Every week, the cast and crew of HBO’s Insecure — the new series based on Issa Rae’s successful web series — is taking EW behind the scenes of each episode. This week, showrunner Prentice Penny walks us through the seventh episode in the season, “Real As F—,” which he wrote.
In the writers’ room
Initially, this episode was going to be the finalé. Our writer’s assistant, Courtney Byrd (who worked for HBO), said that usually the episode before the finale is the “biggie.” So we decided to shift this episode into the 7th spot. It was great, because typically this kind of episode is the finale, but what I love is that it forced us to deal with the ramifications of 107 in episode 108. It really challenged us to come up with a good story in 108 that actually feels like more of a finale in hindsight. Also, our director Melina Matsoukas was supposed to direct this episode, but she was busy prepping 108, so Kevin Bray (who directed 104) stepped in and did an amazing job.
We filmed this episode in Baldwin Hills/View Park (which is where Issa and I grew up in real life). There’s something very special and “full circle” about being able to film the TV show I run in the neighborhood I grew up in. It was really cool when friends of my parents would tell them, “Oh, we saw Prenny (my family nickname, don’t judge it) filming in the neighborhood with a bunch of trucks. What’s he doing?” My mom loved ALL of it. Seriously, it is pretty nice to film a show for HBO in the neighborhood where you once dreamed of being a writer.
Additionally, in real life, Baldwin Hills/View Park is mostly an African-American middle class neighborhood. We made a joke in the episode that Molly notices more white people were moving back into the neighborhood. (In the 1930s-1950s, the neighborhood was mostly white.) About a month after filming, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times highlighting how the neighborhood is becoming gentrified. Art imitating life.
One of the things we wanted to highlight with Molly was that she lives this very “catalog” life. Everything looks good on paper, but in real life she’s a mess. We wanted to talk about African-American’s aversion to therapy. Sometimes our solution is just, “Girl, go to church. You’ll be fine.” We think talking about our problems to a therapist is weak, or something only white people do. I think that’s Molly’s viewpoint about it, which is also lot of African-American people’s opinion. Ironically, it’s the one thing Molly needs in her life. We wanted to bring that up without hitting you over the head with it.
Issa’s work success
One of the things we wanted to arc over the season was Issa starting to have work success. She’s slowly starting to figure things out. In the beginning of the season, she’s apathetic about work and is in a bad relationship. Over the course of the season, we wanted to see her start to get her life together. With the exception of having sex with Daniel (and that’s a big exception), she does. Issa gets better at her job, she admits she’s also responsible for her relationship with Lawrence falling into a rut, etc. We wanted to see Issa start to grow up, and having victories at her job was a part of that. HOWEVER, also like life, when one area of your life starts to thrive, other areas can start to crumble. Life gives you the yin, but it also gives the yang. So while she may be doing good at work, her personal life is about to fall apart.
The Lawrence/Daniel scene
This was such a pivotal scene and difficult scene for us to write in the room. We knew that Lawrence was starting to put stuff together, but he doesn’t know all the details. Lawrence doesn’t know if that’s actually Daniel or the real nature of that relationship. All Lawrence knows is a text, this is a guy she grew up with, and he saw them arguing. We wanted the audience to see Lawrence piece things together. He’s not stupid, but he also can’t make a leap. Also both of these actors (Jay Ellis and Y’lan Noel) are so amazing that we said, we just want to see them in a scene together. Our first thought was figuring out how much Lawrence was going to ask Daniel that wasn’t going to seem weird and wasn’t going to ruin the ending. Once we figured that out, we wanted to create as much tension as possible. Initially, we decided to set the scene in a bathroom. We wanted to put Lawrence and Daniel in close quarters so you didn’t know what Lawrence was going to do. That was the key to us in the writers’ room — to create a feeling like something could happen at ANY moment during this scene. I think us keeping the dialogue to just two lines and letting the silence play achieved it.
The Issa/Molly fight
We never wanted the show to be where Issa and Molly have conflict all the time. We always wanted to show black women have healthy relationships. They also hadn’t had any argument since the pilot. However, we knew that both of their situations were coming to a head. They also had feelings about the way the other was living their life, and inevitably, it had to come out. The core of this show is that friendship, and we wanted to test it. The line where Issa says, “Are you just jealous I can actually keep a man?” was HEAVILY debated in the room. Some felt the friendship could never recover after that line, while others felt differently. In the end, we wanted to paint ourselves into a corner and see how we got out of it. Our motto in the room was, “If it makes us uncomfortable, let’s do it.” I’m glad we did.
The Issa/Lawrence break-up was a difficult scene to write. We had fallen in love with these characters and were pulling for them. I remember writing that scene in my office. I had closed the door and was pacing around as if I was Lawrence. I was muttering to myself and putting myself in that situation (which wasn’t hard). I remember finally sitting at the computer and feeling almost as raw as Lawrence. That scene was so key to get right. I turned the draft in, and Issa and a few other women were like, “Why are there so many exclamation marks after everything Lawrence says?” I was like, “’CAUSE THAT’S REAL!!!” In hindsight, I did have too many. However, we usually never see black men this vulnerable. I had been in a real situation where I was cheated on, and I remember throwing an end table over, and I wanted to see Lawrence get angry — as if you didn’t know what he was going to do. When we filmed that scene, I was so amazed at how much Issa and Jay Ellis went there. We did like 8 to 10 takes of that scene, and every one was just as powerful. I don’t know how they did it. That’s when I said, “Oh, Issa and Jay are amazing actors.” If you watch that scene and don’t go, “That’s some real s—!” then I can’t help you.
I think what makes episode 7 so interesting is the two most important relationships and support systems in Issa’s life have been stripped away from her. As of right now, she’s lost her best friend and her boyfriend. She is all alone. Sometimes life happens so fast and the decisions we make in a split second have long-lasting effects. I think that’s something you realize when you’re in that “29-year-old” age range. You realize you can’t just do whatever you want.
Insecure airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.