Fosse/Vernon’s Joel Fields on how to wrestle with art made by terrible men

Much has been written about FX’s star-studded, ultra-glossy biographical miniseries Fosse/Verdon in praise of the luminaries in front of the camera — Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams, who lead an all-star cast as theater legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, respectively.

And almost as much has been written about the crew of modern theater legends behind the scenes, like producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and writerSteven Levenson.

But also shepherding this terrific miniseries is an old TV hand, who began consistently writing TV in the early 2000s — and very recently won an Emmy for it — but who has also written for the stage. Joel Fields was one of half of “the J’s,” the producing and showrunning team behind the ‘80s spy drama The Americans, which ended its six-season run in 2018 with a final season that brought Fields and his showrunning partner Joe Weisberg an Emmy for their script for the series finale. Despite its espionage-centric premise, that series was widely acclaimed as one of the best ever about marriage.

The two are working on whatever their next series together will be, but Fields simultaneously stepped in to guide another FX project about a troubled marriage where one of the participants (in this case, Bob Fosse) gets up to incredibly horrible things. And with his assistance, Fosse/Verdon has become a terrific series about why, culturally, we are so willing to forgive horrible men who create great art, and why Bob Fosse could use and abuse the women around him, yet see his sins excused because of the (admittedly amazing) work he created.

Fields is just the guy to dive into the thorny mess of questions prompted by Fosse/Verdon.(He did just finish up a show about the divide between good intentions and horrible outcomes, one where the two main characters disposed of a corpse by folding it up inside of a suitcase — complete with incredibly visceral bone-snapping sound effects.)

And since Fosse/Verdon has become one of my favorite new shows of the spring, I wanted to ask Fields about what the line is between writing about fictional bad people and real bad people, what role collaboration plays in art, and how the way we talk about art can obscure that collaboration.

Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows. We talked before I was able to see the finale, so our conversation only covers the season’s first seven episodes.


70th Emmy Awards - Show

Joel Fields reacts after his name is called at the Emmy Awards in September 2018.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Todd VanDerWerff

This is the obvious question that I have to get out of the way: When you look at these characters and you compare them to Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, where do you see the overlaps, and where do you say, “Okay, these are completely different people”?

Joel Fields

First of all, with the Jenningses, they’re travel agents, so that’s completely different than being show people. [Laughs.]

The base commonality is that we’re all human. In The Americans there is something subversive even about that notion of saying that these people were human because they were so much our enemy, or so we thought. For Bob and Gwen, I think the challenge of humanizing them is that they’re icons, and we see them as different. Part of the fun of the show has been writing them as, seeing them directed as, and seeing Sam and Michelle bring them to life as real people, who aren’t the icons we’re used to looking up to, but human beings like everybody else.

That’s been part of the fun of seeing Chita Rivera and Shirley MacLaine and some of these other big star characters who get to just be on the periphery because we’re following the lives of Bob, and Gwen, and [their daughter] Nicole. And even as we get to know Neil Simon and Paddy Chayefsky, we don’t get to know them as icons. We get to know Paddy as Bob’s best friend, and Neil as the husband of Gwen’s best friend. I hope there is something humanizing about that.

Todd VanDerWerff

On this show, you’re talking about people, especially Bob, who have done really terrible things, particularly when it comes to the many young women he mistreated and harassed. You were talking about people who have done terrible things on The Americans, but they were fictional, so there was that added layer of remove. How does the question of depicting bad things while not endorsing them change when you’re dealing with real people, as opposed to if you’re dealing with purely fictional creations like Philip and Elizabeth?

Joel Fields

Your question goes to the why now. It’s an interesting story, it’s a fascinating marriage, it’s exciting to see them do what they did, but why tell the story now? And your question to me really goes to the answer to that, which is this moment when we’re reconsidering the role of power in society and power in the creation of art, and particularly considering the perception of powerful men, and how they have used and abused that power over time. This is a chance to look at that and to ask the question, “Why is Bob Fosse remembered, but Gwen Verdon isn’t?”

I’m sitting in my office, and literally I am under a Can-Can poster that has been with me since day one of The Americans. I love Can-Can. It’s the show that made Gwen Verdon famous. But unless you’re a pretty serious theater geek, you don’t know about her extended standing ovation in the middle of that show, and you don’t know that when you’re looking at Bob Fosse’s work, in many ways you’re looking at her work.

So the dual question is: Why do we perceive these men to be the sole creators when so often there’s a team of people, or often there’s a woman standing so close behind them, just out of frame? And why were these men allowed to behave the way they did, and how was it accepted? Those are important questions to ask.

You do that by trying to be truthful — not trying to lay out every fact, because you can arrange a series of facts to tell any story you want, but to try to be truthful to who the characters were and to what they experienced.

That was challenging on this [show] because the story of their lives is very complicated, and the story of the genesis of their characters is complicated, and one wants to try to build it in as honest a way as possible without using the facts to explain away the behavior, but rather to try to pick the right way to tell the story that will provoke discussion about the behavior.


Fosse/Verdon

Nights on Broadway.
FX

Todd VanDerWerff

You bringing up the idea of how art is collaborative makes me think about how, with Gwen, we’re almost seeing her through three different spheres on this show. There’s the writers’ conception of her, the director’s conception, and then what Michelle Williams brings to the part, which is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on television. And it’s interesting to parse out the question of how those three separate lenses affect what we in the audience see.

Joel Fields

I’ll broaden the lens even further for you just for fun. In success, the hand of the artist doesn’t really show. So you’re looking at the brilliance of Michelle’s performance, or Sam’s performance, of course. They’re there, so you remember them. Maybe you think about the director, maybe you think about the showrunners or the writers because that’s what’s culturally cool to think about.

But how many times when you watch a show do you think about the costume design, and what that does to define the way you’re experiencing the characters? If you’re thinking about it, the costume designer hasn’t done a very good job, but if you’re not, then he or she has. The same with the production designer, and the same with the cinematographer, and every member of that lighting crew, and the post-production team, and the editor, and on, and on, and on.

We who work in television or theater know that anything we put out there is the work of an incredible team of artists collaborating. When it works well, we’re all rowing in the same direction, magic happens, and then a couple people get the credit, which we know is a lie.

Todd VanDerWerff

Yes! I have this scripted podcast I work on, and to me, I only see the flaws and then the ways our actors cover up those flaws. But when I read positive reviews of it, people are often, like, “Oh, the writers did this,” or “The writers did that,” and I’m always saying, “No, the actors saved our skins so many times!” And what that experience and Fosse/Verdon have made me think about is how the way we talk about art needs to change, but also how hard it is to change the way we talk about art.

Joel Fields

That’s right, because one cannot have an objective truth about art. First of all there is too much input in the system, and the system is too complex, so even if you’re there every moment, you have everybody’s different experience of things. What you can note, is that it’s a complex system. You can see a consistent throughline to any one person’s work. But that doesn’t mean each piece of work isn’t a collaboration. Really, what you may be learning about is the way that artist collaborates, and maybe there’s a unity to that.

Todd VanDerWerff

But when you, as a writer and a producer, when you see a moment like when Michelle is on the phone, pretending to have had throat surgery, so she can’t talk, and all she can do is rasp, and it ends up being so amazing, are you a little, like, “Our work here is done!”?

Joel Fields

Oh my God. It’s so beautiful. That episode was filled with so many scenes that one feels so incredibly safe writing for Tommy Kail to direct and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams to perform. There are often scenes that come out very differently than what is imagined, and you see an actor completely transform something, and then there are other times when an actor just sinks into what you’ve written in a way that’s so beautifully true. Either way you feel like you’re in safe hands with that kind of thing. We loved writing that scene, but boy, it was great to watch the dailies on that scene.

Todd VanDerWerff

I talked to you a lot while you worked on The Americans, and you were always bringing up the people at every level of that show where you trusted them and knew they were going to do great work. But when you only have eight episodes for something like Fosse/Verdon, how do you assemble that team you trust so quickly?

Joel Fields

Sometimes, you try to pick people you know, or you pick people whom other people you respect recommend. And you try to create an environment which allows people to do their best. For me that involves a combination of knowing exactly what direction you want to pursue creatively, all the while being very open to other collaborators having other points of view, or having different ways to get there.

It’s a funny thing. It’s like a big group marriage. You’ve got to navigate everybody’s personalities. On the one hand, you want to not lose yourself, but keep the very best essence to realize what you want to do together and be honest about that.

On the other hand, you also want to be open to the very best that other people have to offer and find ways to amplify it and protect it, and let it be in harmony with everybody else.


Fosse/Verdon

Bob Fosse, looking dapper.
FX

Todd VanDerWerff

What fascinates me about Sam’s work as Bob, especially in episodes six and seven, is how he really blurs the lines between Bob’s personal pain, his desire to create something great, and his vindictiveness toward other people that he can’t always explain.

That’s really true in episode seven, where he’s creating all these great moments from Chicago, but he’s stomping all over Gwen to get there, and you’re never sure how much of that is his commitment to his vision and how much of it is he’s just pissed off at Gwen.

But there’s also a tension in examining without celebrating the idea of what happens when you have a single-minded creative person who won’t collaborate on some level. Even if they’re a jerk, that’s not illegal, but it’s not great for a working environment.

Joel Fields

It’s also not necessary. I think it’s notable that Neil Simon was Bob Fosse’s best friend, and that they met on a show but then Neil absolutely refused to work with him again because he said “I want to stay friends.” Paddy Chayefsky absolutely refused to work with him because he wanted to stay friends. One can say all one wants that “you have to be crazy to be a genius,” but that wasn’t true of Neil Simon, apparently.

It’s very easy to use those things as excuses for bad behavior, but in my experience they’re really not connected. I think again in terms of the moment in time in which we’re living, that’s a valuable lesson and it’s an important one to remember. There’s just nothing that says you have to be a bad actor in order to get results.

It says something about Sam’s performance, because Sam and Michelle have worked together so beautifully. It’s been such a pleasure to start by sitting with them in a conference room and reading some scenes and generally talking about it, and then watching them sink into these characters.

Michelle’s performance — that character is so big it just comes at you with everything it’s got from the first frame. Sam, the way he’s chosen to play Bob, it’s a much slower burn. I love that the fact you’re really feeling the heat in six and seven, as it were. The fact he has been courageous enough to go as an actor to a place where you don’t know whether to love him or hate him; you don’t know whether it’s from insecurity or certitude; you don’t know whether it’s because he desperately needs another success, or because he believes in something artistic and he’s being manipulative, or because he’s just being a vindictive SOB.

Probably the truth is all of those things at once, and Bob probably can’t even know for sure. I just don’t even know how to quantify the degree of difficulty that must be for an actor, but Sam delivers.

Todd VanDerWerff

Has this project given you a better sense of where our cultural desire to elevate or celebrate assholes who create great art comes from?

Joel Fields

I’m not sure that’s a question for me to answer beyond what we’ve all done together in this collaboration on this show, but obviously, we’re a society obsessed with celebrity.

What’s interesting is we used to be obsessed with celebrity, but [having] character was a very important part of it, and it seems somewhere along the way we even gave up the notion that character was an important part of what we held as important and valuable about celebrity. Really it was just celebrity for its own sake. To me it then becomes chicken and the egg.

I think it’s unfortunate because it’s not accurate in terms of how art is made as we discussed, and I don’t think those are the right values to celebrate, and I mean that quite literally. I don’t think they’re valuable. I know celebrities, and I know people with lots of money, and it’s a cliché to say these things don’t make you happy, and it’s a cliché because it’s true, and yet we all on some level hunger for that illusion.

Todd VanDerWerff

I mean I would love more money, It’d be great!

Joel Fields

Would it?

Todd VanDerWerff

I could get nicer stuff, but what would that accomplish? Ultimately.

Joel Fields

Are you familiar with the principal of hedonic adaptation? [The idea that humans have a roughly stable level of happiness to which we return after brief spikes or troughs after major good or bad events in our lives, suggesting we forever pursue a happiness that we can’t actually achieve. See also: advertising.]

Todd VanDerWerff

Yeah.

Joel Fields

Well. So there you go. That’s probably what would happen.

Todd VanDerWerff

I mean absolutely. Definitely. 100 percent.

Joel Fields

That didn’t take long. See? Hedonic adaptation!

Todd VanDerWerff

I thought about it for five seconds and was like “Yep! Okay.”

Joel Fields

You didn’t even have to buy the stuff! Think of what I just saved you!


Fosse/Verdon

Michelle Williams is tremendous in Fosse/Verdon.
Michael Parmelee Photography/FX

Todd VanDerWerff

You’ve talked a lot about when you knew Keri [Russell] and Matthew [Rhys] were gonna click on The Americans. When did you see that happening with Sam and Michelle? And when did it start to be exciting to see them inhabiting these legendary figures?

Joel Fields

I’m going to give you a little background. Sam Rockwell, as a theater geek, I met him when a play of mine — I think it was How I Fell in Love was at the Williamstown Theatre Festival [in 2011], and Sam was doing [the 1973 Lanford Wilson play] The Hot L Baltimore at the festival at the same time. When you do the Williamstown Theatre Festival generally, they take an empty frat house and they put a bunch of actors, writers, directors in the house for the period when you’re doing the play. I was in the house with Sam, and a bunch of other people. He was awesome and fun and did an amazing Elvis impression and we said goodbye, and I had not seen him until I ran into him again at our first meeting on Fosse/Verdon.

Michelle, I had never met, but I had watched her career and seen her incredible performances over the years, so I had a lot of confidence that both of these people were extraordinary actors who could do right by the roles.

There were some wonderful discussions before we started shooting, but the moment for me was really the moment we started shooting, and we were on that beach [from the first episode], way on the tip of Long Island on the beach shooting. I had been talking to them and reading through scenes for quite some time, and suddenly Sam and Michelle were gone. Bob and Gwen were there. There they were, having one of the biggest fights of their married lives. It was just magic, and boy it just didn’t stop being magic.

Fosse/Verdon is available in full on FX’s streaming platforms.