A Conversation with Meredith Dawson & J.J. Adler

J.J. Adler (left) directs the Difficult to Name Table Read of “Yes Massa” written by Meredith Dawson (right) at  Lyric Hyperion on Tuesday, October 2

J.J. Adler (left) directs the Difficult to Name Table Read of “Yes Massa” written by Meredith Dawson (right) at Lyric Hyperion on Tuesday, October 2

Ryan: I’m here with Meredith Dawson and JJ Adler, the writer and director of the Difficult to Name Table Read of Yes Massa on Tuesday. Meredith, how did you come up with the idea for Yes Massa?

Meredith: I was an assistant working for a writer and reading scripts for staffing season. I read so many scripts of the same type of thing and I was like, Okay, if you want to make it in this industry, you’ve got to write something so fucking ridiculous that if someone pitches it to you, you're like, I’ve got to read this. What's something that I can write? I'm black. What do black people know about? Slavery. But I'm a comedy writer. Slavery. A comedy. And that's how you get Yes Massa.

Ryan: JJ, I sent you a few scripts and you were like, “Yes Massa, that's the one.” What was it about Yes Massa that made you want to direct it?

J.J.: Exactly what Meredith just said. I've never read anything like it before. It was immediately funny and at the same time, it didn't feel like just a stunt or anything at all. It was good comedy writing. I could totally see it going on for longer. A lot of pilots, you get through it and you’re like, “I don't think I really need to know more about this world.” I feel like there's a lot more story in Meredith’s script.

Meredith: I have a whole ten season arc planned out.

Ryan: Hell yeah.

J.J.: Of course you do.

Ryan: J.J., I first discovered your work through the short you directed that Gary Richardson wrote, Places, Thank You Places. How did that project come about?

J.J.: I did a web series by this comic Charla Lauriston. She's wonderful. You should both meet her. It's called Clench and Release. Charla is a writer out here. Gary was in one of the episodes. He only had one line, but he just had me dying laughing. So I started to go watch his stand up and I just love him. And he loved the way that the web series came out and he just wanted to do something. He sent me a bunch of scripts and I didn't want to do another web series. I wanted to do a short. So then he finally sent me this script. We made very few changes, just the beginning and the end. We shot it, attached it on the end of the commercial I was doing in New York. All of my commercial friends came out and threw down for almost free. Gary got all of his buddies in it. We filled out the rest of the cast with my casting director in New York and that's it. It was really fun.

Ryan: I always get annoyed when a film is tonally inconsistent and what I loved about Places is that it sets that tone at the beginning and it just goes all the way through. It’s very funny, but also incredibly dark. Well, not incredibly dark, but his mindset, his head space is a little bizarre. How did you keep that tone?

J.J.:  I love stories about people who don't understand how they come off. That's what drew me to the story. A simple-minded guy who doesn't understand how self-destructive he is. And that's the feeling that you need to have coming away from watching the short. A lot of it is Gary's performance. And I think Gary and I are just on the same page in terms of tone and so it worked out. And a lot of it is the cinematography. The cinematographer, Laura Merians Goncalves, is super-talented. She shot a bunch of Bjork videos. She said, “I want it to be like Birdman.” And I was like, “I want it to be like Magnolia or Boogie Nights.” So basically, we ripped off those three films.

Ryan: Meredith, you wrote the episode of The Mindy Project with Julie Bowen. That was such a funny episode. How did you put that together?

Meredith: I was an assistant, so I co-wrote it with my former boss, Charlie Grandy, who's wonderful. All of the assistants at the time were surprised. They were like, “You’re going to write an episode with your former boss.” It was a dream. So Mindy [Kaling] wrote an episode with her former assistant, Sonia [Kharkar]. And then the second episode, Matt Warburton, who ran the show, wrote it with his former showrunner’s assistant. And I got to write with Charlie, obviously. So I wrote one half of the episode and he wrote the other half. And obviously there were months of rewriting, but it was a fun process to actually be in the room for the first time and pitch jokes and have people read words you've written. That’s always really fun, but that was kind of the process. It was a sweet little surprise that I got.

Ryan: And then you worked on Champions. How was that process?

Meredith: That was created by Mindy and my former boss Charlie, so I was an actual writer on that. That was really fun because I got to be there from the inception of the show and watch it go through the pilot process to series. That's the dream for a writer, to get to work with your boss and I loved the material and the actors are wonderful, I'm just hashtag blessed.

Ryan: Now you're working on Four Weddings and a Funeral for Hulu. I'm so excited. What's that going to be like?

Meredith: It’s an hour-long at Hulu. The first season is ten episodes, created by Mindy and Matt Warburton again. It's run by Tracey Wigfield, which is awesome if you're a 30 Rock or Great News fan. I get to sit next to Charlie, which is great. It's a lot of the same people as my past shows, which is a lot of fun. There will be four weddings and a funeral. And it’s shooting in London.  I think that's all I can say, but it'll be a romantic comedy.