Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) sets off on her biggest adventure yet. Three states! Explosions! A dancing hamburger! And you, the viewer, get to decide how the story goes. Will you defeat the Reverend (Jon Hamm) and get Kimmy to her wedding on time? Or will you accidentally start a war against the robots? So grab your remote and a tray of delicious scrod, 'cause Kimmy's got her own Netflix interactive special!
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT: KIMMY VS THE REVEREND
will be available on Netflix on 12 May 2020.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was one of Netflix's first original comedy series and now with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend, it will be the first interactive comedy special.
As filming of the Emmy-nominated series was coming to an end in 2018, the cast and crew were preparing their farewells, both to their characters and to each other. Executive producer and writer Robert Carlock recalls, "We were finishing up the series and I think that with any good series there are hopefully still stories you want to tell and so we floated that notion to Netflix. We wondered if there was an opportunity for a conventional movie-length special and they came back to us with this! To get to be the first comedy to use this technology was really exciting. We thought it would be fun to tell some stories we hadn't told and maybe wrap up certain loose ends we hadn't fully explored. The idea of being able to go down avenues and tell stories in this entirely different way was incredibly exciting."
Executive producer and writer Tina Fey adds, "We immediately felt like it would be a real match for our universe, and particularly the tone of the comedy that we do with Kimmy Schmidt because it's this densely joke populated and sometimes absurdist comedy. We thought it would be a really nice fit. We were also really excited because as a crew, we were sad to be wrapping up the series. It was nice to know that there would be this one final hurrah, this nice button on the series, and that we would be able to work together again."
Netflix's Director of Product Innovation Carla Engelbrecht says that after the success of Bandersnatch, the content team were really passionate about starting to experiment with other genres, and comedy was their first instinct. "Tina and Robert immediately came to mind, because they were continually pushing boundaries with the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt series," she says. "They are phenomenal, amazing storytellers and we knew that with this set of tools, they were going to not only take our interactive storytelling to new heights, but they were also going to push comedy to places it's never been before. To end a series with an interactive special is unprecedented and it's going to create an opportunity for viewers to come into Kimmy's world."
Fey reveals that when writing began on Kimmy vs The Reverend there were three other writers from the series working alongside her - Robert Carlock, Sam Means, and Meredith Scardino. "We pared it down to just the four of us to write the special. We started by talking about what we might want to happen and what would lend to good stories. We had to decide whether to try to stick to one story, or to do our typical A, B, and C story. Our format has always been three and because we're masochists, we ultimately said, "We have to do three stories." Then we just started writing the stories as we normally would. It was really fun. I think it suits the comedy writer's brain to have this freedom to think about crazy ways to have a dead end or a funny way for things to loop around."
"It really has been super fun to write," adds Scardino. "There have been many great, weird tangents that we have gone on that might not normally have made their way into a typical non-interactive episode. I think that this project has really lent itself to the particular brains of the people that I collaborate with. We've just had a blast working on it."
In creating the interactive special, the writers had all sorts of new things that they could do that would never be done in a traditional series. Engelbrecht discloses, "They could tell jokes that they would never tell otherwise and they could make mistakes and then rewind and go back. In most series, you can't actually kill your characters and then have them come back in the next scene!"
Carlock says that there was also another layer to the approach that the writers spent a lot of time thinking about. "With interactivity, the viewer has to really engage and press a button, so we wanted to ensure that they would be invested and want to make a choice. We tried to really think about that and because it's a comedy we wanted to make some choices where there wouldn't necessarily be story consequences to the decision, but hopefully both of those are satisfying comedically. We didn't want to do that too often though because I think the beauty of this is that you do actually get to affect the story."
Fey saw this as a great opportunity to squeeze in even more jokes than they could fit into any other comedy format. "It's great for our style of comedy. We already have so many jokes because there are always many leftover jokes, but now we can hide them places like an Easter egg hunt! You can have the same scene with a different character's point of view, and that can lead to a whole other set of jokes. Some of the choices behind the dead ends are pure comedy and some of them lead to moral conundrums. That is where the choice points are really married to the spine of the story, and the spine of the characters. As a small writing team, we didn't really have any conflict between us about what the right path would be for Kimmy. After four seasons of the series, we all felt like we knew Kimmy and who she is. We definitely wanted this to be a story that was about more than just her getting married, because she's so much more interesting than just being part of a love story, but we also felt that maybe she had earned a love story on the side."
Fey explains where we find these characters at the beginning of the special. "This new story takes place after the end of the series. When we start the interactive episode, we find Kimmy preparing for her wedding and we don't know to whom she is getting married. Then, in her beloved old backpack Jan, she finds a book, but she doesn't quite recognize it. She wonders how she could possibly have had a book stuck in the lining of this backpack, and not known that it was there. She starts to realize that it was a library book that was actually checked out several years after she went into the bunker and so she starts to worry that it means there are some other girls missing somewhere that she doesn't know about. She is torn as to whether to go on this mission to try to find out if these girls exist and where they might be, or go through with her wedding. She decides to try to do both and so we get to see Kimmy and friends on this crazy road trip adventure to try to find out the answers to this mystery, but they also need to get back in time for her wedding."
Scardino adds, "A really exciting part of this interactive special is that we brought on a new character called Prince Frederick. He is played by Daniel Radcliffe and he's an obscure British prince, not an A-list prince. He grew up very sheltered and had a lonely childhood in a way that would make him and Kimmy compatible because they have that as a shared history. We thought that would be a great combination."
"It's hard to think of a character, and an actor, that is good enough for our beloved Kimmy," says Fey. "I think we were very, very lucky that Daniel wanted to play her love interest, because he's the only one good enough. On all of earth."
"They're both so funny and great together," says Scardino. "Daniel was definitely the person that we thought of throughout this whole process and we're just so happy that he wanted to do it. He's been a dream. He knew all his lines, he was super funny and he nailed everything. It's like he had been with us the whole time."
For Radcliffe, it wasn't a difficult decision to join the Kimmy team. "I was in Australia filming when this project came up. I had a phone call with Tina and Robert and they explained their pitch for my character, as well as the general outline of the story and then they talked about what they were doing with the interactivity. It sounded very exciting and like nothing I had ever done or been involved with before. When you get the chance to a) do something new, and b) do it surrounded by brilliant people, it's a pretty easy choice. I cannot even begin to conceive of how they wrote it. That was the first thing I said to Tina and Robert and the other writers when I met them: How did you do this?"
"I was so excited when Tina and Robert told me that Daniel could join the cast and that it was going to work out with his schedule," recalls Ellie Kemper. "I'm a huge fan of his, and I just really wanted to get a picture of him with my three-year-old son so that one day I could say, 'Look who Mommy worked with!'. He's a phenomenal actor and he's so funny in the show as this character, because he is this completely over the top prince who is similar to Kimmy in sensibility and worldview, and they're just totally on the same wavelength. It's been so fun to watch him play Frederick, who's nutty but also extremely sincere. Their partnership is really sweet."
"Daniel is funny. Funnier than I think most people realize," says Tituss Burgess. "He's really smart, he's a very thoughtful actor, and very generous, so it was lovely to be on the stage and share that with him. He's a consummate professional." Jane Krakowski agrees and says that she felt like he had been one of the gang from the very beginning. "I think we feel incredibly lucky to have someone so professional, funny, and game, to come join us and to play with us."
Carol Kane confides, "I have to tell you, it was heavenly. Daniel is a young, handsome, gorgeous, talented, funny and generous guy. He was so supportive and so professional and he fit right in. He's a big movie star but you forget that when you are working with him because there is none of that about him." Kemper says she thought a lot about what his daily life must be like after watching him interact with fans while they were shooting. "He means so much to so many people and this man is so gracious. When we were filming on location, so many people stopped him and asked for a picture. He says yes to every single one of them. He's so lovely."
On Radcliffe's side, he admits that while he was very excited to join the cast, he was also intimidated by the idea. "They are all so good and clever and funny, but everybody created a space where you could feel very free to try stuff and fuck up. I want to do as much comedy as possible and so I was really grateful for how kind and welcoming everyone was. I was definitely very nervous before we started, but then you get on set
with Ellie, and she's just the warmest, loveliest person and so easy to chat to. With comedy, so much of it is about coming in and being relaxed enough to be really stupid, make weird choices around everyone and try new things. That requires a certain level of trust, or at least a feeling of ease around people to do that. I was worried that I might not get to that state as quickly as I wanted to, but I did, thanks to everyone else just being so wonderful and on it. I fail to see how you could be a fan of all four seasons of Kimmy Schmidt and not love the hell out of this special. I'm really excited for fans of the show to have more. It's a wonderful continuation of the story and the humor is the same and just as specific and unusual and joyous as it was in the show. I just hope that the fans of the show consider my character worthy of being with Kimmy in the end!"
Given the complexities involved in learning the ropes while telling an interactive story, it was helpful to have a cast and crew who already had a shorthand and comfort with each other. And for the actors reprising their roles, they were thrilled that they weren't having to wait too long before working together again. Kemper recalls, "Filming Kimmy vs The Reverend was an absolute gift, because we thought that maybe we were saying farewell to this series, and we were, but we were all hoping that we would have another chance to play these characters, revisit them and see where they are a little bit later. Not only did we get that chance, but we got to do it in such an innovative way. It really has been a special opportunity and I feel so grateful to have been able to do it. We were all really excited because this is the first comedy using this interactive technology. That's an incredible thing to be part of."
Upon learning of the special, Jane Krakowski remembers, "I thought it was a really great match for our merry troupe of players and our wacky world. It seemed like there would be a lot of opportunity script-wise for these characters to go down many different roads, and I couldn't think of better comedic writers than Tina, Robert, Meredith, and Sam to have a field day with as much comedic material as they could write for all of us. It felt like an extension of the series but in a heightened celebratory way and it was such a lovely reunion for us all to get back together. I think we all hoped that this interactive special would happen, and it was a great joy when we got the call that it was actually going forward."
"I'd say 99% of everything that was in the script I was shocked by, but excited about," recalls Kane. " That's the thing about Tina Fey and Robert Carlock - they go so far and they are so brave. It's so exciting for the actors because you're never in a middle ground, you're always going for something that is far out, and exciting and brilliant. The fact that this was an interactive special was very challenging. I've never done anything like it before nor have I seen anything like it before. The writers wrote so many great things for me to do and the more options that you have the more fun you can have because you're making more choices and they can all be very different. I think the story is wonderful and I think it's going to be very moving for Kimmy to be beginning this new rich life. I'm glad that we were all in it together. We missed each other!"
With a title like Kimmy vs The Reverend, viewers can also expect another cast member to appear in the special. Fey explains, "Jon Hamm does return as Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne and it's very satisfying to see. You get all the comedy that you get out of Jon, but we also always want to bring back the darkness of that relationship. As a viewer, you get to choose what kind of satisfying ending Kimmy gets to have with the Reverend. Carlock adds, "At the end of the conventional series, there were certain interactions with the Reverend, Kimmy's nemesis, captor and monster, who is played so wonderfully by Jon, and we thought that this would give us the opportunity to explore some of those stories." For Ellie Kemper, she saw this final chapter with the Reverend as providing some closure. "The story with Kimmy and the Reverend was so rich with possibility, because the viewer can decide if they want Kimmy to confront the Reverend and so I think it can be cathartic, especially if they choose a more extreme path. I think that playing that confrontation was especially cathartic for me in a way, because there are so many frustrations in this world and what the Reverend represents, and the hideous things he did to these women. It was time to address that. So I think that for the viewer, there are some very powerful choices that they can make. Kimmy gets to have this moment of confrontation. It's extremely satisfying and it's healthy to see it
represented on screen."
Creating an interactive special for Kimmy's world meant that the creative team could tell a story on a much grander scale than the series, covering more locations and producing an end result that is even more cinematic. Producer Nick Bernardone reveals that, "It allowed us to play with action scenes, cinematic shots and low angles, really cool wide-frame angles that you wouldn't normally see in this show, or even on television in general. Also, every choice that the viewer makes will have major implications that they may not even realize until much later. Everybody playing this should really take care and caution and think about the choices they make, much like in real life!"
Robert Carlock agrees, "These elements hopefully allow for a different kind of rhythm, but it will still feel like the show. It was a fun production and writing challenge too."
"I think everyone involved here was very excited about the opportunity to set the bar for comedies in the interactive space," says Bernardone. "The bar's going to be really high, because we have a lot of great set pieces, we have really high-octane action sequences, and you're going get a ton of jokes per minute. You're going to be laughing, you're going to be engaged, you're going to be scared. It's going to be such a fun experience for everybody."
On board to direct Kimmy vs the Reverend was Claire Scanlon, who despite having previously directed episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as The Office, Black-ish, Modern Family, The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, says that the experience couldn't have been more different than shooting a regular episode of television or a feature film. It is the duration and length of a feature, if not longer than a feature, but unlike a television show or a movie, it can be as long or as short as the viewer chooses. If you choose options that you know Kimmy as a character would inherently choose, your experience of this interactive special could be very short! When I was first reading this project, I thought really long and hard about the paths. I wondered what the right choice would be and what Kimmy, as I know her from watching seasons one, two, three, and four and having directed a couple of episodes already, would do. I think you really just have to try to get into Kimmy's mind and guess which one she would choose. I actually made it all the way to the end."
Fey says that filming the various endings were some of the most fun aspects of the production. "I really enjoyed filming the different endings that came up and sometimes you might stumble upon an ending that maybe is not the ultimate ending. It made us realize how many characters are in our universe. It was fun to put little referential jokes into scenes. If people loop back and they come around to the same choice point again, then they can adjust the scene. That was something I thought was really cool in Bandersnatch where if you had looped back around to what was supposedly the same moment again, it would be slightly different. In our world, that means the jokes are slightly different and that was super fun to write."
For the actors navigating this new way of telling their character's stories, there were new challenges. Kemper divulges, "For me, and I think some other cast members, it was about trying to keep the story straight! Sometimes you would shoot things several times, but with different outcomes and so that could be confusing for a mush brain like mine to keep track of. Mary Kelly, our script supervisor, was on the ball though, so thank goodness for her. She'd remind us what we were doing and where we were in the story. She made this incredible document that charted verything, hour by hour. She was fantastic."
Burgess also gives credit to Scanlon for helping the actors navigate where they were while filming so many alternative scenes. "She was at the helm of all of this," he explains, "and she kept a lot of information in her mind. I don't know how she did it. She would often just give us little bits and pieces of information right before the scenes to help us bring the whole thing into focus. I hope that the viewers will love getting to dictate where all of the characters go. They feel such ownership of these characters and they're so familiar with them, so I think it'll be fun to allow them to have input with the trajectories for these people."
Krakowski adds that the initial challenge was understanding how all of the technology would work and how the actors would have to think differently about filming a script based on the outcome of individual stories for each viewer. "It meant learning a lot more lines than I think we ever expected. The script was a humongous amount of pages! I think it was challenging for us to learn so many distinct versions of a scene. I hope that viewers go through all the different choices and paths because it's written so humorously. It would be a shame to miss some of the opportunities that they have given these characters if you don't go down all the roads at some point. There was definitely a learning curve in the first few days of filming, but then I think as we went on we all understood it more and realized that we would have to be game and go with the technology. There was a lot more dialogue to film than we would normally shoot, a lot more to learn in terms of the specific ways we had to shoot certain scenes especially at the choice points. There were just a lot of things that wouldn't usually come up in a normal filming environment, if we weren't shooting an interactive special."
Engelbrecht says that one of the most important aspects of the choice points was acknowledging that these are moments where the storytelling would slow because you're asking the viewer to make a choice, and yet the momentum of the story had to continue and still be fun and captivating. "Tina and Robert were so amazing in thinking about how to make these points engaging, and finding ways to continue the comedy," she says. "It was about asking what a punchline is when there's a delay in there, because the viewer is making a choice, and so there are actually two different punchlines at least that could come into play in that situation. They not only found new heights for comedy, but they pushed us: What if we change the timing this way? What if the choice point itself looks like this other thing that we haven't seen before? From Bandersnatch, we knew that it was incredibly important to think about the momentum during the choice points themselves, as well as the continuity when branches were coming back together again. So we made sure to talk with our director Claire about these kinds of things so that she could keep it in mind when she was directing the production."
"The actors seemed to just roll with it when it came to these choice points," says Scanlon. "I would just holler out, 'Okay, it's a choice point! Milk it for all it's worth!'. I think that the person that was really key for me, other than the writers and creators of this interactive special, was Mary Kelly, our Script Supervisor who at times I think felt her brain would explode from all the different options. She was excellent with continuity, eye lines and making sure that in each different set up that we had addressed the needs of each."
When viewers come to a choice point, they are given some time to decide which direction they want to take the story in, but the action doesn't stop at those moments and the actors found those junctures some of the most fun to shoot. "I think it was really enjoyable for all of us to film the choice points because that's the one part of this filming process that we wouldn't do unless it was an interactive special," says Krakowski. "They were not really written out, it would just say 'choice point' and then once we got on set, we realized that we were going to fill the time live while people were waiting to make their choice. Those became my favorite moments to film because it lived on this meta level where we were waiting and asking the audience to choose with our eyes and our reactions, but it also worked with whatever position we were in in the scene.
These were the times that we probably laughed the most and got to make up the most stuff, so that was a great joy for me, and an unexpected joy."
Scanlon says that she has always loved the opportunity to have a wider frame and fill it with lots of different people and activity. "I went to the University of Greg Daniels and on The Office, there were 18 characters at the end to service so you could always be doing clever things in the background because someone was always trying to get a joke in. With this interactive special, this was key because there is some duplicate
dialogue in certain scenes, so we didn't want to make the actors have to do the same exact scene over again just because we're in a different choice point. As a director, it broke my brain sometimes because it was a lot to think of, but that said, coming from the comedy world, we would often do these things called alts, or a candy bag, where we'd have all different endings to a particular joke. We would see which one we
thought was the funniest and we'd put the actors through the ropes and have them do all of them." Carlock adds, "To our great satisfaction, Netflix really encouraged us to have a lot of hidden elements and there's one scene that you can only see if you do the wrong thing three different times and they were thrilled by that."
Engelbrecht explains that there was another key component to making the interactive special work - the use of a new piece of technology known as Branch Manager. "Once the writing team settled in on their storylines, it was time to transition over to Branch Manager. It made everyone's lives easier, whether it was the writers, the director or the script supervisor, but it also made our lives easier on the Netflix side from a technology perspective because without it, telling this kind of story is impossible."
"Branch Manager lets you put your script into this program and read it and play it as if you're watching the movie, but in script form," reveals Carlock. Bernardone adds, "Netflix made this great program and it's a really nice visual aid. It's exactly what you want. It looks like a bunch of trees that split off and come back together. It banks memories and tells you where they pay off later in the script. Showing everyone that is the
best tool they're ever going to get, because someone explaining it abstractly is always more difficult."
Fey says that initially the writers started working on a huge dry erase wall. "We tried to map it out, but then once we transferred to the Branch Manager technology, it made a huge difference because it's software that's developed specifically for this. It is really cool because you plug in your outline and then you can play it, and you'll see where you forgot to connect these two places and then you can rejigger things. So, we're first seeing it in this chart form, then as we went to write the script, we would take the chunks of script and plug them in by scene and then read it through the Branch Manager, which was very helpful to us. There were so many little things that our nerdy brains loved to be challenged by during this process. There's a joke here, and then we come to a choice point, so we need for it to be funny for exactly 14 seconds during the choice point but it can't be distracting, and then you need 10 more seconds of buffering. Something that the viewer doesn't get to see is all the cool technology that makes a special like this possible. All the math of the technology really suited the nerd brains of Sam, Meredith, and Robert and me. We really enjoyed that puzzle but I think that when you watch the special, it will all appear seamless to the viewer." Carlock reveals that the creative team also paid homage to the technology during one particular moment in the special. "There's actually a scene in the interactive special where a character is robbing a bank and the bank happens to be named Branch Manager," he explains. "It sounded like a good name for a bank because it has two words in it that are related to banks, but it doesn't really make any sense. We named it out of our deep respect for the Branch Manager program!"
When it came to getting the cast up to speed with the technology, most decided to leave it up to the experts, but there was one exception. "When I was initially reading the script, they sent me Branch Manager," recalls Daniel Radcliffe. "I found it really useful and the only way I could keep track of what I was doing. It gave me a sense of how the show would run, and where the choice points come in. It just gives you a much better replication of what it is like to watch the show as an audience member and it makes it all seem a little less intimidating."
"I think Daniel was the only one who figured out how to even open the Branch Manager!" admits Fey.
"Daniel is the most technically adept, but he's the youngest, so that makes sense."