From creator/executive producer Mike Schur (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, Master of None), the brilliantly inventive and hilariously funny half-hour NBC series The Good Place (I’ve seen five episodes and absolutely love it!) follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to an inexplicable error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, where she actually belongs. While trying to hide her true self from the completely unaware Michael (Ted Danson), the wise and kind architect of the Good Place, she’s determined to discover whether she has a good person within.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producer/pilot director Drew Goddard talked about how he got involved with The Good Place, why he trusts and believes in the talent of Mike Schur, the process for deciding what this world would look like, making an unlikeable character likeable, the show’s challenging production schedule, and the over-arching story that they’re looking to tell. He also talked about why a sequel for The Cabin in the Woods (which he directed and wrote with Joss Whedon) just hasn’t worked out, and how excited he is for fans of the Marvel Netflix series to see The Defenders, which he’s an executive producer on.
Collider: When this was brought to you, was it just an idea or did you get to read a script?
DREW GODDARD: No, Mike [Schur] hadn’t finished the script. Mike called me, one day, and said, “Do you want to meet?” He didn’t say it was about a project. He just said, “Do you want to meet? Let’s just talk.” I have been a fan of Mike’s work for years, and we’ve known each other socially, so I said, “Sure!” I didn’t realize he was going to pitch me an idea. I think if I did, I would have told him I was unavailable ‘cause I was busy, and that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I think he knew that, so he sort of tricked me. But once he had me in his office and started telling me about his vision for the show, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It really felt like, “Oh, that’s special. I’ve never heard anything like that before.” And knowing his talent, I know he’d be able to bring that vision to the screen. So then, it was just a matter of, “I want to be a part of this,” which was nice.” I called my agent right after and said, “Clear the deck for the next year. I just want to be here ‘cause I believe in what we’re about to do.”
Were you worried, when you finally got the script, that it would be something entirely different than what you were expected?
GODDARD: No, because you have to trust. I believe it’s better to bet on talent than it is to bet on ideas, and I just bet on Mike. So, even if the script was different, I knew it would be good, which is what was important. The dirty secret about television is that it’s hard. It’s really hard. You wish that everything just came out brilliant right away, but it doesn’t. You’re constantly trying to make it better. So, you just pick the people you believe in and you ride towards the same goal, and I knew that Mike was one of those people.
Because the possibilities seem endless, how did you decide what this world would look like?
GODDARD: Yeah, that’s the danger. Actually, I’ve been fortunate, or unfortunate, to work on a lot of things with complicated tones and I’ve learned that, at least for me, the crazier the idea, the more you need to ground it in character, otherwise you’ll just fly off. Having infinite ideas is the same as having zero ideas. You need a guiding principle to design it with. With The Good Place, it was all about how the afterlife designs itself, based on character, and everybody’s afterlife is different. So, if you like rain, it’s going to rain there. If you like sunshine, it’s sunny. The basic idea is that Ted Danson’s character picks people with similar interests and has them live together, so when we were designing it, it all came back to character. We started with Kristen Bell’s character, Eleanor, and said, “What would she like?,” and it built from there. And then, we looked at the other people in the neighborhood to figure out how to build for them. Then, we put in our own flourishes.
So, is there a much bigger town with this as just one little community?
GODDARD: There are multiple neighborhoods, and every neighborhood has 300 people in it. That’s how it was designed. So, that does suggest that there are other neighborhoods and a bigger system in place.
What can you say about Eleanor and Michael, and how their relationship will continue?
GODDARD: Michael is in charge of this neighborhood, so he’s sort of this benevolent overseer figure. But he’s also Ted Danson, so he’s charming and human, at the same time, which balances it nicely. A lot of the fun of this show is seeing these two personalities ping-pong off of one another. I’m excited for people to get to see what Ted is doing and what Kristen is doing. It will be familiar to people who love those two, like I do, but I think they’ll also be excited to see them get to stretch new muscles. We also needed actors that are very technically proficient because it’s such a complicated tone. We’re constantly swinging between comedy and drama. We need actors who can break your heard and make you laugh, with the same line. That’s where someone like Ted and someone like Kristen is invaluable. They have this proficiency from doing what they’ve been doing so well for so long that it allows the show to transcend.
A character like Eleanor would normally be someone you’d worry about making too unlikeable, but Kristen Bell is so likeable, did you instead worry about making her to likeable?
GODDARD: Yes, we worried about it until I started rolling. As soon as I started rolling, I looked at Mike and said, “Oh, she’s so likeable that you can make her way more unlikeable. She can do way worse things and the audience will still be on her side ‘cause she’s so delightful and effervescent that she just makes evil fun and you forgive it.” It was a real relief. I knew that was a danger. If we make her too unlikeable, the show would lose something. The very first scene we shot was the, “Do you have a second to eat my fart?” scene, and I remember watching it and thinking, “Oh, this is charming!” I was worried that it was going to be too unlikeable, but it was delightful, and I knew we were okay.
With how funny the inability to swear in this community of the Good Place is, is it hard not to break into hysterical laughter?
GODDARD: All day, and I’m terrible. I have ruined so many takes, by just laughing behind the camera. I can’t help myself. We’re constantly refining jokes and finding new ways to come at it, so I’m constantly being surprised. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ruined takes, just walking Kristen and the rest of our cast improv.
What is this production schedule like?
GODDARD: TV is always a grind. It’s hard. The thing that is challenging about TV is also what makes it delightful, and that’s that every five days, you have to come up with a new episode. It helps when you really have an extraordinary team and an extraordinary cast. But, this is an ambitious show. This is mostly Mike’s team from Parks and Rec, so you have this set of professionals who really know what they’re doing, and you have a cast that really knows what they’re doing. I don’t know, if we didn’t have this level of talent, if we’d be able to pull of this level of ambition with the show. One of the appeals to me, quite frankly, as a director, is that we can do these wild and crazy things that the audience has never seen before. I’m not really interested in doing the same old stuff. Even episode to episode, I get bored, too. The thing that’s so exciting about working with Mike is that my favorite day of the week is when the new script comes out. You read it and you go, “I cannot believe what he is going for!” He’s really going for it, every episode, and that’s really fun to see.
Is the over-arching story of this show Eleanor trying to figure out what really is good and whether she really can be good?
GODDARD: Exactly! I think it does boil down to, what does it mean to be a good person, or more specifically, what does it mean to be a better person than you were yesterday. Being a good person is not some giant decision. It’s a thousand little decisions that you make, all day, every day. You just try to be better. When we look at every episode, we look at it through that prism of, how are we trying to be better than we were? We talked a lot, early on, about how we need to tether this to something that feels relatable, and I do think, fundamentally as people, we do want to be better. We want to be better than we were yesterday, but that’s not always easy. So, you can relate to Kristen saying, “I want to try to be better, but I’m not very good at it.” As long as we have that, it gives us the freedom to go insane, at times.
Has there been any movement on a The Cabin in the Woods sequel?
GODDARD: It’s the sort of thing where, honestly, the problem is that Joss [Whedon] and I don’t have a good idea for what the sequel is. The problem with Cabin is that it doesn’t lend itself well to sequels. I think both Joss and I feel like we don’t want to do it unless we have the same level of inspiration that we had for the first one. I never want to say never ‘cause you never know with inspiration. We may wake up tomorrow and go, “That’s it!” But, what’s tricky about Cabin is that we don’t want to do something that’s going to damage Cabin. We pained ourselves into quite a corner with that movie. I love that movie so much, and I loved the experience of making that movie. Nothing would make me happier than to call the merman up and say, “Hey, we’re getting the band back together!” That would make me so happy. But, it just hasn’t come together.
For people who are anxiously awaiting The Defenders TV series on Netflix, which you’re an executive producer on, what would you say to reassure them that Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez are the right showrunners?
GODDARD: They’re so talented. I’ve known Doug since the Buffy days. Doug and I have worked together for 20 years, and Marco and I worked together on Daredevil. They’re so talented. It’s just more of the same, quite honestly. If you liked Daredevil, than it’s the guys who did that, who are wildly talented. It’s just really fun. It’s really fun to see these four different shows come together. I’m excited for people to see that. We’re certainly having a blast doing it. Hopefully, people will enjoy it, as well. It’s been really fun. Netflix has been such a wonderful partner, and Marvel clearly knows what it’s doing. To get to have that freedom and support to create four different shows, that’s not something that television networks like to do. They like it all to feel exactly the same. But Netflix was very much like, “We want to create four very different shows,” and they’ve allowed the creators to make those shows. It’s been really fun.
It’s great that Netflix has made the necessary investment to allow those shows to be what they need to be.
GODDARD: I remember when Jeph Loeb, Melissa Rosenberg and I met at a bar, before we pitched to Netflix for the first time and we said, “Well, this would be the dream, if we could be on Netflix and make these different shows.” But, we didn’t believe it would ever happen. It’s a real credit to Jeph, in getting that train up the hill. We didn’t think that would happen. And Netflix really got on board.
The Good Place premieres on September 19th on NBC, before moving to its regular timeslot on Thursdays.