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‘American Vandal’: Behind the Making of the Terrifying ‘Brownout’ that Kicks Off a ‘Colder, Darker’ Season 2

Plus, the Netflix show's creators tell IndieWire the secret to coming up with the greatest character names anywhere on TV.

American Vandal Season 2 Netflix

“American Vandal”

Netflix

Outside of those in the medical profession, there are very few people that have talked about human waste in the past 18 months more than the creative brain trust behind “American Vandal.”

“There are certain poops that just couldn’t be shot on an iPhone because that’s found footage. There’s recreation poop and found footage poop. And they were very different poops,” series co-creator Dan Perrault told IndieWire.

“We had long conversations going through the Bristol Scale, which you could google, but I recommend you don’t,” chimed in fellow co-creator Tony Yacenda.

That dicey challenge for the “American Vandal” props department (there really is no way to talk about it that isn’t unsettling in some way or another) was just one of a flurry of key decisions regarding tone and execution that went into making the giant Season 2 centerpiece. Beyond the discussions of consistency, they knew they wanted to open this new season in a way that instantly established that it was not beholden to the story of Dylan Maxwell that made the show a sleeper hit last fall.

“We wanted each season to feel like its own unique story. In early conversations, we knew we wanted something darker and colder. We knew we wanted a darker crime,” Perrault said. “We could have easily just repeated characters. I think that was part of the challenge of coming up, coming up with them was, ‘Is this gonna ring too close to Season 1?’ We can’t have another pranking main character like Dylan and we can’t repeat Kraz or else it’ll really feel like we’re just recycling.”

Making something that separated itself meant kicking off the season in a way that would let viewers know what atmosphere to expect for the remaining eight episodes. The result came in drawing on the spirit of true crime documentaries in a different way that Season 1 had.

“I think it’s the same phenomenon as a lot of true-crime documentaries where it shows the murder at the top. A lot of these give you such a visceral reaction because you see dark horrifying murders that made you want to look away from the TV,” Yacenda said. “But also that same visceral reaction draws you in and makes you want to know the truth. I’m sure those documentaries, when you get too brutal, you’re alienating a certain portion of the audience, but our version of a dark bloody murder, the stupidest version of that is poop. So we wanted to be as true to the genre as possible, and that meant being somewhat unflinching with the reality for this crime.”

American Vandal

“American Vandal”

Netflix

Also true to the genre was the introduction of reenactments in Season 2. Swapping out the 3D-animated dock encounters for dimly lit versions of “The Brownout” leadup meant adopting an updated production strategy for these “The Keepers”-esque recreations.

“The lighting was completely different. We had to control the lights in the hallways, bring in G&E [Grip and Electric] and a hazer, make it slow motion and have a completely different color palette for the reenactment stuff while we were on a different floor shooting all the cell phone stuff and getting together to do that,” Yacenda said. “We did that once with the hallways and actual archival iPhone stuff and then we did that for the cafeteria, too. It’s a lot juggling the two looks and keeping continuity similar, but it was also, it was a fun challenge to try, too. The archival stuff had to be unflinchingly real. And then the reenactment stuff had to be kind of haunting and cinematic, while still gross.”

It was the perfect chance to put into practice one of the big lessons from Season 1: scaling up the volume of what they shot.

“Things were mostly smoother in Season 2. One thing that we learned is that we need to give these kids full social media lives. Unfortunately that was a revelation we came to kind of late in the first year,” Perrault said. “Going into this season, at times, we had four units running to give us the content we needed. It was a more organized approach. We were better about getting some of this ancillary content that we didn’t have a specific place for that we’d probably need at some point.”

Even with the different ways that the show was able to portray “The Brownout” visually, Season 2 has an extra assist from a greater number of on-camera testimonials from students explaining what happened. Rather than funneling everything through the eyes of one accused suspect, there was a more democratic approach to filling in exposition.

“I’m very glad that the season in which we do a ton of talking heads was Season 2, as opposed to the beginning, because that’s the whole other process,” Perrault said. “The amount of lines that are delivered by multiple characters was a huge, huge factor this year. Most of our leads comment on most of the main subjects and some of our supporting talking head characters are talking on most major subjects. So we can plug and play a different characteristic in different points in the story depending on who we haven’t heard from in a while or what perspective we want. So everyone’s kind of speaking about everything.”

American Vandal

“American Vandal”

Netflix

Finding the students affected by The Brownout meant looking to actors from around the area that this season filmed. By shifting from Oceanside to Bellevue, the production move to the Pacific Northwest offered the show a chance to draw from an entirely new pool of local talent.

“A special shout out to the Portland cast, which was great. Especially the first few episodes where we’re sharing a lot of it through the students who experienced these pranks, we just wanted to get as grounded a world as possible. We picked a lot of kids who had never acted before. We love the people we got from LA as well, but there’s something less polished to some of these kids that we really liked a lot,” Perrault said.

If some of the student characters seem flustered by sharing their experiences, part of that is the authenticity that comes from some of these actors taking part in their first big project.

“Sometimes we’ll interview the kids ourselves as if it’s an unstructured improvised interview in which we do have scripted lines. But sometimes we’ll have to do it in their own words,” Perrault said. “Sometimes, a 14-year-old’s going to get nervous. But so would an actual 14-year-old who’s being interviewed on camera for the first time. So that worked for us.”

Of course, more people means more character names. Following the high bar set by Season 1 — Alex Trimboli, Van Delorey, Lucas Wiley, Christa Carlyle, to name a few — the writing team reached deep again for another batch of memorable players. Or, at least, they clicked to the right place.

“There are names that when you hear that name, you have an idea, ‘Oh yeah, that just sounds like a kid I went to high school with.’ It’s never, like, Bill Smith,” Perrault said. “And so typically, Tony and I tend to look through these name databases and once you get to like page 8-12, once you get past the most standard names into specific ones that are still fairly realistic — those are the names you want to pick.”

“American Vandal” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix. 

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