Only Murders In The Building Co-Creator John Hoffman On Misdirection And Season 2's Revelations [Exclusive]

One of the biggest and most unlikely success stories of the last 12 months of new television has been the Hulu crime comedy "Only Murders in the Building." Bringing together an unlikely trio — comic legends and best friends Steve Martin and Martin Short, along with acting/singing star Selena Gomez — as a trio of true-crime fans who start solving murders of their own, "Only Murders in the Building" is an enormously funny, clever, and smart show that wraps up its second 10-episode season today. 

As the show approaches its first Emmys ceremony (it's nominated for 17 Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series and two Best Actor nominations for Martin and Short), /Film spoke with co-creator John Hoffman to look back at its surprising second season and what the finale's tease for a third season may portend.

(Note: This interview includes spoilers for the entire second season of "Only Murders in the Building," including its finale, so if you haven't watched yet, consider yourself warned.)

'Would she flip?'

When you had the flash-forward at the beginning of the very first episode of the show of Mabel finding a dead body later revealed to be Bunny Folger, did you know then who that body was, and/or anything surrounding Bunny's death and any information we get in season 2?

That's a great question. I would love to be really just so magnanimously intelligent. I wish I could be that forethought-minded. But no. I was intrigued by the opening and thought, "Well, if we pinpoint someone who's in a tie-dye hoodie, we can certainly think who that might be." It was in the middle of the writers' room that we figured it was Bunny, and then everything developed from there. And before the end of season 1, there was a handful of people in my mind who could have [killed Bunny], who would've done that, and a lot of interesting scenarios. But it was after we wrapped season 1 that I began to quickly focus around Poppy.

In that same vein, how did it work in terms of telling Adina Verson (who plays Poppy) that she was playing the killer?

Yeah. There were a lot of things. It's so interesting to learn from the actors in the show, too, about when they learn things for themselves. "Oh, I'm doing this now." And it's exciting, but it also could throw them sometimes. But in this case, I told Adina ... I'm trying to remember. I think I had a phone call with her in between the seasons. Or a Zoom call. Beyond that, I was very intrigued by the narrative possibilities. And it made perfect sense for the show itself, looking at podcasts, the nature of true-crime podcasting and storytelling around tragedy and the razor's edge that our trio [Charles, Oliver, and Mabel] find themselves on. And all of that kind of meshing and looking at the two seasons as partners in a way.

So that all made sense to me. Also, I don't know how much we've talked about this, but before Tina Fey said she would like to play Cinda Canning, [she] was our dream and so we were thinking, "Well, that might be hard. She's a very busy woman." So we auditioned people for Cinda Canning and Adina auditioned for the part, and gave one of the great auditions that I've seen for the show.

It was just a flawless NPR, wildly smart, wildly funny, but really subtle performance [Adina] gave as Cinda, unlike anybody else. And it was like, "Who is this young actress that I've never seen before?" So we cast her as Poppy after Tina said yes to Cinda, because I just wanted her in the show. I just knew that there was more to her and I thought, "That's an interesting character who I can lean into." Because I know the actress is so versatile and I was excited to see the potential for where she could go. I don't know about you, but I just think she's brilliant as Poppy.

Agreed. At the end of "Sparring Partners," I figured -– as the show wanted me to -– that the killer must be Cinda. That leads to another question: Anyone who knows "Serial" and watches this can figure that Cinda Canning is a riff on Sarah Koenig. Though Cinda isn't Bunny's killer, we get a very clear sense that she's an awful person. Where did the idea come from to turn this heroic-seeming podcaster into a real piece of work? Where did that progression come from?

I was intrigued by — well, certainly, we had to take the eye off of Poppy, right? And then we knew we could empathize with someone who is ... I think the most interesting line that Cinda has is that line she says that Kay Graham [of The Washington Post] taught her "Don't be too good at a job you don't want." She followed it up with something terrible [laughs], but it was that line that really popped because I think everyone's been in that position. We've all had jobs where we're starting out and you're trying to prove yourself and nothing is working. And yet you're really doing an incredible job and you're valued in that, [but] you would never get anything beyond that. It's a very challenging position to be in.

So we knew that's the slot that Poppy held in our storytelling. Would she flip? We were crafting a story so it felt like Cinda was more awful in those moments so that we could lean into the potential of Poppy flipping and becoming disloyal to her, and admitting that Cinda has been doing terrible things for a long time. So we had to really do a couple of things there. And so we were highlighting the worst aspects of Cinda in the worst moments, because she's hellbent on being successful herself.

'Are we losing the thread?'

Metacommentary is a big part of the season and probably bigger than last season. How much of outside expectations and fandom inspired the jokes with the superfans commenting on the series, or Oliver's remarks throughout the season about the show's quality, as opposed to your own expectations for what the show can be?

Great question again. There's two sides of that. Granted, I will admit, maybe we hit it a couple more times too many. [Our show has] a meta quality to it, so it felt natural. But I cared about the narrative. If these guys -– who are a director and an actor, particularly -– are involved in a second season of a podcast and now they've got to top themselves after their big success from season 1, there's no way around the writers of a show that's come off really well to the world in general and having to write those things that he's saying truthfully. And yet there's a meta quality that was delightful and funny. We could comment about second seasons being hard in some way. So it felt pretty natural to me.

There were times with the superfans that we hit it one time too many. "Are we doing a disservice to ourselves?" The narrative we built for this season for our trio is a very disorienting experience. They've never been accused of a crime like this, they've never been considered persons of interest in a case, they have stepped into it royally after taking a real risk to solve the Tim Kono case and the Zoe case. So it was, "Oh my God, what have I done? How do I deal with this?" And then evidence keeps getting planted, and it makes it very hard to podcast about anything that points to you. So what is your podcast looking like? What is this case looking like? It keeps getting more and more confusing as they get thrown things.

And then on top of it all, all three of them are handed three very emotional storylines to grapple with that are very personal. So that disorientation and everything about how second seasons could be ... I'm trying to keep my eye on the prize here, but there's a lot going on. I thought it all felt really right. The plan always was to work through those emotional storylines. And in episode 9, we really have the denouement of the three emotional storylines all at once. Mabel has taken off the cloak of the sadness from the trauma and she's come to some resolve about that. Charles certainly has a resolution about his father's story through the help of Rose Cooper. And Oliver has come to some terms about the paternity [of his son Will], right?

So all of that happens and the plan in ["I Know Who Did It," the season finale] was now they're ready, back in full form. What I wanted to craft was to give them the lead here, all of them being brilliant in a way in which they'd snare the actual killer once they realized who it is and let them dazzle us a little bit in the way that only they can. That, to me, felt like an arc that made sense. But it's always very tricky because when you're in the middle of an arc like that, there's this sort of [question]: Are we losing the thread? I hope and felt that thread all comes together, it comes in hard, fast pounding ways that they can go, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God." I hope that's what happens.

In terms of the emotional threads coming to a head, the two that stood out to me especially focused on Mabel and Oliver, the former with her fraught relationship with Alice and the latter with him and the DNA question. In my weekly recaps, I wondered about the pause in some of these stories –- Alice's art exhibit centered on Mabel being mentioned in one episode and then not mentioned again for a couple more installments, for example. How do you and the writers talk through when to balance more on mystery or more on the characters?

By the way, you're reminding me about your recaps and everything you've written about the show, tremendous. Thank you for all of it. Nothing is more valuable. I've had lovely conversations with journalists and you're all so detail-oriented. I don't understand how you do your jobs because I don't know how to keep track of all of this stuff. I don't.

I imagine your job is fairly detail oriented, too. [laughs]

Yes. But that's also why I feel the appreciation for it. [laughs] But yes, that is a question we ask ourselves. In that case, at the end of episode 6, when Alice betrays Mabel in that vivid, dark way, what happens after -– the stabbing on the subway -– dictated wherever she went. She had let Alice out of her mind, so I felt like that could wait a while. But it very much is the necessity of the moment, and what is the primary "A" story we want to follow here that we have to keep track of? But it is a balance constantly between what is left hanging, what is left dangling? If I'm really honest, there were moments of, I wish, maybe a twist more to the Oliver/paternity story. Because we were waiting for those results for a long time and I thought, "Okay, there's one area I would go back and maybe adjust." Stuff like that.

That's fair. With Oliver's story, the resolution –- where Will may not be his biological son but treats Oliver like his father no matter what -– reminded me somewhat of a similar story from "Veronica Mars." You find out the answer, but it doesn't matter as it does here. And I thought that resolved in this show very nicely.

I never did see "Veronica Mars." I stole without knowing it.

I wasn't implying that you stole it, to be fair.

No, no. [laughs] When we wrote it, I thought, "Okay, it is a little expected where it's going." But I found that storyline so delightful, only because of all that was set up between Oliver and Teddy. Oliver has sent him to prison, upended his life, [Teddy] says he's going to f*** him, and then have to find some parity. It was nice to have Teddy's "I'm going to f*** you" turn into "Oh, I f***ed your wife." Him saying that, like, "You sent me to jail, I f***ed your wife." That, to me, was heaven for the story.

I very much enjoyed the battle in the elevator between the two of them and Howard trying to ignore them. That was very, very funny.

There was a moment, I will tell you that Michael Cyril Creighton, who played Howard -– we love him so much -– he was working on another show. And there was a moment when he wasn't going to be able to be in that elevator scene. Because Nathan had only that day and it was tricky to get everyone in on that day. And Marty and I and Nathan, we all were like, "It has to be him." And luckily it worked out.

'It's remarkable what is coming together for season 3'

We're talking about people like Nathan Lane, Martin Short, and Michael Cyril Creighton, so it tracks that Broadway plays into the final moments of the season. Considering that the show is called "Only Murders in the Building," where does the decision come to, let's say, expand the definition of which building that title is referring to?

It's a discussion, for sure. Ongoing. And ... there's some fun stuff up ahead. So I would say hang tight a moment. [laughs] There will be more revealed around that question.

My other related question: Considering that you've had Sting play himself and you've had Amy Schumer play herself, was it intentional to not actually kill off Paul Rudd?

[laughs] A bit. Paul, he's so famously one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet in the business, and he really was when we worked with him. He's just terrific. Anyway, I also just like the idea of what he brought to that part already from five minutes at the end of season 2, I want to know more of him. And our "victims" get a lot of screen time — or should in the next few.

If nothing else, while I know you won't go into detail, I assume there's some sketching in to do with the one-year time jump that occurs before the final scene. But I do want to tie back to my first question, if I gave you some truth serum: How much of season 3 do you have? Even if it's just in your head, how much of it do you have ready to go?

Oh, it's so nice. Yeah, I don't need the truth serum. I'll be honest about all of it. The good part is we've been five weeks or so in the writers' room for season 3. So we've got a pretty good map for all 10. I am so stupidly excited about this season. Genuinely, I really mean it. I'll tease a few things that may or may not be obvious to you. In season 1, we had a close connection with Mabel's emotional storyline with Tim Kono. And in the second season, we had Charles and the history with his father and the history with the Arconia, all of the mystery around that. And we were ready and wanting to angle towards Oliver Putnam and the world of theatrics, and his wishes and dreams to regain a reputation after his debacle with "Splash!" So all of that felt like — I'm leaning in already to see what we can do.

I can only share that it's remarkable what is coming together for season 3 and who will be a part of it and all of that. Word further to come on that. It's made it in some ways both exciting, but also easier to plot out because we have so much that we want to fulfill, and it's going to be about editing back a little bit. But we have a lot to do.

Last question: I'm sure we'll find out more in season 3 as to what the musical is where we very briefly see Charles and Paul Rudd's character, Ben Glenroy. Is that a sly reference to [the 1981 film] "Pennies From Heaven?" Because I see Steve Martin with the kind of quintessential noir outfit and I think of him in that classic.

He would kill me, and I'll tell you why. No, it is not. But it is really funny what we're going to be doing there. And don't presume [it's a] musical quite yet. But hang tight with that thought. The only reason I say Steve would kill me is because I keep wanting to do fantasy things in the play we're doing, musical numbers and stuff like that. And he's like, "Don't make me dance." He said, "I did that once back in the day and I could do it a little bit, but dancing is not in my wheelhouse anymore." It's like "OK, OK, Steve." So the "Pennies From Heaven" thing, I was like, "Oh no, I can't go there." He'll say, "No, I'm not going to tap." [laughs] But I'm in your camp, for sure.

Fair enough. Thanks for speaking with me, and good luck next month at the Emmys. My fingers are crossed.

Oh, man. Thank you so much. Thank you. I appreciate that.

Both seasons of "Only Murders on the Building" are streaming now on Hulu.