I Am Not Okay With This producers on telling a superhero origin story that isn't Marvel or DC
'I want it to feel like what happens if you’re born with superpowers and Professor X never shows up,' showrunner Jonathan Entwistle tells EW.
Going through high school is hard enough. Add in a recently deceased father who took his own life, discovering your sexuality via crushing on your best friend, and oh yeah, emerging superpowers you can't control: It's no surprise that the lead of Netflix's new dark comedy I Am Not Okay With This is… totally not okay with this.
Starring Sophia Lillis (It, Sharp Objects) as the supernaturally struggling Sydney, the seven-episode series (streaming now) hails from Jonathan Entwistle, the director and executive producer of The End of the F***ing World, and Shawn Levy, executive producer of Stranger Things. Like those series, I Am Not Okay combines coming-of-age struggles, paranormal elements, and dark humor. (And like End of the F***ing World, it's based on a Charles Forsman graphic novel.)
"I want it to feel like what happens if you’re born with superpowers and Professor X never shows up to teach you how to use them, or Hagrid never arrives to take you to Hogwarts," Entwistle tells EW. "What does it mean if you have to go to school in Pittsburgh and keep these things secret? I wanted to honor [Forsman's] version of a superhero story with this idea of the first season being an origin story to one of Chuck Forsman’s superheroes, rather than Marvel or DC."
Below, EW speaks with Entwistle and Levy about bringing a new kind of superhero origin story to the small screen, what to expect from the quick first season, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Coming off The End of the F***ing World, how did you land on I Am Not Okay With This as your next big project?
JONATHAN ENTWISTLE: Having worked with Chuck so closely for years trying to get End made, [I knew] there was this one particular book he’d been slowly writing over the period whilst we were making End. There was just something that felt like a nice segue between the two shows. I was looking for something that I could experiment with the idea of doing an American high school show. That was something I’d always wanted to do, it was something that I grew up with, it was an aesthetic I really wanted to explore. I wanted to take something with superpowers in the End universe and see how much we could turn that into a high school show.
Like Stranger Things, this is another dark, supernatural Netflix series about a teen girl. Were you looking for a similar series to tackle?
SHAWN LEVY: Weirdly, it is a completely organic coincidence. As a result of Stranger Things, I entered this larger deal at Netflix. The mandate for my deal with Netflix is: Produce anything that gets you excited the way Stranger Things did. This came about literally because we watched End of the F***ing World in its opening weekend on Netflix. We were instantly obsessed with whomever directed that unique, fantastic show. We called Entwistle into my company and said, "Whatever you want to do next, we want to do with you. Do you have any ideas?" And he literally said, "Funny you should ask because I do have this one idea." It was the graphic novel for I Am Not Okay With This. We entered this out of pure fanhood for Jonathan Entwistle, and we amazingly ended up with a show that is a descendant, in some ways, of Stranger Things, but not by design, by pure coincidence.
Having worked so closely with Forsman on End, what was your relationship like with him as you adapted I Am Not Okay With This?
ENTWISTLE: We have a great shorthand now after doing End, and I always run things by him. I always want to know what are the most important elements of it for Chuck, so I can make sure there is a piece of him still in the show. Chuck is originally from Pittsburgh, and that went some way in us choosing to set it there in that world. And also I knew there were elements that were close to him in the story about the military side of the father and the conversations the mom has with Sydney about the father in the military. Those things were close to Chuck’s heart. So there were conversations throughout about what did he think was key and what would work.
There are some major plot changes from the graphic novel. Can you talk about how you’re diverging from the source material?
ENTWISTLE: The comic book tone is very dark, so something I wasn’t super-excited about is dealing with teen suicide stories. It’s been done and it’s not the most exciting territory to be making entertainment in. We were immediately looking at ways to take it in a different direction that would equally allow us to deal with depression, which is an interesting element to the story. That was the key element in changing it. And I wanted to make it more of an ensemble show that was influenced by the shows I grew up with: Dawson’s Creek, My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks. I wanted to be able to imbue that into Chuck’s cool imagery.
Aside from the graphic novel, what inspirations did you use for the series?
ENTWISTLE: A lot of my work I like to think feels like it takes place in 1980-2002. Everything I indulged in in my childhood I want to be in there, ranging from Fargo and Twin Peaks all the way through to Freaks and Geeks and Pretty in Pink and Dawson’s Creek and all these high school things that were such a huge influence on me in the U.K. That’s what I wanted to bring in there — I grew up on 10 Things I Hate About You, the almost Shakespearean quality of high school shows.
LEVY: When Jonathan and I pitched this show to Netflix, we pitched — I remember this very vividly — Lady Bird meets X-Men. We wanted a grounded, quirky, idiosyncratic character coming-of-age story that happened to have some superpowers. Lady Bird, some John Hughes work, everything ranging from X-Men to every other superhero with powers. These were the models. But the biggest inspiration is Jonathan Entwistle’s instincts. Everything from lighting to tone to wardrobe. It’s not retro, it’s timeless. It’s a faux nostalgia for a story set today. It’s a mash-up of period piece aesthetic in the clothes, production design, camera work, that is just odd in the best possible way and very much an Entwistle signature, which I realize is an obnoxious statement for a guy that’s only on his second series, but I think he’s that notable an emerging talent.
Both The End of the F***ing World and I Am Not Okay With This have such a specific tone, where they feel vintage and timeless while still taking place in our modern world. Why have you made that one of your signature qualities as a showrunner?
ENTWISTLE: With the rise of technology in the world, stories can still be told without the use of technology. Before technology existed, you had to write scenes where people did things. Now, technically they can just open a laptop or look at a tablet or look at a cell phone screen to find out information that detectives used to do in the greatest movies ever. That’s in some ways the death of writing, when there’s nothing for people to do. I try and limit technology, and what that means is I want the show to be watched in 15 years time and for nobody to be able to place it. Technology dates incredibly quickly. A timeless quality means that people in the future will be able to watch it and not see it as dated.
The first season is pretty short: only seven episodes, about 30 minutes each. Why did you decide to make it more of a slow burn in such limited time?
ENTWISTLE: Netflix gives a platform to create feature-length television. It’s essentially a 2-hour, 30-minute story arc broken into episodes. It suits things that excite me. The show is essentially slow-burn to a degree, but if you compare it to hourlong television, we are only into two-and-a-half episodes of an hourlong series. In a strange way, I look at each season as a feature length, and the whole story is told across multiple seasons, almost as if they’re like miniature movies, to experiment with the Netflix platform.
How many seasons do you envision you'd need to tell this story perfectly?
ENTWISTLE: As many as they’re excited to give me and people keep watching. However many we can tell the story in.
LEVY: Entwistle did something really unique with End of the F***ing World where he did not do too many episodes and he kept the episodes extremely short. It made that series just supremely bingeable. He and we wanted the same format for I Am Not Okay With This. It just feels so digestible, so hooky, and Jonathan doesn’t believe in fatty storytelling. He believes in relentless and hooky storytelling, and for this particular show, this short format felt very right.
Why is now the right time for audiences to meet this character?
LEVY: As Sydney struggles to find her way in the world, it echoes every teenager, but it also echoes all of us, all ages, right now. It’s a really f—ed-up time, all of us are not okay with this, and the restlessness and the discontent and the struggle to find pockets of happiness that defines Sydney defines all of us in these times.