Interview: In ‘Love Life,’ creator Sam Boyd finds the moments inside the moments
It’s a daunting task to essentially kick off a whole new network, but that’s what Sam Boyd is about to do, and with his first television show, no less. No pressure, right?
His newest project, Love Life, is a scripted anthology series starring Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), detailing her journey from first love to last love, and how her family, friends and choices both big and small impact the trajectory of that love. Boyd is the creator and co-showrunner of Love Life, which is produced by Lionsgate Television and Feigco Entertainment for HBO Max and kicks off on May 27.
I spoke with Boyd about the creation of his new show, casting the multi-talented Anna Kendrick as the show’s lead and the legendary Lesley Manville as its dulcet-toned narrator, writing female characters and the types of stories that impact him the most.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Berkeley and lived in the Bay area until I was 10, and then kind of bounced around a little bit. Lived in New York for a year and a half, lived in Santa Barbara for a year and a half. And then starting in middle school and then through high school I lived at Santa Monica. Went to Santa Monica High School and then NYU. So back to New York again for a little bit. And then, yeah, that’s maybe a more detailed answer than you were wanting (laughs).
I’m a Bay Area native too, and I lived in Berkeley for a year.
Oh, nice. Where’d you grow up there?
Oh, nice. Yeah. I love Northern California.
It’s pretty nice right now, I can’t complain. Did you have any specific early inspirations to write or make films before heading to New York?
Yeah, for me, I was very lucky to know what I wanted to do from a pretty early age. And so I was like the sort of nerdy movie kid as early as 12 or 13. I started making shorts pretty early on, made my first short when I was 15 and made probably 10 shorts that are all unwatchable and embarrassing now but helped me kind of cut my teeth. And those were all made before I went off to NYU where I continued making short films and so I’ve been pretty singularly focused since I was quite young, I guess. As far as writing goes, always along the way I was watching films and TV shows that inspired me and sort of cobbling this kind of voice together or this way of making things.
Was there anyone in particular when you were younger that you really admired and wanted to follow?
There’s so many films that I love and the stuff that I make is pretty specific. There’s a lot of people that have inspired that directly because they make stuff that’s pretty similar. Then there’s a lot of people I love that maybe would be more surprising, and not only making romantic comedies or something like that. I love the movies of Richard Linklater and Alexander Payne and Sofia Coppola. Movies that that were kind of funny and commercial, but still felt real, the Before series of movies, in particular. On the television side, you know, honestly Freaks and Geeks, which [Love Life] Paul Feig created and, and you know, and then a little more on the ‘pretentious’ side François Truffaut was like a really big one for me in high school and seeing The 400 Blows and the movies that he made after that, following the same character, I think were a big inspiration to me back then. So now, as we made Love Life and follow this character through different parts of her life.
Yeah, I think it’s a good idea to have a balance between the things you like. If only you like romantic comedy or only like Truffaut there’s not much to go on from there.
Definitely. I think also what’s more interesting to me are people kinda playing against the things they’re making. It was funny, even when we were making the show, I basically couldn’t watch any romantic comedies. I was only watching like Tony Scott movies and maybe action movies that I had never watched before because what it so far away from what we were making and it was fun to just watch stuff that was different.
I think that that’s good because I think if you’re only thinking about the kind of things that are like the thing you’re making know, you’ll make something too similar to those things. There’s so many ways to kind of sneak in other influences and I’ve just always loved that. When you hear about Alexander Payne making Election and he talks about Casino being the biggest influence on that movie and you watch it and see it in the way that the movies made. But he had been thinking about Ferris Bueller, it would have been a very different movie.
Absolutely. I think you can adapt tone and styles that don’t normally get associated with a certain type of movie and then you get something really original and cool.
The short of your film, In a Relationship, is really different from the feature. It’s in a mockumentary style. You’ve got a really cool cast, Dakota Johnson and Nicholas Braun, both before they really hit. What inspired you to change the style when you turned it into a feature film?
It’s funny, because when we made that short, it was I think 19 minutes or something like that. And that’s already, you know, conventional wisdom is that too long for a short, and we were kind of trying to jam so much in that the mockumentary device was really helpful as a way to as a way to economically give information and to kind of move through stuff quickly or establish relationships quickly. Then once we had the feature and we were able to live in moments with these characters more and we were able to let the story unfold and let their kind of connections unfold.
There wasn’t as much of a need for that. It was a really fun thing to do in the short, for sure. Being able to have Peter Gallagher be the offscreen voice was amazing. I really loved that but as we made the feature, it just kind of felt like every time I would try to write that into the feature we just didn’t really need it because the story had expanded.
It feels very LA, geographically and the whole OJ documentary thing during that first date feels very Los Angeles.
Right. Thank you.
Conversely, Love Life feels very distinctly like a New York City show.
Thank you. I think at first the sense of place was really important to me. Making the feature in LA was fun because I was able to shoot stuff in my parents’ house, my wife’s aunt and uncle let me shoot their house and I was calling in every favor and trying to tap into what my version of LA is not the version you’ve seen a million times, but just trying to make it personal and try to show places that mean something to me and helps with giving that kind of meaning to the viewer.
What was the path to go from your first feature to a television series?
Jumping from that, which was this labor of love where we were all working for no money and making this thing because we thought it could be cool, to making this show which was so much bigger than me, I’m so proud to have been able to make something on that level where my voice is still in there, it still feels like me. It still feels like the show I wanted to make. You know, to be honest, I wrote it as part of a writing sample. It was, like all the best stuff I’ve ever written, I thought was not going to be anything. Because that’s the thing you think is going to be the thing, always kind of over cooked and never quite as good as the thing you just write for yourself.
So I wrote the pilot on spec and made a lookbook, that laid out a version of the first season and really more than that, the kind of atmosphere of the tone of the show as I had envisioned. I was very lucky to have it come together the way that it did; that we were able to get [Bridesmaids director] Paul Feig, who came on to produce them and then to Anna who was producing when we started on it. And to be able to work with the people at HBO Max who are putting this network together and were supporting the show from the very beginning and kinda loved it and understood what it was. I always just felt very lucky and it’s a jump. It’s a big jump. And it’s one I never anticipated to be honest, it’s kind of beyond my wildest dreams, for sure. But at the end of the day it is fun for me to even think about kind of the similarities between the two, the movie on the show and how they’re similar, how they’re different. Being able in the show to use music that I’ve always loved, that we didn’t have money for in the movie or shooting places that were not just stealing locations. Now we’re shooting at the theater where they performed Hamilton.
TV Review: ‘Love Life’ finds Anna Kendrick at the top of her game
I commented last week that I think this might be my favorite use of Anna Kendrick since Camp, which I just think is such an insane, stellar performance from her. Can you tell me a little bit about casting Darby? Anna was a part of the pitch process for you, correct?
Thank you. Thank you. Right, Anna was the first person we got the script to and we were so lucky that she wanted to do it. I think what’s so amazing about her is something that I just saw over and over and over again on set. As we edited the show, it’s obviously how talented she is, but more specifically just how much. She has unbelievable comedic timing, but she also has so many moments where there’s so much in her face. I feel like these days there’s so many amazing actors but you don’t often see that level of subtlety and poignancy and emotion in someone’s face and so kind of quickly communicated. She’s just such a pro and amazing.
When Paul came on to produce, and Dan Magnante, who works for Paul, and who I worked very closely with as well, they had just made A Simple Favor with Anna the year before. She came up and she wanted to do it and it just made sense. We all went out together and pitched the show and just sort of said, here’s the show. This is it. She was just amazing every step of the way.
One of the best elements of the show is that Darby’s jobs [working her way up through the museum world] are the kind that you’ll see written in a movie or a TV show that feel very foreign. You don’t need a lot of details because the average person is so removed from it. But here they feel very real. Did you have anything in your own background that kind of spoke to that or was it just really good research?
Because it’s the first thing I wrote with pilot, there are so many things that end up in there because they work for the pilot and then when they’re actually breaking the season and you need a real show, you go, ‘Oh, well, I guess I set that up and I didn’t realize, or I set this up and I didn’t realize that.’
With her profession, and specifically the germ of it, was this job of hers in the pilot where she’s giving these museum tours that are sort of irreverently framed around the butts of Greek statues for bachelorette parties. This sort of hip, museum tour thing that actually came from my cousin who did that job and told me what to have Darby say about the statues. And so it was one of those things where I remember deciding to put that in the show and just feeling so lucky because it’s hard, especially in romantic comedies, to come up with the character’s job because there’s just so many of them and there’s so many, you know, architects and people that work in advertising and we’ve just seen so many fake representations of professional worlds in romantic comedies. I think from the beginning, on a number of levels, I was really interested in trying to start with someone’s idea of something and then push past it so that we were kind of doing that with each relationship she was in and also doing that with her love of New York City and just basically things that people come to with preconceived notions. Like, you start dating someone and think you have an idea of them, but then they crack open and it’s so much different. For better or worse, you get to know them and the same goes for New York where people move with dreams and a vision of what that means for them to be in New York or to be in the art world in this case, her profession. And starting with those kinds of dreams that people have, but then settling into the reality, the sort of aftermath of the dream ending, or not ending but having to reckon with the realities of these paths you’ve chosen and these things that are interesting to you.
The season details as she goes through these different relationships over a number of years and friendships and often many writers find a way to insert themselves in stories or ‘write what they know.’ Are you, are you in here somewhere in Love Life in some form?
There’s definitely a lot of me in there, for sure. I think part of why I made Darby a female character and part of why I am really interested in writing female characters in general is I think the kind of things that I write, where I’m trying to get as close to real life as I can or when I know it’s real life, if the character is a man, there’s no separation and basically, the character becomes a surrogate for myself and there’s already a long line of men writing male surrogates for themselves and I didn’t want to be a part of that tradition. I think for me as a writer, it was always more interesting to try to put myself in someone else’s shoes. And so by writing this, creating this female character that I was, it was sort of like, okay, there’s a gap here and I have to try to understand this person and put myself in their shoes. And that made it so that I was able to separate it and not have myself in there, even though there were characteristics of mine that are in Darby for sure, and other characters. So it’s definitely a combination of a sizable amount of invention and imagination for sure. But there’s also quite a bit that is pulled from my life or my friend’s lives or all of our writers that we had in the writer’s room, like our co-showrunner, Bridget Bedard, pulling from our own relationships and pulling from our own histories or just stories we know and trying to kinda mash that all up and do an amalgam that that feels as close to reality as possible.
You also have Lesley Manville doing the voiceover for the show.
Oh my God. I mean, I love her and she’s amazing. How did that come about to have this classically trained British actress to do the voiceover for this very American story?
You know, the narration from the beginning was actually the first idea that I had beyond just the idea for the show. The first stylistic idea I had was this narrator and it was me thinking about, you know, The Royal Tenenbaums and Amélie and Y tu Mamá También and Mike Mills movies where he uses voiceover so well and being able to have a sort of omniscient presence take us through the story, especially as we jumped through time. And also explored things that might be considered mundane, which are just kind of the minutia of being a person that having narrator was a way to kind of carry us all through that, make it feel kind of larger than life and give it a magic that otherwise you’d just be watching a documentary or something like that.
So it was a fun way to kind of heighten it and elevate it. And then as far as Lesley doing it, I’ve been such an incredible fan of hers. When we offered her the part I wrote her a letter about how much I love Phantom Thread, which she was nominated for an Oscar for, but also all Mike Leigh’s movies, which are some of my favorites, like Another Year where she’s just like unbelievable. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie, but her performance in that is just on another level.
She should have been Oscar-nominated for that too!
Yeah! She was just one of my favorite actors and I think from the beginning when we were trying to figure out, okay, who’s this voice and what do they sound like, how do we have it not feel like the sort of classic professorial, grizzled man voice. Because that would feel like mansplaining, you know, or does it feel kind of too arch or fake. So we kind of happened on this mix that Lesley brought to it that’s incredible; this kind of Jane Austen literary quality that she gave it. But then also kind of professorial as we look at each season and each episode as kind of a case study or part of the case study. She was able to bring this literary flare and sort of magical sweep to the whole thing.
I think what she does is help the audience navigate the change in the tones from the comedy to the drama in a way that feels natural and she is kind of our guide in that.
Thank you. It was fun to use that device as a way to also bring us inside of moments, to be able to, for example, I’ll keep some details aside so it’s not spoil it, but in episode six when she [Darby] goes to a play with one of her love interests, there’s this whole moment that’s just about their knees touching and that’s a feeling that people know and a moment that happens all the time, things like that. Ordinarily, you could just have a shot of their knees touching and you could show their faces and obviously they’re both amazing actors, but you can maybe get a little bit of what it feels like to be in that moment and being able to blow that tiny thing up into this sort of epic inflection point in the relationship. And with this situation that Darby finds herself in, it was amazing to have the narrator to be able to do that.
The plan for Love Life is that it’s an anthology and future seasons will be a different cast and a different focus. Do you have an outline for those stories?
Yeah, from the beginning we’ve kind of kicked around ideas and for me, even when I just came up with the idea for the show in the first place, it was always about being able to reset. I’m really excited for people to see season one and Darby’s story is something I’m really proud of. But I also think on a larger level and what this show, and hopefully we’ll make more of them, what it’s really about is being able to look at one person’s life at then kind of just cross the street and pick up with another person and show what their life is like and to be able to kind of run the gamut of human experience and what it’s like to try to love people or feel close to someone; just all the smallest parts of that and bigger things and wanting it to feel the same from season to season as far as the style and the familiarity, the comfort that people would having seeing it so that we’re not totally restarting, but that we’re picking up with an entirely new character and seeing what they’ve been through.
Love Life premieres May 27 exclusively on HBO Max with Boyd writing and directing the first two episodes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.