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It was a little over three weeks ago when Rob McElhenney started to grow restless.
He, like everybody else in Hollywood, had shut down his Apple series, Mythic Quest, in mid-March, and by now it was late April and still there was no clear path back. His first thought was to convene his writing staff so that they could plot out a not-yet-ordered season three or maybe even a whole new show, but that would leave much of his cast and crew out of work. So, McElhenney did one better: conceiving an entire episode that could be shot and edited with everyone safely at home.
The half-hour, McElhenney reasoned, would need to lean into the moment, with the fictional team behind the biggest multiplayer video game suddenly forced to live and work in quarantine. With co-creator Megan Ganz and executive producer/star David Hornsby (David) as co-writers, the episode would feature a mix of relatable pandemic plotlines, including Charlotte Nicdao’s Poppy struggling with forced solitude and F. Murray Abraham‘s C.W. struggling with teleconferencing technology. The trio would also write in a storyline about a charitable donation and then replicate it in real life with $600,000 raised to date — $300,000 from the show’s cast, crew and producers, which was matched by McElhenney and his actress wife, Kaitlin Olson — for global NGO Mercy Corps’ COVID-19 relief program.
McElhenney pitched the idea to his bosses at Apple, who were immediately on board. To pull it off, he told a team in Cupertino, California, that the production would need 40 new iPhones and 20 sets of earbuds later that week. “This was a Monday, and I said, ‘If we have them by Friday, I think we could pull this off. Is that possible?'” he recounts by phone. “There was a rep on the call who didn’t skip a beat. She said, ‘I already have them tracked down. They’re in L.A. and I can have them to you by this afternoon.'”
Three weeks later, Mythic Quest: Quarantine was shot, edited and ready to air. McElhenney and the programmers at Apple feel so strongly about the finished product, which will drop on Friday, that they’re submitting it for Emmy consideration. “In the beginning, I think there was a real possibility that it would be a nightmare,” says Nicdao, “but by the end, I was ready to do three more.”
Ahead of the special’s debut, McElhenney and Ganz opened up about the grueling if hugely rewarding process, from conception to air.
OK, take me back to late April, when this idea was first coming together.
MEGAN GANZ: Rob, David and I were working on the second season, still rewriting the last few scripts in quarantine when Rob quite wisely was like, “It’s a bad idea for us to just keep rewriting scripts that we can’t shoot. We’re going to have to change these anyway, based on what the world looks like.” So we just kept talking and asking, “What can we do?”
ROB McELHENNEY: It happened very, very fast. We conceptualized this idea that is very true to the experience of what’s happening in the gaming industry, as it is with almost every other industry that can work remotely.
GANZ: But our feeling was that when we’re done with this quarantine, people are not going to want to keep talking about it. They’ll be sick of it. So Rob had this idea, which was basically, “What if we just do something now, and then we can acknowledge it and get it out of the way so that when we do eventually return to the second season, we don’t have to have it be about the quarantine? It’ll just be post-quarantine.”
McELHENNEY: And we really wanted to make it feel like it was a shared experience without stepping on a lot of the stuff, like Saturday Night Live, that we’d already seen. We knew right away that we can’t just get away with doing Zoom jokes for 30 minutes. There was also a tremendous amount of tone deafness out there in the [gaming] community, and it was something that I hadn’t seen from a comedic standpoint. And it made sense for my character, who created one of the biggest games of all time, to not necessarily understand how difficult this may be for everybody else, because he’s on his compound living his best life. So it became about how do we get into those kinds of scenarios without seeming callous or tone deaf ourselves as a show?
Megan came with some experience, having co-written “Connection Lost,” the 2015 Modern Family episode that was shot exclusively with Apple products, right?
GANZ: Yeah, and I said to Rob, “It took us three and a half months to edit that.” I was like, “I don’t know that we’re going to be able to do this.” But Rob is the sort of person that if he gets it in his mind that something needs to be done, that’s just what happens.
McELHENNEY: I really wanted to get it out as quickly as possible so that it was something that we’re all going through in the moment, not something we went through in the past. I also felt like there was an opportunity to delve into some of the darker elements of what’s going on. To see some of the struggles and then ultimately end in triumph with a sense of community and optimism.
And then you presumably pitched it to Apple. What did that discussion entail?
McELHENNEY: Honestly, I thought they were probably going to say no because it’s just technically difficult. There are a few shows that subsequently have come out. Parks and Rec had not [aired] when we conceived of this, but I found out that Mike [Schur] was doing it, and I called him and asked him a bunch of questions. I thought, “If we’re going to do it, I’d like it to look and feel as if this was a creative choice, not a choice that was created by limitation.” That’s what Apple responded to. Once I walked them through it, we shot a little test and said, “This is what it could look like and sound like and feel like.” They pulled the trigger, and we got to work.
Were the actors as enthusiastic?
GANZ: They were thrilled.
No part of them was terrified? You were asking them to wear a lot of hats.
GANZ: Oh, absolutely. I talked to the actresses about it later because [initially we] were all like, “Oh, my God, I have work,” and then they were like, “Oh, my God, I don’t have a makeup person.” It’s also just crazy to suddenly have to do something when you mentally accepted the fact that there’s nothing to do. I think everyone felt the same way I did, which is when I was doing the work I was overwhelmed, but as soon as it stopped, I was like, “What can I be doing? I wish I had more work.” That happened straight down the line. Even Murray [at 80] — we’d shoot scenes with him and then he’d send Rob an email the next morning, like, “I think I could do that funnier. Could we shoot that again?”
You lean into the tech limitations of F. Murray Abraham’s character, C.W. How much of that was art imitating life?
GANZ: (Laughs.) Although I’ll say the patience and the stick-to-itiveness that he exhibited was really incredible. He didn’t have anyone to help him set up the phone, and our post department was on with him for hours walking him through how to enter in his Wi-Fi password — that was the level they were starting with. But everybody just had this attitude of, like, “Let’s do this, let’s get this done.”
Walk me through how you pulled it off, technically speaking?
McELHENNEY: It forced everybody to get into the minutia of their cameras, of their lenses, of the applications, of the sound quality, frame rate, all sorts of things that, as an actor, you’re not necessarily thinking about. We take things like sound quality for granted because there’s a sound department. Well, now, all of a sudden, you’re in your house and you record yourself and the sound is garbage because you have hardwood floors or you have a concrete floor and it’s just bouncing off of it. We’d be on a Zoom call with our sound guy and he’d just start smiling, and say, “I think I just earned the respect of about 40 crewmembers.” That happened over and over again. (Laughs.)
So you’re all on Zoom?
McELHENNEY: Yeah, you’d open your laptop and would call into Zoom — there would either be five people on there or 45, depending on what the scene or situation was. The way we’d capture the image and the sound was through iPhones. Each actor had three iPhones, and we’d shoot one iPhone at a time. As soon as a scene was wrapped, the phone would be sterilized, packaged, put in a secure area, picked up [by a courier] and brought to editorial, sterilized again, and then the footage would be uploaded to the Avid for the editors, who were working from their homes.
Back up, why did you need three phones?
McELHENNEY: To get [footage] through to editorial as fast as possible, because we wanted to get this episode done and out while we were still in quarantine. The way we’d do each scene is they’d take their laptop/desktop cameras that you would see normally for a teleconferencing thing and they’d put the iPhone directly in front of that camera, so I essentially had video village from my house. I could see what every actor’s camera is picking up and you could also see the readings for the audio. Mike, the cinematographer, could double check all the settings and make sure that everything was running at the right revolution, frame rate, etc. Then we would run the scene, and the actors would be talking to one another the same way we’re talking right now [by phone], through our AirPods.
At one point, Rob, your character turns up at Poppy’s house. Without giving too much away, did that really happen?
McELHENNEY: The only time I left my backyard was when I went out onto my street to shoot that one particular scene. Then, when you see me walking, I’m walking back onto my property and into my garage. When I ask Poppy to open her door, that’s her husband [Bayden] dressed as me with a little help from visual effects. Poor Bayden’s not an actor, and he was so uncomfortable. So what happened is I’d been acting in the scene in real time and then as I asked her to come to the door, I put my phone down, jumped onto Zoom and was able to look at what was happening as if it were a true video village. I could see Charlotte at the door with a man dressed like me. He happens to be a 6 foot 2, 200-pound man, and let’s just say I am not, so even our silhouettes are dramatically different. Bayden has the earbuds in, too, so he could hear me telling him, “Bayden, just stand there.” He forgot how to stand. He was just frozen solid. I’m like, “Bayden, loosen under your shoulders, like a human.” He’s such a trooper.
GANZ: We had a long talk about that scene because obviously we wanted to not be cavalier about breaking quarantine. But there’s a reality to the humanity that has to come in at some point, and you need to realize that people are struggling and sometimes a little thing like that can really make a difference for people. I don’t always identify with Poppy — I think people assume I do because David is David and Rob is Ian and therefore I should be Poppy — but this is the first episode that I really, really understood where she was coming from, because when I have work suddenly fade from my life, I have an extreme emotional reaction to it too. I felt every bit of what she was going through. I talked to Charlotte before and after because I think she has some of that as well. I was checking in for her sake but also for my sake. Even tonight, I have a Zoom call with the actresses just to be like, “Hey, checking in.” We’re all looking after each other.
Was there ever any discussion of actually having Charlotte and Rob shoot the scene together?
GANZ: I think we talked about it, but ultimately we decided what we can justify for the characters we can’t justify for the actors.
The episode features a fairly extraordinary Rube Goldberg-style sequence with the entire cast participating from different Zoom windows. How’d you do that?
McELHENNEY: Make no mistake, this entire endeavor was a nightmare. We’ve seen some commercials showing the connectivity of people, virtually, and we thought, “What would be a step up from that? A really difficult-to-pull-off, technical version of this handoff from box to box to box?” We thought a Rube Goldberg-esque sequence might be interesting, so I called a production designer on our special effects team and said, “Here’s what we’re thinking. Can we make it happen?” Both of the teams worked together virtually to come up with what the machine would be, and then our special effects guy, Jonathan, built each one in his garage, made sure they all worked and then did instructional videos for the actors on how to set them up. Then he sterilized everything, packaged it, left it in a secure area, and it was picked up and brought to the actors’ homes. We had to shoot it all in order because we had to make sure that we were lining up the frames of each one with the frame before and after it.
Tell the truth: How many takes did you do?
McELHENNEY: We had one shot and that was it. In some ways, that was the easiest part — it was everything leading up to that that was tough, and we involved everybody. We had set [decoration] and production design work with the actors because you’d see the backgrounds of their apartments. And we had hair and makeup there all day, every day watching, consulting, saying, “Ooh, you have a fly away [hair]” or “Can you reapply this lipstick?” And these poor actors. We were asking them to pay attention to their frame rate and the resolution, and could they check their decibels on the mic while also paying attention to the scene? And now I’m going to give them direction and some notes on their performance. And still, I don’t know that I heard one person complain. There was a lot of frustration, but it was always directed inward. It was, “I wish I knew how to do this.”
GANZ: We recorded the Zoom calls of us shooting, and I’ve rewatched them in order to pull outtakes because eventually we’re going to do a little outtakes thing, and it really took an incredible amount of patience from a lot of people to get through this. And then we’d end the day, and it would take 40 minutes for everyone to get off the Zoom call with each other once we were done. People just hung around; nobody wanted to get off. Some of the actors would even come into other Zoom calls for scenes that they weren’t in just to watch the shooting as if they were hanging out on set. It felt like we were all together again, which was all I wanted.
By making this episode, you’ve now grounded the show in a COVID-19 world. What does that mean for the story going forward?
McELHENNEY: As soon as we all figure out what that means going forward as a culture, a country, a state, a city and then as a corporation and a studio, we can start to figure out how it affects this particular [fictional] office. We know we can’t just go back and shoot the episodes we wrote. The entire world has changed. When we get back up and running — and we have no idea when that’s going to be — this is an office environment and [we’ll have to figure out what an] office is going to look like. None of us know yet. Are we all going to be wearing masks? Will onsite medical personnel just be part of what the experience is? I think emotionally we can still be telling a lot of the same stories that we originally broke, but it needs to be addressed operationally, forget everything else. And it’s going to be challenging.
Not only have you written in a storyline about giving back, you’re also doing so in real life. How did that aspect of this come to be, and was it always the plan?
GANZ: The actual idea of donating the money for real came later, after we’d already broken the story. I think because we’d seen a few shows that had done amazing work getting the audience to donate, we just thought that’s so awesome. But people have done that now, and part of the reason we wanted to make the episode was because it brought joy to our lives and we wanted to give some joy to the audience. And it just felt like asking them to pay for that defeated the purpose. So we thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made this whole story about a donation and then at the end of the episode it was like, ‘That money has been donated,’?” And that’s it — there’s no ask.
Final question: If production doesn’t resume for a while, could you foresee doing another quarantine special?
GANZ: I’ve already started telling Rob that I want to do it. He’s the engine, but I’m priming that tank. (Laughs.)
McELHENNEY: Honestly, it was the hardest production I’ve ever been associated with, but it is also, by a mile, the production of which I’m most proud. If in fact we aren’t going back for a significant amount of time and there’s a good, positive response to this, I don’t see why we couldn’t consider another. We certainly have the system down.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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