“One Dollar” is not a show that has an easy, recent analogue to anything in the film and TV world. For the director behind the CBS All Access drama, that was both an exciting prospect and a bit of an indictment of the kinds of stories that have made it to screens in recent decades.
“When we started referencing other movies that are telling a story like this, they’re all like ‘Norma Rae,’ ‘Blue Collar.’ They’re all ’70s stories. People haven’t been making very many stories in that culture in a while actually,” director Craig Zobel told IndieWire.
What came from the process was a 10-episode season set in the western Pennsylvania town of Braden. Set against the backdrop of a mysterious death at a steel mill, the resulting story winds its way through a factory town kaleidoscope of individuals, all via the path of a single dollar bill. From the head of a steel mill (John Carroll Lynch) to a police officer still in training (Níke Uche Kadri) to a private investigator working outside his jurisdiction to track down the truth (Nathaniel Martello-White), this season of “One Dollar” crosses class, race, age, and gender to take an all-sides view of a single city.
Zobel spoke about wanting to avoid a common (and in many cases, earned) criticism of stories in blue-collar America being “poverty porn.” One way that he wanted to do that was to show how Braden and the greater Western Pennsylvania area was not confined to a single industry or perspective. Part of that meant filming on location rather than try to recreate that atmosphere elsewhere.
“There’s like these two kinds of towns existing side by side in Pittsburgh, which I found to be super interesting,” Zobel said. “People were still doing jobs they had been doing for 100 years there. Those people were right next to Carnegie Mellon robotics. These crazy driverless cars were just being tested everywhere. The whole idea of going there and trying to be as authentic as we could squeeze in to that space felt like a really novel thing to do, I guess.”
Being immersed in that environment helped the breakneck pace of the production. After a process that began in early January, ten hours of story were wrapped and finished in time for this week’s finale. Zobel’s no stranger to TV, having directed the famed “International Assassin” episodes of “The Leftovers,” in addition to the Shogun World chapter of “Westworld” Season 2. Still, this “One Dollar” experience, planted firmly in a recognizable world, was unlike any of those.
“I can’t really stress enough how much I learned about being on set, [after shooting] for 98 days in a row,” Zobel said. “We were literally getting the scripts on a Monday, shooting a scene on a Wednesday, editing the scene that Saturday, and it would be on the air a month from then. So in some ways, it’s been more intense than other directors doing all the episodes of the season of a show. It’s been a very exhausting process, but I’m proud of what we did.”
Each episode of “One Dollar” includes a few of the central players in this overarching story of Braden, PA, with installments named after the focal-point character. With those ten individuals all having their own inner circle, the “One Dollar” cast grew and grew.
That gave Zobel a chance to work with people he’d known before. Ashlie Atkinson previously appeared in his film “Compliance.” Episode 7 main character Cooper Shaw is played by Ida Chapman, the daughter of Matt Chapman, one of friends he created the iconic web series “Homestar Runner” with back in the early days of internet.
Making a representative show about this city also meant an opportunity to look outside the usual television show acting ensemble. Country star Sturgill Simpson shines as Ken “Wal-Mart” Fry, the proprietor of an ongoing illicit yard sale. LA rapper Medusa plays Etta, another Braden resident who figures into the second half of the season.
Having that variety in the cast helped keep “One Dollar” from lumping all of its characters into one viewpoint or one set of circumstances. Cities like Braden are facing a specific kind of challenge, but Zobel didn’t want these characters to be defined solely by that. “One Dollar” not only includes workers dealing with the possibility of a plant closing, but real estate developers facing an ethical crossroads and entrepreneurs trying to keep the local nightlife afloat.
“Western Pennsylvania is an interesting place to talk about right now in terms of where we are politically. People’s jobs are being phased out. That really is happening there, but [we were] trying to look at that with a non-jaundiced eye,” Zobel said. “A character gives a full-throated defense of gentrification. The different people doing that, they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. It was fun to be able to not just talk about the steel industry, but also to talk about Pittsburgh and talk about working there. “
The venue for this story was also something that Zobel considered when filming the series. CBS All Access has a distinct subscriber base, one different from the potential audience that might come with a broadcast or cable network.
“It’s always been in my head that people that already are members of CBS All Access, I don’t know how many of them are also members of Filmstruck or whatever,” Zobel said. “It was important for me to make something that talked about a place, but had no judgment. I just felt like it was important making sure that all of the audience that could see this show would enjoy it.”
The opening season is a self-contained story, but Zobel said that there’s plenty of room for another season, whether under the “One Dollar” banner or otherwise, to draw on some of those same ideas.
“We were trying to make a show about class and we were trying to make a show that was about America outside of the power centers in New York, LA, or Washington, DC. The way that economics and class work in other parts of the country, I feel like there’s a million different towns that you can go to,” Zobel said. “There’s like a whole other conversation to be had looking at, like, a tourist based city. You could pick a million different things that would have a whole different conversation, but still be in the moment of where we are right now.”
“One Dollar” is now available to stream on CBS All Access.