[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of The Afterparty, “Vivian and Zoë.”]
In the season two finale of The Afterparty, viewers learn two things about the killer and one about the deceased, Edgar, the groom. Let’s start with the latter.
Edgar (Zach Woods) went around the world to find the globetrotting uncle, Ulysses (John Cho), of his bride-to-be Grace (Poppy Liu). But Ulysses wants no part of the wedding. Why? Because at the wedding will be his forbidden love that he’s traveled around the world to forget about, Vivian (Vivian Wu), the wife of his half-brother Feng (Ken Jeong). Edgar, however, forces Ulysses’ hand and makes him attend.
Edgar learned the hard way, however, that it’s best to leave people alone and that no means no — as audience members of the Apple TV+ series found out in the end that Ulysses is Edgar’s murderer (although, not intentionally). What Ulysses didn’t count on when attending the wedding was that, in an attempt to kill his half-brother, the poisoned drink glass would inadvertently get switched, causing the longing uncle to not only lose the chance at his lost love’s hand, but also to lose Edgar.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with executive producers and showrunners Phil Lord, Chris Miller and Anthony King about the second season of the whodunnit murder mystery series to dissect how they used comedy to structure the beginning and ending story of a killer — and whether or not they are planning on a third season.
Chris and Phil, the two of you seem to have a fluid flow between the worlds of animation and live-action filmmaking with your writing and production work. Would you say the same is true when doing a comedy such as The Afterparty and its genre-jumping?
Chris Miller: We like to find different ways of telling a story. And we like to mix media, like in [Spider-Man: Across the] Spider-Verse, there are these different styles of animation, and there’s even a little bit of live-action in there. And in a way, it’s very similar to this show where every episode is its own style of filmmaking. Each episode is totally unique and bespoke, and they are all living together. One person sees himself as a film noir person, and another sees himself living in a Wes Anderson movie. And those people are together and it’s similar to the kind of thing we were doing on Spider-verse, where have a cartoon pig and a noir character. We never like to settle down into one way of telling a story, I guess.
Phil Lord: I wonder if that comes out of the fact of our creative process has two of us. It always requires: “Well, here’s how Phil sees this scene. Here’s how Chris sees it.” Maybe it is a requirement that there is more than one way to do something? And maybe a lot of these projects that are about multiple points of view and alternate universes (laughs) kind of comes out of that.
Anthony, what was the writers room like? Was it like a war room?
Anthony King: (Laughs.) It’s funny, the room is a mix of very funny people, but also people who have a love for mysteries. And there’s so much time in the writers room spent, both coming up with how we take characters and, when you learn more about them, making you feel empathy for them and understanding them more. But then on the mystery side, how can we lead you in the wrong direction, lead you the right direction and not let you get ahead of us? So, there’s a lot of constant debate because everything is happening in real-time and people stories are criss-crossing. There was so much of, “Oh, well this is a good idea… but that means we have to rewrite four other episodes to make sure everyone is at the right place at the right time.” So, there is a lot of weird story math going on where you can slam your head up against the wall.
Miller: There were more spreadsheets than you normally see in writing.
King: Most comedies don’t have spreadsheets!
Anthony, beside an episode that you wrote, did you have a favorite story or genre?
King: You love all of your children equally, obviously, but I think I really loved how the Ulysses episode came together, because it was like swinging for the fences for television to try to tell such an epic visually expansive story that tracked the entire globe. But also, that type of comedy that is played so close to the vest, and played so straight, but is absurd is just a favorite of mine. And I thought Vivian [Wu] and John [Cho], and Ken [Jeong] all just knocked it out of the park. It was so funny, yet so heartbreaking.
How did you decide who was going to write which episode and focus on which genre?
Miller: That’s really fun, actually. What we do, we develop the episodes pretty well and we figure the basics of all of the episodes — what the genres are, what the characters are, what the twists and turns are — and then we ask the writers and writing staff to list which three episodes they would want to write and in what order. So, everyone gets to pick and submit anonymously what episodes they want to write. And every year, so far, it has worked out that someone really wanted to write “that” episode, and we’ve been able to assign those episodes to the people. And Anthony and I have sort of picked up the remainder.
It has worked out really well. And once a writer has been assigned that episode, they become like the defender for that character throughout the season. “Isabel wouldn’t do that, and here’s why…” (laughs). They’ve become very protective of the character they’re writing about. It’s very cute.
Lord: They become the expert, right?
Did you know who the killer would be early on? If not how long in the process did it take before you knew which character would be the killer?
Lord: I think Chris told me, and then I forgot! So, when I was like looking at episodes, I was like, “Do you want me to know who the killer is, or do you want me to watch this without knowing?” Then, I think he told me again, and I forgot again (smiling). It leaves my mind.
Miller: It’s great working with Phil because things can seem new all the time. He has that Finding Dory disease (laughs).
Lord: (Laughing) If you ever need a clean read on something, send it to me.
Miller: Anyway, we build the mystery around: We figure out what the murder is, and then we try to cover it up. That’s sort of the process. It always starts with the murder itself. It was built around knowing who the killer was.
Was it difficult keeping it from the cast?
Miller: We didn’t tell the cast that they were the killer or not. Before we shot anything, we gave them all 10 scripts, and said, “Here you go, here’s some reading so that you can understand who your character is.” And a lot them just read it like, “Oh, I wonder: Am I the killer? Could I be the killer? Maybe I am the killer!” And then they are like “Ah, I’m not the killer.” And then, the killer, we did mention to them that it was them.
King: We kind of did the opposite than what we did in season one, where the killer in season one doesn’t seem to have much of a motive; so, we kind of went the other direction this season.
Clearly there are complexities in making a series like this, but what are the smoother paths to navigate — if any — in doing this this as sort of melodramatic comedy?
King: It’s a very complex show. I don’t know if there are any! If there is a smoother path that you are thinking of, please tell us (laughs). It is so many things all at once. I think that is what makes the show unique and delightful. We don’t sail through.
Miller: The secret sauce is casting great people who are multi-talented and who can do lots of different things, and act in different styles and add a lot of stuff along the way. They make our lives better and easier by making the substance better. A lot of the lines that Zach Woods improvised, the murder victim, that made it into the show, are some of the funniest lines of the whole season. They are all so talented, and they get it very quickly. The Wes Anderson thing is very tricky. It can feel like an SNL parody if you are overplaying it.
How do you go about choosing the right ensemble for such an undertaking, and — if you feel this way — getting it right the second time around?
Miller: A lot of them are people who we thought might be fun for the party, who we wanted to work with. A lot were people who we wrote the parts for. Paul Michael Hauser was that name that was tossed out early in the room and it was like: He would be perfect! We sort of wrote a whole part around him and we thought, “Man, if he doesn’t want to do this, I don’t know what we are going to do.” And similarly, with a lot of the characters we had someone in mind, and we had someone in mind who we thought we would be able to convince to say yes to do it. And, we were right!
Will there be an Afterparty season three?
Miller: I certainly hope so…
Lord: Your lips [to God’s ears]…
Miller: Let’s solve this strike first. And let the AMPTP offer a fair deal to the writers. And then we can solve the third season of The Afterparty mystery.
Interview edited for length and clarity.