Like the human mind, Maniac contains multitudes.
The Cary Joji Fukunaga-directed limited series follows Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone), subjects of an unusual drug trial that targets their subconscious minds and toys with their memories, fears, and imaginations. It’s a premise that gave the writers and cast (which includes Sally Field and Justin Theroux) the opportunity to play with different characters, settings, and genres. “Anything you can imagine, we talked about,” creator Patrick Somerville says. “We talked about noir detective stories, historical dramas, gothic stories, horror stories. We sort of made a new show every week.”
Though the idea had originally been to reimagine the Norwegian series of the same name, which had a “Walter Mitty approach,” Somerville says he and his team “needed to figure out a way to bind it all together” in their own way. Here’s how they did it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to create a show about the mind?
PATRICK SOMERVILLE: I think the mind is fascinating because of the way it hides itself from itself, of the way that our dreams and our hopes and our pain gets masked and presented back to us in different ways. My wife is a psychotherapist, my dad was a neurologist, and I’ve always just been interested in this kind of storytelling, cycling through different genres. Cary and I talked about our mutual interest in pharmaceutical companies and settled on a sort of out-of-control drug trial as a place for where our story was going to unfold.
Did you watch much of that Norwegian series for inspiration?
I think that the Norwegian series is the perfect jumping-off point, but because of the different setup we had at the beginning, we had to reimagine it. Also, Cary and I were both fascinated with altered realities and heightened tones, and I think that’s a pretty big departure from what the Norwegian series does.
So, early on, what was on your wish list with Cary for those altered realities and genres you could tackle?
I mean, everything. An indie drama about a family, and ’50s sci-fi, Cold War adventure — anything you can imagine, we talked about. We talked about noir detective story, we talked about historical dramas, we talked about gothic stories, horror stories. We did supernatural haunting stories, we were all over the place.
Emma and Jonah were both attached to this from the start and serve as EPs, so did they also have any wish lists in mind? Did they come to you guys with requests like, “I really want to try out my British accent,” for example?
Absolutely. I mean, they’re creative, super-smart people, and everyone had things they liked and wanted to try and wanted to change about what we were doing. It was really a collective creative effort to kind of end up where we ended up.
What was the biggest challenge to keeping all these realities straight?
The biggest challenge was at the production level, to have to build so many realities anew, to have to imagine one season of a show that has five realities in it and how much pressure that put on the costume department and hair and makeup and construction and production design and props. That was incredibly taxing and difficult, but we had an amazing crew that kept powering through it, and I think for Jonah and Emma, it was a particular challenge to shift between different identities but still kind of keep the Annie and Owen identity that was under there present in some way.
So how would you describe what the show is overall, given all these layers?
It’s just a show about human connection, and it’s told in a way that is a little bit askew and a little bit different, but it’s just about people connecting with one another and what it means to have communion with other people, to know how healing that can be.
The retro look of the main reality also evokes the early ’80s, but definitely doesn’t take place then — it’s all set in some undefined future. How did you choose what the setting would look like?
Cary and I were both really interested in the idea of making the audience feel a little uncomfortable with the baseline reality, just like Owen and Annie feel disoriented in their own reality. We just loved the idea that there was just something different here that would make the audience sit up and pay attention and question the idea of normal. I think that’s really at the core of the show: What is normal and why is it so important and yet so invisible, that idea of what’s normal? And so the best way to mess with the audience in that way was to have everybody treating the reality as though it was normal but to not let it be quite normal, if that makes sense.
Maniac debuts Friday, Sept. 21, on Netflix.