After helming one of the biggest superhero movies of 2019 in Disney’s Captain Marvel, directors Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck weren’t exactly ready to jump into another project. Then, they read the scripts for what would become Mrs. America. The two immediately recognized the correlation between what was happening in the 70s and the heated political divide of today. They jumped at the opportunity to explore those themes further.
Boden and Fleck joined the series as executive producers on top of directing four of the nine episodes. The directing duo set the done for the series with the first two episodes (“Phyllis” and “Gloria”) and returned later on for the seventh episode (“Bella”) and the series finale (“Reagan”). Through these episodes the two were tasked with guiding the audience through Phyllis Schlafly’s journey into the figure she is notorious for today and how, as Fleck puts it, she learned to exploit fear to obtain power (not unlike figures of today).
Speaking with Awards Daily, Boden and Fleck discussed what it was like exploring Phyllis’s complicated chase for power as well as what it was like working alongside the entire directing team to set the tone for Mrs. America in a world overflowing with combative ideologies.
Awards Daily: Why did you feel right now was the best time to revisit this period of history?
Anna Boden: After our very intense last project, we weren’t really looking for something new to jump into. All we wanted was to take a nice break, but the subject matter of Mrs. America felt extremely resonant. Even though it took place in the past, we felt like we were still having these same conversations that these feminist icons were having. It felt like it both spoke a lot to where we are today and how we got to where we are today.
Ryan Fleck: What Davhi (Waller, creator & co-write) and the writing team did a good job of was bringing out the complexity of both sides of the argument and making them fleshed out and messy. Even though it is made by left wing creators, it doesn’t feel preachy, and it doesn’t feel like it exists to poke fun at Phyllis Schlafly and solely raise up the other side. It gets into the psychology of both ends of the spectrum.
AB: I’ll admit it, I am a feminist and I’m not trying to hide anything. I do have a perspective, but it is important for us as creators to understand all of our characters and where they are coming from. I think that is very relevant to what we are dealing with today. It was also interesting to see how Davhi showed, in a very complex way, how messy it was to have a movement with people from all walks of life who were trying to come together and do something even when there wasn’t always a straight line.
AD: Speaking of exploring both sides of the argument, when the series first premiered there was a lot of debate and controversy online regarding the choice to structure the series around Phyllis Schlafly. Why do you think it was important to do that?
RF: I think there is a certain seductiveness that the first few of episodes have. It doesn’t jump in with the super villain that Phyllis Schlafly becomes; instead, there is an arc to her character. Through that arc we see how she was seduced by power and extreme right-wing forces and that was an interesting trajectory to see unfold.
AB: Part of the fun of doing a series like this is that there is an ability to play with an arc like this. We got to explore the human she was before she became the more notorious image of herself that she hardened into overtime. What made us excited about the pilot is that if you don’t know who she is you might think that the moment in Barry Goldwater’s office where she is asked to take notes for the men even though she is the smartest person in the room will be the moment that turns her into a feminist. That’s not how that happens. We are meeting someone who hasn’t formed her identity yet.
AD: Recently, Gloria Steinem has responded to the show and essentially disagreed with the idea that Schlafly was as influential of a figure as the show makes her out to be. I’m curious what kind of lasting influence you think Schlafly has had? For me, when I was watching the show I saw what felt like the blueprint for a sort of modern conservative/Trumpian playbook that we see rampant today.
AB: The way that she forged her identity felt very familiar. That was eye opening to us because it wasn’t necessarily a connection we would have noticed right away. There was a dramatic irony where the audience knew way more as to where all of this was going than the characters did.
RF: The show gives a nod to the fact that the insurance lobby also played a big hand in defeating the ERA which is something that Gloria Steinem has mentioned over the years. The show acknowledges that, but I think what is more fascinating to watch is how this woman utilizes fear to obtain power in a very Trumpian way.
AB: Something that we often talked about with Davhi is the idea that Phyllis became a footnote of history. She’s not somebody that everyone knows about, and she didn’t become this huge monstrous figure. Is that because she wasn’t important and didn’t achieve anything, or was it because ultimately she was so controversial of a figure, particularly because she was a woman? In the end, she doesn’t get the cabinet post she hoped for. Would her story have been different a) if she were a man and b) if she hadn’t fought so hard to put woman back in a place where she finds herself stuck at the end of the series?
AD: As a team you both directed four of the season’s episodes while the rest of the season was divided among three other directors. I am curious how you all worked together in a collaborative way to maintain a consistency across the season?
RF: That was hugely important to us. When we were crewing up the other directors, we had long discussions about how we wanted the show to look and evolve over time. They brought their own voice to their own episodes. For instance, we tend to shoot Phyllis locked off and never with handheld and that was the result of these collaborative conversations. Vice versa, we often shot the feminists through handheld, but if we wanted to differ from that we were able to have these amazing conversations.
In a lot of our previous projects we just came in and oversaw our episode from beginning to end, but here we were able to see how other directors work and learn from them.
AB: I think it speaks to the power of the project because we were able to hire other directors that we wanted to work with whose work we respected.
AD: In a process like this, how did you guys decide which specific episodes you wanted to work on or felt that your strengths would benefit the most?
AB: We knew we were shooting the first two episodes, and we knew we wanted to wrap the entire story up at the end. We wanted to head up the tone and visual language and work with the actors and eventually come back and to finish that arc.
We also could see the strengths of the rest of our team and how that would lend to the story. For instance, knowing Janicza Bravo and her previous work, we just knew she would be right for episode eight (“Houston”).
RF: Every time we had a table reading, we were always jealous when it ended and wished we were doing that one! Each episode had its own strengths, and it was fun to be able to hand them off and see what the other directors delivered.
AD: The show features an incredible ensemble all representing different unique sides of the conversation. As directors and executive producers, what did you both do to ensure that all of the characters were balanced and that their perspectives were covered equally?
AB: Any one of these women could have had an entire series about them, but that’s just not what this is. Something that we responded so positively to was the unusual structure of giving an episode for each perspective of all of these powerhouse figures. It gave us so many different opportunities to explore a new point of view and their relationship to this movement. It felt like we were able to do that but there is always the desire to have more space and tell more stories.
AD: Was there anyone’s story that surprised you the most or that you particularly enjoyed watching unfold?
RF: I loved all of them but If I had to pick a spinoff series, it would definitely be about Flo Kennedy starring Niecy Nash.
AB: I knew quite a bit about Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and I knew a lot about Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba), although it hurt to have to squeeze so much of her story into one episode. I could also watch Bella (Margo Martindale) for a couple more episodes! I didn’t know anything about Jill Ruckelhaus (Elizabeth Banks) heading into this. I was completely ignorant to the fact that there was this socially liberal, feminist Republican that was so important to the movement. It really opened up my eyes and it was fun to see her episode play out.
AD: As a viewer, Jill Ruckelhaus was someone that I knew nothing about, and in the end, she was probably the character I thought about the most. I had no idea there was space for her in the movement back then and it made me wonder if there is room for someone like her in politics today.
RF: Exactly. I agree, I don’t think someone like her does exist today. It’s fascinating.
Mrs. America is now streaming as an FX on Hulu series.