The Good Place creator Mike Schur on hiding the show's biggest secret from the cast
On Jan. 19, 2017, everything that you knew went to hell.
The season 1 finale of The Good Place shorted out viewers' braingrids by revealing that Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her equally dead friends weren't chilling in eternal paradise, but actually the fiery opposite. (Damn, indeed!) Viewers weren't the only ones Shell-stropped by the twist; so were the stars of NBC's crafty afterlife comedy (minus Bell and Ted Danson, who had been brought into the fold when they signed on to the series). Near the end of filming season 1, creator Mike Schur finally revealed the game-changing secret to a line of shocked faces, and Bell filmed the meeting, because, as she explained to EW, "I wanted to see everyone's unique ability to digest this betrayal." Here, Schur reflects on the afterlife-altering twist heard 'round the TV world — and explains his rationale for keeping one of pop culture's best secrets from the people who were making it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you brought Kristen and Ted on board, you let them in on the huge twist, but not the rest of the cast. With a show about ethics, how did you decide to tell Kristen and Ted, but not the others?
MIKE SCHUR: There were many dimensions to it. The first being, I felt strongly that Ted and Kristen had a right to know, because they were the caliber of actor who, in order to get them to sign on, I wanted them to know the whole picture. I thought it would be sort of uncool to Ted Danson to say, "I want you to play an angel," and then four months later go, "Just kidding. You're a devil." I really wanted them to have the whole picture of what the show was, and where it was going, and what the point of it was, so I pitched both of them the entire season.
For the rest of the actors, I really struggled with it. In certain ways, I thought, "Well, they also have a right to know, creatively speaking," but then I thought, "Well, if I were an actor and my job was to sell properly that I believed I was in the Good Place and there was going to be a moment at the end of the year where I found out on camera, "Oh no, I've been fooled!," I personally would not want to know." If I were Ted, I would want to know the whole picture. If I were Kristen, same thing, because she was going to be the one who figured it out. If I were one of the other people, I think I would've not wanted to know, because it might've screwed up my performance. They gave the most honest and real performance they could give, simply because they didn't know.
There's a bunch of philosophical writing about the ethics of secret keeping. The very general rule of thumb is that it's okay to keep a secret. Chidi actually says this to Eleanor in the [season 2] episode where she is asking about the nature of secret keeping: "It's okay to keep a secret as long as keeping that secret doesn't do anybody any harm. And also theoretically, by telling someone that secret, you might be actually doing them more harm than they're suffering from not knowing the secret." That was the rule of thumb that I went by in the first season.
It proved to be involuntary method acting, in a way. How small was the circle of people who knew the secret? You talked with [Lost co-creator] Damon Lindelof when you were developing the show. The writers obviously had to know, but how about producers and down the line? Friends and family?
I pitched the writers the entire season right at the beginning, because in order to pull it off, we had to have incredible consistency in terms of what we could show and what we couldn't show. It made no sense not to tell the writers, because if I hadn't, the writers probably would've pitched a story line where Michael was off doing something alone somewhere with one of the other people in the neighborhood, not understanding that if one of the four main cast members weren't around, that instead of doing whatever they were going to pitch he was doing, he would be giggling maniacally and cackling, and enjoying the fact that he was screwing with everybody.
The main producers knew. I didn't tell any of the directors, except for the in-house directors that we had. Most of the directors who came for a week didn't know. Most of the department heads also did not know, because I just wanted to keep the circle closed. The head of costumes department, props department, most of those people didn't know. It really was limited to writers, a couple key producers, a couple in-house directors. As far as other people, I pitched the show to Damon before I pitched it to NBC. I told my wife [J.J. Philbin], because she's a writer, and she was very good about helping me work through the various problems that came up. I had a couple other close friends that I told. I would say the total number of people on Earth who knew was probably fewer than 20.
What about people at the network?
I told the studio [Universal Television] fairly early, and they were really into it and really supportive. I told the network a little bit later. I like both of those groups of people a lot, and the fact that the studio responded positively made me feel confident. I held off on telling the network just because it's very hard to control who knows what once you've told a group of executives. The studio was a smaller crew, and what happens at the network is, memos get written and people have discussions with bigger groups, because there are other shows that are going on, and they start to say things like, "Oh, that episode of that other show might pair well if we could make the schedule work with this episode, because something big is going to happen in this episode." It's not through any fault of their own; it's just the way that you have to run a network. Word gets out to a lot more people.
I told them somewhere around the middle of the season. They were a little worried, because it's always worrisome when someone says, "Hey, by the way, I'm completely upending the show that you thought you were watching," but they also didn't push back at all. They were like, "Okay, great. That sounds good. Good luck." Once they were totally on board — which happened very quickly — I felt like, "Okay, I'm doing this." I was always going to do it, but I felt more confident because those two groups of people, who weren't on the internal creative team, seemed to really like the idea, and that helped me a lot.
Kristen took the secret-keeping a little more seriously than Ted. I know that when he was telling his friends about the show before it aired, and they would say, "Oh, it sounds like The Office in heaven," he would get defensive and be like, "No, no, no. You don't understand. Here's the crazy twist." Did you know that Ted had loose lips and was telling everyone?
That's exactly what happened. He would pitch the show to people and say, "I play the architect of heaven." People go, "Yeah, that sounds fine." He would go, "No, you don't understand!" Then, he would just spill the beans to literally everyone. I believe he told me that he had told Larry David. He told, like, a million people. Let me revise. When I say that the total number of people who knew was fewer than 20, I'm excluding Ted and his social circle, which is probably another thousand people. Kristen took it very seriously. I believe she didn't even tell Dax [Shepard, her husband]. I'm fairly sure that she didn't tell Dax and that he was actually surprised when it happened on air that he got all the way to the finale without knowing, which is kind of amazing.
Were there moments where the cast was close to figuring it out? Did you ever almost slip or did someone else around you?
I don't know if anybody else did, but I never almost slipped. I know from talking to cast that they had a sense that there was something coming toward the end of the year. That's from the portentous stuff that we wrote into each episode, as well Loose Lips Danson maybe saying things, hinting at stuff something that was coming down the pike or whatever. Darcy [Carden, a.k.a. Janet] told me that she and Jameela [Jamil, a.k.a. Tahani] and Will [Jackson Harper, a.k.a. Chidi] and Manny [Jacinto, a.k.a. Jason] would have conversations during shooting days: "What do you think is going to happen?"
I believe they never got anywhere close to the truth. I remember having one conversation with Kristen in the middle of the year where I said, "Do you think that we're good in terms of the secret being kept?" and she was pretty confident that we were. She said that she'd been privy to some conversations with the cast where they were excitedly guessing what was going to happen, but the guesses weren't close. The guesses were some kind of new people joining the neighborhood or some disruptive thing, but they never were in the ballpark of actually getting close to what we were doing.
Kristen decided to film the moment that you told them so that she could see "everyone's unique ability to digest this betrayal."
What was it like to finally reveal the twist that you had been holding onto for so long?
It was super fun. I get nervous before a read-through that has a big story move in it. It's not even nervous, it's a little adrenaline-y, like if it's an episode of a show where someone is going to propose marriage to someone else. My hands shake a little bit and my voice when I'm reading stage directions quivers a little bit and I have to calm myself down. And I had that feeling when I was pitching the story to them, which I wasn't expecting but it definitely happened.
I was very conscious of having to be deliberate and slow and steady when I was pitching, when I was winding up to what was going to happen. This is a good sign. That means this is a big deal. It was very fun. It was also very fun to see their reactions. I was terrified, terrified that people in the world were going to figure it out, guess it or start talking about it or put it online or whatever that they had these theories, and I gauged our chance at pulling it off based on their [reactions]…. Their reactions will tell me whether or not we're going to pull it off. If the people who have been living with the characters every day are genuinely surprised at this move, that's a pretty good indication that the audience will be as well. So when they all were very surprised — and we got that reaction that you see in that video — I was like, "Okay. This is going to work."
The real fun of it was the aftermath when I grilled them. You don't see this in the video, but we did a 20-minute debrief where I was like, "Did any part of you know this was coming? Do you feel it's unearned? Are there any things you've done in your performances that you feel would contradict this or make this seem unlikely or impossible?" None of them said that they [knew] this was coming, which made me feel really confident about pulling it off.
Whose reaction amused you the most when you look back, whether it's at the video or in that debriefing after?
Will makes the funniest face. It's a very Chidi face of being truly shocked by something. [Laughs]. But the funniest part of it was, Manny told me afterward that when we called the meeting that he somehow thought that they were getting fired. When I was like, "Hey. I need to talk to you guys about the end of the year," somehow he got it into his head that what I was going to say was, "Look, guys, this isn't working out for all four of you." And they were going to get fired. [Laughs.] I don't know how in the world that got into his head. So, I remember his reaction in the debrief being more like relief — almost like, "Oh. Okay. You don't have a problem with our performances. You're just telling us what the actual plot is."
Did you always know it was going to be a meeting where you told them? How much thought did you put into the actual reveal to the cast?
We put a lot of thought into it. I wanted to tell them directly. I wanted to do it all four of them at the same time, partly because it felt like this is a team, and I want the whole team to be caught up to speed in exactly the same way in exactly the same moment. That was the end parentheses to the parentheses of this ethical dilemma that I had had about whether to tell them. I felt like, "Well, now that we've gotten to the point where I need to tell them, I need to tell them all at the same time in exactly the same way, so it really has the sense of, we're all a team. We're rowing in the same boat."
There was a constant debate, because as much as I still believed it was the right decision not to tell them, it was weighing on me that there was this group of people who were the most important people in the show — the actual actors playing these actual characters — and they were still in the dark about this gigantic thing. There was a lot of sturm und drung internally about what moment is right, when to do it, how to do it. And then Kristen, in classic Kristen fashion, was like, "This is going to be hilarious. I have to film this." [Laughs.] All of the angst that I had, and she was like, "Their faces are going to be funny when I tell them, so I'm going to just take a video of it."
Wasn't it weird to them that Kristen was off-camera, filming them, as you were revealing the story?
Yeah, although they must have figured it out as I was saying, "I just want to tell you what's going to happen the rest of the year." If Manny was worried somehow I was going to fire them — which is so silly — I hope he would have felt better about Kristen being on my side of the table, because it would be really weird and cruel to fire someone when another cast member is sitting next to you taking a video of it.
The way that the scene actually played out in the finale of season 1 is I think really wonderful in terms of the way that it's presented. There's music while [Eleanor] is talking and then after she springs the surprise, we just drop all the sound out, and slowly, she turns around and is talking to the four of them. And Janet. And then she slowly turns around and faces Michael and there's zero sound. You can hear her feet creaking on the floor of her house, and it's just really weird and eerie and kind of… strange. I remember reading about when the Coen brothers were making No Country for Old Men — they did this thing whenever Javier Bardem was approaching a door when there was horror-movie tension, they did the opposite of what people normally do, which is they dropped out all the sound. There's no music, there's no spooky "uh-oh" music, it's all just silence, and you can hear tiny little foot creaks. And I was like, "All right, I'm going to steal from the Coen brothers." [Laughs]
It gives this real sense of weird eeriness, and that was also present at the moment that we told them. It felt weird and ominous, and they were confused and scared. We were sitting in the room where we eat lunch on the Universal lot, and I'll remember it for the rest of my life. It was just this very odd, interesting, loaded moment of this creative payoff of this weird thing, and it was really cool. That private moment that Kristen made public by filming it [laughs] had the exact same feeling that I wanted to try to capture when we actually did it for the cameras. The vibe that I had personally during that meeting I also had when we were making the actual episode, which I think is kind of cool.
You want to achieve a balance so the revelation is totally shocking but still also tracks logically and made sense. Did you initially have more clues laid into the series, but you pulled back a few? That's got to be the trickiest thing, especially given that you were terrified that people would figure it out.
Yes. That was obviously the reason the writers had to know, because we were constantly laying in things. We would go, "Ahh! We need one more clue here…" We knew once we revealed it at the end, we wanted to go back and show things from previous episodes, either in clips or narrated, slow-mo, whatever, that really pinpointed why everyone was being tortured the whole time. When we were breaking an episode, we would go, "We haven't totally explained why Chidi deserves to be in the Bad Place. So let's try to lay in something in this episode that really explains that." And out of that would come an episode where Chidi would have some flashbacks and he would see that he was driving everybody in his life miserable because he was so indecisive.
It was a constant calibration where we had to lay in enough breadcrumbs that the revelation would make sense, but not so many that it would tip our hand. For example, there was a thing that was in the pilot that I took out in the edit bay. It's when Michael introduces Tahani and Jason, who at the time is Jianyu, to Eleanor and Chidi and he says, "These are your next-door neighbors." Chidi's got a terrible stomach ache and he's miserable because he's keeping this secret. And there was a line that we gave to Michael where he said, "Boy, I'll tell you the thought of the four of you living next door to each other for all of eternity just fills me with so much joy."
I was like, "I'm sure I'm paranoid, I'm sure this won't tip anybody off," but it was a little on the nose that he was so full of glee about these four specifically being all together, so I just cut it. It was sad because that's the kind of thing that probably would have flown by; no one would have paid attention to it. Because at the point, nine minutes into the premiere, he is just happy about everything. I think it would have been fine and it would have been cool at the end to do a flashback to that moment, to basically say to the audience, "Look, we told you what was happening. We told you eight minutes into the pilot that he was torturing these four people specifically and he was getting a lot of pleasure from torturing them." I couldn't get out of my head that there might be a problem, so I was just like, "Let's err on the side of caution; there will be plenty more clues." There were things like that over the course of a season — most of them never got shot, most of them would be things we would write in scripts and go, "Ehhh, that's a little close to revealing something," and we would just rewrite them or get rid of them.
Between us, are you keeping another huge secret from the cast right now?
No, just you.
I decided in season 2 that there would be no more subterfuge. That it was more important to me to have all of the cast know equally at the same moment exactly what was going to happen to all of their characters over the course of the year. We have this tradition where at the beginning of every season, the cast would all come in… and I walk them through the entire season and let them know everything that's going to happen. In season 2, they all knew that the end of this season was going to be, they're going back to Earth, and that the end of season 3 was going to be, they're rebooting the experiment with four new people. And they know all know everything that's going to happen in season 4. We might end up changing a bunch of stuff in the writing or rewriting, but I didn't see the same requirement to keep anything from them as I did in season 1. So, now the cast all knows everything that's going to happen. Although, hilariously, I told Kristen about season 4 and a bunch of stuff about the future of the show, and then she mostly forgot it.