Debuting today, Apple TV+’s latest original offering is the eight-episode anthology series “Little America.” Based on the first-person photo essay feature of the same name from Epic Magazine, “Little America” is a slice of life series that dramatizes real-life immigrant stories. (A full book, with “30-40 more” stories, including the tales in the first season of the series, is set to come out this March.) As Apple TV+ describes it, the series goes beyond current events headlines “to look at the funny, romantic, heartfelt, inspiring and unexpected lives of immigrants in America, at a time when their stories are more relevant than ever.”
Born out of an idea from showrunner and executive producer Lee Eisenberg (“The Office,” “SMILF”), “Little America” is also executive produced by Alan Yang (“Master of None,” “Forever”), Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick”), Emily V. Gordon (“The Big Sick”), and Epic Magazine co-founders Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis. How it all came to screen is a tale of how personal histories inevitably intertwine with projects that most resonate with creatives.
“I’ve been a writer for, might as well say 17 years, and I’m obviously thinking about the types of stories that I want to tell, what excites me, and also what I want to watch,” Eisenberg told IndieWire. “And I was kind of looking at the way TV was evolving over the last few years, and I started thinking ‘Master of None’ had done an episode in their first season, the ‘Parents’ episode that showed flashbacks to the parents of the characters and how their experiences growing up were affecting them, as far as how they arrived in the United States and also how their first generation didn’t quite understand what they had gone through. And I started thinking, ‘Well, that was one episode that everyone talked about…what if there was a show that touched on those same ideas?”
The son of an immigrant (his father’s from Israel), Eisenberg started thinking about a show that was an anthology series based on real stories, inspired by Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari using a lot of their real lives in that “Master of None” episode and throughout the series. So when he went to Bearman about the possibility of an anthology series about real-life immigrants and their true stories, Bearman immediately sparked to it.
“I had actually already wanted to do a photo essay of some kind,” said Bearman. “It’d be different portraits of people and then have these varied first-person voices telling a slice of life of their lives. And I had been thinking about that form in general and I thought, ‘Well, let’s do that for immigrants and we’ll go out and find a bunch of stories and then that can inform the show.’” A freelance journalist, Bearman had also had previous experience of one of his articles being adapted for the big screen, with the 2012 film “Argo.”
“I’ve gotten lucky in the sense that ‘Argo’ was done well and the people who made it were all very smart,” Bearman said. “And then now that ‘Little America’ has been a joy to work on.” From there, when Eisenberg was putting the show together, he enlisted his friend Alan Yang. “I was so blown away by what he and Aziz had done on ‘Master of None’, and he immediately jumped in,” Eisenberg said. He then enlisted his other friends, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, even pitching to write an episode with them — which ended up being the “Little America” episode “The Rock.”
“At the time it was 2017, and our movie ‘The Big Sick’ was out, and so we were looking for a project to get involved in, a project that we could have a hand in help getting made,” explained Gordon. “This was the only one that we decided we wanted to be involved in.”
Then they went to pitch the series. According to Nanjiani, “We just did the thing where we went around and pitched to do a bunch of places, some streaming, some were traditional. And we were looking at Apple because we wanted the show to have access — we wanted everyone to be able to watch it. Almost everyone has an Apple device or access to an Apple device, and it’s a new streaming service we were excited about … that’s global. And we were excited about our show being one of the launch shows for the new service.”
Nanjiani added, however, that it wasn’t exactly a bidding war for the show. “We did pitch to a lot of traditional networks who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to do this show. So, it was kind of interesting. The show is, obviously, not a lot of stars on screen, and its premise is probably … a marginal market we’re dealing with, I think. Not as flashy. So it was interesting. A lot of the networks didn’t want to take it on. So we were very lucky that Apple did.”
As for why the anthology format, that was also a no-brainer.
“With an anthology, I think you have an opportunity to tell a different kind of story,” said Eisenberg. “We weren’t looking to tell every moment of someone’s life; what we were really trying to do is tell these mini-movies and short stories that are slices of life, that when you look at them collectively and you watch all eight episodes, you feel like, ‘Oh wow, here’s the breadth and the scope of storytelling and also of our country.’ And that you almost create this mosaic of all these different people that have come here from all different places to make America what it is, for better or for worse.”
“There is no one immigrant story. Immigrants are not a monolith in this country; not everyone coming from the same country, not everyone coming from different countries,” Gordon said. “So I think … we wanted to show a variety of types of stories, of people who come to America. That’s why it seemed like an anthology was the best way to get a snapshot of what this looks like.” Also, as big fans of anthology series like ‘Tales From The Crypt,’ Gordon and Nanjiani were excited to be able to be part of an anthology series of their own. (Gordon humorously dared Nanjiani to do one “immigrant pun,” a la the Crypt Keeper, which he immediately declined. “Hot water,” he explained.)
Nanjiani followed up, “Because no one immigrant’s stories were really gonna be indicative of the immigrant experience, and a million stories weren’t gonna be indicative either. But the more stories you tell, the closer you can get to the idea that, as [Emily said], the experience is not a monolith. So it just felt like, rather than just doing a miniseries that told one immigrant story over an episode, eight immigrant stories over eight episodes felt like it captured the idea that Lee wanted to convey.”
When it came to the casting process for “Little America,” other than the fourth episode, “The Silence” — starring Mélanie Laurent and Zachary Quinto — the stars of each episode are more or less “unknowns” who were culturally-appropriate for the stories that were being told.
“So initially, when we were doing this show, we were like, we want people who are authentic to the part, if a character speaks a specific dialect, we want an actor who speaks that specific dialect. We didn’t want to diverge, phonetically,” explained Nanjiani. “And in the beginning, we were a little bit intimidated by that. But, our casting people did an amazing job. But the truth is, there are a lot of diverse people out there who are very, very talented. People who, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the opportunity. We tweeted about casting calls and stuff. It was probably a little more involved in the process than casting usually is. But, what we learned is, these very, very talented people are out there. It’s slightly difficult to find them, but it’s not impossible.”
“It’s worth the effort,” Gordon added. “It’s 100% worth the effort.”
Gordon also told an anecdote about actor Shaun Toub, star of “The Rock,” which echoed the sentiments of much of the cast throughout the series. “Shaun Toub said to me, the first day of filming, he was like, “I never get to be in every scene. It’s such a cool thing to be in every scene.’” Gordon noted how much of the cast was used to coming “in and out of shows,” oftentimes playing smaller parts or the bad guy roles in series. “He said he’s never gotten number one on call sheets, never gotten to be in every single scene. … We were trying to show people who have been eighth or ninth on the call sheet … what it’s like when they’re number one on the call sheet.“
The same wide net was also cast when it came to the hiring of story-appropriate writers and directors — like Tze Chun, whose episode that he wrote and directed, “The Grand Prize Expo Winners,” is actually based on the true story of his immigrant mother, not a “Little America” essay.
Nanjiani explained the similar process. “Again, we just wanted writers and directors who were really appropriate for the stories we were telling. And, again, we did cast a wider net, because, traditionally, the people who are in TV writers’ rooms, fit a certain demographic. That’s why we have a lot of playwrights or people who haven’t gotten a fair shot at being in a writers’ room yet.”
“We started early too,” added Gordon. “We did the same thing with casting when we have a long lead time to find our writers and directors. We wanted people who embodied the material that was done on a one-on-one basis. We wanted every single person, who took on [the writer or director position], we wanted it to feel like, they really want to tell their story, their input, have their own self in tune. … Again, it was totally really worth it, and we got to get people that don’t normally do television, at all.”
“With our directors,” Nanjiani added, “we really wanted them to own the material, make it their own, and they spend time with their writer, and also spend time in the edit. We wanted them to really tell this story their way, to establish a language for it.”
“I found working with people who spent years and years in a writers’ room, they sort of get into certain storytelling patterns that see the same things repeating,” Nanjiani continued. “If you get a playwright, somebody who hasn’t worked that medium, they have a completely different way of approaching a story. Which, for an anthology show, especially one like ours, where we really wanted to vary the tone and the text of stories we were telling, it turned out to be very, very beneficial to the show.”
Bearman also touched on the series’ efforts to diverge from the norm in terms of storytelling. “One of the things that’s interesting about it is, my instinct, is to stick close to the bone of the truth of the story,” explained Bearman. “And in screenwriting, there’s often an instinct to sort of come up with story points along and tropes that are familiar to screenwriting. And as we developed this, we stayed away from those and we chose instead to use inspiration from the real lives. We interviewed the subjects many more times. Once we decided on the episodes, we went back to them and spent more time talking to them to find out more about their lives and inner thoughts and other details that they had that we could fill these little mini-arcs in the show with. Because otherwise, it would have started to sort of turn into formulaic stories.”
That attention to detail from Eisenberg, clearly, trickled down to the rest of the series, even when it came down to having to use movie magic to make certain things work.
“The production team just really, really being detailed-oriented and getting as much of the sort of specifics of each country and each state that the immigrants moved to right [was important],” said Yang. “You know, obviously we’re portraying a whole bunch of different countries in this show, and — just telling you the secret here — we didn’t go to all the countries necessarily. Sometimes we had to shoot New Jersey for Uganda, and we shot Montreal for Syria. And so, when you do stuff like that, you have to do the research, and our amazing production designers, and staff, and crew really, really, I think did our best job possible in keeping the stories authentic, keeping the work authentic, and keeping it as real as possible.”
In the promotion of the series, Apple TV+ has relied on the imagery from the third episode, “The Cowboy.” Every episode focuses on the concept of “the American dream,” whatever that means, but there was a major casting reason everything kept coming back to “The Cowboy” and the imagery that stemmed from it.
“I think that the actor [Conphidance] that we got to play Igwebuna just jumps off the screen in a way that few actors that I’ve ever worked with have done,” said Eisenberg. “I could watch him for hours. I love that episode. “ Yang echoed Eisenberg’s sentiments: “I also want to give a shout out to Conphidance, who plays Igwe in the episode. I just think that guy’s a star and it really brings that episode to life.”
But “The Cowboy” isn’t all “Little America” is about. “What’s fundamental in an anthology show is that no one episode really represents the show,” explained Nanjiani. “We really wanted to — and this is how it was from the beginning, when we first were pitching the show — we wanted no episode to feel like another episode. The cowboy episode is fantastic. For beautiful, arresting images, but really it’s done unlike any of the other episodes. And I would like to think that every episode is completely different. So I would say, the only way to really know the show is, you must watch all eight.”
“All of it,” Gordon confirmed. “All eight, all together, all in a row.”