Interview: USA’s Dawn Olmstead on ‘Mr. Robot’, Shared Universe Shows, and Neil Gaiman Series [TCA 2016]
Posted on Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 by Fred Topel
USA presented a panel called “Decoding Season_2.0 With the Women of Mr. Robot” for the Television Critics Association, featuring stars Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Grace Gummer, and Stephanie Corneliussen. Creator and showrunner Sam Esmail was busy editing the show, so representing the behind the scenes of the show was Dawn Olmstead, Executive Vice President, Development, Universal Cable Productions and Wilshire Studios.
We had the chance to meet with Olmstead after the Mr. Robot panel. As EVP of Development, Olmstead took the show to pilot and series and she’s also developed UCP’s current and upcoming slate of shows including 12 Monkeys, Shooter, Falling Water, and recently announced series based on Neil Gaiman’s Interworld, Dark Horse Comics’ Umbrella Academy, Boom Studio’s The Woods and Top Cow’s Bushido. Olmstead took us inside Mr. Robot and how UCP develops series for cable.
Your role is Executive Vice President of Development. Once a show like Mr. Robot launches, do you stay hands on?
Yeah. We are very hands on in season one and formulating season two. Then I personally read every script and watch every cut but I don’t micromanage the way you might do certainly on a pilot and in season one. We sort of gently hand over our shows to Current [the day-to-day budget/production department] but we’re part of every conversation. We’re in every meeting. We are the foundation pretty much with the relationship with usually the creator, whether it’s Sam or whoever else, because we’re the first people that they’re with. So it’s a very strong relationship and it’s very trusted. Also whenever there is a bump in the road, a lot of times we’ll step in because there’s a trust there that we’re all on the same team.
Has that happened on season two, that they needed you for backup?
Not at all, no. I texted Sam last night because I saw the next cut. Normally I’ll just validate maybe some notes that he might be hearing but also usually praising because his stuff is so good. Like, “Don’t take the stuffing out of this.” Or “I heard a note about this and I kind of agree but I love it.”
And you don’t edit them because the episodes are 90 minutes long.
Yeah. I mean, not all of them are. That’s what’s so great about television right now. I was talking to somebody and they were like, “No one would tell an author that each chapter has to be 45 pages. The chapter gets to be what the chapter gets to be.” And no reader is saying, “Ugh, that was a long chapter.” Every episode that was longer than normal length was because that story needed to be, especially this season where we’re really branching out to the ensemble. The reason why we can have those girls up there today is because they all have very fleshed out stories that are complicated and have ambition and drive. They are all taking on something bigger then themselves and you need time. He is not just giving the audience what they want which is Elliot, Elliot, Elliot. He is saying, “This girl over here has got a really important piece of this puzzle and her own story. I’m not only going to tell you the plot-driven part of that story. We’re going to tell you who she is as a character.” I love what he’s doing.
I wouldn’t say we only want Elliot, Elliot, Elliot.
No, but some people.
Did Sam use a Forrest Gump effect to make President Obama talk about fsociety?
[Laughs] Well, President Obama didn’t film it for us, so I’ll tell you that. I think we used some looping and stuff like that. It was great. When I first saw it, I was like, “Wait, did I miss a memo. Is Obama a fan and said, “I’ll do anything?”
Even if he was a fan, he wouldn’t have time to record it.
No, especially in today’s events.
Is this season even more in Elliot’s head than the first was?
I don’t think so. When we heard the whole pitch out for season two, I think we were all amazed at the twists and turns of the storytelling that we were awed by in season one, we’re going to be awed by in season two. I think it’s about the same. I think we just know more about his head in season two and how it works so we’re aware. I think there was a lot more guessing in season one of like what’s wrong with him? What does he have? What is he taking those pills for? Now we know all his ailments and the demons he has to fight in order to be whole, so we’re aware of it.
What was the decision to allow swearing, even if it’s bleeped, for unfiltered dialogue?
With this show in particular and certainly for us as a studio and the shows that we’re doing, there was no decision or agenda. That is the way the scripts were written, because they were authentic to the characters and especially this world under this extreme pressure and these fringe characters who are the disenfranchised. The authenticity of Sam initially conceived of this as a movie with no barriers. Movies, at the end of the day they’ll tell you what the rating is but no one’s saying, “You can’t say fuck” in a movie. He came at it, this is the way the characters talked and was real and authentic.
So every time we delivered a cut to the network and to the different people that have to monitor it, this is what felt real. I think everybody pushed their boundaries inside the network in a way that felt very supportive of like, “Let’s try. Let’s try to keep it as authentic.” We are so precious with it. We love it and it feel real so if it ever feels gratuitous, we don’t need to see that. We don’t need to hear that. Grace was saying, “My character doesn’t swear like that” but in the FBI you’d believe that they don’t as much. They may internally but there’s a much more buttoned up world. It’s a much more conservative world. But you’d surely believe that Darlene is F-bombing all the time. Elliot doesn’t curse as much. It’s authentic to what’s going on and who those characters are and they’re saying what they need to say that’s believable.
So we fight for whatever’s believable and then other people tell us what we’re allowed to do or not to do. They all want to push the boundaries of television and cable and do what we can. So the discussions are: is there a path that can lead us to be more authentic? Can we ask the question? Can we push a little further? What can we do to keep it authentic? Then there are times where you have to drop the language. Well, is there a way to keep the language on iTunes? I think we’re always trying to keep it authentic.