“Let Characters Be At The Top Of Their Intelligence.” Paul Rust On ‘Love’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

From creators Paul Rust, Lesley Arfin and Judd Apatow comes the Netflix show Love, which explores the relationship between Mickey Dobs (Gillian Jacobs) and Gus Cruikshank (Paul Rust), following them through that delicate period between meeting someone you like, and making it work with them.

Paul Rust’s previous writing credits include Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Arrested Development, Rob & Big, and he’s also been seen on screen in Super Fun Night, Parks and Recreation, and Inglorious Basterds.

Creative Screenwriting spoke with Paul about Love, writing with Judd Apatow, and the freedom of Netflix.

This interview is also available as a podcast! Listen to it here.

Paul Rust as Gus Cruikshank and Gillian Jacobs as Mickey Dobs in Love, season 2.
 Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix

How did you originally get involved in writing comedy, and acting?

I grew up in Le Mars, Iowa, and even though it’s a great place to grow up and be raised as a kid, there wasn’t a lot to do. It was fairly boring, and I think the way I either escaped the boredom or found a way to keep myself occupied was through movies and TV shows.

I came of age right around the time that the sort of priced-to-own VHS world began, and so the movies that you really enjoyed, you were able to kind of watch as many times as you wanted.

I really liked Robert Zemeckis movies a lot, like Roger Rabbit and Back to the Future, and then, also really loved Tim Burton, like Beetlejuice and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands.

Those were the movies that I was watching a lot, and I think after watching stuff a bunch, you get inspired to start writing on your own. Around third grade I just started writing short stories and plays, then when I went into college, writing plays and sketches, and then, when I moved out to L.A., writing sketches in comedy in the L.A. comedy scene.

So was it always comedy, or was there drama involved as well?

I’d say it’s been primarily comedy, but I have more of a love for film and TV writing above comedy writing, as much as a comedy fan I am.

But I can’t fully appreciate a dramatic filmmaker unless, when they’re funny, they’re actually funny. That is kind of a line I have. I’ve noticed, as a comedy fan, that I really like Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino because when they’re funny, they’re actually funny. It’s not like when other dramatic writers have comedy, and I’m just like, “Well, that’s not funny. Why are you even trying to make a joke here?”

So, I guess that is where my comedy snobbery comes into play. It’s like, “Wow, that scene in Boogie Nights when John C. Reilly and Mark Wahlberg first meet, that’s as funny of a scene that you’ll have in any comedy.” You know?

John C. Reilly as Reed Rothchild and Mark Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights

How did Love originally come about? You and your wife created the show?

Yes, my wife, Lesley Arfin, and I co-created the show with Judd Apatow. That came about because we were both working with Judd on different projects. And my manager, I think, being smart and savvy, was like, “Hey, if the two of you are working for Judd, the two of you should try to cook up something for him.”

We wrote up an outline for a movie that was based on a couple that was similar to Gus and Mickey in Love, and Judd liked those characters a lot. He was like, “I don’t really necessarily see a movie here, but I’ve had this idea for a TV show for a long time where you would explore one couple’s relationship from the moment they meet.” And I think since he liked the characters we came up with so much for the couple, he thought maybe we could marry these two ideas together. And so we started writing the pilot for Love based on that.

Was Love the original title for the show?

It was the first title. I mean, up until then, it was untitled, and when we finally gave the title, it was Love, and that was the one my wife came up with. In addition to being an awesome writer, she’s a really good titlist. She’s given titles for a lot of different people. And I think Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please, Lesley came up with that title. So, she’s awesome at titles, in addition to being an awesome writer.

What’s your writing process like? Do you all three sit in a room and write, or split up episodes?

I’d say it starts with the three of us, and what we want to do, season by season. We’ll have a large conversation about what we want to happen to the characters this season, or what sort of episode ideas we have. And it can be pretty general. I mean, a lot of times, we’re just talking sort of about feelings and experiences, and it’s not really getting into a plot beat.

Then we’ll meet up with our writing staff, which is really great. We have a great staff of writers. And then we’ll start from there, breaking it down beat by beat. Judd and Lesley and I will cowrite various episodes, and writers will write their own episodes.

And then it’s sort of the same process as a lot of TV shows, just multiple drafts, and doing a table read to find out what works, and then revising from there. And, you know, I’d say the revising, and the re-tinkering, and tweaking and stuff goes on even when we’re on set. We’re still generating jokes and ideas, and throwing lines to the actors, and letting them ad lib, all the way until when we’re editing and still adding little ADR jokes and whatnot, until the episode’s complete.

The Los Angles locations seem to show the city in a new light. How important was this to you?

That was a big thing Judd was pushing. I think that probably came out of Judd having shot a lot of stuff in Los Angeles, and just wanting to make sure he’s challenging himself to put scenes in new locations.

And I think Judd does help substantially in terms of getting people to open their doors and let us shoot at certain places. For example, we thought it would be cool to go on a date to The Magic Castle in season one. And I’ve worked on other shows where it’s been pitched to shoot a scene at The Magic Castle, and it was very difficult: we weren’t able to shoot there because they’re private and exclusive. So The Magic Castle was a real ‘get’ for us, getting in.

You think, “OK, we’ve got this location. Now, what does that mean in terms of character and story?” And so it was like, “Well, we know we’re shooting at The Magic Castle. Let’s not just have this be an interesting location. What can it say about the characters?”

Then, when we explored it more, we thought, “Oh, The Magic Castle has so many rules,” and that became what was the thing we explored in the episode between the two characters. Gus is like, “This is something that brings me happiness.” And Mickey’s like, “I don’t know why they have a dress code here, and I don’t know, something that’s supposed to be fun, like magic, is run like a dictatorship.”

John Ennis as Don, Gillian Jacobs as Mickey Dobs and Paul Rust as Gus Cruickshank in Love, season 1, “Magic”. Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix

Many of the projects that Judd’s involved with have a lot of pop culture references. Do you see this type of story as capturing a moment in time, or do you see elements in it which will make it “evergreen,” where you can watch it 50 years from now?

That’s a good question. I mean, before we started writing this, if I wrote anything, I would shy away from ever having a character text, or use words like Twitter or Instagram. I hated it. I felt gross writing stuff where two characters are talking about things like that. It just, it would make my skin crawl.

And that was something that I had to get over because we are writing something that takes place in contemporary Los Angeles, and if people weren’t talking about texting, it would seem insane. It would be like, what planet is this? What alternate universe does this exist in, where nobody texts each other?”

We had a conversation about, “Oh, do we do the thing where the texts come up on screen, like House of Cards style, or do you actually show it on the phone in somebody’s hand?” And we made the choice for the latter because that feels real.

You know, I love it when House of Cards does it, or when Sherlock does it. The first time I saw those, I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so cool,” and I got so excited. But that didn’t seem like our show. We wanted to make it feel a little more organic.

With pop culture references — and I don’t know why this is the first example I think of because there’s millions that I could pull from — I remember when I’d watch Lassie as a kid, and they’d have the old-style phones where you’d hold the one piece to your ear and talk into the horn. I’d think “What machine is that?” and it would throw me out for a moment. And I don’t want this show to be hobbled a decade from now because we’re making a reference to a reality show that nobody’s even heard of now.

I try not to rely on pop culture references as a crutch for jokes, because then I think that’s when the timelessness quality is lost.

But, you know, we had Daniel Stern come on this season — he plays Mickey’s dad. And in addition to just us really loving Daniel Stern as an actor, it was sort of an acknowledgement that he had been in, and I’m a big fan of, the movie Diner.

Barry Levinson seemed to be kind of the first person, in my mind, who really started scratching the surface of how people talk about pop culture: what does that say about the character, how they view it, how they talk about it, how passionate they are about it.

I think you can sort of draw a line between that and then Pulp Fiction, them talking about McDonald’s, or the pilot that Mia was acting in that didn’t get picked up. And then, obviously, from that point forward, post Pulp Fiction, any show where two people are talking about pop culture stuff is obviously in debt to that.

I think if we’re going to do it, we try to at least do it in the classiest way possible. Whether we succeed or fail at that is, I guess, up to others.

John Travolta as Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction

Another big aspect of this show is all of the self-examination. How much do you think about that when writing the characters?

When we first started, it was important to me and to Lesley and to Judd, and all the other writers. I come from a background in improv, like at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and the main thing they really teach you is letting characters be at the top of their intelligence. For us, it was important that the characters on the show would have a level of self-awareness about who they are, have an intelligence.

The idea of ‘at the top of your intelligence’ is that it’s easy to get a joke by having a character be dumb. You know, they get a toothbrush handed to them and they go, “Great!” and then they stick it up their butt. “No, no, no, you brush your teeth with it.” It’s an easy joke, but then, from that point forward, that character has to have the intelligence level of somebody who thinks a toothbrush should go up their butt…

In terms of the self-examination, that’s where that came from. It was just like, “Hey, these characters are smart enough to at least be aware, even in moments that they’re deluding themselves; they are looking at who they are and what they’re doing, and how they get in the way of themselves.”

It became a question, really, of how self-aware are they. Going back to when Lesley and I pitched it as a movie, the two characters were two people who had gone through therapy, had experienced a lot, and were now trying to start a healthy relationship, a committed one. But Judd said, “That’s going to be kind of boring, if they’re aware of how they shouldn’t do certain things.” He was like, “Let’s just dial back their self-awareness a little bit, otherwise, we’re not going to have much conflict.”

So I do go back and forth on it. I think, “Well, I like being around people who do self-examinations because I think it does make somebody more aware of how they’re treating others.” But that all comes with the undercurrent of, “Well, are they really into self-examination because they get to talk about their favorite subject, which is themselves?” which seems very L.A.

But, for me, I like it because it does allow characters to speak intelligently about their own lives, and not be completely unaware, with the writers sort of moving them like chess pieces.

Gillian Jacobs as Mickey Dobs and Claudia O’Doherty as Bertie Bauer in Love, season 2.
 Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix

Where did the idea for the fake theme songs that Gus and his friends play come from?

We knew that we wanted Gus and his friends to be people who were big fans of movies

On Halloween every year, my friend, Neil Campbell (Comedy Bang! Bang!, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), who’s a really great writer and performer, as well, we do this thing…And when I said “as well”, I meant he is also a great performer in addition to writer. I wasn’t saying he’s great “as well as me”…But, anyway, he and I will put together Halloween movie days where we watch seven horror movies. The idea is that they’re in increasing amounts of terror. So, we start with like the Garfield Halloween Special, and then end with like Faces of Death.

But we knew we wanted Gus to kind of be active, and it would be boring to just watch a group of people watch something. And, it gets into weird rights issues, like what images can we use from what movies. So it was purely, “How do we make it active?” If they’re writing songs about the movies they watch, then at least it feels like they’re actually doing something. And, you know, I’m in a band, and I like writing and putting music to it, so it was a way to, greedily, get that in there, as well. So, that’s how it came about.

Love, season 2. Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix

What is it like working with Netflix? Do you write all the episodes before-hand and then film them, or do you still write and then film, like network shows?

Netflix is really, really great. There’s the stuff that everybody who works with Netflix says, which is they give you a lot of freedom and they give you a lot of support to do the thing you want to do, and that’s true.

The thing I really, really like, though, is just they’re good people who I enjoy hanging out with at a party. If I’m talking to a Netflix executive, I’m like, “Oh, I get to talk about the stuff that we like,” and just talk about it. We’re not having industry conversations. So, that’s the thing I like the most.

In terms of writing the show, the thing that feels new, and that’s kind of come out of the last five or seven years, is the ability to tell big, large stories for one season, which we do.

We know people watch these in three or four episode chunks, or even all twelve episodes at once. So knowing that, it’s like, “how can we write it so that it’s a satisfying six-hour experience, but also if you only watched one episode?”

We definitely try to make sure that an episode can stand on its own as a full story. But creatively, the most exciting thing when we’re in the writers’ room and coming up with ideas is the fun of piecing that together into one larger 12-episode or 22-episode story.

David Spade as Steven Hopkins in Love, season 2. Credit: Suzanne Hanover/Netflix

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share about the show?

It’s just the joy of getting to work with people like Judd and my wife, Lesley, and also the actors like Gillian and Claudia, and our whole crew.

It’s nice working on a show that’s about feelings and being vulnerable. And the by-product is that everybody you work with ends up being a good person to work, with because you’re working in the world of feelings and emotions. That’s what I really like.

You know, it’s our third season now. So getting to work on a set where everybody’s kind to each other is actually really cool. I don’t even think about it like going to work every day.

The other thing is, I do really like that we’re not making something that’s just kind of being squeezed in between commercials. And having the freedom to make a joke about it. We had a line — I don’t think it got on the show, not because of the content, it just didn’t fit in — “Oh, 10 percent of all McDonald’s food has fecal matter in it.” I like being able to work on a show where you can make jokes like that and not have to worry that somebody’s going to tap you on the shoulder and be like, “Actually, McDonald’s sponsored the show, and so you can’t do that.”

Yes, I’d say that’s it.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Love are available now on Netflix.

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