What we see on the surface isn’t always what it seems, and the new Apple TV+ thriller Surface explores this very concept. The stars of the limited series Gugu Mbatha Raw as a San Francisco socialite who begins to experience bouts of memory loss due to a head trauma she believes was the result of a suicide attempt, details of which remain unclear. As she attempts to piece together the pieces of her life, she digs deep beneath its surface in an effort to uncover the truth about her marriage and if she was actually in love with someone else all along.
Surface started life as a spec script written by a veteran television writer/producer Veronique West (Dexter: new blood, Chicago Fire, Taurus, High Fidelity). The mysterious spectacle was inspired by the French film Last year in Marienbad, and it explores similar themes, such as identity and deception. With the support of Reese Witherspoonfrom Hello Sunshine and Mbatha-Raw herself (she was co-EP on the series), West had the opportunity to oversee the Apple TV+ series, which will end next Friday.
under the line recently spoke with Veronique West via Zoom on what inspired her to write the screenplay, which she describes as “unapologetically feminine.” West explained how she collaborated with various departments throughout each stage of production to bring her vision to fruition, and she also discussed the challenges of making the show during the height of the pandemic, and the changes that were made to adapt to curveballs related to COVID.
Below the line: What inspired you to write the screenplay?
Veronique West: It’s something I generated when I felt like I was at a crossroads in my career and just wanted to try something a little different – something experimental and something that I thought was kind of show that I really wanted to watch on TV. And I got incredible support [from] Hello Sunshine, Apple and Gugu, to bring [it] live.
BTL: What inspired the central idea behind Surface?
West: My husband and I were watching Last year in Marienbad one night and I was thinking about the central premise of this show. It’s basically this woman who comes to a lavish hotel in this beautiful, luxurious place and this man comes up to her and says, “You don’t know me, but I know you. We were in love. We had an affair. The film is this poetic journey around this question which [is] never fully answered. I just started thinking [about] what are the actual circumstances [would] has to be for this scene to make sense. What should have happened for Baden (Stephan James) to walk to Sophie (Gugu Mbatha Raw) on the street and say “we were in love” and what were the circumstances surrounding that? It was the germ of the idea, [which] obviously took on a life of its own.
BTL: What type of shows would be you do you like to see on television?
West: I like all types of television, from squid game at Summer house. What’s exciting this show is that it explores a genre that is familiar to people. These are stories that [as] old as time and were made [in] many brilliant ways, Memento at The Bourne’s Identity, but seeing a heroine like this at the center of this story felt fresh and new. To be able to make a thriller that was decidedly feminine and lived in this lush world of escapism was something different and exciting for me and the rest of the producers.
BTL: As a writer, does that give you an extra break because it’s your baby?
West: Whatever you put your heart and soul into for years, you’re gonna care. As writers and creatives who work on all aspects of performing, to make art you have to believe in it and invest your emotions in it. It’s exciting to see other people putting their energy into it.
BTL: How did you interface with all departments?
West: What I loved about not only being a writer and making my script and stopping it, but seeing the process all the way through was the amazing collaboration with artists from all walks of life, like our composer, Olafur Arnaldsour editors, [and] our director of photography, Tami Reiker. Learning from all of these people, collaborating and sharing where I thought the story was coming from on an emotional level, and seeing how they interpreted that in different aspects of the show, was incredibly rewarding.
BTL: Tell me about a day in the life of a showrunner.
West: There are [a lot of] different aspects of this timeline. For a very long time it’s been “heads down” with the writers, with the producers talking about the story, writing 24/7, rewriting drafts and drafts and really putting together the building blocks that will become the show. Once the physical production apparatus has come into being, it really comes to life. You do everything, from choosing the bracelet that Sophie will wear to [picking] the color palette of the decorations, [plus] make technical scouts and pick locations.
Then, finally, getting to the shoot itself where it really becomes a theatrical experience in terms of rehearsing with the actors and rewriting on set, and working with the directors. All of a sudden it stops and everything is filmed. You have the tracks and you go into this incredible assembly process with the editors, with the mixers, with the composer, [do] color sync, and really do a second pass [on] writing to finalize the whole vision.
BTL: What are your favorite production parts?
West: The thing I like the most is – back to [the] basics – look at this screen and just hear the characters speak. Sometimes when you write and you do the math and you write it takes on a life of its own and people start talking in your head and you type it and can’t follow; that’s kind of the magic of it. Then seeing amazing actors like Gugu and Olivier [Jackson-Cohen] say those words out loud in an even more beautiful way than you could have ever dreamed of, these are the best times for me.
BTL: When you were writing the script for Surfacehave you imagined your cast?
West: Honestly, I haven’t, and I never really do. When I write, I think it helps to see yourself a bit in all the characters. You have to speak for them and generate them from nothingness, then they start taking their own lives for you. Then you can collaborate with these amazing actors. When Gugu [came] onboard, of course, the character changes and is shaped by her point of view as Sophie’s character is developed. I loved using actors like they’ve never been used before, like Ari Graynor, who gives such a beautiful dramatic performance in this show. It’s amazing how Stephan, Francois Arnaud, [and] all the actors brought everything to life.
BTL: What changes did you have to make to the script?
West: The show was originally set in London and Sophie was American. This idea of a stranger in a foreign land and having fled a past across an ocean and not telling anyone around you, even the people closest to [you]what you flee, has always been integrated. This idea that Sophie was an expat was on the show, but when Gugu became an executive producer and, of course, to star, I hadn’t seen her play British on American television before, and [thought] it would be [interesting] let her be British in America.
BTL: Who had to tell Gugu that his character, who masters the Tom Cruise Run quite well, had to run a lot throughout the series?
West: I hadn’t noticed that she runs like Tom Cruise [laughs] but I applaud him for inventing those San Francisco hills – not something I could have accomplished. Running had always been part of the character when it came to therapy and routine after the trauma she had been through. It’s also become a way for us as filmmakers to access Sophie’s feelings and really get inside her head and see what she’s thinking. I wish I had time to run!
BTL: What have been the biggest challenges for you as showrunner?
West: Shooting the show while preparing the show at the same time while having two small children. [laughs] It was difficult to put on a show during the height of the pandemic, which added an extra layer of complexity for everyone doing their job. We had an incredible team in Vancouver and safety was the top priority. I really applaud everyone who goes that extra mile to make the show happen.
But it’s all a challenge, from looking inside and finding a story you think is worth telling, to ‘why do you get up at three in the morning, standing under rain under a tent with electrical cords?’ [laughs] There are always little incidents, like, ‘oh my God, we can’t clean this necklace that’s supposed to be in the next three episodes starting tomorrow, so someone has to make a necklace overnight!’
BTL: How would you describe the support you received from Reese Witherspoon and her production company, Hello Sunshine?
West: Reese is an incredible advocate for female writers and producers, and just a force to be reckoned with. She produced this show with her producing partner, Lauren Lévy Neustadtermostly by myself [and] an idea. She brought Gugu on board, and they have this incredible ability to protect vision [of] and championing the writers they work with, and churning things out at a truly astonishing speed and level of intensity. It’s amazing to work with almost exclusively female executive producers and our wonderful executives at Apple. We’re doing a show that’s in some ways for women, but it’s definitely about a woman’s story and it’s great to be able to tell that as a team.
BTL: What were the main themes you wanted to communicate to the audience?
West: The show, for me, is really about identity and this idea of being different people at different times in your life. For everyone, I think you are evolving and changing. I think of walking down the street and seeing the 20-year-old version of me and wondering if we’d even be able to understand each other and how different that person really was, and [whether we] even recognize each other. I think everyone can relate to that idea to some degree. If I was having lunch with myself at 14, I would say, “Relax and enjoy the ride.
Surface Episode 7 is now streaming on Apple TV+, with the series finale slated for next Friday.