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[The following story contains spoilers for Mythic Quest: Quarantine.]
Rob McElhenney wasn’t particularly interested in sitting idle. So during some three weeks of quarantine, the Mythic Quest creator and star set out to do the previously unimaginable: produce a high-end edition of his workplace comedy with the entire cast and crew working from home. He’s so pleased with the end result, which dropped May 22, that Apple is submitting the season one add-on for Emmy consideration — which is not to say the process wasn’t hairy at times.
Now that Mythic Quest: Quarantine has been released into the world, its writers and stars open up about the process, the inspiration and what really happened to David Hornsby’s eyebrows.
Before Apple committed to shelling out for a special episode, the cast did a test. It came together very (very) quickly.
“When Rob called me to tell me about the idea in the late morning a few weeks into stay-at-home, I was still in my pajamas in bed. He was like, ‘We wanna make this episode maybe, and shoot some tests today, so I’ll send you the script and see you on Zoom in an hour?’ And I had to really unscramble my brain from quarantine glug pretty quickly,” recalls Charlotte Nicdao, who plays Poppy. “That test day was so fun getting to hang out again — virtually — with the cast and crew. It felt scrappy and slapdash, almost like a guerrilla shoot. When it came to making the actual episode, that determination to get it done was still there, but with massive credit to our incredible crew things felt a lot more polished. We were a pretty well-oiled machine by the end.”
Sure, the actors were hugely confident in McElhenney’s ability to pull off the episode, but that didn’t mean they weren’t terrified.
“Anyone who knows Rob knows that it’s all gonna work out well in the end,” says F. Murray Abraham, who stars as C.W. “My first response was to wet my pants because of my utter tech ignorance, but once the staff walked through, it was a piece of cake. And further, the equipment they sent me, lights, mic, camera stand, etc., came in very handy for the several Zoom fundraisers I’ve been involved in since. I no longer wet my pants.”
Speaking of Abraham, whose C.W. struggles plenty with Zoom in the special, art absolutely imitated life.
“I’m completely at the mercy of my computer,” says the 80-year-old actor. “My method is beg the damn thing to be gentle with me.”
Remember the hug? Of course you remember the hug. Well, Nicdao’s real-life husband stepped in for McElhenney’s Ian (with the help of some special effects) so that the characters could safely embrace. And it was just as powerful off screen.
“Usually when performing an emotional scene, you’ll draw from your own experiences, but there will still be an element of separation between you and the character. I once did a scene where I had to bid a tearful farewell to my boyfriend before hiding him in a huge Ziploc bag with a giant squid and secretly shipping him to another planet. It was painful to imagine saying goodbye to someone I loved, but at the end of the day I got to leave set, come home and give my real boyfriend a hug, safe in the knowledge I would never have to Ziploc him into space,” says Nicdao. “This scene, in the Quarantine episode, was difficult because my (all of our!) real-life circumstances aren’t that different from Poppy’s. There was no set to come home from because we were already shooting in my home, and when the scene ended, the reality of those circumstances — the loneliness, the uncertainty, the fear — remained. Saying words like ‘my family are thousands of miles away’ and knowing that to be true, not just for the character but for me too, was heartbreaking. It’s so beautifully written, and part of what makes it beautiful is how very universal those feelings are right now. That scene was important to me because it’s a symbol of Mythic Quest’s solidarity with people who are struggling right now. I felt a responsibility to be honest and vulnerable.”
Staying with the powerful theme for a moment, the scene in which Ian is writing to Poppy within the game was lifted from a real-life exchange between McElhenney and his co-creator Megan Ganz.
“The scene came out of something that happened while we were breaking the episode,” says Ganz. “We were using notes on the iPhone because you can share a note and everybody can type into the same thing and it’ll update automatically on everyone’s notes. Anyway, I was in the outline and I was typing something, and Rob had been reading it at the same time. He got to where I was in the note and he could see my cursor typing new stuff. All of a sudden, as I’m typing, I see these letters pop up, ‘Hi, Meg,’ and I had this moment where I looked behind me like there was somebody in the room with me. We talked later that day and Rob was like, ‘It was really nice because I could just see you working in it. And I know we’ve been on Zoom calls and I’ve physically seen you over Zoom, but weirdly, that felt more like we were together because I saw your little cursor blinking.’ He was like, ‘Meg’s in there, doing her Meg thing.’ And that’s where the inspiration came from — that it wasn’t enough that Ian just kept calling Poppy; he needed to go find her in her work, which is where she had pulled back to. We really liked the idea that the first moment of that connection happens textually. It’s within a program. He had to go deep, deep into the forest of her work in order to find her and pull her back out.”
Much will, or should, be made of the episode’s charitable component — $600K to date has been raised for the Mercy Corps. COVID-19 relief program — but the storyline itself changed mid-process.
“We started with a story about David [Hornsby] wanting to do something nice for the players and put something for free into the game, and then it backfires because the thing they put out for free had cost money a week ago, so the players who had paid for it were upset. It was this whole storyline about how no good deed goes unpunished,” recalls Ganz. “We broke it and it was funny, but it was pessimistic in its tone, and just kind of cynical. We were like, ‘That just doesn’t feel right for right now — people aren’t being cynical right now.’”
The storyline that you actually see was inspired by Hornsby’s surprisingly epic gaming skills.
“I went on this walk and was talking to David [on the phone] and we were just like, ‘How could we have more fun telling the story?’ Then I remembered how David and some of the actors had been a part of this live Twitch stream for Ubisoft where they played Brawlhalla online, and everyone was blown away by how good David was. Like, they were not prepared for that,” says Ganz. “So, we thought, ‘What if we did a story where David was playing Brad [Danny Pudi] at a video game that everyone assumed Brad would be better at, and then David was just awesome and smoked him?’ And we realized we could still do the charitable version of it. David could want to donate money [on behalf of the company], and they could be betting on that. The actual idea of donating the money [in real life] came much later.”
And if you were wondering, Hornsby 100 percent did shave off his eyebrows.
“Originally it was going to be Brad [Pudi] who shaved his eyebrows off because the idea was going to be that David was the ringer and had tricked Brad, who was the loser,” says Ganz. “I don’t know at what point in the process it happened, but at one point we were like, ‘Wait, what if there was another twist…’ Unfortunately, all shit just seems to roll downhill to David. He’s such a good sport. We could have done it all with makeup, but David Hornsby commits! (Laughs) Of course, considering what they’ve done to him on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, him shaving off an eyebrow is not that big of a deal.”
Now that it’s all over, Ganz can admit there was a point early on where she wasn’t at all convinced they’d pull it off.
“We did the big morning meeting scene at the beginning over Zoom, and I remember us trying to sync up the clapping. Emily, our assistant director, would count down, ‘Three, two, one…’ and all the actors were trying to clap at the same time for sync, but everyone’s internet connection was slightly different, and it was so out of sync. On the first clap, I was like, ‘Oh God, what are we doing?’ And the reason to have them all there is to provide that comic timing, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is not going to work.’ But by the end of shooting that day, I felt like, ‘This is going to be incredible,’ and I’m so glad we did the slightly harder version of trying to have people act in a scene with one another because you can feel the characters with each other. You can just feel it. And I remember in that moment thinking, ‘This is really ambitious, but I think we’re going to pull it off.'”
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