Head case

Head case

By Michael Pickard
April 6, 2021

The Writers Room

Christina Lee and Alissa Nutting tell DQ about writing Made for Love, an HBO Max original series based on Nutting’s darkly comic sci-fi novel about a woman on the run from her controlling tech billionaire husband – who has implanted a monitoring chip in her head.

As one of the stars of award-winning Black Mirror episode USS Callister, Cristin Milioti played a character whose consciousness was cloned and placed inside a computer game that closely resembled classic sci-fi series Star Trek. Now, the actor’s latest role sees her once again facing the sinister use of futuristic technology in HBO Max original series Made for Love.

The darkly comic, sometimes absurd but often poignant series, which debuted in the US on April 1, follows Milioti’s Hazel Green, a 30-something woman on the run after 10 years in a suffocating marriage to Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), a controlling tech billionaire.

Alissa Nutting

After escaping their tech-driven home, called The Hub, Hazel soon discovers her husband has implanted a monitoring device – the Made for Love chip – into her brain, which allows him to track her, watch her and collect her ‘emotional data’ as she tries to regain her independence. This leads her back to her desert home town where she finds shelter with her widower father Herbert (Ray Romano) and his synthetic partner Diane.

An eight-part series, Made for Love is based on Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel of the same name, with the author partnering with series showrunner Christina Lee and Paramount Television Studios to bring the story to the small screen. ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group distributes internationally.

“I definitely knew I wanted to do something that was different,” the author tells DQ of adapting her own work. “The book is so internal – I wanted to do something that remains true to all the themes that are being explored but I wanted to explore it with someone in a new way. Christina was a really natural creative partner. We both immediately saw eye-to-eye on everything, so the two of us began working together and then laid the foundations for breaking out the series.”

“When I was first given the book, the thing that surprised me the most – because I knew the premise of it – was how much it made me laugh,” says Lee. “There’s lots of humour in the book; it’s so unique and special and that comes through in the series as well. To have such a sinister plot along with this very humorous, weird tone, that was really appealing to me. My background has always been on the comedy side, so it was exciting for me to go into the darker space of a sci-fi dark comedy.”

That humour emerges from the desperate situations in which Hazel finds herself, whether she is tolerating her suffocating husband or finding her father in bed with Diane. “That appealed to me because it’s coming from a real place,” Lee continues. “What we always tried was to keep a tone that felt grounded and dramatic but found the humour in those kinds of moments.”

Christina Lee

Humour also comes from miscommunication and the ways relationships and technology come together, often with mixed results. “These characters are really struggling to figure out, ‘What do I want? What does this other person want? How can I be this thing or person that is somebody else’s idea of what they want me to be?’ It has all of these disconnects,” Nutting adds. “Identity and the ways we misunderstand one another, particularly in romantic relationships, are also big driving forces behind the humour.

“We’re always looking for love, acceptance, belonging and feeling like our lives are full and complete. I’m very interested in the way we use technology or products and the way capitalism hooks into that and tries to sell those feelings to us. That was very much at the forefront of the book. What are the ways we supplement our relationships with technology? What are the ways it can help us, hurt us, supplement or simulate a substitute for the real thing and when is it just a substitution?”

Nutting was ever-present throughout the process of bringing her novel to the screen, from development and production through to editing and delivery, and was an “essential partner,” says Lee. In particular, she was willing to give up the world of the book and see it evolve in a way that would best serve the television adaptation.

“What was great for me as a showrunner was that she was really willing to expand the world from what she had created in the book,” Lee explains. “That was something she wanted to do; she was very happy with what the book presented but she wanted something different for the series, so it gave us a lot of room to play and figure out where we wanted to take the story. This was the first time I had worked so closely with an author and it was a great experience to do this show together.”

In the series, Hazel retains her central role from the novel, but the writers hope viewers will also find greater empathy with the show’s other characters, who are all shown at their best and at their worst.

“All the characters behave badly at some point but you can be on their side,” Lee says. “You understand why they’re making the choices they are, and that was a very easy and natural way to expand the world, to be able to tell the story looking at it from everyone’s perspectives.”

Ray Romano and Cristin Milioti in Made for Love

Having worked on series such as Washington Heights and Super Fun Night and franchise Wet Hot American Summer, Lee says the key to showrunning is building the right team, which in this case included director Stephanie Laing, director of photography Nathaniel Goodman and production designer Jordan Ferrer.

“That was my approach as a showrunner, just to surround us with really talented people who all had the same objective in wanting to tell this cool sci-fi story but one that has a lot of emotion,” she says. “Even shooting through a pandemic, it was the most fun and efficiently run show I have ever been a part of. It ran much smoother than I ever could have imagined.”

Two episodes had been shot before the pandemic forced a temporary hiatus, with Nutting and Lee using the break in filming to look back on what had already been recorded and rewrite later scripts.

Nutting admits to feeling moments of anxiety before production resumed, owing to the sheer number of unknowns they were facing and that had been discussed during numerous meetings about managing the Covid risk. But after the first couple of days in production, as the sight of people in masks and shields became normalised, “it started to feel just the same as it had been before,” she says. “It wasn’t that hard. I give a lot of credit to the people who made it that way, our production team, but from a creative standpoint, we were able to do everything we wanted to do and it was pretty fun. That was surprising.”

After leaving her husband, Milioti’s Hazel discovers he has implanted a monitoring device in her brain

Much of the series was filmed in the desert on the outskirts of LA, particularly in a small town called Peru, while studio space was used in the city itself. A house in the San Fernando Valley doubled for The Hub, while some of the virtual environments created inside the tech-driven estate were actually captured in Malibu and the Huntington Gardens.

Then when it came to casting, “Cristin was our ideal get,” Nutting says. Impressed with the actor’s work in Fargo and Black Mirror, they also admired her ability to bounce between comedy and drama.

“She’s just so versatile and really conveys an interior expression so well, which is really important in showing the dualism of Hazel, especially during her time in The Hub where she’s masking how she really feels to her husband but can convey those feelings to the audience watching,” the author says. “Her range is just exquisite. She was the number-one get and we were so fortunate to have her. She’s such a joy.”

As for Romano as Hazel’s dad, the exec producers thought it would be an exciting opportunity to see the Everybody Loves Raymond star in a dramatic role.

“It’s one we haven’t quite seen him in before, where he has a lot of dramatic tension and he’s someone who didn’t make the ideal choices in times of pain, who hasn’t always been able to open up and say exactly what he wants to say,” says Nutting.

Romano plays Hazel’s father, who lives with his synthetic partner

“Here’s a character who lost his first wife to cancer and doesn’t really ever want to take that sort of chance or risk again, to the extent that Hazel finds him living with a synthetic partner. We thought it would be so incredible to see him as a character going on that kind of emotional journey from start to finish. He really just blew us away. I was so impressed. He really can’t do a bad take. Billy has such a range as well, from making us weep to making us howl with laughter. He really can be so understated and also command the screen with larger-than-life performances.”

Lee admits there were times during the writing process where they worried about the “likeability factor” of all the show’s main characters, but she says the actors bring a nuance to their roles that means viewers will understand their choices, even if they don’t agree with them.

“Especially with Billy’s character, where he’s playing more of a villain type, the way he played Byron was not like a conventional villain,” she says. “There were a lot of times we joked around and were like, ‘He’s great, let’s go back to him,’ and we credit that to how Billy played this character. It was layered and complicated, and they were all just so great.”

“One of the things I love about this show is we’re not placing judgement on different kinds of love or how people love,” adds Lee. “We’re just showing all of it to show it comes in different forms. For Byron, even though it is controlling, even though it is manipulative, you understand that it’s a real kind of love.”

The showrunner says Made for Love had a complicated start as the writers worked through several iterations of the show before they found the story they wanted to tell. In particular, they were concerned it might become lost in its sci-fi trappings and ‘what if’ scenario.

“It was very important to both Christina and I that, at its essence, it’s a really human story that’s emotionally evocative about these characters,” Nutting says. “Finding the right balance and figuring out the way we wanted to tell the sci-fi story with a lot of heart, as well as suspense and humour and all the other qualities, was something we really took the time to get right.”

“Alissa and I are sci-fi fans and we felt we were missing a female lens into sci-fi,” Lee notes. “That’s something we really wanted to make sure came across in the series, and that’s why you’ll see the story isn’t just a science-fiction story but it’s a really emotional story. And why you’re going to keep coming back is because of the relationship, not for the sci-fi aspect for it.”

Though we don’t yet have chips in our heads, “that might be coming soon,” Lee jokes. But she believes there is something appealing in what modern technology can do in terms of human connections.

“This show will feel like it mirrors a lot of what we’re experiencing now and will ask the question, if you could have a chip or some sort of shortcut [to love], would you take it? We hope it starts that kind of dialogue.”

“In a large way, this show is really circling around how are we able to be authentic with one another, both in person without technology and online and with any inventions and adaptations that are coming our way,” Nutting surmises.

Lee concludes: “For anyone out there who has either checked their partners’ text messages or has wanted to, this is a cautionary tale of what that could be.”

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