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Pamela Adlon spent months planning the perfect surprise for the Season 2 finale of “Better Things” — and not just in the series, but in real life, too. Pages from the script were hidden, cover stories were established, and secret weekend rehearsals were held, all to capture an authentic reaction from actress Mikey Madison when her character got a very special graduation gift from her onscreen mother and off-screen showrunner, Adlon.
Then her back went out.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d never had a feeling like that,” Adlon said in an interview with IndieWire. “I slipped my disc! And I actually shot another 12 hours that day.”
Why? In part, because Adlon didn’t realize the extent of her injury at the time, but it’s also because she wasn’t just acting in the scene. She also directed the episode, as well as every other entry in Season 2, which meant she knew exactly how important the scene was overall. She’d been working overtime to prepare for it as an actress and moved heaven and Earth (and a bench across international borders) to ensure the scene came together as she imagined.
“I really wanted it to be the most authentic reaction I could get,” Adlon said. After choosing the song — “Tilted” by Christine and the Queens — while writing the season, Adlon started scheming. First, she removed the final scene from her original shooting script (“I pulled the pages at the end of the episode — it just ended with Max opening the box and saying, ‘Mom, it’s so beautiful.'”), and only informed key production members later on. Then she recruited her fellow cast, Olivia Edward (who plays Duke), Hannah Alligood (Frankie), and Celia Imrie (Grandma Phyllis), to work with choreographer Kathryn Burns on perfecting the moves from the chosen video.
“On the weekends, I would do secret choreography because I couldn’t do it any other time, and I knew that I needed to dance every single weekend to get the moves into my body, so it would just be rote,” Adlon said. “I would pick up Celia from her hotel in West Hollywood, and we would drive to the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in Van Nuys.”
From a director’s standpoint, Adlon didn’t want the scene to be a shot-for-shot carbon copy of the music video.
“I did sing the song throughout, and it was just a matter of working with my editor Annette Davey to find the perfect balance, where it wasn’t too on-the-nose, recreating every moment of the video, and [instead] making it feel more like this organic gift from this mother and sisters and grandmother to this girl, in this moment,” Adlon said.
As the crew prepared the sleek black platform and brought in special equipment for the scene, Adlon told everyone what they needed to do to keep from spilling the beans.
“I said, ‘It’s extremely urgent and important that nobody even mentions the song, talks about this sequence, and that we do this all completely stealth,'” Adlon remembered telling the production crew. With her young actors, she even created a code word. “I had asked Hannah and Olivia, ‘You guys, we can’t sing the song, we can’t talk about the song, we should have a code word.’ And Olivia said, ‘What about ‘straight’? Because the song is called ‘Tilted’?” And I was like, ‘That’s perfect!'”
When the day arrived, Adlon had one final hurdle: getting Madison to set without her seeing what was going on there.
“I mean, I have hundreds of people outside with this beautiful stage that was built. I have a techno crane and all these new people on my crew,” Adlon said. “So I said to [assistant director] Sally Sue [Beisel], ‘You gotta look at Mikey and say, ‘Hannah and Olivia already did this, and no matter what happens, stay in character. And Pamela says she loves you.’ So Sally Sue blindfolded Mikey and I had my stuntwoman walk Mikey from the house all the way through the backyard, and all the crew had to be quiet. She sat her on the bench, then the clicks started, and we did the dance.”
All the reaction shots in the episode are from Madison’s first take.
“Mikey never knew about it until the second she watched us do it on the day,” Adlon said. “She was floored. To be able to do that on a television show, now, in this day and age, that isn’t a reality show — that’s a scripted show — to be able to procure real authentic moments, it’s an amazing gift for me and for people who watch and enjoy my show.”
That was in June, but Adlon didn’t find out about her slipped disc until months later.
“The day after [the shoot] we flew to Canada to shoot the ‘White Rock’ episode, then we went into post, and finally in October I got an MRI,” Adlon said. “I found out I had a slipped disc […] and [did] through the summer. Then, finally, I was like, ‘I think this is bad.’ So… war injury!”
That’s the same passion Adlon plans to bring to Season 3. She’s already broken the season and her small group of writers are creating episode drafts now for a July start of production.
“It’s brand new for me,” Adlon said. “I’ve never been in a writers’ room or run a writers’ room. The most people I’ve ever broken stories with is one. So for me, [hiring writers] was kind of a daunting process.”
For guidance, Adlon turned to a longtime friend and former producer who, it’s safe to say, “Everybody Loves.”
“There was one person who helped me enormously, who is a room guy from way back — Phil Rosenthal, a dear friend of mine. So Phil was kind of my coach,” Adlon said before stopping to correct herself. “He wasn’t ‘kind of’ my coach, he’s been my coach, and he said to me, ‘Having a writers’ room is the most unlonely feeling you can ever have.’ That stuck with me because I came from my dad writing his whole life by himself, in his house, or toward the end of his life he just had one partner. So it’s kind of like an anti-room mentality, like nothing good is going to get accomplished in a room full of people.”
That’s why she ended up with a room of just four additional writers: Sarah Gubbins, Joe Hortua, Robin Ruzan, and Ira Parker.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “Everybody opened up and they see how I open up and share things about my life. Phil would say to me that every week that ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ would play, his mother would call him and say, ‘Are you crazy? I still see these people!’ So it’s about procuring stories.”
As for telling those stories, Adlon said she’s still planning to direct all the episodes in Season 3, so who knows what delightful surprises the cast, crew, and audience are in for next.
[Editor’s Note: Indiewire’s Consider This is an ongoing series meant to raise awareness for Emmys contenders our editorial staff and readership find compelling, fascinating, and deserving. Running throughout awards season, Consider This selections may be underdogs, frontrunners, or somewhere in between; more importantly, they’re making damn good television we all should be watching, whether they’re nominated or not.]