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Arrested Development’s Mitch Hurwitz Talks About Getting the Bluths Back Together

As Arrested Development comes back from the dead, its creator talks about the "Rubik's Cube" that is the new season, working with Netflix, and choosing to bleep out the swear words.

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Netflix's Los Angeles Premiere Of Season 4 Of "Arrested Development"
Michael Buckner / Getty Images for Netflix

Hurwitz at the Los Angeles premiere of Netflix's Arrested Development

On Sunday, May 26, Netflix will debut 15 new episodes of Arrested Development. I visited the set last fall, and my feature on the revival ran in the print TIME magazine a couple weeks ago. This week, I’m excerpting some interviews I did for the piece. Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, writer, and all-around mad genius, discussed the revival with me on the phone a few weeks ago, while in post-production on the new season:

So, are you editing episodes at this stage?

Hurwitz: Yeah. The episodes have to be essentially locked in like 12 days and I still have like three hours of content which is like three movies. So it’s this crazy pace – it’s been kind of around the clock. But I’m getting there. I’m getting there.

That actually brings up a question: are you locked into, you know, whatever – 22, 25, 30 minutes an episode? They can be different lengths, right?

Exactly, and that’s been a big relief. The old show had to be something like 20 minutes and 45 seconds – something like that. It’s a crazy short amount of time so it really honed my skills at the concentration process. You just – distill and distill and distill the material, and I’d look at those old shows and think, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe we did that in 20 minutes.” Now the new show basically I’m looking at it as a whole and it’s probably gonna be about eight-and-a-half hours which is, I think, longer than the first season was altogether.

One of the many things that was so great and distinctive about the old episodes was that you really crammed a lot in them; I imagine part of that was sort of a side benefit of the running time that commercials forced on you. And yet I imagine you want to retain that familiar piece and metabolism for the show.

Yeah, my goal was actually to get the episodes as short as possible, and I just couldn’t do it. There was so much more I had to get in. So I would say I don’t think it’s gonna feel like a substantially different pace, but it has allowed me and the actors to show more dimensions of their characters in a way. Less about just the story and more about maybe their inner lives a little bit.

When I visited the set, I saw that you would shoot scenes from multiple episodes to work around the actors’ schedules. Can you talk about how that worked?

It was very intense, you know. Together we worked – we shot something like 70 straight days without a break while, and of course, all out of sequence in an almost just borderline chaos of “Hey, we’ve got Tony Hale this week and we have Will Arnett. Let’s jump to that [episode] and we’ll grab a piece of the two of them”—even though it’s not written yet but I had worked out the whole story. It’s been at that pace ever since. There would be days that on the call sheet you would see on it episode 406, 408, 409, 412 and 401.

I kept thinking of it as a crossword puzzle. So you just always had to be thinking, “Okay, wait, six down has to end with ‘ing.’ There’s got to an N in here somewhere.” … So it was constantly rejiggering that story to make sense. And then the more I’d shoot, the more I would have filled in in that crossword puzzle in ink. Do you know what I mean? Well, I’ve only got a couple of choices in post; I can try to make that A look like a B or I can find a word that starts with B that sits in here.

So it was, you know, it was – I can’t imagine I will ever have a more challenging ongoing daily experience than I have in this last over a year now, last year. Even now in post, I mean, I’m still – I’m rushing the post and I’m trying to tell the story in the most surprising and effective way so I will quickly have to decide, okay, this episode, this scene which I had originally intended for George-Michael’s episode, really emotionally it’s about the grandfather’s story. So I’ve got to put it in the grandfather’s show which means I’ve got to move that other scene, you know. It’s just a constantly changing Rubik’s cube in a way. All my metaphors have to do with puzzles because that’s all it is, is a puzzle.

Was it hard to stay optimistic about getting to tell this story again some day?

I, for some reason, did have this optimism that our experience as a “family” was not over. There’s a certain audacity, I think, that anyone has to have in a creative endeavor that, if successful, it’s almost a guarantee you’ll look back and say, “Why did I think I could do this?” I remember thinking that on the pilot. I mean I look back at the first series and think how did I get that on TV?

But [it didn't hit me] until we were sitting in — we finally had really one of the two days that we shot with all of the characters together. And we were in the penthouse, you know, which looks just like the old penthouse. I wasn’t particularly emotional about that space. I mean they’re not even the same walls. So I kind of wasn’t, you know, I was just into doing my job and I looked up all of a sudden and saw all these faces sitting there. And I was just really struck by it like, my God, this wasn’t supposed to happen. You don’t get to have this experience outside of a family. And sometimes you don’t get to have it within a family.

But then I very quickly had to pivot out of and get back to work because, you know, we were trying to shoot 15 pages a day. Whereas a normal, ambitious shoot – seven pages or eight pages a day.

Can you talk about how the circumstances of the production, and making it for an outlet like Netflix, affected the way you could tell the story?

Absolutely. I feel like a creative experience is all about the medium. If the canvas is larger it’s gonna be a different painting than if a canvas is smaller. And if a canvas is an urn, you know, you’re gonna tell a different story wrapping around that urn. And that’s the fun of it, for any creative person to say, “Here’s the piece of marble that was pulled out of the quarry. What can you make out of that?”

So my prime motive was how to most successfully and ambitiously exploit this concept of delivery system. The fact that an audience can now be in possession of this as opposed to being fed this on someone else’s timetable – well, intellectually it was very interesting but also just practically as I got into the writing of it I could put things in with the confidence that people could go back very easily and find it. People could pause it. You know, all these things that didn’t exist when I did the first show. When I did the first show there was no guarantee we were going to be on DVD, yet I put a lot of detail in there that again, in retrospect, it was like, “Wow, what was I thinking?”

And I think it might have hurt the show in the short term but it did perhaps help it have legs in the long term. I mean, I’m trying to anticipate a format where you really can jump from moment to moment and show to show, you know. We don’t have that yet on Netflix but that’s something Ted [Sarandos] and I have talked about like how great it would be if, you know, you follow the George-Michael story and when he runs into his Uncle Buster you could press a button and click over to the Uncle Buster story.

When I was on the set, correct me if I’m wrong, you had mentioned something about having plot points on a bulletin board in the writers’ room— you used different types or colors of string, like sequential string and causal string.

Great memory. It was causal. It was causal and every once in a while I would walk in the room and there’d be on the key, you know, we had like reminders of what the colors meant – somebody would have changed it to “casual.” I was like, no, causal.

But truthfully I think you can only keep so much in your head at one point and part of that exercise was to kind of assure myself that at one point in the history of the weeks or months we’ve been doing this, this made sense. And I could kind of do that with a piece of string. So I didn’t have to every time say, “Wait, why did Maeby go to the event if she didn’t know George-Michael was going to be there while she thought her father was at home.” And I can look up and go, “Well, okay, there’s a string going from that backwards to this other thing.”

Jim Vallely just sent me a picture, a screen grab he found on an old Rockford Files that showed Jim Garner and his father and an Asian woman looking at all these cards and there’s string all over them; they were solving a murder or something. Jim sent me the screen grab and said, “Hey, remember when Jim Rockford and his dad and that Chinese girl came over and helped break the George-Michael story?”

Are there any things fans should be prepared for, as far as differences from the first three seasons?

Well, anything we can do to lower expectations would just be fantastic. In fact, if I had one quote to offer it would be, “Don’t make a big deal about it.”

I would say the chief way in which it’s not like the old series is we are not frantically jumping from character to character which did create a wonderful rhythm and charm in the old series. You never had time to get tired of anybody, you know, because as soon as GOB had done a magic trick, you were on to Tobias taking a picture of his testicles with his camera in the bathtub. And this show would more be about the other elements of that bath. How did his testicles react to the cold air when he got out of the tub, for instance? That could be something we’d have time to explore.

So more testicles is the bottom line.

Yeah, it’s more introspective that way.

But I do think the biggest difference is I really very quickly stopped making this as shows and started making it as an eight-and-a-half hour Arrested Development. And so my recommendation would be to sort of take it as a whole. But my other recommendation would be that people don’t feel compelled to watch it all at once. There might be certain social pressures on certain groups to do so—which I would say is wonderful and flattering. I don’t take any of that for granted.

But I just worry that, you know, you can watch all the 24s back to back because it’s action and you can stop when you get a little burnt out. Comedy requires something of the human body, you know. And you can get tired of laughing. I hope they’re laughing. But I also hope they don’t get tired of laughing, you know. So, really, it’s okay with us if you take your time. It’s yours now. That’s the whole thing with Netflix. It’s yours. Do with it what you want.

I have to ask this because this is like one of the first things anybody asks me about the show. You’re on Netflix now. You don’t have to bleep out profanity the way that you used to, but you are doing that. Is that not right?

Yeah.

How come?

I think it’s because I have daughters, and I think I – I mean there’s a lot here that’s just really rough. God, I don’t know why to be honest. It feels jarring. I mean I think that’s really it. When I started having the characters curse, it’s jarring. It doesn’t make it funnier. It just offends those that care about certain words. I will say it has been liberating saying Goddam, which you can’t say on television. I don’t think you can say Goddam on television.

Well there was definitely stuff on the old show that would not have been funny if you didn’t bleep it. I mean the whole “pussy” episode for one thing.

Yeah, exactly. And Buster cursing. I mean, truthfully we wouldn’t have done it I don’t think if we couldn’t bleep it. But also it’s more fun to say the word – well, this will be a funny way for you to write it: It would be more fun to say the word “bleep” and have the audience think “bleep” than say the word “bleep” and have the audience hear the word “bleep.” A lot of comedy is about letting the audience sort of finish it in their brains, you know.

That’s why a joke’s not funny if you explain it, right? Like part of the funny is you finish the connection.

I always think of that Far Side where the two pilots are looking through the windshield and one very calmly says to the other, “I wonder what that goat is doing in the middle of that cloud bank.” You know, I mean you really don’t need to see the wreckage.

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