Pamela Adlon is a true auteur.
The co-creator, writer, producer, director and star of “Better Things” has the reins of the FX comedy, and she may hold them tighter than most performers who step behind the scenes, with her fingerprints on every stage of the storytelling, from outlines in the writers’ room to sound mixing during post-production.
“I never could have imagined that I would have the discipline to stick it out from the first person there to the last person there — to do what I’m doing now,” Adlon tells Variety. “It tests your mettle when you go into other areas and realize, ‘Well, OK I need to have the time and the patience to sit in a writers’ room for three months and to be in prep and pre-production and go on all of these scouts, and then I need to have the time and the patience to shoot my show and be in it and also direct it and run it, and then the time and the patience to sit in the editing room with my three different editors.’ That becomes its own world and it’s a totally different world.”
But telling these stories of womanhood and motherhood keeps her her passionate about the show, and she has realized she doesn’t know how to do it any other way than to be a part of every piece of decision-making.
“It’s not about control, it’s just about the way everything unfolds into each other. It’s not like I say, ‘Don’t do this part without me, don’t do that part without me.’ I just see it,” she says.
Sitting in the last row in a dimly-lit mixing studio at Formosa North Hollywood, Adlon scribbles notes on a legal pad about the volume of helicopter sounds and the sizzle of a hot pan in the opening of “Carbonara,” the fifth episode of the fourth season of “Better Things.” The former, she notes, needs to be turned up so it doesn’t get lost under the sounds of rain, the fan and the score, but the latter she asks to be brought done because the titular pasta dish is done cooking at that moment in the scene.
She also asks to hear a slightly different piece of music for the moment in which her Sam Fox finds her daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood) cooking in the middle of the night — because she wants a more operatic crescendo to match the emotional ones of the characters. Sam did just catch her daughter with a boy in her bed, after all. Soon Sam will be taking Frankie to the gynecologist to make sure that if she’s having sex she’s at least staying safe. But now it’s 4 a.m., pouring rain, with someone dangerous roaming the neighborhood, and Sam is just trying to catch a breath before she has to deal with how complicated life has become.
“You have evermore stories to tell,” Adlon says of the fact that her onscreen daughters are maturing in front of the audience’s eyes. “It’s a house of women and raising these women, and so that’s where all of these tricky things happen. Your kids actually stop being your kids, and how do you give any kind of guidance and how do you lead them in any direction when they think they know f—ing everything?”
Adlon is so steeped in the minutiae of her show that when she asks for Frankie to say “Mom” as she hands Sam a fork, she can recognize what scene that one word of dialogue was lifted from, just based on the cadence.
“I invented this language in the show, and I’m the translator, the cartographer, the scribe. It’s all a part of it for me,” she says.
Although Adlon is past the picture lock stage of the episode, she can’t help but eye the cut of the episode for imagery, as well as sound in this session. She questions whether an out of focus book by a chair looks like a tape mark and asks for the generic lock screen on Sam’s phone to be replaced with a “really cool piece of art” or photo that better speaks to the character’s personality.
Although Adlon certainly knows what she wants, she has a team around her who will give her “friendly little nudges” toward the necessary piece of focus, she acknowledges, as a check and balance for where her own mind is at any given moment. In the beginning that team included co-creator Louis C.K., but after he became embroiled in a #MeToo scandal, Adlon stepped up to run the show solo. This is her second season doing so, and on set she finds help from script supervisor Babette Stith, who Adlon says will often say to her, “Are you acting in this?” when she needs the multi-hyphenate to focus on performing in the scene, as well as her assistant directors, who will come up to her and say, “I need to speak to the director Pamela now” when they need her to look at something with a bigger picture lens.
“I feel like the most challenging part of everything of what I do is maintaining the edginess, the spikiness, the purity of this little world and this little universe when I’m trying to adhere to budgetary concerns, when I’m trying to deal with actors’ schedules, when I’m trying to deal with my own family stuff,” Adlon admits. “There’s always part of you that goes, ‘Oh let’s just get this over with.’ But I can’t take the shortcut or the easy way out because it will sacrifice the quality of what we’re making.”
In the sound mix, the team is made up of co-producer Erica Sterne, editor Annie Guidice, sound supervisor Chris Gomez, sound mixer Sam Ejnes and music editor Emily Kwong. For this particular episode, Aldon takes an informal poll in the room regarding whether there should be music underscoring the moment when Sam jaunts down the stairs after learning her house is not, in fact, the house in which a gruesome death occurred.
“When I’m working with an editor or somebody like that, having them say, ‘I think this would be so cute’ or ‘I think this would be so funny,’ my reaction is to go opposite because then I’m saying, ‘Hmm what’s the real thing here?’ I want everything rooted in reality, but I also like the magic,” she says. That mean she has to leave room to be open to “whatever works in the moment” and not be afraid to go bigger at times.
But it also means combing through the hundreds of anecdotes and stories that come up in the writers’ room — often based on Adlon’s life or her writers’ own experiences — to find very specific slices of life that can add color to the Fox family. Writing “bird in the house” on the board in the writers’ room turned into a Season 4 event in which an owl flew into Sam’s window, for example.
“Years ago a baby owl was in my backyard and his talon was stuck in his eyeball and I called 10 different animal places to say ‘What the f— do I do with this owl?'” Adlon recalls. “We had this owl, we named it Hoot, we wrapped it in a towel and put it in a box and poked air holes in the box and then the animal people came to get it. That’s just a funky little detail that I looked back on and we stuck on the board and we were able to incorporate into the show. If something sticks with me, I’ll bring it up.”
And even with all of this going on for her own show, Adlon still takes time out to work on other productions, including voicing characters on “Bob’s Burgers” and “Rick and Morty,” appearing in feature films such as “The King of Staten Island” and “Holler” and booking a two-episode arc on this season of “This Is Us.” Up next, she is adapting a friend’s book for a film and would someday like to write a multi-camera sitcom, too.
“I definitely branched out this year in terms of creating new content for other people and that’s very exciting to me,” she says. “But it has to be different from the model that exists and having to throw away all of your original ideas so all of a sudden you’re just doing the same s— and it’s just bad.”
“Better Things” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.