After working in the industry for nearly two decades, Marti Noxon is having quite the summer. The showrunner has two series about complicated women being unleashed on the screen: HBO’s upcoming “Sharp Objects,” which comes out this July, as well as “Dietland,” which premieres Monday on AMC.
It’s the culmination of years of work, as Noxon dove into production on “Dietland” right after shooting on “Sharp Objects” ended. “We’re still doing cuts of both of them,” she told IndieWire when we first spoke in May. “Sometimes it’s like I’m living in two very different worlds. But they both thematically have quite a bit in common. It’s exciting. I mean, both of them are really unique female characters.”
Based on the book by Sarai Walker, “Dietland” tracks the revolution that begins inside Plum (Joy Nash), a plus-size writer for a fashion magazine who begins rejecting the “beauty industrial complex” after falling in with a mysterious group of women, who may or may not be capable of anything in their quest to change the world.
Noxon isn’t just the showrunner on “Dietland, ” she also directed the first two episodes and the season finale, an experience that was influenced by both her feature experience as well as having just worked with Emmy-winning Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed every episode of “Sharp Objects.”
The show, in many respects, represents a major step forward in terms of Noxon’s career as a director, which began on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and continued most recently with her first feature film, “To the Bone.”
“I started directing because I stop wanting to rely on words as much and images more,” Noxon added. “And the way that Jean-Marc uses the space… To see him cross the line and then cross back to get the right coverage. There was a freedom and a looseness to it that I really found inspiring. Then, he builds so much in the cutting room.”
It all came together as she got ready to take on “Dietland.” “Having directed ‘To the Bone,’ and having had that go so well, then it was a combination of watching a masterful, visual director do that and seeing his process. And then, feeling emboldened to take the next step and to try the next thing that scares me,” she said.
“I was like, you can use all the tools in the toolbox. What I learned from making ‘To the Bone,’ is, I don’t have to do that alone. I can ask people who know what they’re doing, from the art department, or our incredible costumer, or incredible production designer, or the art department, or the D.P. ‘How do we do this? What’s the next step?'”
Added Noxon, “It was so exciting when I was writing it, to suddenly go, ‘Okay, I’m going to write this stuff. It means I’ll have to shoot it.’ And then commit to it.”
In making “Dietland,” Noxon’s influences were heavily visual: “Because of the tone of the book, I went and watched a lot of David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Fincher, ‘The Babadook,’ and ‘Get Out,'” she said. “These films that had such visual flair.”
Fincher is indeed a clear influence on the series: Even before “Dietland” was being considered for adaptation, author Sarai Walker was drawing comparisons in interviews between her story and “Fight Club.” It’s something Noxon even found a way to acknowledge deliberately in the show: “Later in the season, one of the characters, we got the rights to a ‘Fight Club’ T-shirt, just for a little shout-out,” she laughed.
But for her, the more important inspiration was “The Wizard of Oz.” “When I kept talking about visual references, I was like, I don’t want it to be one of these gray shows,” Noxon said. “I don’t want it to be all blue saturated; I kept saying, ‘I want it to be technicolor.’ It has a kind of musical quality. There are drab places, but then there are these other places that are just hyper-colored. Like in ‘Wizard of Oz,’ where Plum starts is kind of Kansas, but where she ends up should be over the rainbow. It should be colorful, and weird, and swirly.”
There were even more explicit comparisons to be made between the show and the 1939 film, Noxon said: “If you go through the whole season for the visual references, there are some very overt ones that I’m excited about.”
Despite its technicolor look, though, there’s a dark edge to this story — to the point where an upcoming episode of “Dietland” will feature a content warning, something Noxon felt necessary given both the content of the episode as well as the tone.
“Watching this particular episode, I, who know exactly what’s in it — there’s a particular way that we talk about some of the issues in the book. We step out some of the issues that are in the book. When they’re in story form, but when you dramatize them, they’re so much more painful… Partly because of my tone, and because of the tone of the book, which is sometimes deceptively comic, this show needs them on particular episodes. Not every one. This is the only one I said we need one for. Because this episode, in particular, has a lot of laughs in it, I got taken by surprise. I ended up crying for a while after the episode. I was like, ‘I fucking wrote that scene,’ and if I’m getting that caught up in Joy’s performance, and the guest actors, and such, then we need somebody to put something at the front of it.”
It’s not the first time Noxon has used a disclaimer of this type: “To the Bone,” also opens with a warning about the film’s subject matter. “I’m so glad there was a trigger warning on that,” she said. “You might watch the first half hour of that movie and think things are going to be kind of funny, the whole way through, but it’s not.”
In order to keep that tone consistent, Noxon and the “Dietland” team created a visual guide to the series, “and we gave it to every incoming director.”
The most important thing she wanted to communicate, beyond color palettes, was that “the acting and the performances need to feel like these characters are living in a real world. We created a story about the tone that we told everybody else. We told it over, and over, and over again.”
Noxon was inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale” in this regard, “because I felt like, even though there were different directors in there, the people in charge had a handbook. They kept control of the tone, for the most part, of almost every episode. I was like, I don’t know how they’re doing that, but I think it’s about planning and making a map.”
The show’s complicated tone meant that right from the beginning, Noxon had to subvert expectations as to what the show might be. “The wrongest comment I’ve gotten from people who’ve only seen a little bit of the advertising is, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to be like “Ugly Betty.”‘ I think we’ve done away with that now — that was just off the early, early stuff, where people thought it was a diet show or thought it was a reality show about dieting.”
Thus, the first episode opens with a sequence featuring letters written by young women, a litany of stories about pain and abuse and anger and fear. “One of the things I wanted to do with the first thing you see in the pilot is, this is not ‘Ugly Betty.’ You better get ready for some hard things, and then try to hit you with some funny, as soon as possible,” she said.
Noxon’s initial pitch for “Dietland” as a series included loose plans for five seasons, though that might have shifted: “I’m already pulling up some ideas that I had for Season 3 into Season 2, because we went a little further in Season 1 than I thought we were going to,” she said. “I think, right now, I could say I have solid ideas for three seasons.”
Though, she added, “I could see it going on for a long time… Really, the DNA of the show is about social justice movements and all the complications of trying to challenge the status quo in yourself and then change the world. That is not ever done. You’re never done finding things in yourself that need to be improved and finding things in the world that need to be improved.
“This whole idea of women coming into a position of power, any marginalized community coming into a position of power, that’s not going to be done in a year or two. I think it has legs.”
“Dietland” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.