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Elizabeth Meriwether Says The Dropout ‘Scared The Pants’ Off Her

Dec 26, 2022

Elizabeth Meriwether is no stranger to success. She wasn’t even 30 when she created “New Girl,” one of the seminal comedy shows of the past 15 years. Her most recent endeavor, “The Dropout,” about the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, rewarded her with the first two Emmy nominations of her career, Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series and Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology series or Movie. It’s an experience she’s not sure she’ll have again.
READ MORE: “The Dropout”: Amanda Seyfried is outstanding in a tremendous indictment of tech hubris, desperation, and grift [Review]
“It felt so different than, obviously, making ‘New Girl,’ which was like, ‘What if they fall down a ladder?’ Coming up with just funny ideas versus dealing with real people that are very much in the world, and real events, and then getting new information,” Meriwether says.
As with many series and films, the COVID pandemic dramatically changed the final product. The writer’s room was finished by the time the stay-at-home occurred, but all the scripts weren’t written. The change in schedule saw Kate McKinnon drop out (no pun intended) from the project and eventual Emmy nominee Amanda Seyfried replace her. There was also an issue with the ending.
“I did go back and rewrote, and then had to reimagine the ending because we’d planned the series to end at Burning Man because [Holmes] went to Burning Man with her fiance and there were these Instagram photos that they put out that were just so crazy to me,” Meriwether reveals. “They’re in costume and they’re talking about how much they love each other. And it just felt like a fun place to end the show. But then we absolutely couldn’t do that because of COVID, so that all had to be reimagined. And it was just me, alone. On ‘New Girl,’ we sometimes had 17 writers, so it was a very different experience for me to go back to just me writing alone in a room. I started out as a playwright, so I felt it was a sort of return to actually writing as opposed to managing people, which I’d gotten used to doing. And I was very happy to get a chance to actually write, but it definitely scared the pants off of me.”
Over the course of our conversation, Meriwether discusses Seyfried’s performance, how she framed Holmes’ actions, and, most surprisingly, the lack of interest in new limited series from most platforms at the moment.
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The Playlist: I was just talking to the guys who did “Pam & Tommy” about how this year was the most competitive limited series year in the 75 years of the Emmys. Did your Emmy nods mean more knowing what a tough year it was overall to land one?
Elizabeth Meriwether: Yeah, I mean, totally. I think I was just blown away by the limited series that came out this year, and so it meant so much. And I also feel like there were some great ones that didn’t get nominated. But yeah, I mean, it meant an enormous, enormous, enormous amount to me, and almost in an embarrassing way.
I’m assuming to get recognized also by your peers in the Writers Branch meant a lot as well.
I mean, the world, the world to me. Because I’ve always, I don’t know, much like Elizabeth Holmes always felt like a fraud I think. Not that you’re supposed to put all of your worth into awards, but it sure feels good.
Have you felt like you can put Elizabeth Holmes to the side and move on, or do you feel like there’s always going to be a part of you that’s wondering what’s going on with her, wondering, “Do we do The Dropout 2 in 10 years,” sort of thing?
We’re definitely not doing “The Dropout 2”. I will always be aware of what’s going on with her, just because everyone in my life will always text me updates of what’s going on with her. But yeah. I mean, I feel ready to move on to different things. I spent about three years working on the show. Because of COVID, it just ended up getting stretched out and stretched out. So, by the end of it, I was like, “O.K., I’m done.”
And also, COVID felt like 10 years in one.
Exactly, yeah. When I joined the project, Searchlight had optioned the podcast, which is incredible, by the way, everyone should listen to it. And they had it set up at Hulu with Kate McKinnon attached, which is a backward way of doing it, but it’s Searchlight’s first TV show. So, I think they were approaching it more from a film perspective where they’re like, “We just need to get a writer.” Because TV is much more writer-generated. But it was a great situation. And then, worked on it, had a great writers’ room.
We were set to shoot in March 2020, and then obviously we didn’t. And then Kate had to drop out because of scheduling stuff with COVID, and for a while, we didn’t have a director or an actress. Honestly, I was so grateful that Hulu stuck with it because at so many times I was just like, “Oh, this is just not going to happen.” And I know that I’m not alone in my experience of the past couple of years because I think a lot of things, it’s just such a crazy ride to be ready to shoot something and then to have to wait a year. So, anyway, it was a journey. I was really always trying to avoid comparisons to Theranos. I felt like the limited series about Theranos was becoming Theranos.
But, unlike her perseverance, it actually worked out. You guys created something special. When you had that COVID break, though, looking back, did you end up rewriting the scripts? Was stuff going on with the case that you had no choice?
I mean, [this is] probably not something I’ll ever do again. My dad is a journalist. I felt like a journalist in some ways. I mean, I’m very much a writer and it’s very much a dramatization, but the sort of real-time information coming in and having to incorporate that, it felt so different than, obviously, making “New Girl”, which was like, “What if they fall down a ladder?” Coming up with just funny ideas versus dealing with real people that are very much in the world, and real events, and then getting new information. All the scripts weren’t written, but the writers’ room was done. So for about a year, it was just me in the scripts. So, I did go back and rewrote, and then had to reimagine the ending because we’d planned the series to end at Burning Man because she went to Burning Man with her fiance and there were these Instagram photos that they put out that were just so crazy to me. They’re in costume and they’re talking about how much they love each other. And it just felt like a fun place to end the show. But then we absolutely couldn’t do that because of COVID, so that all had to be reimagined. And it was just me, alone. On “New Girl,” we sometimes had 17 writers, so it was a very different experience for me to go back to just me writing alone in a room. I started out as a playwright, so I felt it was a sort of return to actually writing as opposed to managing people, which I’d gotten used to doing. And I was very happy to get a chance to actually write, but it definitely scared the pants off of me.
Were you guys actually going to go to Burning Man or just try to recreate it?
Recreate it, which was already an ambitious idea, and my line producer, Hilton [Smith], is amazing, but I remember him being like, “We can just drive to the desert somewhere and get some shots.” And I was like, “No, just, fine.” At some point you just have to be like, this is going to be a mistake. And then Burning Man just turned into her getting into an Uber, which ended up working, I think, really well. So, it’s a good lesson for me, sometimes the simplest is the best.
Yeah. I actually think it’s a great ending. You can read into it thematically on so many different levels. You talked about the fact that you lost Kate during the stay at home. Was that a panic moment? And how long did it take to find Amanda?
I mean, yes, losing Kate was a huge panic moment. I knew this performance was this show. There’s no way around it. This show is an examination of this woman and this character, and what’s going on in her head. And Kate had been working on it. It was definitely scary and sad. Kate is also such a specific person and has a specific ability to go into comedy and drama. To find somebody who could do both. Amanda, I think “Mank” had just come out and she’d just gotten an Oscar nomination and her name came up and it was just like, that’s perfect because she has that background. She’s done really funny comedy and also drama, and just also turned out to be the most game, smart, creative, hardworking actress I think I’ve ever worked with. She just was so up for anything and really had done her work. Showed up at the first rehearsal with that voice. And the voice had been something that I was very worried about because the other thing that really was important to me was that it didn’t become a sketch, that it didn’t become this distracting thing that works for one episode, but doesn’t work for five episodes. I was like, “How does this voice become part of this real grounded, emotional character, as opposed to a ridiculous thing that’s put on?” And Amanda just understood that and had worked on it. It’s not scripted if her voice is high or low, so Amanda just figured out what, emotionally, would make sense with the voice in that scene. She’s incredible. I also think to be able to have that much chemistry with everybody around her, while also playing a character who doesn’t have a lot of feelings. To be able to connect and also to show the distance that the character has with other people. Amanda’s so able to play two things at the same time, which as an actor, I think it’s rare. And it’s such a gift for a writer because you know that everything that you write is going to get more interesting in that actor’s hands.
It’s been, what, six months since the show came out? Maybe you’ve changed your mind. But do you think that Elizabeth knew it was a scam the whole time? Or do you think she really did believe the mission of the company was possible?
Well, I mean, I cannot speak to the real Elizabeth because I just… And I feel it’s important…
Sure. It’s just your opinion.
That distance is always really important to me, for many reasons. I think she set out to make this product. I don’t think she was setting out to defraud investors. I think the question that a lot of people have, and that is up for discussion, and I hope the show adds to the conversation about, is when that change happened. When she made a decision [that] cross lines. But she was a true believer in a lot of ways in the product, and I think what’s interesting about this story is that it shows how sometimes believing in something so much can be destructive. To fully put everything about you and everything that you have and everything you believe in into one idea? It can lead to a lot of pain for the people around you. That was what was really interesting to me about the show. I think if the show was just about somebody who was consciously always lying, I don’t think that would carry through eight episodes. You wouldn’t care about that character.
Would you tackle a real-life story again, in a limited series?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m not scared off of them, I think, at all, because I love them. I love watching them, and as I said, the journalism aspect of it I really loved. Also, I don’t know, I found it’s so weirdly freeing to be given a story and then to find a narrative within that, as opposed to having to come up with everything on your own. I think what I would probably avoid is something that’s ongoing. It’s just like, maybe put a little space between whatever true story that I tell, but who knows? I don’t know. Yeah. I’ll also do whatever they want me to do.
This was the first limited series you’ve done. Was that an experience you enjoyed? Do you prefer that compared to ongoing series?
Yes. I love it. I love it as a form of storytelling. It makes sense to me that there were such a huge number of limited series this year. Did you say it was the most…?
I think most people would say it was the most competitive. It was technically the most that were ever submitted. Obviously, sometimes there are a lot of bad ones. But there were a lot of great ones this year.
I mean, it’s such a great way of telling a story, and I think writers and actors are really gravitating towards it. I mean, have been gravitating towards it for a while. I think it gives you time to really dig into complicated stories and stories that take place over many years or stories that have a lot of characters. It gives you time and space in a way that a movie doesn’t. But also, as much as I loved doing “New Girl” for seven years, you get to the fourth, fifth season, and you’re trying to end, come up with the season finale for the fifth season. And it’s hard. It’s very, very hard to keep a series going for years and years and years. And you’re, a lot of the time, zigging and gagging in ways that you wouldn’t have done in your early conception of the show. And then, from a storytelling perspective, to know where you’re ending, to know that you have an endpoint that you’re working towards, I think is great. So, I loved it, and I know that platforms don’t love making them, but…
Wait, why do you think the platforms don’t like making them?
I actually don’t understand the business enough. I’m trying to educate myself about it. There isn’t a lot of economic incentive for it because you’re making something, you’re building a lot of sets and creating infrastructure that you’re then not using. And I think a lot of the TV business model is built on, spending a lot of money in the first season, and then you have a thing that’s up and running that you can then start to make money from. But, a lot of ongoing series on platforms don’t work that way anymore anyway. So, I don’t know. The feedback I’ve heard from a number of places is like, “No more limited series. We want series.”
O.K. That’s really interesting
But, I mean, I think, also, a lot of actors, it’s very hard as an actor to sign up for seven years of commitment based on a pilot. That’s a really tough ask, I think.
It’s hilarious that after all these actors who never wanted to do television before are now running to do limited series, they’d be like, “No, stop.”
It’s almost like no one really knows what to do.
Speaking of that, do you what you’re doing next?
Yeah. I am writing a limited series, based on a podcast about real people. No. It’s for FX, and it’s called “Dying for Sex.” It’s based on this podcast called “Dying for Sex” and it’s a real-life woman who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and she left her husband of 14 years and went out and found herself sexually before she died. So, it’s another thing that nobody wants, that all the platforms are saying they don’t want right now, which is a sad comedy.
I’m excited for you that FX is making it, at least.
Yeah. I’m excited too. But it’s a beautiful podcast, and it’s very different than “The Dropout.” There are lots of feelings and lots of sex. There’s no engineering.
No blood, though. No blood.
No blood, no engineering, no chemistry, no business. So that’s a relief for me.
“The Dropout” is available on Hulu.

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