“Santa Clarita Diet” Creator Victor Fresco Talks Tone, Comedy, & Zombie Wives
Santa Clarita Diet brought smiling realtor couple Sheila (Drew Barrymore) and Joel (Timothy Olyphant) Hammond together on the screen again. But they are no ordinary husband and wife realtor team. They have challenges and added new meaning to the matrimonial vow “till death do us part.” Although the items on the diet may not cater to everyone’s palate or dietary restrictions, it is refreshing to see a couple married for two decades so wildly in love. The showrunner of Santa Clarita Diet, Victor Fresco, spoke to Creative Screenwriting Magazine on how the show found its way into our living rooms and into our hearts.
“I think comedy writers might come to an idea a little differently than drama writers. I personally come to an idea from a place of what I think might be funny,” chuckled screenwriter Victor Fresco. “The idea of an otherwise normal person having fun-dead symptoms and eating people seemed like a funny idea with a different hook on it. How would it impact the family?”
“You know what happens in a relationship when one person changes. You can either adapt or not. This was a couple that is deeply in love. So it came from a place of what I thought would be funny. I just started to dig a little deeper into what the show was going to be about and what the emotion of the show is,” added Fresco.
Writing Santa Clarita Diet
Fresco pondered who might watch the show amid a sea of TV shows about real estate.
“I think in streaming you just want somebody to want to watch your show. Not every show is going to cross into every quadrant, but you want enough people to watch. I think they felt like this will be a show that has some romance, some horror, so we’ll probably find some audience somewhere.”
“Once we attached Drew Barrymore, who’s very popular particularly with women, things kind of unfolded in terms of a target demographic. But, it wasn’t originally designed for any particular demographic,” continued Fresco.
As a proud San Fernando Valley native, Fresco wanted to make both the setting and the people as much a character as possible. Similar to Desperate Housewives, for example, the suburbs seem peaceful, but there’s so much more going on beneath the surface, and even more behind closed doors. He discovered this hidden perspective writing for TV shows like Alf, Better Off Ted, My Name is Earl, and Andy Richter Controls the Universe.
“Santa Clarita has been around for 40 years, but 90 percent of its growth has been in the last 20 years, so it has that idyllic suburban look to it,” he declared. “I thought it would be a good juxtaposition between the horrific things taking place in the Hammond house and the aesthetically pleasant suburb.”
In addition to the setting, Fresco also felt the couple’s career should have somewhat of a “forced happiness” built in, so he made them a husband-and-wife realtor team. “Realtors have to have an attitude of positivity and they’re cheerful all the time. They’re always selling and they never want anyone to panic. I like a world where our couple has to project happiness when they’re out in the world.”
The TV writer also wanted his fans to really like and relate to the characters. In the 90s, on shows like Friends, people liked the characters, but now many characters on television aren’t likable or overly interesting. “They’re funny, but I don’t like them. I’ll be drawn in at first for the comedy but then, who do I like, to whom do I root for, who do I care about? If I don’t care about anybody, then I don’t watch it anymore. I feel like a lot of comedy is going in that direction,” confessed Fresco.
“I write things I would watch and touch me personally. I wanted to write a relationship that I would root for. I cast these two people who were wonderful, likable, loving and funny.” But, as Fresco warned, too much likability creates a lack of tension in the TV series. Then, he decided Santa Clarita Diet was going to be about a strong couple that fought the tensions of the outside world as a unified team.
“We realized we had this really sweet relationship, but I didn’t know what a love story it would turn into until we started working with the actors to see how it grew. The more it turned into that, the more fans responded to it, and the more we wrote to that. I think it speaks at a time where there’s more anger in the world. I think people inherently are drawn to sweetness because we’re not we’re wired to be angry or hateful all the time.”
Through this message, Victor Fresco also writes in a distinct sweet tone that he has crafted over his years as a TV writer. “I write a certain tone and I can’t get out of it. I’ve tried, but it always feels like it doesn’t quite line up with my sensibility. Netflix left me alone to do what I wanted to do. Much to their credit, because many times studios do not leave writers alone to do what they want to do.”
Developing A Writing Voice
The TV writer described how he found his voice and writing tone.
Ironically, part of this tone came from Fresco’s first writing experience on the TV series Alf. “I like bigger ideas and Alf was a really new, big idea of an alien. I wonder if had I started my career on another show would I have a different voice?”
“Mad About You was a very romantic TV show. I thought Paul [Reiser] and Helen [Hunt] were brilliant and there were some great TV writers that came through there.”
“It is the hardest thing to explain a tone in a pitch meeting or to somebody else. I think that’s where some TV shows can go off the rails by not being consistent in their tone, especially a new TV comedy where you can violate a character or a reality, by stretching a joke too far. If it’s something funny you’ll do it. You think, ‘I guess we just made this character dumber than we thought, but it was a really funny joke.’ Then you push that character a little more and suddenly your tone has shifted.”
This type of knowledge comes from years of experience. The screenwriter’s agent told him it was best to say “No” often in the beginning. His agent thought it was best to push Fresco’s ability as a writer before he took on his first TV pilot. Then, when a pilot did get picked up, he would have the experience to bring it home.
Rather than simply pitch the juxtaposing sweet and horrific tone of Santa Clarita Diet, Fresco wrote the TV pilot as a spec script. “When you pitch something, everyone has a slightly different view of what it’s going to be. When they read the script, it doesn’t quite line up with what everyone thought it was going to be. By writing this spec, everyone saw what the tone was, what the world was, and they knew what they were buying.”
By taking command of the tone, Fresco was able to show the big idea he imagined, but also ground it in the execution. There are other zombie comedies, but this series is grounded in the dynamics of the family. “She’s a dead realtor in the suburbs,” added Fresco. We see that from both Joel’s perspective and then from Sheila’s perspective. She’s following her impulses, which can be detrimental to the family.
“You have to live in a world and in a relationship where you can’t have what you want all the time. I feel like early on that was sort of a metaphor for marriage. Empowerment is great, but that means we should be listened to and we should have what we want when we want it. But on the other hand, if you’re going to love and be loved, you have to also recognize that your needs are not going to be met all the time.”
To create this dynamic, Victor teamed up with about a dozen other TV writers to build outlines and create plot points for the TV series. He prefers a smaller writers’ room to reign in the voice or tone of the show. “My voice gets taken out a little bit because I become an editor as well as the showrunner. I’m the back-up. I’ll give notes on the outline, or in the room. Then the writer will go off and write a draft.”
“In a larger TV room, I just listen to everyone speaking, and I’m more of an editor. I like having a little more space in a room that I can actually do some thinking.” When production gets going, however, he is on set as much as possible to make sure the tone makes it all the way to the final cut. The creator views this as a way to “protect” what’s happening from the page to the final product. “You can only be in two places at once,” joked the creator, who borrowed the joke from his line producer.
Netflix & Neilson Ratings
As for Netflix, there is a great deal of viewership data, but the platform doesn’t seem to overly stress how they use data to sway creators. “They’re only telling you their demographic,” added the writer. “They can also come to you and say, this character didn’t test well. But they don’t share that much data. We grew up on Nielsen ratings, but there are surprises, but we don’t know how Netflix judges the information they have.”
“When editing starts up (and every showrunner goes through this), you want to be in the TV writers’ room, you want to be on stage and you want to be editing. So wherever you are, you feel like something’s going on somewhere else that you should work. Comedy does everything drama does, except that it also has to be funny. It’s like Ginger Rogers does everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards.”
Beyond the dance, Fresco believes too much long-term planning can actually be a hindrance to television shows. Plans often go out the window at a table read, especially for a TV comedy. Then, new areas have a “domino effect” to create spontaneous plot points. “As you start to change one storyline, suddenly your next two storylines and your next two episodes aren’t working anymore, so you can’t plan too far in advance.”
“There are cliffhangers are the end of each episode. In season three of Santa Clarita Diet, we tried to have some finality in case we didn’t come back and that Joel and Sheila can be together forever, but we also had set up a storyline that needed to a be paid off.”
Die-hard fans of the show still wanted more. At that point, it was unclear if Netflix would greenlight a fourth season or something like a movie to wrap up the storyline. Every season had to be written on the proviso that it could be the last.
As for new TV writers, the creator believes there’s all the opportunity in the world. “I think there are 400 TV shows now. I tell people, it depends on if you’re just starting out, people don’t think the first spec you write is going to get you a job. I probably wrote six or seven specs and it took me eight years from deciding to be a writer to getting my first job, which is a long time.”
“Be patient and hone your craft. Your first job is your hardest job. And then your second job is your second hardest job. And once you get in, then hopefully you can be off and running. When I was coming up, we all wrote specs for existing shows. And that was really valuable because it made you copy the voice of somebody else’s voice. And your job is a new writer on a show is exactly that.”
Writing specs for TV shows like Seinfeld, at the time, meant that everyone knows the voices of the characters because everyone had at least seen an episode of Seinfeld. “I don’t care how well you can write a pilot because that’s not what we’re doing. When I hire a writer, I’m not hiring him or her to write a pilot. I’m hiring a writer to duplicate the voice that I have on my show as best as possible and to bring their own flair to it, but I still want someone who can write what I’m doing.”
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