Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz On His Career

The TV producer and writer talks about Arrested Development, the series he created. Hurwitz has won three Emmy awards for his work.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

Now, a surprise holiday gift for me and for you. I have to tell you, I'm very excited about this. Here's the story. About a month ago, Talk of the Nation asked me to host on Christmas day and the staff came up with an idea. They told me to give them a list of 10 people I most want to interview. And then they said they would book one of those people as a surprise guest for this segment of the show. So, I gave them my list, they checked it twice, and now I understand someone from that list is on the line. Hello.

Mr. MITCH HURWITZ (TV Producer and Writer): Ari, can I come out of the box? I've been crouched in this all morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Who is this?

Mr. HURWITZ: This is Mitch Hurwitz.

SHAPIRO: Mitch Hurwitz. Ahh.

(Soundbite of "Arrested Development")

Mr. RON HOWARD: (Voice Over) Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOWARD: (Voice Over) It's "Arrested Development."

SHAPIRO: Our producers craftily planted the music to "Arrested Development" there. The TV show...

Mr. HURWITZ: No, that's my ring tone.

SHAPIRO: That's your ring tone?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURWITZ: See, that comes with me everywhere I go.

SHAPIRO: Much like one of the characters in the show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: OK. So, Mitch Hurwitz, creator of "The Arrested Development" TV show and now...

Mr. HURWITZ: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: The movie that's in production.

Mr. HURWITZ: What have you heard?

SHAPIRO: I've heard that you're writing one. Is it true?

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, yes. I mean, that's a far cry from production, but yes.

SHAPIRO: Oh, I don't know the movie business. I used the term production for everything.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's - I'll take it. My long-time writing partner Jim Vallely and I are working on a story right now with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, imagine.

SHAPIRO: Ron Howard, he was very involved.

Mr. HURWITZ: And hopefully we'll have some sort of Christmas miracle for you soon.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Ron Howard was very involved with the show. He was the narrator and he helped.

Mr. HURWITZ: Very involved and he played the role of Tobias. A lot of people don't realize.

SHAPIRO: Oh, of course.

Mr. HURWITZ: No, that's not true actually.

SHAPIRO: No, I thought I was totally off base but since you told me I accepted it as true.

Mr. HURWITZ: He was that narrator. Yes.

SHAPIRO: So, how is the script coming along?

Mr. HURWITZ: Ah, it's coming along all right. You know, I mean, I have to say we've been basing a lot of, you know, we have a Buster-Lucille to relationship that's the Liza Minnelli character.

SHAPIRO: Lucille oh too write Liza Minnelli, yeah. Coming off of her run a Broadway.

Mr. HURWITZ: And we are basing a lot of that on the, Ari Shapiro-Nina Totenberg dynamic. And I hope that's not...

SHAPIRO: Are you really?

Mr. HURWITZ: I hope that's not - I hope that's not uncomfortable.

SHAPIRO: Listen, you're welcome to shadow us for as long as you'd like.

Mr. HURWITZ: OK, great.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And much like Lucille too, Nina Totenberg has a fabulous fur coat.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, she does, really?

SHAPIRO: Oh, you know, you really need to come do some research.

Mr. HURWITZ: She's a keeper...

SHAPIRO: Absolutely.

Mr. HURWITZ: Really?

SHAPIRO: For listeners who might not be aware, I was once Nina Totenberg's intern and she remains my mentor and good friend to this day.

Mr. HURWITZ: Yes. I actually saw that on Wikipedia. I have done my research.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you. Now, can you give us any insight into whether this movie is going to pick up where the TV show left off, or whether it'll be 10 years down the road or a prequel, what's going to happen?

Mr. HURWITZ: We really - we have so many ideas we're playing with and like all these "Arrested Development's" stories for those people who don't know the show which is I would think most of your audience. I'm thinking probably like 90 percent of your audience.

SHAPIRO: I know you know NPR listeners are very sophisticated bunch. I'm betting there's a higher percentage of "Arrested Development" viewers.

Mr. HURWITZ: Yes. No, I agree but they don't have TVs I understand.

SHAPIRO: Oh, some of them. The - only the most loyal ones.

Mr. HURWITZ: Yeah. They just listen to NPR is what I heard. But, if was a very intertwined show. You know, the plots tend to intertwine and usually just pieces of them alone don't make much story - you know, much sense. But, we do have some fun ideas and we have talked about the idea of perhaps doing a film within the film of what happens to this family as Ron Howard and his cohorts start making a film about them.

SHAPIRO: Uh-huh.

Mr. HURWITZ: Which would lead to, you know, all these kinds of tautologies like - and Jason Bateman as Michael Blues(ph) and Greg Kinnear as Jason Bateman. So we're playing with idea.

SHAPIRO: It's very "Being John Malkovich".

Mr. HURWITZ: Yeah, that's right. Very, very Harold Pinter hopefully.

SHAPIRO: Oh, sad.

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, talk about a Pinter story. President Bush reversing a pardon.

SHAPIRO: No, we're here to talk about you and "Arrested Development", and on that point I want to tell listeners that they too can talk to you, I don't mean to hog this entire segment. The number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK.

Mr HURWITZ: That's my home number.

SHAPIRO: The email - that's your home number, perfect. That's the ringing we hear in the background - talk@npr.org. If you want to talk to Mitch Hurwitz about "Arrested Development," the TV show.

Mr. HURWITZ: Or to Ari Shapiro about his wonderful character entourage, which I think we've all just enjoyed so much.

SHAPIRO: You know, he's the number one reason that I'm not in the crossword puzzle as often as often as I might be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURWITZ: That's right. Very good, not bad.

SHAPIRO: OK. So most of your experience has been in TV, what it's like shifting gears to creating a movie?

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, it is actually a very different process. Actually, television - the immediacy of television has always worked for a procrastinator such as myself. There's a deadline. We got to the point on Arrested where the trucks would be pulling up to shoot the morning scene and we'd be finishing that scene.

SHAPIRO: Finishing writing it.

Mr. HURWITZ: Even our die hard - yes, finishing writing it. And even our die hard supportive cast would start saying things to me like, you know, it really is irresponsible the way you handle the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURWITZ: So now, you know, I'll look way ahead.

SHAPIRO: So with the movie - I mean, when you're structuring a script and a story, the 21 or 27 or however many minutes it was of each "Arrested Development" episode were so knotted. When you've got two hours to work with, does it change that?

Mr. HURWITZ: You know, if I they talk slower. You know, I think we will actually. It will give us some time to expand and to - you know, the stories we're always so tied together and all the elements - there are many elements that got cut out of any given episode. And I really kind of labor to have every character have some dynamic with another character. So, I - you know, we're not that far into the process, but I imagine it will just be a larger tapestry, hopefully.

SHAPIRO: Well, and tapestry suggests threads that connect and connect and connect. Are people going to have to - maybe too early to ask you this question, but are people going to have to have watched the series?

Mr. HURWITZ: They haven't. So why would they start now? I guess, would be my response.

SHAPIRO: You're not still bitter about this, are you?

Mr. HURWITZ: Does it sound like I'm bitter?

SHAPIRO: It was such a good show. Listen.

Mr. HURWITZ: I mean, I saw a tapestry for Gods sake.

SHAPIRO: I have to confess I watched the tapestry on DVD. I'm one of the reasons the show didn't find the following in live television and I regret that. I wish it had gone on for seasons and seasons and seasons.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's very nice to say. Well, I have to say we really - you know, it was a real privilege to make the show. If I sound bitter, it's only to get a laugh but it really was a privilege to get to make that a very special show. And I really always felt like there were fans out there that were connecting with it and that would find it later. We kind of knew we were doing something that was perhaps a bit too dense to take in all at once. And that's typically not what people come to television for, myself included. You don't really go to watch TV, to watch something that really calls upon you to pay attention. Although, I did with Sopranos. I loved that.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Mr. HURWITZ: But the rest of my TV watching is - you know, it's not bad.

SHAPIRO: And when you have the opportunity to go to a network like HBO or Showtime, it ended up not happening.

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, actually, it was a little more complicated because we had an opportunity to go to Showtime, but it was at a smaller budget. And it would have meant a less cast and there were just certain things in it that felt like, well, maybe the show should live on in another way.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, like a movie.

Mr. HURWITZ: Back as a movie or a series of you know, one a day vitamins, something like that.

SHAPIRO: I'd take all of them.

Mr. HURWITZ: I think it would work great as a series of vitamins.

SHAPIRO: You could have a different characters' face on each one.

Mr. HURWITZ: That's what I was thinking.

SHAPIRO: And the Lucille one would taste terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: What echoes do you see this having in TV today because when I watch a show like "30 Rock," I definitely feel like I'm watching a relative of "Arrested Development."

Mr. HURWITZ: Well that's very nice of you to say. I'm a giant fan of that show. "30 Rock" is the one with the guy named Earl who makes a manshunt for people's lives.

SHAPIRO: Close, close, it's the one with Sarah Palin.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, with Sarah Palin. Right. Oh, she's very funny. Listen that - I feel like we're part of the same wave perhaps as that. I don't know that we're - that it grew out of us necessarily but certainly, it's the kind of humor that we really - there were a lot of us on that show that really enjoyed doing, and that people seemed to be finding a little bit now.

SHAPIRO: OK. I'm going to share this conversation with one of our callers, because it's Christmas, the season of giving. So, Howard from Boise, Idaho.

Mr. HURWITZ: Howard.

HOWARD (Caller): Yeah, hi. Happy holidays to you. Thanks for having me on the air. I want - well, first off, I just wanted to say, I worship "Arrested Development" and I'm a NPR listener as well. So I'm the one demographic here that you're looking for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's fantastic.

HOWARD: But my question is...

Mr. HURWITZ: Did you get a TV and some sort of radio giveaway? Or how did you come across?

HOWARD: What I wanted to ask is in my observations, the only thing that's come as close to your reference, the tapestry of "Arrested Development." The only thing that I've seen that layers in multiple jokes so quickly and demands your attention is like "The Simpsons" or the "Family Guy." You know, these animated things that, you know, allow for that, where you know, they can do something visual as well as the voiceovers. But "Arrested Development" is the only thing that's as - sharpened as quick and demands that - and I've never seen any other live action comedy that even comes close. And I wanted to ask you, what is it that allows, you know, the writing of "Arrested Development" to do that, where I've only ever seen cartoons do that?

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, it's interesting you say that because we - it was one of the models in a way. I mean, that I used to…

SHAPIRO: "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy"?

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, "Family Guy" came on later for me. But certainly, "The Simpsons" was - and the "Family Guy" is doing that now. But "The Simpsons" somehow created this reality where they didn't really break the wall and they were very, very dense with their stuff. And every sign in the background was funny and the addresses were funny, and the phone numbers were funny, and the couch was funny. I mean, they just looked for it everywhere. And I think we were the beneficiaries of the fact that the technology had changed to a certain extent. So when we did the show with HD cameras, HD video cameras, which - it hadn't been a lot comedies that had done that. A show like "Malcolm in the Middle," they really did need those scripts a month in advance and they would have cranes and they would elaborately set up their shots. Whereas we would get to a location at eight o'clock and we'd be shooting at 8:15. And we used that savings and time to have multiple sets to go a lot of places, to be really gorilla about it, and just to take advantage of every single opportunity. I mean, I think comedy works best when you get rehearsal time. I think that's kind of - in a way, that's the big difference between film and television. In movies, you get to run a scene a lot of times. And if you look it like a TV movie, sometimes they're not as good because they only get two shots at it. So we would be able to do a scene 14 or 15 times. And everybody on the cast was funny. We had a hilarious writing staff and we were just always looking for more and more comedy.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Howard.

HOWARD: Hey, thank you.

Mr. HURWITZ: Thanks, Howard.

SHAPIRO: Mitch, it's funny you should that because one of the things that I think made the rest of development so appealing was that it seemed off the cuff and improvised.

Mr. HURWITZ: That's right.

SHAPIRO: Even though you're doing scenes 14, 15 times.

Mr. HURWITZ: Yeah, it's funny. If everything grows out of something else, that was a result of Larry Sanders, which to me, was a revelation when I saw that show. It looked...

SHAPIRO: "Curb your enthusiasm."

Mr. HURWITZ: And Curb, of course, came after that, you know. But - and that is improv'ed(ph) you know.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

Mr. HURWITZ: We weren't improvised because we were on broadcast television and unlike Curb where they can deliver a show at 29 minutes long. We were doing eight stories and we had 20 minutes and 45 seconds. So actually, it was very, very tightly scripted. But I think it was the benefit of being able to run it a few times and get comfortable with it and just naturally funny people that would add things, little fill greys around the edges that would allow us to give - have that look and style.

SHAPIRO: We're talking with Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of "Arrested Development." And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to another caller. This is Elisa in San Francisco. Hi, Elisa.

ELISA (Caller): Hello.

SHAPIRO: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead.

Mr. HURWITZ: Hi, Elisa.

SHAPIRO: Elisa, are you there? Nope. OK. Well, let's take another caller.

Mr. HURWITZ: I have that effect on people.

SHAPIRO: I tend, too, as well. This is Molly from Portland, Oregon. Hi, Molly.

MOLLY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, don't hang up. Oh, Molly.

SHAPIRO: Molly.

MOLLY: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Yes, we're fine. Go ahead.

MOLLY: Hi. I had a question for Mitch.

Mr. HURWITZ: Sure.

MOLLY: Is there anything that die hard "Arrested Development" supporters can do to make sure that that movie does go into production out of the writing?

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's - if you have a plot line or a script...

SHAPIRO: Wait, is this something we should worry about? Is it not a done deal?

Mr. HURWITZ: Well, actually the next step - we do have a deal with Fox Searchlight to make a movie, but we don't - I'm waiting to get the cast on board before I start writing. It's an unusual project that way.

SHAPIRO: How many of the cast members are on board?

Mr. HURWITZ: I think most of them are...

SHAPIRO: Name names, Mitch.

Mr. HURWITZ: Name names? We have John Beard and Carl Weathers who have said yes.

SHAPIRO: And Liza Minnelli. Great.

Mr. HURWITZ: No. Liza's on the fence.

SHAPIRO: Liza's on the fence.

MOLLY: It's very important that we have George Michael.

SHAPIRO: Michael Cera.

Mr. HURWITZ: I would think that George Michael would be an important element of this because he is the heart of the show and I know he's also, you know...

SHAPIRO: And we should just say...

Mr. HURWITZ: He's a young man and he's going forward with his career, and I'm sure things are happening very fast for him, and he probably is not very eager to make a quick commitment to something.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. We should say for people who not - who may not be die hard fans of the show, that Michael Cera played Jason Bateman's son on the show and "Arrested Development" was sort of his big...

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's Michael Cera. OK, no. He's fine.

SHAPIRO: Oh, good, good.

Mr. HURWITZ: I'm sorry, I was picturing the guy with the somewhat balding head and...

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah. Would that be you? No.

Mr. HURWITZ: Is that me?

SHAPIRO: No.

Mr. HURWITZ: Let me get near a mirror.

SHAPIRO: Elisa, thank you for the call. Oh, Molly. That was Molly.

Mr. HURWITZ: Molly.

MOLLY: It was. Thank you for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: OK, thanks.

Mr. HURWITZ: Thanks for not hanging up, Molly.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go back to Elisa.

Mr. HURWITZ: She's great.

SHAPIRO: Hopefully, she hasn't hung up this time. Hi, Elisa.

ELISA: Hi.

Mr. HURWITZ: Hi, Elisa.

SHAPIRO: Shoot.

ELISA: Can you hear me?

SHAPIRO: Yes.

ELISA: Yes. We love the show - the whole family. We have the DVD and we watch it and just howl.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, that's great.

ELISA: We watched it when it was on faithfully and we listen to NPR and it's so great.

Mr. HURWITZ: That's so encouraging to hear. I mean, we did the show in such a vacuum without any kind of response from an audience. I really can't tell you how gratifying it is for all of us - the writers and the cast and the directors, everybody - that people are saying things like that.

SHAPIRO: But there's still this die hard online following with quotes and quotes and quotes from the show that people love to rehash.

ELISA: Oh, quotes. The quotes are amazing.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, Elisa, what's your question for Mitch?

ELISA: So the question is - and we have been hearing about the movie and we're so excited. And that is are you going to be able to get all the same actors because I know Jason Bateman has gotten pretty popular in movies and everything. But will everyone come back?

Mr. HURWITZ: I think - I hope they will. I mean, it's - you know, it is a family reunion, so we've got to have everybody there at least just, you know, there to stop by during dinner.

ELISA: I'm sorry. My family just said that you were just talking about that.

Mr. HURWITZ: Yes. All right.

ELISA: I'm making sure that - I apologize.

SHAPIRO: No problem.

Mr. HURWITZ: No, no, no, not that type. Mom!

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELISA: I know I've embarrassed them terribly.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, Elisa.

Mr. HURWITZ: Oh, I think it's amazing.

SHAPIRO: It's OK. We don't know your last name, so nobody knows it's you.

Mr. HURWITZ: But I will - I agree with you. I think it's very important that we get them all and it's - because it's a labor of love. You know, it really isn't about making this giant hit movie. I hope Fox Searchlight isn't listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Elisa.

Mr. HURWITZ: But it's getting back together.

ELISA: Thank you.

Mr. HURWITZ: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Mitch, are there models that you have of successful TV to movie translations?

Mr. HURWITZ: In other words, did I see "Sex and the City"? Only about 100 times, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, I could name a few of them, frankly.

Mr. HURWITZ: Ari, you're such a Samantha.

SHAPIRO: I took the test and actually, I did not turn out as Samantha. But we can talk about that off the air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HURWITZ: OK. You know, no, not really. I have sailed(ph) that there wasn't much of a model when I did the TV show. And I've said this before, but I sometimes like to point this out to people who are, you know, trying to be creative themselves. Doing the - creating the television show is immensely discouraging for me. Doing that pilot, I was in a territory that I had never been in before. I was a sitcom writer. I'd come from "The Golden Girls" and other things like that, and I was really trying to do something of a new form. And I many times thought this is ridiculous. I've got to, you know, give this up and become a Talk of the Nation host, but I said no. No.

SHAPIRO: We're glad you did. We're glad you didn't give it up. We've been talking to Mitch Hurwitz. He was the executive producer and writer of the acclaimed and extraordinary television series, "Arrested Development." Mitch, it's been such a pleasure.

Mr. HURWITZ: You, too, Ari. Thank you for talking to me.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, its Science Friday and Neal Conan will be back on Monday. Merry Christmas. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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