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Finding Significance in Absurdity with 'Pam & Tommy' Showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis

Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis share their inherent creative attraction to true stories and characters, building out the show's writer's room, and making choices to humanize characters to make them multi-dimensional.

Set in the Wild West early days of the Internet, Pam & Tommy is based on the incredible true story of the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape. Stolen from the couple's home by a disgruntled contractor, the video went from underground bootleg-VHS curiosity to full-blown cultural obsession when it hit the web in 1997. A love story, crime caper, and cautionary tale rolled into one, the eight-part original series.

Nostalgic for most, Pam & Tommy isn't just about the outlandish titular characters, it's also about an undeniable transformative time for both pop culture and technology, and how those two intersect. I had the great honor of speaking with Robert SiegelPam & Tommy creator and co-showrunner, along with co-showrunner D.V. DeVincentis. The two share their inherent creative attraction to true stories and characters, building out their shows writer's room, and making choices to humanize characters to make them multi-dimensional. 

[L-R] Lily James as Pamela Anderson and Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee in Pam & Tommy. Photo by Erin Simkin/Hulu.

[L-R] Lily James as Pamela Anderson and Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee in Pam & Tommy. Photo by Erin Simkin/Hulu.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What was it about these two people, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, and this very specific moment in history speak that spoke to you both as writers?

Robert Siegel

Robert Siegel

Robert Siegel: It checks a lot of my personal boxes - I like stories that have really strong pop-cultural elements. Everything I write has something to do with music or media or America. It has to be something. It has to be something that I can treat very seriously, while it still manages to be entertaining and fun. So, I felt like this really had the bones of that. It's such an outrageous story, but there's such substance and depth to it. And I knew it was the kind of thing where you can play it very straight. And because of the situations and the people involved and what was happening, you would get your comedy and your fun while still kind of treating these people with sort of the respect and the seriousness that you want to, and that they deserve.

D.V. DeVincentis: I was reached out to because I have experience in this racket in terms of show running and making limited series, and I read Rob's pilot script, and I just loved it so much. And it really felt like something that I would want to write. And it felt like a kindred tone to what I do. Rob and I both, as Rob discussed in his way, we both share a sort of attraction to things that are sort of absurd, but are about something significant; an absurd situation in which significant things are dealt with. Rob and I got on the phone, and it was, for me, it was like an instant collaborative crush, and it was perfect. And it continued to be so, it's a really great mind-meld. And we were able to sort of create a tone in a story sense going forward from there, that was very much mutual and super gratifying and always fun.

Sadie: In terms of the putting writer's room together, were you looking for specific voices, tones, or perspectives?

Robert: Well, you certainly want to get different perspectives, and usually you don't want anybody who is too much like yourself. Most of it just comes down to reading 100 scripts - dislike 95 of them - and then of the five remaining, just take your best guess who feels like they're the best writer. [laughs] I'm always certain about who I don't want, and then what remains is a very small pool of people who might be what you do want, and then you kind of try to just look for clues in their writing.

D.V.: There's an alchemy that happens when you get these different people together in a room, as individuals, they change or they have a different effect than you thought they would when mixed in with other people. And so, it's always a surprise, whether or not it's a predictable surprise if you will. [laughs]

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Sadie: The research process behind all this. because you're hitting so many different layers, from how their story kind of changed the porn industry and the use of the internet. How much time was spent just on researching the bygone era before diving into the characters?

Robert: A fair amount, but not a crazy amount. I tend to research to a point where I feel like I have a good grasp of the material. There's a fine line between research and procrastination. We read the articles and we read Tommy's biography, and we read the obviously the original source material and some court transcripts and watched some documentaries.

D.V.: I think we had to do a lot of research, just to re-acclimate ourselves to the time period. What was possible at that time. The thing I always say, Rob's unfortunately heard me say this many times, but I would say, ‘I don't remember how you found a hotel room for a city you've never been to before the internet. I literally don't remember how you did that.’ But you did. So kind of reacclimating ourselves to what was possible and what wasn't possible in the time.

D.V. DeVincentis

D.V. DeVincentis

Robert: There were also countless mini rabbit holes you'd go down. You'd be writing a scene that revolved around popping in a Betamax tape, and suddenly spend a few hours in the world of Betamax or the San Fernando Valley porn world or the birth of the use of credit cards online. This show - there are 100s of just little mini-stories within it. So throughout, there were a lot of two-hour Wikipedia rabbit holes. [laughs]

Sadie: I really enjoyed that you guys give space to both Pam and Tommy’s individual perspectives. Why was that important to show that?

D.V.: Well, what they went through is incredibly human and incredibly upsetting and difficult and unfair. And the second you start exploring that, they just become more and more real. Even if you didn't know anything about them, you'd be able to as writers, you'd start to create something real to explore what happened to them.

Robert: And you got to make a choice, you're going to humanize them or demonize them and demonizing someone – it’s hard to go eight episodes, just hammering someone and portraying them as just a pure asshole. It's hard to make a multi-dimensional character unless you humanize them.

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Sadie: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the casting, I think the three leads, Seth Rogen, Lily James, and Sebastian Stan, hit out of the park as these people. Once that casting was put in place did you guys sit with them individually and have them focus on specific characterizations or have them bring something to the table that was a bit more unique for character development, especially since the general public doesn’t know these people in real life?

Robert: Definitely more the latter. And as the show goes on, they really start to take ownership. In a limited series, D.V., you've done more of these than I have, you feel like there's always a point where your actor, because you're focused on so many different things, and there's a point where that's all they're thinking about is their character and their character arc, they kind of know better than you do. And you start asking them questions.

D.V.: Yeah, I mean, Rob and I did an enormous amount of research about Pam, for instance. And then we started working with this woman, Lily James, who also did an enormous amount of research, but from a totally different approach and a totally different angle. And she really wound up turning over stuff that we hadn't found, and bringing, not only information, but a sort of take on it, and a point of view on it that we didn't have. It's hard to remember any time when she was ever wrong about anything, she was just right. And she became sort of our co-custodian of the character. And in a way, she always knew what was best.

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Sadie: When adapting a true story, is there an anchor you’re searching for in terms of character and story? What’s that connection and writing process like?

Robert: I don't worry too much about likability, I always start from what's interesting. What’s very very unique and specific about this person? And usually, the more specific you get, the more universal it becomes. I tend not to do heroes; I like underdogs, I like weirdos, I like obsessives. I like people on the margins just as a writer, you want to always bring a little bit of yourself to it. Actually, you don't even set out to do that, but it just kind of happens. Sometimes in retrospect, you'll look back and be like, ‘Oh my God, that's just like me. I was writing about my relationship with my father. I didn't even realize it.’ I kind of try to trust my subconscious.

D.V.: The main reason that I find it interesting to do a rendering of a true story, is if that true story of that real person says something about the world around them. And is that something that I'm interested in exploring and interrogating and investigating? In The People v. O.J. Simpson, the thing that was most interesting to me was the way it explored race relations in America the way it could at that moment, not just in the time period that the story took place. And in this case, it was really about what the internet did to the world, and what the internet did to privacy and to happiness, really, this thing that I think is supposed to make us happy, and it's supposed to deliver us the means to make ourselves happy, but it really takes a lot away from us as well. So, these three characters, and what happened between them absolutely served that exploration. So yeah, to me, that's the main value of exploring real stories. I can remember after The People v. O.J. Simpson, a lot of people would come up with ideas about what the next American crime story could be. And it was always stuff like the Menendez brothers or the girl who disappeared in Colorado, JonBenét Ramsey and you're like, yeah, those are poppy, well-known stories, but they don't really, or at least I don't understand what they can really say about the world around them. They're just terrible things that happened. And what happened to Pam and Tommy was a terrible thing, but it's absolutely about the world around it. 

Pam & Tommy is now streaming on Hulu.


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