Interview: ‘Wilfred’ Showrunners Eli Jorne and Reed Agnew: “Wilfred is Calvin and Hobbes except a f*cked up Calvin and Hobbes”

Comic-Con: Wilfred, the hilarious FX show, is down in the ratings this year. What’s wrong with you…? Why aren’t you watching?

I have no idea why you aren’t because the show, starring Elijah Wood, Jason Gann, Fiona Gubelmann and Dorian Brown, is a bright spot for summertime television. Both dark and funny, the story of a man (Wood) who can talk to his neighbors dog (Gann), is always a highlight for me.

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I talked to new showrunners Eli Jorne and Reed Agnew at Comic-Con in a roundtable interview about taking over the reigns of the show, if they’re always working and thinking about the show even on hiatus and the future of Ryan and Wilfred.

FYI, this was from two separate interviews where everyone at the table asked basically the same questions. I combined them and made it into one complete post.

Wilfred airs on Thursdays at 10 on FX

When you’re on hiatus, are you still constantly thinking about the show and writing down ideas?

Reed Agnew: I mean, I try not to be because… I mean, when I’m on the show, I was telling my wife, I think about these fictional characters more than I think about people in my real life and it’s like a fucking disease. I have a notebook next to my bed at night and I’m insomniac as it is and I’ll just be drifting off to sleep and then suddenly be like, “Where’s my pen?” Yeah, it drives me crazy. But it’s fun, for the most part. We laugh a lot. Laughing is the best part of working on the show.

Eli Jorne: I mean, we’re always working. Yeah, totally. You have to be because something that I discovered as a writer a long time ago, I’m sure somebody told me this as a technique kind of, is that if you can, especially going back to these cliff hangers that we end on, if you as a writer can figure your way out of it in an hour, than chances are the audience is gonna see what’s coming. You know? And they’re gonna say, “Oh, I know where this is going,” because if you can figure it out in an hour, a solution to a big cliff-hanger type question, than the audience will be able to figure that out as well. So we like to take our time and we like to get complex about it and constantly surprise the audience with where we’re going.

If you look at last season’s opener, we spent days, probably if not weeks, in a room, just hashing out that story. It was based on an idea David [Zuckerman] had about the two worlds and one is a dream and one is reality and just trying to really mess with viewers’ expectations instead of being straightforward about it, and to do that you have to be constantly thinking during the off season about where you’re going… what you could do and what people think you’re gonna do and then not do that.

Do you draw inspiration from other comedies?

Reed Agnew: I mean, Monty Python is my favorite thing ever maybe. When I was a kid it’s like it blew my mind. Yeah, Monty Pyton. The Far Side. Calvin and Hobbes. It’s like… you know what it is? Wilfred is Calvin and Hobbes except a fucked up Calvin and Hobbes.

In the show, there is darker stuff, stuff versus the more standalone dog humor stuff and we’ve been in kind of standalone mode most of the season of the season and apparently we’re building toward a big cliffhanger. How do you guys balance that? Do you have a preference between those two?

Reed Agnew: Yeah, it’s like on the one hand it’s a comedy and the way FX markets it is like it’s a half hour comedy but I think since you have a guy in a dog suit it looks kinda goofy already, so without these deeper questions and bigger thematic issues than just comedy, without that you run the risk of it just being so goofy, like a Saturday Night Live character who you don’t care about it after a while because it’s like, “It’s funny. It’s funny.” It is what it is and you can’t go away from that.

So, yeah, we have episodes that are standalone half hour comedies but then we always sprinkle in a little “Oh, wow. That was weird. That asks some new questions that I want to keep watching.” And I think as the season progresses it… there’s bigger questions that are much different than a typical comedy, more serialized.

Eli Jorne: I mean, I would say that at this point we love that and we… and I think, I like to think, I hope, that people like that too. The cliffhanger kind of ending on a big finale. And we like to move toward that, we know that audiences, and us as well, we like the stand-alones.

I think a big part of the show is the wish fulfillment. What would it be like if my dog could talk and hang out with me? And I think if you move away from that too much and you make Wilfred just a character who’s just basically it’s all about the psychology of what does Ryan see and what’s happening here and what is this creature, I think you’re missing out on a big part of what this show has been and can be.

I don’t think we ever want to be one or the other, but I think that there’s, yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s a formula and I would never say we want to be formulaic about it because, again, it’s always about surprising people. But, yeah, we like to be able to move between those two extremes. And the most fun for us is when we can combine then. When you can have an episode that is very emotional and psychological and, at the same time, hilarious. I think then we feel like we’ve achieved something cool and refreshing that hopefully hasn’t been on television before.

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In the beginning of this season there was a lot of focus on Ryan sort of coming to terms for what’s really going on with him. Is that something you guys know or are you building toward it?

Eli Jorne: I mean, we talk a lot about that in the writer’s room, believe it or not. In between just coming up with idiotic dog based jokes, which we’re proud of, we spend a lot of time, too much time, talking about what is Wilfred and what’s going on. We have our ideas about it, but, you know, of course, at the same time we don’t want to… I think the second you ultimately reveal that the show is basically over and we don’t want to deprive our fans of that. But, at the same time, yeah, we know where we’re going and we have long term plans of what we want to do with the show and the characters.

You talked about those long-term plans, is it the kind of thing where that would be, if there is an end game in mind, you would reveal it and then that would be it? Or can you see it going beyond that?

Eli Jorne: I wouldn’t want to reveal anything too much, but I totally know what you mean. That’s one thing we always try to do is I think that you can sometimes put yourself into a corner or when there’s one answer and you’re driving toward it and driving toward it and then you get there and if it’s the answer that people didn’t want or were unsatisfied to find out, then you risk alienating the viewer and people end up disappointed.

And I do think that the most important thing is the journey and hopefully people enjoy it along the way, but, yeah, we like to try and answer things with more questions. As I hope people have seen, when we reach… every season we’ll reach a cliff hanger that poses a large question and you think, “Ok, well that’s… once I know that, the show… I could turn this off and never watch it again,” and we like to answer that question with more questions. I think this year we tried to kind of address the drawing, if you remember, and answer it in certain ways but also leave doors open to explore more things and raise more questions. So that’s what we’re always trying to do.

Do you write the story first and then maybe the jokes? Or do you do it the other way around?

Reed Agnew: Well, the story first always. I mean, I feel like it’s easy to be funny and it’s much more difficult to tell an interesting story. So as we’re breaking the stories, we’re all in a room together and someone will say something funny and we’re like, “Yeah, remember that. Remember that.”

But I think after we get… getting the story beats down is more important and then you can just channel Wilfred’s voice and what… instead of him saying this he’ll say it this way and… and Jason is a writer too in the room, and so I think definitely story first and then.

How do you write the story? The story of a man and a dog?

Reed Agnew: We write the story as it’s a story… I think Elijah Wood’s character Ryan is the main character. It’s a story… the show is about him and about mental illness, really. It’s about a guy who’s losing his mind. And so… and Wilfred is just a manifestation of that or maybe Wilfred is a magical creature that is real and no one else can see. But everything is seen through Ryan’s perspective. And, if you’ll notice, he’s in every single scene. If there’s something that he can’t see then the audience can’t see it either.

How far in advance before the actors get there are you guys working on the story?

Reed Agnew: We start writing in November and we write every episode… we have every story figured out before we start shooting. We shoot in blocks, so we don’t shoot an episode. We’ll go to a location and shoot every episode for the entire season that’s in that location while we’re there, just to save money and time. It’s more difficult for the actors. It’s just more feasible.

Do you know where you’re going in future seasons?

Reed Agnew: Yeah, I mean, we have a vague idea of where we’re going. And I think, you know, if we could get 5 seasons, I think we could tell a really satisfying story with an ending that hopefully people would be moved by.

Have you figured out the ending?

Reed Agnew: I mean, for me I’ve figured it out, but I’m only one guy in the room. Like I said, it’s very collaborative, so who knows. Somebody else’s version might beat mine. But, I don’t know, I think everyone’s kind of on the same page.

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