How did ‘Veep’ pull off last night’s documentary episode?

Last night's Veep was a format-breaking episode presented as the long-gestating documentary Selina's daughter Catherine had been filming all season. It not only detailed the results of the electoral tie-breaker vote in the House of Representatives, but cast new light on a lot of events we had witnessed earlier in the season.

I spoke with Veep showrunner David Mandel about how and why they pulled off the documentary episode, coming up just as soon as I make a call from an elementary school classroom…

You set up Catherine doing the documentary early in the season. Did you know then that it would become the frame for a whole episode?

David Mandel: Yeah. It's a little chicken and the egg, in terms of which part came first. I think I was partially inspired by some of the episodes like the testimony episode, and the interview episode they've done in the past. I love stuff like this. It sounds silly, but back in my day, we did stuff like the backwards episode on Seinfeld. I love breaking format. It's my favorite thing in the world. Obviously, you can't do it every episode, but it's fun when you can do it. Early on, as we were talking early on about Catherine, I had this concept that she would be making this movie, they had made reference to film stuff in her past. We had a fallback plan where, if worst came to worst, it would be a big element of an episode, if it couldn't sustain the episode by itself. But that was the shoot the moon idea.

When you mentioned format-breaking episodes you've done in the past, the one this oddly brought to my mind was the fake clip show from the Clerks cartoon.

David Mandel: I didn't want to lead with that one, because you're about the only person on Earth other than me and Kevin (Smith) that remember it. God bless ya, man. That was one of my all-time favorite things, and the eleven people who watched it remember it fondly. Yeah, we did a clip show for the second episode of the Clerks cartoon. Every now and then I get to meet a real comedy nerd, and they go, “Clip show, man. It's a real pleasure.”

But the reason I bring it up is because the documentary allows you to turn this episode into a clip show, only not. We are revisiting most of the events of the season, but from new perspectives.

David Mandel: It was really an opportunity to do events from new perspectives, and also little bits and pieces of the scene that came after the scene. Like, for example, there's the scene with Selina and Amy that happens, after she's talking to Candi Caruso about the job in Nevada, Amy comes in and steals the job away from Candi. This is now the conversation that happened that we never saw. You wouldn't have wanted to see it in episode 501, but once you do that joke and establish it, then it's fun to revisit later.

Logistically, was most of the documentary footage shot at the same time as the original episodes, or did you have to go back to those sets and locations as needed?

David Mandel: I will admit it was a giant, giant cheat. The only footage that really was shot by Sarah Sutherland with a camera in her hand is when Selina is having the mic taken off of her, and Gary does the whole “kissing your sister” line. And there's a couple of clips during Selina's first interview, like there's a shot of the turkey pardoning. Those are all actual footage that Catherine did shoot. A lot of Sarah's footage was interesting, but we didn't really have her doing every scene. She's in certain scenes and we shot those. But a lot of it never existed. There was that scene from episode 7, “Congressional Ball,” where they're having the private meeting and they leave and she loops back in to talk about Tom James, and everyone leaves again and Mike pops his head in and says he was just checking to see if there was another meeting  about him. We didn't then do that again, but we came up with the joke: what if there was one more meeting about Mike? That was one where we really recreated that one from a different perspective. That was one of the real challenges. The episode was written by Eric Kenward, who's an SNL guy and also does Documentary Now! So this is in his wheelhouse. I directed the episode, and one of the really fun parts was figuring out what Catherine's camerawork was going to be like. how it was going to be different from our own style. It was truly going to be a single camera, and she was going to do a lot of push-ins, and pull-outs, which is something we don't do on Veep. And also she would be a fly on the wall. So there's this sense that she was just in the hallway and only gets to see things when that door opens and shuts. So that perspective was fun to work out.

In the Jonah TV commercial, we had already seen Richard's hand clearly chopping the wood. Did you then go back later for those outtakes that are in the documentary?

David Mandel: No, we actually did all of that at the same time. But technically, that was not her shooting it. That wasn't Sarah working a camera. We shot that at the very end of producer, where we did a week in Washington, and then we did do the outtakes knowing we needed outtakes (for the documentary).

One of the things the documentary accomplishes is to give us a better sense of what the staffers' personal lives are like, which we've only gotten small glimpses of or references to in the past. Why did you want to show us that, and how did you decide what they would be up to at home?

David Mandel: Two separate answers. In terms of digging into who these people were, it was definitely something that, as I came into the season as the new guy, I was interested in. I thought it was great that we knew so little about it. I wouldn't have wanted to know those things in season 1. But in season 5, the fact that you can pepper in this stuff and dig a little deeper keeps things interesting. Sometimes, shows do start to run out of a little steam. It added a little element. And it got in interesting ways into the psychology, like how we learned about Selina's relationship with her mother, or with her father. It's not a reference you got to hear every day, but she mentions that her dad did business with Richard Nixon backer Bebe Rebozo. Selina has always talked about her father as a sainted figure compared to her mother, and Bebe Rebozo, there are allegations of corruption surrounding a guy like that. It makes you go, “Well, maybe her dad wasn't the saint, and was maybe a little slimier than we thought about,” which helps explain why she married a guy like Andrew. Little things we get to play with. It's there if you want it, but we're not trying to hit you over the head with it. Especially for people who have been living with these characters for as long as the fans have, and as long as our actors have. To give a peak underneath there now was really something to sink their teeth into.

In terms of the how and the what we revealed, I'm not sure there's a perfect answer to it. Some of it came out of these things we always thought about. There's always been a funny macho side to Kent, and to Gary Cole. I think we assumed he could ride a motorcycle anyway (which he can't). There was also a story we always joked about – which is horrible to talk about – where there are middle-aged congressmen who ride around in biker gangs, and when that poor intern Chandra Levy was murdered, and that congressman who was a suspect, and rumors of a biker gang involvement, somewhere out of that came the notion of what if Kent spends his time riding with this predominantly Hispanic biker gang? I'm not sure there's an answer to it, yet it seemed so right.  With Mike, obviously we had all the baby stuff, and it was fun to see the home side of that. And with Ben, it's been a season where Ben – inadvertently at first and then we rode with it – made a couple of extra insensitive jokes to Asians as the season progressed, and there was something interesting to us that he's henpecked at home by an Asian wife, and perhaps that makes more sense. Again, it's there if you want it, and you don't have to think about it if you don't.

I assume this idea left you with much more material than you were actually able to include in the finished cut. What happens with the rest of it?

David Mandel: There's a lot of deleted footage that we're hoping to make do with. We've had some success with the Easter Egg social media stuff. So all I'll say is, look for more.

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