How I'm Living Now: David T. Friendly, 'Queen of the South' Producer

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David T. Friendly

The longtime producer, best known for 'Little Miss Sunshine,' was in New Orleans during Mardi Gras filming his USA Network series before the novel coronavirus brought production to a halt.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's top writers, actors, directors, executives and more are living and working in these challenging times.

Veteran producer David T. Friendly (Little Miss Sunshine) was in the middle of shooting the fifth season of his USA Network series Queen of the South in New Orleans when production was halted due to coronavirus concerns. In fact, he'd arrived in the city just a few weeks prior and had celebrated Mardi Gras before the quarantine set in. "That could have been a very dangerous situation," he says now of the boisterous celebration. These days, he's back in Brentwood, where he's converted his home gym into a makeshift office. He spoke with THR about his new normal, which includes working on a pilot with his son and a now-daily lunch meeting with his editor-wife, Priscilla Nedd-Friendly.

Let's start easy: How are you?

How am I doing? (Laughs.) It has been a little bit of an adjustment, I would say. Initially, it was such a shock to the system. I mean, here we were in the middle of shooting season five of my show, Queen of the South. I flew to New Orleans with one of my showrunners, Ben Lobato, on a Monday and the next day was Fat Tuesday, the biggest day of Mardi Gras. There was something like a million people in New Orleans. We didn't really know what we were walking into. The night that we got there, we walked to dinner at a restaurant about a quarter of a mile from our hotel and we had to go through a giant parade. It's like you're walking through Woodstock or something. And then when you think about everything that happened that night and the following week, you were in a city that ultimately had an enormous amount of people bumping up against each other. 

What was it like to have production suspended on your show?

Of course, your first instinct is to go to your crew because on a show like this where you've been working with many of the same people for five or six years, they do become family and you worry about them like family. And when we got the call that Fox 21 was asking us to take a hiatus, it's a mixture of frustration and sadness that you're losing your momentum — but you feel pretty good that you're taking the crew out of harm's way. I think overall that mixture of feelings defines how I'm feeling these days. There's no day, in my opinion, where you just feel great all the way through because the anxiety will inevitably creep in. I find myself waking up very often, for some reason, between 3 and 4 a.m., usually 3:45, almost every night. I usually go downstairs, check all the locks, make like a cup of cocoa and just think a little bit. And then usually I'm able to go back and fall asleep. But there is this kind of churn underneath everything that creates a medium-grade anxiety.

Once you get up for the second time — which, hopefully, is at a more reasonable hour in the morning — what does your day look like now?

Well, I think we are all much more creatures of habit than we know. This is something I discovered about myself recently. I think it was Albert Einstein who said the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. And we've certainly gone through that. Generally, the routine is I get up with our 16-month-old Cavalier King Charles named Oliver, who wakes up around 6. I'll go down and make coffee for my wife and my 25-year-old daughter, who still lives at the house. And then we'll usually go for a big long walk with the dog, which we never really had time for before. Now we're doing that every day. I'm married to a veteran film editor and she's editing a film for Netflix, which she edits now in our son's bedroom because he doesn't live here anymore. They brought the Avid to the house, which was fantastic. Then I go down to my gym-office to work and then we meet for lunch at 12:30 p.m. or so. That part of it is really fantastic. We sometimes make a joke out of it. I'll tell Priscilla that I'll call her on the way home from the office, which is about a 30-second walk. (Laughs.)

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm actually writing a pilot with my 24-year-old son, which is an incredible experience. We're sort of trading pages and writing it together virtually since he doesn't live at home anymore.

What would you say the easiest adjustment has been during this time?

The easiest part of it is I have been able to continue to stay on top of all these projects that are in flux. And I have found that with the wonderful addition of Zoom, people are very accessible. And quite honestly, I've seen a big difference in patience level. There's a thing that happens in our business where everybody wants every conversation to be distilled into 30 seconds and you feel that pressure from the studio executive or the network executive who wants to be polite but needs to get off the phone — and you're trying to get your pitch out as quickly as possible. Now, I find that people are much more willing to sort of ease into the conversation. They want to hear how it's going for you at home. And I think it's going to profoundly affect the way business is done when this is all over. Not just on the simplest level, which is people may work from home a lot more often, but in how we communicate with each other. And I think there's going to be a lot more of this kind of digital meeting as opposed to in person meeting because it's pretty effective.

And what about the hardest adjustment for you?

The hard part for me has been that feeling of not being able to get out into the world. I don't care how nice your house is or how many rooms you can revert to. For somebody who really enjoys being out in the world and interacting with people and looking in their eyes, it's hard. Part of the joy of what we do is the constant variety of people who you're meeting with at restaurants and other places. So you feel a little bit trapped.

What would you say the most challenging decision you've had to make since this whole thing started?

The most challenging thing for me is what is permissible and what is not. For instance, my wife doesn't want me going to the grocery store. I mean, it gets to that level. She doesn't think I'll be disciplined enough about the gloves and the mask and everything. I've gotten to the point where I put it all on just to avoid the fight. If I was being really honest, I feel a little ridiculous doing it but I've seen enough information and enough news to know that it probably is the right thing to do. And I don't want to be reckless.

What have you learned about yourself in this period?

I've learned that I am somebody who can adapt to a different situation more easily than I thought I would be able to. I'm pretty comfortable with our new routine now. I had a lot of anxiety when I realized a) you're going to keep getting to make your television show and b) you're not going to get to go to your office. I do like a little bit of separation of church and state. I like to go to a workplace and work, and I like to come home and have my personal life. But I found that I was able to adapt to it pretty quickly.

What's the best advice that you've given or received about staying sane right now?

The best thing I heard was from the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo. This really hit me and I really got it. He said, "Many, many people will contract the virus and very, very few will have complications." That just gave me a perspective that helped me sort of topple some of the general anxiety I had about getting the virus. I think we've all gone through multiple stages of this. The initial fear was, "If I get this, I'm going to wind up on a ventilator." But things have really shifted since then. So, I found his words very calming. I think he's been absolutely spectacular.

What you are watching, reading, playing or listening to as a reprieve?

I was very excited about the debut of Quibi. I've been one of those producers who tried unsuccessfully to sell them something. But I think Jeffrey Katzenberg may have gotten it all wrong. I think we need their shows to be a minimum of 10 hours, not a maximum of 10 minutes. (Laughs.) We've been able to really binge-watch more than we have been in the past. I went through Tiger King in basically two days, and quite a wild ride that was. We're very excited to come back to Ozark, which is a show that I think is very, very well done. We've also been watching a fair amount of documentaries. I got a chance to see the four-part documentary on Hillary Clinton, which I thought was really, really well done. It gave me a new perspective on her. I guess for me it hasn't been so much a change in viewing but that there's just been more opportunities to get through everything. I would be more of a sampler and a grazer as opposed to binger.

What have become your go-to news sources during this period?

I start every day by listening to “The Daily” hosted by Michael Barbaro. As I have told people, given the choice, I’d rather have dinner with him than any movie star, rock star or mogul. I also watch the first half-hour of the CBS Morning News and then I don't watch any news until 6:30 p.m. I put on NBC for the network news. With those two things together, I have a pretty good sense of what's going on. I choose not to fall into the endless trap of social media because it's all changing every day. But it's pretty hard to avoid some of these alerts, so I do occasionally get wrapped into something on CNN. I also start every morning looking at the L.A. Times and The New York Times. That's mostly because of my journalistic background. Before I was ever in the film business, I was a reporter for Newsweek and the L.A. Times. So, I'm still a bit of a news junkie. I lean much more toward MSNBC than Fox News, if that's what you're asking.

Are you dusting off any old hobbies or finding new ones?

I became obsessed with mixology over over the holidays. Before we got into any of this, my daughter gave me the recipe book of cocktails from the Nomad hotel, which has great cocktail stuff. I've been mastering — well, not mastering, but I've been improving my mixology skills. And just recently I started working on this thing called the Huntsman that involves dark rum, vodka, some bitters, simple syrup. But you've got to get all the contents exactly right — and I kind of nailed it the other night. I was very proud of that. I've also gone back through my CD collection. I just went through an entire collection of a jazz saxophonist I like named Stan Getz, who did a series of recordings that are big band samba, which is a weird combination. They're Bossa Nova albums and I find them very relaxing. And I would never have the time before. In the past, I'd have bought the CDs and never listened to them. Now, I have time to really absorb it.

With more time to cook, too, what have been your go-to comfort foods during the quarantine?

I have to give my wife credit because she works full time and she's made something like 21 dinners in a row. And we're trying to eat really well. Last night was one of my favorite meals. She made breaded chicken and we put this big salad together. We're eating better. That's a thing I would say is somewhat of a surprise. I have not gone down the old frozen mac and cheese path yet.

Have you found yourself stockpiling anything?

We have a lot of rubber gloves and Clorox wipes. An abundance of those, really. But I'm not running out trying to amass massive amounts of paper towels or anything.

How would you describe your current wardrobe?

Well today, because I knew I was talking to you, it is the first day I put a belt on a regular pair of pants since we were ordered to stay home. Mostly, like everybody else, I'm wearing T-shirts and sweatpants. But I will say I've learned sweatpants are a lot more comfortable than blue jeans or real pants. There's a reason we go to that. But for you, I put the belt on. (Laughs.)

I so appreciate that. What's atop your to-do list once this is all over?

Well, one of the things that's on the top of my list is to be grateful. I'm not a deeply religious person, but I grew up Jewish and there's a prayer that you're supposed to say every morning called the Shecheyanu. Basically, you're supposed to start your day by thanking whatever it is — your God — for sustaining you and bringing us into this new day. And I've been doing that every day, focusing on the fact that I am happy, that I've woken up, that I'm here and I'm healthy. I hope to continue that when this is all over.