'Veep' Boss on the "Heartbreaking" Breakup Scene and Selina's Defense of Female Genital Mutilation

David Mandel's HBO series is nominated for a record 17 Emmys this year as Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) sets her sights on, once again, becoming POTUS.
Courtesy of HBO
David Mandel with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tony Hale (peeking behind her).

David Mandel delivered yet another game-changing finale this season. The showrunner wrote and directed the episode "Groundbreaking," earning him two Emmy noms among the HBO political comedy's total of 17, a record. And now, after a season away from the White House — a fortuitous decision in Trump's America — Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, will get back on the campaign trail next year. Despite getting everything an ex-president could want — a memoir, a presidential library and a loving relationship — Selina's sights are, once again, firmly set on becoming POTUS, an elected one this time around. "She threw away the happy ending," Mandel told The Hollywood Reporter of Selina being a political addict. The ending brought Mandel’s Veep tenure full circle, after he dashed her hopes during his first season as showrunner last year. Selina was thrilled to have the potential of her dream, but to Mandel the decision was a sad one, and the episode presented two specific challenges in order to get that dichotomy just right. 

The most challenging scene to write this season was …

Selina breaking up with Jaffar [Usman Ally] in the final episode and trying to make it real and heartbreaking and funny at the same time. The joke about Germany really helped in the middle there. The scene also kept getting too long — both in the writing and then when we shot it. Less was more.

I still can't believe we got away with …

Selina delivering a speech in Qatar defending female genital mutilation.

The biggest misconception about Veep is …

That Selina is getting meaner and nastier. She lost the presidency; she is responding properly. Also, that we curse too much. If you think that, fuck you.

The person on Veep who has the most difficult job is …

The writers' assistant who takes our lunch orders. Much like Selina in the depths of her post-heart-attack depression, when it comes to restaurants near our office, it's, "I hate every food, ever, from everywhere."

The line of dialogue I'm most proud of this season is …

I wrote it with executive producer Lew Morton. In episode six, "Qatar," Selina says to Amy [Anna Chlumsky], "Last time I checked, my political career had answered a Craigslist ad for a modeling shoot in the Angeles National Forest."

The scene I had the most difficult time translating to screen this season is ...

The final scene in the finale, “Groundbreaking,” where Selina and the cast arrive in Omaha for the dinner, was very specific. I had this idea that I wrote into the script where they were outside the dinner and it was dark, but the door to the dinner would open and light and sound would spill out, so that we never were inside the dinner but had a complete sense of it as a big political event. The problem was location-based, and it's why scouting and having a great team are so important. We could not find a place for this scene and I was getting very nervous. Things either didn't look like Iowa, or just seemed wrong. Time was ticking away. Our producers, Morgan Sackett and David Hyman, found the location and when we scouted it and saw that the door opening would let you see the stage inside, it was just perfect and fell right into place.

There was also the scene in "Omaha," the premiere episode, where Selina tells the family she wants to run for president unless anyone objects — and they all object. On paper it read funny, but when they objected, it just seemed silly. It wasn’t until Sara Sutherland [Catherine] and I talked about her bursting into tears and really being miserable that the scene came together. It shocked Selina and then gave Julia Louis-Dreyfus something to play off of.

Being a writer helps me as a director when …

I talk with the actors, I can explain the intent of the scene and then we can talk about how performance can deliver on that. Also as a writer, I can hear what’s missing in a scene and fix it right then and there.

The other Emmy-nominated series that I can't get enough of is …

Genius. I knew nothing about Albert Einstein’s life and I was just fascinated by every second of it. Did you know he was Jewish?

The actor I've never worked with but would love to is …

Judy Davis. She kills me in Barton Fink and Deconstructing Harry, and she was perfect in Feud.

If I could switch gigs with any other nominee for a day, it would be …

Riz Ahmed. I'm pretty sure he's invited to the swag rooms, and he was also in a Star Wars movie.

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ODDS ARE ...

Ostensibly tailored for the political set, Veep is just as much an industry show for Hollywood as it is for D.C. No other comedy approaches its awareness — one reason it won the top prize in 2015 and 2016. Streaks are meant to be broken, but rarely when a show is still at the top of its game. Praise remains near-unanimous-certainly more so than for Modern Family at this point in its five-year streak. If there’s a variable in play, it’s the effect real-life politics may have on voters. Exhaustive coverage of Trump has left some fatigued by Beltway antics. — Michael O'Connell 

A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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