How The Hilarious, Chilling World Of 'Made For Love' Came To Life [Interview]

Made for Love is a television show set in the near-future, but it's about the here and now. A woman escaping from an abusive relationship. A tech mogul with too much power and not enough humanity. A general sense of chaos and an awareness that the world is always on the verge of a total meltdown. Sometimes, all we can do is laugh through the pain and the series does just that – the tinges of horror and the big science fiction ideas are always balanced by surreal, riotous comedy and a stunning lead performance from Cristin Milioti.I loved the first episode of Made for Love when it premiered at SXSW. And I loved the additional three episodes, which were sent to me ahead of my interview with showrunner Christina Lee, director Stephanie Laing, and writer/executive producer Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the book on which the series is based). I sat down with all three of them over Zoom to chat about the series, how it balances comedy with genre storytelling, how the cast brings their oddball characters to life, and whether or not there are already plans for a second season.

The first three episodes of Made for Love are streaming now on HBO Max. Additional episodes will arrive weekly.

This is the best first episode of something I've seen in a while. And the opening minutes – within five minutes, I'm in. Can you talk about the idea of dropping us into this weird, wild world immediately?

Lee: Yeah, I feel like that came about really in the editing process. We had considered several different ways to start the show. What we knew that we wanted was to feel like you're on a ride right away and that there's a lot of information coming at you and this is exciting and you're seeing these different worlds and filling in the holes along the way. With that intention, I think in the editing room we really saw how we wanted to start the show and that sort of informed more of the writing and directing as we went forward because we were able to shoot a few episodes before we shut down for the pandemic. During that time, we went back and said, "What's something we want to see here in the pilot episode that we now have the luxury of thinking of and writing and being able to go back and do that?"

Laing: And there's nothing better than surprising people. When we were able to reflect on it, when we we were shut down, it's like, there's nothing better than dropping in on something and not beating somebody over the head. It's so compelling. "I want in. I want to know what this is, and I'm going to stay."

Nutting: We were really pleased the way it fit thematically, too. Because one of the things that the show is really considering is kind of how do you escape from a relationship? And in some ways, is that even possible given memory, given feelings, given the process of grief? Does a marriage end the moment you decide to get divorced? Does it end in a courtroom? Does it end when you're finally able to move on? All of these questions are coming into play, so we also just loved the idea of this immediacy of escape in a show that is consistently asking, "Will she be able to escape?"

When I posted my review, a number of people messaged me saying, "You should read the book, too – it's wonderful." I've made the tough choice to wait until the show is over to read the book. With that said, having not read the source material myself yet, was it tough to edit your own work and beat it into shape having a team around you? What was the process of reshaping this?

Nutting: The story is essentially about starting over, in both the hope and excitement and, in some ways, impossibility of doing that. So for me it was a very organic process and organic decision to say, "This is a different medium. This is going to demand different things in storytelling." I want to start over without starting over, taking these characters and themes and spinning something new and unique and wonderful. I was so blessed to have Christina and Stephanie as partners in that storytelling, and was able to create something really special with them.

Lee: I want to really credit Alissa, because her novel is very internal and she really wanted to expand and adapt from the world, and we talked a lot about what does that mean? It was her decision that she wanted to feel the other perspectives of the characters. In the book, for example, you don't really know where Byron's coming from, and in the series, you will.

The show is so well-directed. It looks great and the visual comedy is really there. I'm so tired of comedies where they put the camera down and say, "The actors are funny. Let it happen." There's such a visual wit in your work in the first episode, Stephanie, that continues into the four episodes that I've seen. Can you talk about finding comedy in the filmmaking?

Laing: Absolutely. I mean, listen, collectively, I'm going to say something super cheesy: working with Alissa and Christina, I felt like we had a mind meld. We were all very much in sync from the very beginning, and we'd have the same notes. In between takes, it'd be like, "I'm going to do this," and [someone else would say], "I was just about to say that!" In terms of bringing it to life visually, we created our own language. We weren't afraid, and I credit Christina and Alissa in trusting me to do that. We really tried stuff. For me, it was always about the point of view, and I think the best way to film comedy is to not forget that. Whose point of view is this? You can do a cool shot for cool shot's sake, but there's no emotion behind it.

There's nothing better than letting something play out, leaving the frame and coming back in and knowing, also, when to move the camera. When not to move the camera. When to sit still and take a breath. It doesn't happen by accident. It's very specific. We shot-listed every single thing. We didn't make up anything on the day. We were very prepared going in, because I know with television your time is so limited. Especially shooting during COVID, we did ten hour days. So we had a plan and we really stuck to it. And then we have tremendous actors. I can't say enough about how much – we filmed something, but then in a wide, Billy or Cristin would improvise something and it'd be amazing and we would sort of run with that. I would set up a shot around something that they did, which was really rewarding and awesome. I'm so glad that you found it refreshing, because that was the goal.

There's a shot in the first episode where the camera remains at a distance as Cristin Milioti runs toward a car and tries to open the door with beer cans in her hand, and just the camera holds back – the filmmaking itself made me laugh.

Laing: Oh, thank you. I also laughed on the first take of that shot, because it was so clear that there was some subtle physical comedy. She couldn't get the door open and there was one take where part of the door did come off, because it was a really old truck. I just thought, "We're going to hang back. We don't need to be with her. We know she's getting in the car." So sometimes it's just trusting the audience, and again, we don't need to bang you over the head with this. We're going to see her in the truck with a person. It's OK to hang back and see what she does. Physically, Crisitin is so fantastic at that. But how a character runs, how a character walks, all of that goes into the comedy and the performance and the emotion. That particular shot, the choice was just left, like, "I don't need to be close with her. I need to see her getting into this truck and escaping." And her struggle with the beer and the sunglasses and the door, it's human, it's real. Sometimes, that's also where comedy comes from: humanity, and the comedy comes from the pain. The reality when you're trying to escape, and how do you open this when you have a lot of shit in your hand? The beer is important to her in that moment.

This show is really funny, but its world feels complete. The science fiction of the series feels like it holds water, and the world of Made for Love feels just shitty enough to be real. Can you talk about balancing the sci-fi world building with the fact that it's also a relationship comedy?

Lee: We had a lot of those conversations and we played around a lot with that, too. If I told you about some of the silly places that Alissa and I went with the script that we had to pull back on...because our tendencies are toward comedy. What was so great was the team that was around us, some of the people had a comedy background, some of the people had a more dramatic background. So the team that came together, we found this nice balance which was very purposeful. We wanted to tell a sci-fi story that felt different, because we all discussed how we wanted to show a sci-fi story through a female lens. We talked a lot about what does that mean? What have we been missing from sci-fi stories that we've seen in the past? That was of the foremost importance, and in that, we wanted heavily to go into the emotional journey of the characters. So that lends itself to be more on the drama side, but I think that the things that make us laugh are all the same. What Stephanie said, the three of us, it's like we had a chip in our brains. The same weird things would make us laugh, and echoing what Stephanie said, it's always from a place of realness as opposed to writing a joke. So while you have this dramatic, fantastical scene, the things that are making us laugh are the very human moments that you have. So that tone was found throughout, both in writing and shooting it. And the tone was very easy to find with our actors, who I think approach everything from a very grounded point of view.

Nutting: I think with tech and sci-fi, so often there's an emphasis on avoidance or even eradication of emotion and feeling, or even sensation, that it's all very serious and stripped down. When you think of robots, you don't think of laughter. Part of us really wanting to imbue this sci-fi story with emotion and warmth, we felt that humor had to stay a critical part of it.

I asked my wife what stood out to her in these four episodes, and she said she loved the fact that Hazel is not scared. She is surprised and angry, but she has not spent the entire series so far cowering in fear. That was important to her to see a female lead who was fighting back like that.

Lee: First of all, thank your wife. That's a very astute observation, and I'm so glad that came across. In a lot of the content that we discuss that we love, that we're fans of, by the way, we are often following the victim, the one who's watched, and that person doesn't have a lot of agency. That's a key point that we wanted to change, in that we wanted to give her agency. While she is a victim in some ways, she's finally taking control of her own life and we wanted to see what that looks like. We've seen a lot of people running for their lives, but then what happens? That's the story we wanted to tell.

Cristin Milioti is amazing, and may be one of the best actresses working right now. The one-two punch of this and Palm Springs solidifies her as a person where I'm going to see everything she does. Can you talk about building this character for her and how she was cast? She must have been cast when she was on the verge of Palm Springs happening, right?

Nutting: Yeah, it was prior to all of that. She was the only choice. I always joked, "Made for Love was made for Milioti." She was the only one. I'd seen her dramatic [work] in Fargo and Black Mirror. I knew from her stage work and How I Met Your Mother just how funny she is. There's really nothing she can't do. Cristin really helped inform and build this character with us. It was very much a partnership. Her role is so multilayered, and she has to be one character in the Hub, and then she's another character when she's out of the Hub. So often, she has to let the viewer know how she's actually feeling or what she actually thinks is different than what she's saying aloud or what she's doing, especially in the Hub. So her attention to nuance and her ability to convey so much with an expression or with her eyes, every episode is such a remarkable performance.

Laing: I was going to say, for me, when I was directing her, she's so good, to what Alissa is saying, in the subtleties. I'd be like, "Let's see a peek of Hub Hazel here with Ray," and she would just bring it with one look of her eye. "Yep, there she is." Just finding the levels of performance in everything we did. "Let's do this take with Hub Hazel and this take with more real world Hazel," and really fine-tuning that with her – she's incredible. I can't imagine there being anyone else in this, other than her.

Over the course of the past decade, I've enjoyed watching Ray Romano grow from sitcom star into such an interesting actor. Not all people who start out as comedians can do the work he's been doing over the past ten or fifteen years. Can you talk about bringing him into this and what he brought to the role that wasn't on the page?

Lee: Yeah, be brought a lot to the role and that character changed because of Ray. The initial characteristics of that father, Herbert, was that he was rough around the edges and he was harder to love and a tougher character to embrace. So it made it really challenging when Hazel came home. But Ray, there's so much humanity to him, so much vulnerability. You just really love him. Even when he is behaving badly, you feel empathy for him. So he actually changed the way that we wrote that character throughout the series, for the better. I think the character became much more nuanced and believable than sort of a traditional bad dad. You really feel for their relationship and how they're coming back together in the series, especially in the back end.

I want to talk about Billy Magnusson. It's a really interesting performance. If you jump in a time machine, go back in time 20 years and show people this performance, they'd say, "This guy is an alien. How does he exist?" But somehow, Byron feels like the quintessential villain of 2021 in so many ways. Can you talk about tapping into a very specific type of 21st century bad guy?

Lee: I think Billy also has a lot of humanity, too. I think there's something in every performance that he's bringing to it. It's the same thing that was with Cristin. It was like, "All right, let's tap into why Byron is who he is." Alissa alluded to it earlier: we understand a little more about where he's coming from. So when we get glimpses of that in his performance – although in the first two episodes, you may not know what you're seeing – it really does pay off later on. That, to me, is how he's able to become a Byron that we also love, even though he's terrible.

Laing: There were times where we'd get notes from the network, and they'd be like, "Wait, are we rooting for them to get back together? I like him!" We were like, "I know!" There are some times where I feel for him.

Nutting: Yeah, it's really a credit to his acting and also Billy as a person. The level of empathy that he really brought to this role and to the character, the levels at which he wanted to understand him really helped all of us understand him better. It really shifted the path of the character going forward.

Laing: Yeah, it really felt like a true collaboration on every level. The three of us basically had a chip implanted in our brains, but then were able to take that and elevate this material with this world that Alissa created. And the details matter, which is why we so appreciate your review, because you noticed that. Every frame mattered. There wasn't any ounce of us letting go of any small things. Everything mattered.

You mentioned the network giving you notes. I'm curious about the relationship between you and HBO Max and how the subject matter of this show is something that we're finally talking about now. It's been something that's been whispered about since as long as human beings have existed, but we're actively having these conversations about what Made For Love is about out in the open. Was HBO Max like, "Yeah, this is the time, let's do it"? What were the conversations like to make sure the show could be honest about this stuff?

Lee: I think they were totally game. We had so many conversations with them and among ourselves about what role technology plays in our own lives, especially in this past year. That was sort of interesting, because we were talking about the shortcuts that technology provides in terms of human connection before the pandemic, and then we enter a year in which we're relying entirely on technology for human connection. We made some changes in our approach to the show while we were shut down, but HBO Max was fully game and they encouraged us to go there. They loved the tech aspect of it. I credit them with saying, "Let's see even more of that."

Is the plan here that this is just a miniseries, it wraps up the book, and it's over? Are you leaving any doors open for a season 2, or even an anthology approach where each season is a different story? Have you talked about that at all? 

Nutting: We really fell so in love with these characters and the actors playing them, but also the themes and the questions and the conversations, as you mentioned, around technology. There's so much there, we would absolutely love to do a season 2, yeah.

Could all of you share a movie or TV show that you think would pair really well with Made for Love that our readers should watch before or after this?

Laing: This is a funny one, because the content is completely different. But I just started watching Get Shorty, which I hadn't seen before we shot this even though Ray and Billy are in it. I am dying of laughter and seeing those two also in another show is a pure delight. Different genres, but I'd say if you like the actors in our show and you haven't seen Get Shorty, go see that show.

Lee: If you're looking for a movie and then this, a good one for me would be Marriage Story and then this, for very different reasons.

Nutting: TV-wise, I think Devs is a cool companion, looking at some of the similar tech questions and themes in different subjects outside of romantic relationships.