Some people just have comedy in their bones. One such person is Sam Zvibleman who, along with close friends Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, created the hit Hulu comedy series Pen15, which earned an Emmy nomination for Comedy Series Writing in its first season. The show has been lauded as a hilarious look at the life of two young girls in Junior High School (played by Erskine and Konkle), with season two looking at more complex issues of adolescence than the first.
As well as creating the series, Zvibleman directed the last four episodes of season 1 and all seven episodes of the first half of season 2 (which will be followed by seven more episodes to complete the season at a later date), as well as writing on the show and writing the midseason finale of season 2, episode 7, “Opening Night.” Zvibleman’s assured direction keeps the show full of laughs and also shines a light on some tense moments in growing up.
Zvibleman sat down on Zoom with AwardsWatch to discuss Pen15, creating the show with his best friends and his methods of directing season 2.
Tyler Doster: Firstly, I just want to get started by asking your original involvement in the show, what the first conversations were like when you guys were creating the show.
Sam Zvibleman: It was probably, I want to say seven or eight years ago and I became best friends with Anna [Konkle] and Maya [Erskine]. They were already close from school. What happened was they were making these sort of reality show sketch videos and I would sort of help out on their sets and sort of just move lights and be there to help. Meanwhile, I was making short films and they saw my work at a film festival and we decided just sensibility wise and we just loved each other and were so close, and one day they were over at my place and they are just like, “Do you want to make a TV show with us?” And I was like, “Hell yeah. You guys are just the funniest people I know. Of course.” So we would meet at one of our homes a couple of times a week and try to figure something out. At first, they had sort of been interested in this idea where they were girls who escape a cult. And I was like, “Okay, cool. Cults are interesting. Great. Let’s see this through.” We would be talking about that and inevitably they would bring up stories from when they were young, when they were around 13. And at a certain point, I just remember thinking like. your real stories when you were 13 are magical and wonderful, especially as not being a girl. These stories were just so fascinating. I’m like, “Why can’t we just do that? Forget sort of the cult thing and the artifice of plot and just tell your stories and tell my stories. Everyone has a middle school story.” We all looked at each other like, “Yes. That could be something.” And from there just nonstop, just stories turned into almost like a memoir, an autobiographical thing. That’s sort of the genesis of it.
TD: Had you ever thought about creating a television show before they asked you?
SZ: I was sort of into films and movies and I was writing a bunch of scripts and learning my craft. So I had been writing and directing. Yet then at that time there’s all this new opportunity in television to get stuff made that wouldn’t normally get made. It meant a really low budget, but you got a chance to break through and were sort of a test and luckily we did, we broke through.
TD: That’s awesome. So as a co-creator of the show, were you always going to direct? What were those conversations like? Were you guys just talking and you just decided you wanted to direct or were you going to do that from the get go?
SZ: I was always hoping to direct. A huge passion of mine is actually the filmmaking and the tone and the editing and that was always sort of… ever since I sort of discovered that as a possible career, growing up in St. Louis, there was no notion that there was a writer, director or filmmaker. It was like the actors just showed up and said the word somehow. It might’ve been Jupiter, the idea of making, directing, writing. And when I discovered it by chance in Los Angeles when I was 19 or so, I saw all these great movies for the first time and the way that filmmaking was its own language and grammar, that’s when I fell in love. And Pen15 is this rich playground of totally different tones because when you’re that age you’re feeling everything so deeply. Pain and joy and friendship and heartbreak and some of the surreal stuff. So to me, it was just a dream. It was this just dark canvas where we could be surreal and hilarious and sad and everything in between, which is something that I love showing visually and through audio too.
TD: You directed the final four episodes of the first season. Did you just walk in and say, I’m doing the first half of season two? What happened there?
SZ: Well, it’s a couple of things. Sort of, yeah. I was like, I want to do… I felt after the first season that doing four I just started getting going. I just started hitting a stride and getting better and finding a rhythm. And then you have to stop and then you have to wait for another year to do more. So I was like, “Why don’t I just not break that stride and keep getting better.” And I think that did happen again in the second season where I was like, “You find your groove, you find your communication, you get better and you don’t have to go away for a while.” The other reason it’s more practical. So we had to turn those episodes in, those first seven really fast. The first season, the episodes that I went and directed and edited were just so close to what our original Anna, Maya, and my vision were that there was sort of a trust and because we have to finish them so quickly, I would be able to get it very close to the vision of the three of us so that we wouldn’t need to spend a whole lot of time in the editing room that we didn’t have trying to get it there. So it was practical, but also like, I just wanted to do that and be able to grow and get stronger.
TD: Speaking of it being in two halves this season, was that you guys’ decision? Was that because of COVID? What happened there?
SZ: Hulu ordered all of those episodes at once and we were always planning on shooting them all together. We were going to release them in two parts like this first seven and then a back seven. So what was happening was after I directed the first seven, I went to edit them, those episodes while they continued to film the back seven. This was the plan, however, COVID did shut down those back seven about five days or so from when we were supposed to finish. So there’s still a hanging few days that COVID blocked us from getting to.
TD: So did you direct any of that back half of season two or did you direct all of them too?
SZ: I directed none of those. So I was busy again just editing. So I wasn’t even on set. I’d pop in and say, hello and, “You guys are in great shape. You don’t need me. I’ll go back to the edit room.” So I didn’t direct any of those.
TD: Season two picks up two days after season one ends, which I really enjoyed. I like when shows pick up right whenever they leave off. I feel like it gives a momentum to the show and it keeps going. The second season explores a little bit of the darker sides of growing up. You get more of the jealousies of friendship, you get embarrassment. Anna is going through her parents’ divorce. Did you have a different approach to directing season two than you did for the final four episodes of season one?
SZ: Well, there’s a couple things going on there. Yes, the subject matter was a bit… some of the subjects are more serious and some of the pain is a little bit more in the forefront with the second season. So I sort of had this feeling it would be darker in general. And then also just my approach directing changed pretty extremely, whereas I sort of meticulously shot-listed and story boarded the episodes from the first season because of many, many factors. I didn’t do that at all in season two and had… some of it was pure. The universe didn’t want to go along with any of our plans we had. We lost our locations to fires and then wind. We had to flip the schedules completely and there was some other stuff going on personally for us. So I had to really learn to shoot from the hip and sort of play jazz with figuring out how to film a scene with none of my usual safety net of planning and knowing what I wanted to get. I did also want it to feel a little less broad and more real and a little bit more observant and watching and letting. When the strength of your show is your performances, Anna and Maya, I didn’t want to cut so much. I didn’t want to break. I wanted to keep the camera, letting them behave and create that space as opposed to getting in the way too much. So it was a really scary thing of just trying this. What usually works for me I’m not going to use. I’m going to just sort of figure it out in the moment and try to get better in that way. How do you make something cinematic and also leave room for improvisation for them to walk somewhere where you aren’t ready and still keep those transitions beautiful. It was very difficult. I don’t even know if I would do it that way again. But it was something that I felt that it was a really great opportunity to learn and to grow just craft wise.
TD: We’ve talked about Anna and Maya a little bit. They give some of the most thoughtful performances I’ve seen on TV recently. What’s it like directing them versus writing with them?
SZ: I mean, they’re brilliant and they know their characters so well. So it’s this tremendous luxury of, I don’t have to worry about getting a performance. It’s like, you’re already in good shape. When you know that the performances are going to be good you know that there’s going to be a baseline of the show’s going to be good, these episodes are going to be good. Because you can trust that they’re going to kill it and deliver. I can focus on maybe the storytelling in some other way, some visual way or some other detail. And it’s fun because we know each other so well, we’re a family. So I can say one word and they’ll know exactly what I’m looking for. There’s no need for some sort of long discussion. I can say some of our magic words and it’s cool. Got it. I know. So the wavelength it’s right there. So writing with them, there’s such a shorthand, because we just know each other that well, and we know what we’re after. We know the original vision and sometimes it’s just about reminding each other what we’re trying to do and still be playful and try new things and not be a slave to the script.
TD: You also write for the show. How often do you bring in your own real experiences? We talked about how whenever Maya and Anna were pitching the show to you, where they were talking about their 13-year-old experiences, how often do you draw from your 13-year-old experiences when you’re writing for the show?
SZ: Very often, I mean, there are times when it’s a literal event from my growing up. The character Sam is based on me. It’s as if I’m an actor. So all of his stories really came from me and my life. And sometimes my stories become Anna or Maya’s, but really I feel like it’s stronger. Anna and Maya connect more with material if it’s coming from their life. So I really want to let them lead because they’re going to be able to drop into those moments better. And then maybe I’ll take Sam stories and stuff. But what’s most important is I relate and bring in emotions that are genderless. There’s only so many and so I know how those things feel even if the plot isn’t rips from my life.
TD: At the end of episode five, I want to talk about this scene really specifically. At the end of episode five at the slumber party, Maya calls her mom and has to tell her, “Please come get me.” I think everybody has been through that exact moment before whether you’ve actually called before or whether you’ve been somewhere and you wanted to call, I think everyone’s been through that moment. And I just wanted to ask you, when you’re directing those kinds of scenes that are so universal, does that change your approach to anything at all?
SZ: No. I’m always looking for the truth of the scene no matter what. That scene in particular sort of goes to what my approach was which is observing Anna and Maya. I know that Maya was going to kill that scene, that moment, that conversation. So I could go to my AD and my DP and say, “We only need one shot here. And we also don’t need this shot to be complex. I know that Maya, how great she is and what she’s going to do, put the camera on her face and let her do what she does.” You don’t need a dramatic push in. We don’t need some fancy camera moves to under align the emotion. We don’t need a swell of music. We need only to just be here and we don’t need to cut. And we’re going to trust that she’s going to deliver this performance without the safety of coverage or editing or fireworks. And of course that’s what she does. She goes in and you just get to watch her. It’s simple and she’s wonderful. That kind of simplicity and letting the performances shine when I don’t have to do anything is some of the most proud work I think I did, you know?
TD: I think I noticed that as well in this season. I feel like one of the final shots you see of Anna of this season is just the cameras in front of the car and her dad is talking to her and telling her she’s going to have to decide who she lives with. It just holds there while she has this realization breakdown. It stuck with me more because of that and I’ve been thinking about it since I watched it. And I think it was because of that performance and just how you held onto it and give her the room to breathe instead of cutting all around it.
SZ: That was one of my favorite things to shoot. And again, it sort of came from like, “Look, we don’t have any time to do this.” I was like, “We shouldn’t even be doing the shot budget wise, schedule wise.” And I was like, “Look, it’s going to be one shot. It’s going to be all three of them in the frame. It’s these three lonely souls all going through their own stuff. I’m not going to have to reset this truck and have to set up closeups. I won’t need it. I know how great they are. These are the three best actors I’ve worked with. They’re going to be amazing.” And I could just live there and watch them behave and not have to cut to the line and cut to the reaction and show the other person anything. You just observe and it’s wonderful. It’s different than what most on TV does. That’s one of the most exciting things about working on the show. You just can observe and be still and breathe a little bit and let the great performances be.
TD: You also get some great performances. It’s not even just Maya and Anna, all of the young actors on the show are truly incredible too. Can you tell me a little bit what it’s like to work with them?
SZ: It’s a dream. I absolutely adore working with the young actors. I thought they were even better season two. I’m talking about some of the main kids, whether it’s Sam and Gabe or Becca, Jafeer, Brandt, they’re wonderful. They’re serious actors and they’re fearless. The kid who plays Gabe, Dylan [Gage], we sort of informed him, “You’re based on one of our writers, Gabe who’s gay and you’re struggling with your sexuality.” He was like, “Cool. I’ll do it.” They were cast because they’re magical. There is nothing that I did that brought out any sort of great performance. They are great. And the kid who plays Sam, Taj [Cross],is a very serious actor. And at a certain point, he almost took the character away from me where I would ask what Sam would do. And he knew. He had a better answer than me. Same with the girl, Maura, Ashlee [Grubbs], she’s a brilliant actress who really knew her character and put in the work and had great instincts. And it was like, “Great. You guys are so fun and had such a great energy and you’re so wonderful.” It’s all them. Nothing to do with what I did at all. I absolutely had so much fun with them.
TD: It sounds like all the actors on this show make your job easy.
SZ: Definitely. 100%. I mean, they make me look good. The reason I’m talking here at all is because all these actors are so great. I mean, the parents, the families. I mean, it’s a comedy, but everyone takes it really seriously and brings it and wants to play and wants to dig in. If I do anything, it’s like, “Yes, we’re here to play. We’re here to dig. We’re here to do honorable work and do justice while we’re here and this time.” So it’s really a dream and I’m very lucky.
TD: For my last question, I just wanted to know what you can tell me or give a tease to for the rest of season two.
SZ: (laughs) I’m laughing at a few particular moments that I’ve seen some footage from. If you like Anna and Maya, then you’re going to love what’s next. They’re going to face more and more… They don’t hold back and they want to explore everything worth exploring, even if it’s dark and complicated and problematic. I think it’s going to be even funnier from what I’ve seen and maybe even some shocking stuff.
TD: Well it’s already a great show. Thank you so much for spending some time with me today. I really appreciate it. Congratulations on you guys recent WGA nom. You guys totally deserved it.
SZ: Oh, thank you.
TD: I cannot wait to see the rest of season two and I hope you have a really good day.
SZ: You too. Thank you so much for your time.
The first half of season two of PEN15 is currently available to stream on Hulu. Sam Zvibleman is Emmy eligible in Directing for a Comedy Series, Writing for a Comedy Series and, as a producer, Outstanding Comedy Series.