'I Am Not Okay With This' Bosses Talk 'Stranger Things' Influences, Season 2 Ambitions

I Am Not Okay With This Still 2 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

[The following story contains full spoilers for season one of Netflix's I Am Not Okay With This. Proceed with caution.]

From the outset, Netflix's I Am Not Okay With This establishes something violent and visceral in its future: Sydney Novak, played by Sophia Lillis, runs down an empty street covered in blood, the promise of some dark event that very much lives up to the title. By the end of the season, the event comes into focus: a very public head explosion in front of a very public high school gathering, as the strangely superpowered Syd instinctively uses her abilities to kill local jock Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis) in horrifying fashion.

But the grim descriptions of the season's book-ending moments don't do justice to the levity found throughout I Am Not Okay With This, coming from the minds of The End of the F***ing World creator Jonathan Entwistle, Stranger Things executive producer Shawn Levy, and co-creator, writer and executive producer Christy Hall. Indeed, that's Netflix's basic elevator pitch — I Am Not Okay With This is The End of the F***ing World meets Stranger Things — but what exactly does that mean?

"Although they're wildly different from each other, Stranger Things and End of the F***ing World are both singular in their storytelling tone, their aesthetics and their unique cast of characters," Levy tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The two shows share a taut, fast pace and compelling narratives. Like Stranger Things, End of the F***ing World is a slightly heightened reality and both shows are built for viewer consumption. Neither show is the kind you watch part of an episode, take a few days away from it and then watch a little bit more."

But Levy offers another way of looking at I Am Not Okay With This, aside from a collision between his and Entwistle's previous Netflix notables: "From our very first meeting with Netflix, Entwistle and I described and promised a show that was 'X-Men meets Lady Bird.' That odd collision of tone was very much built into our intentions and hopefully that's the show we delivered, and delivered in an entertaining and unique way."

For Entwistle, I Am Not Okay With This marks the second time he's created a show based on the works of graphic novelist Charles Forsman, following The End of the F***ing World. In adapting the comic book art form for television, Entwistle, who directs every episode of I Am Not Okay With This, aims to subvert superhero genre tropes by using those very same tropes — all while dealing with math class. Ahead, THR speaks with Entwistle about creating the first season of I Am Not Okay With This, his own thoughts on the Stranger Things comparisons, and what his ambitions are for season two's scope.

The End of the F***ing World was based on a Charles Forsman graphic novel, and once again, you're adapting his work in I Am Not Okay With This. What was it about the idea that drew you in?

For me, it was about bridging a gap. Is there a different way to do the superhero story? Is there a different way in? I have loved all of Chuck's work. When I first came across this book when he was very early into writing it, I thought it was such a cool version of an origin story for a superhero, the kind of thing that never happens. For me, it stood out as a way to bridge the gap between End of the F***ing World and Stranger Things, to a degree. This felt like it sat right in there. It also stood out in its own way, how you can tell a coming-of-age story where life gets crazy — and there's superpowers. It felt like a good allegory. 

Can you talk about developing Syd as the central character, especially with Sophia Lillis in the role?

She brings this very specific quality of being innocent and childlike but also being super strong at the same time. It's a natural position she takes. When we were going through the thought process, originally the character of Sydney in the books and the version of her when we started writing the series was someone much loser to Alyssa [from The End of the F***ing World]. She had more attitude. She was a bit of a piece of shit. But when Sophia came on board, we worked with this idea that she was terrified of everything, she was keeping everything inside, and it very much played into Sophia's wheelhouse. She has this amazing rabbit in the headlights until she takes control vibe to her, which I think you can see in the show, when she's able to take control of it.

There's a moment in the series where Stanley Barber (Wyatt Oleff) tells Syd that he's going to become her mentor, which is not typically the type of character you see step into the mentor role in a superhero story. Typically, the Stanley character is the sidekick — and here, at least in his mind, he's fancying himself a Professor X type. That stands out as an example of how you're aiming to play within expectations of the superhero space.

Exactly. Thinking about this as an origin story, we always loved this idea of, well, what if Professor X never picked you up and brought you to the academy? Who else do you have? Does it mean that you're Professor X? It raises so many questions, when you're trapped somewhere with nobody. I think there's something so DIY and amateur about the way that Stanley Barber works that he would have the verboseness to believe he's Syd's mentor, straight off the bat. (Laughs.) We wanted to flip the idea of him going to comic books to find the answers to what is essentially a comic book mystery. Chuck Forsman drew all of the comic books that are in the show, as well. Normally, Ducky in Pretty in Pink is the unlucky in love sidekick, and I wanted to see if there was a way, to your point, to do Batman and Robin if Robin is in love with Batman.

The love story that develops through the series focuses on Syd's feelings toward her best friend, Dina (Sofia Bryant). How did you want that to bear out, with them going to the dance together at the end of the season?

For me, it's important where I'm not making a show about sexuality, but one that's about confusion and growing up and not knowing. Rather than making a show about, "I know who I like and I'm going to take them to the prom," it's actually a show about, "I don't know if I like them, or Stan, or anyone, and do I even want to go to the prom?" Part of the show being an ensemble and being able to lean into the John Hughes '80s ensemble qualities, it was important we were showing it without ripping it apart. I wanted to show her as truthfully confused. That's much more realistic than someone deciding immediately on who they like and why they like them for a given reason. We wanted her to lose her virginity to Stan, and not have it be a drive for the show that she wants to lose her virginity, and they can stay friends after an awkward sexual encounter. To me, it felt a lot more natural. It also takes the pressure off of that as a story drive. It was something important to me in The End of the F***ing World, too. The sexual components of their relationship were not a driver. There were more important things for their story. 

You bring up John Hughes, and there's a detention episode near the end of the season. Even the finale channels Carrie to a degree. How much did you think about how each episode needed its own defined footing and feel?

I definitely wanted to explore, in a very broad sense, how to do a superhero show like a John Hughes movie. In fact, the detention episode is actually based on the Dawson's Creek detention episode that copies The Breakfast Club. When we were in the writers' room, we were knee deep in those types of shows to figure out what's the beating heart of an ensemble? How do you augment that with superpowers? What does it mean if you're late for math class, and you're also at risk of blowing someone's head up at homecoming? What's the added value of being a bomb while also dealing with all of this other stuff at school, and especially potentially even bigger things on the horizon?

Besides Dawson's Creek, what else were you watching? What else is in the I Am Not Okay With This soup?

Freaks and Geeks was one. My So Called Life was a big one. We watched one episode every day. Pretty in Pink and obviously Breakfast Club. Look at the costumes they wear in episode five of I Am Not Okay With This, they're pretty much exactly the same as the costumes in Breakfast Club. There's lots of direct links. But in terms of the homecoming and the Carrie angle… in my work, I try to limit cell phones and technology. I try to tell stories in a way that's nostalgic and pastiche, but feels fresh in itself. The John Hughes movies feel quite raw. We haven't quite gotten into the '90s where they trot out the gay best friend and the cheerleaders and the mean girls. That was the next level. Look at Pretty in Pink. It's a pretty raw movie. Sixteen Candles has some questionable politics, too. When we were going back and watching those, we thought it was a very interesting time to be telling teen stories, just as it is today. How can we explore that through the guise of suddenly having superpowers? Also, here's one strange influence: Game of Thrones. We imagined what it would be like if we just dropped into a town in the middle of the White Walkers. Where would we be? What's the bigger story behind everything?

I Am Not Okay With This has been billed as standing on a spectrum between The End of the F***ing World and Stranger Things. It's an easy sell, but what does it actually mean?

It's about hitting a sweet spot. Taking the British humor that comes from End of the F***ing World and mixing it with the absurdity of kids with superpowers at school. How can you assume the tone with a story that's bigger than what End was? Because End was a small story. When it concluded, it was a smaller story than Stranger Things, which is huge with all these governments and everything else that's involved. Here, we want that sweet spot: how do we keep it small, but with elevating the story?

As a sidebar, since you said "conclude," does that mean we're officially done with The End of the F***ing World? No season three?

I think so, yeah. As far as I know, yeah.

You talk about subverting superhero tropes, but you do have to get into origin stories to a degree, and that starts to come up when Syd finds out her father had powers as well. There's a shadow following Syd through town. The big cliffhanger of the season is Syd facing some mysterious person, who may be a Professor X of sorts trying to recruit her to a good cause, could be a Magneto trying to recruit her to a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants… the question's up in the air. Do you feel like you were able to find the line between being subversive within the superhero genre, but also needing to hit certain beats that are so common within these kinds of stories?

You have to hit those beats. It's unsatisfying if you don't play it completely down the line as a superhero story. You can't subvert it until you're on the path. We very much wanted to be on the path of exactly that. When the strange guy appears, I want people thinking exactly to your point: is it Professor X? Is it Magneto? Is it Yoda?

Is it Baby Yoda?

Maybe! (Laughs.) We definitely want to play in that world. We want to subvert it from there. We want people to be able to say whatever happens, you still have to go to school. That's the subversion. What does it mean to be the chosen one, but you can't leave high school?

Do you know the answer to the question of who this person is at the end of the season? How far down the road of the story can you see?

I do know. I do know the answer. 

Can't say much more than that?

Can't.

Do you think people will be frustrated or intrigued by the ending?

I hope people have their own guesses! Without beating the drum of the art form of the ensemble, I hope there's enough drive in these characters that the element of the shadow guy is an augmentation to the story. I want to continue telling a story about a girl with superpowers while still having Stanley Barber dance as he's getting ready for homecoming. We still need to be able to do that in the show. It's about the story needing to remain small while becoming huge at the same time.

The series begins with Syd covered in blood running away from something, so we know as an audience we're running toward something grim. That plays out in the finale with the exploding head at the dance, which becomes your very own Carrie moment. It's displayed in unflinching detail. What went into developing the season's big book-ending images?

From the start, I wanted people to not be sure what [the image of Syd running away covered in blood] was related to — her father, anything — until we got to the end. There's only three moments where we see it before the ending. I wanted to hint at the mystery, that it could have played out in any scenario. In the comic books, she does kill Brad, but not in that way. She also explodes her own head at the end of the book. That was our impetus there. It was Chuck's Scanners moment, and with that in mind, all the effects in our show were in camera. In keeping with the Carrie and the John Carpenter execution, we did everything for real. It was a real blood bag that exploded onto those people. There's very little VFX. 

Must have been an incredible time on set.

It was amazing. (Laughs.) We didn't give a huge amount of detail to the extras. We wanted to be able to get a truthful reaction to being covered in blood. We had three groups of people who were prepared to get covered in blood. Rich, who plays Brad, this was his big moment! He's in every episode, and this was his last element he was working toward. He has this big speech and then his head blows up. It was pretty nerve-racking! Doing anything analogue without working with VFX can be quite scary on the day. But we were very well prepped. We knew exactly how it was going to work. It took a week to shoot the sequence. We were in control.

It shows. The scene is shocking, horrifying and kind of delightful, which I hope is what you're aiming for.

Definitely. I hope you laughed! It's hard, because I've always known the scene is going to happen, so I've never gotten the joy of it happening or what it means. Are people horrified or do they love it? I hope they kind of feel like Syd does. She's horrified. She didn't mean to do it. She just couldn't control it.

What are the ramifications of Brad's death in the universe of the show, where everyone has just watched his head spontaneously combust? Is that automatically going to put heat on Syd? 

Nobody would ever suspect Syd. One of the amazing things is all the theories that might rise up in high school after something like that happens. Was it a sniper? Was it disease? That's super exciting. And there's a point now where Syd needs to ask herself, "Did I mean to do that?" And if she did mean to do it, then she now has to come to terms with the fact that from the very beginning of episode one, she wanted to harm Brad. What does that mean to her, and what does it mean to her if anyone — like Dina — ever finds out?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.