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Interview: David Zuckerman

David Zuckerman is the showrunner for the wildly popular FX series Wilfred. Mr. Zuckerman has been in the industry for over twenty years. His credits include the long running animated comedies Family Guy, King of the Hill and American Dad.

Jason: How did you get your start in the industry?

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

David Zuckerman: I had always wanted to be a writer. I think I started writing my first spec pilot when I was nine. It was pretty bad. Then I wrote a movie of the week when I was sixteen for a creative writing class in high school at Monte Vista High. I ended up re-writing it a few years later and received a Samuel L. Goldwyn Screenwriting Award when I was attending UCSB. I transferred to UCLA and graduated with a degree in Motion Picture/Television. I didn’t really know anybody in the industry so I just started working for an agency. A few years late I became an executive at Lorimar, and then moved to. I knew by that time I did not want to be an executive, I was terrible at it and it wasn’t satisfying. So I polished up my spec script and was lucky enough to get my first full-time gig on Fresh Prince of Bel Air. That was in 1993, and I’ve been lucky enough to keep working since then.

J: We have interviewed many writers that tell us the pains and joys of scriptwriting. What is the writing process like for you?

DZ: I like having written more than I like actually writing. It’s a very lonely process; I really love writers’ rooms. I love working in a room with a bunch of other funny people, crafting stories and re-writing scripts. It depends on the project though, some shows are more fun to write for than others, some shows take a little more work and a little more patience, but my process is to constantly re-write as I go. I wish I could get a first draft out and go back and revise, but unfortunately I keep revising so by the time my first draft is done, it’s actually pretty close to my final draft.

J: You’ve written on both animated series and live action shows. Do you prefer one to the other?

DZ: There is an immediacy to live action that’s great. Especially if you’re on an audience show. By the end of the week, its shot, done and in the can. On a show like Wilfred our production schedule is longer because we shoot several episodes at a time, more like a film schedule. In animation the development of a script can take up to a month and a half. From script completion to the time the show gets on the air it’s almost a full year. That’s a long time to wait. The good thing about that is a lot of times the jokes are fresh when you watch them because you wrote them a year ago and you don’t really remember them, so you get an honest read on it. The other thing about animation is you get exactly what you want. You can get the actors to record the lines many different times and in many different ways. The animators can animate a gag so that it works perfectly. In live-action, you’re a little bit more at the mercy of the actors and their interpretations. The laws of physics and gravity apply in live-action and not in animation. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages

J: You are showrunning the hit FX show Wilfred currently completing its first season. What attracted you to the material?

Jason Gann as Wilfred

DZ: It’s pretty different. I loved the Australian version, but I was pretty sure it would be too absurd and surreal to attract a broad enough audience here in the States. What I was intrigued by was the first scene in the pilot of the Australian version, when the character of Adam meets Wilfred, and the discomfort and uneasiness that Adam felt. The filmmakers didn’t let the audience off the hook by cutting to another angle or showing you what everybody else was seeing; the viewer was in Adam’s shoes. I put myself in that situation and realized how terrifying it would be, because there are really only two explanations; either the girl is insane or Adam is. So that was the jumping off point; what if we did the show entirely from one character’s point of view, so that the audience is experiencing Wilfred and everything else in the same way, and what might be the reasons for that and what kind of guy would need to see something like Wilfred? And then came the whole notion of Ryan being in a dark and depressed place, and Wilfred maybe helping him out of it, or maybe leading him further into it. At this point it’s not really clear what Wilfred’s intentions are. The U.S. show is more a reimagining than a remake. I believe the two versions stand side by side, both very good and very different

J: Due to the chemistry of the cast and subject matter many fans feel that Wilfred is loosely scripted and largely ad-libbed. Is this correct?

DZ: That’s interesting, I had the same reaction to the Australian show and Jason (Gann) told me that it was very tightly scripted. Ours is entirely scripted because it’s very densely plotted and we have to keep track of all the threads and make sure everything gets set up correctly. Jason is in the writer’s room when we are preparing the script, I think he does a lot of his improvising then, but once we get down to the stage it’s tightly scripted. If there’s any deviation it’s only done with writer approval, otherwise we might lose an important beat. There’s almost no improvisation.

J: You’ve got an excellent cast on the show. How did Elijah Wood’s casting come about?

Jason Gann & Elijah Wood

DZ: When Elijah (Wood) came in and read with Jason (Gann) and we got to see them together for the first time, it was pretty clear that they fed on each other and were listening to each other. My concern about the character of Ryan was that I needed somebody who wouldn’t be bullied by him (Wilfred) and could really stand up to him. When Elijah came in he read a scene from the pilot, and he really held his ground against Jason, who is a little taller than Elijah and, when he’s in full Wilfred costume and in character, can be a little intimidating. That’s when we knew they could go toe to toe as equals. Elijah is an amazing actor, that was never in question, but the chemistry between these two characters was obviously paramount.

J: Jason Gann, who played Wilfred in the Australian version, reprises his role here. Was there ever talk of replacing him with an American actor?

DZ: When I met with the producers for the project it was presented to me as “We want Jason to stay on board,” and I thought, “great.” It was very hard for me to imagine someone else in the role. Before I came on the project they were throwing around names like Zach Galifianakis and people like that who probably would have been amazing, but Jason is Wilfred. It would be very hard for me to imagine the show or that character played by another actor. Jason is extraordinary and also I think the idea that he is an unknown to American audiences is helpful in making the character a little more mysterious and dangerous. If it was the lovable Zach Galifianakis or someone like that, I think some of the threat and danger of the character wouldn’t be there.

J: Wilfred has an off-beat dreamlike quality form the writing to the music and lighting. Was that something you strived for creatively?

DZ: Exactly, the goal was always to do something surreal and dreamlike. There’s an extraordinary amount of attention to detail on the show, from the writing, to the direction by Randall Einhorn and Victor Nelli, and our DP Brad Lipson. The way the show is lit and shot on Canon 5D’s and 7D’s, which are basically still cameras, we get a look with such a shallow depth of field that it really evokes Ryan’s state of mind. The level of the performances, particularly Jason and Elijah’s, are carefully calibrated. There are a lot of clues and small easter eggs that we drop into each episode. I read a lot of the online chatter and some people will catch things, but there’s a lot of stuff that people don’t catch. I’m curious to see once the DVDs come out, if on repeated viewing, people spot things they maybe missed the first time. The tone is very calculated; it’s amazing how well we’ve achieved what I’d hoped for because a million things could have gone wrong. Especially on our budget and schedule, we have a quarter of the budget that most sitcoms have and we shoot everything in less than four days per episode, it’s amazing this all came together and it’s because everyone works so extraordinarily hard.

J: During the first season many famous faces popped up in various roles. How were you able to get such high-profile actors to appear on a relatively unknown show?

Ethan Suplee & Elijah Wood

DZ: It was a combination of factors. It doesn’t hurt to have Elijah Wood in your show because it classes up the joint a little bit, and gave us some credibility and legitimacy. It’s an easy show to dismiss because, well, we have a guy in a dog suit, but Elijah made people take us a little more seriously. The first big guest star we got to sign on was Ethan Suplee, who did the pilot because he just loved the material. We got Ed Helms because of the relationship he had with Randall Einhorn, who had directed him in The Office. Rashida Jones did the show because she and Elijah are friends. Once the show started getting some buzz, we didn’t really have that much trouble getting people. We were shocked, surprised and delighted by the people that were willing to come and play with us, and some for not even very big parts. Eric Stolz only had like three lines, but it was a cool scene and he just liked the show so much that he was up for it. We’ve been very fortunate and I hope to continue that next season. We have great casting directors.

J: It was recently announced Wilfred will be renewed for a second season. What are some things fans can expect in the coming episodes?

DZ: We have an overall vision for the show, but in terms of particulars, we haven’t broken any stories yet. We’re putting it all together, it’s very likely that Ryan will get a job this year and obviously we have some stuff to resolve from the season finale. Once we take care of that business, Ryan will continue to progress in his recovery and he’ll also experience some setbacks

J: Can you tell us about your experience working with the FX network?

DZ: It’s a dream; they are the most supportive, smartest and enthusiastic executives I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. It’s really been a pleasurable experience. We pitched it to a few different places, but FX got it immediately and they were the place we really wanted to sell it. The other places wanted to change the tone or cut to another angle and show the dog from other people’s perspectives. FX really understood what we wanted to do right from the beginning and has been incredibly supportive and excited about the show. I think it would be very difficult to go back to network television or even to another cable network. I love that network and I’m proud to be on it, I feel that they are a very high quality shop.