'There's so much more to play with that we haven't done yet,' Dan Perrault says
Warning: This post contains spoilers from the entire season of Netflix’s American Vandal. Read at your own risk!
After eight episodes, the question of who drew the d—s on American Vandal remains somewhat up in the air, and that’s the point.
Framed as a documentary made by two aspiring teenage filmmakers, Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), Netflix’s true-crime satire, which dropped Sept. 15, investigates who is responsible for vandalizing 27 teachers’ cars at a California high school. The school board rules that resident troublemaking senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) is responsible; however, Dylan maintains his innocence even after his expulsion. Over the course of eight hilarious and engrossing episodes, Peter and Sam manage to prove Dylan’s innocence, and by the end of it, Peter arrives at a theory for the real culprit: senior class president and enthusiastic activist Christa Carlyle (G. Hannelius). However, the show doesn’t provide a definitive answer, which feels very a propos given that it’s paying homage to docu-series like Serial and Making a Murderer, which also had unresolved endings.
Apart from the mystery of who actually committed the crime, there’s one more thread that’s left dangling as the credits roll in the season finale: Will there be a second season? According to creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, they already have a “very detailed” idea for a potential season 2.
Following the release of season 1, EW hopped on the phone with Perrault and Yacenda to discuss the show’s inconclusive ending, how they cast their phenomenal young actors, the role of improvisation on the show, and their plans for season 2 (should Netflix order another installment).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: American Vandal dropped Friday. How are you feeling about it? What has the reaction to the show been like for you?
TONY YACENDA: It’s been a lot of fun going on social media and seeing all the people engaging with the mystery and their own theories, and picking out different inside jokes and runners we were going for. That’s just been really entertaining for us.
DAN PERRAULT: It’s a very detailed show, and to see the people really enjoy some of the small details we put in there is really fun.
When I first heard about the show, I was worried about how you were going to take this idea, which seemed great as like a parody trailer, and expand it to eight episodes. But then when I watched it, I found myself hooked, which surprised me. How did you approach turning this idea that could easily be a sketch into a full season of television?
YACENDA: I think we approached it wanting to just make fun of the genre. It could’ve worked as a sketch, but it wouldn’t have worked as a show. I feel like our show is kind of a love letter to these true-crime documentaries that Dan and I both really love. The idea is that if we can stay true to the tropes and the conventions and even the structure of some of our favorite documentaries and use them to tell a story about injustice, we could really get people to care about d—s.
PERRAULT: To jump off of that, the mystery came first for us when we were writing this. I think that if this had just been a spoof, the jokes would’ve gotten tired very quickly, but we wanted to make sure that the audience would get invested to the point that even if you don’t find the show funny, hopefully you’re involved in the mystery — which is the case with my grandmother, who does not find the show funny but loves the mystery. So I like to think we’ve succeeded.
The show’s ending is somewhat unresolved, and we aren’t 100 percent sure who did it. Why was it important to not tie everything up in the end?
PERRAULT: We wanted to make sure this was Dylan’s story. The tagline is “Who drew the d—s?” but at the end of the day this is a story about Dylan and how he was really unfairly labeled. If Peter made a conclusion without definitive evidence, he’d be no better than the school board and what they did to Dylan. That was our reasoning. We really didn’t want a finale that focused entirely on who drew the d—s. We wanted a finale that really served Dylan.
YACENDA: To totally turn the story into the Christa Carlyle story would feel a little disingenuous at the time, and also it would be against the genre that we’ve seen. Having said that, we wanted there to be maybe some level of ambiguity, but it’s been a little surprising to see how many people, even after Peter’s Christa Carlisle theory, [are] going in all of these different directions and having all of these other theories too.
PERRAULT: It’s also extremely rare in actual true crime to have a real definitive ending. Maybe there’s one or two that really conclusively end with a named murderer, but more often than not you get some ambiguity at the end in the real ones. We’d rather go that route than the perfect criminal that you know did it.
It’s clear from watching that you were inspired by Serial and Making a Murderer. What other true-crime documentaries did you take your cues from when putting the show together?
YACENDA: The one that got me into the genre in the first place was The Thin Blue Line. Then we went back and watched The Staircase. What are some other ones?
PERRAULT: The Jinx.
YACENDA: The Jinx is incredible.
PERRAULT: We compare Peter’s character most often to Sarah Koenig from Serial, but there’s also some influence of Andrew Jarecki from The Jinx. I think, in particular, the finale of The Jinx, which is mostly Jarecki and his crew talking about how they’re going to get Durst. Those moments influence some of the later moments in our season when Peter was strategizing with Sam.
YACENDA: We watched so many. Like, the Morning Show Nine [in American Vandal] is an homage to The Central Park Five, the Ken Burns documentary, a pretty haunting documentary. It’s a brilliant documentary.
What was the casting process like for this? How did you find Tyler, Griffin, and Jimmy, who are very good in this?
PERRAULT: They were all very difficult to cast. We didn’t set out to cast names. Jimmy, obviously, had a huge following, but that was not something we sought out. We just thought he had such a good handle on the character comedically and emotionally. Griffin was fantastic. In a way, a lot of these actors brought a lot of their own personalities to the show. Tyler was so committed to the series in a way that I’ve only seen from his character, Peter. Tyler would come in each day with his own notes, his own list of questions to ask the characters we were interviewing that day. So his level of commitment to the show matched the characters, which was really inspiring.
YACENDA: It was really important for our approach on set too. We had full scripts for all of the episodes, but I also wanted to throw the script away at certain points. Like the first thing I ever shot was [me], after going over all of the facts with Tyler for hours and hours, just saying, “Okay, you have 40 minutes to interview Dylan Maxwell.” That was so if it ever felt too scripted, we could go back and pull out some of those imperfections and pauses that you would find in a real unscripted interview to make it feel more doc-ish. But it goes back to the casting. I think the main thing was casting this really wide net and making sure they could pull off the words that were on the page, and then that final stage of vetting was just making sure all of our actors could improvise.
Why was it important to not cast any big names or stunt cast?
PERRAULT: I think what we knew is that if we just went to the usual suspects of UCB and found the funniest character actors we could, you would see those jokes and they would be funny, but they would feel like jokes. That could be what the audience is looking for — they’re watching for the next funny as opposed to the next twist in the mystery or the next piece of data that could affect the investigation.
Do you remember a time when Tyler surprised you with a question he prepared beforehand that you hadn’t even thought of including in the script?
PERRAULT: There’s a great moment in the first episode where he asks Spencer [Eduardo Franco], “If Dylan were caught cheating on a test and you were asked did he cheat, would you lie and say he didn’t?”
YACENDA: And Spencer says, “No, I wouldn’t. I ain’t no rat. I wouldn’t tell the teacher he cheated on a test.” That was all improvised. It’s kind of a clunky question in a way. It’s something that our writers room, writers who are in their 20s and 30s, probably wouldn’t have arrived at that question, but an 18-year-old high school filmmaker does have questions like that, and the actors reacted to it in the moment. It’s just those little things are so fun and feel like stuff that didn’t come from the writers room, because they didn’t.
PERRAULT: Also, that particular moment just engaged the group in conversation. Especially in the group interview scenes, his improv was extremely helpful.
YACENDA: It’s stuff that’s harder to script organically. It’s something that’s better as improv, and Tyler’s so good at that.
This show has a lot of insight into high school culture. In the writing and research process, did you speak to actual high schoolers or depend on your actors for stuff like that?
YACENDA: That was the original conceit of the show: We wanted to use a true-crime documentary as a vessel to tell a story about a high school. I felt so old talking to … I fancy myself a young guy, but when you talk to these 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds about social media they use and how they interact with people, what it’s like in school, it’s not like The Breakfast Club where the jocks and the geeks and the goths are all at separate tables. It’s a mishmash. There’s so many things you learn, like common threads, from talking to the different high school kids that really helped us tackle the high school and make it the most honest version we could.
PERRAULT: Also high school in general, I think it’s the perfect setting for the show because the way the comedy works in the show is taking very silly things and treating them very seriously. That makes high school really the perfect setting because in high school you take everything really seriously, even though we’re talking about the most ridiculous and often low-stakes things possible, like hook-ups and parties and dumb social-strata things.
YACENDA: Yeah, I think spray-painting d—s and getting expelled is very, very low stakes for a true-crime documentary, but it’s really, really high stakes for when you’re in high school. Getting expelled is everything.
You mentioned how you wanted people to come back to the show for the mystery even if they didn’t like the d— jokes. What was the key of getting people invested in the mystery?
YACENDA: When you look at these true-crime documentaries, it’s very clear that as a society, we’re infatuated with injustice. We like watching these documentaries, at least I do, and when Sarah Koenig is talking to me about the cellphone of that case, I’m like, “All right, we can figure this out together. I can be a good judge of character, and I can figure out if he’s an innocent man who’s incredibly unlucky or if he’s a lying sociopath.” The same goes for Making a Murderer or The Jinx, where we fancy ourselves judge, jury, and executioner that are [better] equipped to read the characters than the actual judge, jury, and executioner.
PERRAULT: The passion of the documentarian is crucial, because if you look at Sarah Koenig in Serial or Andrew Jarecki on The Jinx, they’re so committed to getting to the bottom of the case. So, it really starts with your main documentarians there. The more Peter and Tyler were into this, the more our audience was going to be consumed in it as well.
Have you thought about what a potential season 2 might look like? More importantly, would you want to do a second season?
PERRAULT: All I think we can say right now is that there are so many true-crime tropes. Thankfully, this genre is only increasing in popularity, so there’s so much more to play with that we haven’t done yet. So we’d love to keep the series going and love to play on some new tropes of the genre that have emerged since we were working on the show.
Did you have ideas for season 2 in mind as you worked on season 1, or have you only just started tossing them around?
YACENDA: We have a very detailed idea of what we want to do for season 2. I think, like Dan said, we want it to feel very different than season 1 — with the same documentarians, but it will have a completely different feel.
Are you saying that you’d want to keep it centered on this high school, or at least the area?
YACENDA: I think it’s safe to say that Peter and Sam would make a documentary in a different high school and in a different environment, for a different crime.