The creators of Maniac try to explain exactly what Netflix’s trippy new series is about

New Bond director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville unpack the ideas behind the bizarre – and possibly brilliant – new series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill

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Maniac, possibly Netflix’s most original, thought-provoking series to date, arrives this September.

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The series, led by stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, sees two lost souls participate in an unorthodox drug trial which seeks to “solve the mind”.

The troubled characters they journey through multiple fantasy universes – not to mention their own slightly warped version of our world – as they attempt to come to terms with trauma from their past.

It’s a dense but rewarding watch, and the show’s creators Cary Joji Fukunaga (who has just been confirmed as the new director of the next James Bond film) and Patrick Somerville (formerly a writer on The Bridge) are well aware that the series will take some serious decoding.

So, what is Maniac really about? RadioTimes.com sat down with the pair to find out about the history of the show, and the stories they were hoping to tell…

Emma Stone and Jonah Hill is incredible casting. How did you convince them to do it?

Cary Joji Fukunaga: My manager Michael Sugar called me about this idea, and showed me a trailer to the Norwegian show [the 2014 comedy on which Maniac is based].

He said, ‘You can do this in New York, this person suffering from delusions. You can get any actor you want, what do you think?’ And I was like cool, let’s do it.

Emma Stone was the first person on that call who I said I really wanted to work with. A month later Emma and I sat down and discussed it, and at that meeting, when I said we could perhaps make it a two-hander, she talked about how she and Jonah Hill had always thought about reuniting.

I was like, ‘That’s an awesome idea. Let’s FaceTime him right now and see what he says’. And he said, ‘Come over.’

So we went over to his house and said, ‘We don’t know what the show is about but we’re going to shoot in New York, and its going to be crazy, wackadoodle delusions’.

And he said, ‘Cool, I’m in’. 

And then came the process of having to figure out what the hell the show was.

So how did that process begin?

Fukunaga: When Patrick and I first met, both of us really felt strongly that setting the story in a mental hospital would not be a smart choice. We wanted to be compassionate to mental illness, and not make that the butt of the joke.

Patrick Somerville: On a very practical level too, we had two stars, and that kind of dynamic between therapist and patient was not going give us the opportunity to have both these characters having delusional experiences.

There were many pieces to that conversation, but we got to the idea of a pharmaceutical trial real fast.

How would you describe the tone of the show?

Fukunaga: It’s a fluid tone. I’ve always appreciated in Korean cinema, and more recently in French cinema, the idea that you can shift gears in tone and the audience will stay with you. Obviously, Patrick is a novelist, and in novels you have a little more liberty to make those shifts from chapter to chapter – but I think in films and television audiences are a little less forgiving, because they’re like, ‘What the f**k am I watching?’

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Somerville: Or they are thinking, ‘Are they in control of this?’. I have a really simple answer to your question: to me, the tone is emotional realism inside a heightened reality. I’ve always believed, even as a writer of fiction, that if you buy the emotional experience, if you can feel and empathise along with the characters, you can get away with quite a lot in terms of the representation of reality, and shifts in this representation of reality.

Fukunaga: In the ‘heightened’ part, that’s the clause. That’s the release clause where you can do whatever the f*** you want…

Somerville: The other thing I should add for that tone question is, unlike most television with episodes directed by different people, this show has the same director directing every episode. That I think buys the ability to make subtle shifts but not zig-zag off away from the core tone of the show.

Fukunaga: A lot of times as director, your job is to make sure all the actors are in the same movie. I kind of released myself from that pressure on this one, because I let Jonah be what he wanted to be.

And when Justin Theroux came in with his interpretation of [therapist] Dr Mantleray, a more heightened version of this character, I didn’t rein him in. I was like, ‘This is interesting, and it’s just the right amount of energy that we need at this moment in time.’

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Justin Theroux in Maniac on Netflix

In a recent interview, you said that you faced issues with Netflix’s algorithm, which tries to predict what viewers will want to watch, while making this series. Could you expand upon that?

Fukunaga: The first time I ever heard this term was working with Cindy Holland [Netflix’s vice president of original content]. She kept mentioning the algorithm as though it was a person: ‘the algorithm doesn’t like that.’

I think it’s essentially, the way the algorithm impacted this project – we didn’t want to lose [viewers] by confusing it. There was this potential for people to never see this show.

Somerville: I should add to this too: the conversations from Netflix were not about generating new ideas. There’s nothing about the process that would change; it was more like in the way that all producers and networks respond to what you’re suggesting. Responses like, ‘We’re not sure that the people watching this show would love that kind of move. Are you sure you want to do that?’

It was much more in line with the normal interaction between executives and creatives, [but] there’s sort of a different element to that conversation when you’re working with streamers.

Fukunaga:  The difference is that Netflix actually has the data.

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What particular issues did Netflix have?

Fukunaga: There was a commercial thing [in the show]… Mockumentary is difficult, because it’s so niche. So, if it thinks you’re doing something that’s mockumentary-like, it’s really narrowing the field.

Somerville: I think breaking the fourth wall is something they’re not sure they…

Fukunaga: …’Meta’ is not something the algorithm understands. But they’re working on that. I mean, their first flagship show [House of Cards] broke the fourth wall. Kevin Spacey’s character would talk to the audience all the time.

Somerville: But in a very warm, lush way. It’s not intellectual.

Is Maniac set in our time?

Somerville: It’s definitely now; I don’t know why people keep saying it’s the future. To me it’s our zeitgeist now, and it’s a different history of technology. It’s sort of now, but not now. Somewhere along the line something changed.

Fukunaga: I’ve always loved the idea of the multiverse and parallel realities, and the idea that we’re all living in a simulation; for me it’s sort of a facile jump to say that this reality that we created in the show could absolutely exist somewhere.

Is that why some of the technology in the show looks like something out of the 1970s?

Fukunaga: [to Somerville] What was that word we used? ‘De-familiarisation’.

All those decision were, on a very simple level, to upset the nature of what is normal. For the show, that baseline reality outside the delusional state, that wasn’t necessarily where we live today but some alternate version of it.

The question mark over what is normal isn’t a straightforward black and white answer – even though it is very much a reflection of the world we live in, from advertising to the way that we try to disconnect.

Somerville: Locking ourselves in our apartments, not speaking to our loved ones anymore. We just try to find a more outrageous way to tell that story. 

So Maniac, very simply, is about human connection?

Somerville: I think that was always the story. Maniac is the story of two people who don’t know each other at the beginning of the series walking out with an authentic relationship at the end of the series. If you’re telling that story, I think you’re also telling a whole bunch of other stories: about healing; about what is therapy; what is the mind; why therapy works for some people and not work for other people.

And I think hopefully in the background of the show there’s this idea that whether or not you buy any of the characters’ takes on psychology, you will walk away thinking that it is generally good to connect to other people. And if you want to get better, it’s never a bad thing to be sharing your stories and making yourself vulnerable to other people – and listening to other people doing that back.

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Maniac launches on Netflix on Friday 21st September