Inside Family Tree with Jim Piddock

Chris O'Dowd, Christopher Guest, and Jim Piddock on Family Tree
Chris O'Dowd, Christopher Guest, and Jim Piddock on the set of 'Family Tree' - Photo: Suzanne Tenner/HBO
Who wants to join me in a campaign to make sure HBO renews Family Tree? Series creators Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock haven’t heard yet whether their first joint foray into series television will earn a second season, but the show’s getting terrific reviews and is catching on with audiences and deserves to stick around to entertain viewers.
The Plot [for those of you who haven’t tuned in yet]: “Down on his luck in love and life, having recently lost his job and girlfriend, 30- year-old Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) has an unsure sense of his own identity. But when he inherits a mysterious box, Tom starts investigating his lineage and uncovers a world of unusual stories and characters, acquiring a growing sense of who he and his entire family are.”
In support of season one, I had to the chance to talk to writer/executive producer Jim Piddock about the origin of Family Tree, the cast, and where the show could go in season two.
What’s taking HBO so long to make a decision?
Jim Piddock: [Laughing] “I don’t know. Maybe you could send them an email and ask them? It’s a bit of a mystery but they’re sort of, obviously, juggling their schedules and looking at stuff. I honestly don’t know. We thought we’d know by now, but we don’t know one way or the other.”
But you have plenty of material for next season if it comes to fruition, right?
Jim Piddock: “We do. Chris and I, we did meet with HBO after a couple of episodes just to talk about a possible season 2, and I think within a couple of hours Chris and I had 26 episode ideas.”
With so much being improvised, do your actors ever surprise you with where they take their characters and then that leads to a storyline you hadn’t anticipated?
Jim Piddock: “Not so much creating new storylines, because it is pretty structured and so the outlines are very detailed and they’re mapped out extremely carefully. There may be stuff that comes up that we kind of then track, but generally speaking, that stuff is already in the outlines. They surprise us constantly within the confines of the scene where they go, but I don’t think any storylines have yet been kind of generated from that at all.”
How much do they have on paper? What do they actually work off of?
Jim Piddock: “For each episode, there’s an 8-page, solid narrative of the episode. They also have character breakdowns which gives them a really detailed idea of their character, certainly all of the main characters. They’ve been worked out by Chris and then myself in terms of, literally, where they went to school, the name of the school, their pet when they were a child. They’re very, very detailed.
And the episodes themselves are probably even slightly more structured than the films because we have an overall story arc that we wanted to follow, and we weren’t sure who we were going to be working with. We knew we’d have a lot of Chris’ usual regulars but there were going to be some new faces and new people, and so we wanted to give as much support and guidelines to people as possible so that when they come in and they kind of improv the scenes, the dialogue, that they’re not just flying blind.”
Where do ideas for characters believing dinosaurs still exist or having a character be the butt end of a horse come from?
Jim Piddock: “Well, the butt end of a horse was actually always in the outlines, but the dinosaur stuff…that has to be credited to the actress. Really what happened with that, that was an instance – and actually now I’m contradicting myself – that was an instance where we did add something that wasn’t so much from the improv that we were shooting, it was in the audition. We auditioned five women for a scene in episode one which was about a bad date. It was a date bad scene, just sort of a B story to show that he was trying to get out there. We had an audition tape with five actresses and two of them were so outstanding. I called Chris and I told him there’s two here and I couldn’t begin to decide because they’re both so wonderful. And he said, ‘I know. What am I going to do?’ That’s when I said, ‘Let’s have two bad dates. Let’s have another one in episode two and use them both.’
So we basically wrote one to be specifically uncomfortable in one way because she was really just stupid and out there, and the other to be uncomfortable in another way, and they were both wonderful. Both of those actresses were fabulous.”
At what point in your initial conversations did you and Christopher Guest know this was going to be a TV series and not a feature film?
Jim Piddock: “The first lunch which was on July 13, 2011. I looked it up the other day. Christopher called me and said, ‘I’ve got this thing I’m thinking about and I wanted to talk to you because I don’t know if there’s anything here.’ And so we had lunch and by the end of the lunch I was convinced that it was a television idea, not a film. By nature, a family tree has no beginning, middle and end; it has branches that go off everywhere. It has an infinite possibilities and I felt that a three-act structure of a film wouldn’t do it justice. So we really realized pretty early on that this was a TV series.
Then we had another lunch about three months later. I’d gone away, he’d gone away. We’d been doing various things, and we said, ‘Okay, let’s see if we shouldn’t maybe sit down and try and do something.’ We started writing a couple of days a week…and when I say writing, we’d meet at each other’s houses, sit at the dining room table, eat lots of fruit and nuts, and make each other laugh. Then I suppose after about six to eight weeks of doing that, we had enough to realize we probably had something, and then we started kicking into another gear.”
Is it easier to write knowing that it’s going to be a TV series and you can take off on all these little tangents and go different places, which you couldn’t necessarily do in a structured film?
Jim Piddock: “Yeah, obviously it gives you a freedom to expand and contract and go in different directions. You can go sideways, forwards, backwards. That was really freeing. Both Chris and I have mostly worked in the feature world. Certainly as a writer I’ve done TV series, but mostly it’s been feature stuff so it was kind of nice not to have to stick to that. And it was nice to know that there was a life beyond 90 minutes, you know, for this idea.”
So will there be a lot of different things that we see in that box that Chris O’Dowd’s character’s inherited?
Jim Piddock: “There will be some different things, yes. Some of the things that we knew we were going to use in the first season, you will sort of see and they get dealt with. The rest of it was just basically crap props. But anything that we decide will come out of the box, will come out of the box for future episodes. And, I don’t know, some of it may not come from that. I mean, the box doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all. It was a starting point.”
Right, and as he meets his relatives and makes these connections, he can go off on different adventures.
Jim Piddock: “Absolutely.”
How did you know Chris O’Dowd was right for the lead role?
Jim Piddock: “Well, it was always an act of faith, but I had seen him in Bridesmaids, which was around the time we started putting this project together, and I brought his name up. He was definitely on our short list and our radar very early on. And then I think Christopher Guest’s daughter had also seen Bridesmaids and said, ‘Oh, he’s so fantastic.’ So when we went to England in April of last year, when we were sort of trying to set the show up, Chris met Christopher. The two Chris’ met and he knew right away. I mean, one thing that Christopher Guest can do extraordinarily well is intuitively knows people can handle his type of work, and he knew. He usually knows after a couple of minutes. He knew right away.
We’d also seen him on talk shows and he was wonderfully relaxed and able to just kind of be off-the-cuff. He has all the qualities we were looking for which was someone to play a universal everyman and could be as funny in a proactive way and a reactive way. There aren’t that many people around that can do that, that can flip from being the straight man in the scene to being the funny guy in the scene. On top of that, he’s good-looking. He’s also incredibly honest as an actor and incredibly natural, and incredibly likable so we couldn’t have found a better person.”
Likable is definitely important because the audience needs to want to go on this journey with him.
Jim Piddock: “Absolutely. And in a series where you have someone coming into your house every week, a group of people coming into your house, there has to be of relatability factor and you have to care about them. We work very hard to make sure that the story and the premise engaged people on a level that they actually cared. There’s obviously a more serious undertone to this which is the question of why anyone looks into their family tree, rather than what they find. The ‘what they find’ is almost incidental. It can be fun and interesting, but the why is more really what the show is about.”

Nina Conti in 'Family Tree'
Nina Conti in 'Family Tree' - Photo: Ray Burmiston/HBO
And speaking of serious undertones, the monkey puppet represents so much. Can you talk about how it was decided to have a character who uses a puppet to help her communicate and deal with life?
Jim Piddock: “Well, we both worked with Nina Conti before in For Your Consideration. She is the daughter of Tom Conti who is a very well-known actor in England and she is a terrific actress in her own right, and also a ventriloquist. She chose a double path for her career and her ventriloquism act is extraordinary. It’s sort of the Penn and Teller of that world. She comments on the art form itself and flips it and does amazingly smart and surreal stuff, and we liked the idea and we sort of wrote the part for her, because we liked the idea of having this monkey puppet in the family that no one really comments on and is accepted. We thought it was unique, and also it gave you a voice of truth and that he is the truthsayer and he cuts through to the emotional core of every scene.”
The monkey has no filter.
Jim Piddock: “No filter. He’s always good for a punch line, and I have to say I’m so thrilled to see today that somebody has started a Monk Chadwick Twitter page [@Monk_FamilyTree] because obviously Monkey is the finest actor of his generation, or any generation, so that made me very happy to see that. He’s got to get more followers because at the moment he has four followers, one of which is me, so that’s not good enough.”
When you’re working as an actor in a project you didn’t write or develop is it tough to stick to a script? Is your instinct to improvise?
Jim Piddock: “Well, it’s easy for me because I’ve done it for 30 something years so I’m used to that. But what I like now is I’m doing a film called Think Like A Man 2, which Kevin Hart is in and when they offered me this they said, ‘By the way, all your scenes are with Kevin and we just should warn you that he tends to just go off, doesn’t always stick to the script.’ And I said, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’
[Laughing] Basically with those scenes with the two of us, it sort of becomes a free-for-all and I love that. I like working that way and in Five Year Engagement with Nick Stoller and with Get Him to the Greek, we did the same sort of thing. We do a version which is totally the scripted version and then Nick says, ‘Okay, go wherever you want.’ So I’m used to working that way and I like to work that way, and I’m thrilled when people let me do that and mostly actually they encourage me to do that.”
Is there an actor you’ve worked with who’s surprised you by their ability to improv?
Jim Piddock: [Laughing] “No, because I’m so busy usually try to keep up. Oh, I’ll tell you who it was wonderful to do it with and it’s on the bonus features – it never made it into the film – was The Dictator with Sacha Baron Cohen. There was no script. He said, ‘Just come in and I want you to interview me as a BBC reporter for a serious late-night program.’ He was in his character of General Aladeen and I think he was at first just kind of thrown off balance almost because he’s usually the guy that drives those things and everyone has to react to him. I was kind of leading it and it was wonderful because I think we improvised for maybe two to three hours, just going crazy. Some of it ends up in the bonus features, but that was a great experience because it was someone who really was like, ‘Oh yeah, now I can play tennis. The ball’s coming back to me and it’s coming harder than I thought it was going to come.’ That was fun.”
That must be a real joy to be in a scene like that and to be so involved with the other person that it’s just flowing fast and furious.
Jim Piddock: “Well it was for me because I’m a massive admirer of Sacha’s and I think he has balls of steel. I watch that and go, ‘Oh, how on earth can he do that? I’m so envious.’ So to get into the ring and actually spar with him and land a few good punches was very exciting, you know? I really had never done any improv before Best in Show so it feels like, ‘Okay, this is good now. I don’t have to feel like I’m getting out-matched.”
Back to the show’s renewal, HBO hasn’t given you any indication of when they will make a decision?
Jim Piddock: “I think we’re in a sort of a bit of a holding pattern. I wish I could tell you. You know, clearly the reviews have been sensational, so I think it’s probably one of the best reviewed shows they’ve had in a long, long while, and word-of-mouth has been absolutely terrific. I know that it opened modestly in terms of viewing numbers. That didn’t surprise anybody connected at our end because Chris’ films always were sort of a niche audience that grew in time. But now the numbers are creeping up steadily with word-of-mouth as people are discovering the show.
I wish I could tell you that this is the show like Christopher’s films that’s built for endurance not for speed, and anybody – whether it be HBO, BBC, whoever, and there were a lot of people that did kind of offer to host the show for us, to broadcast it – I think whoever does it and sticks with it will see the rewards because people still talk about the film’s 20-25 years later. They still quote the films. They watch them multiple times and that’s pretty rare, you know?
It is multilayered comedy as opposed to kind of disposable jokes. I think that it would be interesting to see it start from the BBC in mid-July. They were the other partner and so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s received there because obviously, here, the first four episodes being set in England, for certain audience members it was slightly, you know, it took them a while to get into the swing of it because it seemed like very British. And then they kind of got it and now we’re in America with it. It’s come to America so everyone can go, ‘Oh, yeah, I get the whole thing now.’
I wonder if it will work in reverse in England, but I think probably not because they’re so used to American culture on television. But I think they’ll probably slide straight into it because it starts in England, obviously, and then it gets broader.”
Were you considering that when you were writing the first few episodes? Were you thinking about how quickly you wanted to bring the setting to America?
Jim Piddock: “Yes. Early on we actually were starting it in America and going to England and then we sort of flipped it. I don’t think it matters. We just knew that we wanted to cross both cultures. It was partly an artistic choice and partly a business choice because NBC Universal international was the company behind it, and who makes the show, and they are a bi-continental company. They do Downton Abbey and those things. So we wanted to have that British element.
And now from here on, it just really depends on what people feel is the best way for it to go. We’ve got a lot of contingencies to stay in America, to go back for a little bit, to go anywhere. I mean, Christopher and I like the idea of going to wherever there’s good food so I’d love to go to the south of France and Italy. I think there has to be some Italian family members and French.”
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