David Zuckerman Talks WILFRED, Expanding the Show’s Universe, and Plans for Comic-Con

     July 10, 2012

wilfred david zuckerman

After a season of laughs and outrageous hilarity, the FX series Wilfred ended Season 1 with some shocking revelations that left the mental sanity of Ryan (Elijah Wood) in question. Although Season 2 has already provided some answers, there are still bigger mysteries revolving around the young man’s unique friendship with his neighbor’s canine pet, which he happens to see as a crude Australian (Jason Gann) in a cheap dog suit.

During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, showrunner/executive producer/writer David Zuckerman talked about the reaction he got from the Season 1 finale, expanding Ryan’s universe this season, delving deeper into Ryan’s family, how Robin Williams ended up guest starring, the biggest challenges of shooting with such a crazy production schedule (they shot all the odd-numbered episodes, and then all the even-numbered episodes, which made for some interesting continuity issues), and their plans for this year’s Comic-Con. Check out what he had to say after the jump.

Collider: When did you realize that people were really getting the show, the way that you hoped they would?

david zuckerman wilfredDAVID ZUCKERMAN: Well, I guess we started reading some of the message boards and people started really appreciating the time that we spent on the stories and the depth of the characters. People were speculating, “What is Wilfred? Why is Wilfred in Ryan’s life?” And people were digging the themes that we explore each week. That was very gratifying. The truth is that the easiest part of doing a comedy is being funny. But, going for something with a little more depth is rarely attempted because it’s hard to do and nobody really thought there would be much of an appetite for it. We have a fairly small audience, by the standards of networks or even some basic cable channels, but it’s nice to see that we’ve reached enough people that FX feels it’s worthwhile to keep doing more.

This show really had one of the best finales last season. Having left things that way, did you expect the type of reaction that you got from fans?

ZUCKERMAN: One thing that there hasn’t been a lot of in half-hour comedies are shows with mythologies and shows with a continuing dramatic thread. I think it surprised people because people didn’t realize that’s what we had been planning, all along. I think this season the fans will be watching a lot more closely. We’ve had to do a much better job at hiding our surprises and working on subverting expectations. But, it was really great to see the reaction to the finale. I don’t think anybody expected it, and it took a lot of people by surprise. It opened up a lot of questions. I will say this about this season, we end on a much larger cliffhanger. It’s not really a cliffhanger, but we end with a revelation this season that will completely change the show. It’s a huge turning point in the mythology.

Were you intentionally looking to give Ryan a little bit more dignity this season, since he is standing up for himself a bit more now?

ZUCKERMAN: One of the things that I really admire in shows, and the last season of Breaking Bad especially made me think of this, is when characters are smart and they’re not fooled because the audience is pretty savvy. What we’ve always tried to do with Ryan is to have Ryan be very suspicious of Wilfred’s motives. When Wilfred was manipulating him in the wheelchair, in the special preview episode, Ryan caught on to him and said, “You’re using guilt to manipulate me.” A lot of audience members probably weren’t sure, but I like the fact that Ryan caught on to Wilfred. We’re trying to make Ryan smart. In terms of things he should do or shouldn’t do, in the end of every episode, I always feel like Ryan is better off for having gone through the ordeal that he’s gone through. Wilfred certainly could have made the lessons easier for him and maybe less humiliating, but maybe Ryan wouldn’t have learned them, if he didn’t go through the ordeal that Wilfred puts him through. Whether Wilfred is ultimately a positive force or a less positive force is still an open question, and we’ll deal with a little bit of that this year.

Wilfred mary steenburgenHaving Ryan’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) on the show was a great addition to the story, as was having someone from Wilfred’s past (Dwight Yoakam). When will they be coming back, and what is the importance of adding those characters to the story?

ZUCKERMAN: Dwight’s character, Bruce, will come back right around the mid-point of the season, in a very, very pivotal episode that turns our story. Our arc takes a very big turn in the episode that he enters into. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will be one of our trippier episodes of the season. It’s definitely a mind-fuck. And then, Ryan’s mom comes in, in the episode right after that. Much like last season, it’s a sweet episode. It further explores her relationship with Ryan, and she and Ryan help each other get over a rough spot that they’re both going through. Even though Wilfred is working against him on it, they bond together over a mutual struggle that they’re having.

What made you decide to have Ryan in the workplace this season? Had you always been looking to open up the show, in that way?

ZUCKERMAN: One of the concerns about Ryan, from the beginning, just to keep him relatable was, “How’s he paying for that nice house in Venice and the Beamer?” Yes, he was a successful lawyer, but that was awhile ago. So, we knew that he had to get a job this season, but I will tell you that the job doesn’t last the whole season. We also had thought, for a long time, that it would be fun to put Wilfred in an office dog situation, and we explore that a little bit. But, the whole job situation does not end well. By the end of the season, Ryan is no longer working there.

Was it important to give him some interaction with another female (Allison Mack), aside from Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann)?

ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. One of the most significant changes from the Australian series is that, in that show, the lead human character, Adam, and the girl, Sarah, are already a couple and, in fact, Adam moves in with Sarah. So, it was already a love triangle. I think they got about 16 episodes out of it, but it seemed very limited. Once your couple gets together, what do you do? So, it became important to us to find reasons for Jenna and Ryan not to get together, or at least not too quickly. As Jenna’s relationship with Drew (Chris Klein) continues to develop, it seemed natural that Ryan, as a single, attractive guy might find a relationship with someone else. What we found in Allison [Mack] was a really quirky, interesting actress who could inhabit a pretty quirky, interesting character. We’ll get to know Amanda a little better this season, and we’ll see where that relationship goes.

How did you end up casting Robin Williams? Was that a role you specifically wrote for him? Is he a fan of the show?

wilfred robin williams elijah woodZUCKERMAN: That just came together so perfectly. We had the idea for the story of the preview episode. Elijah and Robin worked together on Happy Feet, and Robin mentioned to Elijah that he loved the show and was a fan of it. And then, Robin’s people contacted us and said that Robin would be interested in doing the show, and we were like, “Are you kidding?!” So then, the whole notion of his connection with Matt Damon and Good Will Hunting fell into place, and it led to that great moment in the preview, where he actually ended up being Robin Williams, quoting a line from Good Will Hunting. That moment where the reality falls apart and you realize it’s a dream worked so nicely. Robin was just amazing! He came on the set and was acting like he was lucky to be there. He was such a huge fan of Jason Gann’s work and Elijah’s work. He was like a kid in a candy store. He just could not have been more gracious, excited, fun and interested in playing. He was just fantastic!

Have you ever had any weird moments, shooting out on location, with people wondering what’s going on with a guy in a dog suit?

ZUCKERMAN: Well, fewer now. The first time we went out to Venice Beach to shoot last season, it was well before we were on the air and there were a lot of people who thought we were just some weird show, or just didn’t really know what was going on. This year, when we went out to Venice Beach, an incredible amount of people knew who we were. We had a much harder time with getting people to not look at the camera and with crowd control. I don’t know why, but somehow we ended up on Venice Beach on the first day of Spring Break, which was crazy. That’s a good question for Jason. I think sometimes Jason gets a little overwhelmed with people looking at him in a suit when he’s out in public places. But, I think people know who Wilfred is now and they know the show. If they haven’t seen it, they’ve at least seen the posters or they’ve heard of it.

What are the biggest challenges that you have with shooting a show on this crazy of a production schedule?

wilfred posterZUCKERMAN: It’s the stupidest way to shoot a show. It’s the most efficient, but it’s the stupidest. We have 13 episodes, and we divided them roughly into two blocks. Because of the availability of our actors, we ended up shooting the odd-numbered episodes first with a few scenes from the even-numbered episodes, in the first block. And then, the even-numbered episodes with a few scenes from the odd-numbered episodes, in the second block. The only episode where we shot the scenes consecutively was a chunk of the last episode. Otherwise, we never did two scenes adjacent to one another. The continuity is a challenge. I think it actually all worked out, but it was very tough to remember what level of emotion people should be playing, from scene to scene. The scene right before it could have been shot three weeks ago, in a totally different location. It was a very, very, very challenging way to shoot a show. We didn’t really know what we had. Usually, as you shoot a show, you’re producing one episode at a time, so you see the season develop in front of your eyes. But, we locked Episodes 1, 2 and 3 first, and then we locked 10 and 11, and now we’re going back to do 9 and there’s a rough cut of 6 that I’m looking at. Episode 12 hasn’t been started, but 4 is sort of there. It’s been really weird. Our show is very arched, so we’re telling a 13-episode story. It’s just a weird way to shoot a show. It’s very challenging.

Do you find it kind of weird and bizarre that, having worked with Seth MacFarlane, you’re doing a show about a guy in a dog suit and he’s made a movie (Ted) about a guy who has a talking teddy bear as his best friend?

ZUCKERMAN: It’s kind of a fun coincidence, isn’t it? You know, we had heard about Ted, when we were writing the first season of this show. In the Australian series, Wilfred had a big stuffed teddy bear named Ted, but we new about Ted and we also wanted to go with something a little more sexually ambiguous, so we purposely changed the name to Bear to avoid comparisons. We didn’t want people to think we were ripping off Ted. I’ve read a lot of things that have pointed out the similarities, but other than the fact that it’s a guy and a furry friend, sitting on a couch and taking bong hits, it isn’t really all that similar. I saw Seth at a benefit a few weeks ago, and we were talking about it and laughing about how people were accusing both of us of ripping the other off, but there’s no truth to that. That’s ridiculous!

Are you looking forward to returning to Comic-Con with the show, this year?

wilfred david zuckermanZUCKERMAN: Yeah! We have an amazing episode for Comic-Con this year. It’s probably dirtier than last year’s, if you can believe that. We took the giraffe episode last year, and this year we have a fantastic episode that is, coincidentally, also written by Jason. I think people are going to love it. It’s got a big, fun surprise at the end of it, and production wise, it’s one of our most ambitious episodes of the season. I think it’s going to be a tremendous episode. Comic-Con is great! It’s so much fun to actually see an episode with a thousand people and hear them laugh. That’s not your normal television viewing experience. People who make movies get to do that all the time, but people who make TV rarely get that. And then, just to be able to answer fan questions and meet the people that we’ve been Tweeting back and forth with is great. We all love Comic-Con!

How did you first find this show? Did you come across the Australian version, or did someone bring it to you?

ZUCKERMAN: It was actually sent to me by my agency. Prospect Park had optioned the Australian show to make an American version. My agents pitched the concept to me and it just sounded stupid. It sounded kind of like Alf, and I was like, “No, I’ve done the talking dog show.” I even did another talking dog show that ended up not going. And then, they finally just said, “Take a look at it!,” and I was like, “I really don’t want to work right now.” But, I watched it and just was blown away. I was blown away by Jason, first of all, and his performance and the weirdness of it. It’s a very weird show. It’s not very accessible. It’s absurd and surreal. But, it just struck me that there were so many possibilities there. I’ve always loved movies like Harvey and the darker version of that, Fight Club. I just thought, “What if you did Son of Sam as a sitcom. How would that look?” That’s what got me thinking about this. I started thinking about what characters would work around this interesting dog that only one guy sees. It was so fascinating that I had to do it. I actually went in for the meeting and have never felt more strongly that I was the right guy for the job. Fortunately, they agreed.

Is there something that you prefer about the way you can unfold a story over a longer period of time with TV, as opposed to movies?

elijah wood jason gann wilfredZUCKERMAN: Yeah, I think TV is much more about the writer’s vision. The way film works, it seems to be much more about the director’s vision. I’m working on a movie right now, and I’m just finding the whole rewriting process really tiresome. There’s a lack of faith in the audience. Everything in movies needs to be very obvious and very instantly gettable. Maybe even network TV is that way, to a certain extent. But, what I’ve really enjoyed about working in cable and working on a more sophisticated kind of show is that we are trusting the audience to get it and figure it out, as we go, especially on a show like this, where half the fun is not knowing exactly what’s going on, being in Ryan’s shoes. This show is told from Ryan’s point of view. Ryan is trying to figure it out, and so is the audience. The audience doesn’t know anything that Ryan doesn’t know. That’s why we never cut to another point of view and see a real dog. We only see Ryan’s point of view. We never see Wilfred without Ryan because Wilfred may or may not exist without Ryan. He doesn’t know.

Have you always wanted to be a storyteller?

ZUCKERMAN: I wrote my first spec pilot when I was nine years old. I really have always wanted to do this. I feel extremely lucky to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a kid. I feel doubly lucky to be able to be working on a show like this. I just wouldn’t have thought you could get a show as weird and strange as this on the air. To have a network as supportive and smart as FX is amazing. They genuinely love this show, and it’s nice to be working for people who are actually fans of the work that you’re doing. I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and I feel really lucky.

Wilfred airs on Thursday nights on FX.