Image: Jon Robin Baitz on the last day of shooting The Slap.
JON ROBIN BAITZ, Robbie, as he is known, is one of those magnanimous American playwrights who cannot NOT see the big picture, the karmic framework of the stories he tells. Like Arthur Miller before him, his work is imbued with a keen appreciation for how tricky day-to-day moral quandaries are, and how seemingly insignificant decisions add up to the sum of a person’s character. But, unlike Miller, Baitz is always game and kinda fun.
Baitz also writes and produces for television; his 1991 play Three Hotels, for instance, was first written for PBS’s American Playhouse. Presently he has a show on NBC called The Slap, a satisfying and suspenseful morality play meted out in eight episodes. Tonight is the sixth installment of the story, which began life as a 2008 novel by Australian Christos Tsiolkas, and which was then made into a successful series for Australian television.
The titular event takes places at what begins as (in Baitz’s version) a friendly Brooklyn barbeque and is administered by a parent on a boy not his own, albeit a boy who is swinging a bat near another child and who is in general something of a demon seed, with the haircut of Chuckie.
The Slap gave us an opportunity to have a frank talk about the experience of creating a network show in 2015. And writing in general. And living.
LAURIE WINER: We enjoy the voice-over third-person narration in The Slap: it’s very 19th-century novel, this sense that the narrator knows more about the characters than they themselves do, and it’s a technique that, unlike first-person narration, has fallen out of fashion. Why do you think that is and what may have been lost because of it?
JON ROBIN BAITZ: It’s polarizing. I took it for granted somewhat, as a device for this show, because it worked in the Australian version so well. I tried to use it as a contrapuntal instrument, psychologically. The ironic detachment of this all-knowing commentator offered a useful perspective, so long as he wasn’t telling you what you were seeing. Which, dramatically speaking, is a kind of death.
As it happens, we’re still in post production and have winnowed down the voice-over quite a bit, finding that the less there is, the better it was. Many critics have complained about it, and, to her credit, [director] Lisa Cholodenko was very concerned about it, and it took me a long time to hear it through her ears. She kept saying simplify it, and she was right. So it’s become, week by week, sparer and sparer.
Is it justified in The Slap? If nothing else, this conversation may be useful as an illustration of the kind of snow blindness that can afflict one in medias res — in the middle of things. Making a TV show in this case. The process is one of war against time and nothingness — just like life itself it turns out — weaving out of whole cloth, but with both commercial and time concerns, and so you take your best shot, going with your gut, which is quite capable of leading you down the wrong path. The narration in The Slap maybe has drawn too much attention to itself in places, but in particular moments, the alchemy is, in fact, there. In the “Manolis” episode, the narration hints perhaps at a Greek chorus, looking down, whispering in Brian Cox’s ear, until he realizes that all his best efforts have led to very little, and, as the narrator tells us, “all that was left now was sleep,” or something to that effect, while Manolis stares at the ceiling, a sleepless patriarch realizing that patriarchy is an eroded and calcified idea now.
A good writer is necessarily like unto a god, observing from high above and seeing all sides. What do you do when you find yourself disliking one of your characters, or admiring them too much?
I am not sure you can like them too much, but if you mean, “is there a danger in your characters hijacking a narrative,” the answer is yes. Of course, you have to reel them in. There was a draft of my play Other Desert Cities, in which the aunt, Silda, the recovering smart-ass Laurel Canyon lefty stranded in the desert, quite literally hijacked the entire play and the rest of the characters just watched her, thrilled, you know, willing to let her “entertain them,” and [director] Joe Mantello had to call a time out for me to start cutting. She was out of control and needed to be stopped. I can still hear her.
I mean, do you ever feel so close to a character that you want to protect him from what has to happen to him, from what you have to do to him?
What good are they if they’re not working? Unfortunately in order for there to be a plot, there has to be action, and action usually involves someone wanting something, or suppressing a want until there is some sort of explosion. I like extreme behavior in characters, because I find it so discomfiting in real life. A character is a kind of extension of your own appetites and revulsions, choices and conclusions. I find it impossible to live in extremes, but I do like examining my various modes of denial, and that’s a way in for me. I think it’s useful advice for emerging dramatists — what is the character in denial about? If you can answer that, you can decode their central nervous systems. But if you protect them, you see, they become stilted, like the drawings made by artists who don’t fully understand human anatomy — the arm won’t bend where it should. If I feel close to a character, I want to do my version of what the central bank so poetically calls a “stress test.” At what point are they going to break? And is that the point that the actual drama begins?
With The Slap, I found myself identifying with Harry, the slapper, played by Zach Quinto. Part of my family, on my mom’s side, has an element not dissimilar — toughs, who owned liquor stores in the ghettos, like my uncle, a tattooed Jewish vet of the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather was a broker of cigar stands and kiosks in old office buildings in old downtown LA, a fixer, an operator in the old days (and not even slightly successful, by the way). Harry is very much like my late uncle, who had a weird begrudging fondness for me, and he hated everyone, and I mean everyone.
There’s a thing with Harry, where he recognizes his son, Rocco, for who he is: a sensitive kid, not a fighter, maybe a philosopher that might need protecting, and the kid playing him looks almost precisely like I did at that age. I wanted to let Harry BE totally Harry, unrestrained, like my bulvan (Yiddish for oxen, toughs, boors or brutes) relatives run amok, and to my surprise, Lisa Cholodenko kept pointing out just how unlikable he was. And I wondered — “Wait, he’s a monster — why do I like monsters so much?” And it’s because, as Bugs Bunny once said very wisely, “Monsters are the most interesting people.” And by the way, Walter Parkes (my co-writer on four of the episodes and partner in producing/developing it) kept pushing to make Harry a little less irredeemable. They were right. As we revised, I realized I had abdicated and let the monster run me, rather than the other way around. This is useful up to a point …
The obverse was true with Rosie, the mom of little Hugo, the kid who gets slapped, and her monomania. I lost patience with her, and kept having to reset my empathy governor, so to speak. You have to smell them, their scent, know how they breathe and eat, what they buy at the Park Slope Coop, what they’ve eschewed and what they’ve come from, what their parents fed them, where they took them on their first trip. You have to know their favorite movies, though you don’t have to love them — but somehow knowing IS a form of loving, at the end of the day. In the case of Rosie, I just kept referring back to my experience of the power of the weak, commingled with the protectiveness of a mom, albeit one who is to some degree in need of a serious reevaluation of the way she confronts reality.
I mean, the whole act of writing is not so much godlike as it is an extended rendition of all childhood play-making.
Long-form TV can give viewers the luxury of going deeply into the characters just based on the amount of time we get to spend with them (again, à la 19th-century literature, Dickens or George Eliot). A playwright, on the other hand, must condense and distill his knowledge of his characters, a very different skill. Which is more comfortable for you?
I’m comfortable stepping back and forth, shifting my weight. I like the mathematics of TV writing, the balance between the frame and the words, the tension between what we see and what we hear. The ability to cut a wider swath as it were. A wider range of motion. And I have a really fruitful partnership with Walter — in TV it’s good to have a relationship with someone whose skill sets intersect with but do not occlude one’s own.
But my nature is that of a playwright still. And I am a particular kind of playwright — one of long scenes in one place, shifting dynamisms, temperature changes — so I like getting to try something else. I have so much yet to learn about making TV and film. They’re behemoths. They’re huge and unwieldy. I’m not where, say, Matt Weiner is or David Simon is yet — masterfully being able to command an entire unified force, marshal it into a functioning world. There are moments like that in Mad Men, for instance, and in The Wire, where the auteurism is so complete that you surrender to what feels like a hallucinatory vision of the world. I want to get to the point those guys are at. Where David Milch was in Deadwood, for example. If I can get as comfortable as a TV writer as I am as a playwright, it will be easier to make more adventurous TV. I hesitate still in my dance steps; it’s not second nature to me yet.
Similarly, after spending much of your life writing plays, I’m wondering if working on schedule for a TV series feels to you like you’re flying through the material. Is it nerve-racking or exciting or both?
I am still a journeyman at TV, as I said, so it’s very nerve-racking and I am a mess while doing it, deep inside, a mess. It’s hard to work in a form that is one step ahead of you. I need to get to the point where I can anticipate the progress of the process from start to finish without waiting for some catastrophic surprise, like a plot or time line inconsistency, or even keeping track of who is where, when. You need to be more organized to make TV — like, you really need “an office,” with a “whiteboard” and to “lay it all out.” You require coffee and a very keen sense of the larger context of your story.
I wrote all the episodes, co-wrote with Walter four of them, but we worked on all of them together — and altogether I worked for two years on eight hours of TV. I was rewriting all the way, on set, the night before, even after, to go back and fix stuff — the schedule of TV-making is unlike anything else. It’s a death march, so to speak, and the exhaustion of it is almost stupefyingly, hilariously undoable. The horror when the phone rings from the set with a question about the script, the triage that you keep working in. The endless recalculation. The slogging marathon. Thank God Walter IS actually a writer, perhaps a better writer than he even is a producer (and he’s a great producer), because I’d never have been able to do it all alone. The little things that you write in that you have to change because the schedule won’t allow it, and change again because the budget won’t, and then twice more and then again, because the actor is in, say, Ulan Bator on a press junket that day — it’s all one giant miasma.
And then there’s the other part — knowing what to look AT. Knowing what you’re seeing, knowing how much coverage you have to get, what you might need later, knowing what to look for in the frame, etc. And then there’s learning, as a showrunner, what to look for in the editing room, cutting in your head, seeing if you can excise this or that. Luckily Walter Parkes has spent a life in post production; in addition to having been a writer, he was a studio head for a long time, so fixing things is instinctivized in him, and I watched and learned. One of the interesting things I did learn, and this is again, Walter Parkes showing me — the Master Shot is actually everything, where so much of the hard work is done. So I think of the master shots now as little “Last Suppers.”
The Slap comes at a time when networks are trying to take back the “quality programming” territory they seemed to have almost completely ceded to cable and independent channels. Can you talk about why you went with NBC and what the artistic costs may have been for you and director Lisa Cholodenko?
This was a project NBC brought to Walter and Laurie MacDonald, his wife and producing partner. Walter and Laurie and I are very close — family, really — and we are also trying to do a film of Other Desert Cities for the right budget. Anyway, I knew NBC head Bob Greenblatt a bit. So they came to me with it. I admired the intention, to own the fact finally that networks were going to have to try and do something to win back a mature, thoughtful audience. I thought it would be an honorable experiment and took it seriously, as such.
One of the harder aspects to making The Slap is that instead of each episode being 60 minutes, as it would on Showtime, they’re 43. And punctuated by commercials. And little weird exhortations that pop up on the bottom of the screen asking you not to miss Blacklist, etc. They pop right up at you! In our show someone’s confessing or kissing or crying — and mini Spader in a hat is suddenly IN the frame! And you never think of that when you’re writing or on set or in the editing room or at the final mix. The bug that is going to pop up! But that’s the nature of the beast.
The animal is still changing, and it’s really hard to pull off what we’re trying to do. Some of the constraints on language and what you can show were slightly frustrating, not crippling by any means. We were given a lot of latitude by the network and studio to do what we thought was right. The development people were not intrusive — Walter and I did so many drafts before handing in a first draft that, by the time we got notes, we’d sort of done most of it anyway.
But still, perhaps it would have been a vastly different show at, say, Showtime or AMC or Sundance, but we knew going in that there were restrictions at the network. We tried to work with them in the spirit of the experiment. And also, maybe not having the luxury of being languorous or operating at a stately pace forced us to be lean in a useful way?
Even if the show is only partially a success, it still makes progress in terms of pushing networks perhaps a little further toward being more adventurous, more of the kind of place where a playwright could do his or her thing in a new way. It is, I will admit, going to take some effort and imagination to change the temperature of the warm bath that the viewer of network shows is accustomed to. But it can be done. It is being done. Hannibal, for instance, also on NBC, seems to me to be a kind of odd conceptual art project.
How important is marketing to the success of a show? (NBC seems at a bit of a loss about marketing The Slap.)
It would be easy to be critical of NBC’s marketing, but it would also be churlish and rude, and betray an ignorance of what their obligations and considerations are. I kept saying to them, when they were kind enough to share their strategies with us, you know what you need to do, by which I was saying, “It’s not up to me.” It’s just not. I am a guest in their house, and they have entrusted us with a box of tools and a time slot, and that is it. As a guest, it is unacceptable to be imperious about the rules of the house. Perhaps because they deal in statistics-driven realities — they’re demographic driven, in a very punishing corporate culture, at war with whatever else might be available at your time slot.
That said, I would have liked something a little cooler — a little more Yves Klein blue? Would I have liked a more chill touch? I mean, come on, look, we know the answer to that. Is the show even about a slap for God’s sake? See — it’s easy for me to impose my overly “good taste,” my wiseass, knowing ironist’s eye — but I don’t have the giant machine to run. As creators, Walter and I had our job to do: write, film, edit, and deliver 43 minutes of storytelling, times eight. The rest is noise.
A major theme in your work has been the collapse of one moral order and the coming of a new one. In The Slap, this conflict seems to center on helicopter parenting vs. old-fashioned strictness. Do you think the parenting style of Rosie (who is still breast-feeding her five-year-old) will produce/is producing a generation of coddled malcontents who, when they go to college, will demand their professors give them “trigger warnings” before introducing upsetting material?
Hah. Oh “trigger warnings”; I only just recently learned about that — is this the fallout from the utter humorlessness that came with what we quaintly used to call “political correctness”? Look, The Slap is really simple. It’s about people who are so distracted that they have very little sense of how to count their blessings, the blessings of everyday life, of their roofs and their kids’ health and their loved ones not being dragged off to gulags, and their endless safety and their not being able for one second to step back and take a look at all the grace they have been blessed with, the lack of Ebola, the medicine, the comfort, the opportunities — they are lost in a miasma of noisy, self-perpetuating babble, they are their own worst problems, they are allergic to silence, to nature, to good manners and to love, to loving their neighbors, to their dulled senses. They are we. (A larger we.) They are an America that is human, lying to itself, unfocused, and, most importantly — and maybe this is what you’re getting at — perhaps irreparably damaging its children. It’s all messy human business, the slap of the title — it’s not even so much existential as it is omniscient.
It is no small irony that buried deep within the miasma, a small lesson is learned by Harry about his son. “Let him be who he will be. Be there for him, but don’t try and turn him into you.” The children. That’s what it’s about. The most powerful character in The Slap is the Great God Hugo, destroyer of toys, commander of his mother, a deeply unknowable dark mystery being raised in a kind of monastery in which he is the deity and the sacrificial lamb, both. I leave it for the audience to figure out where it’s going to end.
You have to watch the end of the show to see how I feel — I mean, kids are a wonderment. I am quite fond of most of the young people in The Slap, actually; it’s the grown-ups who have so much to learn. But to think of The Slap as being a critique of contemporary parenting would be to miss the point. Like saying Birdman is about a life in the theater, instead of about a vast pool of narcissism that, again, denudes all grace until all you have is blistered (male) rage and bruised egos. I can’t speak to helicopter parents, but I sure do know a lot about not waking up every day and counting your goddamn blessings, and how fucking toxic that is. And that’s what I see all around me, a kind of spiritual autism, a narcissism of small things, and that’s The Slap. Argh. But I like to think that it’s not immutable, that there are still synaptic charges toward doing the right thing, that we are capable of recognition — and being better. I think it’s about what happens when kindness is obliterated by desire.
Why in your mind does Rosie insist the slap has damaged Hugo?
Rosie sees everything as an extension of herself. Like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai, there is a monomania she awakens from too late to realize quite what she’s done. I don’t want to divulge plot because we’re only halfway through — but she brings her own profoundly disabling sense of inadequacy to the experience of being a mother. The slap itself dislodges or agitates the waters of an illusion she has about the job of being a parent, dislodges her guilt about her own experience of postpartum depression for example. She is stuck in a ritual — the breast-feeding is maybe an act of contrition commingled with nurturing, so much so that some modicum of individuation is being stunted in Hugo; all things are now Hugos — bats, bikes, moms, daddies, and so on …
But kids are very interesting resilient creatures and sometimes they get lucky and have a life force all of their own that helps them become their own person. In other words — the algorithm does not mean that A + B = Hugo is gonna be a brittle, oversensitive man-child who is under the illusion that he must be coddled and catered to all his life. I mean that could be the outcome, but maybe not.
You had a notoriously bad experience with ABC during Brothers & Sisters, a show you created for them. I’m not sure but you might have vowed never to work in TV again. Is the lure of a very large audience undeniable for a dramatist?
It’s a different world, and that is the lure. It’s the crew and the cast and the lighting people and the directors, and the sets, the world you make — the scale of not the audience but of the making of it. I love being in a theater for rehearsal, and all the old romance of that in New York still somehow persists for me.
British playwrights step back and forth all the time — look at David Hare. It is in fact utterly a given, that those playwrights make stuff for TV and theater, and Hanif Kureishi stepping back and forth — I could go on and on, Stoppard, Pinter, Alan Bennett. I just think my particular footprint is like that — go back and forth, one feeding the other. I have no intention of abandoning either.
Brothers & Sisters at ABC was an awful experience, yes, but I have to take some responsibility, though it cost me tremendously to have a show running for so many years without the remuneration I expected as a producer on it. (For a depressive, fucked-up, barely sane person such as myself, those kinds of windfalls do not come about very often.) But I did it to myself, and this time I wanted to see if I could maybe work in TV without the last straw that broke the camel’s back being the very first straw, without taking the bait and without being outraged by every aspect of the experience, and not running around like some kind of post-gay Jewish Yosemite Sam via late-era Odets, and maybe applying a little maturity and love where before there had been bristling outrage and terror.
I will say also that culture at NBC is a lot different than the one I was working in at ABC back then. Perhaps because the nature of the experiment here was to try and be less conventionally network-ish, the producers gave Walter and me a lot of freedom.
It has encouraged me to want to do it again. Fail bigger.
Those hacked Sony emails exposed a dirty secret of the industry: that a lot of people in show business harbor in their hearts a deep contempt for talent, the very thing that fuels their industry. Can you speak to the psychological underpinnings of this relationship?
The Sony email thing is like the bar in Casablanca. Come on — Hollywood a place of insouciant and casual cruelty? No! I’m shocked, shocked!
It didn’t “expose” it — it simply reminded us that life is, after all, yet again, for some people, high school forever. Up to you if you wanna live in that place — I don’t, and nobody has to.
All it exposed was that there’s no such thing as privacy any more, and people are all scared of everything all the time, and that shallowness is as ubiquitous as the common housefly. Okay and it was a reminder? That it is as important as always to be kind and decent and comport oneself with civility and grace at all times, for the sheer — you know — pleasure of not being a dick.
Life is so much easier than we make it. Be fair. You know. Help people. Don’t operate from your basest self, utilize your best self, don’t do dumb stuff, remind yourself that the tick-tocking clock is sticking for you and shift your weight again and again, balance — like Tom Stoppard said.
Don’t confuse being an artist in Hollywood with being a victim, you’re not a victim. Take some pleasure in it, be in on the joke, without being cruel. You can take pride in being part of a tradition that includes Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Elaine May, Alvin Sargent, Bo Goldman, Carole Eastman, Charlie Kaufman, Michael Tolkin, and on and on — be part of the smart, ambitious, not shitty Hollywood, love the crews, love your actors, make friends with your directors, and know that as a writer your biggest fringe benefit may be that you get to wear your pajamas all day should you so desire. It might sound like science fiction — but it IS possible that the executives are on your side!
The psychological underpinnings involve accommodating the verities of the thing. Have something cheap at the counter of Musso’s and think about the next thing you want to make. Have something cheap at the counter of Musso’s and share it with a friend if you’re struggling and dream writ large; don’t think about the emails going back and forth between Godzilla and Mothra in Culver City and NYC, for God’s sake.
In order to thrive, the elements to focus on are style and craft, not forgetting a tradition, all of the brilliant moments that other writers and directors and actors made into something sublime. Come ON, and more than anything else — never be anyone’s victim. Show biz is filled with the bodies of victims whose memories of their traumas at the hands of brutes have silenced them. All I thought when I saw those emails was — all these people need to go hiking for a while, or work in a soup kitchen, or work with doggies and kitties in a shelter, or remember what it felt like when somebody they love got sick, anything, just get out of the ugly little germ-filled subway car that is show business. Get out of town. And I’ve written my share of shitty emails. God knows, I’m not above it.
Some have described the present environment as a golden age for television. What does that mean to you and what has it meant to other playwrights?
The theater is tough, and it is supposed to be tough, that’s what it is. I like that TV now offers young dramatists a way to make a living and not work in a way that entirely clips their wings. An example: Halley Feiffer, whose brilliant play I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard just ran at the Atlantic Theater, is now working on a cable TV show created by the guys who made Birdman. She’s gonna keep writing plays but for a few months a year, in a room in NYC, she works on what could be a cool show, who knows? When I started in the theater, all the wise old men in New York looked down at TV, and with some justification. They had turned Clifford Odets into a cautionary tale, when in fact he had a family to raise. The theater was changing and he had given most of his money to the Group Theatre. He became a convenient little moral scapegoat in the display case called “Sell-Outs, Hollywood, Post-War.” This, in addition to being flat-out untrue, was, like many things untrue, also profoundly unkind and easy. Now you can quite literally have both. I don’t know if this is the golden age of television, perhaps it’s just that this is the golden age of technology and venues and outlets?
Now that NY is simply another stop on the playground tour for the wealthy of the world to gather and drink and shit (both literally and figuratively), it’s really hard for young people to live here. They’re driven out in droves.
I don’t think New York is the center of the world, but it will become even more of a homogeneous interchangeable “big city” identical to so many others if young artists cannot afford to live here. If TV offers playwrights breathing room while using the best parts of themselves, their voices, the same ones that create plays like I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard — then this really will be a golden age of television.