What must it be like to come face to face with the better version of yourself? That’s essentially the premise behind show-runner and writer Timothy Greenberg‘s new Netflix series, “Living With Yourself,” starring Paul Rudd and Aisling Bea. Rudd stars as Miles, an average marketing executive who goes to a spa only to find a clone of himself going after his wife (Bea). The show takes many more twists and turns as Miles and his clone work on a way to co-exist, only to have many other forces complicate their system.
A “Daily Show” alum, Greenberg is no stranger to high concept comedy. Throughout our conversation, we discussed the role of a show-runner, working with a talented cast and crew and the long road a show goes through on its way to air. See below for our interview.
Christopher James/Awards Circuit: We’re so happy that you took the time to speak with us, especially on the week of release for “Living With Yourself.” How has the reception [for the show] been so far for you?
Timothy Greenberg: It’s been great. You know, it’s really gratifying to finally see people react to it and to know that it’s getting to get out there. It’s been a long process to get to this point and I’m just really excited to have people see it.
CJ: “Living With Yourself” sells itself on a very fun premise. What if you went to a spa and came back with a clone that was the better version of yourself? How did you come up with this premise?
TG: I mean, the true answers I don’t actually recall exactly [how the premise came to be]. Let me put it this way. The idea is not a new one: “What if there were another you in the world?” I think for me, very notably, was the movie “Moon.” I mean certainly there were very many [iterations] before that. But that was certainly one that I just loved in recent memory.
But, you know, the show is obviously very different than “Moon.” I’m a big sci-fi fan, but I think what this show is about, for me, is more about the daily concerns of how we live our lives and how we are with our loved ones. Why are we sometimes the better or worst versions of ourselves? It occurred to me to combine that kind of daily concerned mind with this more fantastical premises. I [thought] it would be really fun, but also be meaningful to the things that I care about a daily.
CJ: The show definitely blends this sort of comedic premise with more of an intense dramedy as it progresses. As a “Daily Show” producer, you’re no stranger to mining the seriousness of the world for comedy. Did you feel that your background on that show helped you create the unique tone for “Living With Yourself?”
TG: I don’t know about the tone. But at “The Daily Show,” we were always very focused on “What’s the take of this segment? What are we saying? What is that one mind central idea?” I think that’s helpful for storytelling in general. In that way, it applies to this. I like comedy that is about something. My favorite comedies are things like, “Groundhog Day” or “The Truman Show” or anything from Charlie Kaufman. Those are comedies, but they definitely have a very clear existential point. I think those are the kinds of things that I gravitate towards as a fan and so that’s [what I write].
CJ: On “The Daily Show” you were a producer and now you’ve transitioned to producing and writing, both with “The Detour” and “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” and now [“Living With Yourself”]. Has writing always been something you saw as the next step in your career? How did you go about making that transition?
TG: The title producer is somewhat artificial and meaningless. At “The Daily Show,” what I did was write and direct field segments, as all the “producers” in the field department did. It just wasn’t a WGA covered thing, so you weren’t allowed to put writer, or director for that matter, because that would have been a DGA covered thing that gets complicated between the different unions. So I’ve always been writing.
If anything, what’s different now is that I usually would direct the things that I wrote. It didn’t really feel like writing to me, in the past. It’s felt like you’re making this piece of filmed entertainment and that involves a lot of different steps. It’s writing, editing, producing and directing, you know, the whole thing. It all felt of a piece. Now that, on [“Living With Yourself,” my] title is just writer, and I guess show-runner, you know, it’s I don’t know. It all just feels sort of artificial. You’re on set and you’re in the editing room. You’re just working with your collaborators to create the [show].
CJ: You have some really fantastic collaborators along for this ride, specifically in the director’s chair.
CJ: You had Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, best known for “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks.” What was the communication like with them? Did you feel that you were really involved in working with them? What were some of the best parts about having them as collaborators?
TG: Yeah, they’re fantastic as collaborators because they’re in a permanent and ongoing collaboration with one another. It’s just very natural to then extend that collaboration to a show-runner in this case. Yes, we worked very very closely together throughout, from when they first came on until the very last color correct picture lock. We really were together through all of it and they were fantastic. They were wonderful directors and they are equally wonderful human beings. …
It’s an unusual situation. I think it’s going to be more of an issue moving forward in television, where you have a show-runner, myself, that as far as I’m concerned [thinks] this is my show. But [you have] directors that directed the whole thing and they’re used to directing film. So how do those two work together? I’m sure each show would do it differently. Sometimes show-runners don’t even go to set, you know, they’re going [build] the relationship with the directors [despite being in] different places.
But for this, once we started into production, we really just worked together throughout. They also gave really helpful ideas about story and writing in different spots today. We reworked the ending together. It’s just a really great collaboration, but I do think moving forward that’s going to be the topic of [conversation] in the business, to figure out how that relationship works when directors are directing a full season. We got lucky. I don’t think it will always naturally work as well as it did for us.
CJ: I feel like you see so much of film, TV and streaming all colliding onto the same field. In a way, with one vision “Living With Yourself” did feel almost cinematic. Is that also how you came up with the idea? It feels very bingeable almost in that fashion, which is probably the best way to consume it.
TG: Yeah, when we took it to Netflix I had all the scripts written for the whole season. I think the tone, the pacing and the overall structure was all very clear to everyone — to Netflix, to [Jonathan Dayton] and [Valerie Farris], to Paul [Rudd] when he signed out. That helped a lot because I think we all were very clear on exactly what the show was. When I first came up with this and started writing it four and a half years ago, my hope was that it would be on a streamer or that, if it was on linear that people would wait and watch a few in a row. It’s definitely intended to do that. Although, I would suggest that you maybe don’t get through all eight at once. It seems like a lot to me, but maybe people have a greater tolerance for television than I do.
CJ: The roles of Miles and his clone [both] feel very perfectly tailored for Paul Rudd. He really knows how to make them both feel very distinctly different. The Clone almost feels like a skewering of the Paul Rudd stereotype we’ve come to love – this affluent, ageless person. Did you feel like you wrote the role specifically for Rudd or was a lot of it tailored to his sensibilities once he came on? Was there a lot of improvising on set?
TG: I didn’t write it for him. When we were first writing this it would have been a pipe dream to say we were going to get Paul Rudd in the role. Aside from the fact that he had never done TV before you know, it wasn’t until we sold it to Netflix that it sort of became a possibility. At that point he was the top of everyone’s list and he wanted to do it, which was fantastic. No, I don’t think it was tailored to him. I mean, I think the characters are written the way they are and [Rudd] played those characters. I mean, you know, they’re there … [Miles] is not too extreme in any direction. Maybe that [role] lends itself more to certain types of actors and maybe some more overtly comedic actors could benefit as well.
I think the main reason it all works is because Paul is just a really great actor and very funny. The role requires that because you’re playing these two different parts and you have to do it very precisely. As you mentioned, it does get emotional at points. So you have to have a comedic actor who can really also dig deep in that way. There are not too many people out there that I can think of that can do that. I just think he did it fantastically. We had the premiere last night. Obviously, I’ve seen it many times at this point, but the one thing that I still was completely enjoying as fresh were his performances. They’re just really wonderful.
CJ: You have a lot of these scenes where he’s just acting with himself and he really gets the interplay between the two characters very well. Just from a logistical and performance aspect, do you know how he was able to achieve that? Were there things that, when you were writing, you thought, “I don’t know how this will be filmed” or “It’ll be an exciting challenge for John and Val”?
TG: There were obviously some big climactic scenes that involved a lot of planning. Just for more of the performance type scenes where [Miles and his clone] together there was a whole process [Rudd] had using what’s called an earwig. He would record one side of the dialog and then go perform the other …The timing was obviously a big part of that, but the timing is just sort of the technical aspects. I think to get the performance, along with the timing, is where the technical feat becomes art. I think that’s what Paul is able to do there.
CJ: There were obviously so many great performances on the show. I really think that, as Kate, Aisling Bea was such a find. You have that really wonderful episode that’s mostly from her perspective, [Episode 5]. Was there a lot of collaboration with her on coming up with what Kate’s perspective is going to be? How did you go about richly defining Kate and Miles’ full courtship in life?
TG: Kate was written before Aisling got there. However. she and I got to literally go through every line of her dialogue. If she wanted to tweak things a bit, we would. [We did this] because she’s a writer herself. Also, I didn’t initially have any idea that the character is going to be Irish and that has a slightly different rhythm to it.
She’s got a really tricky part, and it’s intentionally done this way. It’s a risk in that the first four episodes [are] purposely not from her perspective. There’s a reason why she’s sort of taking the backseat in a lot of those [episodes]. Part of what I’m doing is I’m saying, “Here’s how the story looks from Miles’ perspective and the New Miles.” By that rule that I set for myself, I really tried to stick with [them] even though I knew audiences and critics for a while might think Kate’s getting short shrift. I wanted to build up that desire to see her perspective so that when it finally comes around you really want to see it.
That’s my favorite episode, [Episode Five, from Kate’s perspective], in a way because it fills in all these blanks and finally gets to her perspective. To get there, you have to make sure that you like this character. … We had a lot of conversations at the beginning and even on set about how to kind of walk the line of presenting her from Miles’ perspective, which is often a very conflicted one, while still at the same time allowing the viewer to appreciate who she is as a character. It’s tricky, but I think in the end it worked out really great and and [Aisling] was a very strong defender of her character and her character’s perspective.
CJ: I echo your sentiments on Episode 5. I think that was one of my favorite episodes of the show as well. There is a very tricky structure to the show. I think that’s why it lends itself well to watching a few [episodes] in a row. A lot of the times you’ll see one episode with Miles, but then the next episode is a tweaking [of the events] from the Clone’s perspectives. How did you vary the writing so that when the same ground [is being covered], it still feels new and fresh? Is there a lot of conversation or intense storyboarding to make sure everything adds up, while giving us something new and interesting?
TG: We shot more than we ultimately put in of the overlaps. I’m just fascinated about the notion of perspective and how two different individuals, based on not just who they are but maybe what went on in their day and what brought them to that moment, how they might really have a very different perspective on a given interaction. You have to make sure that you’re always somehow moving the story forward, even though you were showing something from a different perspective.
Sometimes you’re literally giving new information in the tiny detail. [For example], at one point you see Miles reach for a weapon, like a little screwdriver. Yet, when we see it from New Miles’ perspective, we find out “oh, he’s actually calling 9-1-1 of that moment.” They’re each reacting and secretly trying to take out the other in their own ways.
Also, in the scene where New Miles walks into the bedroom and then Miles interrupts that and tells him to go back upstairs. We’re in that scene with Miles and he’s concerned about the fact that Kate has a renewed interest in him based on what happens with New Miles. That’s the only thing he’s thinking about. Meanwhile, when you stop to think about it, what is New Miles going through at this moment? He’s sitting upstairs hearing their lovemaking. He’s having his own completely different struggle. I just think that that’s really interesting in life, but also in a show.
I personally hadn’t really quite seen anything where you begin a show with something like a clone and you think maybe the story is being told from that one perspective, but then you switch to the other and you really go through what that must be like for them. I’m not saying it hasn’t ever been done, it certainly has, but not quite in this way. I feel like that is really a integral part of what I like about the show.
CJ: It’s between the best version of yourself and the achievable version of yourself.
TG: Yeah, and even the best version turns out, ultimately, to have its own problems.
CJ: As a showrunner, what were some of the greatest rewards or biggest challenges you faced putting this whole project together?
TG: Like a lot of projects, it’s not a straight line, from idea to getting onto your TV screen. I wrote it and pitched it all around town years ago. IFC bought it and then, while it was there, I wrote the entire thing to series. At the time, it was ten episodes. Then they greenlit it to series. Nine months or so prepping for production … and then AMC networks cuts IFC’s budget and the whole project went away. That was years of work and even two years of its development at IFC just out the window.
Luckily, we were fairly rapidly able to turn around and bring it to Netflix and IFC was nice enough to let it go. Once it got to Netflix, Paul quickly got involved and then it all moved forward pretty quickly. That was a winding and painful path at times. That was the biggest challenge, just sticking with something that I really did believe would make for a good television show and yet at times seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.