‘Miracle Workers’ Creator Simon Rich on His New Heaven-Set TBS Comedy Series

     February 4, 2019

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If you were a fan of FXX’s quirky romantic comedy series Man Seeking Woman, then TBS’ new heaven-set workplace comedy Miracle Workers should definitely be on your radar. Based on creator and showrunner Simon Rich’s book, “What in God’s Name”, this seven-episode limited series turns the perception of heaven on its head while also making the case that humans are worth saving.

Miracle Workers stars Daniel Radcliffe as Craig, a low-level angel responsible for handling all of humanity’s prayers. Steve Buscemi plays Craig’s boss, God, who has pretty much checked out to focus on petty hobbies. To prevent Earth’s destruction, Craig and fellow angel Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan) must answer a seemingly impossible prayer: help two humans, Laura and Sam (played by Sasha Compere and Jon Bass), fall in love.

During a visit to the Atlanta-area set with a small group of journalists, I had a chance to chat with Rich about Miracle Workers, the process of adapting his own novel for the small screen, casting Radcliffe and Buscemi, and the plans for future seasons. Also starring Karan Soni, Miracle Workers also features guest stars Tituss Burgess, Margaret Cho, Angela Kinsey, Tim Meadows, John Reynolds, Lolly Adefope and Chris Parnell appearing throughout the season. Look for Miracle Workers on TBS starting February 12th!

To get a look at the new series, check out the official trailer, followed by my set visit interview with Rich:

Miracle Workers is created by Man Seeking Woman creator Simon Rich. It is executive produced by Lorne Michaels and Andrew Singer of Michaels’ Broadway Video, along with Rich, Radcliffe and Buscemi. Broadway Video produces the series in association with Turner’s Studio T.

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Image via TBS

Did you always envision that your book would be dramatized in some way, theatrical or as a TV series?

Simon Rich: Yeah you know, I always hoped and dreamed that someday I’d have a chance to adapt a novel. But the scale of it is pretty large, so I always assumed that it would never happen. I never imagined that anybody would give us enough trust and freedom to build such a large expansive world. And it’s unbelievably exciting to see it materialize.

Budgetarily, have you been able to pull it off?

Rich: I would say, just barely. But you know, we’re really grateful and lucky to be able to work with talented production designers, artists, and prop masters, the amount of detail work that’s gone into the minutiae of creating this world is exhilarating, and it’s just so exciting to collaborate with everybody everyday on turning this thing into a reality.

Obviously, religiously speaking, there’s what our parents teach us about what heaven’s supposed to be, and there’s a cinematic idea of heaven. And now politically there are a lot of parallels one might be able to draw about the supreme leader and so on. So can you talk about those aspects?

Rich: Yes, obviously the show is based on a novel that I wrote many years ago, but all that said, I definitely think audiences might relate to a show about a system that is extremely flawed at the very highest level. And I think that in the writer’s room, we couldn’t help but notice parallels between our story and the current state of affairs.

But where did your idea for heaven like this come from?

Rich: You know, I always was interested in portraying a version of the afterlife that was consistent with my experiences on planet Earth. I feel like walking around on planet Earth, walking around reading the paper every day and experiencing things, there doesn’t always seem to be an airtight perfect plan. And it always struck me as conceivable that maybe the reason things were the way they are had to deal with some kind of disorganization up top. The novel is my attempt to make sense of reality.

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Image via TBS

Seven episodes. How does that work for you, storywise?

Rich: I feel extremely lucky that TBS let us make it seven. Seven was just a number of episodes that we needed to tell this particular story.

It’s not a common order.

Rich: No, no, yeah, not six, not eight, but seven. And that was just creatively, the best number of episodes to tell this particular story and TBS let us do it. They didn’t ask us to dilute the story and water it down and expand it to 13 or 20. They heard the pitch, they heard the outlines and they agreed that seven’s what it ought to be. And our show, you know,it’s literally a ticking time-bomb to the end of the world.

The season takes place over the course of two weeks, and there’s literally a doomsday device ticking down the seconds until the world explodes. So obviously the last thing we wanted to do was water down the stakes and slow our story down. It was really important to us that every episode feel life or death, and momentous. So I’m really, really happy and relieved that they let us do it as a seven episode series cause I think ten or 12 would have lost some of the narrative drive.

Daniel [Radcliffe] mentioned that he was involved from the earliest stages of development and casting. What made you land on him so quickly?

Rich: From the moment that he told me he was a fan of the book and interested in helping to bring it to life, everything kind of … for the first time in my life, it actually crystallized in my head that we might actually be able to pull it off.

I’ve just been such a huge fan of Dan’s for a long time. Obviously his work in film but also on Broadway. I knew that if we had Dan as the center of this thing, that we might have a chance to actually bring the thing to life. I still remember that first conversation that I had with Dan. It was a long time ago, it was years ago actually. Don’t remember exactly when but yeah, he was the first person to get involved and it’s been thrilling to work with him. He’s obviously an incredibly gifted actor but he’s also an excellent producer and he’s had a ton of creative input on the project, in terms of casting. But also in terms of finding directors, he’s helped with hiring department heads, he’s been in on every single major creative decision. From finding a production designer to casting our leads. He’s just an unbelievably hard-working guy.

I just came from a conversation where he was asking permission to do more of his own stunts. And this was a scene where his character gets taken pretty hard, down to a concrete floor and I told him that he couldn’t do that.

What are we about to see in this scene that we’re about to go watch?

miracle-workers-creator-simon-rich-interviewRich: So this is an episode late in the season, but the angels in the Department of Answered Prayers have a very bold plan to get the two humans together. Dan’s character, Craig, is the most timid member of the group, very fearful and terrified by what his colleagues are trying to do. And he tries to explain his rationale and get them to abandon the plan, and when they refuse, he freaks out. Has a full on panic attack. So that’s what you’ll see.

Can you explain the casting change with Owen Wilson and Steve Buscemi? How did that play out?

Rich: Yeah. Owen was involved really early in the process, in the very early stages, long before we did any shooting or pre-production or even really finalized any of the scripts. And we just had different visions for the character, and so we just parted ways. But pretty early.

And Buscemi, very different character. How would you describe him for us?

Rich: Yeah, so our portrayal of God is that he is as flawed and vulnerable as the humans he created. He’s a character who is at times rash and irrational. He is not extremely high-functioning. He’s overwhelmed, he’s insecure, he makes frequent mistakes, and he is in way over his head. And that’s how Steve’s playing him.

What’s it like for you to write for and then direct God?

Rich: Well I don’t direct him, I’m on the sidelines whispering to the directors. But working with Steve is one of the highlights of my career. I’ve been a fan of his for years and years. His performance in Fargo is my favorite performance by an actor in a movie. And he’s had dozens of performances that blew me away and it’s surreal to get a chance to work with him. Dan is also an enormous fan of Steve’s. It’s really exciting for all of us to work with him. He’s also just an unbelievably sweet and kind guy. Really generous, hard-working. This is not an easy show. You really have to go at it pretty hard. There’s a lot of late nights there’s a lot of long shoots and it’s thrilling to have people who are not just super talented but also up for the challenge.

I think there’s a lot of perceptions of institutions in decline, there’s been a lot of polling about it. Are there things you’ve thought about going into the book that you thought differently about in the script?

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Image via TBS

Rich: Yeah, actually I think that the vision of heaven in our show is slightly different than the vision of heaven in the novel. In the novel, heaven was portrayed sort of as a, almost like as a lightweight start-up. The campus was very lush and when it was published I was working at Pixar. So I think I was in the Bay area and I think there’s some influence on the aesthetic of the company from my Bay area start-up life.

But anyway, yeah the vision of Heaven Inc. in our show is that it is a deeply flawed institution that’s rotten at the very top and has had a disastrous trickle-down effect on the rest of the company. It is a company that is falling apart, it is a company where a lot of the technology is obsolete. It is vast, inefficient, poorly designed, mismanaged, and physically falling apart everywhere. So yeah, it’s not a place where everything happens for a reason. It’s a place where things happen most of the time for no reason.

But do you relate that to feelings about institutional organizations, like the Catholic Church or the White House, or …

Rich: Right, right. You know, I try not to be too prescriptive with the show. I hope that it doesn’t come across as didactic or allegorical, cause that isn’t our intention. But like I said, I definitely think that people might relate to the situations our characters in.

If you have an inept leader who acts like a man-baby, the comparisons are coming.

Rich: I think so. And yeah, we don’t lean into it but we don’t lean away from it either if that makes sense.

How many directors do you have? You have seven episodes. Is it one director for the whole thing, or … ?

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Image via TBS

Rich: No, it’s several. I’m not sure, I think it’s been announced yet but I’ll just tell you. Ryan Case is directing a couple of episodes and she is this brilliant director who I got to work with on my last TV show which was a show called Man Seeking Woman, and she is unbelievably talented. I’m really, really excited for her at this annex. And then we also have Maurice ‘Mo’ Marable who is a fantastic director. He’s doing both episodes five and the finale. And then Jorma [Taccone]’s doing the first couple.

Production-wise, God’s office looks like this incredible Rockefeller Center, Art Deco, beautiful white decor … and then you step into one of the other rooms, and it’s like 1970s beginning of technology.

Rich: It’s a real misallocation of resources.

Exactly. Can you talk a little bit about the way you envisioned heaven?

Rich: Right. Yeah, our version of heaven is that it’s a deeply mismanaged institution. Sometimes a lot of resources go to the wrong department. There are entire departments that you discover over the course of the season that very clearly should not exist, should have been discontinued a long time ago. The bureaucracy of the company makes it very difficult to get anything positive done. A lot of the employees, the angels that work in the various departments are extremely disillusioned and bitter, and tired. It’s a world that screams at you to give up at every turn and our characters, in order to succeed, have to somehow overcome that nihilism and learn to work together and try to do something positive, even though the larger system is corrupt.

Does God have a Board of Directors, or anybody he reports to at all?

Rich: God is 100 percent in charge of the company. He has total power. Nobody can stop him. He answers to nobody. But you do learn, this is a spoiler, you do learn later in the season about how he was able to get his power, and you learn about how he was able to start Earth, and you meet his investors. But that’s later in the season.

miracle-workers-creator-simon-rich-interviewHow does the look compare to your previous shows? Is it going to look less slick, less polished?

Rich: No, it’s going to look a lot bigger and more ambitious. But yeah, we drew on live imagery of the Soviet Union. We talked a lot about North Korea, we also as you identified, there is a bit of Art Deco influence in the higher echelons of the company. But one of the huge inspirations is the location itself. We’re shooting this thing in a gigantic fiber optic cable facility. And that wasn’t always the plan.

We actually showed location stills of this site to the writers on day one in the writers’ room to kind of get their heads in the game in terms of what we were trying to accomplish. This is a factory, I don’t know if you’ve walked around but it is gigantic and it is filled with beautiful but also terrifying images. Like, you’ll walk past a room that will literally say “Danger – Acid.” And there’s an excitement to this physical location because it’s gigantic and a little bit dangerous and unpredictable and consistent, and asymmetrical. And that’s the kind of physical world.

So you’re keeping some of the space intact?

Rich: Oh, big time. Big time. Yeah, yeah, Heaven Inc. looks a lot like an [industrial complex]. You know, it’s one of the main reason we’re filming in Georgia is because I fell in love with this specific location. And It completely drove the direction of the writing.

You’ve envisioned this as an anthology series. Is there anything you can tell us about ideas for future seasons?

Rich: I probably shouldn’t, but yes, I do have ideas and I’m really excited about them.

Would you use some of the same cast members necessarily, like American Horror Story?

Rich: Yeah, that’s the plan.

And is the plan is to always be set in Heaven?

Rich: No.

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Image via TBS

Now, we’ve heard a lot about the Heaven dynamic but we haven’t really heard anything about the couple on Earth. Will you tell us a little bit about them?

Rich: Well it’s Sasha Compere and Jon Bass, extremely gifted actors and they’re phenomenal on the show and I’m so excited for people to see their work. But they’re in their own movie. They have no awareness of Heaven Inc., they don’t know that the angels are suddenly influencing their day-to-day activities. They never meet the angels, they never speak to the angels, they never find out about the true nature of God. They are just going through two weeks of life on Earth and they experience some unusual occurrences and they are kind of in their own world. And it’s been really exciting to shoot their stuff. They never shoot here. Today they are shooting a couple of pick-ups, like you know, eating a sandwich, like close up. Something we couldn’t get the insert on, but basically, this might be their first time here. They really are in a completely different movie.

What did you learn from Man Seeking Woman, that helped with this project? How did you make sure to distinguish the new series from the old one?

Rich: Right, good question. I think that Man Seeking Woman, there are some similarities, that was a surreal show and so is this. That was a show that, you know, Miracle Workers, in a single episode we will see Abraham Lincoln, a natural disaster, and God, so on the surface level they kind of have the same basic sensibility. But I think, Miracle Workers is just way more ambitious on a story and character level. We are focusing mainly on making sure our characters are well-developed and that the stories are emotionally visceral and narratively propulsive, and suspenseful. So it’s a much bigger, I would say much more story-driven show.

Geraldine Viswanathan was saying that her character was formerly a barbarian, and that’s how she comes back. How much fun did you have in the backstory of each angel? Was there something specific about who they previously were and what they are now?

Rich: Yeah, so all the angels have been in heaven for hundreds of thousands, or tens of thousands of years. So they sort of view their Earth lives in the way that we might view our middle school experiences. It’s sort of a, we kind of vaguely remember it, we’re a little embarrassed by it, and yet you can still see the kernel of who you became when you look at that middle school year book. And that’s kind of how our flashbacks work, so I would say all the angels were on Earth as humans, they were just more extreme versions of themselves.

What was Daniel?

Rich: Daniel had a position called Keeper of the Bog. Where he squatted in the bog for pretty much the entirety of his life. Keeping look out for the bog monster, which turned out not to exist. So it was very, by every metric, a waste of life. It’s in sharp contrast with the heroics of a barbarian warrior like Eliza and Karan’s character Sanjay who was extremely popular and successful prince, an ancient prince with dozens of admirers. So Craig very much is the odd man out in the group. Yeah and that’s very much what his arc for the season is about is him having to a lot of heavy lifts to come out of his metaphor of the bog.

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