Behind the Pandemic-Era Production of HBO's Genre-Defying 'Coastal Elites'

Bette Midler in 'Coastal Elites'
Courtesy of HBO

Bette Midler in 'Coastal Elites.'

Paul Rudnick and Jay Roach, creators of HBO's "special presentation" Coastal Elites, weren't really sure how to describe their project. It's not a movie, but not really a show either. What it is, really, is a series of monologues reflecting on the current political and social climate (pandemic included), performed by some of TV's top talent.

Originally scheduled to be performed onstage at the Public Theater in New York, the production's novel coronavirus-related delay allowed writer Rudnick and director Roach to rethink how they could present entertainment in a post-shutdown world. The two began working in earnest on reshaping the project in May.

"Jay and I had extended conversations about how this material might adapt to this new format, which we would invent, kind of, on the ground running," Rudnick said. "And it ended up being a remarkably appropriate hybrid form. Because these were always conceived as monologues, when you could be that intimate and that up close — especially with this extraordinary cast — it was a very good match."

But, as Roach told The Hollywood Reporter during a remote press day for the production, "We didn't know what to call it either. We started with heart-rending monologues, angry rants, and then it's confessionals, which I actually think is a really good word for it. It's like a confessional or a testimonial — or a therapy session to your online therapist. That's the intimacy. It's like AA, except it's Apocalypse Anonymous. You're all just trying to figure out how to talk about what you're going through and coping. And even in saying it out loud and baring your soul through the course of it, you sometimes go even deeper into despair, but then come out of it with an epiphany or a comedic turn of phrase that helps you just get through the day."

Bette Midler, who plays brassy Upper West Sider Miriam Nessler, was always going to star in the show (even when it was supposed to be filmed at the Public). Rudnick was able to conceive a new character for Kaitlyn Dever, Midwestern nurse Sharynn Tarrows, with whom Roach had met about collaborating a few months before the pandemic. Gradually the rest of the cast fell into place — Dan Levy as actor Mark Hesterman, Issa Rae as philanthropist Callie Josephson, Sarah Paulson as mindfulness guru Clarissa Montgomery — and after a table read in June, production began at the actors' own homes in late June and early July. The finished product was cut together by August, and is now airing Sept. 12 on HBO.

The speed, Roach said, was deliberate: He and Rudnick wanted it to feel as current as possible, which is almost impossible when the news cycle refreshes at lightning speed.

"The news cycle has become such a freight train that people can be nostalgic for February, and that also time and space have become so blurred when you try to remember the day of the week let alone the month," Rudnick said. "I always remember, I was about to go to the theater the night that New York shut down. And there was a real question that day of should we show solidarity with the performers involved with the event? Or were there health issues that would prevent that? And suddenly, bam, it was so instant and frightening. That's part of the feeling we want to evoke, that sense of tumult and chaos and speed. If we're accurate, if we've done our job, that will always have value — that it's not just a newspaper article or a roundup. It's about what people were feeling because of external events."

Once the cast was set, the actors were able to give input on their characters, and Rudnick kept writing until production began.

"I was able to rewrite as we went along, which ended up being a very welcome opportunity, when I could include aspects of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests and how they might impact these characters' lives," Rudnick said. "There was an immediacy to it that was very new to me, certainly, and I think to everyone, which gave it a certain excitement and almost a feverishness that we thought, 'We're in this together with the rest of the world. How can we make everyone listen?' It was it was a fascinating, very high-wire experience."

Production included "every possible protocol and test," Rudnick and Dever said. After she tested negative, a small production team (who also tested negative) went into her home and set up cameras and lighting (and purified the air) while she hung out in her backyard. When they were finished, she went back inside and performed the monologue that she'd workshopped with Rudnick and Roach over Zoom in the weeks prior. The duo also were on Zoom while she filmed, just next to the camera.

"We did it about eight or nine times through and we kept finding all of these different things each time we went through it. I was extremely nervous about it because obviously I had so many words to say and I had to memorize so much but then make it sound, like, conversational and just off the cuff, but also hit those emotional beats," Dever said. "There's a lot going on in my brain, and also it's weird to be watched by a computer. I don't know why it's that much weirder because when I'm shooting something on a real set, they're in the other room watching me on video village. So I don't know what's so different, but I think it actually made me even more nervous being in the comfort of my own home."

Part of Coastal Elites harkens back to the "before times" (back in January or February or even the first week of March), but it's a series about the country's new normal. Rudnick has high hopes for what the audience will take from his comedic satire.

"I hope that maybe above all else, they'll be surprised," he said. "That whatever they're expecting and whatever their own personal agenda might be, if they bring a certain openness they will realize these are characters they relate to. That these are people who maybe without even expecting it, they understand. That it's not in any way doctrinaire. And that while it's intensely political in certain ways, it's got a greater emotional reach than that. And that God willing, they will be wildly entertained, that it will make them laugh and cry in unexpected places, so that it will feel like part of a national conversation. That it's something that isn't prohibitive, that no one is excluded from. That it's our take on the world that we're presenting with as much personal openness as possible to say, 'OK, and what do you think?'"

Coastal Elites airs Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. on HBO.