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[This story contains spoilers from the ending of Netflix’s Maniac.]
The opening of Netflix’s dense, trippy new limited series Maniac does not give viewers much reason to feel hopeful.
Owen (Jonah Hill) is a broke, newly unemployed paranoid schizophrenic whose only emotional ties are to an upper-crust family that alternately dismisses and emotionally blackmails him. Annie (Emma Stone) is a broke drug addict paralyzed by guilt and grief over the death of her beloved younger sister. Both live in a dystopian version of New York where you can enlist a “Friend Proxy” to cure loneliness, or an “Ad Buddy” to pay your bills, ensuring that you’ll remain alone and broke. Despite the show’s streak of absurdist black comedy, it’s pretty bleak from the get-go.
When Owen and Annie sign up for a clinical trial that aims to completely cure all suffering, trauma and mental illness via psychotropic drugs, it seems unlikely this can possibly end well for them. And yet it does. The pair form an unlikely emotional bond during the trial, consistently winding up together in a series of hallucinated fantasy sequences. After the trial comes to an unceremonious end, Annie tracks Owen down and springs him from the psychiatric hospital where his family has had him committed, finally forming the kind of true connection that both have been lacking.
“Do we actually know each other?” Owen asks, reasonably enough, as they begin the drive to Salt Lake City, where Annie was headed at the beginning of the season. “We’re off to a good start,” Annie responds.
Showrunner Patrick Somerville, who wrote and produced all 10 episodes of the show (based on the Norwegian series of the same name), spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his working relationship with director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), the series’ genre-hopping exploration of mental illness and trauma and the possibility of a second season.
What appealed to you about the Norwegian show, and what did you want to bring to American audiences?
The idea at the center of the Norwegian show: these multiple realities and different landscapes through which character arcs could play out, with a serialized emotional story in the background of it, that core idea was what got Cary, Emma, Jonah and Netflix so excited. I joined after they all had, and so it was just a matter of diving in and figuring out what to do and how to do it.
So, you knew from the beginning that you were writing these roles specifically for Stone and Hill?
I did, the whole time, and it was fun to deliberately play them against type, and against what they’re known for.
Owen and Annie both have very specific traumas. What interested you about their stories?
I was fascinated by the experience of people with mental illness, and the way in which a diagnosis changes the path of their lives. The struggle of being made into “other,” when you grew up not being other, and how family dynamics can change around that, and how you can be objectified, how self-esteem can change. I wanted to represent the nuances of receiving a diagnosis when you just want normalcy in your life, and the struggle and the grind of that, and in the end the isolation that comes out of that. Jonah is such a capable dramatic actor, it felt possible to tell that story through his character.
With Annie, we wanted a different kind of history, a different kind of person, but at the same time, there is something harmonious between grief and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Often, you get that diagnosis when you’re 20, and one of the things that you lose among all the privileges of being mentally healthy in society, is that you lose the person you thought you were going to be. Owen and Annie’s stories are different, but they’re similar enough that they can empathize with each other by the end. There’s loss in both stories.
Annie’s dad is alive, but he lives inside this “Avoid” isolation chamber. Where did that idea come from?
Yeah, this kind of sensory deprivation tank … I wanted there to be a man in a box that Emma Stone was talking to! I mean, relationships with parents when you are entering into adulthood are particularly tricky, and I thought: Why not just put him inside a giant box on top of it all?
Three of the main characters — Owen, Annie and Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) — are struggling with relationships to their parents. Why did that emerge as such a big theme?
Mantleray has a pretty fraught relationship with his mother (Sally Field); they haven’t spoken in a very long time and they’re in competition with each other, there’s a lot of strange energies flowing between them. My wife is a psychotherapist, and I basically subscribe to the theory that a lot of what we are comes down to what happened with our parents when we were very small. Not everything, and we can choose to break into new realities, we can choose to get out of cycles, but a lot of it has to do with that. I think that’s just a simple and true human thing.
What was your working relationship with Cary Joji Fukunaga like?
We both knew that it was a collaboration, so we disagreed all the time, and when we did, we got back together and thought of new ideas that we both got excited about. We didn’t know each other at the beginning of the show, and we know each other very well now, two years later. One of the coolest things about Maniac, and hopefully you can feel it when you watch the show, is there is an improvisational vibe to what’s happening, because that was truly happening during production. Not just between me and Cary, but with the cast, with production designer Alex DiGerlando, with props and hair and makeup, people were all throwing ideas in. We were all trying to figure out, “What is Maniac? How does this work? What’s allowed here and what isn’t?” Collaboration needs conflict, but it also needs continued communication and resolution. I think you can feel it in the show.
How did you settle on which genres to tackle in Owen and Annie’s fantasy sequences?
A lot of it was just what was possible. Some we all agreed on right away, some we couldn’t do because they were literally too expensive and impossible to shoot, it would have been like the “Battle of the Bastards” episode [of Game of Thrones], taking 30 days to shoot and we just didn’t have the time. In the end, it was a matter of going back and forth a ton, figuring out what genres seemed exciting for Cary to shoot and for me to write, and which would provide vehicles to keep telling Annie and Owen’s psychodrama in the right way. Every genre that you can imagine, we considered doing at some point.
Were you conscious of the need to keep some of the real Owen and Annie in those sequences, even as they’re playing these alternate characters?
Oh yeah, there’s little elements in all of these alt characters that Jonah and Emma threw in along the way to stay connected to the Owen and Annie of it. It’s no small task for an actor, and I think actually the show wouldn’t work otherwise. It’s crucial to have people stay connected to Owen and Annie’s stories, because we all know it’s annoying to listen to someone tell you about their dream. Hopefully that’s mitigated by the idea that we know these people very well by the time we start seeing these sequences.
It was always hard to figure out how Owen and Annie can stay alive and present even when they’re in the delusional spaces, and playing different characters, because we made the choice to have them playing characters who were not self-aware that they were inside of dreams. So there had to be these scenes with a tremendous amount of really quick exposition to make the plot work, so we just embraced the insanity of those scenes, like where Bruce and Linda are sitting in the car and Bruce is having to get the download about what’s going on. They’re so good in that scene, just ripping through this unbelievable amount of exposition, that something about their dynamic feels like magic to me.
The delusions are always saying something metaphorical about Owen and Annie’s real problems too, right?
Yeah, so in episode nine Snorey believes he’s responsible for destroying the world, and to me that’s the perfect explosion of Owen’s problem. He’s so guilty, and so an alien invasion story felt perfect for that, because the stakes actually were the earth, but it was designed to show Snorey/Owen that maybe he was overstating his own culpability a little bit. Another thing about schizophrenic delusions is that they’re often about making someone more important than they are, making someone relevant, making someone matter. Coming from a place of feeling like you don’t matter, it’s an over-compensation. For Annie, I think the idea that she was a backstabbing art thief who could convince people of anything, but actually was betraying them along the way, that felt right for her sense of self too.
It’s interesting that Owen has this tendency to obsessively fixate on women, and meanwhile his brother Jed is on trial for sexual assault.
Owen’s also not hostile or violent. I think Owen is an example of someone who just desperately needs connection and wants to not be lonely anymore, and Jed is pretty much a monster. I think Owen comports himself well in the end, and I think he is a good person, and I liked the idea of showing the story of someone with a mental illness diagnosis who was a good person.
The ending is a lot more hopeful than you’d expect. How did you settle on that final note?
We always knew that Owen and Annie were going to end up connected. It is pretty dire in the beginning episodes: life is sad, these people are lost and there’s no way to do the show, to me, unless you go to a much more hopeful place by the end. There’s no justification for punishing the audience in that way, unless there’s a hopeful story to pull out of it. So, we always knew they were going to end up connected. The idea that was always in place, all the way back from the first scripts in the writers’ room, was the concept of radical acceptance. Yes, the show’s about connection and it’s about friendship and about the ways that people can help each other, but you can’t even get there unless you can accept some things about yourself. You can’t make a connection with another person unless you can accept who you are in the first place, so to me the story is two people who have not accepted who they are at the front end of the show, both finding a way to do that for themselves, and the fruits of that being that you get to have new relationships.
Have there been any conversations about a season two?
No. This was always planned as a limited series, and I think that’s another reason why we had the freedom to have a more hopeful ending. A lot of times on TV, you have to throw your characters into distress again near the end to buy the next season, and we don’t have to do that. It is a tremendous amount of energy and imagination to just to make a new show, and so you do have this feeling of wanting to hold on and keep using it, because there’s so much imagination in there, but I think part of why Maniac had that improvisational feeling along the way was knowing that this is it. Let’s do it now, because this is what Maniac is.
What did you think about Maniac? Sound off in the comments if you’d watch a second season. Maniac is now streaming on Netflix.
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