‘Red Oaks’ co-creator Gregory Jacobs talks about his Amazon pilot

Senior Television Writer
09.17.14 4 Comments


Late last month, Amazon released its third batch of series pilots, ahead of the premieres of any of the shows from the second batch. (“Transparent” is being released on the 26th, and I”ll have a bunch of content about that next week.) “Red Oaks” – a comedy about a teenage tennis pro at a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985, created by Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi, directed by David Gordon Green and produced by Steven Soderbergh- was easily my favorite of the five new pilots (you can watch it here), and I”m hopeful that after the round of costumer feedback concludes at the end of this month, Amazon will order it to series.

I interviewed Jacobs – Soderbergh”s long-time 1st assistant director, an executive producer on Soderbergh”s Cinemax hospital drama “The Knick,” and director of the upcoming “Magic Mike” sequel – by email about the origins of “Red Oaks,” plans for future episodes, casting Jennifer Grey in a show set in the period right before Jennifer Grey starred in a famous movie with a similar setting, and more.

How did both the show and this particular creative team come together? You've worked with Steven for a long time, and I know you've worked with Joe Gangemi in the past, but I believe this is the first time any of you has worked with David Gordon Green.

Gregory Jacobs: I”ve worked with Steven for many years. While we were shooting Behind the Candelabra I mentioned the idea of Red Oaks to him. He thought it was a great idea for a series. I suggested bringing on Joe who is a buddy of ours to help co-write with me. Once we had a draft of the pilot we began looking at filmmakers whose work we admired and who we thought would be a good match for the material. David immediately came to mind. He”s someone whose work I admire and also someone I”ve gotten to know over the years.

Is this based on anyone's own teenage years and/or time at a country club?

Gregory Jacobs: I worked as a tennis pro at various New Jersey country clubs while I was going to college in NYC. “Loosely inspired” is the best way to describe “Red Oaks” (in) relation to my actual experiences as a tennis pro. A majority of the characters are invented by Joe and I.

The '80s had some memorable films set at country clubs and/or summer resorts like “The Flamingo Kid” and “Caddyshack” and even “Dirty Dancing.” Are any of those influences on what you guys have done? Will David or Wheeler be doing Carl Spackler impressions or talking about satin shirts in an upcoming episode? And if you make it into 1986 at some point, will you have to step lightly around discussions of, say, “Ferris Bueller,” given who's playing David's mom?

Gregory Jacobs: “Flamingo Kid” and “Caddyshack” were certainly on our minds as we first conceived “Red Oaks” -mostly as benchmarks of excellence. And we love that Jennifer Grey responded to the part of the protagonist's mother, because as you point out she starred in one of the most iconic '80s “resort” films. But we want very much for this show to work on its own merits and not rely on in-jokes and overt homages to earlier films. So no, there won't be any Carl Spackler impressions.

Related to that, how do you do a period piece set in the kind of location that was used in many memorable films of that period and make it feel like you're not just doing pastiche? This doesn't feel like when Tarantino decides he wants to make an homage to a movie he loved as a kid (as entertaining as those can be). There are characters and situations evocative of the films and shows of the period, but they and the show ultimately felt like its own thing.

Gregory Jacobs: I'm glad you feel that we didn't fall into pastiche. We had many discussions about how to walk that fine line between nostalgia and kitsch. There are other TV shows and movies out there that exploit '80s fashions and pop culture for gags so we decided not to do that. You won't see a lot of brick phones and Rubik Cubes and DeLoreans in our show. We tried to be evocative but not self-referential or cute with our 80s references, so as not to break the fourth wall. Also it helps that the characters and situations are drawn from our own lives.

When was all this done in relation to the first season of “The Knick”? David's done a couple of other TV shows previously, but I'm curious how the adjustment to doing TV has been for you. If this was done after part or all of “The Knick” was made, how useful was that experience in making this?

Gregory Jacobs: Joe and I started working on the scripts in the evenings while I was in pre production on “The Knick,” and continued working on them up until the end of the year; about two thirds of the way thru the shooting of “The Knick.” So we ended up shooting the “Red Oaks” pilot after we delivered all the episodes of “The Knick.” The adjustment to TV has been great. I”m used to working on movies with all kinds of different budget levels and schedules, so a tight TV shooting schedule didn”t worry me. In fact, we shot all ten hours of “The Knick” in 73 days.

How did you specifically end up at Amazon with this? And given that most of you are new to this side of the business, did you have any sense of how different this process is from the norm? Or, other than the crowd-sourcing of pilot feedback, has it been roughly similar to your experiences with HBO and Cinemax execs?

Gregory Jacobs: We discussed “Red Oaks” with a number of different places, but decided to give Amazon a try based on this idea that all their pilots are aired. The idea of putting it out there for people to decide is kind of exciting. I also like the idea of trying someplace new, and Amazon has been great to deal with throughout the process.

How do you feel about the crowd-sourcing aspect? Does it feel at all similar to the process of having a movie focus-tested, or are the stakes higher here because focus testers don't usually have the ability to keep a movie from being finished? Did you guys ever find yourselves in the creative process saying, “Boy, this joke is really going to lead to more 'I am very likely to watch' results!”

Gregory Jacobs: I”m ok with the crowd sourcing aspect. We never based any creative decisions on what we thought might help us get picked up…….maybe we should have. We just tried to write what we remembered and thought was funny and real…..and hoped would resonate.

What sense, if any, do you have from Amazon about how they feel about the pilot, and about how many shows they might pick up this time? They only did two from the first batch, but they picked up all but one of the adult pilots from round 2.

Gregory Jacobs: They seem very pleased with how the pilot turned out.

Assuming you do get picked up, what sort of plans do you have for a first season? How much time would it cover, and have you thought of additional stories yet?

Gregory Jacobs: We have season one pretty well mapped out. Each episode covers roughly one week of the summer of '85, starting in late-June (which just happens to be when we shot the pilot!) and concluding with Labor Day. And it”s definitely going to be “one crazy summer” for our protagonist, certainly more so than any Joe and I ever lived. But then that's the biggest advantage of a revisionist autobiography.

The pilot is very much from the POV of the male characters, and obviously you could only accomplish so much in a 25-minute episode. Will you be sticking with that as part of the tradition of this kind of story, or will we be getting to know the women more in upcoming episodes?

Gregory Jacobs: We weren't honoring a genre tradition so much as exploiting a useful storytelling device. It's pretty commonplace to begin a serialized story with the arrival of a newcomer, whose wide-eyed POV doubles for the audience's and provides an entry point into an unfamiliar world. That said, from our earliest discussions with Steven we decided not to restrict ourselves exclusively to David's POV, so that as the series evolves we have the freedom to explore other perspectives-especially our female characters, each of whom is at her own personal crossroads, and every bit as complicated and clueless as the guys.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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