We don’t write a lot on TV episodes, but Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is produced by a video game publisher Ubisoft, and it’s a thoughtful comedy about a fictional game studio. And he returns today on Apple TV + subscription service with a special episode called Mythic Quest: Quarantine, which was written, filmed and quarantined.
Rob McElhenney, the show’s co-creator, executive producer and co-star, said in a press briefing that the episode had happened in three weeks, with most of the writing done in just three days. The half hour installment describes what it is like for the game studio staff to work from home. And it’s going to hit home for a lot of game developers.
Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) fight loneliness, while Brad (Danny Pudi) and David (David Hornsby) run a charity contest. Assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) tries to explain videoconferencing to C.W. (F. Murray Abraham) with mixed results.
I participated in a roundtable interview with McElhinney after watching the quarantine episode.
To produce the episode, the cast and crew worked remotely in several locations across the country. McElhenney said his team had consulted Ubisoft for concrete examples of game developers working from home. The episode highlights the challenge of mental well-being during lockdown and continues to straddle the dividing line between commercial and creative interests in a game studio.
McElhenney said the team will resume work on season 2 for the show, which has been lit in green. the first season of nine episodes debuted in February. I really think this whole series is worth a look for gamers and the gaming industry. I suggest you watch the quarantine episode first and then read it.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Question: How quickly did this idea of quarantine episode come about? What was one of the things you wanted to avoid at the trope level regarding the story?
Rob McElhenney: Well, from concept to final delivery, it took three weeks. It was very fast. The reason we wanted to do it was because we obviously wanted to give it up while we were all in this shared experience of being in quarantine, and we didn’t know how long it was going to last. It seems to change every hour. We thought we had to do everything we could to do it as quickly as possible, and we did.
I think it would have been difficult to succeed under the best circumstances. In these particular circumstances, I would say it was the most difficult production I have ever participated in. But this is certainly the episode of television that I am most proud of, because of the way it all came together thanks to the work and ingenuity of a whole team of people working at a distance.
When it came to the tropes we wanted to avoid, we knew we could take advantage, from a comical point of view, of some of the interface jokes that you were going to get, because it’s an inherently funny way of communicating with people. However, we knew we couldn’t just make Zoom jokes for 25 minutes. It would get old. It was already weird by the time we started writing, because there had been a bunch of other shows that had already started, SNL included, who did a great job from the start live and exploiting this comedy. We thought, “Great, they did it, it was funny. Imagine a way to nod to it, and then tell a real emotional tale. “
Question: The episode speaks volumes about the mental health assessment that quarantine poses for many people. Why was it important for you to answer?
McElhenney: We knew we could do something funny, and it would be – I’m not saying it would necessarily be easy, but we knew we could do it, because as I mentioned, the interface itself, the situation itself and the cast of actors that we have, we know we could generate something funny. But we also felt that if we had this platform and this opportunity, could we tell a story that, at worst, brings a sense of lightness and humor to people’s lives for 25 minutes? But at best, people might feel less lonely, which I think television at its best – stories at their best have the capacity to do so. I know they do this for me.
It was interesting to me, how many times will I get a text, a tweet, an email, an Instagram post from someone saying he spent his forties watching Sunny, and thanks for the 14 seasons of episodes that just make them laugh. “When things seem the darkest, I know I can activate this stupid show and it will bring me a minimum of joy and humor for 22 minutes.” At best, these are the kinds of things we can do. Why not use this platform to the best of our ability?
Question: When I looked at this, all I could think was, “Is this the future of Hollywood?” Will the programs, for at least next year, or even beyond, be recorded from the actors’ homes? Do you think this is really going to happen, that you may be a bit ahead of the game from the point of view?
McElhenney: The truth is that we filmed everything on the iPhone. At the risk of looking like an advertisement for Apple, we could not have done it without the technology of this company and these phones. It’s not hyperbolic to say. It’s the truth. The newest iPhone camera is better than the one we took Sunny season 10 on. It collects more information than we have been able to do in Sunny Season 11 too. The ability for us to do it is both based on technology, but also simply a simple human ingenuity and respect for things, and the desire to do something great in less than ideal circumstances.
I hope this is not the future of Hollywood. I hope that we can work together on sound scenes again. But I do not know. Anyone who claims to know is not paying attention. From my point of view, I always want to come up with a plan and be ready for the worst and best scenarios, but at the same time, we have to be respectful of the situation, the experts and the people who are doing this for a living. As a television screenwriter, I am not one of those people and I respect science and scientists. I will listen to them.
Question: I was curious to know if you have talked to video game developers about how they handle quarantine. If yes, who did you speak to and what did you learn?
McElhenney: Our production partner at the show is Ubisoft, which is one of the largest game developers in the world. When we were talking about the possibility of coming back and doing some sort of quarantined episode, we first contacted Jason Altman, who is the show’s executive producer and works for Ubisoft. We said, “Hey, can we spend a few hours talking about what’s going on? How do people navigate? “
As we all know, people are at home watching television, watching movies and playing video games in record numbers. It is one thing for a television series to be operational. All of this work has been done. Now it’s just a question of maintaining Hulu or Netflix. But the video game industry, they still have to find ways to keep these servers up and running with new content and players who continually connect in record numbers. How do they do this remotely? How do they navigate on it? What is the record of these people? These are all areas that we wanted to explore in depth in the episode.
Question: One of the things I like about the show is the dynamics between the characters. When you were shooting all the places, was it difficult to keep this dynamic witty? How could you represent this virtually?
McElhenney: It was tricky. What happens is that you realize things that you had never thought of before, that is, how much of our communication is based on the fact that we are together in the same room. Whether it’s non-verbal cues or just nuances that you can only take away from a person when you are in the same room with them. These are the things that we had to navigate.
Again, I still think that, for whatever reason, we managed to get through and have some level of connection. We couldn’t see each other. None of the actors could see each other. We were looking directly into the cameras. But we could get along. There was something about not being able to see them, but hearing them, that made things a little more intimate. It is difficult to explain.
We are all on these conference calls all day, and there is something strange, strange valley about it. You are not really in a room with someone. Just because you can see them doesn’t mean you feel this connection. But we are used to talking to people on the phone. All those who are alive at the moment have been since the advent of the telephone. We have a frame of reference for that, which we don’t do with this teleconference. It’s always strange for us, or at least for my lizard brain. So that we can communicate with each other by just hearing the sound of our voices, for whatever reason, it helps to click. Certainly emotionally, if not comically.
Question: How did you understand how to plan this episode as a unique event, as opposed to something that could have been part of the second season? How much thought has gone into this part?
McElhenney: A huge amount of thinking, but it had to happen quickly. From design to final delivery, it took three weeks. We wrote it in about three days. The production on it, once we actually shot it, was not that difficult, but the preparatory work it took to plan everything was the hardest part. We had to provide three iPhones per actor to each actor in a safe, legal and sterile manner. We then had to download two very specific software to these phones. We had to explain to them how to use all the settings, audio and video. We had to locate on site virtually, at their home, to find the right places and times of the day to shoot. We had to do whole tutorials on sound, because people live in houses with hardwood or concrete floors or high ceilings, and the echo, which you don’t normally hear, sounds awful when you hear it. ‘save.
These are all the types of challenges we faced, while also asking them to perform and communicate with other members of the crew. All without leaving our homes. No one left their house except me, and I left for a particular scene where I was walking outside, but then I went straight home and to my garage, and the person at the other end of this particular exchange is not me, so it’s a double body. This double body is the real husband of Charlotte, who is also not an actor. He suddenly forgot how to stand like a human being.
He could hear me, because we were all communicating through these headphones, and I said, “Okay, stay there.” All of a sudden, he forgot to do what you are supposed to do with your arms when you are a human. He started to lift in this robotic way. I was like, “Stop, hold on!” The poor guy was such a soldier, because he is not an actor. He has no experience in this area, and all of a sudden he not only acts, but pretends to be me. He’s a 6 foot 2 inch 200 pound Australian, and I’m not. He is holding me by the ear to tell him how to stand up. This sort of thing was a bit risky.