“Poker Face” has captured the hearts of viewers week after week on Peacock, but Episode 8 — titled “The Orpheus Syndrome” and co-written and directed by Natasha Lyonne — is a true love letter to a specific field of cinema: special effects artists.
Rian Johnson’s ingenious new mystery series follows a young woman named Charlie (Lyonne) with the almost supernatural ability to tell when someone is lying. After getting into some hot water at the casino where she works in Reno, Charlie takes off on an odyssey across the United States, running from a dogged mob enforcer (Benjamin Bratt) and helping to solve mysteries wherever she turns – everything from murderous regional theater performers to a pair of aging hippies out for revenge. And this week’s episode is the show’s most audacious and original hour yet.
Charlie finds herself working as the assistant to a cantankerous stop-motion animator (played by Nick Nolte) who is drawn into a web of lies and murder by his old collaborator (Cherry Jones), who is now an executive at a powerful visual effects house. And, yes, it’s hard to not draw parallels between the episode’s characters and Johnson’s real-life experience, having written and directed “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – Nolte’s character very much resembles legendary stop-motion animator Phil Tippett (who worked on the original “Star Wars” trilogy) and Cherry bears more than a passing resemblance to Lucasfilm bigwig Kathleen Kennedy.
It’s an incredible episode, playful and madcap in all of the ways that make the show so special. And it’s made even more incredible by the fact that Tippett consulted on the episode and provided original animation for the installment.
The episode is so perfectly cast, too, that it comes as a shock that Jones nearly turned down the role.
“I just got a call from my agent and said that I was being offered this part in this new Natasha Lyonne series. And I heard about it and I read it and I thought, Oh, I just don’t know if I can, I just don’t know. It’s like being in repertory theater, a part like that,” Jones said. “I was getting ready to say no and my wife said, ‘Cherry, Rian Johnson, Natasha Lyonne. It’s the cool factor. They’ve got the cool factor.’ And I said, ‘Indeed they do.’ So I did it.”
Jones’ nerves weren’t exactly at ease, even when she started filming. But Lyonne’s guidance helped her get comfortable with her character and with the show’s idiosyncratic format.
“The first day I was miserable because I was trying to figure out what the style was and it’s not been on the air yet so you don’t know what they’re going for and looking for. And Natasha was just heaven in that incredible voice of hers that shouldn’t even exist in the 21st century but thank God it does,” Jones said. “She would say, ‘Oh no man, we’re so lucky.’ She would say, ‘No, no. If I wanted a skinny bitch, I could have gotten a skinny bitch.’ Because I had gained weight. Everything that was bothering me was why she wanted me.”
When the idea that Jones was playing Kennedy was proposed during our interview, Jones rejected the notion. Not because she wasn’t playing Kathleen Kennedy but because she didn’t know how Kathleen Kennedy would even factor into this story. “You are looking at an innocent lamb. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I know nothing about the business. I’m the most ignorant,” Jones said. “I’ll let you talk to Rian Johnson about that one. I really don’t know.” (Kennedy produced M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller “Signs,” which co-starred Jones.)
Another name Jones was unfamiliar with was Phil Tippett, the animation wizard who worked on “Willow,” “RoboCop” and “Jurassic Park” (among others), and who inspired Nolte’s character in the episode. “I heard that name a great deal and I understood that was definitely the work. It was his work,” Jones said. “I mean, that barn that the designers created, it was borrowing all of that work of his. It was unbelievable! I wish they could have preserved that as a museum. That was extraordinary.”
Tippett knew Johnson, who Tippett describes as “a big fan of stop-motion,” from when Johnson was working on “The Last Jedi” at Skywalker Ranch (near where Tippett still lives). The two struck up a friendship.
“When he started to get the ‘Poker Face’ project rolling, he contacted us and said he had some ideas for what he wanted to do, without giving away the plot, was that he wanted to do something with stop-motion and have a stop-motion artist involved as a character. What was I going to say? I was like, ‘Sure, I’m game for this. What do you want?’”
Together, Tippett, Johnson and Lyonne concocted the concept for the episode and what would be needed from the animator. “He had some ideas when we met with both he and Natasha Lyonne over Zoom and discussed what they had in mind, which was to have based stop-motion characters around certain mythological creatures. We made them and shot them. Rian pretty much gave us carte blanche on it. He just said, once it was established what these things needed to do and where they were going to be and what the lighting was, he just said, ‘Do your magic.’ We didn’t get any notes. We just delivered. He just said, ‘Deliver as final shots.’ That was it.”
While Jones said that she was on set for two weeks, it took Tippett several months to complete the animation needed for the episode.
Nolte was playing Tippett’s “alter ego” according to the animator. “We’re basically the same build and surly old guys,” Tippett said. When Nolte got to the set, he met Tippett (who hung out with the production in Upstate New York for “a couple of days”). He was disappointed because Nolte had just trimmed his beard and if he’d left it alone he’d have looked much more like Tippett. (At the time Tippett had an impressively mighty beard.)
“I would consult on things. I sent them a bunch of the puppets that I’d made for ‘Mad God’ and a bunch of stop-motion armatures and junk and surface gauges and whatnot to do set dressing with,” Tippett said.
“Mad God” is Tippett’s brilliant stop-motion feature that was completed, after decades of work, last year.
He also gave a performance for the episode – he was Nolte’s hand model.
He mimicked the slight tremor that Nolte has in his hands, while adjusting the stop-motion puppets and stopped the shaking when he touched the puppet. “You find with older artists, not infrequently is their hands can shake a little bit. Let’s say they go to put a paintbrush to a canvas,” Tippett said, mimicking the quake going away as the paintbrush touched the canvas. He had no intention of filling in for Nolte, but was encouraged by his director. “Natasha said, ‘You should do it,’” Tippett said.
Tippett said that he and Lyonne formed a delicate bond away from the set. And it all came from Tippett not wanting to be bothered during his lunch break.
“They were all very respectful, but I didn’t want to have people ask me ‘Star Wars’ questions and stuff like that and just wanted to chill out. I just took my lunch and I went into the barn to eat my lunch, and Natasha was there,” Tippett said.
“We spent the lunch hour just having this great conversation. We bonded over her experience on ‘Russian Doll’ and mine on ‘Mad God.’ They were very, very similar, because both of those shows totally broke us as human beings. Really, seriously, psych ward, rehab-type stuff because we just dump everything into it and you don’t meet too many people that you can share that kind of experience with, as in none. I would bum cigarettes from her and we would spend a really enjoyable hour.”
And in a way, this is perfect for “Poker Face,” a show about murder that’s more concerned with the connections we make as people.
“Poker Face” streams on Thursdays on Peacock.