Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen on Directing Each Other: “I Hate It!”

The most recent promo for Portlandia’s 7th season is both an apt jab at masculinity and a hilarious yet scarily accurate prophecy of sorts.

The foretelling of Trump’s victory is synthesized in a “men’s rights” skit, which written before the 2016 election, now feels like it’s less the comedic omen, and more a cultural observation on the part of the show’s leads, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen. The scene is an absurdist take on an attitude that wasn’t born in fall 2016, but revealed. Brownstein notes, “But he [Trump] is just someone that is the tip of the iceberg — to say that hasn’t existed in our country means that it’s boiled to the surface.” The magic of Portlandia is that it has functioned like this for most of its run — the exaggerated performance of suburban politics reveal the cracks in American white identity. It’s also funny as hell, and both Brownstein and Armisen not only bring their superb chemistry to season seven, but direct for the first time in the show’s history.  A visit to the Portland set showcased the duo in action, both as directors and actors. Read on to learn more about the show’s newest season and how Brownstein and Armisen handle directing each other.

So how do you like directing?
Fred: I hate it! [laughs]. No. You have to pay attention to more details. There are all kinds of technical things that even though I hand off to someone else to decide, I still have to think about it, So in some ways, I really like it but in some ways it feels more like work as opposed to, I just show up and we goof around or we’re writing. But directing is…when you see other people do it, it seems easy, but then you do it you have to focus so much and I’d so much rather do bits with people and goof around. I catch myself when I’m directing, I have to stop and be like, I need to pay attention to this and figure out what we’re doing. But saying this all lightly, I’m lucky to be doing anything in show business, so it’s like a light complaint. But it’s a little more work intensive.

Does it effect your acting now that you’ve gotten the other side of things?
Fred: Yeah it does effect it. We shot something and I watched the playback and I entered the room in a very sketchy way, like the way people enter in sketch comedy. So we had to do it over. If I was only acting I’d enter more naturally, but because I was doing both I couldn’t really remember what you’re suppose to do, to make it look like a normal person. It was very robotic, but I fixed it!

How’s the switch between acting with each other and directing each other?
Fred: It’s a brand new thing, but it’s kind of interesting to see it in Carrie. So I’ll see Carrie get real serious. It is a very instant change, you see a delineation.

Was directing something you always planned on doing with the show, or the opportunity just kind of presented itself ?
Fred: I would say the latter. Jon Krisel, one of our co-creators of the show was doing so many other things that the schedule started to move around. So we can still maintain the schedule and come in and we know the show well enough we can direct it.

Carrie you just directed the piece for Kenzo?
Fred: She did [laughs].
Carrie: Yes I did.

So this is not the first time you directed, how are you enjoying this experience?
Carrie: Well I do prefer directing without acting in the scene at the same time for sure, that’s easier. A little more objectivity.

How many episodes are you directing this season?
Carrie: Two.

So television directing has stricter parameters, so how do you go about setting a tone for that episode you’re directing or what’s your strategy going into it?
Carrie: It depends on the material. But I think there’s already a precedent in terms of the show that’s been established, a tone and a look and it’s just about working within those parameters and trying to be creative with the shots. But you don’t want to reinvent the wheel on any given episode just to be indulgent.

Portland has changed a lot, and a lot of people, all they know about Portland is though Portlandia. What are your thoughts on how the show has influenced how Portland is perceived and how it has changed?
Fred: It’s hard to tell. I don’t know how the rest of country perceives Portland, I can’t assume so many billions of people watch this show so that there’s this national view of Portland. It’s really hard to tell. There are only the people who I talk to who are not familiar with it who might have a notion of the city from watching the show, and there are people who really live here who have moved here a few years ago, it is hard to tell. There are enough different experiences of this city, so there are 50 different answers. And yeah it is changing.

What do you notice?
Fred: I think what’s changing about the city is the same for any city that I’ve lived in. So right next to me there’s a building going up that’s a hotel But that’s happening everywhere. Every city that I go to, there are more buildings going up. It’s not just Portland.
Carrie: I always think it’s odd if anybody equates the depiction of a city via an artistic lens with the actual city. I think that’s sort of lends itself to a lack of an imagination on the audience’s part to think that shows that take place in New York embody every aspect of New York, or London, or Los Angeles or anywhere and I think that you’d be hard pressed to make the argument that Portlandia is a metonym for Portland. I don’t think that’s true. I think certainly Portland has changed. I’ve lived here since 2004, yeah it’s different. It’s been changing the whole time.

In terms of this season, some have been more character driven, more sketch driven, how would you characterize this season, what was the goal?
Carrie: It’s more sketch driven this year. It emulates seasons two and three, with a through line.
Fred: Yeah there are more thematic through lines as opposed to story through lines.
Carrie: Yeah, we kind of narrowed the characters we most wanted and write for them in terms of the individual sketches and most of our wrap arounds or through lines still focus on the characters we really enjoy playing.

Has it become easier to write for those characters?
Carrie: Yeah. It allows us to explore them but make them more multi-faceted in a deeper way instead of coming up with brand new characters. We do that if the sketch lends itself to new people.
Fred: Or if the episode needs some new characters. We did these photographers. Carrie saw this ad for people who will take pictures of people being born, like a birth photographer. So we did these characters who would go where someone is in labor and you know…we didn’t even know what it was going to look like, we just have it in there. Asking the mother-to-be to look a certain way, stuff like that.

Do you improvise or do you have a really strict script that you hold to?
Carrie: Both. I think depending on the director and depending on the scene, we are particular about sticking to specific dialogue or jokes, or hitting certain beats. And then other times, you want it to be really loose.
Fred:  Other times you write something in the writer’s room, and then when you’re saying it you can hear the writer’s room. So we change it sometimes.

Who are your favorite characters to play?
Fred: I’m partial to these goth weirdos. I don’t know what it is. I’m finding more and more that the things that character says are the things I would say. There was this one episode where they’re planning their funerals and it is very much what I want my funeral to be like. I want it to be a terrifying event [laughs]. I want it to be absolutely scary for everyone. You know a supernatural satanic… the body is missing, there’s lightning and thunder. Funerals should not be an enjoyable celebration. It should be what they’re meant to be, which is terrifying. Birthdays are fun, funerals should be scary.

Carrie, what’s the switch like between acting and directing with each other? Fred said you had a very serious look.
Fred: I was saying you’re very focused when you direct.
Carrie: There’s just a different kind of attention that needs to be paid to shots and coverage that when you’re acting you just take for granted, that somebody else is taking care of and you’re working solely on performance which is why it’s easier to not have to both at the same time. Yeah, I really like being directed by Fred, and I really like acting with Fred so it’s all part of the world. Nothing feels forced or foreign.

Carrie what’s your favorite character to play?
Carrie: I like playing Fred and Carrie. This year we did a lot of Fred and Carrie. The biggest change we made early in the writer’s season was that we felt like Tony and Candace. It seemed like their outrage was disproportionate to the rest of the culture. It seemed kind of outdated. Feminism has just reached this point where it is very much in the mainstream, part of mainstream discourse. So we wanted to usurp them and I think we were really excited about that change.

Portlandia doesn’t seem to get very political, but certainly in that sketch (Men’s Rights) there was some political over tones. Was that something that you like and want to continue?
Fred: It might just feel that way because of the current political climate. I guess if we did that a few years ago or in a few years it might feel a little different. I think everything feels so political right now.

Was it always the plan for there to only be one more season?
Carrie: I think we decided over a year ago.
Fred: Just to have some control. You don’t want it to whimper away and we didn’t want to lose control of that. I think the things that we admire most are things that had a definite ending to them, whether that’s a band break up or shows. I think Parks and Recreation ended very nicely, and The Office…shows like that, they had control over it, which is nice.

You mentioned this season was going to be sketch focused. Anything you can tell us about it, what you particularly enjoyed?
Fred: Sure, the sketch we’re going to do is called Instant Garbage. You know when you buy electronic equipment for your phones and you just know it’s garbage? It looks wrong? It looks off? It might work now, it might charge your phone? And it’s the agreement you make with the people you’re buying it from that, “you know it’s garbage, I know it’s garbage, I’m going to buy it anyway. It’s 6 bucks, I’ll use it at the airport maybe once and just throw it away.” So that’s what that’s about. Men things seems to be coming up a little bit.
Carrie: Yeah I definitely think masculinity is a theme. The season explores the masculine and a dismantling of the binary and notions of disinheritance. I think that’s the main theme of the whole season, is people and cities being disinherited. I think theres a certain amount of privilege that people have and feel like the world is shifting where they no longer have prominence. Theres a sense of anger. You see that with men’s rights, you see that with white men and so I think a lot of that is being explored this season.

Trump inspired?
Fred: It was written before any of that happened.
Carrie: That doesn’t mean we can’t not talk about Trump [laughs]. But he’s just someone that is the tip of the iceberg — to say that hasn’t existed in our country means that it’s boiled to the surface and I think that a lot of people as we shift toward the feminine, a lot of these systems of oppression are being disrupted and certain people aren’t benefiting from it anymore.
Fred: Guys, where’s my men at? [laughs]
Carrie: It’s like the last gasp of straight white men. A little bit. I think places go through that too. Certain infrastructure that caters to wealthy and takes for granted certain modes of stability start to suffer from the cracks as it tries to maintain progress, while other people are left behind. So you see disruption so you strive within those communities. If you think of that as also the masculine and the feminine and systems of patriarchy and capitalism staring to crumble then you see cities also in turmoil. So it’s really happy themes this year [laughs]. So many of the sketches are just absurd versions of that.

There is humor derived from topics that are common to cities all across the world. Is there anything happening in Portland that seemed to inspire anything this season?
Carrie: I did see the birth photographer flyer in my local coffee shop. But every time you think something is specific to Portland, it never is.

Is there a reason Portland works so well as a metaphor for all these other things that are happening?
Fred: Because we started the show here, it just sort of ended up that way.
Carrie: I think the western cities suffer more from the in-group out-group dynamic because we’re the final frontier in terms of migration. New Yorkers aren’t as particular like “look at all these people moving here,” you know. We’ve seen such an explosion of money, an explosion of population on the west coast, you really feel borders being drawn, these figurative delineations, who’s in, who’s out, who should be here, who’s new, who’s old. It just seems more striking. San Francisco would be a more intense example because that just seems so fraught.

Portlandia season seven premieres January 5th, 2017 on IFC. 

photo by: Gigie Hall