Talking True Crime Satire with ‘American Vandal’ Showrunner Dan Lagana
From Serial to binge-demanding TV series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, the true crime doc format has become a national phenomenon that immediately sucks us in and then spits us out eight hours later with endless debates about whodunit. Though these are serious topics that would often demand a fictionalized version, it wouldn’t make sense to write a drama about Adnan Sami or Brendan Dassey because how could you ever top the true story we already watched?
For satirical purposes though, the true crime doc makes for the perfect comedy setup. That’s what Netflix’s American Vandal sets out to do with the fictionalized story of Dylan Maxwell (played by Jimmy Tatro), who is accused of spray-painting dicks on 27 faculty-owned cars in his high school’s parking lot. Showrunner Dan Lagana (Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, Deadbeat) knew that as ridiculous as the premise sounds (even though it was pulled from a real-life situation), the most important thing the show must do is play it as real and grounded as the series it was pulling inspiration from. “When I sat down with the creators, we talked it through and all agreed, ‘This is one of those things that can be really good or really bad. Let’s do the good version.’”
Was it Dylan, renowned for his dick-drawing skills? The creepy teacher who is trying way too hard to relate to his students? Or the documentarian himself, Peter Maldonado? Also, did Alex Trimboli really get a handjob from Sara Pearson, as shown in a computer-simulated recreation in the documentary?
To find out through a binge-watch or a take-your-time-with-it-watch, all eight episodes are dropping on Netflix this Friday, September 15th.
American Vandal seems like a perfect idea for its time given the popularity of the format, especially for a Netflix series. How did it all come together in the beginning?
The creators were these young guys named Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault and they had mostly done short-form and online videos for CollegeHumor, Funny or Die, and they had this idea: “What if we did a series based on a very low-stakes crime, taken very seriously?” From the genesis, the seriousness, that’s where the comedy was going to come from. If at any point there’s any winking at the camera, if it feels like we’re leaning more towards the comedy than the true crime genre, then we are making a critical error. Tony and Dan had this idea and an incredible pitch that Netflix picked up straight to series. At that point they said “We need to team these guys up with a showrunner to help them execute this idea.” They and I just kinda hit it off from day one.
We really saw eye to eye on what the best version of this show was. I came in with a notebook full of ideas and on top of that, I also came in with a few personal stories. I have a 17-year-old stepson, and when he was a freshman in high school he was accused of vandalizing an art project at school with a large phallic image. He didn’t do it but he got suspended for it. I remember sitting in the principal’s office, just boiling with fury over the injustice of it, and there was no way to prove his innocence. I told the creators that story and from that day forward we were a three-headed monster, which I was very, very excited about.
What’s it like filming something that’s made to look like a real eight-episode crime documentary but it’s all actually scripted?
This series has aged me terribly. We shot 260 pages in 25 days. It was the most challenging experience of my career thus far, and you have to be efficient. The scripts had to be an accurate blueprint of what we were going to do, and then we had to make sure it was all shootable. We didn’t have the luxury of just running around and grabbing stuff because it wasn’t real, it was all scripted. So to make those days on the smaller-scale budget that we had was very difficult. All I can do is tip my hat to Tony Yacenda for making those days possible. It was a tall order and we did it.
There are times when the documentary itself becomes self-aware and has a following within the show.
That was an idea that we discussed at length in the room. It was really about, “What’s gonna make this feel like it has the largest stakes when we get to the finale?” And feeling like we’re a little bit more in real time and feeling like we’re discovering things with Peter, those last few episodes and riding this wave of excitement. That felt like the strongest choice for season 1 of Vandal, and we made that work.
It seems a show of this scope, in a format that hasn’t been done often before if ever, has to have a very strong writer’s room.
I love staffing a writer’s room, it’s my favorite thing to do in the whole world. When I staffed Zach Stone, I read 250 scripts in two weeks, I picked the ten people I wanted to hire, and most of them MTV didn’t agree with me. There was a guy named Ryan Walls who they said I could hire to be my assistant, and now he’s been writing on Modern Family for the last four years. He was just so talented. I also had this young writing team who had just been on some show that I had never seen before, I had a Skype meeting with them and I was like “I have to hire them!” because they were going to be huge, and they were Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, who now co-showrun This Is Us. And Josh and Jon Silberman, who went on to three years of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I hired these people who had maybe had one job before because that’s maybe all I can afford for these small staffs on these smaller shows, and these people all went on to have such amazing careers. This American Vandal room is very comparable. We didn’t go after tried-and-true network writers — we read over 200 scripts, and we picked people that maybe didn’t look like the right fit on paper, but in the room everybody gelled. We had a very short amount of time to unravel an entire mystery and then build these episodes, and this staff outperformed more than I’d ever seen. I couldn’t be more proud of the writers we hired on this show.
I feel like it’s rare to have young actors who seem like cool teens, but also have legitimate comedic acting and timing. I think Jimmy Tatro pulled it off here as lead Dylan Maxwell, in that the character can be very dumb and very mean, but also pretty endearing?
Jimmy has his own YouTube channel, so he had experience in front of a camera and his timing and instincts were incredible. When we were casting the role, Jimmy came in, was completely off-book, and just embraced this character. Our director Tony Yacenda worked with him and we all improvised with him on set. Dan Perrault is the king of alt jokes, and he’d come in with notebooks of stuff for Jimmy, but Jimmy brings heat to the set. He is one of the most naturally funny and charismatic guys I’ve ever met. He did such a good job of humanizing the role, because this is such a flawed character. You’re at times not supposed to root for this guy or find yourself rooting for him in spite of yourself, which we found so interesting and fascinating about this character. That’s another reason why this was such a fun story to tell.
I have to ask about the computer-simulated handjob…
Oh my God. I wrote that episode and I think that’s my favorite graphic of the entire season. When we put that in, we were laughing so hard we were crying. You just don’t see graphics that look like that. When I put it in the script it was one of those moments where it was like, “Are we really gonna do this?” And then when we designed it, it couldn’t not be in there. Netflix even used that in our trailer — they made sure people saw that in there, which I thought was hysterical.
Going back to some of the other young comedy talent you’ve worked with, what was it like to collaborate with Bo Burnham on Zach Stone Is Gonna be Famous?
Bo is like family to me and Zach Stone was really my first love. I sat down with Bo before he graduated high school and he and I just hit it off. We knew that we had to tell a story together. When we had that idea for Zach Stone, we would get on the phone and talk for hours. We hired Jeff Blitz to direct it, who had just won Emmys on The Office. We hired a lot of crew from The Office and Parks and Rec, and we made a season of a show that we just love the shit out of. Working with Bo was a dream, it really was, and he’s like family to me to this day. We still play ping pong once a week. Once you’ve been in the trenches with someone like that, you’ll always be close with them. I feel like I went to war with Bo Burnham, especially working at a place like MTV. At the time, that place wasn’t known for comedy, and to this day probably isn’t still known for making the freshest comedies, and for us to tell a story there was an uphill battle and we’re really proud of what we did.
One of your first jobs was working as a production assistant on Malcolm in the Middle for a long while. Could you tell then that Bryan Cranston was going to go on to have this hugely successful dramatic career?
Bryan Cranston is the nicest person I’ve ever met. I had moved to Los Angeles, didn’t have any family, didn’t have any friends, I was a PA on Malcolm in the Middle getting people’s lunches, and Bryan Cranston would come down after shooting and watch the Red Sox games with me because he was a Boston fan like I was. It was incredible. It was surreal. He was the nicest, most down-to-earth guy, and also the star of the show. He was clearly going to go on and do tremendous things. In watching the Red Sox games I had told him how big of a fan I was of Craig Kilborn, and when he went onto The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, he brought me to sit backstage with him. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy, it almost didn’t make sense. For him to go on and do such incredible things, all you can say is no one deserves it more. Just the most genuine, nice guy.
If given a second season, how do you see the future of American Vandal evolving? Same characters or entirely new story?
We’ve already spoken to Netflix and CBS and we have an idea, and we want the show to evolve. That’s the only way a show like this keeps feeling fresh to us, is that it completely evolves. New people, new mystery, new type of storytelling; that’s the version of this that excites us.
American Vandal premieres on Netflix this Friday.