My TV

14 April 2021

Nominee Interview Series: Katie McElhenney

By // TV

Imagine for a second that you’re the one person on earth who survived 2020 without a television. Congratulations, you’ve done the impossible, but I have terrible news for you- you really missed out. There was a lot of great TV in 2020- beautiful, fun, heartbreaking, sometimes life-saving TV. If you only watch 30 minutes of all those millions of hours, make it Katie McElhenney’s episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. A standalone mid-season flashback, “A Dark Quiet Death” is not just a piece of Outstanding Writing for a Comedy for 2020, it’s one of the most impactful single episodes of television we’ve ever seen.

Check out the full 2020 Nominee Interview Series HERE

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
The first thing that I claim: when I was in grade school, we had to write a half-colouring paper of a haunted house. There were the big, very recognizable lines, and the big dashes on them. You’re supposed to write a couple sentences about the haunted house, and I required extra papers, because I got into this project. “Well, four lines is not gonna cover it. Look at this house! There’s something going on there, and I gotta get into this.” So I think that was the first thing that I really remember. I was like, “Oh, I may be interested in something like this.”

You’ve written for all sorts of mediums and genres: how do the different mediums compare with each other, and is there one that really owns your heart?
I would probably have to say novel writing owns my heart, and you know that it does, because it also doesn’t pay me very well, and I still keep flying back to it.

I was always an avid reader growing up. I read a ton; I still read a lot, and I feel like I did more reading than I did more TV-watching. We were a family that didn’t watch TV after dinner, as per the rules, which is funny, because we all ended up getting into entertainment, one way or another. So I just read. I’m one of those people who’s just an immersive reader. I’m in the world if I’m reading, almost obsessively, so it was kind of natural to want to write as well, and try my hand at it. It’s a long process, so you don’t get the immediate gratification.

I just finished a first draft of a new novel. It feels so wonderful, and then it’s like, “This is great. Here’s the notes. Oh, there’s so many pages!” [laughs] But I love TV writing, and I think I like that because there’s a community. I love writers’ rooms. The ones that I’ve been in have been great; you just get to go and laugh with your friends all day, and work out problems, and figure out a story, and you can bounce it off people. And if your idea’s not great, you’re not 200 pages in before you find that out, so I like that part of it as well. Just having co-workers, which you don’t really have with the solo act of novel writing.

If you didn’t do a lot of television growing up, do you watch TV now, or are there any shows other than what you worked on that you particularly love?
I just finished Bridgerton [laughs]; I am an Austen girl at heart, so I just finished that. Parks and Rec; I’m a re-watcher, for sure. I will go back and just drop into Schitt’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, especially now. I feel that this is the time when the shows that you’re watching just feel like a warm blanket, which is kind of what I need, so I was a little hesitant about new content over the course of this pandemic, only because I find the familiarity to be really comforting. I like knowing what’s gonna happen to all of my characters that I’m watching, because I appreciate them.

I am a big [It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia] watcher too, which is helpful, for family dynamics and because it’s a show that I work on. I like shows that I can really get invested in. I also like when the bulk of the seasons are already out. That way I can really binge. I’m not patient about waiting. I’m the same way with books. If I know it’s a series, I just won’t get into it until I know I can get all of them, because I get invested. I have to know! It’s too much to wait.

Speaking of Sunny, I wanted to ask about that, because I’m obsessed with that show, in no small part because it’s managed to stay so fresh for so long. As a writer, how do you approach finding new material after so many episodes?
We try to keep things current, but not dated, because of the whole schedule of having to have the writers’ room, and then filming. By the time it’s out, you don’t want something that already happened. People have moved on from it. So, trying to keep things fresh. The benefit of humans is that we don’t always learn from our mistakes, so everything old is new again. You learn from history but you don’t learn from history. Even things that should be dated are not, because somehow they’re back, so that’s helpful.

Now that the characters are so established, it’s a little bit easier to think about how they are functioning in the world that they’re in, and we’re not trying to keep them in amber. It’s not like we’re still trying to pretend that these people are in their 20’s, late 20’s, early 30’s, and so we have to keep coming up with things around that. They’re moving with the times as well, even though they’re so backwards. They’re still moving along with it. You look at, “How would that character react to the world as it is right now?” Even if it’s not something specific, it’s the general themes of how humans are just gonna operate. I think that’s helpful, just because even though they seem like cartoon characters, they are pretty fully developed, especially after almost 15 years.

Do you have internal rules about the limits of each character, like “Oh, so and so would never cross this particular line?”
No. [laughs] If it makes sense, then it’s on the table. I think that’s what keeps it fresh, because you can also then have any friend group or family dynamic. That can be interesting, because now it’s everybody else having to deal with the fallout of somebody acting in a way that they’re not supposed to be acting. So while it’s interesting for that character’s journey, it’s even more interesting for everybody else’s reaction to it, because now it’s like you’re not supposed to do that thing. Your role in that is to be this, and now you’re acting outside of that, and that affects me. Forget about your journey; how does your action affect me? Especially with just a group of sociopathic narcissists. Every action affects them, so nothing’s outside the realm.

What we’ve also realized – and I get this through novel-writing, too – if it’s just getting too hard to break that story, then it’s just because that character really isn’t supposed to be doing whatever it is that you’re trying to get them to do. If you can’t find the humour in it, the coherent plot of it, then they’re not doing it for the right reasons, or you’re really trying to force it. They can act outside of their prescribed character, but even acting outside of it is a nod to the fact that they are in it, you know? They still have to be who they are, and it has to almost be intentional, pushing away from it. There’s a lot of comedy to be mined in that, but if it’s just too hard and it’s not coming together, then you scrap the whole thing. So, we’ve tried, but you’ll follow something down a road, and you’ll fill up a whole whiteboard, and it looks great, but someone comes in and pulls one thread, and it’s, “Oh, no, you’re right.” And you erase the whole thing. Try again.

So your brother Rob McElhenney goes to visit Ubisoft, and Mythic Quest is born. Did he approach you about joining the project, or did you hear about it and just know you wanted to be involved?
A little bit of both. I was resistant to joining Sunny for a long time. He had wanted me to write; I was a teacher for a long time, and that was what I do. I’m a teacher, and then I try to write over the summer, and that’s kind of the end of it.

Then I moved out here to LA, and did a bunch of jobs, and I knew that this project was coming around. The reason for my hesitancy for Sunny was that it felt so established to me that I was just intimidated, honestly. It would be my first job in television writing, and I just didn’t really have the confidence to get in there, feeling it was like a train that was already on the tracks, and I’m trying to jump on when it’s in motion.

It came down to a confidence thing. With Mythic Quest, everybody was new, the show was new; it was getting developed on-site. I could be part of the whole process of it. So that’s how that came about. I felt a little bit more confident, and he wasn’t really taking no for an answer at that point. I had run out of excuses. Any excuses I gave before no longer applied, so I really credit him with pushing for that to happen, and obviously very glad that he did.

That’s so sweet. I feel like my brother would force me to stay away from his project. 
[laughs] He’s amazing, and what’s even better is – this is like little sister hero worship – but it is true that being able to be in a room with him as a brother didn’t really come up as much. He’s also such a really great boss and showrunner and contributor. It almost helped our personal relationship, because we had this professional relationship, and seeing somebody in a different context, as well as respecting them even more, for different reasons, was really great. I think he felt the same way for me as well, because he doesn’t suffer fools. If I wasn’t pulling my weight, he wasn’t just going to keep me around because I was his sister, and that’s not what he does.

So that was really great, to be able to be with each other in a different context, and see each other in different roles, as capable professionals, and just knowing that he is a great boss. So whatever I was afraid of when joining the Sunny room didn’t apply, because it’s such an open environment. All ideas are good ideas until they’re not, so don’t hold it, throw it out, tell us what you’re thinking. There’s no shame in that. Everything is up for grabs, and that’s just the environment that’s created, so there’s no fear that he’s going to miss out on a good idea because somebody was too afraid to present it. So that just lends itself to better, fresher ideas, because people are willing to take a risk, cause there’s low chance of consequence.

The show blends a classic workplace format with a modern dramedy sensibility. Is it written in that sort of old-school writers’ room way, or do writers have more of a solo pen?
We’re a team through the whole thing, which is really great. Weeks of being in the room together, all of us, and just figuring out what works, and talking through some stuff, and then breaking out into smaller rooms, and then finally one person going off to write the draft. And it’s good, and it’s not always the same people. So in my instance, for A Dark Quiet Death, I wasn’t in the room for the break of that story, which I think was helpful, because we ended up changing it anyway.

We wanted to tell a story from the perspective of marketing, how marketing changed. The original iteration of it was marketing through the years. We kind of narrowed the scope of that to one particular game going through its changes, but it was really told through brand managing, and marketing. So when I got the notes from all of that, and read through it, I brought up that I didn’t think anybody would care about marketing; you can really make it a story about a couple. That’s who you’re gonna care about. That couple were still cited in that original break, but it wasn’t really as much about them, and what was going on in their lives.

The team did a great job of filling the brief that they were given, but when it really looked at the context of the season, we really needed more internal focus on this relationship. For me, that was helpful to be so immersed in the world of Mythic Quest, and then to be able to take that and apply it to what might have come before. In that case, it was helpful to be both of the world and also outside of it, so I wasn’t attached to it, which I think happens when you are so close to something. Then it’s like, even if it’s not working, you don’t want to give it up, because it’s my baby. I can’t. I can’t tell if it’s ugly. You can’t tell your own kid it’s ugly. So it’s nice to have a little bit of perspective.

Is the person with the “written by” credit generally not in to break the story, or did you acquire this episode as your “written by” credit after it had already been broken?
Typically, you’re in the room, because you are so intimately connected to it. But I think because Rob was gonna direct it, it was like he offered it to me because it is a stand-alone. It is his first directing project, it would be my first writing project – it kind of came about that way, and I was there for the big breaking of that story, but not the more minutiae stuff, and more specifics. So a little bit of both, I guess.

Because it was a stand-alone outside of the regular series arc, you were able to create your own leading characters. Could you tell us a little bit about the development of Doc and Bean, and the way that the actors helped shape them?
They’re so phenomenal. I’m 42, so I’m around the age of Doc and Bean. Not that much younger for the time period. I just conceived of Bean as the cool girl that I really wanted to be. She’s a little bit of revisionist history for me. She was the girl that I was like, “Oh, I want to be that girl!” but I was never brave enough to be. So I like the idea of her being on the gothier side of 90’s fashion, and everything, because that was my vision board that I never would have been able to achieve. Then, having that contrast to her of Doc, who is way more pragmatic, and practical. But somehow they work, because they ground each other. Shes helping him to think bigger, and he’s helping her stay grounded, at least until it goes horribly wrong.

Rob had mentioned they weren’t named, they were just known as “Couple”, in the original draft. And I was all, “Well, we have to name them, now that they’re the main focus.” And he was like, “If we did something, where maybe they don’t call each other by their names – more like, you know, ‘sweetie’, or whatever,” and I was like “What? No.”

Then I came up with the idea for the ‘Doc’ and ‘Bean’, just because I think that’s funny. Most couples that I know never refer to each other by their own name. My dog has about 87 names that aren’t his name, so I feel like the closer you are to someone, the less you refer to them by their own name. I like the idea that this also keeps them in their own little private world, that they’re the only two that refer to each other as these nicknames. It really gives them more of an “us against them” mentality until we hear his name towards the end of it, because it’s like the outside world has completely infiltrated your relationship. You are no longer that person that existed in this relationship, and that relationship is gone.

So that’s how that came about, and then Cristin [Milioti] and Jake [Johnson] were phenomenal. Just phenomenal. I met them in the morning of the first day of shooting, and they were in the hair and make-up trailer, getting their hair and makeup stuff done. We’re talking about the script, and Cristin said, “I completely identify with Bean. I get that you have these creative visions, and then somebody else comes in and tries to change them, monetize them, whatever” – and Jake said, “Well, yeah, but to Doc’s point – ” They started arguing each other’s cases in the script. That was actually how they were thinking of things, as people, and I was like [laughs] “It’s happening!”

It was such an amazing feeling as a writer; not only is there somebody taking what you’ve written seriously, and they are enjoying it, but they are identifying with it at the same time. It was just so effortless, because they had such a great rapport with each other, but this difference of opinion came through. It was just really fun to watch. Obviously, they’d used the script, but there were times that they could ad-lib here and there, because they just got what the character was, and it was such an amazing moment to be there for.

To go off that “It’s happening!” feeling – they actually made Dark Quiet Death, a playable version. What’s that like, to write something down and have it manifested in front of you?
It’s wild! It is wild, because I read a lot of books and everything just stays in the dreamscape. To have this tangible thing coming into existence is just amazing, and even more than that; in the script, there was something about the realtor going off and counting outlets, and she says, “There’s 23 and a half outlets in here. I don’t know how that works, but I’m sure it’s fine.” We had a production meeting beforehand where everyone’s sitting around, and it’s “Okay, what do we need for the next day?” And the locations people are talking, and the costumes and the hair and makeup. Everyone’s there to do their check-in.

The props guy, Casey, stops me afterwards and said, “Just checking in: when you said half an outlet, did you mean this?” He had a box outlet that was cut in half this way, and he’s like, “or this” – that was cut in half this way – and he’s like, “or this” – that was cut in half this way, and I was like, “it was a joke! Oh my gosh. This is such a group effort.” We weren’t even gonna see it. But that’s what he does. He reads this thing, and all of a sudden, there were three different half-outlets for me to choose from, and I was again just like, “Oh my goodness, this is amazing!” Having the video game of all things, especially in that style, was a flashback to being a kid and playing video games.

What was your relationship with video games? If you didn’t watch TV, did you have video games growing up?
We did. My parents are divorced, so at my mom’s house, we had a Nintendo. So that was the weekend. You’d go to Mom’s and play Nintendo. And then as I got older, I played a little bit. Some computer-based games, but again, speaking of worlds where you don’t feel like you belong – I never really felt like it was for me. I couldn’t find the games that resonated with me.

I was a video game watcher; I love when people play, and I watch them. I dated a guy in college; he had 30,000 roommates, as you do. One of his roommates was playing Silent Hill, and I was like, “What is this?” And he’s like, “It’s this horror-style video game.” So I was just perched on the couch watching him play Silent Hill, mesmerized and terrified.

The next night, I knew that my boyfriend was going to be working again, and the roommate reached out to me. He’s like, “Do you want to come back over and watch me play? Because I’m too afraid to play by myself.” So my boyfriend would come home and be like, “What is going on?” and we’re just like “shh! We’re playing video games, and it’s terrifying.” That was the first one that I realized, “Oh, this can affect emotion.” This isn’t just like Duck Hunt – no shade against Duck Hunt – but this was pulling me into the story, and I’m invested, because you’re finding letters, and it’s creepy. I love that it can really immerse you into this world.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve played way too many video games over quarantine. Anything with mild cartoon mischief, so I love those kinds of games too. And The Last of Us, which is just a gorgeous game with a really compelling story. I’ve gotten better with not just like walking into a wall and not being able to get out of it, which happens.

Dark Quiet Death – the computer game version that exists – is genuinely terrifying. Every time a monster got me, I literally screamed. What went into developing what that game would be, because it’s so central to who the characters are. 
So we’ve got Bean, who is such a fatalist, but also a realist. This is what happens to all of us. There should be no winning in these games. It should just be that you play until you can’t play anymore, which is also kind of a metaphor for most of life. The best you can do is just keep at it until internal or external forces deem the fact that it’s done for you. So it really tied into it; she’s somebody who would believe in that. Whereas Doc would understand that, but it’s like, “Humans can relate to that, so let’s just make this as big as possible, because it’s gonna resonate with a lot of people, and then they’re gonna spend money on it, and it’s gonna keep going.” Not to make him sound like he’s just a complete capitalist jerk, but to his point, it does resonate with people, so more people should have access to it.

Whereas with Bean, she would want more people to access it because it is such a personal human story. But to be able to do that, you have to have money. So if more people are going to be able to get your vision, then you have to promote it and make it. They are really caught between these two worlds, and that’s really what the game is. It’s like, that’s life, that’s relationships, you’re just surviving as long as you can until the inevitable ends, because everything ends. And that’s not something that is always sad or shouldn’t keep you from doing things, just because you know it’s going to have an endpoint. Bad things end, good things end. Everything ends. And sometimes the end doesn’t have to be so morbid. It’s just also a fact, so if you deny that fact, then you’re really denying truth.

At the end, I think Doc was the one that couldn’t mix up the things, so that’s the lesson he had to learn as well, and he just kind of hastened that end, as far as their relationship goes. And Bean is proving that because something ended, something else began, which is her moving on with other relationships. But then meeting up again, seeing each other – just because it ends doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s still always going to be something there.

Your story starts in 1993, as you said. What were some of the fun ’90s details that you were really glad made it into the episode?
My favourite is the very opening shot with him blowing into the Nintendo cartridge. What was so fascinating about all that was that there was no Internet to be like, “Well, if your thing’s not working, you have to blow on it.” It’s like, “No, I learned that from my cousin. He went to camp, and they did it at camp” – and these things still spread. They found their way around. I love that kind of detail.

I loved putting in a line about the X-Files – I was a huge X-Files fan – so a little later on, the idea that something that I would’ve made would’ve been shown during the X-Files would’ve just been like, “peel me off the ceiling”. Those kinds of details. Her outfits, his outfits, just made me really happy – again, because it is like my revisionist history of, like, “Look how cool I’d look in an oversized cardigan!” [laughs] I would not have looked good in an oversized cardigan.

Even though they’re not technically in the rest of the episodes, Doc and Bean and the themes of their story really resonate through the rest of the series and inform the other characters. What were some of the ways that you purposely tied the stand-alone episode to the rest of the narrative?
Because we wanted to show it is its own little cautionary tale, that even though Poppy and Ian don’t have a [romantic] relationship, it’s still a very intimate relationship with each other, because that’s what you do, when you’re building a business. It’s not that much different from building a relationship. It didn’t take too much effort to do that, because I think at the heart of any intimate relationship, whether personal or professional, you have to be listening to each other. You have to work with each other. You need to communicate with each other. You need to keep checking in about your vision, and when you start thinking of it as your vision, versus somebody else’s, you’re already halfway to disaster.

That wasn’t very difficult to tie in, because I think that that’s just a universal theme of relationships, and what was fun was that Rob had asked about some other ways to tie in. So when she carves her name into the pillar, that wasn’t originally in the script for Ian to find in his office. That was something from 105; he was like, “Ooh, that would be fun if we ended up putting that in a future episode”.

Things like Roscoe were already seeded around. You’ll see Roscoe, and the gamers dressed as Roscoe at the convention – Roscoe came before, and then finding a way to put him into the episode. It was very symbiotic, like how there were things that started in 105 that bled out into the regular episodes, and stuff that was in the episodes that then influenced 105. But I think it was the universal theme of creativity and ego and passion, and all of those things, and how that can go really wrong if you’re not continuing to honour your partner, and honour your vision, and how to take something and have it continue to evolve, and stay fresh, while not completely selling out the thing, that made it so special to begin with.

Do you have a favourite moment from the episode?
Hmm. I really like when they are looking at the space for the first time, and they come in. I just think the set design is so great. The lighting is amazing. They’re so good. They’re just so good! Even though they’re in this big cavernous space, you just can’t keep your eyes off of them, and I think that that was so important to the episode that it shouldn’t’ve mattered what was going on around them.

And it started off that way. Then it just didn’t matter, and then it was just about the two of them. Then we end with him having that quiet moment in the office too, and when that realization hits that “I am the chef. I have been turning up the heat this whole time.” It’s just a seemingly small, quiet moment, but he’s just alone in it, really. I loved them in that space, because it was full of possibility, and her fear, and then overcoming that together was such an important part of the episode.

Did you have a hand in working on the quarantine episode?
Not as much. Just because we were also quarantined, so we’re a little bit scattered. I watched some of the Zoom recordings that they were doing as well, and pulling out moments. We did a couple of writers’ room Zoom sessions. The writers were essentially wrapped at that point, so I wasn’t as involved. I got to just enjoy it as a viewer, and it was phenomenal.

My brother Patrick is a photographer, so we went out and did quarantine photos of the cast and crew from six feet away, with masks, and things like that. Just to see what people were doing during the quarantine while making this episode, which was also really just a fascinating window into people’s worlds. I wish I had been [involved], but there was enough people involved in it for technology to handle. They just did such a great job with that. So good.

And you guys are working on season 2 now?
Season 2 just wrapped. So they’re editing, and all that fun stuff. There was overlap between the writers’ room and when filming was supposed to start, by about a couple weeks. It was the first or second week of March [2020] that we were back in production, and then by the end of that week, it was like, “Okay! Nope. Surprise! We’re shutting everything down”. And then they worked with the medical team, and had all the protocols in place if they needed to, and we were able to film season 2.

You mentioned you’ve just finished a book. Tell us about that and what else you’re doing now and next.
Just finished another novel, a first draft of it. It’s a historical fiction, which I’m really excited about. I’m doing that, and just starting to get together a couple of other projects to hopefully fill the content need that we have right now. Everything really took a pause while the pandemic was happening, so it was hard to get things moving, because nobody knew what things were gonna look like. So there was a lot of time, for better or for worse, to work on some things of my own.

I’m just trying to develop a couple of things, working with another friend on a potential film script, and just trying to keep busy. Just a reason to move from the couch to the chair.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am so insanely proud of this episode, and how it’s really resonated with people, because it felt really personal to me. It was such an amazing experience to be able to work with my brother, who I think did such an amazing job directing this episode. It’s so good.

But just the people that have reached out and have said that they’ve enjoyed it, and that it was cathartic in some ways, and it was overwhelming in some ways, because I do feel like it’s a personal story that really was cathartic to me, as well. It’s a great feeling to know that something that you helped to contribute to has touched a lot of people. I’m so grateful to everybody, and there’s a lot of people that had helped to execute all of this to really make it what it was, which is again something I’m really proud of.

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