The Marvelous Mrs Maisel - Filmmaking Breakdown
For those of you haven’t yet seen this delicious production, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is a series about Midge Maisel, a 1950s Jewish wife and mother to two kids in the Upper West Side apartment. Her perfectly ordered life takes a surprising turn when she decides to become a stand-up comic.
I absolutely fell in love with this series as soon as I started watching it. Apart from making me secretly wish I was Mrs Maisel, the series gave me a warm, cosy feeling, made me laugh out loud and every episode left me wanting more.
I wanted to take a look at some various elements that make this series is so good and how we as filmmakers and writers can learn from it.
Alex Borstein (who plays the role of Midge’s manager, Susie Myerson) was doing a Twitter Q&A recently and I asked her what she thought made the writing so good in this series.
Her answer was simple:
“Amy Sherman Palladino.”
If you have ever watched Gilmore Girls, you will have come across Amy Sherman’s writing style before. Fast paced, witty and honest, her dialogue is everything you want to say in life, but can’t.
Here are a few pointers I think we can take from analysing the writing of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel:
The characters say what you believe real people would say. In some ways, the dialogue may seem far fetched. The characters are so blunt and in your face and yet watching Midge with her family makes me smile because, like it or not, the situations and discussions remind me of my own family gatherings.
Perhaps they are elevated a little beyond reality but they are always grounded in real life scenarios and emotions.
Let’s look at some of the opening words of the main character, Midge in the pilot episode:
I mean, who does that? Who stands
in the middle of a ballroom after
drinking three glasses of champagne
on a completely empty stomach, and
I mean completely empty because
fitting into this dress required no
solid food for three straight
weeks. Who does that? I do!
You can immediately pinpoint how the writing stands out in the way the character talks. Look at this bit - “on a completely empty stomach, and I mean completely empty…” - this is how a real person speaks. It’s grammatically questionable, it is not how traditional journalists and teachers would have you write, but it sounds like the way we talk day to day. On the other hand, it isn’t anything like how we speak in real life because we cannot get our words together this eloquently and be so concise with our information.
Apart from sounding good, it is also packed with information. What do we learn about our character from this little piece of dialogue?
Midge knows she’s a performer - …who stands in the middle of a ballroom?…She is telling us she did this and at the same time also telling us she knows it’s not the average person’s choice
Midge likes to drink - she had three glasses on an empty stomach
Midge likes to look good, like really good! - I like to look good but I wouldn’t go to these lengths!
I can tell you that all three of these things are a solid constant to her character throughout series one and two and in particular two of those facts are integral to her story and journey.
Do you see how much you can tell your audience about your character through just a tiny bit of dialogue?
Rock solid characters.
I was so impressed with season two of this series. I was fully expecting to be a little disappointed and instead found myself loving season two more than season one. What a pleasant surprise! A lot of this was down to the fact that the characters stayed in character. Every character went on a journey of their own. We learned more about each of them and it was fascinating.
Of course this is a series, but there is no reason you can’t implement this technique in your short film or feature. See every stage of the film as an opportunity to show the audience a new side of your character and reveal more about them.
The walk and talk.
Similar to the famous technique used in The West Wing, the series uses movement, both actor and camera together with fluid dialogue to create a ‘dance’ on screen. I counted one scene as one moving shot in series one, with actors moving in and out of rooms, camera moving with them all the while the dialogue flowing beautifully, that lasted a whopping 4 minutes. That takes work. Lots of rehearsal and fine tuning of the words and movements.
It will always make your scene more interesting if the actors are moving while talking, unless there is a reason not to. Some scenes require stillness of course but I like the effect and I like how the movement entertains my eye and mind.
It’s theatre…and proud of it!
I absolutely hate it when crew and other filmmakers make a distinction between theatre and film/TV. I’ve heard so many people moan about using ‘theatre actors’ in film and making film not feel like theatre but this is where I think so many go wrong.
Theatre is very good at entertaining an audience. When done well, it will use everything in its power to capture an audience’s attention - lights, amazing backdrops, using the whole stage, big gestures, silence.
Just because you have a camera and you can edit doesn’t mean you magically make everything you shoot interesting to watch. You should be writing and rehearsing to the point that the scenes entertain and tell the story before a camera gets anywhere near it. If it works on its own in front of a real audience, you can be sure it will work on screen and then all you have to do is find the best way to shoot it to capture it all. That is a skill in itself, but make sure you get the first part right.
The set design in Mrs Maisel is fantastic and at first you may take it for granted, but it is a huge part of why this production works so well.
The show is set in a 1950s New York City and it does an excellent job of setting the scene.
Bill Groom the production artist for the show, says that he watched a lot of movies from the period to gain inspiration and ideas for the sets. *
You can get a little insight into the scale of the sets in this behind-the-scenes video
lessons we can learn from Mrs Maisel set designs:
Root your production design in some kind of reality. Bill Groom used movies set in the time period and apartments that are still standing today to get the floor plan layout and size of the apartments. Why is that? Because even though film is make-believe, if there is some truth somewhere it feeds through to the audience. The apartments may be a set, but if they look similar to the size and shape of a real apartment from the time, with similar design, people who were alive in the 50s are going to think, oh look at that! It looks like it did back then. Yes, there are differences but enough truth to keep it real.
Make the effort. Of course, this is a big budget production, where they can afford to get permission (yes, permission costs money, sadly) to shut down New York streets and take down signposts.
That said, there is no reason this can’t apply to your small budget production. If you are shooting a period scene in a street somewhere, make every effort in pre-production to get the permission to make it look authentic. If set in modern period, pick a unique location or something unusual to make it stand out on screen. Think about colours. It took me such a long time to understand how important sets and design were to make a production look more professional. Don’t let it take you as long as it did me.
Cast and performance
First of all, this cast is just amazing. An absolutely fabulously, talented cast with incredible rapport, so let’s see what we can glean from watching them.
Allow For Rehearsals. I read that the show builds in more time for rehearsals than average * and I can only deduct that they have rehearsal time for performance which helps build up the wonderful connection between the cast. Midge and her family feel like a real family. Tony Shalhoub who plays Abe, Midge’s father in the show, said that the actors are “allowed to rehearse almost like a play, which is rare in television.”
I think if more new filmmakers found the treasure chest that is rehearsals sooner and utilised it, they’d become better filmmakers faster. Don’t give yourself a couple of hours with actors before the shoot to rehearse - give yourself a day or a week, budget allowing. Acting is about being vulnerable with each other. The more comfortable they are with each other, the better their performance will be.
Cast correctly. The winner in this show is the casting of Rachel Brosnahan as Midge. They could not have cast a better person for this particular role. She embodies the role and she makes you adore her instantly. I would say every single role is played by the right person and there’s something to be said here not just for picking amazing actors, which they all are, but choosing actors who have a something about them that resonates with the role they’re in. I know Tony Shalhoub mainly from a show called Monk, a great series about a detective with OCD, and the two roles are very different but at the same time, they smack of an unspoken something that I think Tony has within himself. Perhaps it’s the soft voice or the careful way he moves.
You need to give the role to the actor who embodies that role, even if they don’t look the way you quite imagined. Look beyond that and see how they take to the role in the audition.
Hi there! My name is Jay, I’m a writer and film director and I run a YouTube channel called The Director’s Logbook where I talk about filmmaking tips and my own filmmaking journey. Please check it out and subscribe for more content on making films.