If you were hooked on “Fleabag,” one of the more striking British TV imports in the streaming era, odds are good it happened the first time Phoebe Waller-Bridge stared right into camera. As much as that stylistic choice came to cement Waller-Bridge’s unique connection with audiences in her home country and abroad, there was no guarantee that Fleabag’s instantly iconic fourth-wall moments would stick around.
“I always told myself the rule I had was that she only needed the camera there because she was constantly on the verge of needing to confess,” Waller-Bridge said of the character she writes and performs herself.
Confess what, exactly? Well, Season 1 of the Amazon series ends with Fleabag acknowledging an unexpected role she played in driving her best friend Boo to suicide.
“That was such a defining part of the show, looking at the camera, but I can’t bring myself, even as an actor, to look at the camera again after that moment. It would feel so false, so I think it just has to be a completely new beast,” Waller-Bridge said in an interview with IndieWire. “I think I have found a way to look at the camera again but maybe not, I don’t know. But I think I’ll have to push against all of the things, the comforts.”
Now, as she’s in the middle of filming an unspecified role in the much-discussed Han Solo “Star Wars” spinoff film, that possible change is an example of how, once again, she’ll have to reinvent the piece of art that she loves in order to keep it alive.
The Amazon series originated as a stage play in Britain, following three days in the life of Fleabag, a young woman in London struggling to come to terms with that fateful suicide. Adapting that single-evening experience for something more episodic meant a fundamental change in the way audiences thought about the event that drove the story. When crafting the final versions of these episodes, Waller-Bridge got a helpful piece of advice from the series’ director.
“The recurring image of Boo on the road that comes up every now and again? That was Harry Bradbeer’s idea. Because it’s so tightly written in the first episode, I don’t want to have to go, ‘Oh yeah! Do you remember that thing from last episode when I said that all that shit happened with my friend?’ When he told me about that image it’s when I really kicked into TV world a bit,” Waller-Bridge said. “You can throw that in at any point and we threw it in everywhere, like in the middle of a sex scene, going to the loo. And it felt really real like that, really human. So that was a huge way into the TV world, and you can’t do that on stage. That’s when it felt like two different worlds.”
Waller-Bridge’s instincts paid off in other places, like in the series’ dialogue-sparse fourth episode, where Fleabag and her sister head to a weekend retreat. It’s a shift that she recognized in other six-episode British series and one that fit in perfectly with her vision for this reimagined show. Again, she got a special assist from sister and “Fleabag” composer Isobel Waller-Bridge.
“There was so much stuff in episode four, for example, that wouldn’t fit anywhere else,” Waller-Bridge said. “My sister had sent me a piece of music that’s actually not in the Amazon version because of some rights reason, but it’s in the U.K. version. She sent it to me just on a whim in the middle of the night. I was so stressed and I couldn’t write anything and I listened to the track and I just suddenly thought of that scene with the bank manager. The moment I knew I had that, then I knew I wasn’t gonna lose them.”
“Well I didn’t know,” she’s quick to add. “But if I was watching it, that would be a game-changing moment for me.”
That bank manager, who was one of the only “Fleabag” characters who didn’t have direct roots in the stage play, also pops up in the season’s closing scene. That ending was another instance of a flash of inspiration leading to one of the series’ most indelible moments.
“The last scene with the bank manager, him going out into the car and coming back, I came up with that on the day. I just turned up and the scene didn’t work. That’s a theater thing as well, when you’re actually fucking there with your other actors and you’re feeling it and people are watching it. There were so many times where the scene was written and I’d turn up on set and even before anyone said anything I could just feel the script in the place and go, ‘This is wrong. I have to re-write it all,’” Waller-Bridge said.
Even though some of these changes were the product of happy accidents, they were built on a foundation of an entire season that made a firm contract between storyteller and viewer. Some of the season’s standout moments happen in a gray area between reality and fantasy, like this opening to Episode 2.
— BBC Three (@bbcthree) July 18, 2016
Those scenes only work when they’re a part of a cohesive whole. Each of these snippets get at a deeply human journey of love, sisterhood and regret, all swirled up in a voice that’s distinctly Waller-Bridge’s. That willingness to let the audience in before slowly closing off Fleabag’s world bit by bit became the show’s guiding principle.
“The one thing I knew for sure, is that we’d start off with her going, ‘Hey, come into my life! This will be hilarious! We’ll have a great time!’ and in the end her going, ‘Get away from me. Stop looking at me. I’m really ashamed of myself.’ I knew that was gonna be the journey with the audience, so then generating the rest of material was the hardest bit really,” Waller-Bridge said.
Waller-Bridge explained that “Louie” was a touchpoint for Season 1, as was the Michael Caine version of “Alfie.” Facing down the prospect of a Season 2, much like Fleabag does to camera, she’s looking to draw on a new set of inspirations for a new batch of episodes.
Even with her newfound involvement in the “Star Wars” universe, she’s also a big fan of another totemic cultural franchise. When asked about what kind of shows might be having an unconscious effect on her forming of Season 2, she pointed to a particular HBO series.
“I’ve been so obsessed with ‘Game of Thrones’ and there’s so much about nobility and duty that I think about a lot. It’s really good stuff for stories,” Waller-Bridge said.