On Writing Veep
This week on On Story, Veep showrunner David Mandel discusses his role at the helm of the critically acclaimed series, developing a cast of characters as beloved as they are deplorable, and bringing the story to its hilariously bittersweet close.
- 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,
Veep showrunner, David Mandel.
- Our entire show is always based on Selina makes a mistake,
and then pays the price for that mistake.
That's every episode of Veep .
If you look at them kind of deep down,
she tries to do something,
she screws up,
and then whatever it is she wanted,
she doesn't get.
[Narrator] In this episode, Veep showrunner David Mandel
discusses his role at the helm of the
critically acclaimed comedy series.
- So the big question for me is after so many
great opportunities in comedy
where you have clearly spent a lot of time,
why did you make this switch and choose to go
into reality television?
- Well, in my defense when we started,
it was still fiction.
Um, and then yeah,
that's kind of why we ended it.
I've said this elsewhere, it just got impossible
in the second to last episode of the show,
we'd done this runner all year where Jonah,
who was running for president,
as he as his sort of campaign got,
like worse, and worse, and worse.
And he was in the middle of,
he had fully embraced the anti-vax movement.
And then had spread chickenpox as sort of a patient zero
all around the United States,
among the unvaccinated.
At the very end, he blamed chickenpox on immigrants
and created a no one in no one out policy.
But somewhere in there, there was this runner
where he would yell about like he would mention Selina Meyer
and someone in the crowd would yell, "Kill her,"
and then another time, someone mentioned,
he mentioned something else and someone just yelled
randomly, "Kill her."
And in that episode, it got to immigrants
and someone yelled, "Kill them."
And he sort of was like, "No, no, no, no, not.
No, no, you wouldn't," and then kind of,
then started to talk about what he thought
good and bad immigrants were.
Anyway that was aired on a Sunday,
Wednesday, in like,
I think it was like Panama City, Florida
because well, everything happens in Florida.
Trump was on stage and literally said something
about immigrants and someone in his crowd really yelled,
At which point, he laughed.
And at that point, if we weren't 1,000% sure
that it was time to end Veep,
we were 1,000,000% sure it was time.
what can I say?
We were trying to write a show about the worst
president in the world with the most incompetent staff,
and we were coming in second on a...
on like a daily basis so.
I should, sorry, I should point out just for the record,
since we're taping this,
the show does not denote party.
The show never mentioned Democrats,
it never mentioned Republicans,
we would pick and choose issues so that Selina
was a fabulous mix up of sometimes,
I guess for abortion, against abortion,
for guns, against guns.
There was no real party to her and we studiously avoided it.
- We really can't talk about the vote right now,
because Mike, we're trying to figure out
how I think about this issue.
[Mike on phone] Okay well, the Post actually wants to know
if you've changed your stance on abortion, re voted.
So you could say, "As a woman, I believe that..."
- No, no, no, no, no, no, no!
I can't identify myself as a woman,
people can't know that.
Men hate that.
And women who hate women hate that,
which I believe is most women.
Don't you agree with that Amy?
- Yes, and ma'am, we should really bag this up
and take it back to DC.
- Yeah right. - Good idea.
- You have your own way of doing things
and you've gotta come into an established fan base
and product, and a new cast.
What I'd really love to hear about is, how you,
when that opportunity first arose,
how you started to work through it in your head
about how you're gonna approach this?
And then what you actually did when you entered the show?
- When I got the phone call,
it was sort of very out of the blue.
And I was hesitant, and I don't know what else to say,
not- not scared, not nervous,
Because why wouldn't you be, I was a huge fan of the show.
It obviously very much had a voice.
It just sort of was like huh, okay, so you know,
you don't jump at these things.
And I'll be very honest, you start meetings,
you start talking to people.
But really it was when they gave me this-- and look,
Julia and I had known each other on Seinfeld ,
we sat down, and had a very sort of casual
and very nice conversation.
And look, I guess I would have probably taken the job
just to work with Julia again.
I mean, she's, however good you guys think she is,
she's that much better than what you think she is.
And most of you guys probably think she's pretty fantastic.
I mean, she's just an incredible combo of both,
the acting part, but also the comedy chops.
But the real truth is, it was when I got the scripts
and some of the rough cuts for what was season four.
And season four, is the season that
ends with the electoral college tie.
And it was really, I guess, really my writers ego,
that I was so fascinated, I love the ending.
I love the notion of the tie.
It seemed like such an impossible corner
to leave the show in,
to walk away and kind of just go,
"It's a tie. Goodbye."
It just, I mean, it's was one of those things
where I just couldn't stop thinking about the tie
and how to resolve it and what would be the
funniest way to resolve it.
And as I started thinking,
the pieces just started kind of coming out of me,
and I would have these conversations with Julia,
and each time, it was like I'd bring a little more.
So first, it was sort of really just thinking about,
well, should she win or should she lose,
and what she wants in the world most is the presidency,
she has to lose.
So okay, she's gonna lose,
and then start thinking about,
well, who should she lose to?
What if she loses to another woman?
And then at that point, it was sort of like I had no choice
but to take the job,
you know what I mean?
- There's been enough uncertainty in this country,
so I won't stall any further.
- This in mind, I vote for Senator Lara Montez.
[Reporter] It's official, the United States of America
has a new president.
- At the beginning of a Veep season, just to guys give you
a sort of an example, when the season starts,
I usually before, like a week before the season starts,
I have like lunch with the writers
and I usually hit them with the first scene, the last scene,
and sort of what I think is happening
during this year that's gonna come.
And then it's like, see you in a week.
So that way, I've sort of planted the seeds with them,
and they're at least thinking about it.
So when we hit the ground running on,
whatever, the first Monday, they've had a chance
to digest those ideas as opposed to wasting,
sort of the first week that way.
And during those early times,
we're constantly bringing in like, if I know like
this last year, where we knew she was gonna be running
and we're gonna be starting in Iowa,
we just start bringing in guests.
So every day there's like a lunch guest
or something kind of like a salon.
So we're bringing in reporters,
people that worked on the Obama campaign,
people that worked on previous campaigns,
just different interesting people.
And we're getting stuff from them constantly.
So for example, I've told this story elsewhere,
Tommy Vietor, one of the Pod Save America guys
who was one of the guys in charge of Obama in Iowa,
told us a story when he came in about Obama,
them landing at the wrong airport.
And the second we heard that,
that actually became the first scene of-- that replaced--
and that was like, that's the new first scene
of the season.
- Hello Iowa,
- [whispers] Selina Meyer.
- Wait, wait where is everyone?
- Maybe they're hiding.
- Amy, where are you?
- At the airport, where are you?
- There's only one [bleeping] runway.
- I'm at the airport,
we just landed.
- That's not possible.
- Right now I'm standing here with my [bleep] in my hand
in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
- Ma'am, we're in Cedar Rapids.
- Nooooo, this is supposed to be
- Where I do think the room is incredibly valuable
for this punch up.
And I had a killer room that just constantly added jokes
to the script.
And then HBO, which was very rare,
allowed me to keep the staff on all through shooting.
So most of the time when I'm shooting,
yeah, we're never, we never have all the scripts done,
so there's always somebody back behind working on something.
But more often than not, I'm at the monitor,
whether I'm directing or whether someone else is directing,
and I'm just at the monitor,
I have eight or 10 writers
sitting behind me,
like throwing additional jokes at me
so that every moment of silence that you're watching,
if there's a hole,
we're gonna fill it,
we're gonna just keep adding lines,
just jam it full.
And then obviously later in the edit room,
cutting every extraneous sentence I don't need
so I can leave as many of those jokes as possible,
cutting out every pause I can humanly cut out
and just trying to achieve that sort of
speed that I love.
Anyway, that's kind of, that's how we write Veep .
- It's like words are your second language, sir.
- Well, thanks for the feedback.
- Jonah Ryan. - Oh, yeah,
that's a name that keeps popping up.
- Well, I'm a popular guy.
- Richard T. Splett, I don't know why I said T,
my middle name is John.
- You added some stuff, I mean.
- Richard Splett is one of my favorite characters now
in all of television.
And he seemed to have just come out of nowhere.
- He blossomed he blossomed, yeah.
- Yes, and then became--
- There's, I think, look, I think by definition,
there are also certain things that as,
as me that I had that,
Armando and the Brits didn't have,
I had a much more of a working knowledge
of American politics and American history.
So when you watch my episodes,
you will hear references
to things like the Spanish American War
that they just wouldn't have done because they're not,
they're not taught about the Spanish American War.
I think we reference more candidates,
I think we reference people out of history more,
because it was season five, there was an opportunity,
in ways you couldn't have in season one,
to kind of dig into who these people were,
so that like, you've had four years of Selina
doing all of this horrific narcissism and whatnot.
Well, we've referenced her mother once or twice.
Let's, find out more about what makes her tick.
And that was definitely something they did not do.
They've sort of almost stayed away from,
quote unquote, home life.
And we didn't do a lot of it.
But I thought it was a chance to really
dig into who these characters were,
and sort of expand the palette of the show.
And so I'll end on this one other point,
which gets me back to your actual question, which is,
I was a fan of the show.
So I'm sitting there and I'm watching the show,
and there were definitely things that I remembered
and wondered about.
So for example, like the reference to Labor Day,
if you're a fan of the show,
it was this mysterious moment between Gary and Selina,
where something happened on Labor Day.
As a fan, I will always wonder what Labor Day was,
and so for me, it was like,
well, I don't know if we're gonna say what it is
but we're gonna try and put in a couple of other
pieces of information about Labor Day
that make it more interesting.
So you thought it was a day,
and we later revealed it was a boat.
Again, that came out of being a fan of the show,
and seeing these sort of, like, whether they were threads
or things I remembered, or things I liked.
And so with Richard, I mean, Sam was just so good.
And this idea of what if he's an election expert,
and now because of this tie, like,
all of a sudden, he's sort of thrust ahead of Jonah,
and they're sort of, they're relate--
and so that's, that's as simple as where it started.
And then once it was kind of going,
it was like, oh God,
what if she trusts Richard also more than Amy?
That starts to drive Amy crazy.
And in some ways that basically led to,
what if we come back a year later
and Richard's her Chief of Staff?
And at some point it became,
what if one day Richard actually
is President of the United States?
That's how those things grow.
But it really came out of,
I guess being a fan of the show
and then getting to go work on the show.
[Reporter] Presidential motorcade has arrived
and here comes President of the United States,
Richard Splett and the First Lady Annette Splett,
somber but elegant, basking in the glow
of a landslide reelection
following president Splett's historic three state solution
Middle East peace agreement
for which he won the Nobel Prize.
- Richard did become a great catalyst
to dredge up the really screwed up relationships
all these people actually had
and to sort of bring out some of their worst traits.
- He also in a world of a lot of horrible characters,
who I guess my biggest fear always is making sure
that nobody sounds the same, that was,
always a worry for me writing Veep
is just that even when they're horrible and vindictive,
that they sound different.
Than Amy did, an Amy line has to sound different
than a Dan line and both of them have to sound different
than a Selina line.
But you know, et cetera.
Richard is a different energy,
he's got a kindness to him,
he sort of, he still I think believes in government
and so that energy and then that voice
and then that voice started to--
we really did pick up on that sort of line he did.
Again, before I was there, which was Richard T. Splett.
I don't know why I said that, my middle name is John,
of him, of him delivering information,
and then undercutting his own information.
And my absolute favorite one that I will,
and I might I have two favorites that--
and Sam knows I love,
which was one was at the very end of the season
when Selina lost and she's sitting there with Richard
in the White House in the middle of night
and she's drunk and whatever,
and he's talking to her, she's talking about loss.
And he goes, my auntie was always like that and whatever.
And then he goes, actually, she was more like a sister to me
and an older sister to me,
I was raised by my grandmother.
And he goes, wait a second, and he realizes,
his aunt was his mother.
And then his, the one he thought was his mother
was his grandmother, which is like,
it's like, Sam just I mean, like,
just like, talk about just a monster home run.
- If I was a little girl, and you said to me,
what do you wanna do, I would have said,
"Please can I be President?"
And then it turned out to be the,
the 12 loneliest months of my life.
- My auntie used to talk about loneliness like that.
- Okay, so right, you know that--
- Yeah, yeah.
We're pretty, pretty close,
especially 'cause my mother was so much older,
old enough to be my grandmother as a matter of fact.
- Yeah, maybe my auntie was actually my real mother,
and my mother was actually my grandmother.
Well, that started make a little less sense.
Everybody knew about it but me.
- Looking at topically each episode,
what you're doing compared to,
what is happening in the moment in the world,
and how much are you really trying to pay attention to that,
and how much are you just throwing her out to the wind
because God knows what's gonna happen next you know.
- We sort of did two seasons in one way
and a final season in a very different way.
Up till the final season,
just to try and answer that quickly,
we weren't paying particularly much attention
to what was happening on a given day,
other than sort of listening
for funny, interesting things like,
as I said, an all male, women's reproductive health thing,
which was a relatively at the time current thing
that had happened that we sort of took from.
But at the same time, we were always trying
to really avoid in some ways what was going on right then.
We always, I don't think we ever mentioned
a president after Reagan.
That's kind of where the, the timeline split.
So again, we took influence from everywhere,
but we weren't worrying much about it.
We started putting the final season together,
we had the season together, it was all mapped out,
we were starting writing,
we had three or four scripts written,
and the Sunday- sorry, the Monday after
we won the second Emmy, I got a phone call,
and of course, Julia had cancer.
He was calling to let me know that she wanted to talk
so that she could tell us what was going on.
So now we're shutting obviously, very quickly, we shut down,
we did a couple of table reads to kind of keep going.
It was something she wanted to do so that she would do it.
And she's talked about this.
She would finish a chemo cycle
and right before starting the next one,
we would do a table read to kind of lift her spirits
and whatnot and January rolled around,
we had been, we were shut down and basically,
all of a sudden, great news, everything is looking good,
we don't know exactly when we're starting,
but we're gonna be back.
And this coincided with the second year
of the Trump presidency.
The second year of the Trump presidency,
I think everyone would agree was when Trump started
to feel comfortable in office
and really ramped up the Trumpiness.
And as that was going on, I'm sort of staring
at our 10 episodes, and I'm sort of wondering,
is this show relevant?
Does this show make any sense?
All the things that you start to really worry about
in a way that I'd never worried about it.
And among those things was we still had
in that incarnation, Julia was gonna get--
sorry Selina was gonna get to the end of the season,
the brokered convention, which is what happened,
and she was going to lose the presidency,
Jonah, she was gonna offer Jonah the vice presidency
and then he was going to have a list of demands
that he wanted as the vice president,
and the list while the list of demands
was sort of happening,
Tom James was gonna storm the floor
as a write-in candidate, steal the nomination away
because Jonah sort of took too long,
and Selina was gonna lose.
- I wanna offer Jonah the VP slot.
- What? - What?
- Yeah, its the only move we have left now,
and we're gonna have to get it done today.
- Oh, ma'am. There are still numerous permutations
that can play out here.
You don't have to do this.
- Do the [bleep] Islamic math,
you're the numbers guy.
- [bleep] the numbers, I will not be part
of a campaign, let alone an administration
that includes Jonah Ryan as vice president,
that is an entirely unacceptable outcome.
- Our entire show is always based on Selina makes a mistake,
and then pays the price for that mistake.
That's every episode of Veep .
If you look at them kind of deep down,
she tries to do something, she screws up,
and then whatever it is she wanted, she doesn't get.
It was a great formula, but it stopped feeling like reality.
It stopped feeling, it seemed like you make a mistake,
and the country doesn't really remember it
five minutes later and rewards you for it.
And so basically, in that sort of nether time,
before we were back, I just sort of pulled the show apart
and just started thinking, this is not reflecting now.
And it was very hard, because obviously you do worry about,
we're not Saturday Night Live , we're not on every night,
we're not on every Saturday.
So we weren't gonna make the show about
what did he say that week.
But you try, and this is what Veep has always done,
you try and get above it as much as possible,
and go, what is this about?
And so, the notion of an authoritarian regime,
let's not worry about Trump or this guy or this guy,
but why are there authoritarian regimes
coming to sort of to power.
Let's not do fake news, which is the thing Trump says,
but let's try and address, why, why are--
bless you-- why are facts and science,
sort of, getting warred upon.
And that's how we kind of led our way
to a lot of the Jonah stuff, especially his war on math
and his [audience laughing]
and you can laugh, but I hope you can see the connections
to what we were trying to do.
And it was really hard because obviously,
throughout the season, people kept saying,
oh, you know, she's Trump, he's Trump,
he's Kellyanne, she's Kellyanne.
And look yes, but no.
And I guess that's the thing.
But we were trying to adjust the show
that very quickly seemed out of date.
When you watch-- go back and watch,
I don't know, in my first season
we did the President is tweeting joke,
that seems like it was written in the 1800s now.
- Hi, ma'am. If you hear this, do not Tweet, please.
- Mike, what are you doing?
- You tweeted. - What?
- Bottle Brian, it wasn't nice.
- I just direct messaged Charlie.
- No, it was public.
Everybody saw it on Twitter.
- No they didn't.
- What did you Tweet?
- What it was just some funny joke I was just making.
It was, I push that feather button.
- You Tweeted, that's a Tweet.
-That's a Tweet. -Well then delete it.
- Delete it.
-It's impossible. [indistinct chatter]
- The whole show seems, I hate to say this,
somewhat of another time,
almost the same thing with the West Wing.
They seem like this--
like if I said to you, when is Veep about,
you'd be like, oh, it's the 60s.
You know what I mean?
It just seems like a different show.
And so we really did have to change the show
in that final season.
And it got nastier and it got meaner,
and it got bleaker and it got more horrible.
And part of that was I felt it had to
because these are horrible, bleak times,
but I will also point out, it was built not to sustain,
meaning you don't do that for 10 more seasons,
you do that knowing this is the final season
and we are going to build to the bleakest of all endings,
which is she is going to ultimately,
where story meets character,
the most important things you can do in any writing,
she is going to throw Gary,
the only person in some ways
that she ever actually cared for.
She is going to put a bullet in his head, a la Fredo,
and when you realize that that's where we're building to,
she has to take this journey into a just a darker place
so that she can do the one thing you never
thought she would do.
And she does it.
And you hate her for it,
and she pays a horrific price.
But that I guess, to me, tada,
- I wanted to say a word about sacrifice.
It means to lose something,
for the greater good.
And when I look back on my 52 years,
with almost 30 of them spent in public service,
there is no one who has sacrificed more than me.
And there's nothing anyone can do to stop me!
[Narrator] You've been watching on writing Veep, 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.