“The Story Is Not True, But The Feelings Are” TV Writer Liz Feldman On ‘Dead To Me’
Known for her TV writing work on 2 Broke Girls and One Big Happy, Liz Feldman was ready to create her own TV show. She started developing story ideas based on her life experiences and what mattered most. Although death is very much a part of Dead To Me, her TV show is really about grief, loss, forgiveness, and friendship. The TV writer shared her thoughts with Creative Screenwriting Magazine on how Dead To Me was brought to life on our screens.
The provocative title was conceived by one of Feldman’s screenwriter friends while she was developing and pitching early versions of Dead To Me. “It just felt right. I wanted a title that’s easy to get and easy to remember,” said Feldman.
Liz is cognizant of the plethora of female-centric TV shows and was determined not to fall into the tired “empowered women” tropes. “I always strive to be as authentic as possible. I really wanted the women in the show, Jen Harding (Christina Applegate) and Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini) to sound like me and my friends. I wanted it to feel like real women. I wanted to channel my real relationships into Jen and Judy,” added Feldman.
The TV writer pointed out that there aren’t enough opportunities for women to express themselves on TV. It was a real opportunity for female TV writers to write fully fleshed out female characters. That is exactly what Liz Feldman did much to audience and critical applause.
“My goal was to make a show of this moment, but also have a timelessness to it. There’s a pulse of the MeToo movement running through the body of the show… living in a world where everybody knows the truth, but there’s nothing you can do about it. We wanted the show to be contemporary, but not place it too much of this time.”
Fictional But Personal
Feldman massages the concept of balancing her life story with made up TV characters. “The show is not at all autobiographical. None of the story points are real, but all the feelings are,” she mused. “It’s not autobiographical. It’s really personal.”
Liz taps into how the idea for Dead To Me arose. She was in a dark place emotionally. “My cousin who was not much older than me died unexpectedly on my fortieth birthday. I was in grief and also struggling with fertility,” she said. This emotional upheaval energized her writing muse. “Those aspects of both Jen and Judy explored my own pain.” That grief of loss coupled with the sadness and frustration of wanting to have a child was very real to Feldman.
She added levity to the serious subject matter to avoid making it an earnest drama about grief. “We call it a traumedy,” joked Liz. The tone of the TV show was a creative decision rather than strategically planned in the TV writers’ room. “I didn’t set out to create a show that was a comedy, drama, or mystery thriller. It was just a story about two women, the complexity and inherent conflict in them being friends and their love for each other which supersedes logic,” she recalled.
However, the tone had a deeper personal meaning to it. “I wrote from the lens which I look at life. Not everything is funny all the time. Certainly, there are really dark times. For me, I have to cut the tension in my darkest moments and find something to laugh about.” The specific tone was also used to elevate the mystery and suspense elements of the show. “Just when you think things in your life are going one way, they take a sharp turn in the opposite direction.”
It is also a matter of the truth sometimes being stranger than fiction. Adding a comedic flair to the writing paradoxically made the ‘hard to believe’ plot points more ‘believable’ to the audience. “Life can be so many things at once. We focussed on the true [often opposing] feelings of these women in any given moment and riding that. Both women are navigating the traumas they’ve been through.”
Who’s The Protagonist?
Typically, every story has a protagonist, the main character whose point of view directs the story. The characters of Jen and Judy are equally powerful so they may be considered ‘dual protagonists.’ Feldman didn’t approach developing Dead To Me with traditional character structures.
“I don’t think about it like that. I just thought about it as the relationship between two women. At times one of them can be perceived as the protagonist and at other times, the other one can,” she declared. Could this give rise to a new character dynamic of ‘shifting protagonists?’
“The same is true if you look at Jen and Judy each being an antagonist,” continued Feldman.
Liz Feldman is not simply being a screenwriting rebel by rejecting widely accepted modes of storytelling. “Although I studied the hero’s journey, I threw a lot of those rules out and wrote from a place of feeling,” she confessed.
The character arcs are an integral part of Jen and Judy’s lives. It is clear why their stories intersect from a plot perspective, but Feldman chose thematics as the points of character intersection – specifically forgiveness.
This speaks to the complexity and fine texture of the show. “Judy is essentially trying to make amends for something that she didn’t mean to do. The only way to do it was through, and with, Jen... Jen is a very lonely, abandoned person. She desperately needs a loving connection she finds with Judy.”
This explains the duplicity of these intertwined characters which frequently act as a single character unit. “Jen and Judy represent my duality,” said Liz. “One part of me is strong, angry, tired, hard and outspoken. The other part of me is sensitive… an artist, wanting everyone wanting to be okay… and coming from a place of love,” asserted Feldman.
Dead To Me doesn’t forget about building its male characters. Despite claiming less screen time, Steve Wood (James Marsden) is still three dimensional in his own right. “Steve was meant to show you a different side of Judy and what could happen if a good person is in a bad relationship. What can happen if a people-pleasing, loving woman is with a controlling, selfish man.”
“Steve (James Marsden) brings a likeability and humanity to a role that could have easily been detestable.” Since this is ultimately Jen and Judy’s story, Steve and the other male characters are there to serve the female leads.
Dead To Me thrives on a series of reveals, plot twists, and surprises to keep the viewers hooked. It speaks to the ‘bingeability’ of the show that Netflix relies on.
Liz Feldman initially wrote the pilot episode but wrote the rest of the series much later in the development process. The remaining episodes the season stemmed from wanting to tell a story about grief, love, and forgiveness rather than creating sensationalism or shock value. “The plotting was a direct result of wanting to explore those themes. The twists and turns served as entertainment, but they had to come from an organic place. That’s what makes the show exciting and unpredictable.” The writers also realized that every episode needed to end on an intriguing turn to keep viewers engaged.
Not every twist and turn made it to the screen. “We had ideas we didn’t use because they didn’t feel as understandable and motivated. We had to gut check and ask ourselves if something could really happen, and have we supported it through our characters’ wants and needs,” declared Feldman.
TV Writers’ Room
Many TV shows are broken in a TV writers’ room. When Liz Feldman made the decision to pitch Dead To Me to Netflix, she had outlined the entire season prior to meeting with them. “I took the meeting [with Netflix] with a fully realized show.”
“I came into the writers’ room with a tentpole of the key events in the season. By and large, we stuck to the outline. When you add incredibly talented TV writers… people who are really smart, talented, and maybe even more experienced than me,” the show can really blossom, especially in the non-genre-conforming world of Dead To Me.
Sticking to a plan should also enable discovery and exploration to allow the show to reach its potential. There were certain plot points that were generated in the room. “If someone has an idea that’s better than mine, I’ll always take it… Initially, it was not my idea to end the first season in the way it did. When someone pitches a perfect idea in the writers’ room, you can feel a palpable electricity that takes over and you can’t deny it.” Abe Sylvia [a staff writer] suggested the current season finale.
State Of The Industry
Liz Feldman is aware of the constantly shifting tectonic plates in our industry. TV writers who want to break in can misguidedly follow industry trends too closely. “The script that sings the loudest always wins. You want the first five to ten pages of your script to pop… to feel authentic and original. Rather than aiming for low hanging fruit, go deep inside of yourself and ask yourself what is the story that only you can tell but nobody else can.”
“Usually it’s something very personal that comes from a place of feeling. Those are the types of scripts that resonate with buyers. Writing another version of a TV show that already exists isn’t gonna do that. You have to write your show that only exists inside you.“
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