Inside 'Red Oaks': Figuring Out the Future on the Set of Amazon's '80s Coming-of-Age Dramedy

Red Oaks - H 2015
Courtesy of Amazon

It's late in the afternoon on a Thursday in July, 2015. The rain that's delayed shooting outside has finally let up and as the sun peeks out through the clouds, a corner of Edgewood Country Club is subtly transformed into a 1985 Labor Day luau and filming on the first season finale of Amazon's original series Red Oaks can finally resume. Extras mingle in the background, which is standing in for the fictional Red Oaks country club, where much of the action on the ensemble, coming-of-age dramedy occurs.

In the foreground, Oliver Cooper's Wheeler, a parking valet, runs around the side of a building to catch up with lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen). In the pilot, which debuted on Amazon last year and received mostly positive feedback as part of the company's distinctive approach of letting people watch and rate its pilots, Wheeler's crush on Misty becomes apparent and the two bond on a golf-cart ride as the stoner sees an opportunity to land his dream girl. But as Wheeler catches up with Misty in a scene for the season finale, it seems the two have hit a bit of a rough patch. She doesn't look too happy with him and he admits a few transgressions. As the conversation continues, they talk about their future plans, a surprising one in Wheeler's case, before the two go their separate ways.

Cooper and Turshen run through the scene as scripted a few times, but watching in the monitors, director David Gordon Green can see that the something's not quite right. He hops up and goes over to the driveway where the scene is taking place and shouts out tweaks to the script that Cooper and Turshen repeat live. He offers a few more subtle changes in blocking, tone and language, going over the variations in conference with the actors. With several options in the can, the Red Oaks team moves on to the next scene.

Turshen and Cooper during an earlier episode

Gordon — who directed a few episodes in Red Oaks' first season, including the pilot and the finale, and serves as an executive producer on the series — was listed by many of the show's relatively unknown cast members as one of the series' main draws when they were up for their parts. And it's that sort of directing technique, of throwing out tons of suggestions, that Turshen and Cooper have come to appreciate.

"You just never know what's going to happen," Turshen explained earlier that day as she waited out the rain in the hair-and-makeup trailer. "I've learned to never be surprised with him ... He makes the moments authentic. He'll just throw something out and there's this response that happens."

Cooper adds: "Sometimes [Green] does stuff that's so weird that you will never use, ever, but it gets you into a place where you're not aware of yourself, not aware of how your face looks, how your hair looks, how the camera's affecting you. He gets you really laughing and not taking it too seriously, and that puts you in a space where the magic can happen."

The director — who's known for his work on films like Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche, Manglehorn and the upcoming Our Brand is Crisis — would seem to be a good fit for a series that co-creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi initially envisioned as a movie.

The longtime friends had been sharing stories from service jobs in their 20s and "something that we thought would be a fun coming-of-age story grew out of that," Jacobs tells The Hollywood Reporter, with Gangemi adding that they planned to write it as an indie film when Steven Soderbergh suggested that they do it as a series. Soderbergh, who also serves as one of Red Oaks executive producers had also been hearing about the stories, with Jacobs spending years working as his first assistant director.

Making a series allowed them to devote more time to supporting characters who might not get much attention in a feature film.

"As the series goes on, I think the idea was to sort of dig deeper into the other characters and try to hopefully present flipsides," Jacobs says. "We try to flesh them out and create sort of deeper characters, which theoretically we can do because we have five hours as opposed to a 95- to 100-minute movie."

Gangemi adds: "When you're writing a feature, you don't sort of have the luxury of telling the stories about an ensemble cast so you're always sort of cutting and cutting and paring down and editing out, whereas in this case we had the luxury and time and space to really build arcs into all these side characters and have them cross paths with each other, just to see different sides."

Misty and Wheeler are just some of Red Oaks' many pairs, with the show also exploring main character (and Wheeler's pal and fellow Red Oaks employee) David Myers' (Craig Roberts) relationships with his parents (Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey, going through their own issues within their marriage), his girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly), his tennis pro boss Nash (Ennis Esmer), businessman and club president Doug Getty (Paul Reiser), who seems to take a liking to David, and Getty's daughter Skye (Alexandra Socha), whom David is attracted to.

Roberts and Socha in an earlier episode

While the series revolves around David, whose father is pushing him to become an accountant while the 20-year-old college student doesn't know what he wants, many of the other characters in the ensemble are also dealing with uncertainty.

"Pretty much every character in this ensemble during the summer is trying to figure out what the next chapter of their life is," Gangemi tells THR. "Both the young characters and also the parents, are going through a transition moment in their lives."

In the pilot, David's world is also shaken by his father having a heart attack in front of him and reeling off a series of death-bed confessions. David's dad survives, though, leaving everything he said hanging over the family as the series begins.

"With our main character, we wanted to just explode everything that he's known, that the ground shifts under his feet within his own family," Gangemi said. "What he thought about his parents' relationship turned out to be not the case. He's in freefall, which is the most fun place to have him be over the course of the season."

Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey in an earlier episode

Still, what David's dad says doesn't have immediate consequences.

"David is somebody who's kind of reactive and is not somebody who goes and makes knee-jerk decisions so when this bombshell drops, he takes time to process it all and figure out what he should be doing with his life," Jacobs says, adding, "In the end it forces big changes for his parents and for him."

Roberts adds of David's situation: "There's so much pressure from different people ... with [his] dad and David's work and his relationship with Karen. Shit hits the fan, completely, and the fan breaks."

Roberts and Golightly in the pilot

As David tries to figure out what he wants, he starts spending time with a second "dark father" figure — as Gangemi describes him — in Getty, who pulls him in a different direction.

"[David's father] is more sort of traditional values and a risk-averse guy, and Getty sort of scoffs at what [David's dad] represents." Jacobs says.

Gangemi points out: "Getty is also the dark father, but he's not evil. … The guy has a good life. He has money and he's powerful and he travels the world. And that, to a kid figuring out who he wants to be, certainly has its allure. And it's a sharp contrast from the lifestyle that he's seen growing up in his father … the safe choice. … Getty is all about the city and danger and excitement. He's pulled in those two directions throughout the whole series."

"He's kind of like a work dad," Roberts says of Getty. "He's pretty tough on David the whole time but I think it comes from a good place. He's a nice guy and you can tell that he's nice by how much he loves his daughter. And how much he's trying to protect her."

Nash also gives David guidance, but it's less like a father and more like an older sibling, "but not a big brother that the parents are proud of," Esmer jokes of his playboy character.

"There are weirdly places where Nash is able to give advice to David on things he might not have considered, like how to treat your girlfriend when its her birthday and how to tell if people are possibly swingers or not," Esmer says. "Little things like life lessons that I don't think David would have expected to pick up at a job like this. That's what the whole thing is, that he's getting exposed to a wider range of people and experiences than he normally would over the course of the summer."

Wheeler also serves as another work pal for David, and it's one of the few relationships in his life without tension.

"I think I play the one guy in the show where we don't have conflict, it's not a conflicted friendship," Cooper says. "It's not like I want him to do things he doesn't want to do, like everyone else in his life. ... We're just friends, and we just talk about things."

Yet Wheeler also has his own storyline, involving his relationship with Misty, and, as Cooper teases, the frequent pot smoker "gets in over his head with some other nefarious activities."

Back on set, more scenes from the end-of-summer luau offer hints of what sort of consequences these "nefarious activities" could have. In one scene, Wheeler's missing as two valets frantically try to deal with a steady stream of cars, while racing back and forth asking, "Where's Wheeler?" Behind-the-scenes, Green choreographs the action and wonders out loud if they could bring in a third valet. (No such luck: The third actor playing a valet can't drive.)

In another scene, Wheeler's back at his valet post as a car arrives and a few men in suits get out, brushing past the valets like they're on a mission. Back at the drop-off, Wheeler muses that they're there for a white-collar criminal, who they're trying to make an example of, and he's relieved they're not there for him. Or are they?

To find out what happens to Wheeler and the other characters on Red Oaks, check out the Amazon series when it starts streaming on Friday, Oct. 9.