[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Russian Doll“ and “Maniac.”]
It took seven years and many false starts to develop co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne’s original idea into the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Russian Doll.” The part that became the hardest to break, even right up to the end, was how to conclude the first season storyline about two strangers, played by Lyonne and Charlie Barnett, who are brought together by the discovery that they both keep dying and coming back to life.
“There was [concern] over it in the writers room and amongst us of ‘How are we going to end this?'” said co-creator and director Leslye Headland, when she was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “What is the thing that connects these two people and how are we going to stick the landing?”
Headland said even the topic of the ending would strike fear in the writers’ room, but that she had faith that with the talent involved if they kept hacking at it they would eventually have a breakthrough. At one point, they thought they did exactly that.
“There were a bunch of different versions of the ending, one in particular that we pitched to Netflix and they actually – it was the one big note they ever gave us – is they asked us to change it because it was too similar to ‘Maniac,'” said Headland, who hasn’t had a chance yet to see the Netflix series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two troubled souls seeking treatment. “I guess the thing we had pitched was similar to a twist in ‘Maniac.’ And they were like, ‘We are very sad to tell you this, obviously no one knows this except the people that are working on ‘Maniac,’ which happens to be us, this feels like it’s a little too close to that.’ That was a hard day.”
Headland admits it was a defeating moment, but one that ultimately benefited the first season of the series. “We worked really hard to figure this out, but what was amazing is the ending that we came up with, was, in my opinion, a gajillion times better than the ending we had come up with before,” said Headland. “It was much harder and more challenging, and it was more of a nailbiter, in the sense that [it was a risk] if this doesn’t get pulled off correctly.”
Introduced into the the eighth and final episode of the first season is the mind-bending concept that there were at least two planes of reality, with two Nadias (Lyonne) and two Alans (Barnett). The trippy conclusion is more emotional than necessarily narrative, as the East Village-based show ends by incorporating what seems to be a historical reference to the Tompkins Square Park Riots and the two Nadias and Alans crossing paths.
“I was really nervous about those dual dimensions working,” said Headland. “[E]ven when I was describing it in the room, when I was pitching [the writers] kind of realizing they are in different dimensions I had two diagrams of the deli and I was explaining the blocking of each, ‘This is why he doesn’t know that she’s there. He’s gone back to look for Oatmeal [the cat], he comes back around, she sees him there, he’s dropped the thing, she’s with Mike.’ And everyone was like, ‘Wait a minute, what are you talking about? You have to make a visual picture of it.'”
Headland eventually drew an overhead diagram to play out the blocking to fully pitch her idea. She admits she was nervous waiting to see the first cut of the episode, worried that there was too much information and it’d be confusing. Headland was worried the episode, directed by Lyonne herself, wouldn’t make sense – right up until seeing an early cut.
“When [Natasha] turned in her director’s cut it was the best director’s cut I’d ever seen – I just assumed with all that information it was going to be a mess, not because of her talent,” said Headland. “She had not only shot it beautifully and storyboarded it and come up with all these beautiful things with [cinematographer] Chris [Teague], she’d also cut it together with [editor] Laura [Weinberg] perfectly. So when I watched it I really breathed a sigh of relief for the first time in nine months: ‘It works, it totally works.'”
Reflecting on the season ending, Headland said if they had to it again they would have figured out the end well ahead of time, but then questioned that logic. “I’m glad that it was the journey that it was,” said Headland. “Because I don’t know if we would have worked that hard to come up with something that clever, to be honest.”
While on the podcast Headland talked about creating the look of the show, the seven year development process, and questioned the legitimacy of the auteur theory, which she believes has led to misogynist practices in Hollywood.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.