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Poker Face Showrunners Lilla and Nora Zuckerman on the Joys of Writing for Natasha Lyonne

For sister showrunning duo Lilla and Nora Zuckerman, writing for Natasha Lyonne on a mystery-of-the-week drama series—each episode complete with its own murder and cast of characters—was like “strapping a rocket ship to Natasha’s back and watching her take off.”

The series, Peacock’s “Poker Face,” thrusts Lyonne’s Charlie Cale into a life on the run, equipped with a foolproof ability to tell when someone is lying and the guts to call them on it. Each episode opens with the crime and perpetrator, and it’s up to Charlie to connect the dots and solve the mystery, always just in time for the episode’s end credits. Then Charlie hits the road in her blue Plymouth Barracuda, onto the next adventure.

“Poker Face” is a dream watch for longtime fans of Lyonne. Her signature sharp wit and gravelly voice are better than ever, and her character’s cheerful attitude in the face of adversity, comical and otherwise, feels genuine. Charlie may be running from her own problems, but she’s having a blast helping other people solve theirs.

“She has such a strong attitude and persona that she brings to the character,” Nora told RogerEbert.com of Lyonne. “When Rian [Johnson] created Charlie Cale, he sort of created her as a vehicle for Natasha.”

Worldbuilding for Lyonne wasn’t just a good time for Nora and Lilla; it made them stronger writers: “It’s so much fun to write for that kind of a character because it just makes you better,” Nora said. “It makes you sharper." 

The Columbo-style procedural isn’t the sisters’ first time working together—the duo are frequent collaborators. In fact, their filmography is nearly identical: Lilla and Nora have also worked together on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Prodigal Son,” “Suits,” and “Fringe.”

For this year’s Women Writers Week, RogerEbert.com spoke with Nora and Lilla via Zoom about their professional partnership, the writing process for “Poker Face,” and the joys of working with Natasha Lyonne.

Hannah Loesch: As fellow sisters who work together, it is so cool to see your names right on top of each other in the credits! How does your sister dynamic come into play when you are working together?

Lilla Zuckerman: We started working together years ago. Nora always knew she wanted to be a writer. I came to it later in life, and that’s when we started collaborating. We’ve been working in television now for close to fifteen years, which is crazy to think about. And people always ask, “How do you balance being family and working together?” And my answer is: there is no balance whatsoever. We work together all the time, we see each other socially all the time. It’s kind of wonderful to have that family connection, especially when you are working in such an intense field. You always have a partner, you always have an ally, you always have somebody to look at and be like, “Was that crazy? Oh my god, did you see that?” It’s fantastic having such a support system while we’re on this journey together.

Nora Zuckerman: And the bonus for anybody who’s in a writers’ room with us is that they get to know all about what’s going on in our family at any given moment. [Lilla laughs]

Cailin Loesch: Do you bring those experiences into your writing?

Lilla: For the most part, we’ve written on genre shows, so it’s not like we’re necessarily taking things from our childhoods or stories of our family and putting them into plotlines, but in the writers’ room everybody does a lot of sharing. Everyone’s telling funny stories, everyone’s sharing their experiences, everybody’s telling someone, “Oh, you have to read this. You have to watch this.” So by the time you’re about halfway through breaking the season, you know what’s going on in everybody’s lives. You’re able to connect with each other in a really nice and trusting way. Collaborating in a writers’ room is always going to be intimate in the right environment.

Nora: On “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” at one point we all had the same sneakers because everyone had gotten into them. We were all eating the same things. It’s kind of one of those things where you just absorb everybody else in the writers’ room because you’re with each other so much during the day.

Hannah: If I were working with Natasha Lyonne, who seems like such a fun, colorful person, I just know I would want to incorporate various inside jokes into the show. The deadpanned Blues Traveler “Hook” scene was so funny. How much does knowing Natasha as a person—who she is and what she brings to the table—affect how you write for her?

Nora: It actually makes our jobs as writers a little bit easier when you’re writing for an actor who has such a strong voice and point of view. You can kind of hear that voice in your head while you’re writing. Some of our favorite characters that we’ve worked on over the years are played by those kinds of actors—where you can write a line and say, “I know exactly how this person is going to perform this line”—and you get to set and it’s actually better than how you imagined it. Natasha is that kind of an actor. She will still absolutely surprise you, but she has such a strong attitude and persona that she brings to the character. When Rian [Johnson] created Charlie Cale, he sort of created her as a vehicle for Natasha. I think he referred to it recently as strapping a rocket ship to Natasha’s back and watching her take off. Charlie Cale is very much written to be a Natasha Lyonne vehicle, and it’s so much fun to write for that kind of a character because it just makes you better. It makes you sharper.

Lilla: And it’s not just the dialogue, either, but also when we’re thinking about the story and the situations. In episode 103, her sidekick is a MAGA dog. And you think, “What is it going to be like for Natasha to get into an argument with a dog over a racist radio station?” And you’re just giggling in the room thinking about it, because you want to plop her down in those situations and just let it rip.

Cailin: As someone who is in journalism and doesn’t really write fiction, I find it intriguing to imagine how you pull worlds and characters and conflict from what feels to me like thin air. How does that work for you? What is the process of sitting down and saying, “This is where I want the story to go.” Do you know from the beginning what you want? Does it play out over time?

Nora: Sometimes the best days in the room are when it does come easily. You say, “Oh, it’s a barbecue restaurant, and we’re going to do this, then that!” But of course, it never is that easy. Sometimes you have the perfect location but you just can’t figure out what the mystery is. In the room, we pitched a lot of different worlds that we ended up not using, because we just couldn’t crack our way in. We couldn’t decide what the mystery was. And those are not necessarily stories that go away. A lot of times in the writers’ room, you refer to the “story graveyard,” although somebody recently referred to it as a parking lot, and I was like, “I like that idea.” You just take the idea and you put it in a parking lot, and maybe you’ll pull it out later. For “Poker Face,” though, we didn’t really want to have any hard and fast rules as to where the idea could come from. It could come from a character, it could come from a world, it could come from the way we wanted to see the perfect murder happen. There are a lot of shows that say, “I want the character first, and then this, and then that.” We really just pulled from everywhere, and it worked for us.

Hannah: I am fascinated by true crime, but on a show like this there are all these moving parts, like a criminal’s motive, that you are fully manufacturing. I will try to avoid spoilers, but there are certain moments where it’s like, “Whoa…”

Cailin: For example, in episode nine, when we find out who’s in the tree!

Hannah: How do you create moments like that where you have to think, how would somebody get away with that murder? 

Cailin: Because you can’t just be creative. It has to be logical. 

Lilla: It starts off with a simple thread, almost like the trunk of a tree and you’re putting branches on it as it grows. Like the spine of the story that’s holding it together. For a lot of these episodes, we would have a world, maybe a couple characters—but until we latched onto what the spine of the story was going to be, we couldn’t get it going. Then you start elaborating on that. You get to a point where, let’s say, you’ve nailed the story structure and you have the case, then you can start to think, “Well, what is the audience’s POV? What are they going to expect to happen, and how can we subvert those expectations?” And that’s storytelling, right? You have to tell it in a strategic way where you are getting those moments of “WTF, what did I just see?” Those moments are very carefully engineered. Sometimes we even started with that as a concept. Like, “I want the audience to think that this is two people about to kill each other and then this other thing happens.” And sometimes that comes later. It’s all part of the process of going through the story over and over and over again and finding those moments.

Hannah: There are traits that Natasha brings to almost every character she plays. It’s this energy and vibe. She doesn’t at all play the same character in everything, but you see these elements of that person in every character. What similarities and differences do you see between Natasha and, let’s say, Charlie?

Nora: There’s a certain directness and plainness to Natasha and Charlie. I think Natasha has a way of getting right to the point in her way of addressing things. And Natasha’s very charming. You know, she is the first to throw around a joke or make sure everyone on set is relaxed. Natasha is a vibe, as is Charlie! I think she had a lot of fun playing Charlie—going from Nadia [from Netflix’s “Russian Doll”], who’s dealing with this deep existential trauma and crisis, to Charlie, who is dealing with crises but does so in such a different way. Charlie has a much sunnier outlook. Which, for somebody who can tell when everybody around her is lying, is a very admirable and heroic way of looking at the world. And I think Natasha just brings this magnetism and charm to her. Charlie is somebody who loves people, and Natasha is able to connect with whoever she is in a scene with such a genuine way that really shines through. She does really collect people in every episode. Sometimes she needs them as allies, sometimes they turn out to be her antagonist, but she can’t help but connect. I think there’s something that’s really wonderful about that.

Cailin: Hannah and I said that while we were watching. She has great chemistry with literally everyone on the show.

Hannah: So much so, that for the first couple of episodes, I thought, Is this a love interest? And then no, it’s just that she connects with everyone!

Cailin: But she finally did have a love interest in episode nine, and it was really sweet to see because she had been dealing with so much ... shit ... on Shit Mountain. [All laugh] Then we see a montage of her so happy with someone. What inspired those scenes?

Lilla: It’s so funny, because I think you definitely needed that little bit of sparkly sunshine in the middle of that episode because so much of it takes place in the dark. I don’t know if you guys know this, but Rian grew up in Colorado, and he was really into the idea of her having this kind of John Denver-y mountain man, music video, love montage. And we were like, “Is this Rian going back to his Colorado roots?”

In all of these episodes, we’re dropping you right into a murder, and it’s not like that’s all of Charlie’s existence on the road. We wanted to give you a little peek into what her life is when she isn’t plunged into the middle of a murder mystery. And, you know, because we love Charlie so much, we also just needed to see those moments of happiness for her! You want her to win, you want to be happy for her. I remember when we were filming those scenes—where they were kissing, and she was smiling—I turned to someone and said, “It’s so nice to see her smile! She deserves it!”

Cailin: There was that one moment when Charlie drank from the cup, and she smelled coconut, and it definitely felt like it was alluding to something from her past. Are we going to see more of Charlie’s backstory in season two?

Nora: We’ve given a good hint about her childhood in the finale, and that’s really as far as we wanted to go in the first season, you know? We sort of have a sense of it. But I think “Poker Face” will always continue to be a mystery-of-the-week show, and when we need to dip into Charlie’s backstory, we will. But we don’t want to have to depend on that for storytelling every week. The interesting thing for us as writers is that your actions are always informed by who you are and what your past was, and we do think about all of that in every episode of “Poker Face.” We think about who Charlie must have been growing up with this ability, what it must have done to her relationships. The one nice thing about “Escape from Shit Mountain” and Charlie’s love affair is that guy had to be a good guy. She has to look at him and go, “Okay, you’re an honest, good person, and I’ll stick around.” There’s something nice about that, and it seems like something that doesn’t come along very often for Charlie.

Cailin: As a viewer, I finished the season with so much love and empathy for her. I told Hannah when the season ended, “I’m going to miss Charlie!”

[All laugh]

Lilla: We miss Charlie too! We can’t wait to get back to her in season two.

“Poker Face” is now streaming on Peacock.

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