Curating a Mood and Tone Utilizing Music and Character with 'Yellowjackets' Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson
'Yellowjackets' Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson speak with Script's Editor Sadie Dean about their creative collaboration and partnership, scripting music into their work, and putting together their writer's room. Plus, they both share invaluable advice about being in a writing partnership, definitely worth taking note of!
Created and executive produced by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson (Narcos), the one-hour drama series, YELLOWJACKETS stars Melanie Lynskey (Castle Rock), Oscar® and Emmy® nominee Juliette Lewis (Camping), Emmy® nominee Christina Ricci (Z: The Beginning of Everything) and Tawny Cypress (Unforgettable).
Equal parts survival epic, psychological horror story and coming-of-age drama, YELLOWJACKETS is the saga of a team of wildly talented high school girls soccer players who become the (un)lucky survivors of a plane crash deep in the remote northern wilderness. The series chronicles their descent from a complicated but thriving team to savage clans, while also tracking the lives they’ve attempted to piece back together nearly 25 years later, proving that the past is never really past and what began out in the wilderness is far from over.
The new Showtime series Yellowjackets from writers and creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson pulls all the punches and then some, with a dream cast and a story shaken, not stirred, with mystery and deceit, all falls into place with character intrigue and motivation. And to top it all off, the finely curated soundtrack is just as pivotal as character and story - one could argue, it's a necessary storytelling element to amp up the tone and mood.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with both Ashley and Bart about their new show, their creative collaboration and partnership, scripting music into their work, and putting together their writer's room. Plus, they both share invaluable advice about being in a writing partnership, definitely worth taking note of!
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: How did you two initially link up and conceive this concept for the show?
Ashley Lyle: In terms of us linking up, so full disclosure, we are married to each other. [laughs] Which apparently came as a surprise to about half of our cast. [laughs] Which is hilarious. I remember at one point I was on set, and I think we were shooting episode three, and Christina Ricci came up to me and she was like, ‘So, now that they have less restrictions on travel, is your husband coming up?’ and I was like, ‘Christina, my husband is Bart.’ [laughs]
We met almost 17 years ago now. We were both on the East Coast. I was in New York during grad school and Bart was living in Jersey City and we had mutual friends. We finally met and I would say that we started dating before we started writing together but in a matter of like a month, we just both wanted to write the same types of things. And interestingly, the first time we wrote anything together, I had essentially homework, I was in a revisions screenwriting class in grad school, and a bunch of our friends were going out drinking and I said, ‘I don't know if I can come out, I have this homework.’ And Bart I was like, ‘Well, what if I come write it with you and then it'll get done faster, then you can go out?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, OK that sounds like a good plan.’ [laughs] So, ethically dubious perhaps, but we realized it was just really fun to write with somebody else and we both had ambitions of working in television from the get-go. And we knew that being a writing team was really attractive when you're trying to staff in rooms and so we just decided to go for it. That was sort of the genesis of us coming together as a writing team.
Bart Nickerson: In terms of this idea, I do wish it was a more fun story, but basically, because we are writing partners and life partners, we are in each other's sphere a lot. Our process in terms of idea generation tends to be just sort of having a series of unstructured rolling conversations. Throughout the day, we'll be passing each other in the house or during a meal prep or doing kind of whatever and one person says to the other, ‘Oh, how about this kind of thing?’ And then the other person will be like, ‘Maybe’ or ‘I'm not really sure.’ But then maybe like a couple of days later, or a week later, It'll be like, ‘Hey, the thing you pitched me, what if it had a bigger wrinkle added to it?’ So certain ideas tend to like gather other ideas until we have enough gravity kind of around them that we get a little more serious about talking about it. And then that more serious phase of talking about it tends to happen on long walks or hikes. And at first, it’s very character-focused where plot tends to come kind of secondary for us, which is like, every time we do it, we always feel like we should really be starting with plot. I think that we tend to get excited about the minutiae of people that like that's like where a lot of the creative juice comes from. And so we just kind of do it and then we go, ‘Ok, well, now what are we going to have these people do?’
Sadie Dean: Your characters on this show are so mysterious in their own way and you've crafted a narrative that does back and forth between the present-day and the 90s, how did these characters come to be? What was their seed and growing those roles?
Ashley: Interestingly, the younger characters kind of took shape first. I think that middle school and high school, they're such formative and defining periods. My best friend, Allison, we moved out here together - she now runs development at Shondaland - we both were going to be writers, and then she took a completely different route, but we've been friends since fourth grade or as we like to joke we've been the nemesis for a year and a half [laughs] and then became best friends. And, we're still incredibly and we see each other all the damn time. I think that the characters started from our own experiences. People always ask us, ‘Is there a character that you relate to most?’ and I feel like each of these characters is a little bit of both of us in different ways. And then it’s also an amalgam of people that we've known, friends, people who maybe had an interesting effect and fascinated by other people.
In terms of formulating their adult selves, I think it's no coincidence that we are basically the same age as these characters. We were coming of age and going to high school in the 90s. And we’re about the same age as that now. And so it's been just really an exploration of the stage of life that we're at, I would say and then, kind of taking those to more extreme places.
Sadie: You have such great twists and turns for these characters, like for Misty and Sammy. Music plays a big part in the episodes as well, were you writing to a specific soundtrack? Or did that fall into place during post-production?
Bart: Yeah, it's really sort of all of the above. Music is a pretty big part of our process. An early step we'll sort of take, which sometimes feels like we're procrastinating, but then I think it's really useful is to come up with a playlist and songs that we can write to. And then, we do put a lot of songs in scripts, but then sometimes a scripted song doesn't really work. Scenes change, even like the flavor of the meal and so, there is like a whole process with us and the editors and the music supervisor and pitching songs.
Ashley: It's interesting because there were quite a few that we did script in, I feel like screenwriting Twitter would go wild over this [laughs] because I know that you're technically not supposed to script in songs, but in this case, it helps so much with the read and getting a feel. And in this case, especially when we're writing the pilot, we're like, ‘Fuck it, it's our pilot. It's our show, we’re going to do what we want.’ And a fair number of them lived. I think we scripted in Liz Phair and we scripted in PJ Harvey. There are a number that we scripted in. And we worked with Jonathan who's our co-showrunner and Jen Malone, who’s our music supervisor - we were looking at a song for a pretty pivotal scene in the finale and I think we've tried like 25 songs. [laughs] It’s kind of fun to just sit there and you just watch the scene over and over again with different songs and kind of debate the merits.
Sadie: Music just sets the tone and you get to have fun with your characters, like what song belongs to them, and gives them that that moxie.
Bart: One use that we're really finding that it's incredibly useful because we have so many disparate storylines, like across two timelines, and using music to dig out sort of connections between all of those stories has been a useful thing and trying to make it feel cohesive, as a single kind of episode.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. Now, taking a step back, in terms of getting the show off of the ground, how many years did it take to finally get the show pilot on the right desk and then to Showtime and start production?
Ashley: It feels like it took 1000 years.
Ashley: I think we were first pitching in 2017. So, that's sort of the genesis of the journey. And we landed pretty quickly with Showtime. And then at that point, it was actually a fairly, I would not say easy process because I don't think anything in this business is easy [laughs] but I think comparatively, they were very onboard very quickly in terms of just the creative direction that we wanted to go. And it was interesting. We wrote the pilot, and it's always these little steps, and they were like, ‘This is great.’ They gave us some notes. We did a couple of drafts and then it was, OK, let's look for a director. And then we got incredibly lucky and current Karyn [Kusama] came on board and all of a sudden we were shooting a pilot. I would say after that, COVID obviously put a little bit of a wrench in the works in general just to get all the network's support. So, there was a little bit of a time-lapse there, in which case we wrote a backup script for them.
In the meantime, which ultimately sort of turned into a little bit of episode three and a little bit of episode four, it was really an interesting exercise in that they didn't want us to write episode two because we all really knew what episode two was. So, they said, ‘Write something, that would just be a typical episode of this show.’ [laughs] Which is like, ‘OK, what is the right sort of a random midseason episode of a deeply serialized show?’ That's an interesting challenge, but I think we all kind of made it work and they were really happy with that. And then we got greenlit to series and it was just sort of off to the races.
Bart: Yeah, I think it is coming up on four years. I think it was just before the kind of holiday shutdown. Four years ago we sold it to the Mark Gordon Company, and then we sort of started pitching early the following year, so I guess not too bad in terms of how these things go, because certainly sometimes they go faster.
Sadie: You two are both creators, active writers on the show and then you have your co-showrunner Jonathan Lisco, what's that collaboration and creative process like working with him?
Bart: It has absolutely been a sort of a dream kind of scenario where it is really a sort of a three-headed monster. We're still trying to find the right sort of tag for that. [laughs] We do sort of collaborate on everything and I think it is one of the strange things about COVID, because we didn't know Jonathan previous to working on this, and then we spent the better part of a year talking to him every day for hours and hours. It wasn't until about six months in that we'd met him in person. And to become so close personally and kind of professionally, without actually sharing the airspace with someone is a unique experience.
Ashley: Yeah, it's interesting, because I know that we had a little bit of apprehension going into that partnership, just because, obviously you hear stories and sometimes how that relationship can go a little bit sideways on people. It was also interesting because we've been working in television for a while, we've worked on a number of shows we were co-EPs on our last show, and so we thought we knew what we were getting into some level on the showrunner front. And my recommendation to any first time showrunner is to get yourself Jonathan Lisco. [laughs] Because it's such an enormous undertaking, and we did get so fortunate. Jonathan is an absolute gem. He is now a friend for life, and just an incredible collaborator, and to be able to work, the three of us together on just a massive undertaking, it's still the hardest thing that we've ever done, but it made it just a little bit easier to have somebody that we could really rely on somebody who's just absolutely on our team, and working in tandem and in sync to try to make the best show possible.
Sadie: In terms of your writer's room, how much say did you have in hiring your writers and also finding those voices that you wanted in your room?
Ashley: We had full control over hiring our writers room. We had already started the process of reading when Jonathan came on board, and then we kind of looped him in with the writers that we most responded to. We did stack the deck slightly with two writers that we've known for years and years Ameni Rozsa and Liz Phang who were just incredible talents. And we just we know them very well. We knew what they're capable of on the page. We knew that they were a really excellent fit for the show. And then we ended up hiring three more writers Sarah Thompson, Chantelle Wells, and Katherine Kearns, who were all just incredible. We had a couple of I guess criteria when we were looking at writers. We needed to read a script that really knocked us out. I think we read so many scripts, and there were many, many talented writers that we read. There were a lot of scripts that we responded to, and ultimately it came down to just who they are as a person, their point of view, the experience that they were bringing to the table both professionally and in terms of just their life experience. And also, personality and fit of a writers room, as we all know is a really intense situation and we got really fortunate that everyone is lovely. I think we learned really well from our first bosses Julie Plec and Mike Narducci in particular when he was putting together our first room his number one thing was no assholes. [laughs] And it's so true if somebody is incredibly talented but disruptive in the room or rude or unkind, it's not going to work, no matter how talented they are. And we just put together I think, a really delightful lovely group of people who also happen to be very good writers.
Bart: A big thing is that because obviously television is such a team sport. I don't even think it's really like a sort of practicality versus quality of life thing when you're talking about people that are sort of maybe overly self-centered in the room because it just takes so much time and emotional bandwidth, because you really do want to feel like you're building something together. I think that's actually the most efficient way to do it.
The only other thing that I would add to the sort of criteria in terms of what we were trying to kind of accomplish with a lot of the hires is the show is one that we hope is incredibly fun and but it is also quite dark. And so we really wanted people that had a comfort level with sort of excavating a lot the darker stuff in the human spirit. And that's not necessarily something that everyone's comfortable doing or wants to be doing or even things you should be doing, but it was going to be a big part of the show. And yeah, we just really wanted people that could sort of go on that journey with us.
Sadie: Tapping into that vulnerability as a writer just on anything it's so hard. Did you have an in person writers room or were you doing a hybrid effort?
Bart: We were actually 100% Zoom
Sadie: Oh, wow.
Bart: Yeah, doing all of that via the little windows. [laughs]
Ashley: Tomorrow is the premiere and we're going to meet Chantelle and Katherine for the first time. In person, which is so strange. [laughs]
Sadie: Everyone's stepping out of their Zoom box. Advice for writing partners - I know you guys have something a little more special because you two are life partners, too, but any advice for writing partners who are tackling an original episodic piece, what is something they should embrace together? Or maybe put aside during the writing process?
Bart: That's a really good question. I would say to most writing teams is to know that you are probably right. I think it's one of the beauties of being a part of a team and the writing is by you as the unit of both of you together. I think that's one of the real strengths of being a part of a writing team is that you have this internal collaboration where you have sort of battle-tested so many of your ideas and your aesthetic and your taste, that is a really powerful thing. As a result of your process, you have been able to be more truthful with each other than any other collaborator will be able to be and so what you've landed on is almost definitely correct and of value. That doesn't mean that you won't have to give up some of it or a lot of those things. And I think it is correct too, not just because strategically, but because you are part of a larger team that's going to make demands and is going to want to see their spirit kind of reflected in the final product as well. But I think it is helpful to know that what you were trying to do at its core is correct. And to sort of try to at least protect that core but then to give up pieces of it in the name of collaboration.
Sadie: Yeah, I love that and in the spirit of it, which is I feel sometimes is lost between collaborative partners. What about you Ashley?
Ashley: I would say embrace the disagreement. Bart and I are sometimes interesting as a writing team, because we have friends who are also in writing teams, and there's sort of varying levels of being simpatico on everything versus disagreeing and Bart and I are notoriously, you know, if I say black, he'll say white –
Bart: No, I won’t.
Ashley: I set that up. [laughs] We often are coming at things from a very different place, and sometimes it can be frustrating the level to which we are often coming at things in a different way and don't agree on the way something should be executed. We're also two people who will never just take the win if we feel like the other person is simply giving in for the sake of giving in. If Bart kind of acquiesces to something I wanted to do, but I know that he really hates it [laughs] I just can't be happy with it. And I think vice versa. And so that really leads to a third idea. I think that all of our scripts are often first drafts are more like third, fourth, fifth drafts because we've had to come up with new ideas, third options, something that makes both of us happy. It's sometimes frustrating, and often takes a little bit longer but I think that our scripts are better for it. So, it can be tricky when you're working so closely with somebody and you're not agreeing, but that's actually a great sign that you're onto something that will be really good.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. Fantastic advice, too! The freedom in being able to challenge each other to make each other better on the page and as storytellers - that's such a great tool to have because it just makes everything better. Thank you both for your time – love your show, excited to watch more!
Yellowjackets premiered on November 14 on SHOWTIME and is now available for viewing.