September 25, 2012 1:31pm PT by Michael O'Connell
'Ben and Kate' Creator Dana Fox Explains How She Somewhat Accidentally Got Her Own Show
Dana Fox was born to be in television -- at least that's what her friend Liz Meriwhether told her last fall when she started consulting on Meriwhether's freshman comedy New Girl.
Less than a year later, Fox (on Fox) is premiering New Girl's new lead: Ben and Kate. It's a departure from the writer's previous work -- she penned features Couples Retreat, What Happens in Vegas and The Wedding Date -- but her initial brainstorm with New Girl EP Katherine Pope produced a concept that ended up hitting pretty close to home.
"What she did was slow play me," Fox tells The Hollywood Reporter of the exec she warmly refers to as her "work wife." "She said we were just going to have some cocktails and talk, and by the end of it, I was like, 'I think I’m doing a TV show. What the hell is happening?'"
Inspired by her own colorful older brother, Fox knew she wanted to do a brother-sister story. And while the finished product -- a single mom (Dakota Johnson) moving in with her free spirit sibling (Nat Faxon) to help raise her daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) -- bears no resemblance to her own life, she says the dynamic is very much like her own.
"I sort of was surprised there has never been a TV show about that kind of brother and sister relationship because it's kind of like the ultimate married couple," she says. "They've basically been married for 30 years and are just bitching at each other like crazy because they know each other like the back of their hands."
The real-life roots of the two leads required perhaps more scrutiny than usual. Johnson joined the pilot after Abby Elliott's exit just days before filming and the long search for Ben kicked off with Fox's brother campaigning for Ben Stiller, Tom Cruise and himself.
"He’s made a lot of jokes about it," she says. "I’ll put him in as a cameo at some point or something like that."
One piece of casting that came surprisingly easy was the part of Maddie. Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for We Bought a Zoo, jumped in to suggest the eight-year-old.
"I saw her tape and I said 'make this happen,' and she was the first person we cast," says Fox, who was petrified of having the character ever labeled "precocious." "It was dangerous to cast a child before you know who anyone else in the show is, but I didn't care. She’s that good."
The day-to-day of running a television series has thus far been a trip for Fox, who admits her job description on New Girl was watching cuts and making a few suggestions but generally offering the critique of "Oh my god you guys, I love it. It’s hilarious.”
"What I love about [Ben and Kate] is that I never had the chance to take my material from the beginning all the way through every single decision," says Fox. "I care about what costumes everyone’s wearing. It’s part of the storytelling. Why wouldn’t I care about it? And yes I care about what their hair looks like. People make snap judgments about what they see all the time. For me to be able to figure out what the walls should look like and how the house should be... I'm loving it so much.
Fox is optimistic the finished project will be a natural fit airing before her old New Girl gig. And if the New Girl reunion of Fox, Pope and fellow EP (and pilot director) Jake Kasdan doesn't bode well enough, good buzz won't hurt. THR's Tim Goodman dubbed Ben and Kate the fall's "most fully-realized" comedy and says the premiere "hits it out of the park right from the get-go."
A relief for anyone in her position, Fox says her bigger concern is getting wind of negativity online -- something that has thus far kept her at an arm's distance from social media.
"I can’t do anything about it, so I don’t love it," she says, "but I’m going to get into it. I’m going to get on Twitter, and it’s going to be amazing."
Ben and Kate premieres Tuesday, at 8:30 p.m. ET, on Fox.