TV

Greg Daniels On ‘Upload,’ ‘Space Force,’ And Rediscovering His Desire To Do TV Comedy

Time passes, new shows rise and fall, but the collection of shows that have, to differing degrees, benefited from Greg Daniels’ direct influence — SNL, The Simpsons, The Office, Parks And Rec, King Of The Hill — might outlast us all. It’s why I joked with Daniels in our recent chat, calling him the Omega Man of pop culture. And while he demurred and landed on “luck,” it’s impossible to deny the skill. Daniels knows good TV, but most importantly, as he tells us, he knows that “a good TV series gets more and more interesting, the more you’re into it.”

Daniels is very much in the nurture stage when it comes to Netflix’s Space Force and Amazon Prime’s Upload as they step into crucial second seasons where the forcefields of hype and hope can lose their power. In the interview below, we discuss changes to Space Force, finding the right formula with the young cast of Upload, King Of The Hill in modern times (though the show is not yet confirmed to come back), and refinding his love for TV comedy through working with his kids.

Having seen all of Space Force‘s second season, there are some differences that you can pick up on from season one. When did you start to feel like you wanted to make some changes?

Well… I’d say we started working on season two right when we finished shooting. So it was before it aired. And we kind of rolled into it with the writers and we did about 10 weeks and right when I finished shooting, Steve [Carell] especially felt that we had maybe made a mistake in terms of our cinematographic approach. Because early on we were like “Okay, we want to make sure that everybody knows this isn’t The Office, that they shouldn’t be expecting Michael Scott, the character. So we won’t shoot it anything like The Office, we’ll shoot it in a very big, you know, cinematography-heavy way, like a Stanley Kubrick way. Right? And the only problem with that is in order to achieve it, it’s very hard to improvise, right? Because you’re pretty much shooting one camera only and there’s a lot of time between shooting that and then the next guy’s scene. So it kind of breaks up the improvisational patterns.

And so at the end of shooting, Steve was like, “Wow, that was exhausting, and I didn’t get to play with all these amazing actors that we’ve assembled. We’ve got to do something closer to how we did the old show.” So that really drove a lot of it. And then of course there was also just a feeling when we sort of summed up what we had that was working really well, it was we managed to assemble this great cast of series regulars. So let’s figure out a way for them to gel more, have more time with each other, have more variety of relationships amongst them. And it was kind of similar, I think… a little bit like Parks and Recreation. Because in Parks and Recreation, the situation brought all these people together. They had to fill in a pit. But then after a while, you’re like, “Oh, well Chris, Pratt’s doing really well, except he’s only supposed to be this guy who’s hanging out with Anne at her house and we never go to her house. So what if he had a shoeshine stand inside the same set?” And you know, you try different things to kind of turn their attention back into the group so that you can really tell stories that involve all of your main players. So that’s what we did with the story breaking. And then we knew it was going to be pretty different anyway because there was a different administration and Space Force had been kind of like the pet project of the last president and then a different party president was coming in. So you assume, “Well now they’re going to be on the outs with this administration.” So that was just our thinking.

With Upload, I think last time we talked, we had discussed whether there was a show bible and an overall plan for it. Did that change at all? Any big changes as far as where you think you’re going to wind up with it? Because the ambition with that show keeps growing, I think.

Yeah. It’s a pretty different process than Space Force. They’re very different. And Upload, I did have the advantage of shooting a pilot like a year before season one and then doing re-shoots in season one. It was a more deliberate approach and it’s a different type of cast. It’s a cast of newcomers and they’re really fun, but it’s a different experience. And I have a loose idea of where it’s going because in pitching it back in the day, it was in a book project first and so I had really worked out an awful lot. And when I went to pitch it in 2014, I had like two seasons worth of stories in my little thing that I would slap on their desks as I walked out after pitching, you know, “Look at this, see how well worked out it is”.

And we definitely have used a lot of the ideas from that. But we haven’t completely followed it because at the time I didn’t know who any of the cast was going to be. And for instance, in the pilot, you really see Luke and Alicia pop in the pilot. And then I was like, “Oh okay, this is what the ensemble is. It’s Nathan and Ingrid and Nora, but it’s also Nathan’s best friend and Nora’s best friend, they’re part of it.” So they got way more screen time than ever was considered in the early drafts, right? And so I have definitely an endpoint in mind for Nathan and Nora. But how many episodes it takes to get there can be adjusted. And if I come up with something better, I’m going to use it.

How’s it been to work with your son, Owen Daniels [who has popped up as an actor on both shows]?

It’s great. I have to say he’s come up with so many of the big moves in Upload and he wrote the last episode of season two and a lot of big storylines. And after The Office, I was so sort of spent, I really felt like I did what I had to do. You know? I came here and I can’t imagine having a more fun experience and it was a complete perfect cast, exciting story of like starting out in the wilderness and somehow bringing it to a successful conclusion. And I don’t know, it was just like everything you would want out of a TV experience. And my son was writing screenplays and I worked with him on one of his screenplays and I kind of refound the joy of comedy writing. You know what I mean? Because right after The Office I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m done.” And then I just was like, “Oh yeah, this is just fun. It’s just fun to have good characters that make jokes.”

And so I really got a lot out of working with him. And he was working down the hall from the Upload mini room season one, even before season one, before the pilot we had a mini room. And he would kind of stick his head in and make jokes and then go back to working on his stuff. And the writers at that time were like, “He would be funny to be the elevator operator or the waiter.” And it seemed like it was a good idea because that character was going to be an extra for a lot of it. And I didn’t know who I was going to get, who would be willing to stand in the background and be an extra in every scene? So I went with him and he’s done a good job. He’s very funny. It’s been really fun to work with him. And the writing staff generally likes writing for him.

And you’re working with your daughter, Haley Daniels, on My Mom, Your Dad, right?

Yes.

That’s a game show, right?

That is not a game show. It’s a reality show. It’s a dating show.

IMDB needs to get their shit together.

Do they say game show?

I think it says unscripted game show. [It says game show, reality TV]

No, no, no game show at all. No prizes other than love.

That’s a pretty good prize.

Big prize. Yeah. My daughter loves reality shows. She works for Illumination and she is 26 and she loves reality shows. And we were watching Love Island together and we started joking around about if the characters on Love Island were not incredibly fit 20-year-olds, but rather 50-year-olds like me. You know? That was sort of the beginning of the process. And having done a mockumentary, a couple of mockumentaries and worked with a lot of reality show camera people and tried to imitate reality shows, they were something that I thought could be done well. I don’t look down my nose at them at all. And anyway, we had a really good time doing it and you should check it out. It’s on HBO Max.

No disrespect, but no I won’t. [Laughs] I can’t stand unscripted shows.

[Laughs] Okay!

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why it is. I just don’t get it.

This does not feel like a normal one. It’s got a comedy twist in it. What happens is the single parents in their fifties are nominated by their kids in their twenties. And what they don’t know is that the kids live down the road in a different house, observing everything through hidden cameras and manipulating the dates to try and prevent somebody who they don’t like to become their stepfather. And it’s got a lot of humor in it. But I won’t try and convert you.

If King Of The Hill does come back, is there any concern at all about how it lands in a 2022 world where maybe there are some people… I just wonder how that show hits with people that are maybe, what’s the word, ruralist? Maybe. There might be some ruralism or some anti-ruralism in the culture now with politics being what it is. Has that crossed your mind at all?

Ruralism is something I’ve never heard before, that’s quite interesting.

I think I might have just made it up, honestly. It’s entirely possible.

Yeah. Listen, I think that when we did the show back in the day it was in a context of Hollywood not really respecting that kind of character. So it was sort of in a ruralist context, maybe.

Would you say that has improved or degraded further?

I don’t know. I’m very much into Yellowstone right now. It’s an interesting sort of tricky show. I kind of feel like it’s kind of like a Western Sopranos, is how I would describe it. But it’s a different perspective than you mostly get. And I think people like that it’s a different perspective without being a crazy perspective or anything.

‘Space Force’ is available to stream on Netflix and ‘Upload’ just dropped on Amazon Prime

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