Showrunner and co-creator John Hoffman knew that Charles, Oliver and Mabel’s first moment in the same cramped space had to simultaneously meet and undermine expectations.
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“True Crime” and “Expectations” always seem to make an odd pairing. For every voracious listener/reader/viewer who wants whatever lies ahead to follow a familiar rhythm and trajectory, there’s a reporter/screenwriter/filmmaker trying to subvert those expectations from the inside out.
So it’s no wonder that the opening minutes of “Only Murders in the Building” manage to accomplish both goals simultaneously. There are voiceover tables, but with an unexpected purpose. It uses a main character to transport the audience to a specific world, only there are three of them. And there’s absolutely no time wasted putting Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) together in the same elevator in the apartment building they share, even if they all don’t initially care about each other’s company.
The show gets all those wheels in motion on the page, but as showrunner and co-creator John Hoffman explained to IndieWire, a real key point of the show was whether that first elevator scene conveyed enough information and intrigue to keep a curious audience hooked. For a single and seemingly simple location, the Only Murders in the Building elevators presented a technical and logistical challenge. However, it also provided a backdrop that helped the trio at the center of the show make a powerful first impression. This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
What conversations did you have about how to structure the show’s opening to make sure we know at least a little bit about all three of these characters before we see them all in the elevator together?
For me, the big question of the whole series was, “Other than all the plot, narrative and everything else, how do these three people work together? How are these three people doing? fit together?” And we didn’t know that until a few weeks before our first table Zoom read of the first episode. I feel like that elevator scene is so pivotal for the whole season. We see it so often, but after this separate, dynamic one Intro these three people feeling like they’re getting together feels even more unlikely after the elevator ride because they’re all kind of annoying to each other, which felt like a great thing for a reversal when they’re pulled together just minutes later.
You visit a lot of filming locations throughout the season, but did you want that elevator moment to happen as early as possible in production so you can build that momentum right away?
On the production side, our lifts live on our sets. And elevators are heavy. They’re hard to get right. They are difficult to build to make these doors feel like real doors. You need the timing. They’re comical counterparts to these three genius comedians and actors, so they had to be the fourth person to do ba-dum-bump.
Jamie Babbit, who directed the first episode so beautifully, was also with me in the camp of, “We’ve got to get these doors right.” We kept saying we wanted it early because we wanted to feel that separation between them. We wanted to feel the uniqueness of their personalities, not as a unit. In a way, the chemistry between them was unique to this scene depending on where they went after that. The chemistry between the three read you wanted that different quality, and you wanted the New Yorker in an elevator, “Oh god, don’t let me be with this one.” Then watch how all the elevator rides unfold throughout the season, they do together and there is a shorthand that is beginning to develop. There is a story about the elevators in season one that runs through episode 10. These three people are learning to love each other, and these elevators save each other in a way.
As for this elevator set, the challenge seems to be to build something big enough to fit all the people you need. But at other points during the season it must feel claustrophobic, like there’s really no room to move from where they are.
All those questions: “How does it feel to be on the Upper West Side? How does it feel before the war, elevated, elegant? How do you manage to take overhead shots? How do we get the side shots? What are these walls? Do we want two banks?” That was one of the big decisions. I was adamant that we must have two benches because one door closes and the other opens, time wise. All those things that I loved to choreograph.
I’ve lived in New York since doing the series and have deliberately chosen apartments in pre-war apartment buildings just so I could put myself in my head and have the experience of living in it when I’m writing it. It struck me that certain things just have to work, no matter how elegant or beautiful an apartment building is. Steve lives in a beautiful apartment building in New York and his elevators don’t feel fancy. They feel very professional in many ways. They’re beautiful, but they’re not Harrods.
That’s a contrast that’s really noticeable when you see what all three are wearing and how they all contrast with the design of the elevator itself.
I spoke to someone from Curt Beech, our production designer, and his amazing team, Rich Murray, our set decorator, all on board. Dana Covarrubias, the costuming of this group and the mind-meld that happened, she went along with my insane obsessions. We landed on this color discussion about marigold. And god, dear Dana Covarrubias, she happily sent me this whole thing about her color schemes for each of the characters: the blues and grays and greens of Charles, the purples and lavenders and rich burgundies of Oliver and the marigolds and the Red tones and those warm colors from Mabel. She had a whole work on what marigold means and she laid it out for me in my head and related it directly to people’s character. They were no small discussions and I was so happy to see them end up in the world in this way.
In a way, Selena has perhaps the most challenging part in that first elevator scene, because she has to convey everything you need to know about Mabel in one look.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to her on set, “Selena, you’re so good at conveying so much without words.” She said, “I watch a lot of horror movies. Those are all reactions.” I thought that was so clever. I love actors who love those moments when they don’t speak, those moments of observation without dialogue. This is a crime thriller, so you’re going to have those moments.
The show moves very fluidly through time, and these moments often flow into each other. What was your guide for sequences like this that take place so close to these time jumps?
It’s maybe just my own weird theatrical feeling about music and the way it moves and how scenes should move. You orchestrate, you direct the sequence of the scenes and what the audience needs so that it can pick up quickly and not get lost. That was very balanced as Dan Fogelman, Jess Rosenthal and I saw cuts and had this discussion about, “I’m lost here. OK, how can we fix this? What upset you about it? Let’s find the bridge to this moment.” I can see it in my head. But if it doesn’t connect with you, find the one who communicates best.
Given that this was so pivotal in opening the entire show, how did that get you thinking about how to open Season 2 to keep that spirit, even though we know these three characters really well at this point?
It’s the balance between the buoyancy of this show and the situation, the predicament they find themselves in at the end of Season 1. We make a small entry into Season 2 that has an energy that feels instantly familiar to Season 1, and then quickly shifts and drops into a different energy altogether. And again, maybe to introduce people who can’t remember everything, we have a way to get into the story what they need to know. It’s about finding moments when they really care about what they’ve gotten themselves into and feeling that very special New York vibes about what happens to people when they’re noticed again, for good or bad reasons.
Only Murders in the Building Season 1 is available to stream on Hulu. Season 2 starts on June 28th.
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