Many shows can be called an emotional roller coaster, but in its Season 2 finale, “Unbreakable Kimmy
Schmidt” put its characters on a literal one, with our titular heroine finally confronting her absentee mom (Lisa Kudrow
) about her abduction. But it wasn’t simply a case of sticking the two actresses on a ride and watching the magic happen — due to star Ellie Kemper
’s real-life pregnancy, the tumultuous scene was predominantly achieved on a soundstage.
When the producers first had the idea of shooting the scene on a real roller coaster (before learning about Kemper’s pregnancy), the production team had to go to the Universal Studios theme park in Florida to investigate the logistics. “[Director] Michael Engler, and Jerry Kupfer our line producer, and John Inwood [the DP], went down to do some pre-prep and look at this roller coaster; it’s a serious piece of business,” says exec producer Robert Carlock
. “They said they all did it, because at that time we thought the actresses were going to do it … they said they couldn’t function for little while after.”
As impressive as it sounded on paper, Carlock admits that in the end, “it’s definitely for the best that we didn’t try to do it practically, because there just would’ve been no way to do multiple takes.” Instead, the team simply put cameras on the coaster to film background plates, and found a way to mimic the look of the ride using practical effects including a gimbal, fans and lighting, paired with judicious editing, and visual effects rendered by a company called The Molecule.
“It isn’t often that we’re doing such a combination of effects and really complicated physical stuff,” says Carlock. “I’m not a fan of green screen, but it was just necessary in this case. I feel like this is the best I’ve seen it work.” Below, he tells Variety how the team pulled it off.
John Inwood, director of photography
“John Inwood was constantly moving the lights so the light direction of the pretend sun would sell the idea of movement,” Carlock reveals. “And there are structural elements that he had — shadows passing over them to mimic that feeling of these other structural elements of the roller coaster going over them.”
Michael Engler, director
The actresses might’ve escaped having to act on a real coaster, but Carlock notes that it was still quite a ride, which made Engler’s job as director even more challenging. “Even in that rig, jostling [Kemper and Kudrow] around, it’s a lot to ask, ‘Can we do one more [take]?’ because it is very physical,” Carlock says. “Like, ‘Oh, we got all the technical stuff right that last time, but boy, that one little moment — I think you need to start hotter.’ You have to give acting notes. Fortunately, they were game for everything, but it was easy to lose track of the fact that, ‘Oh, this scene is crucial’ in the season and in the series, and we can’t just be worried about the lighting being right. But Engler had such a good plan, he had it so locked down that there was plenty of room for that.”
Ken Eluto, editor, and Dara Schnapper, post-production producer
“When Dara and Ken and the people in our post department put it together, the green screen just worked,” Carlock says. “We had a couple of big Ritter fans going in their faces and all of that had to be coordinated, so that the wind wasn’t going in two different directions and the sun wasn’t in the wrong place and the fake pieces of track that were going overhead matched up and we weren’t cutting to a piece of track that clearly had only blue sky above it … it was so complicated, at least for a comedy show. It felt kind of like, ‘OK, this is the right thing to be doing because it’s just working on a technical level.’”
The scene isn’t just a culmination of the season’s storyline, but the culmination of Kimmy’s journey as a character over the past two years, as she finally lets out all the repressed rage and pain she’s been bottling up since she was kidnapped.
“We made an early decision that we wanted her family to be less than functional in a way that could connect to what happened with her abduction — that she wasn’t a kid who had a lot of supervision,” Carlock says of Season 1. “But we knew we just didn’t have enough room in the first 13 to deal with the emotional weight of all of that, and the story weight of all of it.”
The shortcut came in the form of Kimmy’s stepfather and stepsister, who Kimmy had been unaware of until they crashed into her life near the end of the first season. They served to tell the audience “something is up, and why didn’t we meet her mother?” Carlock notes. “There were a couple little jokes here and there that hinted at what her childhood was like, including one where she mentions that she knows exactly what time she was born… because the time of her birth was in her mother’s lawsuit against the roller coaster, the amusement park. It goes by in passing but was also intended to give a sense that this is a reckless mom; this is perhaps not the most attentive mother, going on a roller coaster when she’s about to give birth.”
The decision to use that roller coaster detail as a character trait didn’t come about until the writers were breaking the story for Season 2, knowing that they wanted to introduce Kimmy’s mom. “We wanted the arc of the year to be Kimmy continuing to deal with the stuff that makes her her and, despite her desire to move forward, continuing to have to deal with the past,” Carlock explains. “We said, ‘okay, what do we know? What have we established?’ And someone mentioned the roller coaster joke … Once we unwrapped the idea of the roller coaster, the more it fit exactly with what we were trying to tell and the idea of, ‘Why haven’t we seen her? Because she’s someone who invented the term Coasterhead because she chases roller coasters all over the world.’
“Not only is that convenient in terms of the practical nature of, ‘oh, she’s not around and she wasn’t around for Kimmy,’ but it started to lend itself to certain thematic [elements] of a person who wasn’t happy with her life and wanted those thrills,” Carlock notes. “There’s that wonderful line at the end when her mom lets the mask drop for just a second, and says the reason she loves roller coasters is because it’s the only place where you can scream and people don’t look at you weird. I think that’s definitely about her missing daughter, but even before that, to us, it was about a woman who was frustrated and unhappy and, she admits, didn’t want to be a mom.”
That detail provided the narrative catalyst for the finale confrontation between Kimmy and her mother, Carlock says. “We just started to fall in love with, yeah, this big fight, but [also the idea] of, ‘oh, you’re trapped on a roller coaster, and once it starts to pull away, it can’t stop.’ If this is a woman who avoids these kinds of conversations, it was the perfect place for Kimmy to trap her and make her have that conversation. Tina wrote the first draft of those scenes herself, and they were great.”
Seasons 1 and 2 of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” are available to stream on Netflix.