Maniac creator Patrick Somerville on making you question reality and normalcy

We talk to the creator of Netflix’s series Maniac, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, about his mind-bending show

Based on a Norwegian show of the same name, Netflix’s limited series Maniac reunites Superbad stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, alongside a formidable ensemble cast that features Justin Theroux, Sally Field, Sonoya Mizuno, Billy Magnussen, Julia Garner, Jemima Kirke and Gabriel Byrne in recurring roles. Directed in full by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), the dystopia-tinged dark comedy sees two strangers drawn to the late stages of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial, for mind-repairing pills sold as being able to solve all of a test subject’s problems permanently. What they experience is hallucinations of different worlds and realities.

Ahead of Maniac’s arrival on Netflix, we spoke to writer, executive producer, and the man with the ‘Created by’ credit on the show, Patrick Somerville. Also an author, his previous writing and producing work in television includes fellow Scandinavian series adaptation The Bridge and The Leftovers, the latter also starring Justin Theroux…

How would you describe the show to potential viewers?

To me, it’s a show about loneliness and connection and the ways that we’re trying to find community in our world, and the ways that community gets stifled in our world. There are some things about the show that feel like our world, but I think it was fun to imagine a show that tonally had absurdist elements and had a kind of freewheeling imagination to it, but still had a emotionally true and emotionally real and relatable core.

Maniac is based on a Norwegian miniseries. What drew you to that source material in the first place?

The ability to tell the same story in all sorts of different ways along the way; the wildness of being able to jump from genre to genre and then return to a baseline relationship and check in, and then go off to some other kind of insane setup for a little story. It just seemed very fun.

Could you share a bit about what went into the show’s world-building? From the opening episodes, there’s things like hiring someone to be your friend or paying for your subway ticket by having someone accompany you who rolls off a bunch of advertisements.

It was conceptual and it was an idea from the outset of the series, but specific idiosyncrasies evolved along the way; things like ad buddies and friend proxies, all of that stuff was there right from the outset in the early scripts and then we kept developing what that looked like and how that felt. Something Cary [Fukunaga] and I both agreed on right away was that we wanted to question the idea of normalcy right off the bat, and not just for the characters who were going to go through this medical trial, but for the audience. We wanted the audience to be slightly uncomfortable as to what reality was and what normalcy was, and to be just slightly on the edge of their seat. Just because the main characters of the show are about to go through the same thing and we wanted everyone to be in the same boat.

Were any lessons taken from working on The Leftovers brought over to developing Maniac?
Yeah. Of the many lessons I learned while I was at that show, I think that The Leftovers just verified for me something that I believed deeply about storytelling, which is so long as there’s an emotional truth about the way that we feel, then pretty much anything is going to be believable. A heightened reality around emotional truth is going to work. I think a heightened reality with no emotional truth at its core will start feeling arbitrary, but so long as the relationships between the people are centre stage, then you can get away with almost anything around it.

Do you feel any specific works have influenced your genre writing?

My mother is English and I had early access to a lot of Douglas Adams and then also the Red Dwarf series; no one I was in school with in fifth grade had any idea what that was, but my aunts always sent me Red Dwarf. And I do think this kind of big idea, comic, soft sci-fi genre really infected my imagination when I was a kid and I just loved that kind of thing where maybe the technicalities of how the physics of something worked weren’t really that important, but the huge ideas and the cheekiness of it all was sort of allowed. I didn’t know that that was allowed in books until I started reading that stuff. I grew up and I read a lot of serious literature and went to graduate school and have written serious novels. But I would say that the spirit of Maniac is still growing out of my exposure to that kind of writing when I was younger.

Maniac launches on Netflix 21st September. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.