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Interview: ‘PEN15’ Director Sam Zvibleman Talks Honesty, Hard Work, and the Magic Behind the Scenes

(Photo by: Erica Parise/Hulu)

I have a long list of shows that helped get me through the pandemic, but one that really stayed with me was PEN15. Season two premiered in September of last year, building on the honest, refreshingly awkward legs of season one. A show about middle school, “as it really happened” starring two of the three co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle as their younger selves, PEN15 provided much needed laughter in a dark time and rich authenticity few other shows about grade school ever achieve. We got the chance to sit down with Sam Zvibleman, the behind-the-scenes third co-creator who crafted the show with Maya and Anna as well as directed most of the episodes.

“I met Anna and Maya close to 10 years ago. They went to NYU, and some of their friends from NYU started migrating out to LA and they would hang out. They were sort of doing these short reality-based characters and web shows, and I would help out on their projects. And then they came to some screenings of my short films that I was doing and they approached me, and we just got along. We became best friends just in life and hung out all the time. I just thought that they were magical. They asked me if I wanted to create a show and I was like, absolutely.”

Sam reflects on the early development of the show. “We would meet at one of our houses a couple times a week until finally, we landed. They had been thinking about playing kids who escaped a cult and that wasn’t really finding its way. But during that they would talk about stories from their childhood and I would just be listening. I think that’s the director in me listening to what’s going on. And I was like, why can’t we just make that the show?”

As much as the three of them believed in the show, Sam was taken aback by the show’s success.

“I thought no one would see this thing. We were given basically the smallest budget allowed through the union. It was essentially a web series budget,” said Sam. “It was me and Anna and Maya in the editing bay with our editor until like three in the morning, trying to churn these out. And with no real oversight from anyone, no feedback beyond a couple people. My feeling was if people happened upon this show, I think they would really like it. And that they would really dig it because we really brought it, we poured our blood, sweat and tears into it. That was clear to me. But I didn’t ever think that people would find it. Even to this day, I am blown away when like, you’re telling me you’re a fan of the show.”

Unfortunately, the grind of pitching a show can be discouraging for even the best ideas. When I remarked what a catchy concept it was to have Maya and Anna (notably not middle-school aged 30-somethings) play young versions of themselves, Sam recalled the process, smiling a little.

“Everyone in town rejected the show. One person said yes. So you have better taste than most of Hollywood, I will say, because no one else thought that that was a catchy enough concept.”

Sam also provided deeper insight into life on the set of PEN15 and on working with kids and preteens, many of whom did not come in with much acting experience.

“I adore working with the kids, I absolutely love the energy that they bring,” said Sam. “Most of them we cast because they didn’t have any experience. Most kids who are trying to become actors, their only opportunities are like Disney and Nickelodeon. So there’s a certain performance style that they learn, which is, to me and Anna and Maya, very theatrical and inauthentic. We almost chose kids who were much more real and untrained. That could present a problem when they have a hard time on set delivering lines or having maybe too little energy or overacting, but overall, we did a good job casting. They all brought bring their own sort of wonderful authenticity to it. And all the kids really got along with each other and were friends, which was very moving to me to watch.”

Like comedy, PEN15 could be construed as tragedy plus time, in this case tragedy being the experience of American middle school. Anna and Maya portray this expertly, but so do the rest of the kid cast, who are currently living out middle school.

“If Anna and Maya were playing these parts when they were that age, I don’t think that they would see as much humor as we’re able to see with years of space,” remarked Sam “The kids that we had at least are smarter and cooler than I was. They have amazing insight into their characters. I usually got to the point where I would just say, what do you think your character would do? And they would have great ideas and I say great, you know your characters better than we do at this point. That was wonderful.”

Although Sam does not appear in front of the camera, his stories are played out through the character of Sam Zablowski (Taj Cross).

“Taj, who plays Sam, brings such a great complexity and vulnerability and sincerity that I felt. I didn’t see me on screen in high school shows, so I tried to add all of the layers that I felt with him and he brought even more,” reflected Sam. “I had been looking at that scene in the finale where he’s talking with Maya in the restaurant. And when we were on set he said, I want to cover my mouth. And that was just electric to watch. I feel like his blush was authentic and true. He takes his work very seriously. And that’s all you could ask for.”

Delving deeper into his experiences directing, Sam explained the dual nature of the work.

“It is fun, and it’s also hard. Everyone, you know, me and Anna and Maya are taking the comedy really seriously. So it looks fun, but that’s coming from hard work to make it look effortless. That’s coming from a lot of focus. And yet, my job is also to create safety. And I think that comes from us being friends and knowing each other’s comedy and making sure to give that space for total freedom, because that’s when the acting is the best.”

He shifts gears a little to talk about the flip side, “There are times when I am just I have to leave set because I could not stop laughing and I think that I’m a quiet laugher, but they can hear me. Even if I’m in another room, they can sense when I’m like, distracting them and I will have to just take off my headphones. I’ll take off my headphones so I don’t hear them as well as I could. And then that won’t work, and I will have to just leave and let them finish on their own because I am laughing too hard.”

For all the drama and bombast of season two, some of Sam’s most memorable moments were among the most simple.

“I remember a very simple scene with Maya and her mom in the bathtub. This is after Maya admits that she’s gotten her period. Very simple shots, just two medium close-ups. And watching Maya and her mom perform, I found it in a quiet way, just stunningly electric. They were so present and so there and it felt so real. It was so moving because they did this when they were younger. And now to re-explore what that meant to them in their lives through this performance, I was very overwhelmed,” reflected Sam. “Another one was in the woods when Maya’s trying to distract Anna from the seeing her parents fight, and how traumatic that was, and they’re running through the woods. I love the running because it gives a sense of elevation and lift. But Maya’s effort to entertain Anna and make her laugh, to actually see them do it was so beautiful, without saying like, ‘feel better’ with words, like ‘it’s okay. We’re friends. And I love you.’ Instead it’s this game. And I feel like that represents their friendship in real life, too. I was very moved. And the sun was kind of backlighting them perfectly and there’s this gentle mist and the day was warm, and it was very just beautiful.”

Some reviews or articles have characterized season two as taking a darker turn, but to Sam, the direction was all in service of portraying an honest experience.

“These were new stories and new things that happen to people, and some of those feelings are heavier. I did consciously want to keep it, I guess, less silly and cartoonish at points. But I found myself more compelled, to just observe the real behavior and the honesty of each scene, as opposed to undercutting it with a joke every time. I just wanted to watch this friendship and how they honestly dealt with it. And sometimes that’s funny, and sometimes it’s not.”

Part two of season two has yet to arrive, but given the personal dramas and growing pains spotlighted season one, it promises to continue its hilarious and sometimes painful authenticity. Sam wasn’t able to share with us any details for when we’ll get to see it, but “it’s mostly in the can as they say. As far as what to expect. I would just say, don’t have any expectations. Just enjoy.”

If you want to see more of Sam’s work, check out his past work here and look out for his upcoming project, a film called Imagine the Moon. What’s it about?

Well, it’s about love and death and outer space.”

And it stars Judy Greer. We can’t wait.

PEN15 is streaming now in Hulu.

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Written by Emilia Yu

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