Mike Kelley, creator of What/If talks with Screen Rant about the series’ inspirations and why Renée Zellweger was perfect for the part. When watching the first season of Netflix’s new anthology series, viewers may find themselves reminded of certain sex-laden thrillers from the late ‘80s and ‘90s. The most obvious comparison would be the 1993 Adrian Lyne film Indecent Proposal, the conceit of which is mirrored early on in What/If when Zellweger’s venture capitalist Anne Montgomery approaches Lisa (Jane Levy) and her husband Sean (Blake Jenner) with an indecent proposal of her own: $80 million in start-up funding in exchange for one night with Sean.
From there, the series delves into ideas of fidelity and monogamy, as well as a few moral and ethical concerns with regard to how the ultra-rich chose to wield power over those who have less. Though it leans into soapy territory at times, it’s all part of the appeal of watching the series, as What/If slowly begins to unravel a much larger thread about revenge (which is fitting, considering Kelley created the ABC drama Revenge) and the secrets that people keep, even from those who are closest to them.
Kelley spoke with Screen Rant about What/If ahead of the series premiere, and he discussed his inspirations and goals for the series, as well what it meant to be able to attract an Academy Award winner to one of the biggest roles in the show.
Tell me a little bit about your approach to the series. Where the idea sort of came from and how you landed on it being an anthology.
The general idea of the series is born out of my affection for those late 80s early 90s social thrillers. The Fatal Attraction, Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the Basic Instincts and of course the Indecent proposals. They've been sort of nipping that tone the heightened tone of a choice that a character makes that turns into a life changing, life altering, not necessarily in a good way, moment. That's something that I've always loved. I've re watched those shows all the time. I find them wildly entertaining. I wanted to do something that would be both a little bit of that tone and fun. As far as this particular story, I feel like ... Well when I did Revenge that was a response from me to the moment we were living in where the one percent of the people in the economic spectrum were brutalizing the rest of the 99%, the Bernie Madoff Scandal and everything that was happening on Wall Street.
On Revenge I took that moment in time and my reaction to it and I narrated it to the structure, format, and my fondness for the Count of Monte Cristo, the book. In this case I took my fondness for those late 80s, early 90s social thrillers and married it with what I see going on now. Which is these moral ambiguities that's sort of blanketing the world. I think we're all in a moment where we have to take stock of the choices that we make in our lives personally and professionally and certainly politically. I'm thinking about where that line is. What am I personally not willing to do in order to ensure whatever it is that I'm looking for? I wanted to pose that question to the audience and do it through that Indecent Proposal framework.
How did you settle on it being an anthology series?
Well, I settled on it being an anthology because again to go back to Revenge. Revenge was an incredible experience but in a lot of ways a little heartbreaking for me too because I ended up leaving that show after the second season mainly because I wasn't in a position where I could ask them to let me finish the story in the way that I wanted to. It had become really successful, which was great but it also sort of wagged the dog a bit. The studio network wanted the show to go on forever. As they should, it was there property. But I wanted to try and end it in a way that for me was how I always intended and I didn't get that opportunity.
I knew that the next thing that I wanted to do I wanted to be able to tell the complete story. Each season of What/If is a separate anthology, is a separate story. It's going to have a beginning middle and end. I look at these all like ten hour movies with the first handful of episodes being the first act and the middle episodes being the second act. Then the finale in the last few episodes. That's the structure that I used for What If here. If we're lucky enough to have people around the world like this and embrace it we'll come back with another close ended story that's under the what if umbrella, choices that people make that are consequential. We'll make it super fucking fun.
Going back to what you were saying earlier about the social thrillers, those films from Adrian Lyne and Paul Verhoeven… they don't really make movies like that anymore. Is that sort of a niche that you feel like television is well suited to fill at this point in time?
I want to say yes, but I don't want anyone else to do it. [Laughs] I want to be the guy. Yeah, I think it's tricky right now with feature films where the stakes are so high with these massive-budget giant comic book movies. I don't know that there has been a lot of room on movie screens to tell these more intimate suspense-thriller family-in-jeopardy-type movies. I think that we're really well suited with all these terrific platforms. Netflix obviously being my favorite. Somebody said to me earlier, "You know there's nothing like this on Netflix." We started to try and think if there was anything like this really anywhere out there at the moment. Doesn't seem to be so maybe this the platform from where we can stretch all these stories together.
Can you tell me a little bit about casting Renée Zellweger? What made her the right person to play Anne?
Well, she's Renée Zellweger. But beyond that I think that there's the audience expectation with Renée. She's somebody that's vulnerable and unguarded and accessible and kind of an every person. She's also an Academy Award winning brilliant actress. She has a skill level that allows her really to do anything. Playing a cipher and a wicked one at that, was really exciting for both of us. She's so smart the way that she approaches things. She asks all the right questions and she commits in a way that just makes writing for her a joy. I think it was a real risk for her. Not so much for me because I already knew how extraordinary she is. But a risk for her because all she had when we met was the first episode out of the 10. She had to trust me to carry this story through, this character through.
While I explained to her where it was all headed, that's a real leap of faith. That's a testament to her bravery and I wanted somebody brave to do this story. I don't know how far you've been able to get in the show but when we get into the final run, the six, seven eight, nine and ten episodes, she's a tour de force. There's a lot that you don't know about this woman and what makes her tick and what she's truly trying to accomplish. It's pretty cool I couldn't have gotten any luckier that Renee agreed to come on board.
To what degree are you and your writers informing the cast ahead of time where their characters are going? Is there any fear of that altering their performance at all? Do you want to keep some things from them and then reveal it to them later or do they get the whole shebang?
They got the whole shebang from me because I feel like ... Well as you'll find out in the end run, every character is holding on to a really powerful secret and it's toxic secrets for some of them. It was important for me when these actors all came on board that they understood what was driving them from the beginning so that their performance could be crafted as either guarded or a mislead or whatever they chose and we all agreed to up front. I wanted everyone to have as much information as possible. I don't know that everyone knew exactly how it was going to end, which was the final episode, but everyone knew what was going to happen up to episode nine.
You're obviously dealing with different content restrictions when it comes to Netflix. Does that affect the choices you make for the series when you're going into it and sort of creating it?
Yeah, 100%. One of the real challenges with doing something, say for broadcast, is that you have to write to commercial breaks and that's just, again, that's the tail wagging the dog. There are false moments that you're creating every seven or eight minutes in order to make sure the audience doesn't leave. That makes it really hard to tell an authentic story. Also when you're doing something that's a sexy thriller and it calls for nudity and it calls for language and it calls for adult content. You can't find a place to do that that isn't premium streaming or HBO, Showtime, that kind of thing. I also have to say my experience with Netflix was really special. The support that you get there to tell your story was like no other place I've ever worked. They are fearless. They just want to give you the opportunity to do your best work, I really was extremely grateful for that.
How aware are you of making the series a binge-watch? Is that something that goes into your writing? Is that a conscious thing that you're sort of making these episodes leave off in a way that makes it immediately easy to jump right into the next episode?
I think that's sort of burned into me from my broadcast days. But it also happened to really work for this particular show. It was every episode leads to something, some sort of revelation or some sort of question mark. That was by design but it was also part and parcel of the material. Yeah, I think, like I said, the back end of the show is a real rocket ride. Hopefully we've earned that but we were saying early on we want people screaming at their televisions and stuff like that. Hopefully pausing in between each episode for a few minutes to argue with whoever they're watching the show with about what their favorite character is doing and why. Yeah, it was by design that we made it hooky and binge-y and hopefully people will not be able to look away.
The series has a very large supporting cast, all with their own kind of character arcs. For you as a writer what's sort of the biggest challenge in attending to those secondary arcs while still maintaining the progression of the main story line?
Well you know the cool thing about this show is the umbrella, the what if of it all. As you'll learn through the Marcos and Lionel story, which is where they gain a lot of traction and obviously the struggle makes the story, you're going to understand the what ifs surrounding Anne Montgomery, Renee's character. With all encompassed in the same ... Everybody was dealing with the same blanket issues. They were all grappling with a choice that they've made that shaped their futures and certainly their relationships and the moment. It was, with all the storylines, you're going to see they all come together in a way that feels of a piece. Luckily I never felt like I was off topic with any of them. That was really helpful in keeping the cohesive nature of the story of What If together. It was sometimes we lean a little heavier in one story line then another but they always are revealing things under the What/If blanket.
What/If season 1 is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.