Jury Duty: Cody Heller, Todd Schulman on Reality-Comedy Hybrid

Jury Duty executive producers Cody Heller and Todd Schulman spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the hybrid series back in late March.

First and foremost, my apologies for not getting this interview up in a timely manner. If you’ve had a chance to watch Jury Duty on Amazon Freevee, showrunner Cody Heller walk us through their fears in running a series with so many moving parts. Heller discusses of the challenges of working on the hybrid series, including the props department having to rush to make IDs for the characters at the last minute.

Everything about the series is fake–including the judge portrayed by Alan Barinholtz, the father of both Ike and Jon Barinholtz. The lawyers and the court case are fake. The only person who doesn’t realize that the it’s all fake is solar contractor Ronald Gladden. But as Heller tells us, there were times when Gladden thought he was on a reality show. Heller says that the crew told her that Gladden was using as a term rather than believing it himself at time. But weeks after filming ended and he learned the news, it took some time to digest that he was on a reality-comedy series.

Produced by Amazon Studios, this genre-bending, multi-camera comedy consists of eight episodes. The series is executive produced by David Bernad, Lee Eisenberg, Ruben Fleischer, Nicholas Hatton, Cody Heller, Todd Schulman, Gene Stupnitsky, Jake Szymanski, and Andrew Weinberg. Eisenberg and Stupnitsky co-created the series, Heller serves as showrunner, and Szymanski directs.

All episodes of Jury Duty are streaming on Amazon Freevee.

It’s so nice to meet you. How’s it going this afternoon?

Cody Heller: Good. It’s so nice to meet you. Thanks for doing this.

Todd Schulman: Yeah.

What was the genesis behind Jury Duty?

Todd Schulman: David Burnad, another producer, and I had been friends for a long time. He had worked on Bad Trip, the Eric Andre film. I had been working with Sacha Baron Cohen for a long time. We had talked about wanting to do something in the reality-comedy space but obviously, those two guys are singular talents so trying to figure out ways to do it that didn’t maybe require an individual to carry the load. We started playing around with the idea of ensemble comedies that could kind of live in the reality world and we’re going back and forth. I said, What about if we do a jury? That’s 12 people that are a diverse group of people and could be a fun kind of setting for a show like that. He loved that and we kind of took it from there. The way we just talked about it, we wanted it to feel like an ensemble comedy, like The Office. He was very friendly with Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky so he reached out to them. It turned out they were already had written something that was set in the world of jury trials. We were like, well, this is too perfect. We kind of merged these two projects into one and then needed to find a great show runner. Luckily enough, we landed with Cody and were off and running.

The cast of Jury Duty
The cast of Jury Duty. Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.

What were some of the biggest challenges during production?

Cody Heller: There are so, so many. Every single little detail that you would never even think to think of came up at some point. I think the main challenge was, let’s get this guy to believe that this is all actually happening. We had what we would refer to as the reality bank. That essentially meant that every day, we had to have several hours, at least, of really, essentially nothing but boring court business going on so that it wasn’t obvious to Ronald—he’s a very intelligent guy—so that it wouldn’t give away, okay, this is obviously not really a court case.

It was a lot of having to sit through hours and hours of just boring stuff in order to earn that one really funny bit at the end of the day or a thing that’s going to happen at lunch that we got to prepare for. Just pivoting—really being able to be agile and having trust amongst the cast and crew. Any person could blow the whole thing at any moment so it was really building this team, this family, of people who were so incredible—all these incredible improv actors, these incredible writers, all the crew.

One of the scariest things for me was as the show runner, I know very little about the law. I wanted to make sure that we had at least one lawyer who—ideally, I wanted to find a former lawyer who had become a comedy writer, and we happened to find one. Hs name is Evan Williams and he plays the defense attorney. He was amazing and an amazing find. I tried to staff the writers room with as many people that I also knew were performers with the hopes that down the line, when we were actually into production, that as many of the writers could also be the actors so that everyone was a part of the conversation from as early as possible, because it was so many moving pieces at any given moment.

We got really lucky in that Susie Farris did such an incredible job casting these incredible talents. The other thing to that was, we needed these incredibly talented improvisers and a lot of them because there’s 14 people on the jury, plus the all the legal people. With the exception of James Marsden, obviously, he’s playing himself, we needed these incredibly talented funny and who are able to improvise exceptionally well. We needed to find these talented people. However, they couldn’t be famous enough that Ronald would recognize them. That was a huge thing was finding all these amazing, talented people who aren’t famous enough that he would immediately recognize them.

Every day, we would have to make a ton of changes on the fly and just be ready to—for example, this was just one random thing that popped into my head. When he’s staying at the hotel with four of the other actors, they’re really staying at the hotel and they all have to pretend that they don’t have their phones because they’re sequestered. One day over the weekend, they went out for drinks. We had the PAs as bailiffs and we had a whole system and everything was always—we’re constantly overseeing everything, even on the weekends. They all went out for drinks and we realized that the last minute, oh my G-d, the actors don’t have IDs with their character names on them. Props had to rush, make these fake IDs, bring them to the bar, hand it to them, and that—all these little things that you wouldn’t think about. But then in the moment, you’re like, Well, what if he catches a glimpse of their ID and sees the their name is different, and he’s gonna know immediately. It was a lot of that, which is fun, because it keeps you on your toes. This was truly the most collaborative show I’ve ever worked on because it wouldn’t have been possible without every single person who participated. And yeah, sorry, I’m rambling now.

Ronald Gladden and James Marsden star in Jury Duty
Ronald Gladden and James Marsden star in Jury Duty. Courtesy of Amazon Freevee.

When you have a name actor such as James Marsden in the show and then the jury is sequestered during the trial, how do you deal with that?

Cody Heller: We had a bunch of realities within realities. It’s explained in the show but we made it seem like since the sequester was such short notice, we had to split the group up into two hotels. The actors that were willing to stay at the hotel with him were with him. The other half or so of the actors actually just went home every night, but they would leave in a van so that he would think they were going to their hotel. We added this little fun thing of James having hired a private bailiff so he’s staying at home with his private bailiff, who by the way, is played by our line producer, Matt McIntyre. A lot of times when you see the bailiffs, they’re actually crew members except for Nikki, who is such a superstar, who plays the main bailiff.

Were there times when it felt like Ronald Gladden was going to figure out something was up?

Cody Heller: Because I’m inexperienced in this particular world of this particular genre—I’ve never done hybrid stuff or doc stuff. I’ve only done just regular comedy—there were moments when I was in the control room, there was a moment where he says, like, this is a fucking reality show. This feels like a fucking reality show. My heart broke. I was like, Oh, my G-d, he knows, he knows! Everyone was like, no, he doesn’t. He’s using that as a turn of phrase to mean a lot of crazy stuff is happening and they were right. It’s one thing for him to be like, something’s up and this feels like something’s weird. He would never guess the actual reality, which is that he’s the only real person and everyone else is an actor and everything is fake. He never caught on at all to that. There were moments when he thought this is crazy, but I don’t think he ever thought. I think I panicked a lot of moments just because it was so much at stake. But ultimately, he really did go along for the ride and definitely was like, This is so crazy. I’m keeping a diary—so much crazy shit has happened. He believed that it was just real. Once we reveal the truth to him, it took him several weeks to sort of truly digest what had happened because there was at one point where he was like, But wait, the court case was still real, right? Because we’re shooting in a real courthouse so it feels very real. We’re like, no, no, no, everything is fake.

Todd Schulman: I was gonna say I’ve been doing this for a long time. Maybe the thing I’ve learned more than anything else is that reality is a very sturdy construct for people. No matter what happens to people, they are going to find a way to make it fit within the reality they think they’re living in. You can do anything, basically and as long as you tether it to some loose form of reality, people are going to want to believe that it’s all real and happening and not that they’re part of some Truman Show—esque experiment because the level of narcissism that requires is not something most people possess. Yeah.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Since you all have worked with Sacha Baron Cohen in the past, what is the biggest thing you’ve learned from his projects that you brought over to this one?

Todd Schulman: People will often think because there’s not a script, that it requires less preparation, like, Oh, we don’t have a script so we’ll just be loose and let it go, whatever. The inverse is actually true. The less control you have over a situation because one of the participants or more is not looped into what you’re doing, the more you need to be prepared, the more you need to have contingency plans, the more work everyone involved needs to do to be ready. Because if you don’t, that’s when you end up in some really hairy situations where you’re not in control anymore.

Thank you so much.

Cody Heller: Thank you.

Todd Schulman: Thank you so much.

All episodes of Jury Duty are streaming on Amazon Freevee.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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