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Creating the Murder Mystery Comedy with 'Only Murders in the Building' Co-Creator and Showrunner John Hoffman

'Only Murders in the Building' co-creator, writer, and showrunner John Hoffman speaks with Script about collaborating with Steve Martin, creating character connections of an unlikely trio, creating a crime with a clear ending, and his personal connection to the world and so much more.

Following the shocking death of Arconia Board President Bunny Folger, Charles, Oliver & Mabel race to unmask her killer. However, three (unfortunate) complications ensue – the trio is publicly implicated in Bunny’s homicide, they are now the subjects of a competing podcast, and they have to deal with a bunch of New York neighbors who all think they committed murder.

There's been a smattering of true crime series programming across networks and streaming services - a majority adapted from a beloved true crime podcast, books to even newspaper articles. One would think with a television series title like Only Murders in the Building it too would be another true crime adaptation - alas it's not -  that's where the mind meld of great storytelling and writers come into play. This show harkens back to "old-school" mystery, thrills, and comedy all interlaced into a character-driven story about three unlikely heroes teaming up to solve a murder mystery in their upstate NYC apartment. 

It was with the greatest pleasure that I had the opportunity to speak with co-creator, writer, and showrunner John Hoffman about collaborating with Steve Martin, creating character connections of an unlikely trio, creating a crime with a clear ending, and his personal connection to the world and so much more.

[L-R] Steve Martin as Charles, Martin Short as Oliver, and Selena Gomez as Mabel in Only Murders in the Building. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu.

[L-R] Steve Martin as Charles, Martin Short as Oliver, and Selena Gomez as Mabel in Only Murders in the Building. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: This show definitely has it all where you have a fictional take on true crime but are definitely flipping it on its head, with twists and turns, humor, intrigue and the casting of these characters is spot on. What was the initial impetus for this story idea with Steve Martin?

John Hoffman

John Hoffman

John Hoffman: Well, it was his idea and it was a fairly clean, direct take that anyone could recognize as ‘that's a great idea.’ Three people, all obsessed with true crime all live in the same building and find this thing happening. And despite themselves, they are drawn to investigate. And then he had the characters themselves that made delightful sense, particularly for him and Marty. And then there was the sort of unexpected third member of the trio which we had to sort of investigate ourselves and devise and come up with. I think the whole thing, just to what you're saying, the challenge was to have it not feel familiar in the true crime genre. And also, that felt a little easier, because you just knew because Steve and Marty, were going to be funny, but we didn't want to make a spoof, we do want to make a parody, but we wanted to make something that connected. And an ongoing series where you could be drawn into three characters you care about and grow to love as they grow to care about and love each other; all of these things that feel connective and a show about connection out of isolation, and all of these sorts of themes that we were dancing around, set in New York, where classic meets modern. So you have two classic comedians meeting the most modern of young women, to then find an approach that off of Steve's brilliant idea, I just thought, ‘How many leaps can we take to make this feel more unexpected and more outside of what maybe people expect when they hear a murder mystery comedy?’ And Steve and Marty, and Selena, you have a picture I think in your head of what that show might be. And I was hoping to go a little deeper, and I was hoping people would allow us to go deeper.

[Setting a Thematic Anchor with ‘Dopesick’ Creator Danny Strong]

Dan Fogelman has done beautiful, deep work. And we had big discussions about the truth about true crime, and the sort of reverberations. I had been going through something personally in the year before this show landed in my lap, that was very profound in my life about a death of a friend, and a murder of a friend and I had investigated it myself for the last year before. And it changed me and so I was very palpably alive with the understanding of not belying the truths about what awful tragedy can do. And balancing that but also using that to imagine and understand that like, the best laughs you have are when you're at a funeral, or places you're not supposed to. The experiences you have around shocking moments can make you feel bonded to someone because you're sharing that moment. And you may not know them well, but it's something that imprints on you and it opens you up to be more vulnerable than you might otherwise be with people. It makes you fumble around and lose yourself and lose your cool in certain ways. So, all of these elements make to me, the kind of humanist comedy that I've always connected to the James Brooks’ or the Peter Bogdanovich’s What's Up Doc? the balancing of the ridiculous moment meeting the truthful core of a character that you understand clearly who wants something so badly they've stepped in a big way.

Sadie: They've definitely stepped into it in a big way. The character connection on this show is so key. This is a bit of a throwback, I don't know if it was intentional but that show Mystery that was on PBS and the opening animated titles –

John: Yes, beautiful animation!

Sadie: I sense that was perhaps a big inspiration for this show as well or basically, this show as a whole is that opening sequence. [laughs]

John: [laughs] That's so great! Yes, we looked at that as one of the models of how to do our opening credits too, and the animated sort of touch we brought to that. We thought OK, that mixed with the New Yorker covers mixed with a style that feels like, particularly urbane in that way that, you know, New Yorkers know in their bones and feels true to where we are in the Upper West Side. [laughs]

Sadie: I love it. Well, I'm glad you guys did that. In terms of the specificity of the murders and character motivation in setting up the plot points and twists, because it does feel like a real true crime story that you created - how much research was going into that prep?

John: A lot. And it's both research and the personal experience that I was having. Because I was fumbling around a bit. And kind of trusting my gut and my instincts on it that way when I was sort of doing this a year beforehand, but otherwise, the actual construction of the mystery, beyond just the fact that I like true crime in general, I'm not a crazy person about it [laughs] but I liked the idea. And the benefit you get from a true crime is you have the story. And then it's about puzzling it together or creating the order in which you lay out that story to get the biggest bang for your buck. And make people go, ‘Oh, my god, I didn't see it when it was there.’ So, that kind of thing gives you real benefits.

In this case, we had to come up with the crime, we had to come up with what really happened and all of the things around it that were also happening parallel and in the history of some of our characters, finding the connections for our trio. And the biggest task we realized was that we have to have this ending clearly, we have to know who killed and who, why, and how, and then backtrack and twist our way to that. So that we've hit it enough, but not belying the truth of what happened. That was interesting work and exhaustive, but we have really lovely smart writers on our team. And we worked in a Zoom room the whole time, which brought great focus and there was a good plan at the beginning, which is, I can't start a room without that because I just feel stupid. And I feel like I'm not servicing people when I'm like, ‘I don't know, let's come up with things,’ and there's a lot of silent moments. I have to give a lot and we can change it, and it can be bettered. But there has to be a landscape and a template and a foundation of a three-act structure for a season before the writer’s room opens for me. And hopefully a plan for the killer. In Season One, there wasn't. In season two there was. That was interesting but we quickly developed what was happening with the writer’s room around the murderer.

Only Murders In The Building. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu.

Only Murders In The Building. Photo by Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu.

Sadie: That’s amazing you did that all through Zoom because all I can picture is the writer's room covered in yarn and string and connecting to all these different things.

John: [laughs] No whiteboard! We didn't have a whiteboard. [laughs]

Sadie: But you guys did it, you’re like a group of magicians. In terms of you coming in with the blueprint of the show, did you also do a huge deep dive on the characters beforehand? Assuming that Steve had the three characters in mind, but also everyone in that building is a character, they all have a piece in this puzzle. And I just can only imagine how much you put into making these people come to life.

John: It's so fun. I mean, that's the thing. At the time, we got to make this show we were also isolated. I wasn't sure we could make the show. They kept on saying, ‘Yeah, we're gonna make it.' And I'm like, ‘Really? You realize what’s happening in the world?’ And the fact that we were making it, but then the fact that we could make it in New York with these incredible actors, the people that were drawn to do the show. And then I always wanted to make a show in New York and said that over and over again, that's the dream. But it was really drawn out of the actors there. The character actors, the people, I knew, I come from an acting background and theatre and everything else, and I know incredible, lovely people in the theater who have gone on to do amazing things. And then Steve and Marty have friends and Selena knows people - so it became this collection, a magnet drawing these incredible talents to the show. So that part of it felt just crazy. But we were always in the territory of if we're going to have an apartment building, you're going to have to have very singular characters with real grounded understanding of true New York. Because New York is not going to put up with it if you're going to fake it. We needed the New Yorkers to be behind the show. And so, I feel good about that. It feels like a genuinely New York show with a touch of romanticism about it, which I miss. And I want people and younger generations to feel that when they watch the show that New York is magical.

Sadie: It is and it's a character in itself. When putting your writer’s room together, what were you looking for specifically to round out this room and to bring to this very specific world?

John: I feel so lucky to have this room. And I feel lucky to be in this position with this group. To have an executive producer like Dan Fogelman, who is an authentic human being who recognizes human connection and relationships - what's funny about them, and what's poignant about them, and that coming from that place, and that's where I connect. We're all of like minds - being very messy humans. [laughs] And unafraid to share that. I feel the only writer’s room that works is when the most vulnerable sides of us are opened up. And that's where the comedy lives. That's where the best, most honest work comes from. And the recognition of human foible and desire and longing. That's all in the show. And it comes from a base of writers who recognize those things in the characters but also are bringing themselves in that way too. So, in many ways, you can feel it on the page when you're reading something that catches your eye like, ‘Oh my god, that's so specific and peculiar to this person who's writing,’ or you're recognizing something in yourself, and you see it in someone's writing. And you say, ‘Oh my god, they're calling me out.’ [laughs] So, there's those elements that seem to be sort of a trigger for me when someone's writing on a wavelength they love. And then you meet with people and you want kind people - I only work well when there's joy - we're very lucky to be able to do what we're doing. I've said it 1,000 times on this show, ‘If we're not having a blast doing the show, we're all idiots.’ It can only be that way.

It's sweet and it's a comedy, and it's full of heart. We all pour our hearts into it. And sometimes there are challenges and panics and things that happen. But at the bottom line, we're respectful, we're kind and we’re lovely people. And I love everyone involved with the show, basically, because we all kind of set that tone. That goes for Steve, Marty, and Selena as well, the way they work on set - they've said the same thing, ‘We only work well when we are happy.’

[Blending Tone and Texture from Page to Screen: An Interview with ‘The Great’ Creator Tony McNamara]

Sadie: Speaking of tone, you had a handful of wonderful director’s on the series, when you were looking for those creative minds, and for them to bring in their own vision to this world, what were you looking for from them to help elevate the storytelling on the screen?

John: That's right. I love the look of things and I love to invest in the look of things and having this opportunity with this show in New York and to make it feel like a fresh eye on it. And to have this sort of homage to our careers, to our stars, to the genre of murder mystery and all of that, but then a fresh comic take that gives it its own modern spin, hopefully on all of that. And these were the talks I had with our DP Chris Teague, who's absolutely unbelievable, our production designer Curt Beech, our costume designer Dana Covarrubias everyone involved was all on the same page about it. So, when it became time to talk with directors, I had worked with Jamie Babbitt on Looking for HBO many years ago, and we made an episode that we had written together and found a brother-sisterly kind of vibe there, which I loved. And she also has a great eye and an independent sort of cinema view. And I wanted it to feel cinematic. The other thing is Marty and Steve are friends with the giants in this business and I forget that every now and then [laughs] and then Marty will send an email saying, ‘I've just watched the first three episodes and Steven Spielberg is obsessed with the show,’ and I'm like, 'What?!' And he said the first thing out of his mouth was how cinematic it was and I'm like, 'What?! Steven Spielberg thinks it's cinematic, I can't even take it in.' [laughs] But it is what the intention was. And so directors with an eye, directors that you might not expect, potentially always just sort of hit that straight down the middle road comedy look that it feels evocative, that it feels compositionally interesting and then to always feel like the actors are rooted in reality, things can be insane, but as long as they are grounded, then we're heading in the sweet spot.

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Sadie: Tell us about your writing journey because I know you’ve had a career as an actor previously, but what inspired you to change your trajectory to become a writer?

John: I got cast in a bunch of bad things. [laughs] Not all that bad. When I was in theater, I was killing myself to get a part. And then I would get one, and it'd be like, ‘I don't want to invite anyone to this.’ [laughs] And then I came to LA and I got cast in a couple of shows, one saved my life and I loved everyone involved - it was a children's show on the Disney Channel - I have a ridiculous career, but all of it feeds into the show - there was that and then it was a series of other television shows, I just realized you're out of control of so much of what you're actually cast in as an actor. And I was always a storyteller right from when I was very young. That was my thing. When I was seven years old, I was a kid at Thanksgiving dinner who would be running the table with the next story, so my cousin tells me. [laughs] I did always know and understand the craft of storytelling, what would draw the laugh and what would draw the people leaning in, and how to shape that. The other thing that happened was I just began to realize I'm going to have if I want to give myself a good part, I'm going to have to write it. I ended up writing more stories that were not just portraits and not just monologues, but a story, and that led to more of that. And then a crazy ride of screenwriting for many, many years and very different experiences with very different genres. And then finally landed in television, it was Looking at HBO. I was resistant, and I was thinking I couldn't hit someone else's target. But that was an open room - lovely, dear friends I've made throughout that experience. And that launched me into a TV career that felt like, ‘Oh, OK, I can find my way here.’ And then this crazy experience, which I can't believe it still. 

Only Murders in the Building is available to stream only on Hulu.


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