Writer and Director Michael Showalter, best known for the satirical comedy Wet Hot American Summer, continues his renaissance of dramatic retellings of stories based on real people with Apple TV+‘s The Shrink Next Door.
The series, which is based on the Wondery podcast by Joe Nocera, is the complicated true story of a hapless, anxiety-riddled fabric business owner, Martin “Marty” Markowitz (Will Farrell), who is encouraged by his loyal sister Phyllis Shapiro (Kathryn Hahn) to see a therapist, Dr. Issac “Ike” Herschkopf (Paul Rudd). For the next 27 years, Ike would take over Marty’s entire life.
Showalter is proving to be one of the most in-demand directors in Hollywood. After completing production on Searchlight Picture’s acclaimed biographical drama, The Eyes of Tammy Faye starring Jessica Chastain, The Big Sick director dove straight into development on The Shrink Next Door at the height of the pandemic. Directing the first four episodes, Showalter transposed the series’ New York setting onto Los Angeles’ streets to begin the story of an ongoing, exploitative relationship between therapist and patient that becomes more absurd through the subsequent decades.
“There’s an obvious comparison to these projects in terms of what’s happening politically in our country and the world,” The Big Sick director shares. “You see it in all sorts of areas in our culture right now where we’re questioning how we behave with each other and how power dynamics play into that.”
Showalter, who directs the upcoming Hulu series The Dropout based Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, spoke with Awards Focus about balancing the comedic talents of Will Farrell and Paul Rudd with the darkness of the shocking true story, recreating the Hampton’s in Los Angeles, and the requests he received from the real Marty and Phyllis about what not to include in the series.
Awards Focus: Your recent projects The Shrink Next Door, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and the upcoming Hulu series The Dropout are all based on the lives of real people. What draws you to these stories, and do you feel pressure about telling these stories accurately?
Showalter: I like true stories. As a podcast or a newspaper article or documentary consumer, I tend to be most interested in true stories. The projects I’ve been doing more recently, whether Tammy Faye or Shrink Next Door, have something about them because I’m already interested in those stories.
In terms of the responsibility, well, that’s a gray area. I try to keep in mind that ultimately I don’t want it to be a documentary. So, my allegiance is split between wanting to make a good product and an entertaining product, and sometimes that means changing specific details, but then also not wanting to change the DNA of what was true.
I think it’s essential to try to have some responsibility towards getting at what the truth is. But it’s hard, especially when you don’t have those actual people participating.
AF: How did you come to The Shrink Next Door, and what drew you to the story?
Showalter: I had been listening to all of the Wondery podcasts one after another as they were coming out. I had already heard to Dirty John and Dr. Death, and this one came out, and I sort of simultaneously was sent the podcast through my agent at UTA because people were talking about it.
I loved the story. I was blown away by the story. I mean, I’m very familiar with therapy, and I’m very familiar with New York City and the Hamptons. It was all a world that I felt I really knew. There’s a lot of overlap with The Shrink Next Door, Tammy Faye, and The Dropout. All three of those projects are all three characters abusing others, whether it’s Jim Bakker or Elizabeth Holmes or Paul Rudd’s character Ike, abusing their power of persuasion over other people.
There’s an obvious comparison to be made on these projects in terms of what’s happening politically in our country and the world. On a personal level, there are many people in culture waking up to people in a position of authority who abuse that position. You see it in the MeToo movement too. You see it in all sorts of areas in our culture right now where we’re questioning how we behave with each other and how power dynamics play into that.
I had been talking to Paul Rudd about doing a project together, and I sent him the podcast. He loved it as well. So in a way, we raised our hand and said, “Hey, we’d love to do this!” Then Will Farrell and his people listened, and it felt like an excellent opportunity to combine forces.
AF: Will Farrell and Paul Rudd are revered, comedy actors. How did you balance their comedic skills with the darkness of the material?
Showalter: This had to do very much with [Showrunner] Georgia Pritchett and her writers and what they were trying to do. They were always crafting a story with comedic elements that wasn’t an out-and-out comedy. We all went into it knowing the show’s tone would have this grounded character-based thing where they weren’t going to milk the scenes for laughs. I don’t want to speak totally on their behalf. Still, my sense of it was that both Will and Paul were excited by the opportunity to play these more dramatic characters and Will, in particular, really approached his character as though it was a dramatic role. I mean, I think he’s the funniest person alive, but he was coming at it entirely from a character standpoint.
AF: What was the timeline like for you with filming Tammy Faye and developing The Shrink Next Door? Was there a conversation about you directing the entire series beyond the first four episodes?
Showalter: We shot and finished Tammy Faye right before Covid, wrapping in December of 2019. So I was editing The Eyes of Tammy Faye when quarantine started. On literally the first Monday of the lockdown, we pitched The Shrink Next Door. We had a zoom meeting when everything shut down, and it was like, what is this zoom thing? We went around and pitched to all the streamers while everyone was already stuck in their houses. We got into business pretty quickly with Apple and were in production by the fall of 2020.
AF: Can you talk a bit about transposing the city and atmosphere of New York to Los Angeles, where The Shrink Next Door was filmed?
Showalter: [laughs] It helped that I lived in New York and have a very strong vision of it. We had an unbelievable production designer John Paino who recreated an entire street and beautiful interiors of buildings to create authentic-looking places. We also found that some of the little nooks and crannies of downtown Los Angeles look like New York, but the hardest part of recreating the city was the trees. There’s a shot in the first episode where Marty and Ike have a really long walk and talk right after the first therapy session, where they go and play basketball. It’s a very long walk down the block, which is one of my favorite shots in the show, and many visual effects were added to get rid of the trees.
Also, the house in the Hamptons is impressive. Our locations department found a home right near where I live. The guy that owns it is from Providence, Rhode Island, and he wanted his house in LA to look like an east coast beach house. So he built a house with imported wood, literally east coast trees, in the backyard and replicated the style all the way to the bumpiness of the lawn. So the Hamptons house looks completely like you’re in the Hamptons, and it’s because of the landscaping.
AF: The sibling love story in the show is heart-wrenching, given how Ike gets between the family. Were you concerned the show may lose momentum after Kathryn Hahn’s Phyllis is removed from the picture?
Showalter: You know, as much as I could watch Kathryn Hahn read the telephone book, it is true that Ike successfully separated Marty and Phyllis, and they didn’t speak for 27 years. I do think it’s important to show that she was removed from his life. That absence was vital, and I had total faith in Georgia [Pritchett] and her team’s vision.
AF: Did you feel at any stage that you might be exacerbating the pain that siblings Marty Markowitz and Phyllis Shapiro experienced in replaying the events for the screen? Did they have any constraints or requests for the retelling?
Showalter: We visited Marty and Phyllis, and they both seemed excited by the idea of us doing the show. They would both tell us that something wasn’t told accurately or that it wouldn’t have happened in that way. We tried to be as respectful as possible.
There was a scene where Kathryn Hahn, who plays Phyllis, she’s a single mom raising three kids, and in one scene, she’s listening to the radio, and she smokes a joint. The real Phyllis said that she would never have smoked a joint, so we cut that scene.
Surprisingly, those are the kinds of things that are really important to people.