Imagine having four Emmy nominations before you’re thirty years old. Imagine that two of those nominations are for Outstanding Comedy Series for two of the most critically acclaimed series of the past decade. Oh, and then imagine those other nominations are in the insanely competitive writing category for both series. Yep, Stefani Robinson is killing it.
An executive producer on both “What We Do in the Shadows” and Donald Glover‘s “Atlanta,” Robinson has been extremely busy juggling both shows over the past three years (and the pandemic didn’t help). Most recently, viewers have been treated to Robinson’s dark comedic talents as the writer of “Tarrare,” the final episode of “Atlanta” season 3. Set in Paris, the episode finds Van (Zazie Beetz) living under another identity. When her friends from back home run into her wondering what’s going on, Van is forced to confront what she’s been running from back in the ATL.
Robinson says that particular episode went through a ton of revisions and reworking.
“When I first actually was assigned the episode, it was incredibly different than actually what ended up being on the air. And I think my sense was, at the time, that the episode as it was originally wasn’t feeling very grounded in anything real,” Robinson recalls. “There’s no reason as to why Van was in Europe, in Paris, and what is she doing. And I had been away, obviously, shooting [‘What We Do’] in Toronto. So I came back having a lot of questions about what exactly they were breaking in the writer’s room for ‘Atlanta.’ And trying to wrap my mind around this episode.”
She continues, “And my question had been the entire time, I think while I was writing it and re-breaking the episode and sort of restructuring it was, ‘What is the emotional hook in this episode?’ ‘Why is Van here?’ And obviously, ‘Why is she in Europe? What bearing does that have on the entire season as a whole? Can we start dropping hints as to why she’s here? And build this bigger moment where you actually learn that she is having some mental breakdown?’ And so it was quite a long process from what I remember, in this episode in particular.”
Over the course of our conversation, Robinson reflects on whether the upcoming fourth go-around is truly is the last season of “Atlanta,” the pressure of having two more seasons of ‘What We Do’ greenlit already, how Alexander Skarsgård ended up in “Tarrare,” and much, much more.
The Playlist: Stefani, I have the most obvious question for you that I’m sure you get all the time, but how do you do all of this? How do you do both these shows?
Stefani Robinson: It’s a good question. It wasn’t that bad early on. I feel like we were on the schedule at least for ‘Shadows’ and “Atlanta,” which I think you’re asking me about. But those two shows, at least early on, were staggered in a really nice way. And obviously, “Atlanta” was gone for so long and off the air, I had time to just focus on ‘Shadows.’ But it did get a little tricky, I want to say, while we were shooting season two of “What We Do in the Shadows” and writing season three of “Atlanta.” And so I was in the writer’s room for “Atlanta” and I left in the middle of that writer’s room to go produce ‘Shadows’ season two, and then came back to do “Atlanta” season three and four, and then was also writing season three of “What We Do in the Shadows,” and then the pandemic hit. And then we were all handcuffed to doom. And I think that there was a point of time where I was doing both shows at once, quite literally, jumping back from one zoom meeting to the other and just trying to figure it out.
The current season of “Atlanta” takes place in Europe. And you’re shooting “What We Do in the Shadows” in Toronto, and you wrote an episode of “Atlanta,” so you’re clearly on set for that as well?
Yeah, no, I mean, for “Atlanta” season three, I wasn’t on set because of all of this stuff. So, I couldn’t be at all the places at once. So I wrote the episode that they’re shooting in France, but then also coming back from whatever shoot I was on elsewhere. So yeah, there ends up being situations where I’m not able to be somewhere and just getting updates via email or text or… Trying to figure it all out at the same time.
This season of “Atlanta” goes creatively in a slightly different direction. When you saw the footage come back and you saw some of the rough edits, what were you most happy about?
That’s such a good question. I feel like for me, the look of it, for sure. I don’t want to say, jarring, that’s too strong of a word. But I think it was a provocative thing to see our characters in Europe. We’re so used to seeing them in such a specific setting, like Atlanta, obviously. So, to actually physically see our characters walking around Amsterdam or London was really cool. And it was, obviously, shot so well and so cinematic and they looked like little movies to me. So in that way, just the actual aesthetic beauty of it was the first thing that really stood out to me.
You wrote “Tarrare,” the final episode of this season. What made you jump on board this particular episode?
It was assigned to me, I think while I was shooting “What We Do in the Shadows” season two. So, I got the call from Donald and he was like, “Hey.” I had been away for a bit from the writer’s room because I was now spending my time in Toronto to produce the show. So, he was like, “Rita, we found this episode for Van, and we’re thinking about her on the solo mission in Paris.” And I wrote it, but that episode, in particular, went through tons of revisions and tons of re-breaking and tons of reworking. So, when I first actually was assigned the episode, it was incredibly different than actually what ended up being on the air. And I think my sense was, at the time, that the episode as it was originally wasn’t feeling very grounded in anything real. There’s no reason as to why Van was in Europe, in Paris, and what is she doing. And I had been away, obviously, shooting in Toronto. So I came back having a lot of questions about what exactly they were breaking in the writer’s room for “Atlanta.” So it actually went through a bunch of different transitions and phases. And my question had been the entire time, I think while I was writing it and re-breaking the episode and sort of restructuring it was, “What is the emotional hook in this episode?” “Why is Van here?” And obviously, “Why is she in Europe? What bearing does that have on the entire season as a whole? Can we start dropping hints as to why she’s here? And build this bigger moment where you actually learn that she is having some mental breakdown?” And so it was quite a long process from what I remember, in this episode in particular.
This season we’ve seen signs that Van’s going through something. She’s joined the crew on this trip but seems disassociated from everyone. Was that just something you hadn’t been aware of while you were assigned it at first, or was that also something that was added into the other scripts as the season went along?
So, that was something that I brought up later, actually. That’s the bigger conversation that we were starting to have around Van. When I first was assigned the episode, none of that stuff was there. I don’t even remember what we had decided on, in terms of why she was in Europe. But again, those were one of the questions I had when I was assigned the episode, sort of feeling like, “Why is she here? And if this episode, in particular, is going to change, then we need to look at the season as a whole and figure out how we can land this plane.”
Some viewers thought it was a riff on “Emily in Paris,” but you wrote this way before that even came out, am I right?
I think so, I’m not sure. I don’t know when “Emily in Paris” came out, but I can assure you that it has nothing to do with that.
I think people assumed it might be as it’s about an American going to Paris and putting herself in this overly French culture. And, by the way, was there any other inspiration for that? Because I have to say, I have friends who feel like they’re Francophiles and get very into, “Oh, I lived in Paris for two years,” and they’ve sort of taken a journey. Did anyone involved in the show have friends like that?
No. That whole episode, I think, was more inspired by “Amélie” than anything. That was the crux of it. And she even speaks about that at the end of the episode. But this idea of Van, basically, cosplaying as Amélie and being a more f**ked up, darker, scarier version of Amélie. With Emily, in Van’s mind, being sort of the quintessential perfect French woman and the cutesiness of it and the romance of it. And it was looped in. The inspiration came from that and turning it on its head and making it feel darker and weirder. And a little bit more spooky, I guess.
It is spooky. Especially when they go to the dinner with the hands being served. Can I just ask what the inspiration for that was?
I don’t think there was any inspiration for it. [Laughs.] I don’t think that there was anything that we could really point to. I just thought it was a funny thing. We needed a reason for her to be sort of running around the city. And we were drilling down on what that might be. And I just had this idea that we knew that we wanted to get her to some big party or event and it just happened. I remember just making a decision that it was hands that [they were] going to be eating so that there wasn’t any crazy inspiration other than just…I guess my own brain, which is pretty dark.
Clearly pretty dark. I also wanted to ask, how did Alexander Skarsgård playing Alexander Skarsgård get into the script?
I think Donald Glover just called him and wrote it into the script. I think we had a couple of people in mind. I think Ryan Gosling was another name that we were throwing around. Alexander was obviously on our shortlist. And it was one of those things, whoever feels comfortable doing this, whoever wants to do this, whoever is able to, that would dictate, obviously, who we ended up going with. But I think that Donald called Alexander Skarsgård, and asked him and pitched it to him. And clearly, he was excited about it and did it. But yeah, I’m not privy to how the conversation went and what the details of the conversation were, but yeah, that was all a Donald thing, actually, and then picking up the phone and reaching out to him.
I don’t know if you were there, but the Liam Neeson cameo also playing himself, that moment is so meta and intriguing on so many levels. Do you know how that came about?
I actually can’t speak about how it ended up happening. That’s again, I think a Donald thing. And him maybe reaching out to Liam. But again, I don’t know what that conversation was like or how many times he reached out, or what that process was. It is just such a crazy meta moment. And that was one of those things that I think that we thought was intriguing in the writer’s room and that we didn’t know for sure it could happen, but obviously, it did happen, which was crazy. But yeah, I think it was just sort of that conversation we were having about cancel culture and Liam, specifically, and all of that stuff that inspired it.
Knowing that you were in the writer’s room for both season three and season four, should we expect more written credits from you for season four?
Yeah, sure. [Laughs.]
Can you tease, at all, what directions season four is going?
I can not tease. I’m forbidden from teasing, but I was involved. There probably is a written credit, I’m sure there is somewhere. But it will be out soon from what I hear. I don’t know for sure when, but I hope that everyone won’t have to wait so long for it.
Also, FX’s John Landgraf has teased that this might not be the last season of “Atlanta.” That the door is always open, it could always come back. Do you believe that? Or, do you feel based on the work you did, that the fourth season is 100% the final season, and that will be it?
I feel like in 2022, we’ve seen that anything and everything could come back, technically.
The number of sequels and reboots and re-imagining, it’s just… Yeah. So in that way, I guess the door technically is always open and I’m sure Hollywood will find a way to squeeze out of everything if it needs to. And if that were the case, I’d feel like we would be creative enough to figure that out. Yeah, I don’t know. I think that the way that we ended it feels like a satisfying ending, but also again, I guess technically, doesn’t necessarily have to be an ending. But from what I understand, it is an ending for us for now.
If it is the end, what are you most proud about working on with “Atlanta”?
Oh, that’s a really good question. I feel like, looking back at it all, I’m so proud that we were just able to do whatever we wanted to do. I mean, it was very special. I feel like we were super supported by the network. And Donald was so supportive in terms of the way he ran the writer’s room. And how he made this show, where it really just empowered everybody and there was no off-limit for us. It was really a playground for us to explore ourselves. I think, as writers and creatives and actors and directors, we were able to just try things. And have the confidence to try things and not be afraid of, “Oh, if this doesn’t work it’s going to be terrible.” Like, we’re all, “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but we tried it.” So, I’m so proud that I was able to work on a show where I was able to do any of that and be a part of any of that. And I obviously have worked on other series where that’s a little less possible, just because of the nature of the other shows. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to work on a show where you’re encouraged to try things. And it doesn’t necessarily matter if it doesn’t seem to “make sense” in a conventional way. Like, “Does it make sense to you as an artist?” And that was really special and being able to thrive in that environment. And to play in that environment was incredibly special.
You’ve already gone through having “Atlanta” shoot seasons three and four back to back. And this week it was announced that “What We Do in the Shadows” has been greenlit for seasons five and six. It’s more helpful when you have that much of a lead time moving forward?
I don’t know how I feel. Yeah, in terms of feeling relief versus not relief. I think it’s great to know that this show has more life and it’s so much more well-received that we even have the opportunity to keep going, that’s the first thing. But in terms of the actual creative aspect, [and] speaking just for myself, I’m always terrified, no matter what. Every time I sit down to write anything or break anything, I think, I’m always a little bit scared. I don’t really know what I’m doing or I don’t know where we’re going just yet. So for me, it is always fresh and new and a little bit daunting. I guess it’s helpful to know ahead of time that there’s more to maybe mentally prepare yourself for that. But I feel like once you’re staring it in the face a little bit, it often feels the same, at least to me.
The third season of “Shadows” ended on a cliffhanger in a way or a tease, mind you. Should we expect something at the end of season four?
There’s always a little bit of a carrot dangling at the end of the season is what I’ll say.
That’s good. Knowing that you’ve been this busy, have you had time to work on anything else?
I always have, I think more recently, now that things have calmed down. Actually now, feeling like I’m carving out the time to do my own project and focus on other things. I did shoot a movie or I didn’t shoot it, I produced it. The amazing Stephen Williams directed a script that I wrote for Searchlight, [“Chevalier”]. And we shot that last summer into fall. So that was an incredible experience and excited for that to be released and to get out there. But yeah, in the meantime, actually, right now I feel like I’m finally coming up for air a little bit. And can actually ask myself the same question that you asked me.
“What We Do In The Shadows” and “Atlanta” are both available on FX and Hulu