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A flight attendant named Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) spends a booze-fueled Bangkok evening with handsome stranger Alex Sokolof — and awakens the next morning in his bed to find that he has been brutally murdered. Since Cassie has no memory of the night’s events, she must put together the pieces herself before the authorities beat her to it. So goes the premise of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, based on Chris Bohjalian’s novel. When writer-producer Steve Yockey heard the “eccentric” pitch for HBO’s adaptation (Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment meets Fleabag), he knew he was up for the task. The accomplished playwright and Supernatural scribe put his own spin on the story by adding elements of comedy, fantasy and a heightened focus on female friendships. Yockey recently spoke to THR about The Flight Attendant‘s “unwieldy” tone and going off-book for season two.
Both you and Kaley have spoken about wanting to bring some levity to the source material, which is quite heavy. What inspired you to take a genre-blending direction?
Genre-blending is something that I tend to do in most of my work. And, you know, it’s Kaley Cuoco. She has this amazing effervescence and charm but also incredible timing and really strong comedic chops. It’s sort of like replacing Jimmy Stewart with Kaley Cuoco in a Hitchcock movie and watching what happens. Kind of like Pop Rocks, it creates this new sort of unwieldy tone. And then anything can happen, if you build the world right. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but I think it pays off for an audience in that the show then has the freedom to go to really, really dark places because it also has the humor to pull it back up.
Was that your vision for the show from the beginning?
Kaley did all the hard work — she went to the studio and the network, and they said, “We want to make this, we should find a writer.” By the time I came along, they put out a note that came with the book. [It] said something like, “We’re looking for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment meets Fleabag,” which is one of the most eccentric combinations that I’ve ever heard. And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to do that. But they seem open to weird things, so I’m going to take a big swing.” And everybody responded to it.
The mind palace — Cassie’s hallucinatory space in the series where she talks to her dead lover Alex — helps the show walk that tonal tightrope. Where did the idea for this come from and what does it represent?
Chris Bohjalian’s novel is incredibly internal. You spend a lot of time alone with Cassie, in her thoughts and in her head. The challenge when you’re adapting a book like that is nobody wants to watch someone sit on a bed and think. Rather than externalize it, I decided I’d go inside. I started doing a lot of research on people [who] suffered trauma and PTSD and how the brain handles that. Having this fixed image of Alex [Michiel Huisman] dead in the hotel room that slowly comes back to life over the course of the first episode, and then is the place Cassie keeps revisiting as she’s trying to solve this mystery and process her trauma, made a lot of sense to me. Also, it’s just so dark what she’s dealing with, both in her personal life and with Alex’s death. Having the opportunity for a space in the show where surreal and absurd things can happen, and you never quite know what you’re going to get when she gets pulled back in there — that keeps the audience kind of off-balance, which is good for us.
How did you feel about adapting Chris Bohjalian’s novel?
We went in a lot of new directions from the storyline in the book. But the book was the thing that inspired it all, and Chris was incredibly supportive. I was nervous at first for him to read the pilot [because] now there’s flashbacks to [Cassie’s] childhood, now there’s crazy things happening in a mind palace. But he loved it, and he’s been one of our biggest cheerleaders. That makes me feel like we did justice to the source material. When I adapt something, I want the original author to feel like the spirit of the piece was maintained.
What were the main changes in terms of the characters?
The book sort of toggles back and forth between narration with Cassie and the character that Miranda [Croft, an assasin played by Michelle Gomez] is based on. When we decided we wanted to be in Cassie’s POV for most of the show, that necessarily meant that Miranda had to [be] downsized for the first two-thirds of the season. One of the biggest changes was probably with Ani [Mouradian, played by Zosia Mamet]. In the book, she’s a lawyer who is recommended to Cassie by her union rep. But I wanted Cassie to have a best friend who could be entangled in this with her and provide a counterpoint perspective. I actually think some of the finest moments in the series are the scenes between [Cassie and Ani] that have to do with the strain that this is putting on their friendship.
How do you get the audience to root for Cassie when she makes all the wrong choices?
Cassie has a lot in common with traditional tragic heroes, like in Greek theater. She’s moving forward with the best intentions. She wants to find out what happened to Alex and prove her innocence. [But] the manner in which she’s doing that is knocking down everything around her and ruining people’s lives. Because at [her] heart she’s a good person, [so] an audience is willing to empathize with her, even if they can’t sympathize with her choices. I know a lot of people who called me because they were yelling at their television, they were so annoyed and angry. They understood [her choices], they just didn’t like what she was doing. That’s the best kind of balance you can strike.
How did you approach Cassie’s journey with addiction and sobriety?
Cassie, for all intents and purposes, is a high-functioning alcoholic at the beginning of the show. She’s using alcohol to suppress the fear of making connections with people, her past that she doesn’t want to face, all the stuff that’s going on in her life. Over the course of the eight episodes, you don’t really watch her journey of recovery, you watch her journey to recovery. At the very end of the season, she’s taking her first little baby steps toward the beginning of [trying] to embrace a sober life. She doesn’t think it’s going to be easy, it’s not going to be overnight, she’s not doing it for anybody but herself. That’s why the journey feels authentic.
What was the inspiration behind the title sequence?
So much of the show feels almost kitschy in the way that it’s structured with the split screens and the tiling [a grid of multiple scenes on one screen]. We wanted to have a full opening-credit sequence, not just a little title card or something. I got inspired by this animated movie from the ’90s, Cowboy Bebop, that has this very specific James Bond, Saul Bass-inspired opening sequence. We gave it to the guys at Warner Bros. as inspiration. They gave us something, then we went back to them and said, “You can make it even weirder.” That’s why you get this creative, through-the-looking-glass version of the events you’re going to see in series.
Season two will move beyond the events of the book. Is that a scary or exciting prospect for you?
It’s exciting for me, the idea that it’s a clean slate in terms of what will this eight-episode mystery be? What will this new Cassie Bowden adventure be? But we do have season one in terms of her emotional journey, [and] I think all of the arcs for the characters will carry through from the first season, so it should feel like a natural extension.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Many might justifiably ask if The Flight Attendant is a comedy, but the better question might be: “Does its category even matter?” HBO Max’s first true breakout had more than enough mainstream buzz and industry affection to justify its nine nominations in comedy or drama. And while series win seems highly unlikely, a supporting actress title for Rosie Perez (facing split votes for the women of SNL and Ted Lasso) is very much still on the table. —Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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