‘The Woman in the House’ Creators Reveal Will Ferrell’s Notes, Season 2 Prospects and Why the Surprise Finale Cameo Almost Didn’t Happen

·12 min read

[This story contains spoilers to Netflix’s The Woman in the House.]

Just one look at the title for Netflix’s absurdist thriller series The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window makes it clear that crime-show fans aren’t going to get the typical ride they might expect from the genre. Indeed, the show, starring Kristen Bell and featuring one bonkers plot twist after another, has managed to earn plenty of attention while shattering viewer expectations, not unlike the fate befalling many a doomed casserole dish in the series.

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Created by Rachel Ramras, Hugh Davidson and Larry Dorf, all three of whom previously worked together on Adult Swim’s similarly baffling animated series Mike Tyson Mysteries, The Woman in the House came to life with the support of Gloria Sanchez Productions’ Will Ferrell and Jessica Elbaum after Ramras found herself fascinated by such page-turners as Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window. The project centers on Anna (Bell), a painter still struggling to make sense of the tragic death of her daughter when she has suspicions about the attractive single father across the street. Somehow, major plot points involve cannibalism on Take Your Child to Work Day, a classic death-by-lighthouse situation, a final fatal showdown between Bell and 9-year-old Emma (Samsara Yett), and a completely unexpected cameo turn from Glenn Close as a mysterious-yet-fabulous (and fabulously murdered) plane passenger.

“If it was very joke-driven right from the start, people probably wouldn’t have cared as much about the story and what was happening, and maybe people wouldn’t have stuck with it,” Dorf explains. Indeed, the show has gotten people talking, spending significant time in the No. 1 slot on Netflix’s top 10 since premiering late last month and launching plenty of memes in the process — even if critics, who gave the project a 56 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, haven’t exactly known what to make of it.

During a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, the three co-creators reveal the notes they received from Ferrell and Netflix; the reason that a pivotal final scene needed to change; the panic they experienced in trying to fill Close’s part, which led them to initially consider an even more unbelievable public figure for that cameo; their take on the critical response; and whether the cliffhanger ending hints at more episodes in the future.

This show reminded me of Will Ferrell’s 2015 Lifetime movie, A Deadly Adoption, where he took it seriously but heightened everything just a bit. Was his involvement part of what helped establish the tone for your project?

Hugh Davidson: I do think when we pitched Gloria Sanchez, A Deadly Adoption probably informed for them why saying things very straight could be successful or could appeal to some people. There are a lot of people that didn’t get the joke for A Deadly Adoption, I’m sure. We didn’t want things to be so straight — you didn’t know that it was supposed to be funny. But it does feel like a more grounded approach would get you to the ending in a more satisfying way, both comedically and as a storyteller, than if it had been joke-ity, joke-ity, joke-ity, all the time.

Many TV projects in the streaming era seem to involve some kind of mystery element to get viewers to keep bingeing. Did Netflix encourage that?

Larry Dorf: Netflix really pushed us to not be so joke-driven, at least at first. Because they wanted people to get invested in the mystery and also have these cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Our background is more comedic — we’re all from The Groundlings — and so that was new for us in our writing style. That was a great way to go for this where, instead of being so joke-driven, it starts out very grounded, and then it just gets more and more absurd. That was definitely a Netflix want.

Glenn Close in The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window finale. - Credit: Courtesy Of Netflix
Glenn Close in The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window finale. - Credit: Courtesy Of Netflix

Courtesy Of Netflix

Between the title and Kristen Bell’s casting, viewers might have assumed they would be watching something very overtly comedic. How was it to navigate having Kristen doing more dramatic acting than fans might expect?

Rachel Ramras: I do think it was a challenge for her that she was really eager to take on, because no one can deliver a funny line as well as Kristen Bell, but we weren’t giving her funny lines. We were giving her a funny premise and a funny notion. I think she just kept that inside of her the entire time and stayed super committed to the performance, knowing that what she was doing was inherently funny without having to overtly act funny. There’s just something behind her eyes when she is saying these lines that you know she’s in on this joke.

The show has clearly found an audience, but perhaps some of the reviews have suggested not everyone quite knew what they were getting. What’s been your take on the response?

Dorf: I like that there’s this divide. There’s something delightful about it that some people are very confused over: “What is this? It’s not the type of comedy that I’ve seen before, where there’s a bunch of jokes — not that. Is it a thriller? But the thriller’s weird because there’s the daughter that gets murdered in the most horrific way.” Then there’s the other people that are like, “No, it’s a comedy.” And I like that. It seems like the people that know it’s a comedy are mad at the people that don’t know it’s a comedy and haven’t figured it out. I just find it enjoyable that it makes people talk about it. And it might not be for everyone, and that’s OK, too.

Davidson: I think the people that enjoy knowing what something is far outnumber the ones that enjoy ambiguity. So some of these, they could be like, “Pick a lane — be funny or be serious.” And the truth is, we did pick a lane — it just might be one that’s uncomfortable because it gradually gets more absurd. I bet that could make some people feel like a joke is being played on them. The three of us love things that are inappropriate on some level. It’s inappropriate to have the type of jokes that are in this — the daughter is murdered, and we’re supposed to laugh at that. Whether it’s not funny enough at the beginning, and then it’s too absurd for some at the end, it’s like the whole thing feels a little inappropriate, and that’s something we like.

You’ve said the show was only intended as a limited series, but it’s now had such a moment, and you also wrote the finale the way you did, between introducing Glenn and then ending on a cliffhanger. What are your thoughts on where this could still go?

Ramras: A couple of the books that I read ended with a chapter of the author’s next book, and so we thought it would be funny and a nod to these books, and evocative of these books, to have a final dangling chapter as to what could be next in this world’s adventure. In our fantasy, it would have an actress like Glenn. We just never thought it would actually be Glenn, but when you think back, from Fatal Attraction and Jagged Edge, it’s like she’s the OG of the female-led thriller. It just seemed like too fun of a concept to have her in at the end. She was so on board and game and wanted to look fabulous, and she does. So, I don’t think anything has changed in terms of what we set out to do. It is a limited series, and it is fun that people are imagining that there could be more to the story, and perhaps there could. But for us, even though it seems like the beginning of a new story, it really was just an absurd denouement.

Were there other names on the dream list for who could have been in the Glenn role, or was Glenn the first name that you approached?

Davidson: For forever, our script just said, “A major movie star walks down the aisle of the airplane and stops at Kristen’s seat.” It kept saying “a major movie star” until maybe two or three days before we were supposed to shoot the scene. We were all freaked out, and we were all imagining, “If we couldn’t get a star, what could we do?” We were crazed at one point. I remember suggesting Miss Piggy, and Rachel and Larry laughed. Thank God, that went no further than the three of us talking.

Ramras: But it really did boil down to sitting there with our producing partners from Gloria Sanchez, and we’re all saying, “OK, everyone go through your phone. Who do you know?” Thank God, Netflix somehow got Glenn on board, at least enough to get on the phone with me.

Davdison: How brave of her to choose to do it. The scripts themselves are not chock-full of jokes or something. We had written it so that she could just do the one part where she sits down next to Kristen. And then when she’s dead, we thought, just to save her time and being uncomfortable, we would just get a body double to be squished down in the lavatory of the plane. And then when it came for that moment to shoot it, Michael Lehmann, our director, said, “Do you want to be dead in the bathroom?” And she said, “Yes.” And it was great — her face is so funny in that last scene in the lavatory.

Mary Holland and Kristen Bell in The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window - Credit: Courtesy of Colleen E. Hayes/Netflix
Mary Holland and Kristen Bell in The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window - Credit: Courtesy of Colleen E. Hayes/Netflix

Courtesy of Colleen E. Hayes/Netflix

Were there any key moments that required some tinkering?

Davidson: The ending was going to be when you discovered the kid has murdered everybody and murdered her own mother, and then there was this ice-skating scene where the kid lures the mom out onto the thin ice, and she goes down in the ice. And that had to get changed. For whatever reason, that became the scene where she’s at the end of a pier and drowns in the water. But that got changed because we couldn’t shoot ice-skating in COVID, and it would cost too much money. And that befuddled us forever. We wanted that death to feel literary, as opposed to maybe cinematic, even though, hopefully, it was.

Dorf: In one draft, they were taking a tour of a chocolate or a candy factory, and the mom was going to die that way. So we kept writing.

Davidson: She was going to fall into the hot chocolate.

People have really voiced their thoughts on social media. Lots of memes, and lots of casserole memes.

Dorf: I like that there are a lot of people commenting on the casserole, and there’s a group of people that are mad that we destroyed all of these CorningWare dishes because I guess they’re hard to get. But in truth, every CorningWare dish harmed in the making of the show was in fact made by the prop department because we needed the dishes to shatter and not just crack. And if you just drop a CorningWare dish, you can’t be sure that it’s going to shatter.

Ramras: I read a few of the tweets, and then I’m someone who really can’t do that, because if I read someone not liking it, unfortunately, it takes over, and I can’t even enjoy all the people who are enjoying it. But I do like the tweets that say, “WTF did I just watch?” That’s satisfying to me, and that feels like, “OK, good. That’s what we wanted, actually.”

Did it take some convincing for Samsara’s parents to get on board with what she was going to have to do?

Ramras: When Samsara got the part, we did a Zoom with her mother, and I don’t think she knew until that moment that Samsara was the killer. So that could have backfired, I suppose, but they were game. Kristen being a mother was so beautiful with Samsara that, truly, I think the experience for her as an actress was pure fun.

Even if there aren’t future seasons, does a project like this impact what’s next for your careers?

Davidson: We had a little postmortem with Will Ferrell, who none of us had gotten to meet because of COVID, and we just saw him on a Zoom call. It’s his thing, too, and he’s seen it in from the beginning pitch — it was like an outline form that went to him that he read — through the script, through the filming, the whole thing. He told us that we should be very proud that it’s very rare that something stays the same — from the moment he hears what the idea is, is what he saw at the very end. We had these things that struck us as funny that are high-risk, like Take Your Daughter to Work Day, and the kid gets murdered and eaten. It’s incredibly close to what we imagined it was going to be from the start. If we can keep doing that, that would be very exciting.

Did your perception of Netflix change, in terms of being able to work with such a mainstream brand on something that’s so weird?

Ramras: What surprised me was there were a lot of cooks, and that can go real bad, real fast. I didn’t know that you could work with all these big names, big people and a big company, and have them willing to take risks.

Davidson: We’ve worked on an Adult Swim show, so we’ve written plenty of crazy stuff, but that’s like college radio versus giant mainstream pop music. It’s a totally different thing. You’d think you would lose the sharp edges if you make that bargain to be on the radio. But it seems like it retained all of its sharp edges.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window is now streaming on Netflix.

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