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Interview: Director Stephanie Laing on ‘Made for Love,’ ‘Physical,’ and the Dark Side of Comedy

One of this past season’s most off-kilter and memorable comedies was Made for Love, which explores the subversive role of technology and how it can be used to manipulate people’s minds, particularly that of Hazel (Cristin Milioti) by her husband Byron (Billy Magnussen). The show’s themes and tone are familiar territory for Stephanie Laing, who directed six episodes of season one and serves as a co-executive producer.

Awards Radar had the chance to talk to Stephanie about Made for Love and the many impressive facets of her TV work, which includes two current shows, Physical and Love Life, and a host of superb series like Veep and Eastbound & Down.

Q: What attracted you to Made for Love and how did you become attached to the show?

A: I’m friends with Patrick Somerville but, more than that, I read the first script that I was sent and just completely fell in love with the characters and the cast. It was cast before I joined it, but then of Christina and Alissa, obviously, they’re so great, and Cristin and Ray and Billy, and it was such a dream come true because it’s dark and weird and all of the things that I love.

Q: There’s a lot of really great stuff on your resume. Does this compare in any way to projects that you’ve done in the past or is this just something that’s so different in your mind?

A: If someone really looked at my body of work, there’s a thread. I really like character-driven stuff, I like material that says something about the world that we live in. So, in that sense, I think that there’s a lot of connecting tissue, right? And for me, the weirder the better. Also, Made for Love is just, at the end of the day, like love is love is love. There’s an extreme to that, obviously, and there’s like a female kind of empowerment going on. People are trying to figure out who they are and, frankly, why they’re so messed up.

Q: It’s also hard to figure out what’s real and what’s not in a lot of cases on the show. How does that inform the way that you approach when you’re directing episodes?

A: I mean, we played everything very straight. So first of all, it was just such a tricky tone. And I also really appreciate that. I like to live in the in the character-driven tricky-tone areas. That’s another common thread for me. For me and specifically, definitely for Made for Love, we never played a joke. I mean sometimes with Bennett and Byron, we let them have some physical comedy and stuff because we felt like we earned it and the relationship was one place you wanted it. With Noma and Dan, the same thing. Dan is such an incredible comedian, and then placing him with Noma, they just took each other to these really fun places. For me, directing it was really just about making sure we never played for a joke. Ray Romano and I had spoken, just don’t deliver the line as a joke. Say it straight. We definitely switched up the way we shot things. The DP, Nate Goodman, and I were very much like, all right, when we’re in the Hub, it’s a little weird. It’s obviously a science-fiction world. How do we shoot here? What does it sound like versus when we’re in the real world? And so we were very specific about the framing and the color choices. We had Jordan the production designer and Jen in costumes, and everyone just really got it and really elevated the material. I think that was really truly exciting.

Q: There are some pretty eye-popping sets and other backgrounds. I’m not sure how much of that was real or how much of that was computer-generated. Are you just shooting on a blank canvas, or is all this really is as beautiful as it looks?

A: A mix. It’s such a mix. We also have great visual effects. I really do go back to Jordan, our production designer. He really concepted out even where the screens went. Even when we got to the edit and then into visual effects’ hands, where we know we had such great visual effects artists, we always knew exactly what was intended. It’s just so specific. I think everything with the show is so specific. It’s one of the reasons I believe it works so well.

Q: Do you have a favorite episode that you got to direct?

A: Of course, I love the pilot, but I also really love episode ten.

Q: There’s a really great cast. Was there anyone that you were particularly excited to work with, or maybe that, unlike some of the more well-known people, you didn’t know that you were delighted to be able to get to direct?

A: I was delighted to work with all of them. I had never worked with Kym Whitley, who plays Herbert’s friend. She was great. Cristin is so specific and Billy is so specific. I don’t think we could have asked for a more unique cast of people coming together, which also I think helps make the show work because everyone’s so different, but yet similar. We couldn’t have had a more interesting cast. We also directed Diane. I know that sounds crazy, but we switched her eye line a little bit. She had her coverage and we treated her like a character, which she is.

Q: The show just got renewed for season two. Are you still involved, and even though I’m sure there hasn’t been time to plan everything out practically, is there a sense of where season two will be going?

A: I think that Christina and Alissa know exactly where season two goes and I’m very excited to be part of that.

Q: I’d love to discuss some of your other work. I saw your name in the credits of an episode of Physical right after we set up this interview. That show feels similar in a lot of ways because it’s also got a woman who’s trying to take back control from a man who smiles a lot, but doesn’t really let her do much. What attracted to that show and what do you enjoy most about it?

A: Annie Weisman, first of all, is very dear to my heart, and Rose! It starts on the page, and I think what Annie wrote is so eloquent, so detailed and so surprising. I think a lot of people are surprised that women’s inner voices sound like that, but they do, and so that was exciting to really show that on screen for the first time and to tackle the food issues. Again, the darkness of it, the comedy of it, and just playing the humanity. Also the cast of characters that we brought in to the show. Deirdre Friel is a really good example of someone who starts off as Greta and you’re really able to track her arc all the way through the season, which is really satisfying because she’s finding her own sexuality while everybody else is also finding themselves.

Q: Is it difficult directing a show that has that extent of voiceover where you’re looking at someone’s facial expression and then putting that in later on?

A: We had a really good plan for it and so, again, it just comes down to the details and the planning. We know there’s a voiceover coming here, what are we going to shoot in its place, and trying to not always be so obvious. And with Physical, you know, Craig Gillespie did you such a great job with the pilot, setting up the visual language of that and then I did seven episodes after that. I brought my sensibility into what he had done but also, we were just so mindful of where the voiceover was going to be and just trying to be unexpected. Also, who doesn’t love the eighties and aerobics?

Q: I was about to ask – how do you feel about aerobics videos and is that something you tried to mirror, not just in those scenes, but also in the style and pacing of the show?

A: Yeah, definitely. We did a lot of research on those kinds of videos, and also shows and movies from the eighties. How do we touch on this in a light way, where we don’t have to bang you over the head but where you’re going to appreciate it? And I think we all did a really good job of that. With aerobics, we had a great choreographer and we had a few things we knew. As the show gets released and you start watching it, there are certain moves that people do really well and some moves that they don’t. It’s all intentional. There’s a lot more fun coming. There’s more aerobics coming. That’s all I say.

Q: You also directed a few episodes of Love Life, a show that you were not a producer on. What is it like to come in just for a couple episodes?

A: I think Sam is so talented, and he really created such an interesting anthology series. I felt really lucky that he trusted me with three episodes, to be honest. And it’s Anna Kendrick, and then Zoe Chao. For me, coming in when you’re not producing, it’s just different, but it’s different in a good way. I don’t have the responsibility of one side, it’s like, no, I just get to focus on telling the story. I remember, even in the Sara episode, the second one I directed – the first one was a flashback, and then there was the Zoe Chao episode – Zoe and I had the time to really collaborate together, and what that was like for Sara to be in the state of mind that she was. I remember reading, Sam had written something about how, when she’s drunk driving, she’s the freest she’s ever been, and you’re like, shit, how are we going to pull that off? But we did. When you start with what’s great on the page and someone has created something, and then you add in this cast, you got some magic happening. I also really enjoyed working with Anna Kendrick. What an amazing talent.

Q: Let’s talk more about some of the amazing projects from your career. I imagine that Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals were particularly fun?

A: Listen, I can’t say enough good things about Eastbound & Down. It’s funny to me because my kids were little at the time. I was doing it and I remember going to the soccer field and the moms would be like, my husband loves your show! It was just this thing. But Danny McBride and David Gordon Green and Jody Hill, they’re fantastic. They were so collaborative and wonderful to produce for. I think that’s when I developed my sense of humor, and I definitely became ingrained a little more in the dark side of things I really like, and then doing Veep is really where I started directing. I was the first American director on Veep. When you’re around those people and you kind of grow up doing that, producing for them and everyone’s encouraging you to direct, I think it helps you with the confidence to go, okay, I’m going to try this. I used to make a joke about it. I was like, okay, if I screw up, I’ll never do it again. And then I really liked it. So I just kept going. But yeah, those shows drawing that kind of boundary and then stepping over their own boundary in the ways that their own shows can do, that makes sense to the story and the characters of those shows. Watching that and really watching Danny and then watching Armando and Julia on Veep, just seeing, okay, this is what comedy is. I think they both are just such standout shows. I’m so glad to have worked on them.

Q: You mention a dark side, and I know that Banshee is another show you’ve worked on. That’s definitely an outlier in that it is just dark. I think it’s excellent, especially season one, which you worked on. Tell me something interesting about Banshee and what made you want to work on that.

A: Greg Yaitanes, who is truly a mentor of mine, I really respect him a lot. I think he’s fantastic. Season one of Banshee was so great. Also, Jonathan Tropper, who has produced my last two movies. That show is one where I did one season but I’m still friends with everybody. We spent all this time together. We used to joke, there’s sex and bullets, and sometimes at the same time. It was just crazy. It was great. And Greg let me direct a couple of stunts, so I got to do a little bit of that with him, and yeah, it is the outlier, but it was a lot of fun.

Q: It’s one show that I recommend to people who ask, what is a show that I’ve never heard of that I would really like? As long as you can deal with the violence, this is the show for you.

A: Yeah, it’s hyper all of those things. If you can handle it, this is the show for you.

Q: Are there any other highlights from your career or projects you have coming up that you want to mention?

A: Well, the thing I’m on now I’m not allowed to talk about.

Q: That’s always the best answer, right? Is it more like Banshee or more like everything else?

A: It’s its own thing, which I’m very excited about. I am in the process of selling a movie that I did during lockdown and that I co-wrote with Brad Morris. It’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of the cast. It’s Henry Winkler, June Squibb, Margo Martindale, Ann Dowd, Judy Greer, Zoe Chao, Sam Richardson, Tim Simons, Billy Magnussen. It goes on, it’s ridiculous. And everybody said yes and we made a crazy little family movie. It’s loosely based on my family. We’ll get that out the door at some point. Also Elsie Fisher! She’s so incredible.

Season one of Made for Love is available to stream on HBO Max.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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