How Last Man on Earth Ended Up In Silicon Valley
In our exclusive Writers' Room walkthrough, we go inside the tough creative decisions on Fox's Last Man on Earth.
Editor’s note: The Fourth Wall is a recurring feature that is a platform for creators, actors, and industry insiders to bring the readers behind the scenes of the production process. In our latest installment, we removed the curtain on the writers’ room for the third season of FOX’S, Last Man on Earth.
This part of the walkthrough looks at episodes five and six from Last Man on Earth’s third season. Previous installments of this walkthrough can be found here.
Last Man on Earth Episode 5 – “The Power of Power”
“”The group continues to search for a new place to live, but someone may be sabotaging their progress.””
Written by Matt Marshall; Directed by Peter Atencio
DEN OF GEEK: So how did this huge office building become the place where everyone ended up?
MATT MARSHALL: There was a lot of discussion in the writers’ room for a long time of where the group should live this season. We always wanted to do something different than just picking another house to live in. A Silicon Valley self-sustaining office building seemed like a fun wish fulfillment-type of place to call home. It’s basically an adult playground.
ANDY BOBROW: I’ll tell you the whole inside story because it’s probably interesting to someone. We really waited until the last possible minute on this decision. We knew we wanted to move, and we wanted it to be dramatically different. The options on the table were 1. Some sort of Little House on the Prairie situation, like where we could really get serious about frontier hardship; 2. An urban look, like Portland or Seattle, where we could show empty city streets; and 3. This weird idea of a self-sustaining office. We keep reading about the new Apple campus and the new Facebook campus, and this Amazon building that’s going up in Seattle. It’s intriguing to think that those buildings have their own electrical grid and indoor gardens and can pretty much function like bio-domes.
We threw out the Little House idea pretty quickly because it just didn’t make enough sense. They don’t have to live in nature when they can still break into any grocery store and pick up canned goods. We resisted the office idea for the longest time, because many of us, me included, were nervous about having things working too well.
We’ve all started using the word “janky” all the time. The world is janky, Tandy’s inventions are janky. So the idea of placing things in the Apple headquarters, it just didn’t seem janky enough. So we killed the office idea. We decided on a big Victorian bed and breakfast in Portland. We found a mansion in Piru, CA (the Piru Mansion, look it up) where we could shoot. We had ideas about how they would bust down the walls and make it look more open, so it would really be a post-apocalyptic feel, just this rotting old house. We were saying, “oh and they could drive a taco truck right into the lobby and that can be their kitchen.” We were really going to do that.
Then one day we all took a field trip to this Piru mansion and we all got bummed out in the van on the way up, just realizing what our work life would be like if we shot there. Longer commute, ungodly hot, and no place to relax. Each of us, quietly to ourselves, was thinking “I don’t want to work in this friggin house for six months.” That afternoon, our producer Steve Burgess said if we’re still open to the office idea, there’s a place down the street that’s empty. It used to be DeVry University. I think they’re also using it in that Netflix show Goliath. Steve took Will there and Will fell in love. Just looking at the huge empty floors. He realized a self-sustaining office building could still be janky if it’s not finished yet, which made it so much more fun to him. Will’s first question to the location guy was, “could I drive a go-kart in here?” The guy said, “you can do anything you want.” Will was sold.
You’ve touched on it a bit before, but it’s crazy how just showing a normally crowded area being so empty can effectively reflect the end of the world.
ANDY BOBROW: Yeah, it was the lesson we learned last season. An empty beach is not post-apocalyptic. An empty downtown is. Of course shooting an empty downtown is tricky. You either have to block off city streets or paint out any signs of life in post. But a big empty office building gets us a real nice unique look.
That visual of having a little home with a picket fence an a neighborhood within a run-down office building is such a perfect, surreal Last Man visual!
MATT MARSHALL: It definitely fits into the mold of the show of what Tandy’s reaction would be to Carol wanting a real home. He literally brought one to her. Even if it’s not much bigger than a kids’ playhouse, Carol loves it.
Conflict is obviously necessary, especially in a show like this, so how do you go about this sort of housing situation? Do you know that this new housing scenario is only going to be temporary for everyone, or do you set up shop and then establish a problem later when it feels appropriate to start moving on?
ANDY BOBROW: For this episode, we found conflict that centered on the building, but we don’t think the housing situation needs to serve that purpose all the time. Last year we had plenty of conflict with interpersonal relationships. People getting hot and cold with one another, and let’s be honest, we just dove into the boy/girl issues with Todd, Melissa and Gail. It was almost Friends, except for the apocalyptic twist of polyamory being a truly practical choice in this world. But we’ve got some real serious drama coming up, and it’s coming from places that I don’t think sitcoms have been before. I think the next several episodes will be a Rorschach for the audience.
There’s a skull on a table in one of the introduction scenes. Foreboding symbol or just a fun throwaway prop?
ANDY BOBROW: Ooh, I actually hadn’t seen that. Good eye. Well, I guess you could say it’s foreboding in the sense that we have some real dark shit coming up. But honestly, it’s just our frigging awesome set decorators. Shout out to Erin Boyd and Zach Kramer. Their marching orders were “just do a douchy Silicon Valley startup, like a videogame company, or Snapchat or something. Like one of those places you have no idea what they do there, but you know they drink Red Bull and bro out.” Erin and Zach found a million little details that didn’t cost a fortune but looked perfect.
That giant squid/Cthulu-esque mural is gorgeous. Same with the whole sort of Tetris motif that’s present through the building. What’s the story there?
ANDY BOBROW: While I’m doing shout-outs, our production designer Bruce Hill and art director Bryan Langer designed the office and it is huge and awesome. We like the idea that since the place is unfinished, we don’t know the name of the company or what they did there. Bryan designed that perfectly ambiguous four-cube Tetris-y logo, which tells you nothing and everything. I swear, some startup would have paid $500,000 to some hot design firm to come up with that precise level of corporate ambiguity.
We conceived a running gag, and you might be able to see remnants of it in some shots. The idea was, in that elevator lobby, there is a plexiglass sign, and a bunch of random colorful letters scattered on the ground. Like they didn’t get a chance to put the letters on the sign. We wrote scenes where they are fiddling with the letters, trying to guess what the name of the company was. Tandy arranges them to spell “The Fart Company.” We shot one scene on that idea, but we cut it for time and we decided we just won’t ever have the time in an episode to do that gag. But you can call it The Fart Company if you like.
The last few episodes have shown a lot of struggle on the Todd/Gail/Melissa front, especially on the Gail side of things. We finally move towards Gail stepping aside, this week. Did this have a lot to do with just feeling the characters out this season and seeing if big relationship stories made sense?
MATT MARSHALL: We put them in this unconventional three-way relationship last season knowing that it would provide some complicated off-beat relationship stories. It felt time to break off Gail and focus more on her own journey this season.
ANDY BOBROW: Yeah, we loved the three-way last year, but I think we probably played out all the stuff we wanted to do. It seems natural that a relationship like that is hard to sustain, and we just didn’t want to get repetitive.
The year has been a little too busy so far to get into its relationships that deeply, but that moment when Todd and Melissa hug holds a lot of weight behind it and is a nice remember of all of that.
MATT MARSHALL: That was a great moment. Mel Rodriguez is such an underrated actor. He’s brilliant and doesn’t get enough credit. I think it was a great reminder to show just how much Todd loves Melissa.
ANDY BOBROW: Yes and January too. When she hugs him, it’s like this drink of water and you didn’t realize how thirsty you were. Melissa has gotten funnier this year, but we really want to lean into the reality now. There’s a difference between a goofy character on a sitcom and a legitimately damaged person. We’re going to explore that.
It might seem kind of superficial to consider leaving a perfectly good living situation like this just because it doesn’t feel like a “home.” How do you weigh decisions like this as a writer versus the characters actually living in this situation?
ANDY BOBROW: You have this ability to expose our cracks and this may well be one of them. The question you just asked is exactly the discussion we had in the room. “Is it going to seem like Carol’s concern is coming out of nowhere? Would she really feel this? Wouldn’t everyone just love that building?” Well you’re right, Carol’s concern is a little hard to buy wholesale. There really doesn’t seem to be a logical reason why she would reject the building. But what you always have on your side when you’re telling a story is that people aren’t logical. Usually it’s the illogical stuff that creates the feeling of depth. Hopefully, the way Carol articulates herself in the end, it buys the illogic of it. But it’s also possible that people watched this one and said, “eh, not buying it.” For those people, hopefully we at least made them laugh with the brain freeze.
Last Man on Earth Episode 6 – “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths”
“Tandy attempts to develop his new friendship with Lewis by learning about his past. Meanwhile, Carol asks Gail for a big favor and Todd addresses Melissa’s mental state.”
Written by Liz Cackowski; Directed by John Solomon
Great, great work with Tandy not actually playing the guitar becoming the canonical way he plays the instrument now.
ANDY BOBROW: We have 25 minutes of Will tuning the guitar before he starts singing, if you want to see it.
There’s a real Shining vibe at times in their new home. Is that feeling intentional at all?
ANDY BOBROW: It was not intentional, but I’ll just credit that to John Solomon working with our fantastic set. Phil Lord said something in one of his famous 3am text messages last year. He and Chris Miller had shot the first two episodes of season one, and they set the look for the show. I don’t know anything about directing, so I don’t know how to make anything look a certain way. But Phil had been looking at our dailies and our edits and he wanted to remind us about the look. He sent us a note saying basically, “This show plays in wide shots. Tell every director who comes in. This show plays in wides.” Now I know that.
Seeing Todd and Melissa’s Shawshank love evolving into roleplay is another beautiful touch here.
ANDY BOBROW: Liz wrote this script, and I think it was her idea to do Shawshank roleplay, but she wasn’t that familiar with the movie. She sent out a text one night (technically it was a Slack) asking for the right Shawshank dialogue to throw into this scene. Tim McAuliffe had it nailed. We weren’t even picturing the actors going for it like that. But Mel wanted to get it right, so he studied that performance and really refined it. I love what January did too. Originally she asked if we wanted her to attempt an impression or just to stay in character as Melissa. We said “even if Melissa does a bad Tim Robbins, it will be funny.” But damn, she came up with a real take on Tim Robbins. I think she pulled out something really interesting and perfect.
Damn, Gail is never going to get a break, is she? That piece of backstory on her son is rough but explains a lot, too.
ANDY BOBROW: Yeah, I’ll confess, this was never something that we designed from the start. Gail drinks and does quips. She was just brought in to be someone who could call Tandy an idiot and get us out of a scene with a good old David Spade line. Now, on a 1970’s sitcom or 1980’s sitcom, that’s all you’d ever need to know. But today people want more realism, so you go, okay, why does Gail drink and do quips? I mean, what’s the reality? Why would someone be like that? Probably because she’s got some shit she doesn’t like to think about. Side note: I think I would enjoy a season of Just Shoot Me that just dealt with the tragic reality of David Spade’s character.
I’m really glad to see Mike’s livelihood get addressed. It was a dangling thread from last season that itched me and was hoping a note would get left or there would be some resolution there.
ANDY BOBROW: Yeah, it’s been on Will’s mind for a while. We almost did that scene in the road trip episode. In the first outline of that episode, they all argue about where to live and then Tandy gets up and says “We’re going to Portland (Lewis’s hometown). I’ve got an errand I need to do, and then I’m heading up there. Anyone wants to follow me, fine. Otherwise, it’s been nice knowing you.” And then he goes to Tucson to leave a note. And when he comes out of the house, everyone is there waiting for him. It would have been very teary in that episode. Maybe too teary. Either way, Will always knew that Tandy would have to go leave a note for Mike.
The return of “Gary” is certainly nice, but it should be viewed as a step backwards for Tandy at all, or just a memento?
ANDY BOBROW: It’s got that feel to it, but we just thought people love the balls so much, we wanted to get that back into the show.
Our walkthrough on Last Man on Earth’s third season will continue every two weeks!