Greg Daniels on Creating ‘Upload’ After ‘The Office’ and Why He Hasn’t Seen ‘The Good Place’

     May 2, 2020

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From creator Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Rec), the futuristic comedy series Upload is set in a technologically advanced world where humans can be uploaded into a virtual afterlife when they are clearly on the path to their departure. When Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is forced to make a quick decision about his fate, after a self-driving car accident, he makes the choice to be uploaded into the highly sought after Lakeview, where he meets his customer service guide (Andy Allo) and the two form an unlikely friendship in this new digital realm.

During a virtual press day for the new Amazon Prime series, writer/executive producer Greg Daniels talked about first coming up with this idea 30 years ago, how it evolved, figuring out the look and design of the futuristic cars, the biggest technical challenges in doing something like this, why he decided to direct another series before tackling episodes of this one, and the coincidence of Upload and The Good Place (from Parks and Rec co-creator Mike Schur) both being about the afterlife. He also talked about his feelings about a reboot or reunion of The Office, and how his upcoming Netflix series Space Force came about.

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Photo by Amazon

Collider: I tremendously enjoyed this show. I had no idea what to expect from it, and just had a great time with it.

GREG DANIELS: Oh, thank you. Good. That was what the intention was.

This was something that you first came up with 30 years ago. What keeps you working on a show for that long?

DANIELS: Well, it’s a bit deceptive to think that I was working away steadily for 30 years. Basically, I had the idea a long time ago, when I was a Saturday Night Live writer, and I was trying to think of sketch ideas and coming up with different concepts. I always thought it was really cool and, and a rich and fruitful area, but it went into a pile of ideas. And then, when I was starting to look for my next project, after King of the Hill, one of the things I was doing was thinking, “Well, that was a successful TV show. If I never get another TV show, maybe I’ll write books.” So, I started to write that in prose, as a short story, but then I was introduced to The Office and I worked on that. Obviously, launching and running a TV show is a very time-consuming thing, so I just put it back in my trunk. I didn’t actually work on it until the writers’ strike of 2008. And then, I took it and was like, “All right, I don’t know how long we’re gonna be on strike,” and I pitched it as a book. I thought, “Maybe this is my Harry Potter.” But then, we went back to work, and it went back in the trunk. And then, after The Office wrapped, I had more time, so I started to think about it, not as a book, but as a streaming series. I sold it in the beginning of 2015, but I worked it all out beforehand, in 2014, until I had the first two seasons worked out and a big bible. I definitely had thought about it a lot, but not continuously for 30 years. That would be pathetic.

Does it feel like the futuristic representation and the technology is very different now? If you had done it before, would it have looked very different than it does now?

DANIELS: Oh, yeah. I think it’s much better now than it would’ve been, if I had done it in the past. There have been so many advances in virtual reality and medical imaging, and stuff. I think that it would’ve been a very nerdy, sci-fi version, if I had done it way back, when I first thought of it. There’s a lot of other treatment of the notion of digitizing things or uploading things, so all of that heavy lifting has been done in the minds of the audience and I think they can enjoy the story, the characters and the comedy more. It doesn’t have to be explained a whole lot.

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Photo by Aaron Epstein/Amazon

Whenever anybody tells any kind of futuristic story, they seem to like to invent a car. What went into figuring out the look and design of these cars? How did you decide what you wanted your futuristic cars to look like?

DANIELS: It’s funny that you should say that ‘cause the production designer for the pilot, Gerry Sullivan, had been an art director for Wes Anderson. He was super into the car designs. That was one of his favorite parts. It was a whole separate thing. We had to go to a special car designer, and it was built out of fiberglass. It took forever to create it. That was one of his chief pleasures, in doing the pilot. And for me, it was a lot of fun to try to imagine, if it was a truly self-driving car, where you didn’t have to even have a steering wheel, what would be some of the features that would be offered. I feel like the main one would be that you could sleep in it, or that you could watch movies inside of the windshield on a big screen. That would be some of the things that you’d want to do in it. And so, we invented this car that had an adjustable seat that could turn into a bed or a lazy boy, or sit up to look out the window.

What were the biggest technical challenges in doing a show like this, where you’re doing a comedy, but you also have all of these effects and other things going on?

DANIELS: It’s super different from my past work. For instance, one of the great things about The Office was, because it was very real life and it was documentary, you could incorporate anything that happened. I remember taking Steve to New York City, for an episode where he goes to New York. We just were driving around in a van, and we would jump out and he would improvise something in front of a Sbarro for five seconds. We’d shoot it, and them jump back in the van and go somewhere else. You could use everything in the real world. The thing about Upload is that the parts that aren’t in the virtual world are set in the future, so everything is very production designed. It’s also very cinematic. We had a really good cinematographer and production designer, and there was a lot of thought put into everything. A lot of very talented people were making it, giving it a lot of scope, and making it as cool as they could. There was less ability to just grab your camcorder, run out and shoot something. And the, all of the stuff that isn’t real, like the self-driving cars and the 3D food printers, and stuff, all have very specific ways that you need to shoot them, so that the visual effects artists can do their job. It’s pretty different. It’s complicated and very technical.

This is obviously a very different kind of show from The Office and Parks and Rec. How conscious were you of making something different, as far as your filmmaking approach, the way that you shot it, the tone, and the ability to go a little more R-rated. Were those things that you really thought about and were there things you specifically wanted to do, that you weren’t able to do before?

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Photo by Katie Yu/Amazon

DANIELS: Yeah, completely. Parks and Rec and The Office, especially having closed it off after nine years and really feeling very satisfied that there was an arc there, professionally speaking, I felt really good about it. If I was gonna work that hard on something else, I wanted it to be something different and something very ambitious, where I’d have to learn, and I couldn’t just do the same thing I’d always been doing. The other thing was that I wanted to direct this, as well. My directing experience needed some upgrading, too, so while I was working on Upload, I directed and produced a show called People of Earth, which was a science fiction show. I didn’t create it or write it, at all, but I directed it, and that was partly to learn about how to direct these heavy vfx projects. For me, it was just exciting ‘cause I didn’t know a lot about this, and I got to work with really good cinematographers and production designers. We shot the pilot, which was the biggest episode, in Los Angeles in 2018, and then I shot the rest of the series in Vancouver, in 2019. It was fun. The brief from Amazon was, “Make a five-hour movie,” so it was very a good stretch for me, both as a writer and as a director.

I’m also a huge fan of The Good Place. That show makes my heart happy. Did you and Mike Schur talk with each other about your shows, since now you’ve both made shows about the afterlife?

DANIELS: Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m not exactly sure when, but I think in 2016, I had dinner with Mike and his wife. I was just finishing my first draft of this. I had pitched it all over town, in 2015, and sold it to HBO. I said to Mike, “I’m turning something in tomorrow.” And he said, “I’m turning something in tomorrow, too.” We said, “Let’s exchange scripts,” but we never did. And then, it turned out to be The Good Place. I hope this comparison is not vulgar, but it was like our periods were synchronized, from having worked together for so long. Our creative brains were thinking about the same thing. But I think they’re very different shows. I actually haven’t seen The Good Place. When I realized that we were both doing something in the same zone, I didn’t wanna be influenced by it, but every now and then, the writers on my staff would say, “You can’t do that joke, they did it on The Good Place,” and I’d have to cut something. Mike has a sensibility where, when you said your heart is glad, that’s very Mike. I feel like he makes your heart glad when you experience his stuff. So, I thought that they would come out different. I thought they were both worth doing. There’s nothing supernatural about this. It’s set in the real world, although it’s a scientifically science fiction-y advanced world.

What is the status of a reunion or a reboot for The Office? Do you think that show could come back and continue on, or would you prefer to do a one-off reunion special of some kind? Is that something that you’ve given thought to?

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Photo by Aaron Epstein/Amazon

DANIELS: Oh, I’ve given a lot of thought to it because that’s what everybody’s been asking me, for a year or two. The first idea for doing this came after the Will and Grace reboot. At that time, it wouldn’t have been possible to get all of the actors together, in the same way that Will and Grace got the entire cast together. And I don’t really feel like there’s a need to do a reboot, from the standpoint of, there wasn’t a lot left hanging in the stories. I think people love the characters and they just want more of the characters. But at the time, the idea of doing it with half the cast didn’t seem like a great idea to me. The cast is so wonderful, on that show, and I loved doing it so much that I can’t rule it out. People keep asking about it. There’s obviously a group of people that would be made happy by it, but I don’t also wanna have another group where it was a disappointment. So, at the moment, people are still willing to finish the series, and then start the series again tomorrow, on Episode 1. I feel like it’s a bit of a complete artistic statement, at the moment, but you never know.

You also have Space Force coming up for Netflix, with Steve Carell. What are you most excited about with that series, as far as what you get to explore with it, and how would you describe the tone of the comedy for that?

DANIELS: Wow, well, that’s so different. It was a very different genesis. It happened really quickly. At the core, it was working with Steve again, which was the chief joy of my career. I love writing for him, for a number of reasons, but one of them is that he’s just such a skilled comic actor that you really can write in any direction, and he can convey it. So, there was a lot of joy in doing that again with him. The way I got attached to it was that this executive, named Blair Fetter, at Netflix had a meeting with Steve and pitched him just the two words of Space Force. And Steve called me and said, “I’ve got two words: Space Force.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m in. I love it.” And very, very quickly, we were able to imagine a whole world. It’s very different from Upload. You’ll recognize pretty much everybody in the cast versus with Upload, there are a lot of newcomers that I’m eager and excited for people to see, for the first time. But there are a few similarities, too. Both of them have this theme of, “Let’s fix the earth.” In Upload, everybody’s letting the earth go to pot because they’re trying to save up their money to be uploaded into a virtual reality, where we’re putting all of our efforts. And in Space Force, everybody’s got this end game of, going to colonize Mars. That’s all well and good, but the earth is real, and that’s where we’re gonna have to learn how to live and learn how to take care of it. So, they both have a bit of that, thematically.

Upload is available to stream at Amazon Prime. For more, check out our review of Upload here.

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