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.
When creator and showrunner Molly Smith Metzler set about adapting Stephanie Land’s memoir “Maid” into a limited series, she had one task above all: Don’t make it sad. “Maid” documents one woman’s struggles with domestic abuse, homelessness, and child support, and while it’s often difficult to watch, Metzler wanted it to be a full emotional journey.
“When we took [the show] out as a pitch, I started by saying, ‘This is not going to be sad,” Metzler told IndieWire via Zoom. “‘We are not going to bum you out. We are going to take you on a ride, it’s going to have highs and lows, but it’s going to be honest. It’s going to be really true.'”
“Maid,” starring Emmy nominee Margaret Qualley, debuted to resoundingly positive reviews and quickly cracked Netflix’s Top 10 TV shows. It broke the household viewership record then held by “The Queen’s Gambit,” eventually reaching hundreds of millions of views, but one statistic has stayed with Metzler and made everything worth it. Throughout production, her team was in touch with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which received more calls in the month after “Maid” premiered than any other month in its entire 25-year history.
“The impact of this show and also the impact that they had — we put their name on the end of every episode that they could call and Netflix launched a website of resources,” Metzler said. “People looked at the resources and they called. I’m honored to be a nominee for awards and all of that, but that is why any of us wanted to make the show. That’s why we’re all here.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: How did “Maid” first come your way?
Molly Smith Metzler: I’m very lucky writer. I was working with John Wells on his show, “Shameless.” I did three seasons on the show, so I was in the writers room of “Shameless” when Margot Robbie and John Wells got the rights to Stephanie Land’s memoir, “Maid.” They were talking about writers and who should we bring this to, and I was right under their nose in the office. John and Erin [Jontow] who runs his television company, they handed it to me and I went home and I read it. So it was very organic.
It’s very different, but how did “Shameless” prepare you for this?
I think working on “Shameless” would probably be the perfect preparation for any showrunner because of the opportunity to work with John. You’re just learning so much about what the job is, the rigors of the job and how quickly writing moves — and also the role of the showrunner, that you are responsible for everything. It’s especially a writing job, you are the head writer.
You’re also a playwright; How was this similar?
It’s similar because it’s very, very collaborative. When you’re playwriting you’re usually with the whole team, with someone designing the set and the director and actors and dramaturg. You’re all making this thing together, but the person has to speak for the vision of the show is usually the playwright and you just are very empowered. Your relationship with your director is a true partnership. And is a writer’s medium, playwriting. That’s what’s similar about it is TV is a writer’s medium.
What was maybe unexpected or challenging as you then moved into the role of showrunner yourself?
The biggest challenge was that we were about three months into the job when COVID hit. We were in person as a writers room, and then suddenly we were on Zoom. You and I could talk for two hours about how crazy that was. This is a creative job and part of the job is sitting in a room with other creative people, throwing things at each other and cursing and taking breaks and telling stories that maybe aren’t necessarily relevant but emotionally are relevant. When that goes away and you’re on a computer, it’s just different. So that was a transition, keeping the quality of work and the relationships intimate while losing our room. That was hard, but everything else was exactly as I expected.
What was the process of adapting Stephanie’s book like?
It was hard, I’m not gonna lie. It’s an incredible memoir — it’s stunning, and it’s heartbreaking — and it’s also very sad. There’s not a lot of joy or humor in it. Also she’s very, very lonely. She doesn’t talk to anyone for the entire memoir. She talks to her daughter, but I always say Stephanie is the loneliest character I’ve ever met. That doesn’t make amazing TV; we watch TV to see relationships, so the biggest challenge of adapting “Maid” was A) making it not sad, making it not a depressing slog, and B) creating a world that Alex could exist in that had really in-depth relationships where we could also explore some of the themes of the book, and really take our time exploring those themes like generational trauma, and emotional abuse, and the resources when you you are abused in America, and also kind of how screwed you are in America with the lack of benefits if you’re in a position like Stephanie’s.
How did you find Alex’s voice?
When you’re lucky like I was, the voice comes to you. I’ve certainly been in projects and I’m writing in Final Draft and it’s not coming to me, and you have to fake it. But I read “Maid” and I knew what it should be. I knew how to get inside of her, I could relate to her. She revealed herself to me. I know that sounds crunchy, but it’s really true. She appeared to me kind of fully formed, and of course we had Stephanie’s experience to draw from which also makes it feel really genuine. Even though the show is an adaptation —it’s very different from the book — the emotional spine, her experience is still very much in the show.
[Alex] has a gallows sense of humor, and the way she copes with the stress is often funny, and then casting Margaret just made that even easier because Margaret is naturally optimistic and can be goofy and funny. We all worked together to make sure this wasn’t a bummer summer of a show.
What was something maybe unexpectedly easy or joyful to break in the writers room?
In the memoir, she talks about the different houses that she cleans, and I remember we were joking like we have 10 episodes and one way to do it would have been a clean an episode. We also wanted to take the show into darker waters, [but] we didn’t know how to turn the ship into darker water. One of the wonderful surprises of the writers room was Episode 5, which is about the black mold and the haunted house. It’s the Barefoot Bandit’s mother’s house, and that’s all mentioned in the book, but the fact that the we use the book and those stories to turn the ship into darker thematic waters of the show — that came together really easily and beautifully and I’m very, very proud of of the work that we did.
You are up for a writing Emmy for Episode 10, “Snaps.” What do you think makes that episode special?
When I handed [Episode 10] in, I felt like, “This is either gonna work beautifully, or it’s going to be a humiliating disaster. I have no idea which one,” and I didn’t know until I saw it in editing. I was so relieved because I think it did what we wanted it to do, but we didn’t know until we saw it all together.
What’s tricky about Episode 10 is we have to wrap up the story, but also part of her story is coming into her own as a writer. We have to hear that and we have to understand that she’s going to go off after this experience and write about all this, so I had the horrendous job of trying to write about a writer, which as a writer is a specific nightmare hell. Stephanie’s an amazing writer and I couldn’t use any of Stephanie’s actual language legally, so it was just a big challenge. None of that was in the book. We were just creating all of that out of the air to try to lift up the themes of the show and soar to the end to feel like this story applies to a lot of people. To keep it that universal feeling; that’s why we chose 10 and [why] we’re proud of 10. I feel like it hands “Maid” over to the audience.
It was a very cathartic viewing experience. Do you have a favorite scene or moment?
Whenever these actors were on screen together, it was hard not to just love everything. Especially by Episode 10, I’m writing specifically for these actors, because I know them so well at that point. There’s this moment outside of Walmart when Alex confronts her mom who’s living in her car, and it’s so painful to acknowledge the reality of the situation and say, “Mom, I know you’re living in your car.” They had this moment where she says, “You’re not my mom, Alex!” They kind of argue about what it means to be a mom and I loved the performance, but I also felt like we’d been waiting for that confrontation between these two characters.
My other favorite line potentially in the whole show is when Sean says to Alex in Episode 10, “Do I have DTs or are you sparkly?” and she says, “I’m sparkly.” It’s their final interaction together and I thought that was really special too, because she’s covered in glitter. Every couple of days, I get an email from somebody that’s like, “I’m sparkly.”
I did also want to ask about the characterization because that’s such an important part of this series with Alex, with Sean (Nick Robinson), with Paula (Andie MacDowell) too. As a writer, how do you craft characters who are so layered and flawed and real?
It was intentional to make sure that these characters felt real. Hopefully you can’t relate, but when you’re abused by somebody they don’t have a shirt on that says “asshole.” They look like normal people and sometimes they’re charming and sometimes they love you in their way and they’re there for you in [their own] way and they aren’t necessarily bad guys. I was very motivated to to create a well-rounded bad guy.
Nick Robinson of course helped us with that because he’s so winning, but nobody is black or white. Nobody’s anything, and we are all victims of our own experience and our own cycles that we’re stuck in and that was important to me too to show. Alex’s dad is stuck in the cycle. Alex’s mom is stuck in the cycle, she is stuck in a cycle, Sean’s stuck in the cycle. Even her best friend at the end, in the bar, is pregnant stuck in the cycle. We are all victims of where we are, so we just try to patrol it.
How did you research and approach the bureaucracy around poverty and abuse in this country?
Stephanie’s memoir is an incredible resource. She almost takes a journalistic approach; if you want to learn more about real-life “Maid” and exactly what those programs look like and feel like, the memoir will tell you all that. When we sat down to dramatize it, getting it right on screen was really important. We were in constant conversation with the National Domestic Violence Program. They watched episodes to make sure we were correctly portraying the kinds of violence. We also worked with family lawyers in Washington. We had an incredible research team.
Everything on screen that you hear is accurate and that was incredibly important, especially the Washington family laws. In real life, Alex would lose custody. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that emotional abuse is not treated as domestic violence in a court of law in Washington state, and it’s not. We spoke to so many lawyers and were like, “No, really she would lose the kid?” and they were like, “Yeah, she would lose custody because [of] what she did.” Very eye opening, but it just made us more angry and more determined to get it right.
Your show is nominated for a directing Emmy as well, for Episode 9, “Sky Blue.” What are your favorite moments of that episode?
John did so much directing of the show that I can’t separate him from the look and tone of the whole thing. It was such a gift to have him direct. He’s just put everyone at ease during a horrendous pandemic shoot that was so stressful and he’s just the most calming presence. In Episode 9, we were all in uncomfortable land. The episode was written by Colin McKenna. [Alex] is inside the couch — that depression, [her] clawing out, what’s happening with the forest — all of this was we were really just going for gold with the metaphors and really living inside of them.
What I thought John did really, really well was keep it about the relationship. He kept it about Alex and her daughter always. He really understood that’s what we were all here to watch. It’s a love story between mother and daughter, so he didn’t let it get carried away with the other things. He also did some incredible work with Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley in Episode 9. I love the whole thing, he was a gift.
What were Andie and Margaret like on set together?
They showed up and were ready to work. It was a tough shoot, it was long hours, and they were very, very professional. But then the cameras start rolling and you’re like, “Oh, my god, they’re mother and daughter,” and you could tell that things just landed more deeply because they were mother and daughter and they know each other so well. They were both supporting each other — it was [a] true partnership with the scene work. A lot of times we said cut and they would hug or wipe a tear. There was such a trust. We all made it feel like family. They were just a delight.
How do you feel about the show’s impact?
I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things about “Maid,” but the thing I’ve heard that just blew me away was that the hotline in their 25 years of being a hotline, they got the most calls in their whole history in the month that “Maid” premiered.
I think it affected a lot of people. Every day I get a note from someone, every day. It’s not even about like, “I love the show,” it’s just about like, “Hey, I didn’t know that that was emotional abuse. Thank you for giving it a name.” It is a very hard to define thing, so if we achieved that and people felt seen then that’s why we’re here.
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