What began as a joke Matt Piedmont thought of in a bookstore became the IFC miniseries The Spoils of Babylon, which he co-created and co-wrote with Andrew Steele. Inspired by the epic miniseries of the ‘80s, Spoils has an equally epic cast to match, with Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Tobey Maguire, Val Kilmer, Haley Joel Osment, and a Carey Mulligan-voiced-mannequin. I recently got the chance to talk to Piedmont about his inspiration for The Spoils of Babylon, directing material he wrote, and writing for Saturday Night Live.
What were your influences on The Spoils of Babylon?
We obviously touched upon the history of miniseries that we all watched [and] grew up with, like The Thorn Birds and North and South, but that was kind of just the jumping off point. And then we included a lot of other cinematic influences, mainly some melodramatic films by Douglas Sirk and old '50s filmmakers. Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life, those kinds of films, and the big widescreen epics of the '50s that dealt with a lot of melodrama.
Were there any specific moments that inspired you from those shows and films?
You know, people ask that all the time, and actually no. Other than the kind of collective history – what they represent, it’s kind of like we didn’t lift anything from or directly inspire – it was more kind of like what people remember from those things, kind of like the collective memory. Because I know a lot of people call it a spoof or a parody, but really it’s just like throwing a bunch of those references and ideas into a blender and kind of coming up with our own thing. So, nothing specifically. But then again, the tone of those things is so heightened, the drama is so heightened, that if you watch those films or you watch Thorn Birds now, they seem like comedies, to me at least, because they’re just so outside and epic that they almost seem like they’re making fun of themselves, but they obviously aren’t.
What first interested you in doing this show?
We’re always looking for a fun different idea, and I was up in Portland, Oregon, at this place called Powell’s Books. It’s this giant, amazing bookstore where they basically have every book ever. It’s like the Library of Congress almost. They have used books next to their new books and it’s a great place just to hang out in and look at books. I walked by the literature section and they had the original '70s hardbound editions of all these like Herman Wouk’s Winds of War, Thorn Birds, and in fact, in the '70s, they literally looked like they were three phonebooks glued together. These giant, self-important tomes with these amazing covers that have like planes and fire and these grand sweeping epics. And it makes me laugh really hard because it seemed very innocent but also so grandiose that I immediately texted Andrew Steele who I co-wrote this with a joke title, The Spoils of Babylon, and said we have to do this. What started as a joke just kept snowballing and all of a sudden now it’s on the air.
How did you balance starting as a parody but adding in such original elements specific to The Spoils of Babylon?
I think it’s a good question because I think that, especially with television or anything, when you’re trying to sell an idea, they always want it to continue, so we sold it saying we had different volumes of the fake author’s work so we could do subsequent seasons if that was a chance. But really, the simple idea was we want to do a lost '70s miniseries that was never aired. That’s a very simple, clean idea that everyone seemed to understand and get on board with. Once that was established, I’m such a cinema geek and especially within the story that we have, that how do we present the story that’s not just a straightforward parody of that, but different? So for example, we used the old CinemaScope lenses, the Panavision C Series Anamorphic ones that make it widescreen, which is always fun. We shot a bunch of the third episode in black and white; there’s a history of different kind of drug scenes in cinema. The beat poet thing last week, whether people like it or not, it’s the stuff that we love – that whole era – so we tried to slip stuff like that in there under the topic of what we sold.
Did you focus on making the show be able to stand on its own, for viewers who are less familiar with miniseries, or do you just have a sense of trust in your ability to make that happen?
We did a movie called Casa de mi Padre that was in Spanish, and the same argument was, “Do you have to know the history of these things to understand this?” I really don’t think so, because I never watched any really – I watched no Mexican television or soap operas and people said we nailed it. I honestly didn’t watch any other than that trailer for The Winds of War, which is just 30 seconds on YouTube. I think people get it, that’s the goal. I’m hoping that it stands on its own, that it’s entertaining enough, and that it’s its own kind of weird art project that people can get on board. I think if people know the references, I’ve heard they’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of delightful!” But I always set out to not make it exclusive or exclusionary, but more like a party that everyone’s invited to. Everyone is welcome to come to join us. I think we accomplished that. It’s hard to tell because you just never know. Some people obviously may be put off if they don’t know the references, but hopefully, it’s enjoyable on its own with this cast and tons of visuals and what it is that it stands on its own, so I hope that’s the case.
A part that I thought was so funny was that Lady Anne was a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan. Was that decision influenced by your short film, Brick Novax’s Diary, where the characters were dolls?
Both Andrew and I love mannequins and love that thing that goes back to both, you’re right, Thunder Birds, puppetry, there’s puppetry in the '60s Thunder Birds which is amazing. We used the mannequin in Casa de mi Padre. I love Fantastic Mr. Fox, that influenced my short film. And then, secondarily, that kind of pushed it through – the idea was if you watch a lot of those old melodramatic westerns that John Wayne starred in and Dean Martin, these young actresses that have been kind of lost that were cast against John Wayne were literally very pretty but also very wooden, almost like they could be a mannequin. They were underdeveloped as characters, they were not very three-dimensional, and we wanted to comment on that as well. But I think it’s also fun, really just in that swingy 8½, the whole kind of surreal world to jerk that in there without really justifying it, without ever really having a reason. Some people love it I’m sure, and some people are like, “What the hell are these guys doing?”
What did having Will Ferrell as the Eric Jonrosh character allow you to do?
I think it’s just an extra challenge. I think what a lot of it is too is people said, “Well why now? Why do something that’s a '70s miniseries now?” And I think A. they hadn’t really been explored before, B. the resurgence of miniseries, and C. I love the story of Orson Welles when he did The Magnificent Ambersons and the studio cut out 20 minutes and butchered it and Welles in the '70s looked back and was bitter, but he also kind of was proud of his work because it’s so great. And I think we like the idea of someone also commenting on the nature of creation of art and creativity. If someone makes something, you’re so obsessed by it you kind of get lost in your own creation to the point of madness. Then it comes back around and you realize it’s not that important, but at the same time, it kind of is the important thing. It just added, I think, another layer of justification for why this is and also a little context for the audience, I think you come enter in on a path. First of all, Will Ferrell’s name to have in the intro and outro is good, but also it provides a little bit of context for people coming through, like you said in your earlier question, “Do you need to know about it?” I think it gives a little bit of a cushion for people who have never seen these things; a little bit of context for what they’re about to see so they can enjoy it more.
You co-created this series with Andrew Steele. Are there particular elements of the show that one of you was more drawn toward writing than the other?
No, I think we both – it’s interesting because we go way back to '96. We shared an office together as Saturday Night Live writers; we both wrote our own sketches singularly, but our sensibilities are very similar. We both are big record collectors, and we both have about 10,000 records each. We’re drawn to a love of cinema, a love of not such broad comedy — I love what some people describe as broad but we try to almost drain it sometimes of comedy — and just obsessions with old big boring widescreen films, easy listening music on records, weird things like that, jazz – that kind of stuff. And so really we just kind of passed it back and forth. We make it pretty easy on ourselves where we break it all down in the outline then just kind of pass it back and forth, and we trust each other to the point of Andrew will think stuff while we write that joke and vice versa and basically there’s little re-writing because we both go, “Oh, we’re putting stuff in that we both wanted to see.” And the role is just to be as funny as possible for it.
In addition to co-creating and co-writing the series, you also directed it. What are the benefits of directing something you’ve also written?
It’s a great question. I mean, first of all, I started directing about eight years ago. At Saturday Night Live, you get to produce your own sketches, opposite a live director, but you get to pick everything. I think what it does is I can create images and certain things that I think would be hard to interpret for another director, or they would just be interpreted differently. The joy for me is in taking it from the inception, the creation, and then the execution and the finishing. To me, it’s about the whole thing. To be able control the elements, the visuals, are very important to me. The composition, the cut; everything is very important. Whether or not I succeed or don’t succeed doesn’t really matter. For me, the joy is taking it from beginning to end and not just turning it over, having someone else interpret it, and then it’s just not good.
What are some of the directorial choices you made for this show?
Like I said earlier, I chose to frame it in a 235:1 widescreen ratio and used the old Panavision lenses. I like the fact that we put in a lot of montage. Last week, there’s a withdrawal sequence and there is arty stuff in that. For me, it’s just to be able to conceive stuff like this and make it big and epic and combine that with the miniatures so it’s kind of like a combo of high and low, but really hoping that it gels together to have the story come through and have people enjoy it.
I wanted to talk a little more about your time at Saturday Night Live. How and when were you initially hired to write there?
I moved to New York after college when I was 21, and I had gotten a job as an NBC page. Then I was hired at Saturday Night Live to be the ticket guy for the live shows, and they asked me to start writing on promos, which at the time aired on Thursdays, so I became kind of the promo guy. Then they asked me to submit a formal sketch packet when I was 25, and they hired me then. So I got hired when I was 25.
What are your favorite sketches that you wrote?
Oh, there’s a long list. I wrote a lot of the “Jeffrey’s” with Jimmy Fallon. The thing I’m probably most known for after my five years there in 2002, when it was right after 9/11, and we were all devastated, obviously, but everyone was showing their patriotism by wearing flags. And so I wrote a sketch where Will comes through the office in a star-spangled speedo and that’s something I’ll be known for from SNL. But that’s one of the ones I like. Then there’s weird obscure ones like “Shirtless Door-to-Door Bible Salesman,” and a lot of little 10-to-1 pieces I was proud of that made it on the show but were a little weird.
Has your experience working on SNL influenced The Spoils of Babylon in any way besides being the common background with people you’re working with like Andrew Steele, Will Ferrell, and Kristen Wiig?
It’s funny because it’s the most amazing experience. Everyone calls it showbiz and comedy boot camp, but it’s also the sense that I found a little bit that I had a mentality that SNL was good for me: I love the stress, I love having to come up with stuff and change it quickly, so that was a big help just in my overall directing trial. But then there’s some areas where you have to kind of – I don’t think we’ll ever be able to avoid with all of us having that past history, some people say in reviews, “Oh, it’s better as a Funny or Die sketch or an SNL sketch.” Maybe that’s a valid criticism, but it’s interesting to see if we did not have an SNL background and we presented the same thing, if people would say that. I think it’s sometimes your history that you can’t escape, and sometimes you have to unlearn what works well in sketch comedy, where basically you learn if you don’t get out the joke within the first two sentences, you kind of die in front of the audience, you kind of have to let them know. It’s a different discipline where sometimes you have to unlearn when you’re writing longer form. It’s okay to kind of take your time and let it develop a little bit more. In sketch you have to keep moving as quickly as possible and sometimes that’s a bad thing in longer form stuff.
Do you have any plans to continue with The Spoils of Babylon?
It seemed to do pretty well, and we love it and while there’s no plan to keep, that was the idea from the outset was if it did well that we would do more. We kind of pushed it where we said we had the rights to 20 of Eric Jonrosh’s books, so we could kind of go anywhere. He could have written, just like those guys did, something completely different. So we’ll keep looking, we’ve got three more episodes to go, so we’ll see if it does well for them and call up all the stars, and I’m sure that we’d be up for it.
The Spoils of Babylon airs on Thursdays at 10 pm on IFC.
Jessye McGarry is a writer living in New York.