Tag Archives: Dispatches from Elsewhere

Magical mystery tour

How I Met Your Mother actor Jason Segel reflects on the “magical mid-life crisis” that led to him writing, directing and starring in AMC’s reflective, offbeat and surreal adventure Dispatches from Elsewhere.

By way of an introduction to a new television series, it is certainly eye-catching and unique. Before the opening credits of Dispatches from Elsewhere, Richard E Grant stares down the camera to unroll two minutes of exposition about lead character Peter, detailing the life of this lonely, submissive, routine-driven office worker.

Then when the story begins and Peter calls the number on a flyer for the Jejune Institute, he receives details of a time and place at which to take part in a mysterious initiation, leading him to take a leap of faith – one that changes his whole outlook on life.

While Grant’s character, Octavio, serves as the audience’s guide through the series, Jason Segel’s Peter is one of four ordinary people who are brought together when they stumble upon a puzzle hidden behind the veil of everyday life. As Peter, Janice (Sally Field), Simone (Eve Lindley) and Fredwynn (Outkast’s André Benjamin) begin to accept the mysterious ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere,’ they find a world filled with possibility and magic.

“I would say it’s the closest I could come to my version of The Wizard of Oz,” explains Segel, who also created and wrote the series.  “Those four people go on a quest to find a missing girl and, in the process, try to find themselves, find community and find some of the magic that gets lost. Every Roald Dahl or Harry Potter book, they’re all built on the same idea that we have this hidden desire that someone is going to show up and say we’re meant for more. We all wish that, and this show scratches that itch.”

Segel jokes that the idea came from a “magical midlife crisis.” Having begun working in the film and TV business when he was 17, the actor broke through with a starring role in Judd Apatow’s short-lived NBC comedy Freaks & Geeks, before appearing in movies such as Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which he also wrote) and I Love You Man. Meanwhile, he also starred in CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which ran for nine seasons until 2014.

“One of the side effects of being so, so lucky, which I was, was I didn’t have to do much thinking about who I was and why I was doing any of this during that decade,” he says. “The first thing I wrote, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I wrote from my guts and I wrote it with a complete lack of strategy because I was young and I didn’t know any better. It was the work of somebody who didn’t know things were difficult or there had to be a plan or anything like that.”

Segel describes Apatow as his mentor, with the Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin filmmaker having taught him how to write and encouraged him to pursue his ideas. “He said to me, ‘Jason, you’re a weird dude, and the only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material.’ It was the best piece of advice I ever got,” Segel recalls.

“I wrote my first movie when I was 24 years old. From the moment that movie was made, that same year, I got How I Met Your Mother, and I had a decade of things being fairly easy in terms of getting jobs and what would come next.”

L-R: Dispatches from Elsewhere’s four main characters are played by Sally Field, André Benjamin, Jason Segel and Eve Lindley

Now 40, Segel had an “artistic check-in” after How I Met Your Mother ended, with no idea of what he would do next. But it was a San Francisco social experiment called Games of Nonchalance that would inspire his next major project. Wanting to pitch a screen idea based on the experiment, Segel called its creator, Jeff Hull, the “real-life Willy Wonka,” but was immediately hung up on.

“I was so confused, it was so cryptic. Then about a month later, I got an email with a location and a time in San Francisco,” he says. “I showed up and it was a hotel. I walk into the hotel, they said, ‘Mr Segel, we’ve been expecting you,’ and I went to this hotel room and there was a card waiting for me with another time for the next day, a location and a note that said, ‘No one is going to make you feel stupid.’ I thought, ‘Oh, these people understand what all of our fears are like.’

“I showed up the next day and I was basically put through the induction that you see in episode one of the TV show. At the end, I got another email that said, ‘We were watching you. You have divine nonchalance, and we’re giving you the rights to this project.’ That was how this all started, and it stayed equally as weird up until this moment.”

Segel originally conceived the project as a movie, but when he realised he was more interested in the characters than the central plot device – the hunt for a missing girl – he turned to television, with each episode profiling a particular character.

The show was inspired by a social experiment in San Francisco

“The thing that really cracked the series open for me was when I cracked the structure,” he explains. “The adventure story, you can craft a million different ways, but the structure of this was very, very difficult. Once I figured out it was about who pulls a flyer and why, immediately what came into my mind was The Wizard of Oz. It’s four people, they can each need different things and be on the same journey to attain them and do it together. That was when that was when the show started to make sense for me.”

Another piece of advice Segel received from Apatow was that “everything happens in casting,” which means you write a part as best you can and then, after an actor has been cast in the role, you rewrite it with that actor in mind. Field plays Janice, who is searching for a sense of identity, while Benjamin is conspiracy theorist Fredwynn who can’t build relationships with other people.

Meanwhile, Simone struggles with the feelings of belonging and acceptance. Segel says Mr Robot star Lindley had the part from the moment she auditioned.

“She gave this audition that was so much more complicated and nuanced than I ever could have written. Then I just wrote towards her,” Segel says. “I tried to get to know her as much as I could. I picked her brain as much as I could.

“There’s some very explosive and emotional scenes between Simone and Peter as the series goes on and I can write them as best I can imagine them, but I don’t know Eve Lindley’s life. I don’t know what it might be like for a trans woman to be in a complicated relationship. So I was really lucky to have actors who were willing to tell me and show me and experiment with me and fight with me on screen. It really brings life to the show.”

How I Met Your Mother star Segel created and wrote the series

Segel is speaking in Berlin, where the series had its world premiere at Berlinale last month, before its debut in the US on cable channel AMC. Shot in Philadelphia, it is produced by AMC Studios and also marks Segel’s first directing credit, having helmed episode one.

He says he is inspired by filmmakers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, whose work is similarly surreal yet grounded in real life. “There’s so much being done about extraordinary people,” he says. “But what if you are coming to terms with [the fact] you’re just like everybody else? That’s what I’m going through. That’s what the show is about. It’s what we’re all going through in a moment-to-moment basis. We’re all coming to terms that we’re in this together.”

Being writer, actor and director on the project meant “the game of telephone” was removed for Segel, who says it would have been impossible to try and explain the tone of the show. “I had never wanted to direct before because everything that I wrote, I felt like one of my friends or somebody could direct it better. So I never wanted to do it out of pride. This was the first time that I wrote something where I felt like I personally should direct it.”

Beyond the adventure storyline, Dispatches from Elsewhere also uniquely blends themes of age, gender, sexuality, identity and race by telling a story about how four disparate people are more alike than they – or we – might think.

Richard E Grant’s character is the audience’s guide through the series

“The show, at its heart, is a challenge of empathy, to present people who seem like completely disparate types – and I challenge you at the beginning of each episode to think this person [featured in that episodes] is you,” Segel says.

“If we’ve done our job, by the end of the series, you recognise yourself in all of those characters. I feel as though that was why I wrote the show, because we’re being told we’re so different and we should be scared of each other and hate each other, or stick to your own group. If you carry that far enough, you end up the king of your own kingdom of one. I was interested to break down those walls.”

Segel says he sometimes wishes his career had been given to him on a plate, instead of the actor selecting his work more carefully. But like the characters in Dispatches from Elsewhere who embark on an adventure in an attempt to find what is missing in their lives, that has never been his story.

“That’s not what my career has ever been like, at least in terms of stuff that I wanted to do,” he adds. “While it’s harder this way, I do get to have the sense that when I make something from my guts, I feel like I’ve done what I imagine a real artist does.”

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Berlin calling

With television now well and truly matching the star power of the movie business, DQ runs the rule over the TV series getting red-carpet premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival, which kicks off today.  

As the Berlin International Film Festival, aka the Berlinale, begins today, the red carpet will be rolled out for screen stars from all over the world. But it’s not just the movies that will be celebrated over the next 11 days.

For the past few years, television has played an increasingly important and visible part of the annual event, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2020. This year will be no different, with eight series – from Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the UK and the US – enjoying world or international premieres.

The Berlinale Series strand will introduce shows that feature representations of various communities, sexual identities and new perspectives on the world today, while the selection also plays vividly with ideas of television style, structure and tone.

Dispatches from Elsewhere comes from How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel

First up will be Dispatches from Elsewhere, the AMC series starring Jason Segel, Eve Lindley, Sally Field, André Benjamin and Richard E Grant. Creator Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) also co-directs the series, in which an enigmatic institute promises a chosen few an escape from everyday life into a world full of beauty and magic. But is this a game, an alternative reality or a conspiracy? And what are those taking part risking?

Dark Austrian drama Freud, meanwhile, transports viewers to 1886 Vienna, where a young Sigmund Freud (Robert Finster) – restless, high on cocaine and striving for recognition – embarks on a nerve-wracking, hypnotic trip into the depths of the human soul with a mysterious medium and a traumatised policeman. Directed by Marvin Kren (4 Blocks) for Austria’s ORF and Netflix, the show’s cast also includes Ella Rumpf, Georg Friedrich, Christoph Krutzler, Brigitte Kren, Anja Kling, Philipp Hochmair and Noah Saavedra.

Canada’s C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married) is set in 1970s Quebec

From Canada is C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married), which is set in Quebec in 1974. The drama tells the story of two couples who send their kids off to camp for three weeks. With their children away, things quickly turn uncomfortable for the couples and cracks start to appear in the facades of their relationships. The series was created by François Létourneau, who also stars alongside Patrice Robitaille, Marilyn Castonguay, Karine Gonthier-Hyndman and Sophie Desmarais. Joanne Forgues is the showrunner on the programme, which  was commissioned by Radio-Canada Télé and Tou.Tv Extra.

British entry Trigonometry focuses on a couple who take in a lodger. The trio fall in love together and start up a three-way relationship – but can it possibly work out? The BBC and HBO Max series was created by Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods, with Thalissa Teixeira, Gary Carr and Ariane Labed playing the central trio. Athina Rachel Tsangari and Stella Corradi are the directors.

Also due to premiere at Berlinale is the second season of Australian drama Mystery Road, which has added The Bridge star Sofia Helin to its cast. The ABC series, created by Ivan Sen, opens when a headless corpse is found floating by the shore of a remote outback town. As if this weren’t mysterious enough, Detective Swan and his colleague Fran have to contend with protests against the excavation of an Indigenous site. And then another body turns up. Aaron Pedersen returns as Detective Swan, alongside actors Jada Alberts and Callan Mulvey. The directors are Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair.

British drama Trigonometry centres on a three-way relationship

Shortform drama Sex, from Denmark’s TV2, comprises six episodes with a total running time of 77 minutes and will be screened in its entirety at the festival. Created by Clara Mendes and directed by Amalie Næesby Fick, the show follows Catherine, a call-centre worker giving advice on sex and love but at a loss herself. After a kiss, she wants more from her colleague Selma. Her boyfriend Simon feels that what’s little is actually plenty. But what if that’s not enough? The cast includes Asta Kamma August, Jonathan Bergholdt Jørgensen, Nina Terese Rask and Sara Fanta Traore.

Stateless, another drama from ABC Australia, boasts an all-star cast led by Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale), Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie, Fayssal Bazzi, Dominic West and Cate Blanchett, who co-creates and executive produces the six-part series. Directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse, it tells the story of four strangers whose lives collide at an immigration detention centre in the middle of the Australian desert. Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres co-created the series alongside Blanchett.

Yvonne Strahovski in Stateless

The final premiere will be Netflix’s upcoming musical drama The Eddy (pictured top), created by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials) and Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, who is also the lead director on the series. Bandleader Elliot is improvising his way through a complex score of problems: his Parisian jazz club The Eddy isn’t doing too well, while ruthless debt collectors are breathing down his neck – and then his teenage daughter Julie arrives from New York. The cast features André Holland, Joanna Kulig, Amandla Stenberg, Tahar Rahim, Leila Bekhti, Adil Dehbi and Benjamin Biolay.

Themes of macabre humour, female sexuality and an interconnected world will be on display through the eight shows, while the increasing trend for actors to be more deeply involved in series creation and development – notably Blanchett (Stateless) and Segel (Dispatches from Elsewhere) – is also apparent.

At a time when the distinction between movies and television is increasingly blurred, the focus Berlinale places on series marks it out from other film festivals around the world, though other events are now also pushing the small screen into the spotlight.

Meanwhile, numerous other screenings will also take place at the city’s Zoo Palast, with shows including Ukraine’s Hide & Seek,  Czech drama The Sleepers, Brazilian series Where My Heart Is, UK/New Zealand coproduction The Luminaries and Australia’s Total Control among them.

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