Jonathan Entwistle stumbled across a black-and-white indie comic book lying in a trashcan behind a comic shop in London. He bought it — and a couple more issues in the series — for 70 pence each. About 10 years after this chance encounter, his adaptation of said comic, The End of the F***ing World, is now a f***ing great show on Netflix.
“I think, obviously, I kind of always thought my own show was amazing,” Entwistle tells EW of the positive response from critics thus far, “but… I’ve just been kind of surprised by the mainstream love for the show, considering I think [TEOTFW is] kind of a little bit weird and what I think is amazing is that everybody seems to love this really weird show we made.”
Weird is putting it lightly. If Wes Anderson helmed a horror movie that then morphed into a teen-tinged take on David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, you’d be close to what makes this collection of eight half-hour episodes so engrossing.
“I’m James. I’m 17, and I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath,” begins actor Alex Lawther in a deadpan first-person narration in the vein of The Royal Tenenbaums. While James is daydreaming about graduating from killing animals to killing humans, he meets Alyssa (Jessica Barden), a brooding, sharp-tongued classmate who convinces him to run away with her to find her birth father. What ensues is a road trip of errors that begins with an exploding car and turns them into fugitives along the way.
“I think I naturally do Wes Anderson and David Lynch in my own way,” Entwistle explains. “But for me, what I was trying to add to it was Noah Hawley’s Fargo world.”
Continue below for more about Entwistle’s 10-year journey to make your next television obsession, the short film with Barden and Red Oaks‘ Craig Roberts that started it all, and how Netflix brought “mainstream love” to an indie idea.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you feeling now with all this positive reception coming out?
JONATHAN ENTWISTLE: I think it’s amazing. I mean, we had a little bit of an idea of how people felt about it from the tiny U.K. release that just came up before, but the big response completely took us all by surprise. I think, obviously, I kind of always thought my own show was amazing, but… I’ve just been kind of surprised by the mainstream love for the show, considering I think [TEOTFW is] kind of a little bit weird and what I think is amazing is that everybody seems to love this really weird show we made. So that is my main feeling about it.
Had you been nervous at all when the reviews were coming out?
Oh yeah, sure. I’m always nervous with reviews. I guess anybody is, but I was really happy with what we made so I knew that and I knew that if any negatives were gonna come, I sort of thought about them already. So I was fingers crossed waiting for the American reviews, but I never expected them to come from as far and as wide as they did and to be as unilaterally positive. That has kind of blown me away, really.
I read on your website – there was a brief line that said you found the original comic book in a trash can. Can you walk me through that experience?
I’d always stopped into this old-school comic book store in London, always just looking. I’d grown up with comics and I was keeping my eye out for anything. And the store actually moved from where it was to this super new, shiny premises, and I went there for the very first time and I think they’d been clearing out stock or something like that, and… I found this piece, this hand-drawn, black-and-white, little tiny facsimiled thing. I picked it up and it was just in a pile in the back of the store, and I just thought, “This is cool!” And I saw on the back that it had a price; it was one dollar and it had been crossed out and it said 70 pence, in English. And I was like, “What is this?”
So I went inside and said to the guy, like, “What’s this book?” And he said, “Oh yeah, it’s a self-published thing. We’ve got No. 3, No. 6, and No. 2. They’re 70 pence each.” And I was like, “Alright, well okay. I’ll have them.” And then I just thought they were amazing, but obviously, I didn’t have a complete story. So the dude who wrote them, Chuck [Forsman], his email address was in the back of them just written in pencil, and I… emailed him and he saw a short film that I had made, so then we just ended up chatting about it and I happened to say to him, “Dude, I just think this would make an amazing movie.” So we started those conversations and this was, like, nearly 10 years ago now. The show, as it is now, was originally conceived as a movie and we tried so many different ways of making it, and in the end, we came up with Netflix and everybody to do it in the way we did. And it still kind of feels like a movie to me, which is what I think is so awesome about it.
What struck you most about the comic that made you want to adapt it?
It’s so sparse, the drawings. It’s black and white. Sometimes it’s just James and Alyssa in the frame and no background, and to be able to draw like that with just characters and tell a story in pictures is essentially the most cinematic thing you could ever do, even though it’s on paper. And that’s what kind of drew me to it. When I read it, I just thought, “How is this so cinematic with literally five lines?” That was what made me keep going through the thing. It’s so sparse and it’s so specific and it’s so beautifully edited. Chuck is a huge movie fan, and [Terrence Malick’s 1973 film] Badlands was a huge influence for him, even though we moved away from that slightly with the show, that was very much where he was and that cinematic angle was the first thing that jumped out at me from the novel.
As I understand it, TEOTEW was initially a short film you made as a proposed television pilot in 2014. How did you go about assembling a team to create that short and then how did you get from there to where we are now with Netflix?
When I first found the comic, I got talking with Chuck, and a producer friend introduced me to Dominic Buchanan, who’s an exec [producer] now on the Netflix show and he originally said, “I love the comic. Let’s take it to Film4 in the U.K. and try and make a movie.” We went there and they liked the comic and they said, “Look, make it as a short film. Here’s some money. Go out and make that and we’ll try and turn this into a movie.” So we made this short and we tried really hard to build the script up from there, but for whatever reason, the movie didn’t get made. The project as it existed went into turnaround and then we slowly started to think about, “Well, hold on a minute. Maybe this is gonna work as a TV show, or maybe it’s gonna work serialized like the original comics were.”
That was our first jumping off point in terms of thinking about it in episodes, and then we got talking with various producers and everybody got excited about the idea of taking these comics — and actually when we first made the short, Chuck hadn’t finished the series of books, so we didn’t know how it ended. He was kind of writing the last — there are 16 books in the collection that were originally released and then re-released in one graphic novel, essentially 16 chapters and we got eight episodes. So we kind of conflated two into one, and that was part of it, too. There was no end to the story at the time we were trying to make it, so it was very much piecing the project together as we went along, and it was only really with the rise of Netflix that people saw that they could watch something cinematic but not necessarily in a movie format that really opened the doors to what I think is one of the things that has made the show so successful.
Did you have to pitch the idea to Netflix? Did they approach you? Was there a different process involved?
The one thing that helped the project so much was having this short film version of the show. Essentially, we already shot the first half of episode 1, kind of. And we used that. It’s very similar in tone, art direction, same cinematographer, Jess [Barden] is in it, and it’s very, very specific. So it was a very easy sell. I had to take that and the idea and the comic to producers at Clerkenwell Films. They then came on board and together, with a few more execs, we then went to Channel4 in the U.K. with it and it was there that we looked into the idea of a co-production deal with Netflix. And we spoke to a lot of people. A lot of people were interested, and Netflix, in some ways, had a great pitch to us as to why the show would fit and work with them.
It’s hard to describe really because it’s one very long, slow, painful process that is a series of positives. It’s never one great crashing negativity. It’s literally a series of tiny solutions to problems and then suddenly you end up at a place. And, you know, perseverance — it’s nice to feel that hard work and perseverance have paid off because it doesn’t always, but I think it’s also a testament to Netflix’s excitement and genuinely seeing what I originally saw in the comic as being something that people want to see. It’s mutual, really. They came to us, we came to them. It was a conversation, and they were super psyched about making the show.
When you consider how long you’ve been championing this project, and you both wrote and directed the initial short film, did you feel it to be more or less freeing when you passed the screenplay duties to Charlie Covell and brought on [director] Lucy Tcherniak [who helmed half the episodes]?
Yeah, I mean, that’s how TV works, right? It’s not auteur-driven Sundance movies that we’re making. To a certain extent, that’s how it goes. It’s about collaboration. I hired everybody to work on the show, and that means they come with a seal of approval of the show. Charlie was just amazing to work with. The day she came and pitched to us her ideas for where the show would go, I knew straight away she would bring something to it that I couldn’t bring initially. That’s all that matters to me. She was doing something different with it. She created Eunis [played by Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan]… but it was based on another character in [the comic] and we all worked as a team to put it together…. The key is always about collaborations, just adding to it, and the art of compromise, right?
I was trying to describe this show the other day, and I said, “if Wes Anderson directed a horror movie that turned into David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.” And other critics have tried to describe the show. You mentioned Badlands — were you consciously pulling from other cinematic influences?
I always wanted to try to make a kind of Fargo-esque show, as well. There’s something so amazing about the Coen Brothers’ ability to play something straight and for it to be weird but for you to never question it. And, obviously, David Lynch movies are weird and you don’t question it, and Wes Anderson movies are in another world and you don’t question it, and the Coen Brothers do something with reality that I think nobody else does. Noah [Hawley] does the same with Fargo [the series]…. I think I naturally do Wes Anderson and David Lynch in my own way, but what I was trying to add to it was a Noah Hawley’s Fargo world, too.
You mentioned the cinematic quality of the comic book and how you initially thought of this as a movie. But Netflix has repeated its determination to deliver more original content and a lot of shows they’ve released that were meant as anthologies or miniseries were given renewals. Where do you stand on the potential to do more episodes?
I guess I kind of want to know what happens as well, right? Just as much as anybody else does. So, for me, it’s just about that. If there’s a continuing story there, then we’ll carry it on and I think that [the characters] James and Alyssa are just so amazing that it’d be very interesting to see if or what happens next. So, I guess it’s kind of open — and it’s not necessarily up to me, either.
Was the original comic book writer involved with the Netflix show at all?
Not in any major creative way. Obviously, he’s a very good friend of mine and we talked a lot about where we were going with it. Once the show was greenlit and we knew where we were, we shared the script with him. Charlie was very, very conscious of making something that Chuck liked too, and we’re very lucky in the sense that he absolutely loves it and has been very warm and positive about it. We got him out [to set] for the last week of the shoot and met everybody, and we walked him around the art department and he thought it was great and he’s been nothing but excited.
But we always stuck very, very closely to the spine of the comic… He’s always trusted us because we made the short film, right? He’s seen a world that we had created from his comic that was a British version of what he made. So it was kind of its own thing to start with… He did have some insights, but they were very much between me and him talking, and I just soaked up everything he said and put it onto the screen, and I think him and Charlie did the same. We had a really nice collaboration between us where Chuck wasn’t officially involved, but we [were] involved as people and it worked really well.
Jessica Barden is one of the mainstays from the very beginning of this project with the short film. How did you first meet her and what first struck you about her that made you think she was right for this co-lead role?
It was maybe seven years ago when we started to do auditions for the short film version. We saw so many kids at the time. It was just at the time of Game of Thrones, and we saw a lot of those guys who are in the similar age, and I remember Jess walked into the audition and she spoke to us in a Russian accent for absolutely no reason whatsoever. I remember looking at the producer at the time and I thought, “This girl gets the part.” She’s just got a way with her where she can be completely out-there, but she can also be completely vulnerable at the same time and that’s what she’s like as a person. I guess she’s kind of crazier than Alyssa in real life. Alyssa is kind of a conservative version of Jess, so it perfectly worked for me. She just was everything that the character was and more, and that was made even more evident to me when she met Chuck and Chuck was like, “You’re the girl for my book.” And that just made me feel like we’d done it right.
I noticed, too, that Craig Roberts was first in the short and then Alex Lawther was in the final series. Was it a scheduling thing that he couldn’t return?
Mmhmm. It was a mixture. It was lots of different things at play because Craig was considerably older and is considerably older than Alex. He’d actually grown up quite a lot at the time, and the way the scripts had developed since originally, we felt that there was something to explore in looking on top of Craig’s age and his Red Oaks consideration, looking to make James younger. So that was one of our first ports of call and it was all part of a conversation with Netflix and the U.K. broadcaster. By the time we had worked it all out with scheduling and everything, Alex was actually really gonna make the script sing.
It’s funny that you mentioned the Game of Thrones actors you saw because I was going through your work and you worked with Maisie Williams in that music video for [Seafret’s] “Oceans” and then Gemma Whelan pops up as one of the detectives in this series. How did you find yourself in a position with access to all these Game of Thrones actors? Is there some inner circle I don’t know about?
[Laughs] I think most English actors have a kind of one degree of separation from someone who’s in Game of Thrones, right? Because there’s thousands of people in Game of Thrones, and I know that Jess’ best friend lives with Maisie. So it’s all very much part and parcel of the whole being English actors, really. And I guess it’s just all the guys in Game of Thrones are awesome, and I think that I’ve been so lucky to work with them.
The End of the F***ing World is now available to stream on Netflix.