[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains light spoilers for “Roar” Season 1. All eight episodes are available now on Apple TV+.]
Fables, by definition, provide a moral lesson, but that doesn’t mean the characters within each fanciful, fictitious story have to recognize the message themselves. A protagonist’s poor choices may lead to comeuppance, or their awakening may arrive too late. Their fate is meant to inform and instruct the reader, rather than simply make them feel safe and secure.
In other words, fables aren’t fairy tales, and “Roar” recognizes the difference. The eight-episode Apple TV+ series is adapted from Cecelia Ahern’s 2018 collection of shorts. A number of episodes — all fables — are steeped in relatable misfortune. The woman who solved her own murder doesn’t get her life back. The woman who disappeared doesn’t find a magic patch for racist blind spots. But in the hands of “GLOW” creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, “Roar” imbues its season with a sense of encouragement. There’s a warmth given to its characters, lending them a compassionate ear as they progress through stories aimed at enlightening others.
“On ‘Roar,’ there’s a humanist center everywhere,” Liz Flahive said in an interview with IndieWire. “We’re never going to get away from character — we’re always going to want to be delivering a character to a new place. It might not be the best place, but it might be a beginning of something new.”
With Nicole Kidman on board as not only a star, but an executive producer, “Roar” ventures into fresh territory again and again, telling stories about modern women in creative and engaging ways. The Aussie actress eats photographs. Merritt Wever dates a duck. Meera Syal trades in her husband at a retail store. Each central figure goes through a profound journey. Some are scary, some are sweet, some are messy, some are sharp. But they’re all part of a unified tone established by Flahive, Mensch, and their talented collaborators.
“There’s a lot of darkness and edge in a lot of these stories, but I think we’re always trying to find some degree of growth or hope or momentum for these characters,” Flahive said. “Because I think mostly, we want to leave them different or better than we found them.”
The following conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
IndieWire: Six of the eight episodes were adapted from a book of 30 fables — how did you settle on these six?
Liz Flahive: I think the first one we gravitated toward, which felt very personal to us and we could put ourselves in, was “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin” because we could definitely access the story about maternal guilt together pretty easily. So after we wrote that one, we were thinking about the writers we wanted to pull in to work with us. We had a few thoughts and, luckily, all those thoughts became reality. Halley Feiffer was somebody we were dying to work with. Janine Nabers we’ve known for a super long time as playwrights and she had just finished writing on “Atlanta,” so we were like, “Come do this episode” — and the same with Vera Santamaria who had just finished running “PEN15.”
We had these heavy-hitter, brainy, lady writers, and we didn’t want to just impose the episodes upon them. So we sent them the book and said, “Look, tell us which episodes [you like]. Pick a handful that you respond to.” We wanted them to come to it with their own point of view, with their own thing to say. So it was a different way of working. Typically, we have a writers’ room, and for this we did one-on-one [work] with a writer, so it was a writers’ room of three many times. The collaboration was pretty deep with the directors because there was such a singularity.
But it was interesting, because the thing that also happened with the writers was that they saw stories very differently than we did. We were not considering “[The Woman Who Was Fed by a] Duck” at all, and then Halley read the book and [argued for it]. And we’re like, “Why? It’s a story about a woman who talks to a duck in a pond and gives her advice.” And she’s like, “Yeah, but that duck was mansplaining and toxic and I really felt like, what if it’s a story about a woman who gets into a toxic relationship with a duck?” And we were like, “Oh, well, let’s try to see if we can break that.”
So we tried to break [the story] and kept pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. When we pitched the episodes to Apple and to our producers, everybody was like, “Yeah, can we talk about the duck one for a second?” And it was Nicole Kidman who was the first one to say, “If we don’t do this, why are we making this show? We should be pushing at this hard. It should be this bold. It should be this abrasive. We should take this swing.” That buoyed everyone and gave us the courage to continue to push it as far as we could, which was really cool.
You touched on a few things I wanted to ask about: In Cynthia Erivo’s episode, those scars reach a level of body horror that, given how rattling body horror can be, may send viewers lunging for the remote. What were the conversations that you had with the director, Rashida Jones, and the makeup artists, about how far you wanted to take it?
We knew we wanted to do as much of it practically as possible, [then get] help from VFX in the end, with the oozy and bloody stuff. But we were able to do [a lot] with our makeup artist, Lana [Horochowski], who was our makeup artist on “GLOW” and is a genius. We worked with Rashida and Cynthia and Lana and Quyen Tran, our D.P., to look at those different bite marks to talk about how they progressed, where they started on her body, how they moved. That we were going from a bite mark near her breast — where breastfeeding happens, so it was playing with the character’s head in a different way — then moving onto her body, then up to her face, and it was just like a vine of bite-mark guilt wrapping around her.
Then we also talked about how we wanted to really go for it and have them look like bite marks. This was a lot of what Rashida was asking about. She’s like, “So it should look like human bite marks, but then we move into a monster-y, more grotesque, more surreal place?” So it started more grounded and then when we were testing bite marks, our makeup artist’s like, “So this is a shark bite?” And it was so cool, because we were having all these crazy conversations about how it goes from human to slightly more. You always want to see a mouth, but the mouth should get a little bit more grotesque — it’s not just like a baby mouth biting you everywhere.
[But] we didn’t want to get trampled by the magic of the episode, or feel like we were being run over by the grotesque bite marks. We were going back to narrative. We were going back to character. What is the emotional shape of the story? As her guilt progresses, it should get more out of control. The less she talks about it, the more she represses her feelings of guilt, the more aggressive the bite marks become. And it’s not until she actually talks about it fully, that they recede.
We were really thinking about that in a very grounded way, which is frankly how we approached a lot of the magic in each episode. The conversations were not like, “How weird can we be?” They were like, “What’s the emotion? What’s the character going through? How is this helping us manifest these things literally in a way that’s elevating the storytelling?”
All of that comes through, which helped me — because oof, I am not good with horror.
Neither are we. When we were writing this, Carly said, “What if a tooth comes out of her hand?” And I’m like, “I don’t want to see that, but I think you’re right.”
Given your initial response to the story, what made you want to direct the “Duck” episode?
I think it was Carly and one of our other producers that actually said to me, “Why don’t you direct ‘Duck’?” And it was like, “Really guys? Are you sure?” It was terrifying in its concept, for that to be the first thing I ever direct. But on the flip side, Merritt is one of my closest friends and I love her dearly as an actor, obviously, and I had the wind at my back: I had half of our crew from “GLOW” as our crew on “Roar,” and then so many new collaborators, like Quyen Tran was just such an amazing D.P. So I felt very supported.
The scene where Larry, the duck, pleasures Merritt Wever could have gone in a million different directions. How did you set that up?
There was a lot to figure out. We did not know how we were going to make this episode. There was a lot of talk about CG vs. real ducks — could the real ducks hit their marks? As we talked about how to make it technically, especially for that scene, we treated everything like you would any other scene. It was a closed set. We had an intimacy coordinator. The conversations I had with Merritt were rooted in talking about Larry, the way you would talk about any other character. And Justin Kirk, who did the voice of the duck, who’s spectacular, he was on set every single day doing the voice off camera.
So she was able to look at a real duck and stay in that part of the scene, and then Justin — heroic, amazing Justin Kirk, who is talent beyond talent — was over here out of her eye line, but doing the scene with her. You really could feel, even when you were filming, oh, something’s happening here. You weren’t waiting to put the scene together in post. You had the performances right there. So we recorded his performance on stage. He did the rehearsals with her. I literally have pictures of him squatting down so he’s at least at the right eye line as Merritt standing up and they’re just rehearsing. You’re taking some weird swings and I feel like it was nice to be scared. It was nice to feel like we were doing something that hadn’t necessarily happened a bunch of times before.
Speaking to the commitment of your actors — and this is a silly technical question — but in Nicole Kidman’s episode, when she eats the photographs, what is she eating, exactly?
I love this question. We asked some of the craziest questions [while shooting this series]. It’s like, what will viably feel like a photograph? And what can Nicole Kidman — Academy Award-winning actor, Nicole Kidman — shove in her mouth repeatedly that isn’t going to be a situation? So we had two versions. Kim Gehrig did a lot of research and development on this as she was directing, but we had the actual photographs printed on rice paper, and then we had another [set] printed on marzipan. I think both are in [the final cut]. And I think when she was gobbling many, the rice paper ended up being better, but also it was more brittle. Neither was perfect, but between the two, we got what we needed overall.
Each episode had a , “How do we do that practically, but also make it feel like magic?” It was cool, and I feel like everyone was very game to stay in the muck of it and figure it out again, and again, and again.
“Roar” is available to watch on Apple TV+.