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A longtime creative exec, Mo Marable was best known for directing TV titles (see Big Love and the enduringly familiar Entourage opener) before the most unlikely of breaks got him behind the camera of narrative comedies such as The Game, Miracle Workers and Insecure.
It was a short for the 2014 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the one where Julia Louis-Dreyfus and then-Vice President Joe Biden darted around D.C. in a cameo-filled parody, that changed the course of his career. Now a producing director on two series — Hulu’s Woke, which recently dropped its entire second season, and Peacock’s Killing It, which just premiered on April 14 — Marable has now worked on nearly 20 series and become a go-to choice for comedy pilots. Zooming in from the Nova Scotia shoot of Hulu’s Washington Black adaptation in early April, the director spoke about his trajectory, the increasingly polarizing idea of “wokeness” and hopes for his feature debut: a Disney+ update of 1980s comedy Three Men and a Baby.
It only recently came to my attention that you were the one who directed that insane White House Correspondents’ Dinner video with our now president and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. How’d you land that?
How I got there was crazy. I used to work at HBO, in the creative services promo department, but I had left and started my own production company. HBO, no matter who’s there, will always be family to me. They called me to do a promo for Veep, and I was like, “I don’t do promos anymore.” But then, of course, I shot it. Three weeks later I get a call for another Veep thing. “Just read it,” they said. So, I did, but I go, “Who are we going to get to play Joe Biden?” Turns out: Joe Biden. How do you say “no” to that? Next thing I know, I’m in D.C. and walking around the Oval Office. Every location we had, whether it was in The White House or Congress or whatever, we only had 15 minutes to shoot. I remember at one point the Obamas’ dog [Bo or Sunny] runs in and stops, looks at me, and then just walks out. “Wrong brother,” I said, “Wrong brother.”
Going into this, you’d worked with Julia — but obviously not with Joe Biden or Michelle Obama, who made a memorable cameo.
Working with Julia and [Veep creator] Armando Iannucci, we just hunkered down for like three or four days and created this piece together. But we had a lot of pivots, like the First Lady. We got a call on the second day saying, “Michelle Obama wants in.” And you already know what happens. She’s all about fitness and eating healthy, but she’s eating all of that ice cream. We had 15 minutes to shoot that. One thing I will say about Michelle Obama is that she has such a spirit and an energy. You can feel it far away. So we’re in there, and The White House assistants were just like, “She’ll be ready in five minutes… two minutes…” all of a sudden all these secret service men are in the room. I don’t know if I’m making this up, because it’s just the way I thought I saw her, but she came in and she was like, “Hey!”
When she hit her time limit, I needed one more shot to make it all work. “Ma’am, is it OK if I just shoot this one shot?” And Joe Biden lit me up. “She is the First Lady of the United States! You just can’t ask her that!” And Michelle just goes, “Joe.” She turns to me and says, “Mo, what do you need?” She says it’s fine, and then Joe just smiles. It was such a wonderful experience, and that was the narrative turning point of my career.
You really started racking up credits at that point.
That hit on Saturday night, during Correspondents’ Dinner, and then it was all over the news. That Monday I got a phone call to direct a TV show. It happened, just like that.
You hear a lot about directors shifting from music videos to TV and features but not from branded content. Do you think that you would’ve been able to segue into the career you have now without that moment?
I don’t know. My goal was always to become a director. When you’re young, you just think like everything’s possible. You don’t even know what the game is. You don’t know that some of this is inside baseball or nepotism. Not everybody who works hard and does good work gets to win. I got to a point where I was just satisfied that I wasn’t broke. “Oh, I can go on a vacation with my friends? Well, if I don’t ever do narrative, that’s cool.” But the reality is I never doubted that I was going to transition at some point.
The very first show they gave me a shot was The Game, Mara [Brock] and Salim Akil. That was the first phone call I got the day after the Correspondents’ Dinner thing came out. And in this business, you need somebody to vouch for you. You need somebody to say, “Take that shot.” Then I directed Veep, which I think would’ve happened anyway because of the short. From there it was It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and things just picked up.
Since Woke originally premiered almost two years ago — and the timing of it is still kind of surreal, since that long-ignored conversation really came to the fore that summer — some things have changed and simultaneously nothing has change. But one big development is the that term “woke” has been weaponized by the right.
When we sold the show, and again when we were getting ready to market it, we had a lot of meetings around, “Should we keep the name Woke?” Woke was already starting to feel overused. We batted all of these other ideas around, but at the end of the day we kept coming back to Woke. It was timely, because people were paying attention. Like you said, it’s always been there. Sadly, between George Floyd and a pandemic, there were just so many things at play. We were actually supposed to premiere the show maybe six weeks or eight weeks later — during election week, I think! Hulu was a real partner for doing everything to push it forward, throwing money at marketing to get it all going. But the word “woke” has been twisted and co-opted. It’s a slur in certain circles. That’s the reason our tagline this season is “Woke is a four-letter word.”
For sure, and the new season really gets into the complications of the term and even within the activist community.
It’s a racial slur and a kind of microaggression in certain areas. I don’t know who is proud of the word anymore — and I’m talking every group from the right to the left. What I think the show loves about it now is that it is so polarized. And the thing about wokeness is … can anybody truly be woke? After George Floyd happened, next thing you know there are corporations putting out so-called woke type messaging. Huh!? I had a neighbor bring over food after George Floyd was murdered. I remember standing in the yard by the porch and my wife was out front and I just saw it coming. Here’s the casserole. Then I heard, “I’m so sorry.” I was like, “I don’t fucking know Floyd like that! I’m not at the wake.” The symbol of what happened galvanized me, galvanized a lot of people, but then I’d get a phone call from somebody who I hadn’t worked with in 20 years, someone I don’t really know, saying “Hey, if you can, can you give me a call back? I just really want to talk to you, man.” Oh my God. I’m the one black friend for someone. So, part of Woke this season is about the misuse of the idea of wokeness. The idea that corporations try to co-opt it to make more money as a marketing tool. The idea that you can never really be woke. The idea that a lot of our woke leaders started making money.
The set-up for Killing It is almost too absurd to get into. How did you come to direct that pilot?
I had just done another pilot with Dan Goor, Grand Crew for NBC, so I read it and I just thought the script was hilarious — especially knowing that was Craig Robinson. It’s so weird. But I loved it because I never see these types of people — especially people of color and women — in this kind of space. Who’s going to think that Craig Robinson is going to play a snake hunter in the Florida bayous? Nobody. But this is what I’m trying to do nowadays. I’m now in a space where I really try to pick projects that actually have a social undercurrent. We’re talking about something. You may not see it right away, but if you start to pay attention, it’ll get closer and closer to you.
I’m not as outwardly political. Yes, I vote. I will go to a march. I will donate. If something in the workplace is not right, I’m going to speak up. But as a person out there, I’m not door-knocking. And sometimes I wonder: Am I doing enough? And I think where I do my best political work is in my work. At the end of the day, I really want to normalize African Americans and talk about the idea that the system is built to not allow everybody a piece of the pie.
Fewer and fewer people every year.
Every year. And [Robinson’s character] is just trying so hard to find a way to get his little plot of land. He’s not trying to be a criminal. He’s trying to do it the legit way, yet still he has a brother who’s like, “Nah, that’s not going to work.” It shows you this idea of how people get ahead. Being corrupt seems to have worked for a lot of people. Doing it the hard way hasn’t worked for some people, especially for people who have been marginalized already. I just find this tale of trying to achieve the American dream to be sad and real — even though we disguise it in all this crazy comedy.
You have to tell me something about your Three Men and a Baby reboot for Disney+. What’s your angle?
Well, here’s what I will say. I mean, again, I’m trying not to do anything that doesn’t speak to what’s going on in society today. When you go back and you watch the original Three Men and a Baby you go, “times have changed.”
Yes, hopefully these protagonists will have a different relationship with women,
Exactly. That’s a part of it. Zac Efron is still attached to play the lead. We are in the process of finishing up the script. I’m not making a Manhattan story. I making a Brooklyn story. It’s about these three guys, but guys are not as stupid as they were back in the day. The cast will be very diverse, that’s the only way I would do it, and we’ll see how Disney enjoys the script in the next six/seven weeks.
Will there be a reference to the weird ghost child cameo that was actually just the shadow of the cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson and a top hat?
If I get my druthers, yes. And I would love to have a cameo from one or all of them. I still want to pay homage to the original.
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