“My agent at the time read the script and was like, ‘This is crazy. Are you sure?’” showrunner Mark Friedman says. “And that was kind of what I liked about it. It’s a risk. What makes you nervous is what makes something appealing, at least to me.”
Created by TV star Jason Segel, Dispatches from Elsewhere is indeed a bit of a risk. Loosely based on a real life alternate reality game held in the Bay Area in 2010, the show follows four every day individuals who find themselves dissatisfied with the monotony of day-to-day life. When mysterious fliers advertise the opportunity to engage in a grand puzzle featuring elements like the villainous Octavio Coleman, the Jejune Institute, and Divine Nonchalance, they jump at the opportunity…much like Friedman did in joining up with the series.
Friedman (Wayward Pines) was brought aboard to help bring Segel’s whimsical vision to life. Getting the right cast in place around Segel certainly helped. The show stars Segel as the lead Peter, Richard E. Grant as Octavio, Sally Field as Janice, Andre Benjamin as Fredwynne, and relative newcomer Eve Lindley as Simone.
“They always say about TV: you either get a star, or you make a star. With this, we get somebody like Jason, who brings How I Met Your Mother and his whole career. And then we get someone who makes the audience say, ‘Who’s that? I’ve never seen them before.’ I think people are really going to respond to (Lindley).”
We sat down with the Friedman to discuss that powerful cast, the mundane beauty that the show intends to capture, and more.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your reaction when you heard that the premise of the show? Is it something that Jason Segel came to you with?
(Jason) had been working on it for a little while with some other writers and a different showrunner. And for whatever reason the pairing didn’t work so the network was looking for someone else to work with Jason. Then he and I chatted, I read some of the scripts that were done and sort of where the show was going, and he and I really hit it off. That was like September of 2018. Then went to Philly in May of 2019, did two months of prep, shot from July to November of last year. That’s the whole process.
Can you tell me a little more about the original AR experience this is based on? Because the details are a bit scarce.
If you Google it, you get sent down all these rabbit holes. But there was a documentary called The Institute, I think it’s like 10 years now at least. It was about this game that was played in the Bay Area. There are definitely things in the pilot that come from that experience because Jason optioned that documentary and the guys who created that experience are friends of the show. We know we only exist because they created this thing. The documentary sort of takes you through playing the game, and it didn’t all go the way they planned, and everyone got too excited and then was disappointed. It’s this whole thing.
We owe a debt to that because (Dispatches from Elsewhere) is inspired by it for sure. But then the show takes it off in like a total different direction. Jason optioned the story about five years ago and I think originally he thought maybe I’ll do a movie. Then he came up with this, which is a larger, more ambitious version. If he’d stayed with the movie it might have been a lot more similar to the documentary, but because we’re filling 10 hours, the story can go in a lot more ambitious direction.
What was it like to put this cast together? Because it’s pretty impressive.
It’s amazing. We had a great casting director, Gayle Keller, who’s in New York. I also give credit to Scott Rudin, who was our producer, because Scott has very good taste and very high standards. For each of (the cast) the process was different. Jason was the closer. Jason would meet with them and explain his vision. I think Sally came onboard first of the three. Andre (Benjamin) is very particular about what he does. And then with Eve (Lindley) it was really chemistry. We did a chemistry read in New York and got to see a bunch of people on tape, and then a few actresses sat down with them and did a couple of scenes from the second episode.
There was such a diversity of experience, because you had Jason who’s been on TV since he was in high school, and Sally who’s been on TV since she was in high school. And then Andre, who’s been famous since he was in high school, but for something totally different. And then you throw into it this brand new person. I mean I think, I remember seeing them for the first time. And the way they look in those photos together, it’s so awesome. Then you’ve got Richard (Grant) sort of hovering around the perimeter. It was great. It was a pleasure.
Casting is everything on TV. Because if it’s someone you don’t want in your house for 10 hours, you’re not going to watch it. So I feel like we got really lucky. Jason set the tone and put together this great opportunity. I’m just excited for people to start seeing it.
Why set the show in Philadelphia?
Well originally the game itself was set in the Bay Area. And for many reasons AMC doesn’t really shoot stuff in California. Like even Breaking Bad, which was originally I think going to be in like the Palm Springs area – they moved it to New Mexico, because you chase the tax rebates. Pennsylvania has a very good rebate program, which really gives you more money to spend on your show. And Jason was presented with like a list of cities. Eventually what he came down to was Philadelphia. I’s like a very lunch pale, blue collar, Rocky Balboa type place, and it’s doubled for New York on film a few times. So if the show’s about showing the beauty in everyday life, why not pick a place that hasn’t been made pretty yet like that? We’re out in the city the whole show. We’re on stage like one or two days an episode. And we didn’t build very much because we had to use a lot of existing locations. That diner is a real diner. We didn’t build our own diner.
You mentioned the show is about the beauty of the world. Could you elaborate that a little bit? And also what do you think some of the themes are of the show?
What we’re trying to get out a little bit is that you kind of get caught up in your everyday drudgery. Jason’s character Peter is just trudging along. The purpose of the game and the mystery is to take a little more time to see the beauty in everyday life around you. It can be sometimes magical. But it can be sometimes very quotidian every day. It’s about opening your eyes. Yes it applies to Philly, but it can be where anyone lives, it’s like a universal idea. There are fantastical elements, but this isn’t a genre show in my opinion, or a sci-fi show. Hopefully it’s a grounded show where these are relatable people that you see yourself in.
The first four episodes of the series each open with Richard E. Grant’s character saying “Imagine ‘so and so’ was you” about the character that episode is covering. What was the inspiration for that?
We wanted in the first four episodes to sort of delve into who each of them are. You don’t want the game part to grind to a halt just to tell Fredwynne’s story. So you don’t want to just do flashbacks and things like that. You want to integrate it into the plot. Jason is an optimistic person, and he wants to believe the world can be a better, happier place. And we live in very divisive times. So the idea was that you see a little bit of yourself in any of these people.
It’s funny, as showrunner, I have to write all of that, but like…I’m definitely Fredwynne. Fredwynne is me, maybe 70% of me. And I’m a little Simone. But everyone’s percentages will be different. Then in some ways we’re all just ourselves, we’re not any of these people. That hopefully is the journey of the show. You see yourself in them, you identified with them, and you want to go on the journey with them. But hopefully at the end maybe you’ve realized, “I’m not any of them, I’m me.” And that’s I think what Jason wants. We’re all different in our own ways.
Does that format continue on beyond four episodes?
I’d rather not reveal that, but yes. If you get to the end of the fourth, you’ll see the story sort of shifts a little.
AMC keeps referring to the show as anthology series. What necessarily do they mean by that? Because at first glance it seems like a-
Just like a limited series. The first season tells a complete story in some ways, but I don’t want to give too much away. Certainly we’re all open to coming back, because a lot of it depends on the response to the show and what the audience thinks, or what AMC thinks. I thought Jason and I worked together really well creatively, I hope he would say the same thing. And this cast was a dream, and so if there’s more story to be told, hopefully we’ll get to tell it.
What’s it like to balance the story of the show with the fact that the characters are also playing a game?
One of the other questions I got was, “do you want people to watch this and be like taking notes, and pausing?” And that stuff is there, trust me. We’ve made a conscious effort to reward the active viewer. But that’s not how I watch television. I watch stories because of the people. There will be some people who can freeze frame and you get to the end of the story you may want to go back to the beginning, because a hundred things will suddenly make sense that we baked in all along. But hopefully people will just respond on an emotional level. This isn’t the future, it’s not a utopia, it should feel very grounded. It’s not Black Mirror.
Jason used the phrase “handmade” to describe it. What I love about that is that implies to me is that this isn’t sleek and cold. It’s more like ragged, and not everything is going to make sense. Maybe some of this shit we try to do is going to not work, but I’d rather fail that way a little bit, and get like 80% right.