Like its protagonist, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is something of an underdog.
The journey to bring it to the public was one full of ups and downs. Originally developed for AMC, the show ended up sold to YouTube Premium. During the process, head of TriStar Television Suzanne Patmore Gibbs, who was instrumental in developing the show, unexpectedly passed away (in March 2018), while series star and executive producer Kirsten Dunst got pregnant and had her son (in May 2018). There were murmurings that it would launch on YouTube earlier this year, but it never materialized there, and then in June, Showtime announced it had acquired the 10-episode one-hour series. From there, it was a fast turn-around to get the show ready to launch on the premium cabler in August. Although the show has a linear premiere date of Aug. 25, true to form for the network, it dropped the first two episodes early for sampling over the weekend of Aug. 16.
The series was created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, and it also counts George Clooney and Grant Heslov among its executive producers. But Gibbs felt strongly that the show could use a female voice behind-the-scenes, so Esta Spalding, whose previous credits include “Battle Creek” and “Masters of Sex,” had a deal at Sony and was brought in to meet the guys.
“We just really, really hit it off in those first meetings; we had the same sensibility,” Spalding says.
The pilot had already been written when Spalding became attached as showrunner, and she says she gravitated towards the story because she felt a personal connect to the character of Krystal (played by Kirsten Dunst). Starting the show as a stressed-out young mother with adult braces and a dead-end job at a water park, Krystal is challenged by her husband’s faith in what is essentially a pyramid scheme. Soon she is left to be the sole provider for her family and although she struggles with how to best do that, she never falters in her mission to succeed.
“My mom was a single mom with two kids — I have a sister — and we really lived hand to mouth. We were on foodstamps and welfare, and she ran childcare centers eventually because it was a way to have us in childcare. So Krystal’s power and strength and what I could feel her journey would be when I read that pilot felt like something I’d been waiting my whole life to write about,” Spalding says.
For Dunst, the attraction to the project was that “it was grounded but it was going to be surreal and weird, and I like all of those things: I like all of the things you can’t really place.” But she, too, saw a lot of potential in the “really strong written” character of Krystal who she calls “flawed, and that’s why she’s a fun character to watch. She’s all over the place, and we’re watching her figure it out together.”
In addition to this specific character journey, Spalding says she was also excited to dive into a story that explores the class divide. “She’s moved into this house with her husband and she’s not willing to slip backwards, to have her daughter have less, and she’s trying to put it together in this water park. It felt so familiar to me, that struggle, and the trade-offs she had to make and the sacrifices she had to make felt really close to my heart, and I also felt like it was so much about class in America — about how the whole game of the American dream is really rigged for the wealthy,” she explains.
Set in the 1990s Sunshine State, “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” follows Krystal as she has to make a choice about how deep into FAM, a fictional multi-level marketing company in the vein of Amway, she wants to get.
Dunst considers Krystal to be the type of person who “goes head-first without thinking about the repercutions of things” and “is very reactionary, and it bites her on the ass a bunch of times.” So although she is smart enough to know the trappings of a track that requires you to buy mandatory tapes from the company’s founder, sell products to your friends and neighbors and also sign those friends and neighbors up to work on your “downline” (with your success directly related to theirs), she is still susceptible to what the company is selling. This is in part because her ideas for more legitimate careers keep getting shot down by the men in charge.
“We’re watching her constantly be denied the ability, no matter how hard she works, to be able to move up the rungs. It feels so powerful to watch her take control and try to move up that pyramid, move out from where she is, and there would be all kinds of questions and trade-offs in doing that. She’d have to decide, ‘Am I willing to make immoral choices in order to have things and in order to have success?’ It’s like snakes and ladders. We talked a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: that she’s moving from basic survival to longing to trying to move up and self-actualize,” Spalding says.
Although Krystal is certainly the entry point to the world for the audience, Spalding was cognizant of not painting her too firmly on either side of the moral compass to cement her as a traditional hero or antihero. While she certainly wants the audience to understand why Krystal makes the choices she does, she was interested in doing some “moral calculus” with her.
“One of the essential parts of understanding the character is she doesn’t have the luxury of being good. She knows the system’s rigged, but she knows she couldn’t survive on minimum wage at that time — and you certainly can’t anymore — so she’s always calculating and knows she can’t do what she wants. We really wanted her to be practical and to be a survivor,” she explains.
Additionally, though, the show doesn’t shy away from the darker sides to Krystal — emotions deep in her character from her past, as well as current less-than-desirable situation that continues to reveal complicated layers as time goes on in the first season.
“She has all of this rage, and asking the question of what would happen if she put all of that aside, we thought was an interesting question,” Spalding says. “In a way our ‘all is lost moment’ is that she gets what she wants but she has to give up her anger, and I don’t think anybody wants that character to give up her anger.”
Collaborating with the creators of the show as well as Dunst herself became imperative to fleshing out who Krystal was. In fact, Spalding credits, pieces of Krystal’s backstory are hinted at in the earliest episodes just in Dunst’s performance. These inspired the actual flashback to Krystal’s past that comes mid-way through the season. “The way she reads the pamphlet, you know everything about how she was raised: No one ever read a book to that girl when she was a child,” she points out.
Dunst is reluctant to take credit for too much of Krystal’s trajectory, though, saying “it really was all there on the page,” but she admits that one of the most important things to her was knowing where the baby was at all times and making sure that made its way into the show.
“It’s time-consuming to have the baby on set and it makes it harder for everybody, but also that’s the whole reason Krystal’s motivated to do what she’s doing,” she explains.
Spalding says that not much had to be changed to get the show ready for a premium cable network after producing it for a streamer. “In a really weird way, because they didn’t have a lot of other programming that was like this, because they were saying, ‘Make this a signature thing of Kirsten’s,’ they just let us make our show,” she says of YouTube.
Adds Dunst: “Each episode felt like its own little indie film because they gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do. We just kind of did our thing.”
This included inviting auteur directors to helm individual episodes, allowing each piece of the story to become slightly unique in tone for that director. Dunst admits she thought of the shoot as “a long movie,” on advice from her former “Fargo” boss Noah Hawley.
“We were shooting 48 pages in seven days, which is a s— ton, especially when you’re moving locations,” she says. “It was just a lot of work and all me. So at first I was beyond scared. I had so many more months of this, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
At first, the downside to doing so much so quickly for Dunst was that she was “very tired” for much of the shoot. But she was able to use that for the character and says after awhile “your body starts to get in the groove of things.”
“I just felt so much more free, and I think that helped in playing Krystal because I just gave zero [f—s],” she says.
Meanwhile, the downside for Spalding “was that our budget was miniscule,” the showrunner shares.
There, what helped was Dunst herself. Because people wanted to work with her, Spalding says they were able to attach a lot of great people who wanted to “play,” including Alexander Skarsgard as her on-screen husband and director Charlie McDowell, who helmed the pilot and season finale.
Coming to Showime, Spalding says they received very few notes on cuts of the episodes. With other shows that straddle the dark comedy line on the network, such as the long-running “Shameless” and more recent but shorter-lived “SMILF,” Spalding says the executives at got what they were trying to do and were big champions of it.
“It’s this suburban surreal comedy, but it was only ever going to be funny if you were crying at the same time. We wanted the audience at any moment there was a joke or laughter to also be feeling like, ‘Ooh is it OK to laugh? Something terrible is happening.’ That’s the sweet spot of the show and the kind of humor I love,” she says.
“The example that I use all of the time for me when I thought we landed the tone of the show and it was a star we steered by for the rest of the season is the moment when Cody comes with a giant check. There’s all this pathos and sadness in it, but he’s also carrying a giant check, and she’s like, ‘Make it bigger,’ and he says it’s the biggest they have. You’re happy for Krystal, but you’re also sad that she’s entering this thing, and it’s really a rich moment. We’re always searching for those moments.”