In NBC’s Wed. 8:30 PM half-hour comedy FREE AGENTS, adapted from a British series of the same name (which airs Saturdays on BBC America), Hank Azaria plays Alex, who is absolutely miserable about his divorce. His friend Helen, played by Kathryn Hahn, is still reeling from the death of her fiancé. Alex and Helen wind up sleeping together, which Alex thinks might be a good first step, but Helen considers it disastrous, particularly because they both work together at a corporate PR firm.
Todd Holland, a producer/director who famously shepherded MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, serves as the directing executive producer on FREE AGENTS, which is being made through Dark Toy, the production company he formed with professional partner Karey Burke. Holland talks with us about FREE AGENTS, why he makes so much TV comedy and what it is that a directing executive producer does.
ASSIGNMENT X: FREE AGENTS is adapted from the U.K. series. Does the idea of workplace romance, or anti-romance, lend itself to American television as well as it does to British TV?
TODD HOLLAND: I think it’s very smart. Americans work more than any other civilization in the world, in hours spent at work, away from family. So it makes a lot of sense. Really, it reflects our society. We haven’t figured out the balance in our lives with the culture, so the fact is, we’re focused on our lives at work. So I think this makes sense. We fell in love with the British series and the Brits, [the production company] Big Top, came to Karey [Burke,Holland’s producing partner] and I and [U.S. series writer/producer John Enbom] and said, “Could you guys all see yourselves remaking the show together?” We fell in love with the British series and wanted to honor it.
AX: What do you think is the main difference between British comedy vs. American comedy?
HOLLAND: We love British comedy, but it tends, as John calls it, toward “British miserable-ness.” They really love pain, they love the unhappy, which with my background with LARRY SANDERS, I get the American side of that, because LARRY SANDERS was all about pain and flawed characters and flawed human behavior. That’s where I learned about flawed human behavior as a comic engine. But we can’t [build episodes around] the smallness of events the way the British do. They don’t really demand an enormous amount of story. [The original series] had a great pace, but we’re used to more story. So we’ve kept what’s really great about the British series that we loved – we love, love it – but as we need to expand the canvas, we’re just adding more story, setting more characters on collision [courses].
AX: About a year-and-a-half ago, you were producer/director on SONS OF TUCSON, which, apart from Tyler Labine, starred three child actors. Are you sad or relieved to be directing people who are all approximately your own height this time?
HOLLAND: [laughs] It’s really exciting to be directing adults, to put away childish things, and now I’m picking up the adult-childish things. I’m really excited to be doing an adult show.
AX: You were also one of the creative forces behind MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, so for awhile, it seemed like you were on a roll doing shows with kids and adults.
HOLLAND: You know I had to almost let [SONS OF TUCSON] pass, because of the similarity to MALCOLM a little bit. I really respond to just writing. Does it make me laugh, is it grounded, does it have some kind of humanity that I can relate to? And it did. There aren’t a lot of great half-hour comedies out there. You read it and you go, “It’s not that funny,” or “It’s not that funny to me,” so I was looking past, I did it for a long time, and “Oh, God, I’m going to do three boys again,” but I actually loved the world – and when we foundTyler, it changed the whole dynamic. I mean, he was such magic that I went, “Oh, my God, I couldn’t imagine this without him.”
AX: On FREE AGENTS, is it also a relief to be able to work the actors on regular television hours, instead of child actor hours?
HOLLAND: They don’t have to have school. Now, Hank [Azaria] needs a little education there now and then [laughs]. No, it’s great. It makes life so much simpler. The thing is, these are all working professionals, so now we have to get Natasha [Leggero] on THE TONIGHT SHOW, so you have other complications, because they’re all working comedians, so they have other pressures, but it’s fun.
AX: Had you worked with any of the FREE AGENTS cast before?
HOLLAND: Joe Lo Truglio is the only one we all had worked with. John Enbom, Big Top and I all had a love of Joe, so he came in and we’re blessed to have him. But otherwise, no. I’d never met Hank. He was one of the first names discussed.
AX: With Anthony Stewart Head, who is recreating his boss role from the British version, did everybody go, “Yes, we want him, and he wants to come back to America”?
HOLLAND: We all knew we wanted him. There’s something great about having a Brit here, because it makes our business seem more international, we have this accent in the mix. Everyone had seen him in the British incarnation of this and we were thrilled to have him. NBC was thrilled to have him. He was our first choice, obviously. He was brilliant in the British version and he bent over backwards to make this work. He flew out of Cardiff [Wales] – we shot the next day, he was half-asleep. I’m a giant BUFFY geek, so of course, I told Anthony on the last day of shooting [the pilot]. I said, “Anthony, I have to tell you – I’m a huge BUFFY geek,” and he says, “Why didn’t you tell me? We could have been talking about it!” [laughs] So he was very sweet about it.
AX: What about the composition of your writing staff?
HOLLAND: Our writing staff is half women. We really made a point of it – it was so important to the show. The show is so split between he said/she said energetically in its attitudes with the two characters that that gender balance is really important to us.
AX: How many episodes are you directing?
HOLLAND: It’s a single-camera show, so I’m doing three episodes, more than any other director and I’ll be there to produce for the other directors, to help maintain the tone of the show. NBC, remarkably, unlike my former homes, where they say, “Do them all!,” because we’re the director/producers, we’re there to direct, NBC wants you there as a producer that helps guide tone and helps make the actors’ lives easier.
AX: When you’re setting tone for other directors, how and when do you come into that?
HOLLAND: When I’m setting tone, it’s really about the scripts. [Other directors] get to watch everything that I can give them that we have. If I’m on the second episode out, I make them watch dailies, they see what it looks like on the set when we’re shooting and how we end up with tone, but also, you have tone meetings where you sit and you go through the script page by page. And we have very smart, great directors coming up. We have two women coming up; it’s very important to have women in the directing ranks as well. But you really have to go over it at the script level and say, “What are your impressions?” It all comes back to the dialogue, and I do it with John [Enbom], I say, “Okay, talk to me about this moment, this is how I hear it.” And you have to negotiate tone with the actors. The dressing-room scene in our pilot [where Alex and Helen argue over clothes she has picked out for him] was Day One. They’d seen the British series, we’d rehearsed a little bit – our show is so grounded in dramatic truth that they came at it and they were so dramatic, so angry. “Wait, this is not a drama, it’s not even a dramedy, it’s a comedy with dramatic underpinnings.” And I kept trying to pull them back up [to lighten the tone]. They came back and they said, “Oh, my God, we understand what you were saying now.” They went for the truth, but the truth is not funny always. You have to remember to find the funny in the truth. I think comedy is all about human truth. Without truth, you get shit.
AX: You’ve worked in feature films as well as television, but you’re know primarily for your TV work. Did doing television comedy turn out to be more fun for you than dealing with feature development.
HOLLAND: I still do that. Feature development is almost like a hobby, because it takes so long. It takes basically glacial time frames. The reason I’m suited to television is that I’m facile, my mind is very quick, I like to make decisions and then see them manifested in some result. I’m not a great schmoozer, I’m not a great studio hand-holder. It’s not my skill. My skill is actually directing, not the politics of directing, but to be on set. And I love that part. And television lets you do that a lot, you do it quickly, and the networks want you to be that kind of facile, fast-thinking guy who can keep a show moving on its feet and keep a company happy. I love THE X-FILES, I watched every episode. I watched every episode of BUFFY twice. I’m a big fantasy/sci-fi/action guy. I don’t tend to like straight, straight dramas.
AX: Do you think directors can get typecast the way actors sometimes are?
HOLLAND: Oh, I am typecast as the comedy guy [laughs]. I find it very remarkable, because comedy is sort of like a second instinct. I was the guy originally who would do the funny version of an otherwise dramatic series, like MY SO-CALLED LIFE or FELICITY. I’d be hired to lighten things up or to do the funny version. And then LARRY SANDERS came along. And LARRY SANDERS was dark enough that I got it, and then that kind of set me on the map and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE just sealed it, because as long as there’s emotional character stuff going on, I can relate to comedy, but if it gets too schticky, I always tell people, “I’m not the guy for this, I don’t do schtick.” I don’t do jokes well – I understand them intellectually, but I’m the guy who never, ever, ever laughs on set. You ask any actor I work with. I never laugh at what they do on set unless they screw up and they make a mistake somehow, because reality is funnier than fiction. So I’ve got caught in comedy, a little bit. I did get to do SHAMELESS this year, but you’re basically right. Basically, I’ve stayed on my own shows for the last ten years until I went off and did 30 ROCK as a director for hire, and I did SHAMELESS this past season. And I love drama. I get drama totally, but people think of me as a comedy guy. That’s why I wanted to do SHAMELESS. SHAMELESS thinks of SHAMELESS as a comedy and I’m like, “No, this is a dramedy. There’s a lot of grit in here, and there’s a lot of wit, but it’s both.”
AX: You took some time off from television last year.
HOLLAND: Yes. I took a year off. My legal husband and I had triplets, two girls and a boy. We both are the biological parents [with a surrogate mother]. We weren’t planning on triplets, so it’s been quite a journey, but they’re fantastic – they’re big, beautiful, loud, happy kids. I finished SONS OF TUCSON for Fox and then I had triplets at exactly that moment the show ended, and I formed this company , Dark Toy, with Karey Burke, and we sold thirteen projects to NBC last year, five dramas and eight comedies, three of which were very hot, and then there was that little change in administration there [laughs], but this one survived, and we’re thrilled.
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Click on Link: TV Review – FREE AGENTS – Season 1 – “Pilot”
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive Interview with FREE AGENTS producer/director Todd Holland