What inspired you to create 'Family Tree?'
I guess it started when I began looking into my own family. I had been left many boxes of things when my father died, which included military medals and old diaries from a long time ago in London, various pictures of people -- some of whom I knew and some of whom were mysterious -- and that was the genesis.
Why do this as a television series, and not as a film?
It seemed natural because it's an arc that is very long. In a film you have a first, second, and third act and there's an end. And there really is no end to the search into one's family, given the ways people can do that now, with the Internet and other things. It's a very long, convoluted process, and so this format seemed the most logical.
What are some of the differences between working in television and film?
What's different about this is mostly the idea that when we began, we knew the date this was going on television. When I do films, there's no release date. I start the process and it's done when I'm done and they figure out when it comes out.
What was the casting process like? In the latter half of the season we start to see some familiar faces, but Chris O'Dowd is a new one for you.
All the people in England, with the exception of Nina Conti, were all new. What's different about this process is that there's no written dialogue. Jim and I wrote, roughly, eight-page outlines plus character information for the actors. The challenge, in England especially, was finding people who could do this kind of work, which is not a particularly common thing. It's not common at all.
You've worked with Nina Conti and Monkey before, but what inspired you to include them in 'Family Tree?'
Nina! What I do, if there's a gifted person, I will create something for them. That's the way it works for me -- if there was a great musician, you want to create a way for that person to play music. Nina's the only person in the show whose role was created for her.
The "mockumentary" is your signature style, and an important part of 'Family Tree.'
The way I describe it is as a "documentary style" as opposed to a "mockumentary" -- I don't use that. It's been used a lot and it's not a term that I use.
Why choose to tell the story that way?
Ever since I worked on 'This is Spinal Tap,' we found it was a funny and enjoyable way to work -- a very liberating way to work. Because of the spontaneity, things come up in a very different way than a traditionally scripted comedy would. We thought that style fit the show well.
What I do, if there's a gifted person, I will create something for them. That's the way it works for me -- if there was a great musician, you want to create a way for that person to play music.
In your work, and 'Family Tree' is no exception, you focus on the eccentricities of everyday people.
In comedy, you don't typically have people who are smart and achieving because then there's nothing funny. Typically, the people are either odd or not too bright -- that's the whole basis of comedy. You try to find enough people that are interesting in different ways to populate the show.
Do you think people identify more strongly with these kinds of characters? Or see their own family in them?
Chris is meant to be the everyman -- he's an accessible, charming guy -- so the audience follows along with what he sees. Everyone has a family member -- or more than one -- that's a little out there. I think people can relate to this idea of what's supposed to be a good thing when the whole family comes together, and how a lot of the time, it turns out not to be that way. It's not the Norman Rockwell myth of everyone having a great time. Invariably, families have weird dynamics where there's some craziness and that's what makes it funny.
Now that we're in the States, you make an appearance as Dave Chadwick. What can you tell us about him?
Yes. I am in two or three episodes. I play a southern relative who has a guitar shop and his grandfather was a musician.
When you play a character, is there a particular element that helps you access them?
The voice or the accent is a critical thing because when you're improvising it's as if you're playing music, so it has to be an instrument that you like to hear. It has to have a sound, and that's the best analogy. If you don't like speaking in that other person's voice, you're not really going to be motivated to talk and therefore you'll have a silent movie, and that's not what we're doing.