What HBO Rom-Com Thriller 'Run' Has in Common With 'Fleabag'

Showrunner Vicky Jones tells The Hollywood Reporter about the influence her longtime collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge had on the premium cable network series starring Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson.
Ken Woroner/HBO; Inset: David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images
'Run' (Inset: Vicky Jones)

HBO's Run is part rom-com, part thriller, part relationship drama. The series, created by English playwright Vicky Jones, follows two thirty-something former college sweethearts, Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), who reunite as they both make good on a pact they made 17 years before. If either one of them texted the word "run" and the other replied with the same message, they would drop everything and meet at Grand Central Station in New York.

Spoiler alert: They do. The ensuing series — bowing Sunday — sees both Ruby and Billy at first ignore their real lives, then realize that might be harder than it looks, considering the rest of the world is still spinning while they're on a train together. For Jones, the rom-com aspect came easy. Plotting the dramatic twists in each half-hour episode, on the other hand, did not.

"I knew I wanted to write a story about a couple who you really root for and should be together but who have come from completely different lives. I knew that I could write those two," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They're flawed but a true couple who were kind of beautiful together and brought out each other's nuances and the best and the worst in each other, and were truly in love and all of their deepest, darkest selves that had been compacted over time came back out again when they joined up with each other. All of that felt like it was falling into place in my head, but the twists [were not]."

The longtime Phoebe Waller-Bridge collaborator — the duo founded the DryWrite Theatre Company together and Jones directed the stage production of Fleabag — channeled Nora Ephron for the rom-com aspects, and looked to Alfred Hitchcock for her thriller cues.

"We knew we wanted the world to come crashing into them, because they'd left their homes, they dropped everything, they got onto this train together which was like a vacuum away from the world," she says. "But of course they realize [their problems] are still there and still happening. The clock is still ticking and time is still turning for everyone and their lives needed to catch up with them."

That's when the series becomes less When Harry Met Sally... and more North by Northwest or Strangers on a Train. "We were playing with those things, but it's all so completely new to me," says Jones. "I've never plotted like that before. I've never ever had this storyline, really. I mean, there were parts of them in very small ways in my plays and working with Phoebe on Fleabag. But [plotting the thriller elements] was scary and difficult. We had some wonderful people in the writers room to help with that."

Below, Jones discusses what Run and Fleabag have in common, what kind of an influence Waller-Bridge (who is an executive producer and cameos in the series) had in its production and finding the perfect actors to play the estranged couple at the center of the series.

How would you describe this series? It's kind of like a relationship thriller.

That's such a fun way of saying it. It's a rom-com thriller story about a couple who run away together. Yeah, it's a lot of things.

This is very different subject matter from Fleabag, but the characters do have the same type of banter-filled chemistry and the episodes are similarly constructed in terms of length and rhythm.

I think we learned from having a huge company together and working with lots of different writers for so many years. I think we both learned about brevity. We both got a taste of that — of "if we get it, then let's not linger on it. Let's move forward."

What kind of influence did Waller-Bridge have in terms of helping you transition from theater to television?

She has phenomenally valuable experience in many senses. She's incredibly inspiring. She thinks out of the box so naturally. I know if I'm saying something that has been done before she'll point it out, and she's very good at [pointing out] if something feels expected. All of that is so useful for [helping] you know that what you've got feels fresh, and you know that nobody's done this before because you can feel it. It's also making you cackle with laughter in the room and stuff. She's an incredible inspiration where all of that's concerned. And moving into TV as well, I think it's such a different art where it's a huge group of people who are taking very seriously everything you write on the page. She's incredibly confident in that but also has tremendous respect for her team, so that was lovely to learn from. Keeping the whole gang together and being good at communicating, I learned that as well. And being true to your own voice, and trusting your instincts. I think we've always trusted each other and if we both liked something, we meant it. When you're working with so many more people, it's really hard to hold on to that trust in yourself — especially in a new medium. I guess I emotionally leaned on her for self-belief.

The fact that this series is set on a train in the U.S. is interesting, because not a lot of Americans take long-haul trains like these characters do. Were you worried about that?

It's something that Americans really don't do, for sure. At first we felt like "Oh, no," because it's something you really do in Europe. But it that's why it felt special. That was their way of hiding from the world. It feels like you're in a vacuum and you're in this metal box that's hurtling through the countryside, and you're in and out of reception and you're already doing something because you're moving forward, so your thing is being achieved already. It's almost a meditative state, I think. You can trick yourself into thinking that you're out of the world. They can just stop the world for a little while and go back in time and see how things would have been between them if they had stayed together. Of course that's a dangerous trick to play on themselves, especially because of the power of the whole tactic — if you text that "run," you drop everything and leave straight away to get to that platform within that day. It's so ridiculous in many ways, but you dread the thought that anybody you care about can have a pact like that with someone. It felt like all those elements went together — the unlikeliness of it, the quaintness of it, the ridiculousness, and the romantic grand gesture that you were never really going to do. What happens if one day you do it?

The success of the show hinges on the casting, so what was it like trying to find these two people?

It was quite a "no one else can do it" kind of experience. Once their names came up, and them being interested came up, it was like, "Oh, God." Just a mission to convince them both in their different ways. I knew so clearly that they had to do it, and then they read together and they were so wonderful. There's just no one like no Merritt Wever in the world. She's a true talent, such an incredible actor, and she becomes emotionally that character and it's only through that very special keyhole of access that she has a character that she can create something that's just so unexpected and so true simultaneously. It just comes out — things that you would never have even thought of for that part that were perfect. She can play anything. And Domhnall, he's such an emotional and open person and so intelligent. He really understood the character so well, I think, that very nuanced, flawed guy who is all love for this woman and truly respected and loved her and isn't afraid to show her. You can really imagine yourself in a relationship with that guy, and he's so charismatic.

Wever hasn't really played a rom-com lead before, has she?

I know! She told me she couldn't do the role and she was not going to be able to do it for that reason, I think. She said, "I haven't done this sort of thing before, I can't do it." So I had to convince her.

Is this season closed-ended, or could you see a second season or more of the show?

I would love to have a second season or more of the show. There's loads more about the rest of [their characters] and where they go from here, and what's going on [at home]. For me, there's so much more I'd love to investigate but we'll see what HBO says.

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Run premieres Sunday at 10:35 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.