“I got no sleep and no Emmy!”
It’s the morning after the 2018 Primetime Emmy Awards, and Pamela Adlon is tired. Walking through the set, amiably grousing to her chuckling crew, the showrunner, director, writer, producer, and star of “Better Things” has been up since the wee hours of the morning, preparing for the day’s shoot in Baldwin Hills — and that’s after staying out late in support of her FX comedy. Sure, she was nominated for acting, but any chance of a personal victory at the Emmys seems secondary to the exposure she can provide the series just by being there.
Actually, individual recognition might be third in line, behind sleep. Despite her jovial demeanor, Adlon is sick. She took Dayquil this morning to help fight off a lingering, week-long cold, and she coughs into a surgical mask while watching takes with a handful of her producers. It’s only when isolated in this back bedroom, slumped in her director’s chair facing a few iPad monitors, that she shows obvious signs of exhaustion. Out in front of her beloved cast and crew, Adlon is all positive energy.
“As soon as she has to act, direct, [or] coach, it disappears,” said producer Joanne Toll. “It’s all inside her. It’s incredible.”
Before production on Season 3 began, she implemented a plastic-free set. During the shoot, she organized a walk-out in support of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford. And now, she’s setting up educational job fairs for young women and minority filmmakers, so they can see the multitude of professions available to them — and help chip away at the behind-the-scenes diversity gap in Hollywood.
The unique working environment Adlon cultivates is nothing new, nor her superhuman efforts to make “Better Things” one of TV’s best-reviewed programs. But she keeps pushing herself and her collaborators to be more socially conscious, more supportive, and — ironically enough — healthier human beings.
All the evidence you can want is on set. For Season 3’s seventh episode, “Easter,” kids in their Sunday best play games in the backyard that keep them from getting too dirty. Amy Snell, a key grip Adlon said she personally sought out while looking for a woman to fill the role, works near the main camera, assessing the light in the room. As a young, female production assistant walks by swigging from her H2Go water bottle, Adlon calls for someone else to fill up actress Celia Imrie’s reusable, copper-lined canteen.
“At the beginning of this season, I bought water bottles for everybody on my crew,” Adlon said in an interview months later. “I still got them a wrap gift, but I wanted to invest in the bottles so people would invest in refilling them.”
Mikey Madison, who plays the eldest Fox daughter in “Better Things,” said Adlon’s gesture inspired her to stop using water bottles and straws altogether.
“The environment is in such crisis and productions can be so wasteful,” she said. “Just the amount of people and plastic, Pamela is very conscientious of that.”
Anything disposable on set is eco-friendly: Standing in line at a crafty station filled with healthy dishes — “Did you see my salad wraps?” Adlon asks in passing — there are biodegradable forks, spoons, and coffee cups.
“I’m in a very rare place where I can have a thought […] and 90 percent of the time, I can put through what I need, creatively [or] practically,” Adlon said. “If I’m not trying to initiate something positive, then it’s a waste.”
Adlon applied that same thinking during Blasey-Ford’s testimony before Congress. After seeing her being “maligned and crucified” during questioning, Adlon organized a staff-wide walk-out in support of sexual assault survivors. Then she recorded it and released the video on social media.
“Everyone on the crew was asked, ‘Would you like to do this?'” Madison said about that day. “Everyone said yes. There wasn’t one person who didn’t want to. […] This is a show about women, for women. We all wanted to help women feel like they were heard.”
“And many of the crew members are women, so they were completely, 100 percent ready to do it,” Olivia Edward said. “That was something we should’ve done.”
Dozens of social justice groups asked anyone and everyone who could walk out of work at 1 p.m. ET to do so, but an entire crew leaving a functioning set — even for an hour — can cost quite a bit of money. Adlon recognized as much and saw an opportunity to make a statement, but — always the professional — she also made up the time missed so not to go over-budget.
“I was going to walk out,” Adlon said. “It was not mandatory by any means. If they wanted to do it and wanted to wear black, it would look even cooler, and then it would be even cooler if I had my Steadicam operator shoot it; then it would be even cooler if I had my sound guy record it; then it would be even next-level cooler if we all walked out of the set, out into the loading dock and opened the elephant doors; then it would be even cooler if I had my DIT girl do a quick edit, send it to post, and post could get it back to me, and I could post it that day.”
Lengthy, detailed acknowledgements like this are common when speaking to Adlon. During her speech at the Season 3 premiere, after opening by grabbing the mic and singing a bit of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” Adlon spent 10 minutes giving personal thank yous to every writer, cast and crew member in the room — and then some who weren’t.
So it should be no surprise her next cause is to advocate for women and minority opportunities in the industry. Adlon said finding women and people of color to work in post-production is “like finding a needle in a haystack,” and part of the reason is because many filmmakers don’t know all the career paths available to them.
“People are talking about how there are not enough women and not enough people of color in the industry. Well, there’s no education,” Adlon said. “People think everything is black-and-white. They want to be a teacher, a director, or an actor, but there are a million other jobs available.”
Adlon vowed to help educate kids first-hand, and she’s already started. The night of “Better Things'” Season 3 premiere, FX held an event in Los Angeles where she invited her script supervisor, Babette Smith, casting director and consulting producer Felicia Fasano, first assistant director Sally Sue Beisel-Lander, and the aforementioned key grip Amy Snell, to discuss what they do, how they got started, and what kind of opportunities are out there for burgeoning filmmakers. More are planned, including events with “my stunt coordinator, my stuntperson — who’s been working with me for over 10 years, doing all that crazy Marcy shit on ‘Californication’ — my focus puller,” and more.
“I just want to advocate for young people — girls, in particular, but I want young people of color to come see what kind of jobs are available,” Adlon said.
Back on set, Adlon finishes blocking an upcoming scene and stops by a group of background actors set up in the living room. “‘Did you get food?” she asks. “Did you get snacks? Did you get enough?” They all nod, but Adlon sits down with them anyway, just to chat. Soon, her assistant director pulls her back to the bedroom where she can watch the scene unfold, and she giggles as the cast tries different looks for the scene.
“See?” Adlon said. “That side-eye! Such shade.”
Then she coughs, calls cut, and goes back out to her set, asking for a shoulder massage from Edward (“I’m drunk with power,” she jokes) and checking in with her director of photography, Paul Koestner.
Toll leans over and jokingly says, ““You know that guy in Venice who plays all the instruments? He’s lazy.”
When lunch is called, Adlon checks in with everyone before reluctantly retreating to a bus headed back to base camp. At the advice of her co-workers, she’s going to take a nap while everyone else eats, but on the bus ride back she gets worked up looking forward to editing — one more facet of the job she loves, yet takes up a ton of time.
When asked later when she can take a break, Adlon said despite how it may appear, she knows her limits.
“The biggest thing for me is not taking on more than I can handle,” she said. “I learned that from being a parent, and then I really learned it from being a single parent — knowing that plates are gonna fall and you’re going to get screwed if you take on too much. You have to rest.”
“I’ll get a break in January,” she said.
In January, during the busy first press tour for “Better Things,” Adlon remembers shooting the “Easter” episode because she was sick for “a fucking month.” Then she reached across the table and said, “Look, I’m going to be your best friend right now, speaking of being sick: How many people have you touched?”
And she sprayed my hands with sanitizer, and whispers a drawn out, “Yessss!” One more healthy person in a world she’s working to make better.
“Better Things” airs new episodes Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.