“Little America” launches on Apple TV Plus at a time when the immigrant experience is a hot topic in the media, but the stories the writers and producers behind the new anthology series wanted to tell were not about race, says co-creator and showrunner Lee Eisenberg.
“All of the stories are meant to be slices of life and snapshots of moments in someone’s life. These are not biopics where we’re starting with someone’s birth and ending on their deathbed,” Eisenberg tells Variety. “As much as we could, we wanted it to be rooting for these characters. You hope that they get what they want. That was the thing that we really strived for. I think the stories that we as filmmakers wanted to tell were stories that had more hope than anything.”
Counting Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon and Alan Yang among its executive producorial team, “Little America” adapts stories originally told in the Epic Magazine column of the same name. There, the goal is to tell a fuller picture of the people who have come to America with their eyes and hearts set on a better life. Among the eight episodes in the first season are stories centered on a teenage spelling bee champion who juggles his schoolwork with managing a motel until his parents can immigrate (“The Manager”), a young man from Nigeria who is trying to assimilate to American culture as he attends college in the South (“The Cowboy”), a woman who is only one of a dozen siblings who is able to move to the States for college but ends up dropping out and building a cookie empire instead (“The Baker”), and a Syrian refugee who flees his hometown after his family leans he is gay and applies for asylum in the States (“The Son”).
“We wanted a variety of types of stories. We didn’t necessarily want to go super dark for any of them, but there are real issues [being portrayed]. If you look at [‘The Son’], it’s scary. There is real homophobia in the world, and we weren’t trying to shy away from that, but in the larger scope of the episodes we wanted a variety,” Yang tells Variety. “We chose the stories based on how compelling they were. We wanted a diversity of countries based on where the immigrants came from and different geography for where they landed in America and then to have them be different scales and scope. We just wanted it to feel like this was a mosaic.”
Working with the source material, in many cases, provided an instant “in” to the structure of the adapted episode, says Eisenberg. For both “The Manager” and “The Son,” Eisenberg says he saw the “narrative drive” right away when reading the original story. Although he felt the characters were very present, the greater passage of time that occurred in both stories leant itself to plot points to depict onscreen, too.
“Talking to the subjects to really hone in on, ‘What were you feeling at that particular time in your life?'” further helped, Eisenberg admits. When it came to “The Baker,” Eisenberg points out that the real-life woman’s stories about her father as her inspiration “and the first time she ever tried a chocolate chip cookie, and how she relayed some of the stories her father told her that she then told her son” all informed important themes and emotion for the episode.
“That episode takes place in Louisville in the early ’80s, was everyone respectful to her, was there any racism? When we talked to her, that was not her experience,” Eisenberg says.
“Maybe that’s something she didn’t want to dwell on,” he continues, but the way she described her experience was the way they wanted to capture her story for the episode. That includes using a local couple’s pizza oven to make her cookies late at night when she can’t afford an oven of her own because it speaks to “someone being industrious” and “immigrants helping immigrants,” Eisenberg says.
Although the real-life subjects were not given creative control over the way they were depicted, they were brought into the process not only to provide additional color and commentary about the events their episode would explore, but also an update on where they are now to run as a tag to the end of their episode. This insight proved to be invaluable for nuance and details, Eisenberg says.
“The subject of [‘The Cowboy’] started telling us that he did not understand why Americans were fascinated by hamburgers — that you are taking this perfectly good piece of meat and you were putting all of this stuff on it that was wet and everything became soggy. He just went on this rant, and it was hilarious, and that level of specificity is something that, if you were in a writers’ room for weeks, I don’t know if you would arrive at,” he says.
Because each episode deals with a different country of origin, and therefore different cultures, customs and languages, Eisenberg shares that he hired writers from those countries of origin to assist with the penning of specific episodes. “It was the son of a Mexican immigrant who wrote [‘The Jaguar’], it was a Nigerian writer who wrote [‘The Cowboy’],” he says. “It wasn’t one-to-one, but as much as we could, we thought it leant an air of authenticity to it.”
Additionally, “Little America” employed cultural consultants and dialect coaches for every episode. Eisenberg shares that the entire production staff, from the writers and directors to the production designers, did a lot research to bring in true to life elements that he knows may not be caught during an inital rewatch but are “certainly there in the set dressing, in the dialogue.”
Personal experiences further fleshed out the settings and stories from the production staff, too, though. “Between the writers, directors, editors and producers, I think 88% of that group was either a child of an immigrant or an immigrant themselves,” Eisenberg says. “Everyone talks about diversity and how important it is, and it is: It’s the way that storytelling becomes more exciting. If you have five people that all grew up in the same time and they’re all from the same socioeconomic level and their parents all came from the same place, it’s not that they can’t create a great story, it’s just that their experience is slightly limited. If you have people coming from all different walks of life, you’re just hearing different ways in.”
Yang shares that “The Grand Expo Winners,” which is written and directed by Tze Chun and centered on a woman who finally gets a chance to take her children on a vacation, only for them not to want to spend time with her, is an episode to which he feels very personally connected. “I did relate to some of the themes in that episode because my parents are divorced and Tze’s mom raised him as a single mother,” Yang says.
That was also an episode for which Yang got to be on set. Production on multiple episodes was ongoing simultaneously, which meant that the executive producers had to be split up to visit different units. “It’s a sprawling show. It’s eight pilots, and you’re shooting Montreal for Syria, you’re shooting Florida for Alaska, you’re shooting New Jersey for Uganda and all of these other places,” he explains. “It was a real team effort.”
Each episode is designed to be a singular, insulated story that can be watched on its own or in a binge, in any order, with the other episodes in the season. Although a viewer’s emotional journey may be slightly different depending on the order in which the episodes are watched, Eisenberg says the goal in crafting each episode was to make sure that while they stood on their own, they also “all feel of a whole.”
“In the same way that you watch ‘The Office’ or you watch ‘Friends’ and you recognize what characters are going to do and locations, I think you want to recognize a feeling, and there are a lot of different ways of expressing that feeling,” he says.
In choosing what order in which to release the episodes, Eisenberg does admit they were cognizant not to put “three episodes in a row that have female protagonists, and we don’t want to have two episodes in a row where the end of it leaves you feeling something similar. It’s like a playlist.”
Similarly, there was care taken to space out the episodes that drastically play with different lengths of time. “There are episodes that take place over 10 years, and there are episodes that take place over 10 days,” Eisenberg says. “We never set out to say we wanted to do an episode that takes place over a long period of time, but we looked at the season and saw we had a lot of episodes that were taking place over this, so we wanted to surprise the audience with this one. Or, we have a lot of episodes that start in the country of origin, but we didn’t want to do that with every episode. I want you — when you watch the show — to come to expect a certain level of quality of storytelling, but you don’t know exactly how it’s going to lay it all out. When we were going through as writers and talking to production design and the music supervisor and the directors, we kept coming back to the same words: it was about tone and about feeling, and it was about texture and specificity.”
One episode, aptly titled “The Silence,” about a woman who sparks an unexpected connection with another member of the retreat they are on, spends most of its running time without its characters speaking. This is one of the ways Eisenberg hopes the audience is surprised by “Little America’s” storytelling — but it was also a surprise to him that this would be the way to tell that particular story.
As originally written, “The Silence” had a lot of dialogue — or more specifically, Eisenberg notes, monologues for Zachary Quinto, who played the meditation guru. “It was guided meditation, so he was walking the characters through, saying, ‘A lot of times in life we reflect on our past, and I want you to let go of your past as the journey of life continues’ — kind of these maxims for the audience and the characters,” Eisenberg says of the script for the episode.
“As we shot it and then really more in the editing process, we started to strip away the dialogue and said, ‘Is this necessary? Is the audience going to be able to know this without hearing him explain what the characters are meant to feel in any particular moment?’ We first challenged ourselves to see what the first five minutes would be without that because we wanted it to feel different. We tried it, and it made us really nervous, but then we said, ‘What if we pushed it more?’ There’s little bits; the love interest comes in and speaks [for example]. But what really mattered to us, and Zachary’s character says it at the end, is the power of words and the power of sound. When there’s such an absence of it, every time that there’s a noise, people lean in.”
Yang has had previous experience with such quieter episodes (on Netflix’s “Master of None”), and although he acknowledges that it can be a “big swing” to do such a story, “Little America’s” “very nature and very premise is somewhat of an aggressive choice and risk” on its own. It was important for the team to be “unafraid to make the choice to make bold decisions and be audacious.”
“These story turns [in ‘The Silence’] are frankly so amazing and they are real,” he notes.
“The Silence” also speaks to a larger theme of the immigrant experience and “the frustration of not being able to communicate exactly what you want to say — that in a way the silence was their language,” Eisenberg believes.
More often than not, “Little America” uses subtitles so its English-speaking audience can follow the moments during which characters speak in their native languages. Notable exceptions are in “The Rock,” in which an Iranian man buys a plot of land on which to build his dream home, but first he has to remove the large, titular rock that is of unknown depth, and the aforementioned “The Son.” In the latter, the writers purposefully introduce “a character who really wanted to move to America, who’s obsessed with pop culture, and he declares early on, ‘If you’re going to speak to me, you’re going to speak to me in English because that’s the language that I need to practice.'” Eisenberg says “that was the way for us to break out of speaking in Arabic — to subvert it.” But for the others, being asked to read subtitles means viewers can’t necessarily have a second screen experience, tweeting or multitasking in other ways while watching “Little America.”
“Audiences are sophisticated. I think people are totally willing to read — just look at the success of ‘Parasite,'” Eisenberg says. “I think if you can tell a story where people are engaged then people are engaged then they will read everything on the screen.”
“Little America” is streaming now on Apple TV Plus.