Last April, Greg Daniels told us about his latest series Upload for Amazon Studios. Before that he had worked as a writer and producer on King of the Hill, The Office and Parks And Recreation. With Space Force, he offers us a new series on Netflix created in collaboration with Steve Carell.
Note: Netflix has provided us this great interview!
Everyone’s so excited to see you and Steve Carell reunite after your work together on The Office. Talk to me about how you two came up with the initial idea for Space Force and your creative dynamic working together.
Steve called me and said, “Would you like to do a show about Space Force with me?” and I was like, “Yep!” Because I will do anything with Steve. He’s the best person in the world to collaborate with.
Then we had a bunch of creative sessions where we just brainstormed at Steve’s house, outlining who his character would be and what pressures would be on him, and what we wanted to say about the notion of making space more military. What would that story say about what direction the world is going in, and the human greed and aggressiveness that’s out in the world?
We realized that the story had beautiful visuals and a mythic quality, and it echoed some of America’s best moments. It had a lot of heroism and yet it also had a strong satirical element. Suddenly everybody has realized that there are riches to be had on the moon, and we’ve got to stake our claim. It almost feels like the great powers making colonies back in the time when Europe colonized the rest of the world. It feels like there’s now a scramble to colonize space. The contrast between that and the super hopeful early days of NASA when it was just such an achievement for all of mankind to get a person on the moon, is a good subject for satire.
The show tackles some really timely themes. How have you taken those more serious themes and filtered them through a comedic lens, and how are you toeing that satirical line within the show?
The great thing about Steve Carell is that he’s capable of acting on many levels simultaneously, which is what makes it so fun to write for him. You can see, all at the same time, what he should be doing, what he is doing, what he’s thinking about doing, the mistakes he’s making, and the fact that he’s realizing he’s making those mistakes. But he’s still plowing forward. You see it all at the same time, so it allows you to write with a lot of layers and levels simultaneously.
There’s a part in the series when General Mark R. Naird’s hopes and dreams are very grand and very noble, but he doesn’t really know that much about science, and he’s having to negotiate with John Malkovich, who plays Space Force’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Adrian Mallory. He’s also feeling a lot of pressure because the politicians have announced that the goal is to get “boots on the moon” by 2024, which is very difficult to achieve. His personal life has completely gone haywire. So Mark has got a lot to juggle. That’s the drama, and where the comedy comes in also. We’ve got a cast of amazingly funny people. It’s pretty easy to have jokes in there.
In Parks and Recreation, you have characters who work in the government. In Space Force, you have people who work for the military. How are you tackling writing characters with a military background? Are you working with a military consultant or advisor? What sort of research are you doing?
We have astronaut advisors, science advisors, but our military advisor, Mark Vazquez, has been very useful in teaching us about military behavior. Both Steve and I have relatives in the military who we love and respect, and hope are going to enjoy watching the show.
I love to do a lot of research, and that went back to the first show that I co-created, King of the Hill, which was set in Texas, and was very respectful and informed about the experience of people who live in Texas. One of the characters was even an Army base barber. We did a bunch of research for all those characters, and coming into this we had the same goal. We wanted to make sure that we were being accurate and more than respectful — I would say complimentary — of the military virtues that Mark Naird holds.
There’s a little bit of latitude because we’re inventing a new branch of the military. We asked questions like, “How long do they wear their hair?” There’s some ranges we worked with. Air Force hairstyles are a little bit longer than Army, for instance. We’re figuring that Space Force is even one step further than the Air Force, because there is a ton of technical information required to get into space. So a lot more of the personnel are going to be scientists and there’s less infantry feel. So the culture inside of Space Force is an interesting mix of military and science personnel.
Talk to me a bit about General Mark Naird and how you and Steve have crafted him together.
We spent most of our time discussing Steve’s character, General Mark R. Naird, when we were developing the show. I think he’s a great character. He’s somebody who spent his entire career in the Air Force. He was shot down in Bosnia and survived on bugs in the woods while the Serbian soldiers tried to find him, and he has a sort of heroism from those experiences.
He was looking forward to taking over the Air Force but then, out of the blue, he gets made the head of Space Force and he’s gotta get up to speed on the science very rapidly. He makes really good decisions because he understands people and he’s a good leader, but he also sometimes steps in it because he oversimplifies things and he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on around him. He has to try and figure out who’s giving him good advice and who isn’t. But we gave him a good value system at his center. He’s moved his family to Colorado to this base, and there’s a lot of friction, and his daughter is very unhappy, and he’s further away from his ailing parents who are a problem. There are a lot of pressures on him that aren’t job-related. He’s a man under a lot of stress.
Steve Carell is obviously so well known for playing Michael Scott on The Office. How did you approach making General Naird a different kind of character and, maybe even more importantly, a different kind of boss?
We definitely did not want to repeat Michael Scott at all. It’s been at least 12 years since Steve played Michael Scott, and he just physically doesn’t look the same. The haircut’s different, the mannerisms are different. Michael Scott is a very iconic character, but I actually think General Mark Naird has got more Hank Hill from King of the Hill in him than Michael Scott. Mark’s definitely a stronger character, more used to command, more capable than Michael Scott ever was. His issues are different. Michael would do anything to please others, he would blow in the wind in any direction. Mark is very inflexible and it’s hard to change his mind about anything. They’re very different people.
The character Dr. Adrian Mallory is such a fantastic foil for Mark. How did you come up with Dr. Mallory as a character, and how did you end up casting John Malkovich in the role?
When we were creating the show, I got a little inkling from John Malkovich’s agent that he had heard about the show and liked the idea. From the get-go, Dr. Mallory — which intentionally sounds like “Malkovich” — was written for him. There was a bit of worry. Would he be available? Could we make it work? And it worked out and he’s been just completely fantastic. He’s such a powerful actor, but he’s also so good at comedy, and we’re really figuring out how to light him up. He and Steve have had a great collaboration.
Ben Schwartz plays a very funny character in the show named F. Tony. Talk to me a bit about how you created that character and why Ben Schwartz, who you’ve worked with before, was such a great fit for that role.
We started with the character of Mark R. Naird at the center of the show, knowing what Steve plays well. Then the rest of the characters were built to counterbalance him. Dr. Mallory is everything that General Mark Naird is not in terms of being an intellectual, being very creative, and being mentally flexible. F. Tony is the opposite in the sense that Mark is militaristic, and F. Tony is completely of the moment and media savvy and Machiavellian.
Ben Schwartz is fantastic. If there was ever any question in the back of my head, it was, “Are we making a character that’s different enough from Jean-Ralphio,Ben’scharacterinParksandRecreation? ”Andwediscussedit and decided to lean into the more ambitious Machiavellian aspects of F. Tony. Yes, he’s completely media savvy, but he’s also really out for himself, and he has a long-range plan and is this domineering shark in a way that is very different from Jean-Ralphio — F. Tony also dresses in a more adult fashion, he’s dressed for success. It was very exciting for me to be able to work with Ben again because he’s a comedy genius.
Mark’s daughter Erin Naird, plays a pivotal part of the story. Diana Silvers is so great in the role. Give me a brief rundown of how you cast her and what you wanted to achieve with Erin as a character.
Erin Naird is Mark’s only daughter. She’s somebody who grew up in Washington, DC with her father being a powerful Washington figure, and she was kind of privileged and out of touch. Then when her dad takes over Space Force, the base is located in the tiny, tiny town of Wild Horse, Colorado. Erin moves there and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with all the local kids, and is ostracized and basically becomes a social loser. In the midst of all the stress that Mark has at work, he’s got to deal with seeing that his daughter doesn’t go off the rails. Diana really impressed us in the auditions with her very grounded yet quirky and interesting acting, and her comedic improvising with Steve.
Captain Angela Ali was also sure to become a fan favorite and Tawny Newsome is just so hilarious in the role. How did you come up with Angela as a character, and how did you end up casting Tawny?
The character of Angela is a helicopter pilot in Space Force. She shows up to Space Force and she becomes inspired to want to try out to be an astronaut. Angela gives Mark an opportunity to have a protege, someone to mentor. She has a lot of the same characteristics that he does — strength of will, commitment to her purpose. She’s a friend, and they have a more positive father-daughter dynamic than he has with his own daughter. Tawny is a great actress. She came in for her audition and started improvising with Steve, and was just so able and funny. She’s got a ton of comedy in her background.
I would love for you to speak about the character Dr. Chan, and casting Jimmy O. Yang.
Jimmy is super talented. Dr. Chan Kaifang is basically Dr. Mallory’s number two in the science division. We didn’t realize how big a role it would be at first, and he has a small role in the pilot, but Jimmy is so funny and he’s so real and he’s such a watchable, interesting performer that we’ve just written more and more for him as we go along. He’s one of the favorites in the writing room.
Many of the actors that you’ve assembled are like some of the biggest comedy greats in the business. How did you approach improvisation on the set?
The best way to encourage improvisation with a hilarious cast like this is to simply write just a little bit not as good as you could, so that they are like, “Oh wait, I can do better than that.” Then they improvise. So, I’m always holding back just a little bit. I could write a lot better than this, but then they wouldn’t want to improvise so much.
You’ve also assembled some incredible directors working on the series, talk to me about them a bit.
I was very excited to hire Paul King to do the first two episodes, and Paul is obviously very well known for his work on Paddington, which is, I think, one of the only movies to get a 100% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. I think that it is scored higher than Godfather and Godfather II on Rotten Tomatoes. Paul has an amazing eye for detail and for world-building. But I also really loved his earlier work on British comedy shows like The Mighty Boosh and Come Fly With Me. So I felt that he’s a guy who’s got a great visual eye but also understands comedy.
Daina Reid is shooting the last two episodes. I worked with her on the Amazon show Upload, which I just finished. She’s directed some episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and she was a comedic actress so she’s also got great instincts and an understanding of comedy. Jeff Blitz won the Emmy for The Office episode “Stress Relief” and is a hilarious guy. Tom Marshall, another Englishman, directed the fresh and fast-paced British comedies Chewing Gum and Famalam, he’s got a great visual style. And we have Dee Rees, who’s an Academy Award Nominee. With her Mudbound experience, Dee killed our big war games episode and I love her sci-fi comedy style in Electric Dreams. Dave Rogers, our series editor, who’s been a great director and editor on The Office and The Mindy Project, as well as Upload, did a great episode, too, with a lot of the amazing Lisa Kudrow.
It’s a great team behind the camera, including the crew. One of the things about Steve, having done The Office in LA, is that he has a beautiful reputation with the crew. He’s such a gentleman with everybody, so everybody wants to work on a show where Steve is starring. We had our pick of crew, and it’s a dream team behind the cameras. Our production designer Susie Mancini is so talented, and everybody has been knocked out by the set and all the other production elements. She really got into research, and the detail is enormous.
Our director of photography is Simon Chapman, who I worked with on Upload just last year. He’s a fantastic Australian DP who’s done independent films and really has given the series a distinctive look. He’s also a lovely guy and very fast.
Kathleen Felix-Hager, our costume designer, was also the costume designer for V eep. I worked with her on the pilot of Upload, and she’s really gotten into designing the uniforms. We came up with these fatigues for Space Force called “moon camouflage.” I love visual jokes. I love visual comedy. Every branch of the service has fatigues. Some of them are designed for jungles, and some of them are for desert warfare. So it makes sense in one way that Space Force would have fatigues based on the moon, since their mission is to get boots on the moon. In another sense, it’s completely ridiculous, because they’re going to be in spacesuits on the moon, and the camp pattern is the moon as seen through a telescope from miles away. At first you’re like, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.” Then you realize, “Well no, that doesn’t make any sense at all.” And that’s maybe the way you ought to treat the idea of militarizing the moon. On the one side, yeah, I get it. But on the other side, no, that’s ridiculous. You shouldn’t do that.
Your past projects are known for the visual jokes as well as Easter eggs and fun little details for fans to look for. Any Easter eggs or little details in this show that we should look out for?
Yeah, there are some little Easter eggs, but you don’t tell people what the Easter eggs are. That’s not the point of them, right? You’re supposed to go find them, and enjoy finding the little details. Some of them are things that we put in on the writing staff, but then once you start to assemble a team of creative people who all get on the same page, then the set designers start putting things in, and the prop guys start being funny, and there are little details in the show that I’m not even aware of.
When the credits roll on the first season of Space Force, what do you hope audiences will feel and what do you hope they walk away with?
Well, you asked me what I hope people will feel when the credits roll at the end of the first season, but my guess is most people will press the skip credits button and start watching something else on Netflix right away. That seems to be how people behave. I feel like the combination of the idea and the cast very quickly make a memorable place that I want to hang out in, and if there’s anything that I would say as a regret, it’s that we only get 10 episodes. I’m used to making 25 episodes a year and I feel like this is such a fun show that I’d like to have a hundred episodes to tell every manner of story in it.