You can’t necessarily judge a book by its cover, and that’s certainly the case with Amazon's new horror anthology limited series Them, created by the very affable Little Marvin. There are numerous complexities at play creating a stunning yet subtle piece of storytelling.
A black family moves from North Carolina to an all-white Los Angeles neighborhood in 1953, where their idyllic home becomes ground zero for malevolent forces.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Little Marvin about the many storytelling tactics he and his team used and the power of storytelling through collaboration.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Tell us about your screenwriting journey. What was the spark that made you decide to become a storyteller?
Little Marvin: Where do I begin. I would say, well I wanted this for a long time. I mean I loved the theme of television, and I've been obsessed with it since I was a child, TV was an event in our household, I don't know what that says about me or my therapy bill [laughs]. So, I've always wanted this and when I graduated from college, you know, in my early 20s I pursued it with some vigor, but not enough, I think I got really beat down in my 20s and when the going got tough I ran, which is not the best way to have a career [laughs]. But fast forward to a few years and I was a marketing executive and a creative director for many years, I loved my life in the kind of corporate world, but there was always this nagging dream that I wanted to make television and I wanted to be a writer. So I did what I would suggest nobody do, I put myself up for a promotion and no one asked me to have, which bosses love by the way [laughs] and if I got the gig, I would forget about my dream of being a screenwriter and just do this because that was meant to be, or if I didn't get it, I would quit my job immediately, fly to Los Angeles and not put myself out of my room until I was a paid writer. Spoiler, I did not get the job. I did exactly that. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs]. Well, I'm happy that's the case. Are there any filmmakers or screenwriters that have inspired your work?
Little Marvin: There’s so many to tell. I mean, I was the guy who would lock myself in the academy library, I would write from like 9am to noon. It's a fantastic resource for writers in Los Angeles. There's a tremendous resource and I would read, you know, Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Any day where I felt like I was actually good I would read Paddy Chayefsky. [laughs] ‘Oh right, I’m a total hack’ and then I would go back to work. But too many to count. Especially the directors Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, William Friedkin, there are too many to name.
Sadie: Yeah, I can definitely sense with you just naming off those directors and Paddy Chayefsky, and I can see those influences in this anthology series. So, what inspired you to tell this story specifically?
Little Marvin: There was a few things that I was waking up to every morning and sort of opening my phone and seeing video after video of Black folks being terrorized in some way by the police, or surveils, or watched or harassed and I started to think about my own experiences with that kind of terror and with that gaze but also a history of that gaze that stretches all the way back to the dawn of this country. You know for Black folks, public spaces have been weaponized against Black folks since the dawn of this country. What I hadn't seen was the sort of tension between the public and the private, and that most private of spaces - the home. So, I wanted to focus on that and tell a terror tale but rooted in the homeownership story.
Sadie: You do an incredible job and layering in those different real-life issues, the turmoil and racism, mental illness, PTSD, and then you still find a way to balance it with this very tight-knit family and the love that they have. But also, you managed to keep us on the edge of our seats with the suspense, which is also really greatly handled especially in that pilot. I think it's very rare that you watch a pilot that you're like, ‘Okay I'm ready for the full ride.’ Was suspense initially on the page or was that something you created on set and through post while editing?
Little Marvin: Oh, yeah, it evolves. And I think it always begins on the page of course. But other people get involved right and then your dream of the thing becomes even bigger. I mean, that's what kept happening like I thought my dream was big, and then suddenly the actors walk in and you're like, ‘oh wait’ there's their dreams and their collective vision and how what they bring to it, and then you realize that you're actually writing the show as a showrunner, the thing I love about this job is that you're writing the show with every single thing you touch, right? So, it's like the casting, you're writing a piece of it, the costume design, I have to say, I have to call out Mari-An Ceo our costume designer and Tom Hammock our production designer, both brilliant and insanely gifted and crazy and like they would work in tandem, you know, so if you see a frame, where it looks like a dress and a piece of wallpaper kind of connect, it’s not by accident, we really sort of tried to write the show with every single frame. And then the edit is really just that next evolution, I think I enjoyed the edit process as much as a writing process because you get the opportunity to write the show again in the edit.
Sadie: I even have a note here about the costume design and the production design, it's very subtle, unless you're actually looking for it, but everything is so interconnected - I don't want to give away spoilers but for instance Vera’s dress, the collar is like a book.
Little Marvin: Did you notice that or were you told that?
Sadie: No, I noticed that.
Little Marvin: Yes! [laughs] By the way, that’s all Mari-An. I'm so glad you noticed that, it makes me so happy because Mari-An is insane and she would come up to me at the monitor and she's like, ‘Psst, there's a spoiler in that dress’ and I'm like, ‘What are you – go away!’ [laughs]. And then sure enough I would look at the dailies and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, she's not kidding, the print of that dress is a spoiler in the prints of that skirt in the color of that dress.’ Everywhere you look, there were spoilers and storytelling and it was so masterful but also subtle with what you're saying. And the fact that you saw it is just tremendous validation of her work and her eye.
Sadie: Little Marvin, this is like storytelling candy for us film geeks, so thank you.
Little Marvin: That means so much to me. I’m a geek too [laughs] so that means the most coming from a fellow geek.
Sadie: So, peeling back another layer – the music. I will never listen to The Wiz song “Home” the same way ever again.
Little Marvin: [laughs] Sorry about that.
Sadie: Was that initially also written on the page? Did you already have the songs picked out or is that something you worked on with your music supervisor?
Little Marvin: It was a mix of both. I mean, I do things that maybe you're not supposed to do, but I don't know what the rules are and by the way, there are no rules, let me just start there. But I certainly think that scripts are more than just suggestive, I think you're actually bringing someone into the world when you're on the page so if there is a piece of music I want to hear, I will not be afraid of writing it into the script because I think it gives the brain a feeling of texture and tone of what the world actually is. Now all screenwriters gonna read that and be like, ‘What the fuck is he saying?’ [laughs] ‘That’s not what you’re supposed to do!’ You know, take it with a bag of salt, but I will write in those things. The use of that song in particular, you know, I don't think most people would get this but the first 10 minutes of our show was so directly inspired by my love of the Wizard of Oz. In both cases it's a woman alone on a farm, with a terrier, sort of sepia colored world, who, after a run in with a wicked woman with some of the technical or dreamworld. And so that first 10 minutes of the show was really inspired by my love of Wizard of Oz and so it was no question to me that I would then take you know The Wiz and use that at the end of the pilot.
Sadie: I just love how you used each song as a storytelling device to juxtapose these emotional highs in a scene or each episode.
Little Marvin: I must call out Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, our intrepid and fantastic music supervisors. You know, it was a real collaboration, and it was also a discovery. I knew going in that I wanted to show to feel like a show about the 50s that we shot in the 70s, and so that affected the framing and affected the pace, affected the sort of methodical nature of it. What I hadn't really thought about was how that might affect the soundscape and also the music. And so in the edit there was a real sense of discovery. The fact that we actually got to take our soundscape and shred it through the 1970s as well, providing a tremendous, I mean just all the best music from the 60s and 70s.
Sadie: You definitely have a very poignant aesthetic running through the whole thing. I like how you never sway from it, even when you expect with modern-day storytelling that maybe you’ll hyper stylize on this one thing, I like how you seemed to keep it contained.
Little Marvin: Thank you for saying that, because I'm not sure ‘contained’ is how my DP would describe it [laughs]. I’m in love with diopters by the way, it's a Brian De Palma saying and I'm obsessed with him and so there was a moment where Checco [Varese] pulled me aside, he's like, ‘You know it's not cool when you use one in every shot.’ [laughs] And I’m like, ‘Oh, you're right. Yeah, we should pull it back.’ So, thank you for ‘contained’. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] On the directing side, exceptional cast by the way, specifically Melody Hurd, this kid can hold her own and the fact that you end the series on her, her look says it all. How were you able to communicate with her on set, especially during these really psychologically intense scenes without making her fearful of what she's getting into and still get these performances out of her?
Little Marvin: She is the ultimate pro, it's actually really eerie and scary for a child to be so like pro, naturally gifted but she is. You know, when you're writing, I'm sure you've heard this like screenwriters hear this, don't write children into lead roles and don't write animals. [laughs] But it wasn't really a question that Gracie wasn't going to be beating heart within the show. In walks Melody, and she has this tremendous ability for like really, really being in it, when she's in the scene, and then the minute the cameras stop rolling she's doing a TikTok video in the corner [laughs]. And I’m like, ‘I guess she didn’t feel that, I was so worried for her.’ So, she's just tremendously gifted and I have to call out all - Shahadi [Wright Joseph] and Ashley [Thomas] and Deborah [Ayorinde] and Alison Pill, I have to call them all out for just being tremendously fearless and amazing.
Sadie: Alison Pill, yeah, so great. The first note I wrote down while watching the pilot was, ‘There's nothing scarier than a bored housewife’.
Little Marvin: [laughs] I want that on a t-shirt.
Sadie: I really liked how you were able to tackle all of these issues, especially in LA. A lot of people who aren't from LA, may not know our past or really know we had these issues especially in areas like Compton or Inglewood or Hawthorne. There’s this historical context that we forget about, but you put it in a way that we could kind of digest it, maybe not quite comfortably, but I'm still thinking about it.
Little Marvin: I have to say it was a tremendous journey of discovery, even for myself you know I love history, I love particularly the history of Black folk in this country, and just immersing myself in our past, and I knew a lot about the Jim Crow South, I didn't know particularly a lot about what Black folks faced as they migrated to the cities of the East and the West and very much not at all what they experienced in Los Angeles. And it was an eye opener, an extremely sobering reality to realize that here were tactics that would have been quite at home in the Jim Crow South that were happening in these places you mentioned, and in Glendale, and Pacoima, and Hancock Park. You know, when Nat King Cole and his family moved into Hancock Park in ’48, they were subjected to much of the same terror that the Emory’s experienced. So that was definitely an enlightening and entirely sobering reality.
Sadie: This is your first show as a showrunner. What was the staffing process like for filling your first writers’ room?
Little Marvin: We were really just focused on finding folks who were rather fearless on the page and hyper intelligence, you know, there was this interesting combination of attributes, where they were able to deliver on the things that scared me. But they were also quite intelligent about it. I'm not a big fan of just sort of empty jump scares. I really like things that are kind of born out of the emotional and psychological, I think those things are infinitely terrifying. And so just finding folks that were able to deliver that feeling on the page was the ambition and we got a fantastic group of folks together to do it.
Sadie: What is your writing process like?
Little Marvin: A hot mess. What is it really like? It's like a lot of just sort of, ‘Oh my god, I can't do this’ until I do. [laughs] It's really, it. I mean, I think as all writers we’re terrified before we get to the page, and then, you know, with some elbow grease, we get to a place where you begin to remember why you do it and why you love it. And there's a joy to be found in that elbow grease, it's fleeting, [laughs] but it's there.
Sadie: Little Marvin, thank you so much for your time. Looking forward to what you do next.
Little Marvin: I’m so honored to be in [Script] magazine, so thanks.
Them is now available on Amazon Prime.