‘Mrs. Fletcher’ Creator Tom Perrotta On Lessons Learned From ‘The Leftovers,’ And Porn’s Effect On Modern Culture

What do you do when you find yourself at the start of a new chapter in your life? It’s a situation we’ve all encountered, but the reality of it is weighing on Eve Fletcher and her son Brendan Fletcher in the HBO series, Mrs. Fletcher (which airs Sundays at 10:30pm EST on HBO with earlier episodes streaming on HBO Now). They’re navigating very different situations with her home alone and bored and him off clumsily navigating life as a college freshman, yet both see their experiences impacted by differing ideas around the nature of sex is and the influence of porn.

For series creator and novelist Tom Perrotta (who wrote the source material) the journey of discovery (sexual and otherwise) of “a woman who has kind of let motherhood consume her entire identity” most fascinated him on his first endeavor as a solo showrunner. Perrotta co-wrote the adaptation of his novel Little Children and worked as a co-creator opposite Damon Lindelof on The Leftovers. But this isn’t the vision of a singular storyteller. Not anymore as it’s moved from the page to the screen. Uproxx spoke with Perrotta about the influence of the many voices that have had a hand in shaping the series as it heads closer to its conclusion (episode six runs this Sunday with the finale to follow a week later). This before discussing the power of porn in sexual culture and lessons learned from working on The Leftovers.

How does this all change when it becomes a show, and you bring Kathryn Hahn into the mix?

Oh dramatically, because Kathryn is such an intuitive and strong-willed actor, and she had very clear and vocal feelings about who she thought this character was. And it was so interesting to me and so deep that I just really… Right from the beginning, we were in a pretty intense dialogue about what the show should be, and what the character should be. So, yeah, because there’s my version that exists in the book, but I think once she was involved then we were into the creation of something that was related to that but is in other ways, an entirely new conception.

There are definitely other strong voices that are in the mix here, some impressive names that are connected to the show, directors Nicole Holofcener, Gillian Robespierre to name a couple. Can you talk a little about the people that you brought in to help flesh out this story?

I think one of the things is, there just happens to be a team of four women directors. And given the sort of intimacy of the subject matter, I think that was one of the things that we all thought would be probably really useful for the show. But they’re also people whose work I deeply admire. Nicole and Gillian… their movies particularly, Enough Said and Obvious Child are two of my favorite movies in recent years. I was drawn to them because of their work. I didn’t know the work of Liesl Tommy all that well, but HBO had worked with her and really loved her, and then when we spoke with her, I just thought what she had to say about the subject matter and her enthusiasm for it’s just really won us over.

Carrie Brownstein I think is just one of the most interesting people in the culture, and she’s like a genuine renaissance woman. Helen Estabrook, our other executive producer, had worked with her on Casual and was just telling me how great a director she was, and so we got into a conversation with her. It really always was just a sense that this show was an ongoing conversation, and there were people who really were interested in that conversation and wanted to join it. And that was really the way that we made our decisions in terms of who was going to be involved.

I’m curious how porn folds into the mix as a part of Eve’s sexual awakening and why you lean so heavily on it as a focus of the story here?

Well, I also wrote about porn in Little Children. I think that I’m old enough that I remember the world before the internet, and porn was this very taboo and walled-off thing, you had to kind of make a choice to go find it. And you had to go sort of engage with somebody else. You had to go buy it from somebody. If you wanted it, you went into a theater. Even in a video store there was a separate back room, and there was always something a little bit elicit about it and embarrassing. And as a result, it just wasn’t really a presence in my life. And then suddenly it was there on the internet, and I remember just being… It just seemed to me like a huge change in the culture that people don’t want to talk about that much. But when you look at statistics in terms of how many people are watching it and how often, it’s kind of mind-boggling. To the point where it almost seems like the internet exists so that people can watch other people have sex, and I do think it’s changed the whole sexual culture. I was really interested in exploring the way that the sexual culture has changed as a result of porn, and then as a result of feminism and the various ways that people are pushing back against systemic abuses in our sexual culture. So it was like, to see porn both as a kind of powerful negative force in the son’s life, and the possibly liberating force in Eve’s life (but a dangerous one) seemed like a really interesting subject.

I would definitely agree with that. More of a logistical question, but the usage of the clips in the show, the porn clips that were pulled from Pornhub or whatever site, how does that work in terms of licensing? Do you guys pay for those?

Of course, you pay for them, we have to license them, and in fact, there were clips that would have been useful to us, but we couldn’t have the assurances we needed that the performers were consenting and so we wouldn’t go with those. So it was a very, deliberate legal process there. And sometimes some of the clips are shot and taken from the internet and licensed, and some of the other ones that are not explicit, we actually shot ourselves.

You’ve moved from strictly being a fiction writer to somebody who’s worked in film and on television pretty regularly. I’m curious about some of the lessons you’ve picked up (specifically with TV and The Leftovers) and how they translate to this process.

The Leftovers is my whole TV education and obviously it’s a very unusual show. And so certain things about it weren’t applicable to Mrs. Fletcher. I would say there were things I learned in terms of how to use music, how a writer’s room should work, and what kind of storytelling risks can be taken. I just felt like that was a whole apprenticeship for me, and though the shows are extremely different, I still felt like stylistically, I had learned a lot from watching Damon do what he does.

Was there any apprehension going into this of running something solo? Was there ever any thought about turning this over to another collaborator?

Not on this one, I felt like I had done my apprenticeship on The Leftovers and I’m not a young person anymore, so it just felt like if I was going to do this, this was the time to do it. As we discussed before, I had a lot of really strong collaborators on this one, and that seems really important. That goes for the writer’s room, as well as the directors, and the actors, and Helen, the other producer. But yeah, I did want to try it out myself, but that said, it’s a daunting step up. You go onto the set and there’s Nicole Holofcener in there and she’s made more than ten movies and she’s just a groundbreaking indie director who I deeply admire. And there’s Kathryn Hahn who’s been acting professionally for 25 years or more. And I’ve had three years of experience under my belt, and so I think there’s a certain humility that comes with understanding that even if you’re nominally the boss, you need to do a lot of listening because there are a lot of people around who actually have more experience.

Is the plan to mostly continue to work on things that you’ve already fleshed out as a novel? As opposed to jumping in with an idea purely and originally for TV or film.

Yeah, it is. I mean, I love writing novels and that is my primary identity. I also am just sort of… I don’t even know how people write original scripts when there’s a whole world-building… For me, it’s a phase that takes like a year or two of living with the story, and really kind of knowing it inside and out. And yeah, I know that obviously people who write original scripts do that work, I just don’t know how they do it. [Laughs] Because I’ve never done it. So I think I’ll stick with the division that I’ve been working with.

Not to give anything away with, but is there a room for a second season here? I think it’s fair to say the show ends on a realization as opposed to closure. Do you want to fill this in more or are you happy to leave it where it is?

Well, I’m happy to leave it where it is, but I agree with you that it is a slice of these characters’ lives and they obviously could be followed beyond it if we ever chose to return to it. Because it’s not the kind of closure that says, “Okay, now you know everything you need to know about these people.” It’s more like a phase of their lives has been eliminated, but there are going to be other phases after that.

‘Mrs. Fletcher’ airs Sundays at 10:30pm EST on HBO.