Deep inside a brick-walled soundstage on a chilly March day in Queens, Marti Noxon is starting a revolution.
The veteran showrunner-director is hip-deep in filming the finale of her new AMC drama “Dietland,” one of two high-profile series Noxon is shepherding this year, along with HBO’s Amy Adams-starrer “Sharp Objects.”
Based on the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, “Dietland” is a satirical call to arms, as inventive and out there as it is provocative and irreverent. It turns on issues of female empowerment, body-image concerns, rape culture and the rising level of organization as women demand equity in boardrooms and bedrooms. These topics have been in the headlines for months, although not nearly so much when Noxon first chased after the book rights two years ago.
There probably won’t be much indifference to the Skydance Entertainment/AMC Studios production when “Dietland” premieres on June 4. People are either going to love it or hate it.
“I love that ‘Dietland’ is a reach. It’s a bold show. It’s a daring show,” says David Madden, president of original programming for AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios. “You shouldn’t be making anything but bold and daring in this environment.”
In Noxon’s view, “Dietland” posits “the classic question of a revolution — does it require violence and a real threat to the ruling class to keep change moving forward? Should women arm themselves?” she explains. “We deal with the beauty industry and how beauty and violence are linked. The violence we see against women is related to the violence we do to ourselves looking for an ever-moving target, that ideal of beauty that will make us lovable and precious.”
The series, which stars newcomer Joy Nash and Julianna Margulies, takes an absurdist view of what the show dubs the “dissatisfaction industry profitability machine,” or the cultural pressure exerted on women who are not naturally rail-thin and drop-dead gorgeous. The revolutionary part comes in the storyline, which Noxon freely admits is a “feminist revenge fantasy” that asks why women don’t fight back — with violence — when faced with sexual harassment and assault.
“I want to make ‘Fight Club’ for women,” she quips.
Back in late March, as the day’s work at Broadway Stages on the border of Queens and Brooklyn wears on into the afternoon, and with only a few days of principal photography left to go on Season 1, Noxon’s focus is a tender love scene in bed between Nash and actor Adam Rothenberg. Juggling directing and showrunning duties, the petite Noxon — clad in a loose gray sweatshirt and baggy green sweatpants — takes a moment in the sanctity of video village, rocking on her heels and sipping a Red Bull while her actors get over a giggle fit and work out some positioning issues.
After a beat, Noxon bounds onto the bedroom set to give her stars a few pointers. “All right, you silly monkeys, let’s do this,” she says with a wide smile. Nash looks as if she’s about to lose it all over again, but a deep breath brings her back into scene mode.
The actress plays Plum Kettle, a large woman who is miserable and inhibited in every aspect of her life as she pursues the elusive goal of weight loss. She works as a ghostwriter for Margulies’ Kitty Montgomery, the high-strung editor of Daisy Chain, a fashion and beauty magazine based in New York City. Plum is recruited by a band of feminist assassins — led by the heiress to a weight-loss pyramid scheme — who embark on a protest murder spree of prominent men accused of sexual misconduct, and worse.
Walking around the set, it’s impossible not to notice the number of women working on the show, from crew members to the DP, Alison Kelly. Noxon had to invent a few male characters not in the book to bring a little balance to the gender equation.
“I like men,” she says. “I really didn’t want the show to reflect a world where men weren’t a part of this struggle.” Behind the scenes, Noxon has long worked to open doors for women on the set, particularly in nontraditional areas like cinematography and crew positions. “It was my first time ever working with a female DP,” Margulies notes.
All told, “Dietland” has been a consuming passion for Noxon. Even as she juggled other demanding projects, she directed the first two of the series’ 10-episode order as well as the finale.
“This is really Marti unleashed,” says AMC’s Madden. “This is Marti bringing all of her experience to bear and putting it all into these characters. This show needed that level of a personal commitment. This is her unique voice.”
Noxon, in turn, credits AMC and Skydance with giving her the freedom to deliver the show she set out to make, with all its unconventional trappings.
“I’ve never had a better experience,” she says, citing the support of Madden, AMC/SundanceTV chief Charlie Collier and Susie Fitzgerald, exec VP of scripted programming for AMC/SundanceTV. “They really understood the show I pitched. The times that Susie challenged me, she was always right on.”
A graduate of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” school, Noxon has expertly surfed the Peak TV wave to become one of the industry’s most prolific and in-demand showrunners. In the past few years she has launched several distinctive series: Bravo’s “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce,” Lifetime’s “UnReal,” CBS’ “Code Black” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” which premieres a month after “Dietland” on July 8. Last year she made her feature directorial debut with the Netflix drama “To the Bone.”
|Tamara Tunie (left) plays a fashion editor who teams up with Nash.|
Noxon’s experience as a writer-producer ranges from “Mad Men” to “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Prison Break.” She chased the TV adaptation rights to “Dietland” because she knew it was a remarkable engine for a series to examine empowerment and gender-justice issues that she has sought to illuminate in her work. “Two years ago it was mind-blowing for me to ask the question, ‘Why don’t women fight back more?’” she says. “It’s amazing to me to be here two years later and see what’s going on with #MeToo and Time’s Up and everything.”
But “Dietland” delivers its powerful punch in a surreal style — with frequent use of animation, flashbacks and other fantasy sequences. Characters break the fourth wall in unexpected ways — for one, we meet Margulies’ Kitty when her photograph on the Daisy Chain website starts talking to the audience. Plum’s inner life and outward shyness (at first) are telegraphed with all manner of sight gags and creative flourishes.
“Plum’s story is so internal — I wanted to find ways to bring her inside voice out into a visual language,” Noxon says. She grudgingly credits President Trump for inspiring her to go for it. “The surrealism in the show has only gotten more intense because of him.”
The key to making it all connect was finding an actress who could handle the range of material demanded of Plum. Noxon and her fellow executive producers — Maria Grasso, Jacqueline Hoyt, Bonnie Curtis, Julie Lynn and Skydance’s Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross — were relieved when Nash walked into their casting session.
Nash fought for the audition after securing casting breakdowns from a friend. She’d been pursuing acting for nearly 20 years but had only been on TV “for five minutes” in three guest star roles: in “Twin Peaks” (the 2017 sequel), “The Mindy Project” and “Casual.” Suddenly, she’s No. 1 on the call sheet playing a character she never dreamed she would see on TV.
“What I loved about ‘Dietland’ and Plum is that she does not stop being a fat person,” Nash says. “Most stories about fat people are about weight-loss transformation. But that’s not Plum’s story, which I was really, really excited about.”
Nash proved to be a natural, jumping in with both feet on an extremely complex role. She impressed her seasoned co-stars right off the bat with her innate skill and work ethic.
“I told Joy, ‘Enjoy your downtime now because a storm is about to hit,’” says Margulies, star of CBS’ “The Good Wife” and a three-time Emmy winner. “She’s so good. Aside from being a beautiful actress, she has no fear. She’s so comfortable in her skin. I think she is going to change the world for so many women.”
Nash gets emotional when talking about her journey from her childhood in Redlands, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, to graduating from USC with honors to doing interviews in her dressing room next to the “Dietland” stages. She feels a particular kinship with her character because of the rarity of TV series focused on what it’s like to be a large young woman in a world obsessed with being thin. Playing Plum has helped Nash become more centered and accepting of herself.
“There’s lots of me in her and vice versa,” she says. Sitting cross-legged on the bed in her dressing room after a long morning of shooting, Nash is giggly but always thoughtful in answering questions. “Plum gives me an excuse to be vulnerable. Going through life you put on a coat of armor and you’re tough, and when things hurt you, it’s not useful to show people. But here, that’s the point. It’s kind of a gift to be able to show your feelings. It’s cool.”
Nash praises Noxon for creating “a safe, soft place for me to land” as she developed the stamina needed to carry a series and in trying different approaches to the character.
For Margulies, “Dietland” has been a “delicious” transition back to TV from her seven-season run on “The Good Wife.” She is happy to not be No. 1 on the call sheet this time, and she’s jazzed at the chance to deliver a flinty, egomaniacal performance with her Anna Wintour-esque character.
“I’ve always played the girl with the heart on her sleeve,” Margulies says. “This has been a wonderful, fun challenge. My character gets the best lines.”
Like others in the “Dietland” world, Margulies is full of anticipation, as the premiere approaches, about how the series and its subject matter will be received.
“It’s pretty intense,” she says. “My feeling is, it’s going to be a huge success or fall flat on its face. I don’t think there’s going to be an in-between. Which I kind of like.”