Finding humor on the edge of absurdity – ‘Russian Doll’ cast and crew hit Netflix FYSEE event

Natasha Lyonne and Amy Poehler speak onstage at the Netflix “Russian Doll” FYSEE Event at Raleigh Studios on June 09, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix)
Emmy voting starts today and yesterday, at the penultimate event of the Netflix FYSEE showcase, the streaming giant featured its acclaimed new series, Russian Doll. There to charm the crowd and discuss the show were members of the cast and production team of the enigmatic and addictive comedy, co-creators Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne, Director of Photography Chris Teague, Music Supervisor Brienne Rose, Editor Todd Downing and co-star Charlie Barnett. In a free-wheeling and often hilarious conversation with Rebecca Ford, Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Editor, the makers of this intelligent and wickedly different show talked about how it came to be and how they feel it has the ability to universally connect.

It wasn’t lost on anyone in the room that the three producers on stage were women, a rare thing indeed in this town, but, looking deeper at the credits for this show, another anomaly pops out: all 8 episodes of the first season were written and directed by women. Still, that doesn’t mean the show is all about women’s issues. Instead, the series plays more like a science fiction horror movie than a class in women’s studies. Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a New Yorker who keeps dying on her 36th birthday, only to come back and relive the same day over and over again—a twisted Groundhog Day, in the mold of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

Poehler, Headland and Lyonne said the idea came to them when they were sitting around talking about how all the women they know have complicated lives. They discussed themes like shame and acceptance, but didn’t want to make a show that was trite or just a series of platitudes. “Underlying brokenness is very human. We wanted to explore that,” said Lyonne.

It was crucial that each of Nadia’s “loops” looked and felt like its own story, yet they all fit together to make an overarching narrative. Editor Todd Downing noted the challenges in giving each loop its own flavor and cinematographer Teague agreed. The look of the show, he revealed, was inspired by absurdist imagery that the creators gave him, which inspired him to create a New York City that he’d never seen before, one that’s hyper-realistic, grounded and timeless.

As for the feel of the series, one of the most crucial elements of the world-building is the use and choice of music in the show. Music supervisor Rose told of countless hours sitting with Lyonne and Poehler on her living room floor, listening to songs, looking for the right fits. Many of the songs were written in to the script, including the memorable and key tune, “Gotta Get Up,” by Harry Nilsson, the song that replays every time Nadia starts a new loop. The song really relays the underlying absurdist qualities of the show as it connects to Nilsson’s real-life story, which they say plays like its own dense horror film. They admitted that even though the song is buoyant and fun, the underlying darkness of its backstory provides the perfect funhouse effect that they are going for with this show.

As for Barnett’s character, Alan, who is introduced at the end of the third episode, a whole new layer of the show is added as Nadia discovers he suffers from the same fate as she: dying over and over again. With the addition of Alan and his story, the show is catapulted into even loftier heights, dramatically and philosophically. Both characters are in a lot of pain, but their approaches to life differ wildly, as do their methods for coping. Barnett said that the relationship reminded him of the song “Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a person’s search for their other half.

Poehler expressed her gratitude to both Netflix and Universal for supporting their artistic vision completely and said it’s rare when you get to make the exact show you want. Lyonne agreed, saying everyone was able to insert their own personal histories into the show which made it life-affirming. But then Poehler reminded everyone that skating on the edge of absurdity and insanity can be really funny and she’s thrilled that people get it.

Russian Doll is currently streaming on Netflix.

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