Clyde Phillips’ old man was a butcher, yet the Dexter showrunner avoids eating meat. His new television series, after spending the last three years as the showrunner of another Showtime hit, Nurse Jackie, revolves around two aspiring New York restaurateurs. Phillips makes no mistake that he’s the furthest thing from a foodie.
So what drove Phillips to re-enter the prestige television world with a serious look into the restaurant business? With AMC’s new hour-long drama Feed the Beast, Phillips ventures out into gentrified New York’s final frontier, the Bronx, where the food on the table is just the place setting for a series that copes with grief, family strife, mob ties, and literal and metaphorical fires.
The series, which stars David Schwimmer as sommelier Tommy Moran and Jim Sturgess as fresh-out-prison former chef Dion, hits AMC on June 5th. In a sit down conversation ahead of Feed the Beast’s red carpet premiere, I spoke with Philips about the New York locale, the country’s changing taste buds, and finding the right fit in the crowded television landscape.
Den of Geek: How did Feed the Beast come across your desk?
Clyde Phillips: When I was shooting Nurse Jackie, I went home after a 14-hour day and my agents at CAA had sent me two episodes of the Danish series, Bankerot. I had dinner and relaxed for a while and said ‘oh what the hell.’ I watched the first one and I was spellbound. I watched the second one and then I called my agents in L.A. and said ‘I’m in, I want this.’
I then called the chairman of Lionsgate, which is my studio and said there’s something you need to see and you need to buy it. He watched it and we had a deal with the Danish filmmakers in two weeks, which is rocket speed. I then got all the rest of the episodes, there were 16 episodes, watched them all with my assistant, and I went to L.A. where I keep a little cottage. We sat with another guy and banged out the pitch. Just watched all the episodes and talked about what the series could be, and we talked about what needed to be different.
How similar is your adaptation to the original series?
The basic through line of the storyline is quite similar. Many of the characters are similar, but it’s a Danish show. So first of all it’s 25-minute episodes and an eight-episode season. That’s 200 minutes. I need to do 430 minutes. But it’s also like watching a Bergman film — everybody’s white. I’m not doing a show in New York where everyone’s white, nor should I.
We have the Polish mob, the Greek chef, and an Irish sommelier. We have a black wife, black kid, racist father, Cuban girlfriend, a Muslim cook and lesbian line cook. That’s what this town is like. If we’re going to diversify, how about portraying a racist as a real racist?
Was New York always the original setting for your vision of the series?
It was always New York and it was always the Bronx. The Bronx is the last frontier of gentrification in New York City. It’s the Wild West. I mean entrepreneurs are just starting to go in there. They’re building studios, new real estate with high rises are going in. There’s good news and bad news to gentrification. It brings jobs and restaurants and money into a town, but it also affects neighborhoods and families and schools and a whole ecosystem, a multi-generational ecosystem also gets affected.
How New York local does the show get? Did you tour some of the multicultural areas that make up the Bronx while conceiving the show?
I don’t know the names of the areas. All I know is we drove up and down and took pictures and then I sent my location people out and they made movies of it and brought it back to us, but we shoot the show in Queens. Most of our exteriors are shot in Queens because we need to keep our studio, our sound stage, as a hub. And we went to the Bronx for two days to shoot establishing shots. Dexter looks like it’s shot in Miami but it’s shot in LA, but we sent [our team] to Miami for establishing shots.
There are a lot of layers to this show and one that runs underneath is that the characters are anticipating the gentrification of the Bronx. Does a neighborhood need to gentrify for an upscale restaurant to thrive?
Well it depends on the neighborhood and how depressed it is. The neighborhood that we’re moving our show into is a series of abandoned warehouses. Arguably there’s something better that can be done with that real estate than just having empty buildings.
There’s so much great television today with new platforms testing the waters. Does this make you put a premium on having to capture an audience’s attention from the outset? You have a show where introducing backstory early in the story is necessary. How do you strike a balance between constantly moving the story forward and fleshing out the characters?
That’s a good question — it’s really hard to do. There’s a lot of what we call clutter out there. There’s 409 scripted series on outlets that I can’t even name. In the Danish series, after the end of the second season they didn’t even have the restaurant up and going. We have our restaurant already up and going in the fifth episode.
So we needed to have the story move quickly. We need the audience to understand these characters and their dilemmas, their challenges, their dreams, but most importantly their flaws. And then challenge for me is how do I get you to not watch something else? Part of that is star power. Schwimmer and Sturgess… amazing. Part of that is the promotion the network does, which is great. Part of it is identification of the characters.
Did you look at this show as filling a void for audiences that have more or less become obsessed with cooking? Just look at the millions that share videos like Tasty on Facebook every day to the countless reality and food-doc shows. Did you see it as an opportunity for a prestige drama to capture the attention of this audience?
If you look at it, so many way things can go wrong. That makes [running a restaurant] exciting. I watched the show Chef’s Table on Netflix and those are beautiful documentaries. I don’t watch Top Chef or any other food shows.
I’m not into food porn, but in growing up in the food business I wanted to do a show about a restaurant where everything can go wrong. What if you lose gas? You’re fucked and you’ve got 100 people coming tonight. What if the delivery truck gets stuck in the tunnel? You’re fucked. What if two of your chefs get the flu? You’re fucked. One character is an alcoholic and the other is a cokehead. They’re in debt to the mob. [David’s character] is grieving. His son is mute and is having trouble in school. There are all of these challenges.