Yellowjackets creators preview the survival drama: 'We're going to get really, really dark'
Being a teen is hard enough without having to figure out how to survive in the remote wilderness. And yet, that's reality for the high school girls soccer team at the center of Yellowjackets, who end up stranded after their plane crashes. The new Showtime drama (premiering Sunday, Nov. 14) follows the girls throughout their survival journey and also catches up with them 25 years later, when a mysterious postcard brings them back together.
Starring Melanie Lynskey, Christina Ricci, Tawny Cypress, and Juliette Lewis as four of the adult Yellowjackets, the series wastes no time in showing the dark side of survival and its effects. EW spoke with creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson about what to expect from the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did this idea come from?
ASHLEY LYLE: We keep joking that we need to, as writers, invent some kind of incredibly compelling narrative for where the idea came from. It is unfortunately a very simple answer, which is just that — so Bart and I are married to each other, which came as an adorable surprise to apparently half our cast. [Laughs]
BART NICKERSON: Like, pretty late in production.
LYLE: We were shooting episode 3 and I was walking with Christina Ricci, and she turned to me at one point and she said, "So now that the restrictions have lifted, is your husband coming to visit?" And I said, "Christina, my husband is Bart." And she just went, "What?!" We like to blame our overwhelming sexual chemistry. [Laughs]
NICKERSON: Yeah, we really haven't asked too many follow-up questions because I think we both have paranoid fantasies about why people don't think we're together. Which one of us seems untenable? We really don't want to know.
LYLE: Yeah, which one of us makes no sense in this equation? We're leaving that a mystery. So anyway, back to the actual question: Bart and I are married, so we spend an obscene amount of time together and we're always just throwing ideas at each other. I would say that 80 percent of the time the other one just goes, "Huh." And then we move on with our lives. But 20 percent are sticky in that way where a week later the other person goes, "If we did that, we could have this kind of character." And they snowball. This was one of those. It started with the very basic idea of a bunch of teenage girls from a sports team whose plane crashes. We both have a long historical fascination with both the story of the Uruguayan team in Alive and the Donner party.
What was the appeal for you all of breaking this into two timelines and really getting to tell two different stories?
NICKERSON: The move into two timelines allowed us to almost set up a narrative laboratory where we could really study and deconstruct a lot of the governing principles that shape interpersonal dynamics, and then also explore trauma as a lens for continued negotiation of the world. We were very captivated by: How does trauma not only shape your view of the past, but how does it also shape the way that you continue to move forward in the world?
LYLE: The idea of survival out in the wilderness and experiencing this terribly traumatic event of a plane crash is so specific, but we felt like by doing the two timelines it allowed us to also do something really universal, in that everybody has experienced some form of trauma. You don't have to be in a plane crash to have experienced trauma. We are both in our 40s now, and what we realized is that getting to that age is a little bit of a reckoning. Everything that you thought your life was going to be, you start to question. And so to our minds, you don't need to have been through a plane crash to be experiencing that. So this was a really extreme version of telling something that we think almost everybody that age goes through, which is: What is my life now? How have the experiences I went through when I was younger shaped who I am now? And do I like who I am now? That's at the heart of the story that we wanted to tell, and it just so happened that this was a premise that allowed us to do it in a really heightened way.
What were the discussions you all had around how dark you were wanting to go? Because this series doesn't hold back, starting with a pretty brutal opening scene.
LYLE: The beauty of our writers' room was that everyone was really game. We had already written and shot the pilot so we had discussions early on, we were like, "We want to go really dark with this." What's interesting is that Bart and I, as viewers, the one kind of show that I will tend to tune out from is something that is really dark but also unrelentingly grim. My favorite show of all time is The Sopranos, and it's such an insanely dark show but it has so much humor to it, and I think that not only allows you to revel in the darkness without it affecting your soul, but it's more authentic to how humans behave. There's always a little bit of humor. Our No. 1 goal is to entertain, and so very early on we were like, "We're going to get really, really dark."
NICKERSON: Yeah. One of the big ambitions for the show is we have a lot of narrative ideas, these things that we're trying to talk about, but we really didn't want to do it in an intellectual way. Being dark, being heightened, being fun, what we're really trying to do is suck the audience in and give them a felt experience of some of these complex things.
Let's talk casting: How did this cast come together? Did you write with anyone in mind?
NICKERSON: We didn't write with anyone in mind. We try not to do that, but we'll talk about people as the character evolves. We did it the old-fashioned way, we were in casting for what felt like 35 years and saw every actor in Los Angeles, it felt like. And then obviously people like Melanie Lynskey aren't going to audition, that's more about their availability and us laying out the story for them.
LYLE: We didn't write the pilot with anybody in mind, although it is funny looking back because when we were pitching this, we created a yearbook. As part of our visual aids we had the original high school yearbook photos from some actors, and Juliette was actually in our pitch, which is funny. Melanie was in very early, and that was an absolute dream come true. And then with the younger cast, we got very fortunate. We saw so many girls. It was interesting trying to cast the adults and the younger versions of those characters because we really just wanted the essence of the character to be the same. We decided pretty early on we weren't going to get overly focused on a physical match. But it kind of worked out. Sophie [Nélisse] cracks me because she plays the younger version of Shauna and she's actually blond and blue-eyed, but it turns out that hair dye and colored contacts can go a long way.
Do you have a certain season plan for this story, or are you seeing where it takes you?
NICKERSON: I think both. For a very long time when we would pitch on projects, one of the things that we always heard as soon as the pitch was over was like, "Well, that was very thorough." [Laughs] We tend to be pretty elaborate with the way we shape ideas, and so we definitely are prone to, by personality, coming up with these detailed plans. But then we try to be very flexible and be prepared to completely abandon them and allow them to change course.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Twenty-five years after a plane crash left a high school girls soccer team lost in the Canadian wilderness, the secrets left in the mountains threaten to expose the surviving women.