Executive produced by Diplo, the Viceland series What Would Diplo Do? takes a look at the electronic dance music scene and follows a fictional version of the international DJ/producer/music superstar, played to hilarious perfection by James Van Der Beek (who also wrote, executive produced and was the showrunner of the series). It’s a show about life as seen through the eyes of a musical genius who can whip 60,000 people into a frenzy, but who can’t deal with things on a one-on-one basis.
While at the Viceland portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor James Van Der Beek to talk about how this crazy idea came about, how the show evolved, what led to him wearing so many different hats for the production, Diplo’s input, whether he’d do more of this show, if he’s interested in directing, and how he found the experience of being a showrunner.
Collider: The entire idea for this show seems completely crazy!
VAN DER BEEK: Yeah! Crazy wins!
How did this show come about?
VAN DER BEEK: Diplo’s management tasked Brandon Dermer with coming up with an idea for a promo for “Mad Decent Block Party,” and Brandon’s idea was for me to play Diplo. Brandon didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. I didn’t know Wes [Gully], who’s Diplo. But I had flagged Diplo as a genius when I heard him on the radio talking about how he approaches music, and blending different styles and different beats, and I was like, “Oh, this is somebody to watch!” So, when I came up and his name came up, I thought, “This is somebody to be associated with, for sure.” And I checked out Brandon’s reel and it was amazing! Dillon Francis’ “Not Butter” video was just so wacked out and clever. Everything else on his reel, he adapted his style to fit the content of what he was making. He knows what he’s doing.
So, I met with him and asked him if he was open to notes, and he said, “Yeah.” He’s open source generation and super collaborative. The crew that he’s curated from film school and then moving out here was just so much fun and hard-working. So, we shot the thing and I thought that would be the end of it. I just wanted to be good for Diplo, and for the concert and tour and all of that. And then, it got press pick-up, and Nick Weidenfeld at Viceland came to us and said, “Where are you taking this?” We were like, “What?!” And he was like, “This TV show.” And we were like, “It’s not a TV show.” Everybody was like, “No, it’s not a TV show!” God bless Nick for seeing it before any of us did. And then, that night, I put on some Diplo in my headphones, I poured some wine, and I was just listening. I was like, “Wait a minute, this is an EDM genius who sucks at life.” I came back and said, “I think I can write this. I think I can run this. Brandon, do you want to direct?” He was like, “Yeah!” I said, “Okay, great! Let’s do it!”
So, we flew to New York and pitched Spike Jonze, and about a quarter of the way through, Spike was like, “Okay, great! Do we need a showrunner?” I said, “No, I’m gonna do it.” And he said, “Okay, great!” I spend the next three-quarters of the meeting convincing him that I was the only guy who could run it, and then we walked out with a green light. I hired my two co-EPs, Hal Ozsan and Jordan VanDina, and together with Brandon, we’d break the episodes. I’d go back and write it, bring it in the next day without proof-reading it, we’d tear it apart, and then I’d go back and rewrite. That was our process. Brandon brought his crew along, and with way less money and time than we needed, we somehow pulled it off. We were like a guerrilla film crew, going out and stealing footage and throwing me up as Wes, on stage at concerts, which we did twice. We had this amazing cast who were real improv geniuses and specialists, and they just filled in all these gaps in the writing so brilliantly. It was fun! It was such a collaborative process, from every crew member to the cast. Just to be the captain of that team, it was the best, most fun team sport.
Actors who write, produce or direct are not that uncommon, but actors who run their own show are much more uncommon.
VAN DER BEEK: I don’t think I knew how uncommon it was. I called up Nahnatchka Khan and said, “Here’s what I think. Here’s what I think the world is. Here’s what the pitch would be. What do you think?” And she said, “I think that’s great!” I said, “Am I completely insane to say that I should run it?” And she said, “No, you could totally run it! Do it!” God bless her! She was very supportive. I was like, “Well, if Nahnatchka Khan says that I can do it, who am I to disagree?!” That was really what pushed me over the edge to think that I could take that leap. It’s a ton of work! Honestly, thank god I had Brandon because Brandon was there with me, shouldering the load. He directed, but he also earned that executive producer title, in every sense of the word. He and I were partners, all the way through. I’m sure I’ll talk to him in 10 minutes about a vfx cut for the last episode.
When you started your acting career, could you ever have imagined that it would include a role where you’d be playing yourself and that you’d then go on to play Diplo?
VAN DER BEEK: No, but the business was so different. I started 25 years ago. I thought I would be a theater actor. I never really had too many serious ambitions beyond that, but I got lucky enough to get on the one show of that generation that’s syndicated worldwide and lead to feature film opportunities. I’d done some independent films and one studio movie before that. But, the business has changed and society has changed. I started acting before the internet, which is insane to say. That makes me sound so old! You evolve, and the kind of career I thought I wanted, even six or seven years ago, was completely different from the career I have now, and I couldn’t be happier about it. It’s been a crazy trip.
How did you convince Diplo to be okay with all of this?
VAN DER BEEK: I met with him before we even pitched the show, and he was just down. He’s allergic to taking himself too seriously. He’s also got a huge juggernaut going. I think he makes way more money than I do, per year. He’s touched more songs that you know and have heard than you’re even aware of, and that I’m even aware of, just as a producer. And then, the DJ thing happened separately, where he goes in, reads the crowd, brings them to a frenzy and puts on a show. It’s a really unique modern phenomenon. The fun was to take all the things that you don’t know about DJ culture and just turn it on its head and subvert expectations, at every turn. He was just down for all of it. What he said to me was, “Just make me look completely ridiculous.” I was like, “Wow, okay!” If anything, I had to try to work to convince him to make the character somewhat likeable, so that people would want to come back and spend time with him. But, he was completely game.
Is this a guy who has any personal growth, over the course of the season, or is it in the little moments?
VAN DER BEEK: Our fake Diplo, you mean? Yeah. There is personal growth, by the last episode. We only had five to play with, and they’re all weird, different swings at storytelling ‘cause it was an experiment in what would work. They’re all a little bit different, aesthetically. One Spike Jonze note was that, instead of pressing reset completely, at the end of each episode, like The Bitch in Apt. 23 did, he suggested that we allow the failures to pile up, eventually, and his awareness of those failures to mount, so that’s what happens. By the last episode, I don’t want to say that changes are made, but it ends in a little bit of an existential crisis, while there is a fake Diplo movie being made and meta worlds collapse in on themselves.
You have some other real people in this show as well, but none of them are being played by the actual people. Why did you decide to handle it that way?
VAN DER BEEK: Our rule was that all DJs and musicians had to be played by actors. No one is playing themselves.
Did you ever feel bad about anything you had any of them do?
VAN DER BEEK: No. I’m a fan of everybody who’s portrayed in the show. We have Skrillex and Calvin Harris, and I’m a big fan of their music and what they do. We were never taking shots at them. We always gave them the high ground and made Diplo the fool, in all of those interactions.
Have you heard from any of them?
VAN DER BEEK: I have not, actually. I feel like everybody knows Sonny [John Moore], who’s Skrillex, and a lot of people have said this is pretty accurate, which is a compliment because I think he’s portrayed very well on the show. We didn’t want to take shots at anybody. It’s like when they portray you on South Park or Family Guy, you just have to laugh. You’re out there in the public eye. If you get big enough to have a shot taken at you on a program, I feel like that’s a win. At least, that’s how I always approached it. When somebody parodies you on Saturday Night Live, that’s a big compliment.
When you do something this experimental and with this much freedom, does it make you want to do more of this show, but also try other crazy stuff?
VAN DER BEEK: Yeah. I have a gut reaction to stuff that I read. Either it’s a filmmaker that I really want to work with, or it’s a story that I really want to be a part of and help serve, or there’s a character that I feel I can bring something unique to. That’s really what it’s about. I would go crazy, if I just relied on the same tricks and did the same thing, all the time. It was just be no fun, at all. I really do need to try something different, every time out, and do something that scares me, a little bit. But, the comedy thing has been great. It’s been a lot of fun. I know that the pendulum will swing and I’ll really need to get back into some drama, for some weird masochistic reason. I’ve been doing this for so long, I just think it’s become part of how I process the world. It’s part of my therapy, at this point.