HBO’s quarantine satire “Coastal Elites” didn’t start out as a quarantine satire at all, given the fact that writer Paul Rudnick began working on it a year before the pandemic hit the United States.
So the title of the project, which was initially going to be staged at the Public Theater in New York and taped by direct Jay Roach for a special that would air on HBO, was in place well before re-writes were done to incorporate new plot points like the coronavirus, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 presidential election.
Meaning the “Coastal Elites” moniker has less to do with the subject matter and more to do with its subjects, played by Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Sarah Paulson and Katilyn Dever.
And if you don’t know “Coastal Elites” means, well that’s kind of the point.
“Coastal elites is a deliberately provocative phrase because no one is quite sure exactly who it applies to and whether it’s a slur or a simple geographic reference or a matter of pride,” Rudnick told TheWrap. “And what I wanted to make sure was it was as wide-ranging as possible. I mean, our show contains everything from a retired Manhattan school teacher to a Wyoming nurse to an out-of-work actor, all of whom on certain levels could be considered coastal and who knows if they’re elites. So I wanted to explore the nature of a catchphrase, of a buzzword. Who does this apply to? What does it mean? Is it Trump’s version of ‘the basket deplorables’ or is it something else entirely?”
“Coastal Elites” is a 1-hour, 30-minute satire that “spotlights five distinct and impassioned points-of-view across the United States. When the shutdown forces these characters to cope in isolation, they react with frustration, hilarity and introspection,” per HBO.
Rudnick says he liked “the idea of starting out with something that people weren’t quite sure about” with the title “Coastal Elites,” so that “we could surprise them.”
“If you think this will be just about a very small shelf of wealthy Caucasians hidden in their penthouses, it couldn’t be more the opposite,” he added. “But on the other hand, there is a sense that, OK, we’re in a divided country. And I think that’s what everyone in every inch of the country is dealing with. Who is an elite? What coast are you talking about? What concerns do we share? What geographical factors or matters of education or wealth might divide us? So ‘Coastal Elites’ just felt like a great spark to get people’s attention and make them think, ‘OK, what is this about?’ And then the show becomes the answer.”
While Rudnick was performing an “enormous amount” of rewrites to the “Coastal Elites” script once the pandemic hit and the project changed from a staged production to monologues that would be filmed remotely, Roach was dealing with the matter of, well, how do you film this remotely?
“We couldn’t risk taking them out to sets or to studios and we had to have as small a crew as possible,” the director told TheWrap. “Originally, we were hoping to have almost nobody and just move the gear into their houses. And I let the actors, during the rehearsal phase, walk us around their houses to location scout via Zoom to find the perfect setting. And we hoped to just drop the gear in and then come back. But it took a little more than that, because unless we were just doing a Zoom computer shoot, we needed a little bit of light and better cameras. So we ended up with a tiny crew.”
Roach says that no one was ever in the room with Midler, Rae, Levy, Paulson and Dever — except for Rudnick himself, but “virtually,” of course.
“We were on Zoom with them and had a remote viewing of their fancy camera’s perspective as well,” he said. “So I had a bunch of monitors on my desk and in the kitchen. And I’m Zooming to the actors giving them notes and Paul is giving them script notes during the actual process.”
The “unexpected side benefit” to this process, according to Roach, is “it’s so focused.”
“It’s just you and the actors. There’s not nearly as much of a distraction because there is not a very big crew and set and trucks and gear everywhere. It’s just us and the actors, one at a time. And then we did do a read through, which was great because then the actors got to see what each other was up to and how it would all hold together as a unified piece.”
“It ended up being very exciting and fulfilling to be all about the script and cast, script and cast,” he added. “That’s the motto I always try to use anyways, but in this case, there wasn’t even a choice.”
“Coastal Elites” debuts Saturday at 8/7c on HBO. You can watch the trailer here.