“Maniac,” Netflix’s latest high-profile series, is technically an adaptation of the Norwegian series of the same name, but the end result is a drama that bears little resemblance with its source material.
Helmed by “True Detective” alum Cary Fukunaga and written by novelist and “The Leftovers” alum Patrick Somerville, the 10-episode drama debuts on Friday. And it’s a big, ambitious, genre-skipping adventure through the human mind.
“When Cary and I met, we both that the same kind of general sensibility that it’s not worth making something that seems like anything else,” Somerville said in an interview with TheWrap. “There’s so much television, there’s so many new shows coming out, that it feels like a valuable element is to make a show that feels reminiscent only of itself.”
“Superbad” duo Emma Stone and Jonah Hill star in the series (which they also executive produce) as two participants in a high-tech drug trial led by the nebbish Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux, gleefully playing against type) and his chain-smoking, no-nonsense, second-in-command Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ex Machina”).
Both carrying mountains of mental and emotional baggage and — including a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia in one case — Stone’s Annie Landsberg and Hill’s Owen Milgrim sign themselves up to test a new three-pill system promising to solve all of their problems, with no consequences or side effects. The procedure sends them into a variety of immersive dream sequences, including a Long Island caper involving a lemur, a “Lord of the Rings”-esque fantasy and an early-20th-century noir, among others.
Where the original series, which is set in a mental institution, plays it’s central character’s hallucinatory fantasies for laughs, Fukunaga and Somerville’s version of “Maniac” is a more sympathetic, frequently funny and often sad look at the experience of living with mental illness.
“We knew we wanted to make an absurdist show with a heightened reality, but we knew we wanted there to be a lot of warmth and compassion for mental illness to it as well,” Somerville said, emphasizing that the show’s comedy would never come at the expense of its characters’ issues.
Somerville, credited as creator and writer on all 10 installments, came onto the project relatively late in the process, after Fukunaga had already sold the series to Netflix. And though Fukunaga has grown something of a reputation as difficult to work with in the years since “True Detective” made him one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood — that “difficult” reputation was even the subject of Fukunaga’s recent GQ profile — Somerville says his experience collaborating with the director was different.
“We disagreed all the time, and we had different ideas about how to tell the story sometimes,” he said. “But we had a friendship and were able to talk through anytime we ran into a bump in the road, and through that disagreement, we were able to invent new things.”
“Everyone in Hollywood is difficult to some degree. It’s a matter of do you like each other enough to continue? Do you respect each other? Do you respect the project? And in this case, it was a great experience.”
Read TheWrap’s full interview with Somerville below.
TheWrap: How did you come to this project?
The show was built almost in reverse. Anonymous Content approached Cary with the core idea of “Maniac,” and then Cary approached Emma, and they together approached Jonah. The show sold to Netflix before there was ever a writer involved. And I had written a — sort of — very strange half-hour comedy. It was so strange that I knew I’d never be able to get it made, so it was more like an experiment. It was called “POTUS Robotus,” and it was about a piece of artificial intelligence accidentally getting elected president of the United States. I sent it to my agent and he mentioned Cary was looking for a writer with that same kind of tone and asked to send it to him. And Cary responded well to that script, so we met and talked and started creating “Maniac.” It usually doesn’t go in that order, but essentially, Cary hired me to create “Maniac” and we started creating a lot of ideas together.
What were the initial conversations between you and Cary like? What kind of show did you set out to make?
We had some very big, big ideas that we both kind of connected on right away. One was setting the show in an alternate reality landscape. That idea was exciting to both of us. It started off as a very general conversation, and the specifics of it started coming together when I wrote the first script. We also knew we didn’t want to set the show in a mental institute like the Norwegian series, because a lot of the humor comes from laughing at the expense of the mentally ill, for lack of a better way to say it. We knew we wanted to make an absurdist show with a heightened reality, but we knew we wanted there to be a lot of warmth and compassion for mental illness to it as well. So we decided to move everything to a pharmaceutical trial instead, and that solved the third big thing we talked about, which was unlike the Norwegian series, which has one central character whose imagination is being explored and then a therapist character who’s sort of investigating it, we knew we needed a different kind of balance because we had Emma and Jonah. They both needed to be having hallucinatory experiences. Both of their emotional stories needed to be told with the same weight.
Did you find yourself tailoring the characters to Emma and Jonah given that they were already signed on? Were you trying to find things that you knew they could do well?
We actually didn’t think about it that way. That seems like a recipe for disaster to me, to go after old things that you know an actor can do. It seems much more exciting to say, “We’ve seen them do this before, lets do something completely different. Let’s play them against type every chance we get.” It was great in as much as I knew they’d be able to do whatever we were thinking because they’re amazing performers, but it wasn’t too self-consciously built around anything we’ve seen them do before. … And they were game. They were very excited to kind of throw themselves into such an unsual project, one that gave them a lot of different opportunities to do different things. That was the general feeling, always.
Cary has a reputation as a bit of a perfectionist, and not always being the easiest person to work with, something he’s talked about himself, but what was your experience like working him on “Maniac”?
Television is just full of collaboration, and every single one of those collaborations is different. With me and Cary, I found it fine. He is super detail-oriented, and to be honest, I’m not that way, but that was a good connection between the two of us. We disagreed all the time, and we had different ideas about how to tell the story sometimes, but we had a friendship and were able to talk through anytime we ran into a bump in the road, and through that disagreement, we were able to invent new things. So, yeah. I’m difficult too. Everyone in Hollywood is difficult to some degree. It’s a matter of do you like each other enough to continue? Do you respect each other? Do you respect the project? And in this case, it was a great experience.
He also mentioned throwing out the scripts a couple months before production and starting over. What was the decision-making process there?
It wasn’t all of the scripts. There was just a particular plot point where we decided to go a different direction. Which meant, sort of, fundamentally changing which way the plot was going in the middle of the series. That being said, Owen and Annie end up in the same place that they were always going to end up. The path that got them there just went through some different doorways in the maze to get them back home.
How did you go about casting the rest of the show? Justin Theroux, Sally Field, Sonoya Mizuno, etc.
Well I knew Justin from “The Leftovers,” and we were very excited about him becoming Dr. Mantleray. And Cary, I think, knew Sally, so that was the first connection to how she became involved. Everyone else was just actors we admired, or actors we didn’t know who came in to read for us, or we knew we liked from other shows or movies. The other fun thing about “Maniac” is that actors come back as different characters, too. We never quite knew who was going to come back, but it gave us the chance to see people again who we didn’t think we’d see.
The show has a really diverse cast overall, but a good portion of the characters are Japanese. What was behind that decision?
Along the way, as Cary and I were doing the world-building in the early episodes, we decided that “Maniac” exists in a timeline that’s different than our own, where the history of technology unfolded in a different way. So Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech is a Japanese institution in Manhattan. Once we decided that, a lot of the corporate structure, and a lot of the people who work there, turned out to be Japanese people. And that fundamentally shifted some of the diversity of the cast in a really good way.
When you were envisioning that alternate reality, were there any movies or TV shows you had in mind or wanted to reference specifically?
There are many references floating around the show in the background, but in the case of building out the world of “Maniac,” it was sort of magical in that it was a conceptual thing first. Slowly, all of our crew and different departments began participating in it in their own way. Alex DiGerlando, our production designer sort of had an amazing grasp of what would or wouldn’t exist in the “Maniac” world. He just started building sets that were that. And [costume designer] Jenny Eagen, [prop master] Max Sherwood, all of our department heads, started throwing more and more ideas at it. There are references sprinkled throughout, but the basic idea was that it’s our zeitgeist but a different history of technology.
“Maniac” feels like the kind of show that couldn’t exist anywhere but Netflix, but what was your experience working with them? I’m thinking of Cary saying it was like you guys were taking notes “from the algorithm.”
He’s so overstating it. I mean, I say that lovingly, but my feeling is that Netflix took an enormous risk letting us make a show that is different and, I like to think, unique and singular. Because when Cary and I met, we both that the same kind of general sensibility that it’s not worth making something that seems like anything else. There’s so much television, there’s so many new shows coming out, that it feels like a valuable element is to make a show that feels reminiscent only of itself. And that’s very scary to networks, but Netflix never said “this is way too strange, guys.” They were largely trusting of us to go make the show we wanted to make. Hopefully that trust will bear fruit when the show comes out.