Elijah Wood and Jason Gann Talk Wilfred
Both Elijah Wood and Jason Gann, who also executive produces the show and created the original Australian series this new show is based on, held a conference call to talk about their new FX comedy series. Here's what they had to say below.
Elijah, we imagine that you get offered a lot of TV roles and we're wondering why you chose this one?
Elijah Wood: I actually don't get offered a lot of TV roles. I read a few scripts, mainly dramas. I was just interested in taking a look at television because I really had never seen what was kind of available and what people were making on television. It's changed so much even in the last five years. I don't know, I read this script ... the last script that I was sent, and my manager sent it to me and said it was the funniest thing that she'd ever read. I loved it and it kind of blew my mind. It was unlike anything I've read or seen on television. A perfect extreme in funny but also sort of cerebral and strange and difficult to describe, which I think is always a good thing.
Can you kind of talk to us about your characters in the show and kind of give us a little bit on them?
Jason Gann: Well Wilfred is a dog. The world sees a dog. "Ryan" sees a man in a cheap dog suit who smokes bongs and pretty much terrorizes him. But you know, we sort of think that after a while that maybe Wilfred is an angel and a devil on his shoulder, giving him advice and trying to bring him back into the real world. That's Wilfred's character.
Elijah Wood: Yes, Ryan is essentially a guy who had followed a path that was ultimately not of his choosing for far too long. He listened to his family, listened to his father, did kind of what he thought everyone else wanted him to do as opposed to following his own interests. As a result of that in this pilot, we find him in a place where he's hit a wall, essentially, and it's made him suicidal. He's kind of a broken individual. He's someone that hasn't really busted out of himself to live freely and to live with confidence and to define himself, and ultimately that's where Wilfred arrives. He arrives sort of in that moment of crisis to push Ryan outside of the self-imposed and sort of family-imposed boundaries that have been created around him.
There's a huge influx of shows from Europe that have been brought overseas throughout the past few years. Some are successful. Some aren't so successful. I'm curious to know how you think your show will be received over in the U.S. in terms of-I know it's darker. It's probably a little more unconventional than what normal audiences are used to.
Jason Gann: Despite the fact that the show is called Wilfred, and there's a dog called Wilfred in it, and I'm in the suit playing Wilfred, it's a really different show. Maybe the reason why some of those reboots don't work is because they're trying to just translate something from one territory into another and the only thing that's different is sort of some accents and stuff, whereas this is a completely new show. David Zuckerman, the show runner, had a completely new vision for it. When he first told me about it he said he saw a different vehicle for this great character that he loved. So I don't even compare the two shows. This show really stands on its own, and so, look, I'm not worried about any comparisons or failed reboot of the successful show because they're two different creatures.
I'm curious to know, this question kind of goes out to both of you, what is your definition of a good formula for comedic TV?
Elijah Wood: That's a good question. Jason, you're more well versed in this than I am.
Jason Gann: A good formula, well, people are pretty quick to admit if they can't dance or they can't sing, but not many people think that they have a bad sense of humor. Everyone thinks that their sense of humor is good. So it's a really difficult thing to throw open to a large panel of people's mind, which is what happens in most television. So I think to get something right you really have to have like a smaller nucleus of comedic minds and then trust that small group and trust your instincts and what you think is funny regardless of what you think what the masses will think is funny. Because if you try and cater to an audience that already exists, then you'll just come out with boring old stuff. You really need to, I think, pioneer what you think is funny and then hope that the audience follows you. Then there's just truth on the actual playing of the comedy. Aside from the writing is just trying it for truth and I think that's hopefully what Elijah and I bring, I think, together.
Elijah Wood: I was going to say the same thing. From my experience, what I think is a solid base for any comedy is just honesty and truth and it coming from a real place. As surreal as this show gets and is, ultimately, we're dealing with a character that most can't see the way that I can see it. But outside of that, most of the scenarios, we're playing them for honesty and I think that that is always an important base, and I think something truly funny will always come out of that.
I, like most of the people on the call today, have never seen the Australian version, and I'm just wondering-now you say this is a totally different animal, Jason. How so?
Jason Gann: Well originally in November of this year will have been ten years since I wrote the seven-minute short film that won festivals around the world and went to Sundance. So that seven-minute short was already very popular, and so we just set up a premise in essentially a seven-minute short. So for the Australian series, we just used the first seven minutes in the pilot as the first seven minutes of the show. So we didn't go into a lot about what the psychology of the show, of the relationship between the guy and the dog. There was no background story for the guy. We didn't go into his psychology at all. It was really a love triangle between the guy, the dog, and the girl. Whereas this show is, for starters, a buddy comedy more so than-it does have love triangle elements in it, but each episode is about Ryan. Wilfred kind of drives the stories and the audience is constantly left to argue with each other or with themselves as to whether this is all happening inside Ryan's mind. Are we going crazy? What's really going on? In the Australian version, we just sort of said, "The guy can see the dog." We said it in the first minute of the show, and then we just went on with it. The Australian show had more of a British kind of sensibility and the style of The Young Ones or The Mighty Boosh where things are a bit more abstract and absurdist. So this show goes into the psychology more, and I think it's smarter ... about Ryan rather than about a love triangle.
Jason, with the original show were there any rules that you had there and when David Zuckerman is doing this show with you guys now, you guys have a different set of rules with how everybody sees Wilfred? Like how Ryan views people interacting with Wilfred? How does that work?
Jason Gann: That's a real good question. Well for a start, I wrote in the Australian version that I'm right until proven wrong, but in the American version David's right. One thing ... said with the Australian version, which I think is a similarity, is that we're all telling one joke and that it's important that everyone is on board and understands the tone of the script and is all telling the same story. And that we don't have any kind of renegade guest actors that are out trying to steal the show or steal the scene or do their own comedy stick. You got to try and slide in because we're all telling the one joke, as far as the comedy goes, and so I think that's fairly similar. I think this show is more social, like there's more social references than the Australian version, which is a different type to personally where I took it, but I'm a fan of trying and I like the fact that the show's taking on a life of its own.
Now Wilfred and Ryan are both intriguing characters. What is it like bringing them to life and have you picked up any of their bad habits?
Elijah Wood: Intriguing characters-I certainly haven't picked up any of Ryan's bad habits. Ryan and I are very different, thankfully. I think I'm a lot more pulled together than Ryan is. Yes, no bad habits have entered into my life as a result of playing him. He's a constantly interesting character to play. He's sort of in constant struggle. It's an interesting character to play. On the surface level, he is interacting with Wilfred and kind of takes that, as we as an audience, I think, take that for granted and accept that relationship. But throughout the show as we're filming it, I'm constantly thinking about what's happening in reality and what he's really going through. I'm not necessarily playing that and I don't have to play that, but I think there's a lot of depth to what Ryan's experience is, and he's kind of broken and he's constantly in the state of trying to repair himself and he's working really hard to sort of stay above water, and it's constantly interesting to play.
Jason Gann: And Wilfred actually picked up all of my bad habits. I just kind of converted them into that character, and thankfully I don't really have any of those habits anymore. I smoke, but I don't take drugs or anything like that, but anything-I suppose I still do like to screw anything that moves, but apart from that, if anything, Wilfred's stolen my moves.
So I can really tell that your chemistry on the phone call and from what I've seen of the show is amazing, and I'm really excited for the entirety of the season. One thing that sticks out to me when I first thought of this show is the fact that it reminds me of James Stewart's Harvey. There's obviously a big difference between Wilfred and that, but did you pull from any films or life experiences, obviously probably more life experience when crafting this show?
Jason Gann: Personally it is a role a lot of life experiences that poured into the creation of the Wilfred character, but it's interesting. The Harvey reference has come up quite a bit. That wasn't in our minds when we first created the character or the Australian version. But it's interesting, like I just had a thought then like about like James Stewart like just how much-what it is I love about him as an actor and how he brings this incredible authenticity to his characters, unique authenticity that we actually as an audience. We're sort of prompted to believe in him even though we can see that there's no rabbit. We can see what everyone else is thinking, but we believe in him. I don't want to embarrass Elijah, but I think that Elijah brings something really similar and he really makes my job as playing Wilfred a lot easier, because seeing through his eyes it's easier to believe it and so we're ready, as an audience, hopefully ready to suspend our disbelief.
Elijah Wood: Thanks, Jason. Yes that's interesting that reference to Harvey. Jason and I immediately thought of that as well. I'm a huge fan of that film. I don't know how many times I've seen it, and it was interesting the parallel. I mean the parallel, it's obviously similar but it's extremely different, but that notion of our sort of imagined friend is quite similar and I think there's something kind of beautiful about that.
The character of Ryan starts out fairly depressed. Do you feel that he's essentially the straight man in a comedy double act or does he really fit that definition?
Elijah Wood: Do I feel he's a straight man? Yes, I think he is. I mean ultimately I think Ryan's just trying to get everything together constantly. So he's essentially reacting to the world around him and to the scenarios that Wilfred is trying to put him into and the direction that he's being pulled constantly. So straight man, yes, but he's also just in this time of crisis in his life and he's just trying to hold it all together all the time. Having a genuine relationship with this man in a dog suit and then also trying to balance that relationship with the real people who he knows can't see that man in a dog suit, and then in the midst of all that trying to rebuild himself and to be the best person that he can be.
In the first few episodes that we've seen, obviously, Wilfred pushes Ryan into situations he would never be in just to see what happens possibly, but is there going to be a point at all this year where Ryan gets to turn the tables on "Wilfred?
Jason Gann: Yes. You need to stay one-step ahead of the audience, I think, without being two steps ahead and have them sort of lose interest. I think that with story telling you have to play with the audience. So just when they think they know what is coming next then you surprise them, and David's worked really hard and we all have worked really hard to keep the audience on their toes and to keep them thinking. So yes, we definitely don't just have the same, stick to the same formula all the time. There are many twists and turns.
I'm curious if there's a lot of improv going on on set or do you stick to the scripts? How does that work out?
Elijah Wood: I saw it earlier. It turned out really good.
Jason Gann: It's really funny and we just were improvising at the end of a very short scene and it ends up being like-the improv there is really funnier. It's really funny and that's when I started to think, "Wow, me and Elijah now have really got something working." There hasn't been a great deal of improvisation in this script just because we have like 22 minutes of television and you've got to get a lot of story across, but we have a bit of freedom within when we're rehearsing the scene, like just before we do it. I mean if something begs to be tweaked and changed because we think it's really funny then it's great to have a bit of flexibility to do that. Also when we're just bouncing ideas around when we're not actually shooting, we get a really good idea, then we can kind of, we've got the bat flying straight into the writer's room and so we can inject those ideas as we go along.
Elijah Wood: There's also, to speak to the scripts as well, they're very finely crafted scripts. They're incredibly detailed and layered, which isn't to say that there isn't room for improv, there certainly is, but there's also a lot of story to tell, like Jason said, within each episode that is important to get across and there are sort of finely crafted joked within that as well. There probably is room to play around, and Jason and I certainly have the conformability with each other and within our characters to be able to do that. There's also just so much that we have to get through each day that there's also just simply not a lot of time for. We were doing, I think, eight to ten pages a day. So we had a lot of work.
Jason Gann: Our time frame was really, really strict in the preparation for this. We were shooting before when only half of the scripts were written. You know the rest of the story had essentially been broken. The writer's room was still turning over. Had we had a bit more time and if we're lucky enough to go again, definitely I'd like to try and inject some of that improvisation element into it in the writing stage or at least give us a longer rehearsal period to work with the scripts beforehand. Because as I mentioned, Elijah and I really have this great dynamic going on and when that stuff is allowed to breath I think that it's ... more.
Are we going to meet any other people in animal suits over the course of the season or is Wilfred unique?
Jason Gann: At this point, he's unique. At this point, he's unique. We don't know.
Jason Gann: The art of the Australian series, which covered all outlets, two seasons of eight, with 16 episodes in the whole series. Similar to the British office it felt like it was complete at that, and whereas we obviously have worked on ... this American show with the mind to be able to last longer to see the characters really breath and go somewhere new. So we've still got those cards that we're keeping to our chest at the moment and should the show be successful and go on and we stretch out, we may bring more animals into it, but at this point we're still just discovering so much about this Ryan/Wilfred relationship that hasn't been explored yet like in the Australian version. So as long as there are meat and potatoes there then we'll keep following that before we bring in any other canines.
I bet with this sort of concept for a show there's a lot of fun being had on the set. How difficult is it sometimes to get through shooting a full episode?
Elijah Wood: You know it was funny. I was actually at an interview the other day where I was asked how difficult it was to get through a scene just without busting into laughter. The funny thing is is that I think it was only-what was it like the day before the last day or the last day, Jason, I mean I totally lost it, but up until then I hadn't. It was just that one line that you had that was so weird and good, but you know-
Jason Gann: What was it again?
Elijah Wood: It was when you said, 'I wasn't finished, Ryan.'
Jason Gann: Oh yes, yes, that's right.
Elijah Wood: But it's not to say that every day I we were working on material that I found hilarious, but I think we were all so-the atmosphere on set was extremely fun and very funny. We were having a blast every day, but at the same time, you know, we were also taking what we were doing seriously. Like say in the context of that work we kind of, you know we sort of buckled down and didn't let ourselves lose it too much just to focus because we had so much to get through every day. I don't know, what do you think, Jason?
Jason Gann: For years people have said to me, and I'd done a lot of comedy at that time, and people have said to me ... surprised how I can keep a straight face, and I really rarely crack up, like really rarely, but that's not to say that I'm not like having a ball, like, I don't know. I'm good at keeping a straight face, and Elijah seems to be the same. I mean I probably cracked up once in the whole season as well, but when we'd be rehearsing the scenes, like when we'd do table reads, and then in rehearsal leading up to it we laughed as hard along with everyone else, but at the time we're actually shooting... So we knuckle down and get it done because we had such a tight schedule.
I really got a kick out of the online aspect of it. Like the whole "My Dog Smokes" feature that you have. Jason, I wanted to ask you were you involved in adding that little touch to the website, and as the season goes on will we see anymore fun little online extensions of the show?
Jason Gann: Look, I think there's a still a few that the marketing department have got up their sleeve, but I mean, they really have been great in the creative element of it, separate from the show. They've been true to the ... of the show that we've been careful to create, but they've also extended beyond that in a really interesting way. I mean "Not the Tequila" online add was ... after Wilfred breathed out the smoke, that was where it ended on the script and they were good enough to leave the cameras going and Elijah and I just played along. Like until you hear, "Cut," you just got to keep going, and so I was really glad they put that bit in because I remember at the time thinking, "That was cool," and...-if we're lucky enough to go again we're going to have time to play with those ideas. As far as doing any more beyond what we've shot, I'm not sure about that.
How hard or how easy it is to play to a character in a dog suit and react to that? Is that something that comes naturally or do you find it actually easier than other work you've done?
Elijah Wood: I have to say that we have become so used to the environment that we're working in and for Jason and I as actors we're playing these characters. We've become used to that relationship and work within that relationship. So honestly, I've almost literally forgotten that he's in a suit. I don't see Wilfred like that. Me, personally working as an actor against a man in a dog suit, I have ceased to see that. It's actually really funny. When we went to do-we went to American Idol and sat in the audience to sort of cause of a bit of a stir and to be sort of a strange placement. And when we were there, again because I'm so used to seeing Jason like that and it almost sort of means nothing to me anymore, it was really interesting for me to be in an environment where he did stand out. Where people saw him and would look at him as a man in a dog suit and it was a really interesting thing for me to kind of take a step back and actually look at it from a different perspective because I've become so used to it. So acting with him, we're literally just two guys playing these characters. I don't really think about the way he's perceived or the fact that he's in a suit anymore. He's become real to me.
I kind of saw the episode as kind of almost a backwards fantasy where the dog is having a pet and almost training Ryan. Did that go into kind of the idea and the concept of the show kind of how people and their treatment of their own pets how they can, you know, 'Look what my dog can do. I trained him to do this and that?'
Jason Gann: That's another good question. I think that a lot of people say, teachers say, 'I learned more from my students than they learned from me,' and we learn from the innocence of children. We learn from just watching the primal innocence of a dog of just how to enjoy life, and as people we can get so cerebral that we forget how to live. What Wilfred, I think, brings in that pilot is this sort of pushing Ryan to get out of his head and actually just sort of be sort of really primal. So if anything, I think if there's a flip, I think that's it. We're sort of seeing Ryan see this dog and just go, 'Yes, I'm going to shoot him ....'