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'UnREAL' creators: 'Being totally cynical wasn't our aim'

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James Dittiger/Lifetime

Lifetime is busting open the doors to the fantasy suite with UnREAL, a new scripted series detailing the behind-the-scenes drama of a dating show. We asked creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro about their inspirations, how they built the show, and what it’s like in a writers’ room that has to tackle two shows at the same time. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you begin this “journey,” to borrow a phrase from The Bachelor?

SARAH GERTRUDE SHAPIRO: I based UnREAL on a short film I had written and directed, and I had gotten my head around pitching HBO or FX or Showtime—that’s where I saw the sensibility of it finding a home. So when Nina [Lederman at Lifetime] bought it, I was concerned that once she realized what I wanted to do with it, she’d hate me and throw me out. [Laughs] She took a huge leap of faith on me, and I kind of took a leap of faith on her. It seemed like a really weird fit, but the passion for the project is really the most important thing, because the worst case is ending up somewhere where you’re just one in a pile of many. 

How close to reality is UnREAL?

SHAPIRO: I had a day job [on The Bachelor] 10 years ago, so I don’t know how they make it anymore. But I’ve had a variety of jobs that informed these moral quandaries, those sexual politics the characters find themselves in. Those conflicts and those themes are so pervasive to women in careers that it’s not super specific to feel, like, maybe you’re doing a sh-tty thing at work and maybe you’re not spending enough time on your life, and you work all the time. All these themes are pretty universal in that way.

MARTI NOXON: The reality of how reality shows are made, a lot of that is based on anecdotal stories from people we know. After the show’s debut, people got in touch with us and were like, “Oh my gosh, you guys got it right,” which is chilling if you think about it. It’s kind of an open secret that although the shows aren’t scripted, a producer’s job is to get contestants to adhere to a role or a task. As the season goes on, we definitely push that envelope for maximum drama. We’re stretching the truth as we’ve heard it or as we understand it.

Did you watch or rewatch The Bachelor to research Everlasting, the dating show at the center of UnREAL?

SHAPIRO: We had to do so little, just barely a little gloss of paint, because it’s become a cultural joke, all of this stuff. Like, a beautiful girl in a dress on a date in a helicopter—you know exactly where you are. Marti, don’t you feel like that was the easiest part of the whole thing?

NOXON: Oh yeah. We were able to make all that stuff up because it’s all seeped into our culture, it’s so well known. 

With that in mind, how do you keep the show from turning into a direct spoof of The Bachelor?

NOXON: It’s almost too easy to go in that direction. We wanted these characters to feel dimensional. I was in the camp of having very little sympathy for the contestants before this, but there’s no way someone who has never worked in reality can understand what they signed up for. It’s really unfair to judge these people based on what we see on TV.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I think I very dramatically once said we put a fatwa on spoofing. [Laughs] But we really did. Every time it felt like it was veering into silly, we were just like, “Shut up, we’re not spoofing.” Being totally cynical about it wasn’t our aim. We’re making a character drama about true conflicts. The world is already covered in glitter; you don’t need to make it more silly.

As far as casting goes, did you have Shiri Appleby in mind for Rachel from the beginning?

NOXON: Not really! Rachel is maybe a proxy for both of us, so when Shiri walked in to audition, it was just one of those wonderful moments when Sarah and I looked at each other and said, “We’re done, right?”

What about Constance Zimmer for Quinn?

NOXON: Nina had her eye on Constance. Their kids go to the same school so she just started working her in the school parking lot every day.

SHAPIRO: There are so many people like Quinn in Hollywood that we had to find someone who could make her not a cartoon.

NOXON: Constance brings kind of a glee to it. [Laughs] There’s just a little knowing wink behind her actions, like, “Can you believe I just did that?”

You’re essentially writing two shows: UnREAL and the dating show it centers on, Everlasting. Does that make it doubly difficult?

NOXON: Sometimes the network gave us what they wished was going happen on Everlasting, and we’d be like, “Not really the show we’re making!”

SHAPIRO: We talked about these two worlds, that there are these beautiful butterfly people that live under the lights, and then the creepy mole people in the walls. This show is about when the mole people and butterfly people cross into each other’s worlds, so that was an interesting theme to play with, too. It was really cool to break down that map of how we were going to do it, but I think the thing is staying with a strong point of view on Rachel and Quinn as they journey through this world. The other stuff comes after that.

How will UnREAL work if it continues to another season?

NOXON: We’re going to always retain the Everlasting moniker. You could do Everlasting: The Golden Years, only seniors this year! [Laughs] I mean, we would never do that, that would be—

SHAPIRO: Pretty amazing!

NOXON: Yeah, with their little go-carts? [Laughs]

An edited version of this interview ran in Entertainment Weekly issue #1368, on newsstands Friday, June 12.

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