Meet Your Maker: You boss Sera Gamble shares her pop culture inspirations
From the uncomfortable romance of Netflix's You to the subversive fantasy of Syfy's The Magicians, and her experimental tenure on Supernatural, it's always been clear that showrunner Sera Gamble is an inquisitive writer who reads and watches as much as possible and thinks very deeply about storytelling. Ahead of You's third season premiere, we asked Gamble to share her pop culture inspirations and frustrations that have shaped her career.
Very few movies have impacted Gamble like Guillermo del Toro's dark 2006 fantasy. "I remember sitting in the theater and watching that movie happen and I felt like it was a love letter to me. I took it very personally," the writer producer tells EW. "It hit right in the sweet spot of what archetypal fairytale storytelling is to me and I feel like no matter what genre I'm writing in, that's always my home frequency: Those really ancient tropes of storytelling that were invented in order to burrow really deep into the human psyche. That's why there are shout outs to certain fairytales even in the show You, like Bluebeard. Stories like that exist, I think, to help us understand monsters. And by monsters, we mean the crazy s--- inside of us and also the crazy s--- in the world that we don't understand. And there are a lot of ways to dramatize that that are really fun. "
The child of a neuropathologist and therapist, Gamble was essentially primed to fall in love with the late neurologist and Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat author's work. "He has such a fascinating, judgment-free, almost whimsical way of looking at how boundless the human mind is, the little that we really understand about it. His books are as riveting as any fantasy show and they're just about what can happen if your brain is a little bit unusual," says Gamble who admires the level of empathy in his prose. "It just transcends what he's writing about. I feel like that's the gold standard for any kind of writing: Is it amazingly effective at being what it's about, but does it also rise above its subject matter to hit something universal or primal about humans?"
Gamble, who began acting before she transitioned to screenwriting, credits Kaufman, as well as '90s independent film as whole, for piquing her interest in show business. "The movies that he wrote, they opened my mind to the possibilities of what making cinema and, later, television could be because they were so grounded and so fantastical at the same time, because he is so intelligent and pitch perfect at capturing whimsy and its true meaning — which to me is it could be silly or it could be tragic," she says. "The universe is this capricious, giant thing that's out of our control and you can meet your true love at the cafe or a brick can fall on your head. And a lot of his work seems to be about trying to work through that. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a movie that, I think, was just seared into my soul. I just wanted to make something that moved people. I wanted to be a part of something that moved people as deeply as that film moved me."
Poetry is Gamble's "first love as a writer," and she even started writing again during the pandemic as a way to cope with how much life had changed. "Working from home has been quite an adjustment for me. Being a writer is essentially solitary, but being a TV writer is collaborative. I think it's a feature not a glitch that you go into an office every day and you sit in a room full of people and you just talk and eat snacks for eight hours. It's pretty f--ing awesome, actually. And it's not the same on Zoom, so it forced me to ask myself harder questions about what I truly love and what gives me energy to get to the hard parts of my life and of my work. And so, I picked up the poetry again. I've been reading more poetry, I've been writing more poetry and I am reminded that you have to do it just for the love of it. And that if you send it out, most people will not want to publish. I've been taking classes, workshops online which is something I did when I was in college." In fact, Gamble actually submitted some of poems to the Los Angeles Review, but was rejected.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
"I especially love Stephen Mitchell's translation [of this] collection of letters that Rilke wrote to a young man who was essentially writing asking for advice and feedback," says the former Supernatural show Rilke was only about 27, but he was some kind of mystical genius warrior, savant, saint. I don't know what he was, but he had so much wisdom. And I give that book as a gift all the time to people who have nothing to do with poetry because I feel like it's pretty universal and it's really about embracing life for what it is and not being afraid of the hard parts. And, also, not putting too much stock into criticism of your work, not being too eager to have people pillory you in the public square for your work. It's sort of like my Bible. I usually have it in my purse.
Six Feet Under
"The first spec script I ever wrote was Six Feet Under. I think I was getting into the business kind of late in the life of that show. I think it was pretty okay. We got something. [Laughs]
Beyond co-developing and producing The Magicians with Gamble, McNamara is also one of her most influential mentors. In fact, he gave Gamble her first full time staff writing job on the short-lived show Eyes. "I consider him a dear friend now, but he has given me a lot of advice," says Gamble, who also credits her You executive producer as one of her mentors, too. " [McNamara] has never questioned why I would want to talk about something. He has only ever encouraged me to double down on that indefinable instinct. We can say, 'Oh, my God. I really want to write something about dragons because dragons are f---ing awesome.' Or, we can say like, 'I really want to write the story because I had a rough childhood in a similar way.' We have reasons we can say in a sentence, and then we have weird instincts as writes that we could pretend we know why we want to tell story, but we just do. And that can be really tenuous. And, I think that's the source of self doubt for a lot of writers because we're like, 'What if it's silly? What if nobody likes what I like? What if it's too weird? What if it's too slight?' And he's always been good about sensing where the hidden passion is in my work and encouraging me to double down on it. No idea too risky, too bold, too strange, too quirky."
"I met them because they came to a play that I had co-written and they were very, very kind. I asked them to do what, I think, probably 1 billion people have asked of them which is, 'Can I pick your brain and ask you how people get into television?' This is a huge reason, by the way, that I do [writing] Q&As on my Instagram stories and stuff. I feel like what Joey did for me, it was a couple hours of their precious time, but it had a positive impact on me for, literally, decades now. So, the least I can do is do the same. So, they just explained how to write the spec, basically, and that changed my entire life."
On both The Magicians and You, Gamble often asks the audience to consider not only whose perspective the story is told from and what would happen if it shifted to someone whose view point isn't usually at the center. This penchant is the result of coming up in the industry during a time when most shows "defaulted to having a white, cis, heterosexual male protagonist," says Gamble. "Really pushing against the defaults, it's just in my nature."
"It's how I've always felt when I'm watching stuff. I can't tell you how many times I've been most interested in the character who only gets two lines in the scene and I want to then go off and write a whole script about that girl or that boy," she says. "Going back to school [and doing] Hamlet, I was like, 'Why is this play not about Ophelia?' Because I was in acting school and I was playing Ophelia and I was playing Gertrude and I was just like, "I'm having to fill in a lot of blanks." [Watching Reality Bites], I am always like, 'What else is happening in Janeane Garofalo character's life?' I have little notebooks sprinkled around and, sometimes, I have the presence of mind to write down an idea while I'm having it. And, frequently, the idea is just acts from the point of view of somebody's kid or somebody's lover that they drop in act 1 or from the point of view of the henchmen of the villain. So, partly it's a thought exercise. I think it's something that we, as writers, tend to do just to make sure that every character is more well rounded. But obviously, that was an exercise that we took to its limits on The Magicians. We were really calling out those tropes, because that was part of the deal with that show was to comment on the genres that we were in."
You season 3 premieres Friday on Netflix.