As IndieWire’s Ben Travers’ noted in his review of Prime Video’s latest original, “This isn’t your parents’ ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.'”
The Prime Video series starring Donald Glover and Maya Erskine shares a title with Simon Kinberg’s 2005 film, but similarities mostly stop there. Francesca Sloane, who co-created the series with Glover, told IndieWire that they “didn’t really consider the movie very much at all.”
More from IndieWire
“This is without any shade on the movie — I think the movie is really fun, and does what it’s supposed to do for that kind of film,” she said. “We just wanted to tell a story that felt satisfying to us. We wanted to tell a love story about people who might actually be incompatible, and then see why they want to work through that anyway — first because of circumstance and then by choice — and then have that go hand in hand with the fun of missions and think about these things through the point of view of like, what small children might think about in terms of spies. And then try to make that as grounded as you possibly can. That was sort of the the direction we all went in.”
“Grounded” is a term that guided Sloane and Glover’s creative team, and one that comes to mind repeatedly throughout the series’ eight episodes (all streaming now). Where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Smiths were short-fused and furiously attracted to each other, Glover and Erskine’s are best friends and banter buddies. As the relationship grows, so does the tension — again, not the sexual tension but the strain of prolonged partnership, here pushed to its limits by blurred professional boundaries and being cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a love story disguised as an action-thriller, and Sloane said the sleight-of-hand was deliberate.
“I think early days we started talking about it being more straightforward action, and we just kept struggling with how to tell that story — not even just Donald and I,” she said. “We had a great room of writers and Stephen Glover and we all [felt that] the moment that it feels like a struggle, you have to pivot to where it starts to actually feel like it’s flowing. The thing that we just kept returning to was anchoring everybody based on the relationship.”
Below, Sloane discusses the creative process and her first time running a show after writing and producing “Atlanta” (and giving birth just before production). Though “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” leaves its door open for a second season, the first one already left enough of an impression on this creator as the experience of a lifetime.
“Even though we were doing this big, giant project, people kept constantly saying it felt like some kind of weird, small, intimate theater troupe of dorks,” she said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: How are you feeling now that the show is out?
Francesca Sloane: It’s all really exciting. I had zero expectations of what this would feel like and it is totally bizarre, but very, very cool.
This is your first time as a showrunner, I know you’ve talked a little bit about that and also juggling it with being a new mom.
This was my first opportunity to show run. I was really, really lucky that Donald wanted to do this with me. And then the luck just kept continuing forward because we happen to have just insanely talented friends who are also insanely talented people. Hiro (Murai) then wanted to come on board and sort of create the world with us for the the early episodes and that was really incredible. I ended up becoming pregnant while creating the show, and then I ended up having my beautiful baby right before we started shooting the show. So we were sort of running around the world filming this thing while I was either with a child on me or a breast pump under my shirt, and just holding on for dear life, but it was an amazing experience.
I kind of love that especially just going about the day and normalizing it. You and Donald worked together on “Atlanta,” so how did that relationship translate over to this project?
I think on “Atlanta,” we recognized very quickly that we shared very similar sensibilities in a very natural way which felt really special and really refreshing. And in addition to that, humor is such a great point of becoming close to someone, and we laughed at all the exact same things and pulled the exact same references from our childhood. I feel like Donald and I and Stephen also are just really oddly similar children. We grew up to be the people that we are today but we would have really hung out as little ones. He asked me to do this with him and doing anything like this, in terms of garnering a relationship — it just makes you that much closer. So we became really, really, really close from all of this.
I know it can be challenging for some people the shifting power dynamics when you work with someone who is a friend, especially since he was your boss on “Atlanta,” and you guys were co-creators on this, but at the same time you had to be the boss. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Yeah, Donald and I had screaming matches every single day. Everyone couldn’t look at us in the eyes and that was sort of how we wanted to make sure — I’m just kidding, none of that is true at all. What was really cool about working with Donald and working with people who had that shorthand of creative language, [is that] it allowed for us to bypass the struggle of trying to articulate yourself to somebody in a way where they just don’t understand you on a creative level. And so while yes, technically, I was running the ship, it always felt like I had a partner.
I actually felt like I had multiple partners on the show because we worked with so many people that we had that shorthand with; there were moments where Maya I felt like my partner, and there were moments where Hiro felt like my partner and then every single amazing guest director — Karena (Evans), Christian (Sprenger), Amy (Seimetz). I had new relationships and new partnerships with every single block. I felt that way with our producer Anthony Katagas. It really felt like even though we were doing this big, giant project, people kept constantly saying it felt like some kind of weird, small, intimate theater troupe of dorks. So that really helps kind of get through how difficult it all was.
Tell me more about those directors too, and how everyone brought their own style to those episodes.
We couldn’t have gotten luckier. I mean, Hiro is just the ultimate G. I don’t think I can say enough good things about that person. He is just a solid human being, but he also is so talented in the sense that he can see the world in a way — where other people might show a close up of something, he understands that there’s so much more to say in the delicate nature of keeping something in a wide. I just think he’s the master of that. I think he’s one of the greatest directors of our time, and he’s going to be really embarrassed if he ever reads this because he’s also so genuinely humble. But starting off the show with Hiro and his sensibilities of in-between moments being super quiet until they need to get very loud, really was a great place to start a show, especially trying to take on something like an action genre. He also is just a really good friend and a really good partner.
…And then Donald. If anybody can direct a story, as well as a finale to make it really satisfying, it’s the guy that is kind of the father of the whole project. He brought everything he had to this thing, in the acting and writing with me and in directing the show. I’ve never seen Donald work harder, and I think he’d say that too. He really brought a lot.
What were some of the benefits or challenges of the action genre? Most of you are experienced with intimate storytelling or with comedy.
It was strange to take a scrappy kids and be like, “Hey, here’s a giant scope, and what can you do with that?” And I think it was really challenging at first. I will be the first person to say that I don’t think action-thriller car chases is necessarily my forte, but it did become sort of a fun exercise. Some of my favorite films of all time were created during the Hays Code era, and I started realizing that having guardrails and having rules and limitations kind of stretches your imagination in this really cool way. How do you take something that might not be necessarily the thing that comes most naturally to you and make it feel natural? And it started to actually be a really fun exercise for all of our brains.
This project started with you guys working with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who exited shortly into it. But how exactly did things really click into place once you hired Maya?
I mean, Phoebe is a legend. It was actually really inspiring to get to know her and work with her [in] the period of time that we did. Donald and I really had such a distinct vision for the show; We knew at once we wanted it to be this relationship show, we knew that we wanted the missions to sort of interplay with forecasting what was going to happen next with two of them as a couple. But we could never fully pin down Jane. We knew we wanted her to be withholding and cagey and that John’s this golden retriever and Jane supposed to be this slick cat and how does that play with each other? But I couldn’t see her yet. And when Maya came into play, suddenly, Jane made sense. In terms of her vulnerability, in terms of her humor, in terms of her strange quirks — it just all started to unfold once Maya’s face was a part of the project.
You worked with such incredible guest stars on this. Tell me about casting and working with them.
Oh my gosh, the guest casts. I keep saying this but like, teenage me would just fall over if she knew that these types of cool people would say yes to working with us, like it’s just out of control. The first person that we thought of was Michaela Coel for the role of Bev. We wrote the part for her. The idea was if your spouse started spending time with somebody else who would be the most intimidating and coolest person to truly crush your heart if that was who your partner is spending time with — and that’s Michaela Coel, easily. Thank God she said yes.
Early days, Hiro and Carmen Cuba and I especially had a lot of conversations about casting Eric Shane and Hot Neighbor in the second episode. We just knew that we wanted these people to feel really grounded, and there had to be an element of a naturalistic performance, but still with a slight hand of camp. There should be this element of twinkles in their eye for every single character actor that we wanted. So when we landed on John Turturro as Eric Shane and Paul Dano as Hot Neighbor, it sort of started telling us what the rest of the world should feel like. From there we got our Sharon Horgans and our Parker Poseys and our Wagner Mouras. The list goes on and on and on, but it just felt like they all belonged in the same universe, all of these people. It started to really make sense that all of these people should somehow be brought together in this world.
That’s such a good way of putting it because actually once you’ve said it in those words, that is exactly I think what really clicked as a viewer.
We were luckiest people on the planet.
Did you map out a timeline for the series? I know it’s not necessarily shared with the audience how much time has passed between missions or even throughout the relationship, but was that something that you and Donald had in place?
Yeah, we definitely thought about that. We knew that we wanted it to be this flash in the pan romance, because these two characters are clearly adrenaline seekers whether they realize it at first or not, and that’s going to create some really fast paced high highs and really low lows. And the thing that mattered most to us was just —
You did just say “high-high.” I feel like I have to point that out.
Oh my gosh, you’re right. I hate myself for that, but I appreciate it.
I hate myself for interrupting, but it was too good!
That’s really… wow. Yeah, Hihi has just taken over everything for so long now. But I feel like everything about the two of them just needed to try and tell a complete relationship within eight episodes, and so how do you get to these milestones? And Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother who wrote with us too, was especially good at sort of reminding us of ways to think about the relationship in chapters in that way.
And speaking of Hihi, how did you decide on that shadowy agency and keeping it mysterious? In the movie, they have offices and workplaces and colleagues and this was so enigmatic.
It just felt right. We’re living in a world where there are Postmates and TaskRabbits and Amazon and all of these things and it almost feels like this millennial story of working for someone and never actually meeting your boss. But then it also felt really fun in the sense that it felt like a throwback to a “Charlie’s Angels”-type show from the ’70s and the ’80s, just done in a way that spoke to audiences of today. It just felt like the right thing. And the mystery of that company made the two of them have to lean that much further into each other, and that felt really satisfying in terms of the love story of it all too.
Similarly, you also made the creative choice to start at the beginning of the relationship with John and Jane as strangers and I would love to hear the thinking behind that. I imagine that once you made that decision, it really opened up the floodgates for ideas.
We had a version once where it was about a marriage that was stale, and kind of parroting the movie a little bit more in that sense. But it just felt like seeing the full scope of a relationship from start to finish in some ways, or at least seeing like the different levels going up just felt like a good opportunity to introduce these ideas of marriage in a way that felt more fresh. This concept of loneliness and seeing why people would want to be a part of something like that company in the first place just felt like a really cool angle that created a lot more intrigue and a lot more real estate. The beauty of TV is you have so much time to show things to an audience, and so we really wanted to take our time with these two people meeting and then arriving to a place where they would maybe consider having to kill each other. And the journey just felt satisfying with that approach.
What did you take away from this project and what do you hope viewers take away?
I took away from this project how important relationships are and how fortunate you can be when you meet your soulmates. This is so corny and everybody that I work with [and] love are gonna be so mad at me for being this dorky — but I got to make a show with a bunch of my soulmates, and that’s something that I will hold close to me for the rest of my life. As hard as it was, it was so worth it. And weirdly, I feel like that’s what the show is about. How do you navigate life alongside somebody? What is worth it to share that time on Earth with a person by your side? It really makes you sort of question what is worth what in the name of love.
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is now streaming on Prime Video.
Best of IndieWire