In anticipation of the finalé of the U.S. version of The Office, here’s a transcript of my interview with Greg Daniels, the developer and producer of the show; some of it already made it into my article on the end of the show and its influence. Daniels is good at talking about his shows, particularly their theoretical underpinnings.
Q: Obviously the original show started with the influence of reality TV, as a parody of docu-soaps, but was there any influence of U.S. reality shows on the style of your show?
Greg Daniels: There definitely was, in a number of different ways.
In between the pilot and the first season, I had to hire a writing staff. When you hire a writing staff, it’s a little bit of a dance: you’re reading their scripts and meeting with them, and you’re trying to interest them in your show also.
So when I met with writers, I had kind of a song and dance prepared about why The Office was such an important show, and how it was the first show to incorporate reality-show techniques, and how multi-camera shows were based on a theatre experience that people had shared more in the past, and this show was based more on the experience of using your own camcorder and taping yourself and your friends, and being aware that the camera was in the room with you.
There was an element of BS in that, but the more I pitched it to different writers, the more I worked it out as sort of a philosophy.
Also, between the pilot and the first season, I hired a new director of photography, Randall Einhorn. Randall and the other camera operator, Matt Sohn, who became our DP in the last five years of the show, the two of them had had all this reality-show experience on Survivor and The Apprentice and stuff like that.
So a lot of times we’d have these debates about “what would a reality show do?” about what’s documentary and what isn’t. A lot of times I would say “you can’t show that angle because the cameraman would have just been standing there, and that wouldn’t be very docu.” And Randall would
say, “yeah, but the camera operators in reality shows are very good at getting out of the way, so they would have gotten out of the way.” We had this expression called “Tofu Hot Dog” for those situations where we [deliberately] underestimated the abilities of reality-show cameramen, because if we estimated them properly, it wouldn’t look docu at all.
The camera is a lot more active than in a strict documentary thing. It sort of has its own style. A lot of times I would not call for specific shots, but rather I would give direction to the cameramen as if they were actors, and say stuff to them like, “hey, you didn’t know this was happening, and you’re suddenly very interested in this,” and they would know to crash in.
Q: Do you try to create moments where the camera seems like a character, where the camera is reacting to something?
Daniels: Yes, and a lot of it is also not anticipating things. Sometimes I would take Randall, tell him “close your eyes,” and spin him around. And then we’d say “action,” so he didn’t know where he was at the top of the scene. Then he could find it in a very natural way.
Q: I also wanted to ask about how it came that every character in the office became a fully fleshed-out character. Was that planned, to have a big community of characters like The Simpsons, or did it sort of develop over the first two seasons?
Daniels: Well, I spent the previous 10 or 12 years in animation, between The Simpsons and King of the Hill. I probably assumed that I would use all these side characters.
Right now we have a gigantic cast. It’s like 19 characters or something, which is very much a treat.
But, yeah, I think I must have mentioned that to Alison Jones, our casting director, at the beginning. She was very good at finding talented improv comedians and persuading them to be in these background roles. The thought was that they would make a name for themselves.
The three accountants had hardly any lines in the pilot, but they used to work out little bits together because they knew each other from L.A. improv. When I walked by, they would say, “hey, we want to show you something,” and they’d put on a little play. That’s why we put them in webisodes first. I think it was about expanding the world. I probably assumed all shows did that, because of the animation work.
Q: It was a big break with that sitcom tradition where the whole office consists of like six people, and you sometimes wind up fixating on that guy who nobody ever talks to.
Daniels: We had a few extras – Creed started as an extra. But eventually we stopped hiring people to sit in the office who you didn’t know. It just seemed weird.
Q: How did it come about that you included so many performer-writers? Was that something you planned out, or did you gradually start incorporating writers into the show?
Daniels: I was trying to stay away from what I thought was a flaw in a lot of half-hour shows, which was a very jokey style where the lines contain their own setups.
And one of the reasons that style develops is that there’s very little communication between the writers and the performers. And so the writers don’t trust the performers, and they tend to give them what they call “actor-proof” lines.
The stuff that I loved the most, like Monty-Python, was written by writer-performers, and I’d come from Saturday Night Live, where there was a writer-performer tradition and a good rapport between the writers and the performers. I thought that was really important.
And I’d had a good experience on King of the Hill with Johnny Hardwick, who was the first hire as both a writer and a performer. So I was trying to re-create something of that. I saw B.J. Novak do standup, and I read his script, and I thought “this guy would be a perfect writer-performer.” He wasn’t appropriate for one of the four main characters, but I figured he could be the new guy. And with Mindy [Kaling] my wife brought me to a performance of Matt and Ben, because she was looking at Mindy for something she was doing. I thought she was great, and hired her to be a writer-performer too. And some of the other ones came about just by accident.
Paul Lieberstein read the part of Toby at the table reading, as writers often do. The network president was like “he’s great, he’s him,” and kept asking for him more and more.
But then we came to season two, and we were in the middle of shooting, I looked around and realized that half the staff was on the set being actors. It got to being a little bit difficult. So I stopped the process.
But also, no disrespect to anybody, the thing that mostly prevents writers from being on the air is just that they are more ordinary-looking. Because it was a documentary, ordinary-looking people were fine to act.
Q: By the way, do you have a cold?
Daniels: No. Do you?
Q: No, I just heard you coughing and wondered if you had a cold.
Daniels: Oh, well, I’m in our offices, and they’re tearing them down. The writers are all gone. We’re down to four rooms of edit bays. They’re painting, or they did something where it’s filled with burnt-smelling dust in the office right now.
Q: Did the success of The 40 Year Old Virgin, in between the first and second seasons, change the way you wrote for the character and the actor?
Daniels: Yeah. There’s something about the experience of seeing a performer as the lead in a movie. You see them in a different light. They’re on camera for so long that other colours of their personalities come out. Even with Jenna Fischer, obviously I’ve been working with her for nine years, but this year she showed me a movie she was in called Giant Mechanical Man, and I was like oh, yeah, and I remembered all these different things about her and what she’s capable of. I feel that way about all of them. Seeing Ed in The Hangover, you think “oh, yeah, he does that too.” So it does help.
Q: How would you describe the acting style of the show and how it differs from the traditional sitcom?
Daniels: It’s very similar to movies. We go in for close-ups, and they do a lot of small things. We try to write it so the frame is around these small things, so they feel more meaningful.
I remember when we started, the promo department was used to cutting promos for Will & Grace, which was a much more presentational show. And they cut promos for The Office that looked like Will & Grace episodes, and they didn’t look funny at all. Finally I worked out that the problem was that the frame was too big, so you couldn’t see any of the little things that were going on. We had to really restrict the frame and blow it up, and suddenly all these little moments were visible again that they had glossed over by going too quickly and putting music on everything.
Q: A lot of people think everything on the show is improvised. Do the writers and actors try to create the feel of people making things up as they go along?
Daniels: I think it’s a complimentary thing when people think everything is improvised, because what they mean is that it doesn’t feel studied and written. Most of it is written, but we use a lot of improvisation as a technique.
When we do a scene, we’ll do the scene as written a few times, then we’ll improvise the scene so all the actors can get a sense of what the beats are emotionally, and then often we’ll go back to the scripted words and they’ll sound much more natural because they’ve had that intervening time to put it in their own words.
At the end of the day, when you look at the cuts, they’re probably about 5 per cent improvised as opposed to on the script. But it took a lot of improvization to get there. There are certain places where improv is appropriate, like at the ends of scenes, where you know what you can swap out.
Q: The British show had the characters’ awareness of the camera as part of the motivation for the way they acted. Is that also true of this show?
Daniels: At all times and all moments I’ve felt an awareness that it was a documentary. Which is weird, because I know that’s not very present for a lot of the audience.
But from the beginning, that’s been part of the motivation for Michael Scott. He was constantly aware that he was being filmed. What it did was it added a whole layer to the performance that made it very interesting. Maybe people weren’t aware of exactly why it was interesting, but they were aware that Steve Carell was balancing off a lot of considerations at any one moment, which made it very fun to watch.
Q: And I guess some characters were defined in part by their relationship with the camera – the most famous example is Jim.
Daniels: He’s a person who is kind of alienated from the other people in his world, and has this feeling of kinship with the viewer as being a reasonable person who can enjoy what he’s experiencing.
Q: You’ve gotten a lot of questions about the challenges of doing the show without Steve Carell, so let me put it in a different way: Is there an example of something new and unexpected you discovered about the show in the last few years, doing the show without him?
Daniels: Well, there’s a tremendous amount of talented people on the show. And I think as the show goes down, we’re going to see like five or six other TV shows that will have Office actors as stars.
So I think in a few years, people will look back and wonder why it was such a big deal [to lose Carell]. But the way the show was written, so many things went straight through Steve. And I do feel the loss of him, because he was such a great character and such an amazingly talented actor. But from the point of view of, could you do scenes without him in it—we routinely had multiple storylines going on and different arrangements of characters, and people were just as entertained when Jim and Pam or Dwight or Andy or Erin were on the screen.
There were a lot of things going on last year. One of them was that we sort of stopped doing arcs, and we tried different things. But I think there were some great episodes in the last two years that didn’t have Steve in them.
I hope I didn’t sound defensive, but I’m trying to say there were a lot of good things. We had an episode this year where Pam and Meredith had a whole storyline where there was a question about who brought lice into the office. And that was a story that might not have had room to breathe in the past. Part of the fun of keeping the show going was giving some of these side characters some room.
Q: What about the decision to create more drama in the Jim and Pam relationship in the final season?
Daniels: I sometimes go on the websites to find out what the fans think… It was a decision not to have a lot of drama in their relationship, because they were soul mates. And especially not to have an affair or anything like that, because it was so romantic.
But people complained that there was nothing going on with them. So this season we tried to very realistically introduce some issues so they could have more drama in their personal lives. Sometimes it would lead to more emotional moments when they were getting back together, or where they were growing apart, but you had more of an emotional storyline for them. But people still complained.
You can’t please everybody. But I think it’s led to some really cool moments. The show has a particular tone, and it’s always had this mix of silly comedy with more poignant moments and realistic stuff. And I feel as long as we’re inside that tone, we’re doing that show. I think, for example, the moment when they had a big fight and she broke down was a very interesting moment.
Now, people can be angry because there’s negative direction in their relationship. I don’t know if I should make this comparison, because it’s not very flattering to the audience, but: I tell stories to my kid, who’s three. And she doesn’t want to hear any stories that have any conflict in them. She wants to hear stories about bunnies having a party. And that’s great, but I’m used to having conflict in the stories or some kind of drama.
And I wouldn’t have expected… well, I think most of the audience actually does not want to have nothing happen in their stories. Conflict that doesn’t lead to anything is just annoying. But I like conflict as a way to later have some reconciliation or meaningful coming-together.
Q: How would you describe the difference between your version and the British version?
Daniels: Well, I loved the British version so much. I feel like we had certain challenges, like keeping the Jim and Pam relationship going.
I think David Brent is like a character study for most of the British show: here’s who this character is, and he’s got a lot of flaws, and here are his flaws. The voice of the show has a great kind of morality to it, criticizing who he is.
One of the main differences was the American style of character comedy. Michael Scott had a bunch of flaws, but he also had good points, and the stories were often his good points overcoming his flaws, or him learning something and growing a little bit. But I also feel that if the British show had gone 200 episodes like us, they would have wound up doing some of the same things.