COASTAL ELITES premieres Saturday, September 12, on HBO. Writer Paul Rudnick had scripted what the network describes as a “socially distanced comedy” feature prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Rudnick adapted his work to address the current situation.
COVID-19 has dictated that the Television Critics Association Summer 2020 press tour takes place entirely online. This article is derived from the COASTAL ELITES online panel. Rudnick and his fellow COASTAL ELITES executive producer, director Jay Roach, and cast members Bette Midler, Kaitlyn Dever, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson, and Issa Rae each appear from their respective homes, answering questions from the press.
“I began writing it about a year ago,” Rudnick explains, “so that was very much pre-pandemic. But one of the great advantages of filming so in the moment and so quickly with people who were so adaptable was that I could weave both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matters protests into the material, which was a very natural fit for all these characters, because they’re all people going through everything right now. Plus, I love to rewrite, so I welcome the opportunity to say, okay, let the entire world in, see how it informs these lives. So it was less a questions of adapting than just staying open and seeing, oh my God, how much the stakes just kept getting so incrementally higher, even when you didn’t think they could get any higher. It’s odd, because I kept thinking, ‘Okay, what we now need is a hurricane.’ And we had one. Usually, there is such a long timespan between the time you write something, and film it, and then have it shown to the world. In this, we were always in the moment. And so it was a weird sort of gift.”
Has Rudnick watched any other scripted shows filmed under quarantine conditions? “I haven’t seen scripted shows, but I have watched Zoom Readings, some of which are very effective. But what I found was so right for this, particularly with Jay Roach directing, was that it provides a kind of intimacy, that you had a real one-on-one experience with these characters. I started writing COASTAL ELITES when I realized that everyone I knew was angry and heartbroken, on every side of the political divide, and passionately involved in the political process, and concerned about the future of our country. I was trying to figure out away into that material, into that level of emotion, and these monologues sort of burst forth. These were people who demanded to be heard, who had stories. And ultimately that so lent itself to this format, because when you have this extraordinary group of actors and you’re with them one on one, and you watch their faces, and you see how hilarious and deeply moving they are, [Zoom] feels like exactly the right form. So it was an exploration.”
How did Rudnick and Roach approach the actors about doing a project shot in isolation? Roach replies, “I just sent them Paul’s great script. It was so hilarious to me and [speaks to] the situation we’re all in, where we’re kind of coping with things alone. As much as I complain about Zoom to everybody else, I find it one chance that I can sort of connect in any way. When I read the script, and pictured actors playing into the camera, I thought, ‘Well, we’re all in this alone, but we sort of all want to be in it together.’ By empathizing with the characters that Paul created, I was laughing and crying.”
Roach continues, “My thing is always just send it out to the very best actors on the planet. Bette jumped in first and everybody else, who were all the people we wanted, said yes. But is really is an incredible feeling of coming together around the words, and then the sense that each actor was attracting all of the other actors. It was a blast to see it come together.”
Rudnick agrees. “I think that one thing that I especially prized about this just extraordinary cast, when I was thinking about what everyone has in common, that not only is everyone a superb actor, but that they’re all capable of being insanely funny and deeply moving, often within a syllable, what every writer dreams of. And it’s something that Jay has specialized in, that he’s this master of comedy from the FOCKER movies through AUSTIN POWERS, and yet, he’s got this perfect political pitch and this control of tone in movies like GAME CHANGE and BOMBSHELL and RECOUNT. And this was a cast that was all on that same page, or had that same ability to turn on a dime. And so, that’s been a dream.”
How did Roach go about directing the film at a social distance? “I have become a little bit more of an all-around filmmaker due to the pandemic. All of our cast members, they had to become their own location scouts. When we were rehearsing, I’d have them walk around with their computers, and show me what their house would look like if it was the background, different angles. And they all choose incredibly well, when you see in the show. The sets are actually really nice, because they picked the right lighting and the right backgrounds. My wife does charity events, I’ve had to do a few things, you buy the phone mount and the little fancy light that can hook onto something and you become your own filmmaker. Which is also exciting, because people like my son, we’re all doing it the exact same way.”
Even so, Roach continues, “Filming like this was a really daunting challenge. We were going to do this onstage at the Public [Theater in New York] originally, as an HBO special, where we do multiple performances over three or four nights, and we put it together as a [filmed] stage show. It would have been great, but I think [quarantine] forced us into a more intimate connection to the actors, and more of a predicament where all the actors are actually participating in their own shooting process. The characters are also going through anxiety as they try to find a way to express themselves and share their sometimes-failed coping strategies as they talk about how they’re dealing with being stuck at home in a quarantine. So it all ended up as something that’s a different process sure, but it also has a different result, which I think, to me, comes across as powerful and [with a] very intimate connection to these characters, which I can empathize with. The audience will empathize even more maybe than they would have if it was on stage.”
As to how Roach worked with the actors, he says, “The most important part of the directing process was in rehearsals. Paul and I were able to Zoom rehearse with every actor. And in a way, because they were playing to us in rehearsals the way they would play to the audience, we got to interact and talk about how it was playing and then actually comment on the words. And Paul was very [open to] making adjustments for the format. So the rehearsals were the most important part of the directing. But when we were actually shooting, we dropped the equipment into the actors’ houses, or home offices, or garage, or whatever it was. And they were alone during the actual filming, there was a tiny crew just outside tethered to cables, doing focus, and adjusting the sound. Paul and I were in the room essentially on a Zoom camera, but also had a flap that the actors could fold over, and take us out of the world for a moment while they were [shooting]. After a few takes, because I would comment on the performances much like I would in any other situation, it actually came to be a fairly smooth and not unrecognizable process like directing anything else.”
Did the actors find the COASTAL ELITES experience cathartic? Levy says, “For me, it was a huge, exciting challenge. I had never done monologue work outside of high school theater, so thank you to Jay for seeing something in me. I just thought that the monologues were so interesting and revelatory. Everything was kind of unexpected, and every character that you had an impression of off the top ended up revealing things that were so surprising, and funny, and heartbreaking, that it was a thrill. So, it wasn’t until learning those lines that I realized the process of actually learning a monologue was quite difficult. The catharsis for me, I guess, was just learning it and then figuring out where the acting happens. Because I think for my character, there was such a fine line between his experiences and my own, having walked into many a casting session being told to kind of up the gay, if you will. So, it was really significant for me to go through that as an actor, because it was having to mine my own experiences, in order to bring them into this.”
Rae expresses similar sentiments. “Much like Dan there was kind of a fine line between – well, a thicker line, I’d say, just in terms of status. But for me this was kind of an education, because I do tend to try to avoid as much of the Trump family as possible. Ivanka, in particular, I’ve always found fascinating, but not fascinating enough to listen to. And so, it took a lot to research. And the more I found out, the more horrified I was, and a lot of that is expressed through the work. But, a testament to Paul’s writing, it was incredible to read and immediately resonated.”
While Midler has often been in recording studios, laying down vocal tracks for songs, she says doing COASTAL ELITES was very different. “Usually, when you go to a recording studio, there’ve been plenty of people and lots of food. And in this case, there were no people and a lot of equipment and no food,” she chuckles.
More seriously, Midler observes, “It was all very strange, but it was kind of wonderful, too, in a way. I have done a long monologue before. I did [the one-woman show, written by John Logan] I’LL EAT YOU LAST on Broadway a couple years ago, and so, I kind of got the drill. I had two cameras, but really I was only allowed to look into one. And the hardest part, I think, was the connection between me and the person that I was talking to. But I identified very, very strongly with this character. I felt almost as if Paul had written it for me, because he knows how nuts I am on the subject of the current inhabitants of the White House. So, for me, it was cathartic. Unfortunately, not cathartic enough because I’m still in a state of rage and anxiety.”
Levy has come off of six seasons of writing, producing and starring in SCHITT’S CREEK, the series he co-created with his father, Eugene Levy. Is it a relief to go back to acting without the added responsibilities, or does he miss the multitasking?
“No, actually,” Levy replies. “I like it when it’s mine, but I really like it when I can walk into someone else’s world and just focus on that one thing. It’s a lovely thing to just only focus on one thing. I’m sure Issa can speak to that, as well, having had your hands in a bunch of different pots on your show. But it was very refreshing and great to just sit down and focus on the lines.”
However, no one would go so far as to say they found shooting in isolation freeing.
Paulson relates, “I didn’t find anything about it freeing. Like Bette, for me, the connection with the other actor is the thing I’m usually the most interested in and inspired by. And not having that and having Jay and Paul on a screen and a monitor and far away, and camera equipment in my backyard, and mitts of Clorox that I’d be wearing to open every door, it was strange. And because it had happened deep enough into this time, I my paranoia level was high already, and there were all of a sudden seven [crew] people in my backyard. That was more people than I had seen in an area in several months and they were at my house. So it was a little frightening. So, I didn’t find it freeing, at all, but it was complicated.”
“Not freeing even a little bit,” says Midler. “It was just bizarre. It leads you down all these rabbit holes of what’s next, you know? What else can happen to me? That kind of thing. People used to say that show business was depression-proof, and now we discover that show business isn’t depression-proof. Like in the Depression, the movies were the only things that survived, that people actually were still working at and still making a living on. And now we discover that we’re all out of work. And yet, when the work comes we’re happy to do it but the condition is so utterly bizarre. It really is like we’re on some sort of a spaceship and we don’t know where the spaceship is going. That’s what I feel like.”
Paulson recalls, “I would sit in my house until they would knock on the window and say, ‘We’re ready for you,’ which is not that different [from having someone knock on the dressing-room door on a regular set], I guess, but it was bizarre.”
Dever concurs. “It was bizarre. I miss that connection [with other co-workers being present] so much. I thought I was actually going to be less nervous doing a monologue in the comfort of my own home, but I was way more nervous. Being on Zoom with people and talking to Jay and Paul, oh my God, it made me so much more nervous.
“I’m sweating just thinking about it,” Paulson affirms.
However, Roach opines, “It worked in our favor [for the] character. That’s exactly the kind of predicament they were in. If good storytelling is good predicament, we put you all in perfect [predicaments to create] anxiety [for] the performances.”
Midler adds, “I do have to say that they followed every single protocol, and everybody was great. They kept their distance, they cleaned, they did what they had to. They came in two days before, did everything they had to do, they left it pristine. I mean, I felt very well taken care of. I’m so paranoid, because I’m so old, you know? I feel like anything can happen to me – you know, if I go to the post box, I’m in trouble. So, I really felt that I was in superb hands. Every question that I had was answered, and I got a free COVID test out of it, so it was win/win all around.”
If there is a second season of COASTAL ELITES, assuming quarantine finally ends by then, what does Rudnick think that will look like? “God only knows, but we are so few days away from an election, and the world remains in such tumult and such chaos and such craziness, that there will always be more to write about. I mean there’s always the question of, ‘Does reality outstrip satire?’, and we’re way past that. So, I will keep reacting, and I can’t wait to see what will happen next. I’m terrified of what will happen next. Who knows who will be able to go back to school, or back to work? So there’s way too much material out there. But I would hope that, should there ever be a second season, we would not all be in little boxes. It would become shocking. I think we’re all now so used to reacting at such a great distance, and with such care, that it’s going to feel like a trip to Mars, if you’re suddenly in the room with everybody else. And it will be an adventure.”
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Article: Interview: Creator Paul Rudnick, director Jay Roach and stars Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Sara Paulson, Kaitlyn Dever and Issa Rae chat new HBO film