Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.
“True crime” and “expectations” always seem to make for a curious pairing. For every voracious listener/reader/watcher that wants whatever’s in front of them to follow a familiar rhythm and trajectory, there’s a reporter/screenwriter/filmmaker looking to subvert those expectations from the inside out.
So it’s no surprise that the opening minutes of “Only Murders in the Building” manage to handle both of those goals at the same time. There’s voiceover table-setting, but with an unexpected purpose. It’s using a main character to situate the audience in a particular world, only there’s three of them. And it wastes absolutely no time getting Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) together in the same elevator in the apartment building that they share, even if they all initially don’t care for each other’s company.
The show sets all those wheels in motion on the page, but as showrunner and co-creator John Hoffman explained to IndieWire, a real make-or-break point of the show was seeing if that first elevator scene got across enough information and intrigue to keep an inquisitive audience hooked. For a single and seemingly simple location, the “Only Murders in the Building” elevators represented a technical and logistical challenge. Yet, it also formed a backdrop that helped the trio at the show’s center make a mighty first impression. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What conversations did you have about how to structure the opening of the show, to make sure that we at least know a little bit about all three of these characters before we all see them in the elevator together?
The big question of the whole series for me was, “Beyond all the plot the narrative and everything else, was how do these three people work together? How do these three people fit together?” And we didn’t know that until a few weeks before our first table read Zoom of the first episode. I feel like that elevator scene is so crucial to the whole season. We revisit it so many times, but after this separate, dynamic intro to have these three people come together, it feels even more unlikely after the elevator ride is over, because they’re all kind of annoying each other. That felt like a great thing to have for a reversal when they’re drawn together, mere minutes later.
You revisit plenty of locations throughout the season, but did you want that elevator moment to happen as early in production as possible so you could build off that dynamic right away?
On the production side, our elevators live on our sets. And elevators are hard. They’re hard to get right. They’re hard to build, to get those doors feeling like actual doors. You need the timing. They’re comic counterparts to these three genius comedians and performers, so they had to be the fourth person “ba-dum-bump”ing.
Jamie Babbit, who directed the first episode so beautifully, was also with me in the camp of, “We have to get these doors right.” We kept on saying we wanted it early because we wanted to feel that separation between them. We wanted to feel the distinctiveness of their personalities, not as a unit in any way. In some ways, the chemistry between them was sort of singular to that scene based on where they went after that. The chemistry read between the three of them, you wanted that disparate quality, and you wanted the New Yorker in an elevator: “Oh God, don’t let me be with this one.” Then you watch that develop throughout the season of all of the elevator rides they take together, and there’s a shorthand that starts developing. There’s a story of the elevators through the first season that carries through all the way through Episode 10. These three people learn to love each other and those elevators end up, in some way, saving each other.
As far as that elevator set, it seems like the challenge was building something that’s big enough to fit all people that you need. But at other points throughout the season, it has to feel claustrophobic, like there really isn’t any room to go from where they are.
All these questions: “How does it feel very Upper West Side? How does it feel pre-war, heightened, elegant? How do you get to shoot overhead shots? How are we getting the side shots? What are those walls? Do we want two banks?” That was one of the big decisions. I was adamant that we have to have two banks because you get the door closing and the other one opening, timing-wise. All those things I loved choreographing.
Since making the show, I’ve been staying in New York, and I purposefully chose apartments in pre-war apartment buildings just to get in my head that way and know the experience of living in it when writing it. I have noticed that there are certain things that just need to function, no matter how elegant or lovely an apartment building is. Steve lives in a beautiful apartment building in New York and his elevators don’t feel fancy. They feel very workmanlike, in many ways. They’re beautiful, but they’re not Harrods.
That’s a contrast that really pops when you see what all three of them are wearing and that they each stand out against the design of the elevator itself.
Talking with anyone from Curt Beech, our production designer, and his amazing team, Rich Murray, our set decorator, everybody on board. Dana Covarrubias, costuming this group and the mind meld that happened, her going along with my insane obsessions. We landed on this color discussion about marigold. And God love Dana Covarrubias, she like sent me this whole thing about her color plans for each of the characters: the blues and grays and greens of Charles, the purples and lavenders and rich burgundies of Oliver, and the marigolds and the reds and those warm colors of Mabel. She had a whole opus on what marigold meant, and she laid it out for me in my head and related directly to people’s character. They were not small discussions, and I was so happy to see them land in the world that way.
In some ways, Selena has maybe the biggest challenge in that in that first elevator scene, because she needs to convey everything you need to know about Mabel in just a look.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to her on set, “Selena, you are so good at conveying so much with no words.” She said, “I watch a lot of horror movies. They’re all reactions.” I thought that was so clever. I love actors that love those moments when they’re not talking, those observational moments with no dialogue. This is a murder mystery, so you’re going to have those moments.
The show is very fluid in the way it moves through time, and those moments often bleed together. What was your guide for sequences like this that take place so close to those time jumps?
It may be just my own weird theatrical feeling about music and the way it moves and the way scenes should move. You orchestrate, you conduct the way scenes flow, and what the audience needs so they can pick up quickly and not get lost. That was balanced a great deal with Dan Fogelman, Jess Rosenthal, and I watching cuts and having that discussion about, “I’m lost here. OK, how do we fix that? What is it that threw you about this? Let’s find the bridge to this moment.” I can see it in my head. But if it doesn’t connect with you, you find the one that communicates best.
Given that this was so key to the opening of the overall show, how did this help make you think about how to open Season 2, to keep that same spirit even though we really know these three characters well by this point?
It’s the balance of the buoyancy of this show with the situation, the predicament that they’re in at the end of Season 1. We do a little entrée into Season 2 that has an energy that feels familiar to Season 1 right off the bat, and then quickly gets changed and dropped into another energy entirely. And again, as maybe a way to sort of usher people in who haven’t remembered everything, we have a way of getting in story about what they need to know. It’s finding moments of landing the real worry of what they’ve dropped themselves into and feeling very particular New York vibes of what happens to people when they get noticed again, for good or bad reasons.
“Only Murders in the Building” Season 1 is available to stream on Hulu. Season 2 premieres June 28.