'Santa Clarita Diet' Creator on Zombie Comedies, Drew Barrymore and Mistaking Fake Body Parts for Real Ones

"It was a juicy role for her to play — in more ways than one," Victor Fresco tells THR of Barrymore's role as a suburban realtor-turned-zombie.
Courtesy of Netflix
Victor Fresco

Netflix's newest series Santa Clarita Diet stars Drew Barrymore as a suburban realtor who turns in a zombie.

The comedy hails from Victor Fresco, who has spent the majority of his career working in broadcast television on shows like Better Off Ted and Andy Richter Controls the Universe. But the veteran writer-producer decided to jump from network to streaming with his latest creation.

"My agent had advised me that all of his clients working outside of networks are happier," Fresco tells The Hollywood Reporter. "So I thought, let's see what happens."

He fell in love with the creative freedom he discovered at the streaming giant — and credits it to a lack of a development process, which he argues "blands out a lot of television comedy." Another perk? Barrymore's character, who suddenly finds herself craving human flesh, could eat as many body parts onscreen as she wanted.

"If this was a network show, then there's always the funny standards and practices notes about how many times you can say 'balls,' or, 'let's not have her eat this part of this person,'" he adds. "There was never anything that came through that said we couldn't do something."

THR caught up with Fresco on the day of the series debut to talk about why he wanted to make a zombie comedy, how he snagged Barrymore as his leading lady and what made him decide to spill the show's secret in the marketing campaign.

What made you want to do a zombie show?

I like taking a big idea and then grounding it. I like the idea of what happens to a family when there's unconditional love between two characters and a bomb goes off in the center and they're working on the same side to try and figure it out. I also just like the idea that zombies are the ultimate narcissists. They only care about getting their needs met when they want to have them met — and I think we're living in a narcissistic culture. And zombies, while they're the ultimate narcissists, have this positive empowerment quality to them. It's exciting to live life having your needs met and knowing what you want and feeling confident and getting it. That's what Sheila is going through. It's a fun character to track, someone whose life has gotten a little boring and now she's a hundred percent id and is just going to go out and doing what she wants to do and what she needs to do. How do you navigate that feeling of empowerment but also be able to be in a loving relationship with a family and live in society and navigate your everyday life? So that kind of push-pull between empowerment and narcissism was interesting to me.

So, you find the struggle fairly relatable?

On Joel's side, he's not going anywhere emotionally — he loves his wife. And when you love your wife and you love your family and things change, you have to figure it out. That felt relatable to me. How do you figure stuff out together? You don't always have one foot out the door. You want to make things work. This is a big thing that they have to make work. I also thought, why can't the undead just work as regular people and be realtors in the Valley? They don't have to be the mindless eating machines that we've seen. If we want to do it comically, she could have a regular life — but it's obviously slowly going off the rails because it's hard to keep up that regular life and navigate what she's going to have to be navigating.

Are you trying to humanize zombies a bit?

Yeah. Well, I can sympathize. What would you do if you woke up and you had to eat people one morning? What would you feel like if that happened to you? We're not angry that lions have to eat meat to survive. It's different with people, obviously, but that was one of the challenges of the show: how do we root for her or be sympathetic to her while she's doing this?

Had this idea been percolating in your mind for some time?

Yeah, for at least a couple of years. Usually, it will come in just a thought, like, what if it were a normal functioning zombie who sold real estate in Santa Clarita and had this secret? But it also started with watching reality shows. When I was growing up, we didn't glorify narcissism. Our heroes were people who did things for their community and for their world. I think some of us still have those heroes, but with reality television our heroes became narcissists who were just ruthless and did what they wanted to in order to get ahead in the world. I thought that was also an interesting element — that people are the ultimate zombies in that we consume without consequence or without thinking about where it's taking us or what it could be doing to us. All of those thoughts merged for me. And I always thought that if my core characters have love in the center of the show, which is what I look for what I'm watching television and particularly in a comedy, then I'll root for them.

You kept the zombie aspect of the show under wraps for some time, so why'd you decide to spill the secret before it premiered?

I always felt we should keep the zombie [part of it] under wraps as long as possible because when it went out as a script, people read it not knowing where it was going and I think that was a really fun read. So when we release stuff to the press very early on about what the show was, we just said that they're living very ordinary lives until it goes off the rails in murder and mayhem — but in a good way, hinting that is a comedy. Then when we started to market the show, we felt that the central premise was going to somehow get out. It's almost impossible to keep something that big of a secret on a new show. If we just hinted about it, people would know. There's already enough people in town that know, who read the script and worked on it. So if it's going to get out, what's the best way to market the show in terms of getting audience interest? To just market it as Drew and Tim are realtors in the suburbs is not going to be as interesting a show for viewers to want to turn into as there's this real crazy element in the center of it. There's enough surprises along the way and the [zombie bit] is revealed in the first episode, so I felt like audiences are still going to embrace what's to come as their world slips further and further away.

Is your ideal audience someone who is totally unaware going into it that it's a zombie show?

Yeah, I don't know if there are any of those people out there because Netflix has marketed the show so well. But that would be exciting for someone to watch and not know it's coming. I think if you know that, it's still going to be a fun ride because the way it unspools is not crazy. It just feels real to me. I mean, if this happened to my wife, I'd want to understand why, how, is it curable and how are we going to deal with it — and in very real ways. Do we get a meat freezer? All of those real questions are what's fun about the show.

What's it like coming at the genre from a comedic point of view?

I've only done comedy throughout my whole career. I've never worked outside of that so I knew it was going to be comedic. I haven't worked in horror. I don't know if we'd even consider this horror — it's not scary-horror. It's gruesome. But for me, it was always driven by character and story. I never thought of it as how am I going to merge comedy and horror? I've always thought of it as comedy that just has a big swing.

How did you go about getting Drew Barrymore to star?

Well, we got her to read the script, which was the first hurdle, and she embraced it. I had written it on spec, and then we put a list together of what the prototypes would be and Drew was at the top of that list. We wanted someone who was going to be endearing and adorable and tough and strong but that you would still root for. Drew has all those qualities and brings them to the screen. She wasn't naturally looking for television, but we sat down and she was very enthusiastic. She just really embraced the physicality of the role and what she was going to go through in her metamorphosis. She starts as this mousey realtor in the Valley and she ends up as this really badass tough woman. It was a juicy role for her to play — in more ways than one.

Indeed, there are a lot of fake blood and body parts involved in her scenes.

Drew was just a trooper. She sank her head and teeth into a lot of stuff in a lot of different environments without ever complaining or being grossed out by it. Maybe she was a zombie in a past life. She was really able to do it without any second thoughts. The hardest thing I remember was when she was lying in this pool of vomit, which doesn't seem hard, but it was on a cold stage and she was in cold liquid for hours in this really uncomfortable position. It smelled for some reason like vomit because they used pasta in it, which starts to deteriorate, and the crew was walking around with masks on. And she was just sitting in it for hours not complaining. That's when a realized how fantastic she was. Whatever it takes to get a good result, that's what she wants. Because I come out of comedy and I don't come out of gore, there are times when we're on set and something in introduced — a body part that looks half-chewed that's lit in a dark way — and your brain has to reset because you have to remind yourself that it's not real. We're in Hollywood, but damn that looks like she's biting into an arm.

And what made you want to go after Timothy Olyphant to play her husband?

Deadwoodwas one of my favorite television shows ever, and he was so great in it. And Justified was also a great show. I knew Tim as a badass because that's what I felt he played. But the real Tim is actually not. He has a much lighter, jovial touch than the characters that I think he played. I saw him in The Grindr and I worked on My Name Is Earl years ago and he did an episode of that. It was a completely different Tim Olyphant than I had seen. So he knows comedy and he can do comedy. What he does that I love is that he plays authentic. He'll never push his character to get a joke. He keeps that character very grounded, and he has a very dry, wry delivery that I like writing. Drew and Tim had never met each other and they are just so sweet together, both on camera and off. They're very respectful and welcoming and encouraging of each other. So that's been a very nice relationship to watch also.

Given the graphic nature of the show, you presumably only shopped it around to cable and streaming outlets, yes?

I worked in network my whole career and I wanted to try something outside of it. My agent had advised me that all of his clients working outside of networks are happier. So I thought, let's see what happens. We got it to Netflix about two years ago now and they read it and liked it and said, "That's it. We're in. Let's just make sure we cast it with someone we all want and then we'll make it." So the process was lovely. They make decisions quickly. The big key to being there is that there's no development process, which I think is what blands out a lot of television comedy. As you do draft after draft after draft — and you will literally do 15 drafts before you even get to your table read and then you might do five more after that — pilots get destroyed in that process. Sometimes they get better, but my experience working on other peoples' pilots and sometimes my own is that you can lose your way through all of those notes and all of those drafts. You end up with something that looks incredibly familiar because when you get notes from 15 different people at 15 different times, really you're just sanding off anything that feels different. Certainly Netflix had some notes but we're not getting rounds and rounds of them and we're not making a pilot, we're making the first episode. It's a lot of fun for writers to be there because we can do different things. Let alone the fact that you don't have to have four acts and you don't have to have an act break every three-and-a-half minutes where you're trying to manufacture a big moment. It can be serialized, which they never want us to do in network.

What kind of notes did you get from Netflix?

They were like, "Just make the show you want to make." If this was a network show, then there's always the funny standard and practices notes about how many times you can say "balls," or, "let's not have her eat this part of this person" — but you just don't get that at Netflix. There was never anything that came through that said we couldn't do something so it was just delightful.

Would you ever return to broadcast?

Not after what I just said about that. [Laughs.] No, I've had good experiences there. Better Off Ted and Andy Richter were great experiences and those were both with executives that let us do the shows we wanted to do. I just like that there's not a brand at Netflix. You're not trying to figure out their brand and then do something for that brand. Netflix wants to have something for everybody to watch — but not everybody has to watch the same thing. That's liberating. I can't say that I'll never go back, but my hope is that I do this show for several years and then do another show with Drew and Tim because they are just delightful. It's been a really fun ride.

Santa Clarita Diet is now streaming on Netflix.