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How the creators of Amazon’s new series “Forever” made that unforgettable opening montage

Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard unpack the opening scene that is integral to Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s new series–a perfect microcosm of what’s to come.

How the creators of Amazon’s new series “Forever” made that unforgettable opening montage
[Photo: courtesy of Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios]

Call it the opposite of Up. The Anti-Up. Possibly Down.

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Whatever you call it, the opening scene of Forever, Amazon’s new comedy starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, is a self-contained mini-movie about marriage, vaguely reminiscent of the famous first 10 minutes of that Pixar hit. Both scenes will rip viewers’ hearts clean out of their chest, but Forever does so in its own unique way.

Master of None co-creator Alan Yang developed the series, which is available today, with his fellow former Parks and Rec writer Matt Hubbard. The premise of the show is . . . something I can’t divulge. (Literally–an NDA is involved.) The secrecy is for viewers’ benefit, though. There’s no single big spoiler to avoid—like, say, how Avengers 3 ends with Thanos wiping out half of civilization—but rather some ideas that play best when doled out the way the creators designed them to. It will suffice to say that in Forever, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen play something rather foreign for them–a regular, boring married couple–and that the show’s brilliant opening scene reveals everything you need to know about them.

“It’s a big swing to start your comedy that stars two SNL cast members with a five-minute silent montage,” Yang says.

Indeed. The opening scene has a lot of work to do, which it manages with wit and grace. In one continuously panning shot, we follow a couple all the way from the moment they meet until the moment Maya Rudolph’s June finds herself at a crossroads while on vacation. It has the feel of flipping through a photo album–remember photo albums?–and seeing all the ups and downs of a marriage in between each image. There are goofy moments (the pair at a bowling alley, celebrating a gutterball with a dance party), and there are screaming matches in a car. And it all ends with a dazzling encapsulation of the pitfalls of marriage: a dinner at the couple’s lake house, served over and over again the exact same way, repetition slowly draining the joy out of the promise of being together forever.

Not only is it a proper introduction to the characters, it’s also an overview of the show’s themes and its tonal balance of comedy and philosophy. As the show premieres on Amazon, Fast Company spoke with Yang and Hubbard about every step of making this unforgettable montage.

Good times, bad times

Hubbard and Yang always knew they were going to open the show with a montage. They worked really hard on the scene throughout production and spent a lot of time talking about how to get it just right.

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Matt Hubbard: I think one thing we were both afraid of as writers is that there’s a version of this show where Oscar and June just hate each other. And five minutes in you’re like, “Why are they together?” We needed to find a way to make sure you were rooting for them throughout the whole show, so we wanted to do something quick that got you on board with them right away. We had various versions of a montage, but we always wanted to be moving through time with them to get to the point where June, although she loves Oscar, is starting to feel like she wants something else.

Alan Yang: We always wanted the montage to have the tincture of a real relationship–with all the ups and downs–so it wasn’t a straight-up, “It’s great and then it goes bad.” We wanted there to be fun and we wanted them to fight. We wanted both kinds of moments peppered throughout.

[Photo: courtesy of Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios]

Finding the tone

The joke-to-melancholy ratio in the opening scene is reflective of the rest of the series. They had to over-deliver on both first in order to troubleshoot the right balance.

AY: We pitched beats on the montage for a long time. Obviously, Matt and I wrote a lot of them, but then any time we left the writers’ room to go to a meeting or whatever, we asked the writers to pitch on montage beats. We eventually had hundreds of them, and had to narrow it down and sequence them.

MH: We could only figure out which moments to use through trial and error. It’s hard, because in this context you only have a couple seconds to show an emotional beat or make a joke. I think when we were writing them, I had a list on my document like Funny Ones, Medium Ones, and Sad Ones. We intentionally had some that were kind of straight, some that were a little funny, but not too broad.

AY: One of the first ideas we had for how they meet was: It’s a Halloween party and they have the same costume on. But we decided that was way too broad, so we made them meet at a regular bar. Nothing too cutesy or rom-com-y. We generally found that the more grounded and naturalistic the beats, the better.

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[Photo: courtesy of Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios]

The continuous side scroll

One of the more remarkable aspects of the opening montage is the way it unfurls in one long panning shot, from left to right, making each moment feel like part of a continuum.

AY: Partly, we were inspired by the Wim Wenders movie, Wings of Desire, where there are some great, beautiful camera moves. We wanted this scene to be a bit more prosaic and presentational and proscenium than a typical scene.

MH: At the very end, the idea that we continuously show that same meal over and over again, left to right–it just seemed like an incredible way of showing what’s going on in June’s head. And the way we did that part kind of ended up informing the beginning of it.

[Photo: courtesy of Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios]

The soul-crushing repetition

There’s something extra sad about not having a great time on vacation, which is one of the ideas Forever explores. The montage ends with Maya Rudolph’s June delighted at first by Fred Armisen’s Oscar serving an elaborate meal during their lake house vacation. After several identical meals over an unspecified period, though, June can barely even feign any enthusiasm.

MH: What we loved about the lake house was that, to Oscar, it’s a representation of everything he loves about their marriage, and to June, it’s a representation of everything repetitive about their marriage. She doesn’t want to keep going there, and he never questions it. The idea of going somewhere fun and slowly getting sick of it was a microcosm of some of the emotions they’re having.

AY: We shot that fish dinner piece seven or eight times, just because we wanted to shoot more than we needed. So Maya was changing her wardrobe and hair each time, and I would say, “Hey, this time, it’s three or four out of 10 on boredom.” She gave us all these options.

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MH: Every time we come back, she’s a little more bored. That’s hard to do.

[Photo: courtesy of Colleen Hayes/Amazon Studios]

The perfect sad song

“It Never Entered My Mind” by Miles Davis is sweet and whimsical, but it also sounds like what it feels like to be tired. A saxophone shrugs its sad lament over a piano loop that constantly rises, like an MC Escher staircase. It’s an ideal backdrop for slow dancing or reflecting on how marriage itself is one long slow dance.

AY: We have an amazing music supervisor, Zach Cowie, and I pitched the entire show to him, front to back, early on, and he said it was right in his wheelhouse. So he invited me over to his place, which is sort of a listening palace, like, “For this record, I’ll use this needle I got in Japan,” and he played me a ton of music. At least five of the songs he played me that day made it in, including this one, I think.

MH: Every time we would shoot a montage piece, I would play the Miles Davis song on my phone.

AY: The grips, the camera people, they’re all hearing the song like 70 times. Which is pretty much the feeling of being in a marriage: “We shot it 70 times already.”

MH: I think I sort of came to the conclusion as we were writing the show that what marriage is, is . . . you just gotta find someone you really like watching TV with.

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