage Chair, “Fred’s Cell Phone Company” (Episode 3)
Lance (Brownstein) gets trapped in a massage chair purchased for him by Nina (Armisen). Director: Carrie Brownstein.
Was acting from a confined position easy or tough? “It means focusing the faculties you have with which to communicate, creating a whole language with tics and your eyes. Those of us who are able-bodied are able to compensate for nuance and misunderstandings with our hands and with our body language. So it does become a different kind of communication tool, when you don’t use your entire body.
“I had already mapped out Lance’s POV, combining a ‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ or a ‘Misery’ kind of aesthetic. There was a little bit of a challenge to direct, because I was limited to this one sphere and I didn’t have as much of a sense of the scene, because I was stuck in one single place.”
Men’s Film Festival, “Friend Replacement” (Episode 6)
Men’s rights activists Drew and Andy return to host a festival celebrating the under-recognized achievements of men in film. Director: Jonathan Krisel.
On playing two different characters who happen to be men: “They are two very different characters, so I approach them differently. I don’t want them to be a caricature. Lance is of course a broader character and we try to focus on a little more on his fallibility and vulnerability… I don’t really approach it too much from a gender perspective. It’s just, ‘Who is this person and how much can I say about his humor?’
“We had a lot of fun writing that sketch and just coming up with alternatives for film titles that they wanted to see or remakes that they were afraid of. It was interesting in the wake of the ‘Wonder Woman’ release and all of the screenings that happened — just seeing the backlash against that.”
What other filmmakers were mentioned in alternate takes? “I think Barry Levinson, there might have been a little bit more Michael Bay. There was a shoutout to Anthony Scalia, the former Supreme Court judge there.”
Why so much mention of Kathryn Bigelow? “For so long, she was the go-to female director — like, no one could conjure another name. So we were sort of playing with that.”
Passenger Rating Pt. 1, “Passenger Rating” (Episode 9)
Carrie (Brownstein) is having trouble with her rating on a ride sharing service. Director: Steve Buscemi.
“This one stems partially from that feeling that the sharing economy or the gig economy requires a certain level of performance. We were just thinking about how that can really become awkward.”
How it relates to the “Black Mirror” episode “Nosedive,” starring Bryce Dallas Howard: “That ‘Black Mirror’ episode came out after we had filmed ours, but we hadn’t aired yet. It was really interesting to watch — there was only a couple of degrees of separation between the two, and both explore something so simple and innocent-seeming as a rating system, a desire to be liked. That need for likability can turn dark. Ours explores the same themes, without the sort of craziness of that show. But I am such a big fan of ‘Black Mirror.'”
What to Expect from Season 8
As of writing, production has begun on the final season of “Portlandia.” “We’re going into a season where the theme is, not surprisingly, anxiety. There’s an anxiety and sense of isolation that permeates a lot of the sketches this year, all through the absurdist lens of the show. But as we sat back and looked at the board in the writers’ room, we realized living in a state of constant uncertainty had really permeated the show.”
How does that connect to this being the last season? “I think in some ways it’s coincidental, but in some ways it helps our cause, because as we wind down we didn’t want to make any sort of big, sweeping statements. But there’s definitely an onus. People expect closure.”