Interview with Jeff Astrof of “Shining Vale” on Starz by Suzanne 2/7/22
It was really fun to talk to Jeff. I love talking to the writers, directors, showrunners, etc. because they are usually more knowledgable about the show and how it came into being. Actors are fun to chat with, but they generally only know about their character. This was part of a press junket for the show, so there were other reporters here asking questions. I’ve put mine first. He loves to talk, so I was only able to ask one question in the show time we had. When I left the chat, though, I said, “Thank you for not killing Roxy!”
Suzanne: Since it’s a horror as well as a comedy, usually in horror movies and shows people die. We’ve seen a lot of people who are already dead in the first five episodes we watched. Will we be seeing other people die?
Jeff: Yes, I guess I could say this. It was actually built into the script early on that one of the main characters dies…they revisited that and said, “We want to revisit it now that you’ve done it…Now that we’ve come to really kind of know and love this character, do we think there’s a different way?” I said, “No, absolutely not.”…I mean, that’s a good point; we’re dealing with potential ghosts and people, but the stakes have got to be higher…you know, I don’t love gore and horror. This person dies in a very tragic and symbolic way. It’s interesting, because on my last show, Trial and Error, in the first season I killed somebody, and they were shocked, and it happened kind of in a comic way in the distance, but this is like, I guess it’s an ironic way. It’s an homage to a horror movie, the way they die. It’s also like, one of the great things Sharon and I set to do in a certain way when writing it, I wanted to know how would I react if I were in a haunted house? Because usually people just do some really stupid things in the haunted houses, [and] that’s the fun; that’s the comedy of it. You know, we’re watching a show now. It’s like, “We’re going to sleep in the attic.” It’s like, “No, don’t. You know not to sleep in the attic under these weird carvings. No, don’t do that; something bad is going to happen.” So, it’s like how do we get these characters to do that? And a part of that was also casting the house and finding that house, which was just miraculous. Like you want a house that Terry could be like, “What a great deal,” and if you look at it from a slightly different angle, it’s like, “Don’t live there. Why are you living in that house?” So, that’s the balance we did. But yes, the short answer is somebody does die. It’s funny, the second season I don’t – oh, we’ll probably have someone die, maybe. I don’t know. It can’t be gratuitous. Everything has to go with with the story, but a couple of characters meet untimely fates.
Suzanne: And that’s a real house right? Somebody actually lives in the one that used in the pilot?
Jeff: Yes. So, Jeff Shane, our [incredible] set designer, rebuilt that house, like inch by inch and then more on the lot when it got picked up. I remember when we shot there, we thought there’s no way you’re going to be able to – first of all, we shot in South Pasadena for Connecticut; it was during COVID. So, everything was closed. You only had a certain number of days to shoot in Pasadena, or else I would have said, “Let’s buy the house,” but you can only shoot six days a quarter, so it would be very long season. It [would be] five years a season. And we found this house on MLS; somebody found the house on MLS, and they were selling it, and it was very obvious why it was still on the market. The woman also was a hoarder…And our producer at the time was somebody who was able to see dead people – not the reason she got the job, but happened to be, so she walked in the house and was like, “No way!” I’m like, “Okay.” We created it on a lot on three stages at Warner Brothers and then also added in different rooms. We have the hallways, you’ll notice the wallpaper from the Overlook Hotel, the kitchen from Rosemary’s Baby. There’s the wallpaper from The Yellow Wallpaper. We are very, very liberal with our references.
Question: Jeff, this is quite a balancing act for you. You’re mixing comedy and mixing horror and also real world ailments that people have. How do you maintain that balance, and so it doesn’t lean too far in either direction?
Jeff: That was the big challenge of it. It’s very funny, because, I usually have my counterpart, Sharon, on here to say that she was looking for somebody creepy and funny, and there was nobody creepier and funnier than I was. When we came out with the show, that was not a good look, that pull quote, for me…I wanted to work with Sharon, because I love her work, and I wanted to stay with something that was genre bending. I heard that she had said she wanted to do this. Aaron Kaplan, the producer, pitched it as The Shining as a comedy. I was like, “Well, yes.” Then, it was female driven…I read the quote about women being more than twice as likely as men to be possessed and depressed and the symptoms being the same. I was like, “I am all in on this.” It’s so funny, because during this interview process, we’re hearing like our versions of what the other person was like on the phone. She said, “I had this idea years ago, and no one was excited about it, except for you.” I was like, “Oh, wow.”…She said, “How can you do comedy and horror? They play different paces, they play different, like, frames, you know, how the shot is framed. Usually, the actor has to play a certain way, and it’s scored differently.” I just know that after you go to a horror movie, after you scream, the audience laughs, and I was like, “Okay, so, it’s the same continuum.” I’ve been telling jokes for so long, and I was like, this is a new way to get a reaction.
I was given two writers for the first season. One was a horror writer, and one was a comedy writer. The horror writer saw the pilot and said, “This is my first comedy,” and the comedy writer saw the pilot and said, “This is my first drama.” So I was like, “Okay, something for nobody here.” And that’s been the thing. My first pitch to Sharon was that we write a comedy and we shoot like a horror. In order for it to have legs, and this is my horror writer, her name is Jill [unintelligible] said, “The challenging thing about horror is like, in a season two of a horror, if it’s a house horror, it’s like, ‘just fucking move.’ ” You know, I mean? So, the challenge is, you have to have that in your mind, that the audience is not going to say, “Just move.”
So, from the beginning, it was like, “Is this playing in Pat’s head, or not?” That is consistent. That’s one of the rules, like with Rosemary is that we only see Rosemary from Pat’s point of view, and she has to be in a certain state of mind. I think at this day and age, I look at what I like, and when I watch, and I don’t know that I’m watching any comedy right now. It’s just like I wanted to create something that I would watch and something that was engaging, and in order for it to be a good comedy, you have to have stakes, and the stakes of this are either a woman’s soul or her mental health, and for the family – I came from a broken home, myself, or divorced house, and it’s like there’s a lot of trauma there, and I like writing about trauma. And, again, with higher stakes can come bigger laughs. I think once we cast it, I think that we were able to do that.
Question: I’m enjoying it so far.
Jeff: Great. Thank you so much.
Question: …STARZ, which has this wonderful, wonderful program has a lot of shows that I really, really love. Did you know outright this [was] not a traditional network kind of show when you were helming it, that maybe it was going to go to a great pay channel like Starz?
Jeff: So, we actually developed it – yes, we knew it wasn’t. I work for Warner Brothers, and the lights are kept on at Warner Brothers, really, by the multi cameras that have been there as long as I have been, and that was a model that, really for most of my career, Warner Brothers was afraid of leaving, and obviously, things change.
My last show I developed actually, [was] right on the cusp. It was a procedural comedy called Trial and Error, and it should have gone to Netflix. Back then they were like, “No, I mean, the place that ships DVDs in the mail? No.”
So, this one, I knew, and with Sharon also. Like, one of the things that comes with Sharon, is she has a pedigree that is like – she doesn’t do network stuff. I mean, not that she hasn’t tried and, obviously, there’s money in network and stuff, but like, this is like, I knew the subject matter. We pitched this to network and ABC, but we knew this was going to be streaming and that we wanted to really blow it out. This is my first thing for streaming. The biggest thing was writing without act breaks, actually like constructing a story. That’s why I put it in the title cards, which is just really a cheat, because that’s where the commercials would go. So, that’s just a little inside baseball, don’t tell anybody, because that’s what I’m used to writing, the three act and four act structure…Basically the show is like a three act show, but yes, it had to be a high end show.
We originally developed it for Showtime, and then Showtime thought it was being developed for Sharon, and they said, “Well, we wanted the vehicle for Sharon,” and we’re like, “Well, this is not Sharon.” So, Aaron Kaplan said, “All right, well, we’re taking it back; someone has to love this,” and Starz swooped right in and from the very first second. They were just like, “This is this is how we want to brand our network for comedy.”
Then, once we cast the cast, also, it just became such a pedigree. So, I would say, real kudos for Starz…Their notes have always been very, very smart, but very, very limited too, and they just want to let us run with it. We knew that from the beginning Shannon and I were going to create something here that there’s no model for, so sometimes a network will look at that as an excuse to try to foist a paradigm onto it, but this was just like, we hope that people copy this and then use us as a [model]…So, God bless stars for giving us all this rope to play with.
Question: As far as casting, how did how did Greg, Courtney, and Mira come on board?
Jeff: So, that was an incredible story, because everybody thought that I’d written the part of Pat for Sharon, and that was never any of our intentions. I just had Pat in mind, and we were going to cast that. Then, after we came out with it, and it got picked up, we were talking about casting it and were going around some usual suspects, some not so usual suspects. The person Pat was written [as was] initially like 40 something years old, and that was just the prototype we had in our mind.
Then, Courtney calls me. I get a 213 call. Only my sister and spammers are 213. Who’s going to [call from] 213? It’s like, “Hey, Jeff. It’s Courtney. Listen, I read the script Shining Veil, and you wrote it for me. I want to do it.” I’m like, “Who is this?” She says, “Courtney.” It’s like, “Courtney who?” She said, “Courtney Cox.” I said, “Courtney, I haven’t spoken to you – Last time I [spoke] to you, cell phones hadn’t even been invented yet.” She’s like, “Sorry, I got your number. I read the script. I’m doing all this press; we’re doing a Friends reunion. I was thinking about you. I got the script. It was written for me; I have to do it.” And I was like, “Okay, I know you’ve done Scream,” and one of the reasons her name didn’t come up initially was because she had done Scream, and we wanted to have our own kind of like niche, and we thought like, “Okay, if Courtney does it, we’ve seen her do horror.” Obviously, they’re still shooting these things, the Screams, and she’s very successful at that. And she said, “No, this is something I’ve never done before, and it’s just really in my voice. It’s like you wrote it for me, and I have to do it.”
So, I went back to Sharon and Aaron and the other producers like, “Courtney wants to do the show. I guess Courtney is doing the show.”
And we were a little bit nervous too, because our director, Dearbhla Walsha, she had just come off Fargo. She’s like, “I don’t want to do Scream,” and now we have the star of Scream. I hadn’t seen Courtney really do drama, but oh my god, like and then I met Courtney with her daughter and I was like, “Okay, I know how to write this.” She’s just so warm and so deep and so hard working, and she’s like, “I have this part; trust me,” and she did.
Then, as soon as we cast Courtney, you know, it’s always that one piece of the puzzle. Then, once we cast Courtney, like we’re like, “Okay, we know the age range. We’re going mid 50s, somewhere, early to mid 50s.” Then, Greg’s name came up, and we called him, and he’s like, “I love Courtney, and I love this part.”
And Greg is so funny, because Greg, even up until a half hour ago, Greg always loves it and is concerned about how to repeat it. He’s like, “Listen, season two -” I’m like, “Greg, are you really pitching us season two? Like, do the press.” He’s so into it, and we had a long talk with Greg about it, and Greg loved it, and he’s like, “I really want to work with Courtney, and I think we’d be a good couple.” And sure enough, their chemistry was great.
Then, originally, we wrote this out; we have Greg and Courtney, and the part of Rosemary has one line in the pilot. Now, I always had big plans for Rosemary. As you see, it evolves, but everyone was like, “She’s basically a little more than the cartoony ghost, like the eyes moving in the picture.” But then Mira got a hold of it and was like, “I really want to do this; I really want to be involved.” Then, it’s like, “Well, if Mira wants to be involved – ” Mira’s like, “Whatever it takes.” It’s like, “You know, you’re not number one on the call sheet.” She’s like, “I really need to do this.”
Mira and I talked for a while…Mira’s dad has the distinction of being one of two people my dad told not to quit the business and move to Hollywood on the second one. They were good friends growing up, Paul Sorvino and my dad. We just talked about the character and Mira was – again, I don’t know where and how much Mira’s character’s revealed in what you’ve seen, but Mira also had a lot to prove, and she thought this was a great vehicle for her, and she brought so much to it. Then, we were like, “Oh my god, I have a an Oscar winner, Emmy nominee, Oscar nominee, like, just get out of the way.” And that’s what happened.
It was one advantage of the fact that I’ve been doing this for thirty years that they had a trust of me, and Sharon, of course, and it was really, really nice. I mean, it’s like, at any given time, I’ll get a call from movie actors talking about the show and what they want to do. Certainly Greg [has] a lot of ideas, and they’re terrific, and it’s so nice to see other people seeing it, because we had no idea. Like we just did this, and the only people I saw who’ve seen it have been people who are friends and family and, certainly, when we saw the chemistry that they had and the challenge in season two, which we’re starting to conjure up, is getting Mira in scenes with the rest of the family too, since right now she can only be seen by Pat.
Question: Oh very cool. And, I mean, Judith Light too.
Jeff: Oh my god, Judith Light, I love Judith Light. Once we had Judith also, and then, it’s very fun, because we cast Judith, and then we saw Judith and were like, “Oh my god, she looks exactly like Ganyor, so, it’s like, “Let’s run with that storyline.”
Then, the two of them together were [fantastic]. I love the kids. I love all of our cast. There’s not a single person where I’m just like, “Oh, how are we gonna write that?”
It’s a shame that we have to kill one of them, but I will tell you this, “Not Roxy.” When I talked about that, anybody can die in the show except Roxy. It has gotten such pushback. Like it’s one of the things that people do who are possessed is they cause harm to animals, and that was a red line. Starz is like, “You do whatever you want. Do not mess with that dog.” That’s the only red line there is.
Here is the audio version of it.
Interview Transcribed by Jamie of http://www.scifivision.com
“Shining Vale” is a horror comedy about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one seems to notice except for Pat, who’s convinced she’s either depressed or possessed – turns out, the symptoms are exactly the same. Patricia “Pat” Phelps (Courteney Cox) is a former “wild child” who rose to fame by writing a raunchy, drug-and-alcohol-soaked women’s empowerment novel (a.k.a. lady porn). Fast forward 17 years later, Pat is clean and sober but totally unfulfilled. She still hasn’t written her second novel, she can’t remember the last time she had sex with her husband (Greg Kinnear), and her teenage kids are at that stage where they want you dead. She was a faithful wife until her one slip-up: she had a torrid affair with the hot, young handyman who came over to fix the sink while Terry was at work. In a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, she and Terry cash in all their savings and move the family from the “crazy” of the city to a large, old house in the suburbs that has a storied past of its own. Everyone has their demons, but for Pat Phelps, they may be real. Cox plays the lead role of Patricia “Pat” Phelps, with Kinnear playing her ever-optimistic husband, Terry Phelps, whose patience and self-control will be tested like never before. Mira Sorvino plays Rosemary, who is either Pat’s alter ego, a split personality, her id, her muse, or a demon trying to possess her. Dungey plays Kam, Pat’s oldest friend and book editor. Gus Birney and Dylan Gage also star as Pat and Terry’s teenage kids, Gaynor and Jake.
Jeff Astrof is a producer and writer, known for Trial & Error (2017), In-Laws (2002) and The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006). He has been married to Shawni Modrell since May 28, 2000. They have two children.
Proofread and Edited by Brenda