Grace and Frankie‘s Marta Kauffman directs her own creation for the first time in Season 3. She talks to Awards Daily TV about the show and the experience.
In its third season, Grace and Frankie was simply wonderful. Like a fine wine, it ages delightfully. Exploring ageism is a rare treat for viewers. Watching Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as the title characters explore ageism is a gift from the gods, or in this case, Marta Kauffman. This season, the title pair launched a line of vibrators and obtained a loan, despite their ages, to launch their business.
The season was strong and stellar as we learned more about the children. Additionally, Robert and Sol dealt with their issues including a fight for equality. Needless to say, Grace and Frankie‘s writing delivered from Season 1 and strengthened with each episode. The actors are top-notch, and I caught up with Marta Kauffman to discuss the show, which is back to work on its fourth season. We also discussed the experience of stepping behind the camera for the first time as director.
What a ride Grace and Frankie has been for three seasons!
How does the show feel for you after three seasons? Have you settled into the groove now?
Yes. Absolutely. You start a show, and you don’t know what you have. I love Netflix, and I love going straight into production. The downside of that is you don’t get to learn from mistakes because you’re just doing 13 episodes. That became something that forced us to learn as we went. The show begins to tell you what it is and you have to pay attention.
You talked about the Netflix model. You’re doing this show that doesn’t have an audience. Do you ever worry about jokes landing correctly with this model? How is that like for you?
When you’re doing single camera, you’re not writing to ask the question, How is the audience going to respond? You have to write stuff that you feel good about and stuff that you find funny, and it might not be, but the good news is either it will be funny to someone or I’m not going to have to hear whether they laugh or not. [Laughs]
We have a room of incredibly smart and funny writers, and they’ll let us know if they don’t think it’s funny. There will be jokes that fail that one of us feels passionate about and finds it funny, and we’ll fix it in the editing room.
Some jokes are funny when the writers read it, and when an actor gets hold of it, they can’t breathe life into it for whatever reason or they’re not comfortable with it, and we’ll have to change it. That has more to do with when the actor can’t make something work, it means something is wrong and we have to fix it.
Secondly, when you do multi-camera, having an audience absolutely helps. I have to say there were nights when the audience wasn’t responding. It was an election night. We shot a show, and it was cold and rainy out. Ann Richards just lost in Texas, and things were not going well. The audience was miserable, just miserable. They just didn’t laugh at anything.
David [Crane] and I just had to look at each and say, “You know what, we believe in this and we’re not going to change everything because they’re not laughing.” So, it’s not always the perfect gage whether or not you have an audience.
The first show I did didn’t have an audience, so I learned to do comedy in a single camera way.
What surprised you about the show this season?
Three seasons have launched, and we’re working on the fourth season. I think what surprised me the most was it had such a positive reaction. When you’re in the middle of something, you never know. You do work that you hope is good, and you keep trying to make better. But, you don’t know. This season for us as writers is challenging for a number of reasons because it was a challenging year. We didn’t get to enjoy it as much along the way.
The challenges had to do with having a shorter pre-production time, then we had a bump in the road when things had to change because June [Diane Raphael] was pregnant and how are we going to do the story we wanted to do. That happens. It was a nerve-wracking ride. I didn’t know until it was launched how people were going to react to it until we started getting our critic responses. It was an incredible relief to me that it came out as well as I hoped it would.
There are so many highlights about this season. I enjoyed seeing the arc of the children’s stories. Was that important for you to highlight this season?
We try hard to do that and create arcs for the characters and having them move forward with their own little stories. Robert cast in 1776 was something I loved.
Will we be seeing more of that in the coming season?
He is doing another musical in Season 4.
What’s it like in the writer’s room when you’re coming up with these ideas?
The writer’s room is either the most fun place to be or the room where you just wish somebody would nail your eyes shut. We are with an extraordinarily smart, funny group of people. We laugh a lot, but we are very productive. There are some days when it gets hard and it feels like there is silence for hours, but it’s probably twelve seconds and people get frustrated with the story. There are those days that are just difficult, never among the writers, but it’s just that the story is difficult and that’s what you’re fighting with. The story, not with each other.
This season included your direction of an episode. What was that like for you because you also wrote that episode?
It was the most fun I’ve ever had working. It was truly the most fun, and I loved it. I feel like it made perfect sense that this would be what I do. I’ve been a creative producer from the beginning on Friends. As a result, I’m always the one hopping from the writer’s room to checking the costume board to having a meeting with the location guy. I’m up in edit, listening to the music. I’m already doing all of it, so it made perfect sense. I love working with actors. I know what the story is, and I know how to tell a story. James L. Brooks and I had lunch a few years ago, and we were talking about why writers make good directors. We may not always be able to say which lens to use, but we know the story that needs to be told.
“The Art Show” was a great episode. What were some of those highlights for you getting behind the camera in that episode?
We were in that art gallery for days, and it was a difficult place to shoot. My line producer made me a bet that I would not be able to finish by 9:30pm. The bet was $10 and an old-fashioned. Whoever lost would have to give the other one $10 and a drink. We’re shooting the show, and my associate director is counting down 49-48-47, and I made it with ten seconds to spare.
That was great fun. I felt so happy. It’s such a happy set, and I loved working with these actors because by then I had worked with them for two seasons. I understood their process. I understood what note to give whom. Jane [Fonda] likes this kind of note. Lily [Tomlin] likes this kind of note. June likes this note and so on. I feel like I have that piece of it because I’ve been watching it for two years and giving notes for two years, and that’s my favorite part working with the actors.
And what a terrific cast you have.
It’s so ridiculous, right?
What I loved about the show is you have this great friendship, this realness of women, and they’re not in their 20’s. They’re real women, and it’s something we lacked on TV. Women of this age, being friends, going through life.
My company is very female oriented. I was looking around what was on TV and you’re right, there’s not a lot for women of a certain age, but in addition to that, I’m a woman. I feel those are the stories I know how to tell. I’m 60-years-old. I am beginning to deal with some of the issues they’re dealing with. I’m an older woman and am easily dismissed even by sales people. I’m aware of the sense of women being dismissed in public, but they’re dismissed as sexual beings and they’re dismissed as being intimate beings. So, it was really really important that this be about the reality of aging for women and the reality of how do you start your life over at that point which I’m doing as well.
That’s the show to go to because there’s nothing out there.
There is nothing out there. This show is aspirational, and it holds a lot of hope. You can start your life at any time. As far as I’m concerned, that’s another thing that makes it different. They’re not dark and mean people. The show isn’t dark and cold. The TV viewing audience was ready for something hopeful.
You gave it to us and we have another season to look forward to. How do you plan the season?
It’s crazy. We watch the previous season over the course of two days and try to learn from last year and figure out where we left off and what is built into where we left off. We spend weeks talking about the arcs of the characters. Where do we want the season to end for Grace and Frankie? What is Grace’s journey to that? What is Frankie’s journey to that? Where do we want Robert and Sol to end? Where are they starting, and where do we want them to end?
We do that for each of the characters, and we have a board that has one through thirteen. They all have a column, and we do it for the characters and the couples. We try to understand what we are headed for or at least figure out the arcs of the characters this season and what are they dealing with this season that takes us to a new place.
I have to say I loved the vibrator poster promoting this season.
Wasn’t that hilarious?
It was brilliant.
That killed me.
I loved that it was real. It wasn’t about getting away with that.
It’s not about getting away with stuff, you’re right. It’s about what are the stories we want to tell, and we are not going to shy away from them.
Grace and Frankie streams now on Netflix.