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‘Better Things’: The Superhuman Filmmaking of Pamela Adlon

A first-class empath and storyteller, Adlon's dedication to her art is hard to comprehend even when you witness it first-hand.

BETTER THINGS "New Orleans” Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, April 2) -- Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Alyssa Moran/FX

Pamela Adlon in “Better Things”

Alyssa Moran / FX

There’s a line forming next to Pamela Adlon.

First up is Sally Sue Beisel, a producer and first A.D., standing at a respectable distance with a growing list of questions for her “Better Things” showrunner; director of photography Paul Koestner is right behind her, waiting to talk to his director about the next shot; there are a few more patient crew members in tow, wanting answers from the episode’s executive producer, writer, and star, but Adlon — who fills all these roles and more — isn’t looking back. She’s looking at Jack Eyman, a child actor trying to stick his one, brief scene.

“It feels weird? That weird aggressive kind of energy? That’s real,” Adlon tells her co-star, eyes dialed in to read his reaction.

Jack is a little distracted, as kids often are. Already with one take in the books, his job consists of walking through the door, showing his dad, Jeff (played by Greg Comer), a recently discovered bottle, asking why he’s not coming out with them, and then storming away in a huff. But like every scene in “Better Things,” there are indelible nuances Adlon wants Jack to nail: how excited he is to show his dad the green bottle; his reluctant acceptance of the day’s plans; the sassy way he storms out, as if he’s just explained something to his father instead of the other way around.

Each take gets a little bit better, but when Adlon needs an extra minute with Jack, she turns to her crew and says, “Peas and carrots!” Everyone starts talking. Some people actually jump into conversations, while others are just saying the words “peas and carrots” — an old acting trick, usually used by background actors who need to feign a discussion without disrupting the scene.

Adlon doesn’t want it to look like everyone is waiting on Jack. The kid might feel pressured.

“I do it to loosen them up,” she says. “[Background actors, too.] On most sets, background actors are so fucking scared. The director is like, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ — but I tell them to talk.”

When Adlon watches Jack’s takes with Beisel and script supervisor Babette Stith, she’ll single out little moments, but only the stuff she loves. “Look! That smile!” or “Oh, this shot is beautiful…” or she’ll imitate the way he just said, “I guess,” because she’s crazy about Jack’s angsty execution. Then she hops back up to talk Jack through the next take, always with a word of encouragement mixed in: “You’re an L.A. kid — you’re dying for rain to hit your pretty little face.”

“You know it as soon as it happens,” Adlon says to me, when she sees the take she’s been working toward.

This, in essence, is what a director does: They direct actors. But this — all of this, everything Adlon gives to one young performer — is not what directors do. Not all of them, anyway. And it’s just one small facet within a cornucopia of duties she handles with the same level of dedication, enthusiasm, and grace.

Adlon is making her masterpiece, and she’s doing it one decision at a time.

Better Things Season 4 "What's good, Shannon?" Episode 2 (Airs Thursday, March 5) -- Pictured: (l-r) Mikey Madison as Max, Olivia Edward as Duke, Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox, Hannah Alligood as Frankie. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Mikey Madison, Olivia Edward, Pamela Adlon, and Hannah Alligood

Suzanne Tenner / FX

After this batch of questions are answered, the line momentarily dispersed, Adlon excitedly pivots to me and wants to talk. It’s the early days of production, back in October 2019 when California was more concerned with growing wildfires than a national pandemic. Beisel just flagged a new fire that had started in the Valley, telling the crew it was being monitored but to check in with their families. Adlon reminds everyone to stay hydrated with routine “water buddy!” check-ins — “There’s 4 percent humidity in the air! Drink fucking water!” — before sharing what she’s been working on for Season 4.

“This season feels totally different,” Adlon says. “It’s like I don’t have– Of course I have challenges. The challenges are I have to be responsible about my budget, and translating certain things within departments. […] But to me, the scripts are so– I’ve never been more excited. I’ve never been more excited to start a season and be in the season. The season is going by so quickly for me.”

Adlon says this after starting the interview only to stop it, so we can walk through the set. For the fourth season, the “Better Things” crew rebuilt the actual house used in prior seasons inside a North Hollywood soundstage. Having been in both, it’s impossible to tell the difference (until you walk outside onto cold concrete floors instead of sun-caked grass). What few changes have been made are all purposeful. Reproductions of art from Adlon’s actual house hang above the stairway, which are swapped around every season, and she points each one out as we walk by.

“Those are my grandmother’s… Elliot Brown, Elliot Brown… these are my new artists. I pulled this off my wall the day before yesterday…. That’s my friend, Kimberly Brooks, and that’s a painting of Rachel Zoe.”

These details may seem like Easter Eggs for “Better Things” mega fans, but they illustrate how personal a series Adlon is creating, as well as the way the world works within it. “Better Things” is inspired by her life — her character, Sam Fox, is a working actress, mother of three girls, and lives next door to their British grandmother — but you can look to the way Sam interacts with people to see even more connections. Like one of her filmmaking heroes — writer, director, and actor John Cassavetes — Sam’s interactions feel real; her scenes like snippets of reality, shot, exhumed, and cut into a living film.

During a trip to New Orleans in Episode 6, Sam spends a day on her own exploring the city. She makes fast friends with the oyster shuckers at a local restaurant and even gets a fellow diner to split the big plate special with her. She chats up a spiritual healer who gives her a remedy for her ailing hand. Sam even joins a roving band of street musicians, dancing up and down the French Quarter.

While others recede into their phones, books, or other private spaces, Sam brings people together. She can form a connection with someone before they’re introduced. Sam is at ease with her surroundings, people included, just as Adlon can be, and “Better Things” values each scene with the savvy eye of that rare individual who’s both engaged and appreciative. “New Orleans” stands out because Adlon loves her time there and knows what made it special, just like she loves her time in Los Angeles and can evoke its nuanced beauty in ever-changing ways.

In Season 4, rain plays a pivotal theme for Adlon, and her camera captures it with contemplative serenity, almost like a visual reminder to slow down and appreciate the rarities in life.

“We made rain — I’m literally a rainmaker now,” Adlon says. “On Day 1 of production, [we’re shooting] some exterior in Reseda, and I’m in an Uber with this background guy and the rain machine starts and it sounds crazy on the car, and I was like, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ And the guy was like, ‘This is so cool!'”

BETTER THINGS "High man. Bye man.” Episode 6 (Airs Thursday, April 9) -- Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Pamela Adlon in “Better Things”

Suzanne Tenner / FX

Themes carry through “Better Things” more prominently than plot. In Season 4, Sam is going through a self-acknowledged mid-life crisis. Joints in her arthritic hand are bothering her more than ever. She’s being pushed by her daughters to date, which is one of the few topics to make her visibly uncomfortable. But episodes don’t start by introducing a problem that will get a neat-and-tidy solution by the end. “Better Things” is more lifelike; the questions linger around each character and manifest at different times. If a question is posed, there’s not a definitive answer — just these five women trying to keep livin’.

On set is a different story: Adlon has to have answers to everything. When she tells me a painting downstairs was done by her handyman, I ask how she found out her handyman was an artist. Adlon, as if I was meeting her for the first time, simply says “He’s my handyman.”

Meaningful conversations are a constant in her life, not just for friends, but anyone she sees out in the world — or anyone who seeks her out. At a SAG screening a few months before this set visit, Adlon had trouble getting out the door because she knew everyone there. Audience members would ask a question and she’d recognize them from a former job, or old friends would spot her on the way to her car and take a second to catch up. In the moment, she’s energized; you’d never know how often she has these heart-to-hearts with near-strangers.

“Things are shocking, but then it’s not shocking — you know why? Because it’s family and it’s life,” Adlon says. “That’s all I’m doing. I’m showing things, doing things, and people are fucking floored.”

Those people include her onscreen daughters, played by Mikey Madison (as the eldest daughter Max), Hannah Alligood (as Frankie, the middle child), and Olivia Edward (as the youngest Fox child, Duke). Their performances and stories embody much of the show’s significance; Adlon ended her first season of “Better Things” by dedicating the series to her kids, and each ensuing entry has continued to resound with women: mothers and daughters, alike.

“I think we’re lucky, from my perspective, in that everyone who works on the show is genuinely kind and everyone just wants to do a really good job on set,” Madison says in an interview held later. “I think everyone is welcomed with open arms and brought into the family.”

“[People are] super comfortable on the set, and I feel that was probably Pamela’s doing,” Alligood says. “She talks to you in such an intense manner, she makes you feel so paid attention to and so loved.”

“It’s a home. It’s really one big home,” Edwards says. “You see the family on screen, and you see the entire family as a crew. I feel like people feel that when they visit the set.”

Adlon would have good reason to engender such a feeling, having been a working actor since she was Jack’s age. She beckons everyone to clap before his first take, and brings on another round of cheers when Jack wraps. Then Adlon brings Jack over to watch his scene with the small group waiting in video village, and, hand on his shoulder, she says, “You’re gonna win an Oscar. You’re gonna EGOT for this.”

As Adlon takes him by the shoulder, walking off the set, and I can hear her saying, “Can I have a hug? I love working with you. Do you know what I do on this show?”

The perfect ending to one of a million perfect moments that make up Season 4 — except moments later, they come rushing back.

“Do you know what he said to me?” Adlon asks. “What did you say I do on this show?”

“I don’t know,” Jack says. “The maid?”

As the crowd gasps and laughs at the kid’s flustered remark, Adlon starts running down her titles on the show. “I’m the director, producer, actor — you know, like you — and I’m the writer…”

Jack perks up: “My dad’s a writer!”

“You know when you grow up, you can do that and all those other things?” Adlon says. “And you’ll empower women to do them, too.”

Then Adlon walks him out again, saying, “He made our day very happy,” and grabbing them each a slice of pie. She’ll be back soon. There’s plenty more work to be done.

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