On Writing GLOW
This week on On Story, GLOW co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch discuss adapting the real-life ‘80s phenomenon Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling as a fictional series and the liberties they took in the storytelling process.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside
the creative process from today's leading
writers, creators, and filmmakers.
All of our content is recorded live
at Austin Film Festival and at our year-round events.
To view previous episodes, visit OnStory.tv.
[Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part
by the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation,
a Texas family providing innovative funding since 1979.
[telegraph beeping, typing]
From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
GLOW co-creators Liz Flahive, and Carly Mensch.
We want it to be ugly and desperate,
but incredibly beautiful.
And this has to be about a team of women
with a friendship at the core.
How much wrestling do we really need in a show about wrestling?
And then I think the answer to that question was...
[Narrator] In this episode,
GLOW co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
discuss adapting the real life 80s phenomenon,
Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,
into a fictional series.
[Barbara] We showed a little piece of trivia,
Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling's documentary.
Whenever it came out,
a long time ago,
and I would love to hear how you got to GLOW .
- We were never a writing team.
We were two playwrights working in TV who happened to work
really, really well together in the writers room.
And then towards the end, conversations about,
we should find something, we should do something together.
And I think we had a hunch it would be female centric
because everything we had worked on seemed to be about women
and that's where we were happy.
But then Liz was, I feel like you were home with--
- Yeah, I had my second kid.
- She was with a newborn. - She was a nightmare.
And so I was just like, "Please come over, please."
And so Carly was just hunting around for stuff
while I was dealing with a screaming newborn.
- And I'm a docuphile so I was just watching
my usual slate of documentaries.
I saw that doc and something about the world
just felt so rich and so both in...
It's a bananas, cartoony,
good and evil take on the 80s,
but also there was so much about that doc.
I don't know who's seen it.
That almost feels like a "League of Their Own" style
was even more about the women looking back on this
time in their life at something that to outsiders
looked like a blip on the pop cultural radar,
but for them, was some of the most meaningful time
in their entire lives.
So I brought it to Liz, we watched it.
And then I think it was literally a one line email to
Jenji Kohan who I had worked on both Weeds
and Orange Is the New Black ,
and she's a creative mentor mother for me.
And so I think the email was literally,
"Do you want to make a TV show
about women's wrestling in the 80s?"
And she literally wrote back, "Yes."
It took us a while to figure out how to build
from the center of the show,
which was the female friendship at the center
to the full circus that it is
and how to balance that and just finding our way.
- It was not like there were three drafts.
They were many, many drafts.
- So I want to talk about that pilot.
It's actually still one of my favorite episodes,
because you're talking about the strong friendship that
not just these women have, all of these women have.
And yet that first episode is the seed of the whole show
built on betrayal.
- And a lot of what we talked about at the beginning
was the wrestling.
We're not people who get wrestling, we're not people
who followed wrestling.
We were people who judged wrestling.
And then as we were trying to figure out wrestling,
we also had to figure out how it worked on our show
and we never wanted it to feel like it was sprinkled onto us.
Here's a story about people and then when you get bored,
we sprinkle on some wrestling and that's fun.
It needed to both move story,
it needed to illuminate things about the characters.
We wanted you to follow the people into the ring.
And then knowing that on some level, the first episode
was our first wrestling match.
It was our first big attempt to answer how will we use this?
And it will always be personal.
So then we started with what are some of the most personal
things you can get into a wrestling ring about?
- We also really leaned into the things that made us
uncomfortable about wrestling.
I think at first we were like,
"How much wrestling do we really need in a show about wrestling?"
And then I think the answer to that question was,
ideally and in a meaningful way.
And I think once we got into the...
Just we wanted it to feel really layered and how you were
going to watch, it wasn't just surface.
It would be watching these women working through things
in their actual life in the ring in a very particular way.
So I think it took us a long time to get to the fantasy pop,
the idea that you were going to take this very real,
super emotional, one of our most dramatic scenes in the
pilot scenes and then transition gracefully into a bonkers
Allie and Betty circling each other as the beginning seeds
of their characters, where you see who plays the heel
and who plays the hero.
- I'm sorry.
- Is this real?
- Who the [bleep] cares?
[music "Separate Ways" Journey]
[music and crowd cheering]
- Can you talk about that process of casting that show
and I'm sure there was a casting agent,
but in your looking at people to determine were they right.
- A lot of how we talked about the show initially was
that we wanted it to be a body show.
It's a show about bodies, women's bodies.
And so we should see all body types.
And then also we said to people, this is going to sound insane,
but we want all the women to do their own wrestling.
- And there were people who definitely didn't want
to do that.
So most people did not audition.
- And then probably 80% of the people dropped out of
wanting to be on the show.
And the people who were left were the game,
GLOW spirited people.
- And I think we had a lot of freedom in who we cast.
Netflix did not, as they don't with many things.
They did not get in our way.
We said who we wanted and we got who we wanted.
And we were the ones who had to duke it out when we didn't
feel like we were there.
We weren't fighting with a network,
we were fighting it out with each other.
[Carly] It was the opposite.
We were like, "Is Ali Brie too much of a star to play rude?"
- Yeah, is she just too pretty and capable?
I'd just say Betty is someone we knew from the theater world.
And then she was on Nurse Jackie .
And I think even before we wrote the script, we were like,
"Betty belongs in this world somewhere.
We'll figure out where."
But she is somebody who, especially back then
felt a bit undiscovered, wrongly undiscovered for us
and somebody who is so judged by her looks that no one realized
she was the smartest weirdest person in the room at all times.
So yes, there were some people we brought,
Gayle Rankin who played Sheila.
We knew from theater and we were like another person that we're
like, "Wherever, we will put her somewhere."
And then when she auditioned for Sheila,
we're like, "Well, that was the most
emotionally grounded performance of a wolf lady I've ever seen."
We wrote that monologue as an absurdist lark,
and she just made us all cry.
So I guess--
- I guess that's what we're doing with that character now.
- She gets her.
- I've worn this,
or some version of this every day
for the past five years.
It's not a costume.
And what I do in the morning,
what I put on and what I wear...
it's not for you.
It is for me.
- In the first season, there was so much of the girls
getting used to each other.
They were really feeling it out and who is who,
and who's going to be friends with who, and who are we?
And now, by the end of season three,
we're very much getting these individual characters
on their own.
And we're getting to spend some time with them
and learn more about them.
Can you talk about that development process
over the three seasons?
- I think we went very deliberately slower than even
we were maybe comfortable with season one,
because we just, part of it was also guided by the wrestling.
It's like once they learn how to wrestle,
we can't go back to them not knowing.
And so there was, we just didn't want to run over any story,
about learning what it was that they were doing
and what connection we could find there.
And so I think that was a guiding light for us, for sure.
I think season two we came in and we're like,
"Oh, we want to tell the story of the two moms on the team,"
because that felt important to us,
and that was another just wishlist item, I think.
♪ ...to get by ♪
♪ As long as I got you then
baby you know that you got me, ♪
♪ Ohhh ♪
♪ Cause we got our love and some R-E-S-P-E-C-T ♪
♪ Ohhh ♪
♪ Like sweet morning dew, ♪
♪ I took one look at you ♪
♪ And it was plain to see, ♪
♪ You were my destiny ♪
♪ With my arms open wide... ♪
- I missed you.
- Our goal is by the end of the series to have
gotten to know each and every one of those women.
But we are going at our own pace as we do that.
So that it's not dictating the shape
or the story,
just because it's ultimately a story of a team.
It's a story of a group of women.
So we try never to lose sight of that and whenever we break off,
it's for a reason that hopefully is feeding the larger story
as opposed to an hour detour with,
and when you only have 10 episodes too,
you have to be so precious with them.
- The rebellion of the show for us is the idea of like
how many times we put 14 or 15 women in a frame together,
because frankly it is not something you see all that
often still, even though we're in a better moment.
I think you look at so many casts and it is like many, many
men and two women, and we are the opposite.
And I love that we're the opposite.
And I think there's something about that that feels like
the team is the beating heart of the show,
and how that team works on you
and tells our story is a big part of it.
- And yet you've given a lot of space to Sam and Bash.
They both have become very...
they're not like just--
- No, no, they're really important characters.
It's more the balance of, and I think that's the thing,
there have been many wonderful shows where it's a lot of men
and two wonderful female characters.
We're just flipping that.
And I think that feels
and they're narratively incredibly important.
And I think there is that thing for us.
We were like, "Oh, we're still telling a story of
making something in the mid-80s."
And there are male producers and male directors,
and they hold a seat of power that that is part of our story.
they're not incidental in any way.
- The characters are our own and they're on their
own journeys and with each season we get further
and further even from anything close to the documentary.
But I think that that foundational inspiration,
which is that this should be both stupid and silly
and the most meaningful pocket of time in their lives.
And some of them may never work again.
And some of them may never speak again,
but however long our show is on, they're a unit.
- So another thing I think, especially now this
last season that has been interesting to me is how
you've woven lots of current conversations into it.
And yet they don't really feel,
sometimes that makes me crazy
when they're like, "Okay, they weren't
talking about that then."
But pretty much everything that we're talking about now,
we were talking about then, and we were talking about
it maybe a little bit differently.
But it was definitely the conversation, everything from
homosexuality to immigration, to whatever.
And you've managed to weave all those things in very
I think it's definitely things we talk about a lot.
I think there are a couple things to say.
One is that we're research nerds and we go real deep on the
research which has been awesome.
I feel like it'll be sad when GLOW ends just because
it's so fun and it's such a rich time to dig into,
and we make that part of the room.
We did a research trip to Vegas,
which really was a research trip to Vegas.
The writers were like, "We're going to Vegas!"
I'm like, "We're going to talk to a historian
"and we're going to go on this tour,
"and we're going to go backstage here
and talk to these people."
And they're like, "When are we going to get drunk?"
- Showgirl Museum.
- Yeah, Showgirl Museum, it was very dry.
- Not a lot of people go to the museum side of the
- But I think it's that thing where...
and Carly's husband is a journalist.
And I think in terms of how much you get from just
speaking to people directly, and we reach out to...
When we know we want to attack something that feels like it's
coursing through our culture now,
we do look back and really want to know how it was being
dealt with then, and we have modern brains
but I think we never want to pull you out of the
reality of the time to say something important.
So I think it's really doing a ton of homework,
even if it's just for a couple little details.
It's getting as much as you can.
[Carly] It is a tight rope.
We're trying to avoid...
We never want the show to feel like a museum piece.
We're not people who...
There are people who do like that.
We're not into just watching something...
But at the same time, yes, we don't want to do a revisionist
history of what the 80s were.
And I think that season two episode five,
which is an episode where Ruth and a network exec
have an almost me-too incident.
And then so much of that episode, for us we've been asked
about it a lot was about the conversation between
Ruth and Debbie afterwards.
Not about what actually happened in the room with
Ruth and the network exec.
And what was so exciting about it was Debbie says some
really retrograde things,
and that was for us,
the power of the scene and that everything Debbie said
was completely true for her.
[Liz] True for her.
- And yeah, I think you would hear it less today,
even though maybe some people are still thinking it.
- I can't believe this.
- I know it was terrible.
- How could you be so [bleep] stupid?
- What are you talking about?
- You're in the hotel room with the head of the network,
he comes on to you and you run away.
- Was I supposed to [bleep] him?
- No, you're supposed to make him think that you
might [bleep] him, or that you desperately want to [bleep] him
if only you didn't have a fiance
or your period
or an extra set of teeth where your vagina should be.
- I'm not that kind of person.
- Morphing into Bash's character.
You've been hinting about him openly since season one.
- Yeah, we've had that plan, we've had a plan for that
character that feels pretty clearly revealed now.
- Yeah, again that conversation of how it was
back in the 80s and how that conversation would happen now.
He's clearly fighting against this epiphany,
is really I love the way you've woven it in to so
many different things
because his character feels to me to be very real.
Can you talk about what the process is essentially
not just of him, but wolf girl as well, of how you got
yourself in the plan, what was your plan in season one
to ultimately reveal some things for us in season three?
And those two would have had huge revelations, right?
There are certain characters and I think you just named
like the primary two that I think we could be fully open
that we're not as fully fleshed out at the beginning.
Just when you have that many characters I think there are
certain that you use a little shorthand for.
And I think also Sam, I think some of our early notes were
just a misogynist in the middle of a world of women.
And for Bash it was a wealthy playboy son of a Republican
who loves wrestling.
And where people who are humanist, so we're like,
"We'll get there."
But when Chris Lowell who is an actor that we have loved,
I saw him in a play at Ars Nova called "Jacuzzi"
and was like, "That guy.
That guy's the guy."
And Chris himself admits he was like,
"When I read it and then when you guys talk to me about the
character, I was a little like,
'Okay, I guess I got to trust you'"
- Yeah, we're like, "It's deep.
It's going to go to these places."
And then we're like,
"Episode three, your helicopter takes everyone to Malibu.
We have a party in their costumes."
- Enter via helicopter.
We swear it's a super grounded show.
- Who likes glittery fun things?
- [bleep] Is that a [bleep] Bob Mackie gown?
- Oh yeah, why do you think my parties are so legendary?
We drink, we smoke,
we dance, we get naked.
Then we put on these awesome costumes
and the cycle repeats itself.
Now why don't you go with these ladies know that there's
a costume closet on the second floor.
- You guys, costume party get naked.
- There's a responsibility to telling stories about
gay characters in the 80s and I think that has also guided
us on some level and the kind of inherent tension of having
that identity and being in a conservative family
felt really exciting to us.
And then I think some of the other things that have been
really helpful is so much of the show is about how
people see you.
That's what wrestling is about.
The stereotype or the way people see you
and then who you really are.
So I think making sure we honor that for our men
and then slowly, slowly teasing out Bash's identity
in a way that I think season one, maybe the furthest we got
was he put on glitter eye shadow.
That was the furthest we got, even though Chris was really
subtly playing things that if you look back as early as
season one, Chris uses every opportunity when he's in a scene
with Mark and a man to touch him.
Just, it's so small, but--
[Liz] He doesn't do it with the women.
[Carly] Nope, he never touches...
[Liz] Oh my God, whoa.
And it's great.
[Carly] To every man.
- But you also have these really incredibly
overdramatic moments that go way beyond.
And then you take us back to something that's very much
purely character driven and emotional.
- The toggle is the fun and the toggle is the challenge.
And I think finding writers and finding actors
and finding directors who are comfortable playing
in both sandboxes.
Betty, I think part of the inspiration for casting somebody
like Betty is that she makes big, big faces
and big theatrical choices and then can kill you dead
with totally grounded emotional scene.
And I feel like is the spirit of the show.
It's like bonkers play to the rafters,
and then kick you in the stomach.
And I think another thing we learned there,
because I think we were so seduced by finally getting
to see the wrestling is,
we realized we needed more stuff really closer in the ring.
I think it changed how we thought of season two.
When we realized being outside the ropes for too long
is actually very distancing.
You need to be with the girls and then you need to get even
closer you're with the people playing the characters.
So the thing that makes it very hard to shoot frankly
is how much you need to get.
- But for us it's important from page to editing
to make sure we know the function of the editing
of the wrestling scene, the function of any huge acts.
- Some of my favorite scenes are in the ring.
[Liz] Yeah, the ring's great man.
- We write most of them but then there are a few
that there's just some magical things.
I think season one episode seven there's a wrestling montage
where Ruth and Debbie learn how to work together
that Jesse Peretz directed and there was something just about
the combination of how we were talking about that sequence
and Jesse's one of those directors who's like,
"We'll just punk rock it.
"Let's bring five leotards with us to a location.
And let's just overshoot."
And then the sun was setting at a certain...
And that's one of those ones where I'm sure this montage
was four lines in the script.
And it's one of the most glorious pieces of filmmaking
in I think the show and in that episode.
- Although but anytime you've got the Russian and the US.
That's just such a brilliant way to...
- It's the bad guy of the 80s.
It feels like you can't...
So much of wrestling again we learned was like,
oh yeah, it's really just a lens into the fears
and the prejudices of a time period and what's fun about
the 80s are the prejudices and fears are quite clear.
- Like Carly, you watched Rocky IV for the first time
while we were writing season one.
You we're like, "Oh my God."
"This is American versus...
And I was like, "Oh yeah."
- And then you would talk to people and they'd be like,
"I think in around 85.
Yeah, I wasn't even sure why we didn't like Russians anymore."
Which was again helpful, because you're like,
you have to think about it from Ruth's perspective.
She's playing a character and she doesn't even really
understand the cold war.
- No one can defeat Zoya.
Everyone here is too much sissy.
- I'll fight you.
- Who's that?
Who's yelling from the audience?
- You heard me,
I said I'll fight you.
Bored housewife in dress?
I am a proud American mother.
- No way she was faking it.
- Did you know?
- No, of course not, I would have told you.
- ...in a world without freedom.
- And I'm ready to kick your Soviet ass
all the way back to Siberia.
[cheers and applause]
- If other people made GLOW , I'm sure there's
a not three dimensional version of it that would be some
insane sitcom that would also be probably delightful
in other ways.
But we're people who are...
We're not writing a show about Zoya the Destroya,
we're writing a show about Ruth trying to play the character
Zoya the Destroya,
standing in a ring, not with Liberty Bell,
but with her best friend Debbie whose husband she slept with,
who's also grappling with a bunch of [bleep]
as she tries to play Liberty Bell.
So that always brings you back to the people
and then I think you're starting in the right place
when you're not like,
"Okay, Russians versus Americans in the ring."
Okay, that was the idea.
Follow the people.
[Narrator] You've been watching On Writing GLOW, on On Story.
On Story is part of a growing number of programs
in Austin Film Festival's On Story project,
including the On Story PBS series,
now streaming online,
the On Story radio program,
the On Story podcast,
and the On Story book series,
available where books are sold.
To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival,
visit onstory.tv or austinfilmfestival.com.