For Daniel Levy, who created “Schitt’s Creek” with his father, Eugene Levy, the show meant six seasons of inventing a world he would want to live in, one guided by compassion and love. Along the way, “Schitt’s Creek” has become part of the zeitgeist, earned four Emmy nominations and has launched Levy as a new voice in the entertainment industry. Its series finale airs on April 7 on Pop TV.
In an in-depth interview for Variety’s April 1 cover story on “Schitt’s Creek,” Levy talked about going from being a VJ for MTV Canada to creating “Schitt’s Creek,” how the show’s storytelling and its characters evolved, planning its final season, what he wants to do next, and much, much more.
What did your success at MTV Canada, hosting the very popular aftershow for “The Hills,” do for you?
It was amazing for me, just in terms of the freedoms it afforded me, and the confidence I was given. Not just as a host, but as someone who was trying to make a name for myself outside of my dad. I remember nepotism, this idea of kids going into their parents’ business, particularly in entertainment, being this hugely scrutinized thing. A lot of these children of actors were just getting dragged to hell for wanting to pursue a craft that has been in the home since birth.
I had been working at a video store before that, so this was a major step up. But I was not getting up in the morning and feeling great. It was a tremendous amount of anxiety, because the shoe wasn’t the right fit. Eventually, I decided to call it quits with MTV. “The Hills” had ended, and it felt like a really nice time for me to also move on.
As Lauren Conrad went —
As Lauren went on her journey, so did I!
I was really finding myself struggling with the idea of walking away from something that had given me so much material, frivolous joy, and was feeding my ego in all of these strange ways. I was really aware that a lot of the decision-making I was considering in terms of “Do I stay or do I leave?” was based on ego. It was based on “What happens if I never work again? What happens if I end up at a bookstore or a restaurant, and people come in and say, ‘I recognize you from TV?’”
It was in that moment that I really made the executive decision to really shut out all of that, and be fine with everything. If working on TV for eight years was a chapter of my life that will never be recreated, so be it. But I will love the restaurant that I work in, and I will love the bookstore that I work in, and that is all on course for something that is ultimately going to lead me to something more fulfilling. The minute that I really stopped caring about how I would feel from an ego standpoint was the minute that everything opened up for me in terms of creative stuff. I took on small writing gigs, and did all these things to support myself.
In the process, I started to think about TV shows. The idea for “Schitt’s Creek” really came out of one of those brainstorming sessions that I had one day in a cafe. I had come out of MTV, I had made a name for myself, as small as it was, up in Canada. But that, in a way, made me feel OK with going to my dad for this idea. So I went to him with this idea of a wealthy family losing their money and said, “Do you want to work on this with me?” And he said, “Yes.”
Which I think was something he was hoping would happen a lot earlier. I remember being in high school and my dad asking me as I was rehearsing for the school plays, like, “Do you want help?” And I was always saying, “No, I don’t. I don’t want you to have any influence on what I do, because I have to work harder being your son.”
Was casting Catherine O’Hara your idea or your dad’s?
I think my dad’s. There is such a comfort that they have with each other. I feel like Catherine knows that if my dad’s involved, there’s a level of security. And my dad has the same thing with Catherine, just in terms of a working relationship. For my dad, it was always like, “Let’s have Catherine do this.” And then the tricky part was getting Catherine to do it.
What was that like?
She had done the presentation pilot. When the show got picked up, we had to go back to her and ask. She was really reluctant — justifiably so. It was a big unknown, and television is a commitment. My dad called me and said, “I don’t think she’s going to do it.”
I had listened to an interview with Michael Patrick King about the early days of “Sex and the City” and Sarah Jessica Parker’s involvement. I believe that at one point, she was a bit reluctant. His approach to her was, “If you don’t like it, let’s stop after Season 1.” I took that philosophy, and went to my dad and said, “You have to call her back one last time. And please tell her — one season. Because at the end of the day, if she does it and she hates it, then we clearly are not making a good show anyway. Just see what she says to that.” Then 45 minutes later, he called me back and said she’s in.
I met with her a couple times about her character. We were very in line with the aesthetics of everything, and her references in terms of how she wanted to dress and act. I knew that it was going to be a nice working relationship. I knew that it was going to be a challenge, as any writer should feel, when they are writing for Catherine O’Hara.
“Schitt’s Creek” has so much heart, and has changed so much over the years. Were those things that you thought of from the beginning?
The setup of the show was always that this family would realize that money is not the be all and end all. So inherently, if we had the luxury of getting more than one season, we were building chapters of this family’s life that would slowly but surely strip back the layers of artifice and expose them to love. The goal was at the end of this show, this family will realize the value of love. Money can temporarily bandage a lot of things. But they would never be able to buy the closeness that they have by the end of the series.
We didn’t want it to be very clear at that time, because strategically speaking, we needed these people to have a season of being themselves — or who they thought they were — in order to earn the subsequent seasons, and the growth of these characters.
When did you feel that the show started to really find itself?
We didn’t have to do a lot of adjusting, which I know is a common thread of a first season. By the end of the first season, I knew our cast was really strong, that our actors were embedded in these characters in ways that we weren’t going to have to change substantially.
In terms of where I felt like I came into my own with the show, it was Season 3. The introduction of Patrick, getting to write that storyline, was incredibly meaningful. The end of Season 3, the kiss in the car was a huge episode. It was really, really hard for me to write, but ultimately incredibly fulfilling.
What made it hard?
I just wanted to write something that I had experienced, and that people could relate to. That ended up building on the philosophy that we had set out with, which was that this town will never be the joke. We’ve seen the yokel small town people being made fun of in a lot of TV shows. We wanted the town to be progressive and open and smart and empathetic — all of the things that I think small towns are so often not shown as. So couple that with now dealing with a character that was struggling to come out of the closet, I think that only helped bring an even stronger heartbeat to the town of “Schitt’s Creek.”
And I think that’s where people started to really feel a closeness to the experience, and to the town as a representation of what life could be if we were all a little more compassionate and empathetic and less tied to our own stuff.
When you created the character of Patrick (Noah Reid), was he always meant to be the endgame for David?
In the room, we were trying to lay the foundation for someone that would be a long-term relationship, while knowing that chemistry is hard and that we might not find the right person. Fortunately, Noah was — I mean, it just clicked from day one of working with him.
As the show went on, did you start leaning into things like Alexis (Annie Murphy) saying, “David,” and them saying “ew?”
The “ew” was written into the show just because I say it a lot in my real life. I try not to think about the audience too much in terms of expectations. I feel like the minute a show becomes aware of itself, I start to separate. I just like hearing Annie say, “David.” I like hearing Moira say “bébé.”
Is it written in the script as “bébé”?
Now it is! That was the fun thing of those early days with Catherine too. I remember we wrote the “fold in the cheese” episode. We were on set, and she was saying “enchilada,” and I remember tiptoeing in and saying, “What if you said on ONchelada?” And she was like, “Yep! Got it! Good.”
Did you start to see relationships that seemed to work that weren’t the core relationships and write to them? I’m thinking specifically of Johnny and Stevie (Emily Hampshire).
We had a little board of relationships that had been formed. With each passing season, we would look at that board and say, “OK, who hasn’t been together yet?” In the case of Stevie and Johnny, we needed something to soften Stevie a little bit. The idea of Johnny acting as a parental figure and helping her with the motel felt like a really satisfying way of exposing a side of her that felt a little more vulnerable.
It sounds hokey, but the show really spoke to us and told us where to go. The foundation was there, and we just listened to it. Those kinds of relationships and, you know — I think like Ronnie (Karen Robinson) and Moira are a pair that I love so much. And anytime that Jocelyn (Jennifer Robertson) and Moira have their back-and-forth is always really fun, because I feel like Jocelyn has never really caved to Moira. She’s always quietly and passively stood up for herself.
A character like Stevie, for example, her performing “Maybe This Time” the end of Season 5 — I mean it took five seasons! Those were very conscious choices. Those slow burns, to me, are the most exciting to write.
After Season 4, you decided it would be two more seasons?
I had originally thought it was going to end after Season 5, and then we were offered a two-season pickup. If things were different, I could work with these people forever. Like, that could be it. It could be just “Days of Our Lives,” and we’re on Season 50. But the story really dictated where we went. And I, at no point, wanted to compromise on quality or storytelling. I felt like we had now 28 episodes, and that was a lot of runway to wrap up this story in a really special, meaningful and thoughtful way.
When it came time to plan Season 6, what were your priorities?
I wanted a certain level of open-endedness. I never wanted the audience to feel like we’ve abandoned them. It was always important to make sure that everything happened for the right reason. It might not be what the audience wants, but it’s what the character needs.
It was a ton of brainstorming. It was a ton of post-its on walls. We spent a whole afternoon just thinking about inside jokes, or storylines that we wanted to call back — references, characters. How sentimental do we want to go? What are the things that need to be said? What are the major revelations from characters that we haven’t heard yet? It was a big, long list, and we just slowly started to cross them off as we went.
For me, I never wanted to feel the panic of getting 12 episodes into our season and then feeling like we have to wrap it up in two. I don’t want the last episode to feel like this mad panic to suddenly tie a thousand shoelaces. If we do our jobs properly, we can do this slowly but surely, so that by the end it just feels like a really great episode of TV.
Did you want an ending for each major character?
You wanted to make sure that everyone was left and taken care of. That would sort of go against the philosophy of the show if we just took a turn and suddenly people’s lives imploded! The number of jokes we had in the writers room, like, “the motel burns down, and that’s the end of the show!”
We thought about everyone; we thought about everything; we thought about every relationship that we had set up. But at the same time, there’s only so much you can do.
You said that you don’t play to the audience. But it’s a heavily meme-d, heavily GIF’d show. With something like “A Little Bit Alexis,” or “The Crowening,” is it fun to anticipate the response?
When we were in the early days of just breaking character, I had come up with the idea of “A Little Bit Alexis” being the reality show that Alexis had been on. The fact that we were finally able to bring that out was a really great thing. And then Annie, of course, wrote this song and let it live in a whole other world.
Season 6 is the only time that we wrote with the door to the audience open a little more. With the last season of a show, part of the fun is to just give little nuggets back to the audience, and thank them for watching. I mean, bringing Herbert Ertlinger back, and all of these little callbacks and details were conscious, without compromising the storytelling at all. The season is a love letter to the fans, I think.
How did you start noticing that the show had caught on from starting on Netflix?
I was hearing from the cast, Annie and Emily and Karen, that they were being stopped on the street, and that people were noticing.
As the Patrick/David storyline continued to grow, I started to get the letters and the tweets and the Facebook messages that just kept coming. I would try to read as much of them as I possibly could because it was people just pouring their hearts out to us. For a show that that has such a strong queer presence, I can count maybe on one and a half hands the negative responses we’ve gotten.
You basically decided that the town of Schitt’s Creek was this utopia. Is there something about telling people you’re going to embrace this, that then they do?
I feel like as humans, we’re creatures of habit. If we just see things, we adjust accordingly. I knew there was a risk in terms of not showing the negative side. But at the time, I felt like there were shows and movies that were doing that so beautifully — so what if we just proposed a different idea? How can we explore that freedom and growth that comes with being accepted?
From the feedback that I’ve gotten — from either people who have religious beliefs that would preclude them from supporting these kinds of characters, or just people whose political beliefs don’t align with these characters — getting to watch people that they’ve grown to love fall in love with each other, they discovered that they themselves were rooting for these people against their own beliefs.
I really have sat with that, and tried to analyze why. I do feel like we’ve never ostracized people whose beliefs didn’t necessarily align with what we were doing. We just showed how much better life can be if you put those beliefs aside, and really let people grow and thrive. So much love comes from it, and so much joy and happiness and strength.
David is pansexual. If you had to go back, would you still write his first romantic relationship to be with Stevie?
Yes. I was playing a character that was very uninhibited in terms of who he was and what he wanted, and I really wanted to play with people’s expectations. At first there was a lot of questions about, “Is he gay? He has to be gay.” And then to have him hook up with Stevie really felt like it represented what I wanted to explore on this show, which is, “leave your judgments and your expectations and all of that aside, and let’s just see people for who they are.” The idea of pansexuality felt very in line with David, and the way that he explores his sexuality feels very free and open. To find Patrick felt like we’re going to show another side of this person, and have him fall in love with someone who offered him a comfort and security that he’s never had before.
What do you think it is about the David/Patrick relationship that appeals to people so much?
The coming out story seemed to connect with people. I tried to write from my own experience when I came out to my parents — just trying to articulate those moments as best you can. They’ve resulted in a lot of rewrites and a lot of me panicking and calling friends of mine and saying, “Does this feel right? Does this feel true? Does this feel honest?”
The kiss in the car at the end of Season 3 was rewritten on the way to set. At first, I had Patrick kissing David. Something about it just never felt right. I ended up calling my friend, who is also gay, and saying, “I don’t know if this feels right. What if David kisses Patrick?” I thought back to my first time kissing a guy, and I realized I needed someone to go the extra mile with me. I could pursue someone, or I could express my interest. But when it came down to actually acting on it, I just remember being very grateful that the guy that I was seeing at the time took that final step for me. In having that conversation, I was like, “David has to be the one that kisses Patrick, it can’t go the other way.” The minute that that switched, I knew that there was a conversation there, in terms of Patrick ending up saying, “Thank you for doing that for us.”
I would like to say that there’s a truth in the storytelling that has affected people. Particularly with David, who has had a really rough go in relationships, to find someone who sees him and supports him and encourages him and accepts him for his eccentricities. That has allowed people, including myself, to realize like, yeah, you don’t have to change yourself. You don’t have to give yourself away to people that don’t deserve you. There is such an important message in waiting for someone who makes you feel a certain way, and makes you feel loved and supported. The chemistry that Noah and I have is really easy. I think that has helped in adding that extra layer of authenticity because we’re very good friends. It’s made those moments feel safe.
Did it make you realize that about your own relationships?
Yeah, I think in a way. There’s a level of catharsis in writing. I have not had the terrible run that David has. We’re very different in a lot of ways. But I do think the takeaway from writing it, acting it and then editing it and watching it back, is, “Yeah — in a way, I wrote that for myself.” And for all of my friends who have found themselves in precarious situations with romance, where they’ve come out of it feeling less than. You can, hopefully, find someone that is really into you and not a version of yourself that you think someone would be more interested in. Which is sort of my twenties.
When did you come out?
I want to say 19. But I was also on MTV, and I was not not out, but I was also not necessarily advocating or being vocal about it.
So you were out in your life, but you weren’t out publicly.
I was out in my life. I was not — yeah, technically no. I chose to not take a stand. And there was a choice that was made. I think halfway through MTV, I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.”
I imagine you were very sought after as “Schitt’s Creek” was ending. Why did you decide to make a deal with ABC Studios?
I’ve been very spoiled with how encouraging and loving these past six years have been. For me, it was all about having the freedom to continue to assemble those kinds of casts and crews, where I can feel a tremendous amount of satisfaction creatively and emotionally when I come to work. ABC felt like they were on board to support that. I really enjoyed the team, and I felt like they were people that I could trust in terms of offering feedback or helping to shape or mould what I would do next. The deal was good, and we said “yes.”
What do you want to do next?
I have never considered myself to be a comic in any way. I don’t do stand-up. I happen to write a show that I think is funny. Ultimately, my dad and I have always considered it to be a drama —
Yeah, that’s always been the through-line — it is a drama that happens to involve very funny circumstances, and characters that are not equipped to handle those circumstances. Basing something in a kind of foundation of truth and honesty is something that I’ve taken away from working with my dad.
I just want to keep doing that. I want to keep telling stories that mean something to me, and that are potentially joyful. My list of ideas that I’ve been scratching down over the past six years while I’ve been doing this show is anything from thrillers to dramas, to other comedies to musicals.
Getting to do this show really by ourselves in Canada has given me such a perspective on how I want to work, and who I want to work with. Also just having come from the video store and being very comfortable going back to one, I don’t care if I have to pull the plug on a show because it feels like it’s going down the wrong path. It’s not worth it to me.
I hate to tell you about video stores! How does it feel not to be hanging out with the cast anymore?
It’s very strange! We’ve been lucky enough to be included in some award shows, which has allowed us an excuse to see each other again. I think we’ll always end up finding excuses to see each other.
I mean, we’ll know each other for the rest of our lives, which is a very rare, wonderful thing. And not just a select group of cast: I’m saying everybody. These are people that I will love until the day I die.
What did working with your dad mean to you?
It’s amazing to know that my dad and my sister and I have this chapter of our lives documented on film. I talk to people all the time who say, “I don’t know how you can work with your parents, I’d just lose my mind.” I really feel like my dad and I have really managed to navigate six years of working together, and being related to each other, and come out on top of it.
That it speaks volumes to his legacy in this industry. I don’t think there’s a single person you could find in Hollywood that would say a bad thing about him. That is an exceptional model to set for me. To see him and Catherine headline this show, and really make people feel included and supported — it certainly changed the game for me and Annie as actors. We had virtually no experience.
Granted, it was my dad, and that would be a pretty strange thing if he didn’t create a safe space for us. But you know, you’re dealing with masters in their craft.
Literal legends working with two unknown kids who are playing their children. It could have gone a different way. Annie and I often talk about the warmth that they both showed us in those early days, and just really made us feel like it’s OK to make mistakes.
To watch my dad and finally have an understanding of how and why he has had the career longevity that he’s had, and why he is continually and will continue to be sought after for the work that he does — I mean, you want to have him on set. It’s certainly set the bar high for me in terms of what I hope to achieve and the reputation I hope to uphold.
Do you think there will be more “Schitt’s Creek” someday?
I hope so. I’ve been asked a lot about reboots. I was like, “At this point, if we reboot it, it’s just going to be a seventh season.”
If an idea crosses my path that I feel like is deserving of our cast’s time, then let’s do it. I don’t know what it could possibly be at this point. But I would love to revisit these characters, and I would love to get to play with this cast again.
Was the tour your idea?
It was really important to meet these people who were writing us these letters that were so profound. Get to actually say hello, and selfishly, get to spend a couple fun nights with my friends. What we didn’t expect was just the sheer volume of tickets that were going to be sold. It’s been extraordinary.
The fans of the show have been such a crucial and integral part of the success of the show. So much of it is word of mouth. So much of it is the memes and the GIFs that are being shared over social media, and the wonderfully curious creative output that has been put out by these fans. People were putting Noah’s face on potatoes — I don’t even know what’s going on! I try not to be on the internet too much.
But I do feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to the people who are watching the show, and spreading the show far beyond what advertising and marketing dollars could do. You know, our success is ultimately their success at the end of the day, too. And I think that’s a wonderful feeling, to know that you’ve shared in something with an audience that extends far beyond the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. (Believe it or not — it was 15,000 words!)