If you haven’t watched the final episode of “The Flight Attendant” yet, stop. Put the phone down or close your laptop. Do not continue below the fold, because this interview with series creator and executive producer Steve Yockey is full of spoilers. And the twists and turns are so good in this inspired thriller that you don’t want to ruin it.
A quick recap for those who have enjoyed what has turned out to be HBO Max’s real breakthrough. A series with increasing buzz and critical acclaim that is likely to become a bingeplayer for the streamer in the months to come. And potentially Emmy contender to boot.
Based on the 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian, the television adaptation centers on Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco, the performance of her career), a flight attendant for Imperial Airlines whose obvious alcoholism is either ignored by her friends and co-workers or viewed as just “Cassie is a party animal” behavior. Her lifestyle has major consequences , however, and after one of her hook ups, she awakens to find herself in the hotel room of Alex Sokolov (Michiel Huisman), one of her first class passengers who is now very, very dead.
Cassie returns to New York where she enlists the help of her best friend and lawyer Ani Mouradian (Zosia Mamet, fantastic) while trying to navigate a visit from her gay brother (T.R. Knight) who she has a strained relationship. With FBI Agents (Yasha Jackson, Noland Gerard Funk) increasingly suspicious of her connection to Alex’s death, she begins to investigate her hook up’s not-so sterling business dealings. That puts her at odds with the mysterious Miranda Croft (Michelle Gomez, superb as always). As Cassie gets deeper and deeper into Alex’s world she recruits Ani’s “don’t call him my boyfriend” boyfriend Max (Deniz Akdeniz, scene-stealing), her co-worker Shane (Griffin Matthews) and a sexy hookup, Buckley (Colin Woodell) to assist her. Oh, and her closest work colleague, Megan (Rosie Perez), might just be a North Korean spy? There’s a ton going on in this often hilarious and entertaining thriller that makes “The Undoing” seem like a walk in the park (although we can’t get enough of Nicole Kidman walking in parks, HBO).
Yockey jumped on the phone to discuss a season that faced a production nightmare because of the pandemic, the impressive cast, whether a second season is in the works and much, much more.
One last time: There are major spoilers regarding “The Flight Attendant” below. If you have not seen all eight episodes of the series, read on at your own peril.
The Playlist: How does it feel to be carrying HBO Max on your shoulders?
Steve Yockey: [Laughs.] Oh. I feel like they have the entire Miyazaki library, so I have good company. I’m really happy. Look, HBO Max and Warner Brothers both, I would say, kind of went out on a limb with some of the creative in this project, and really were continuously supportive all the way through. So, I’m happy that they’re having some success from it.
You sort of experienced one of the worst possible nightmarse for a showrunner. You were in the middle of filming and the pandemic happened. And then you were out of commission for, I think six months?
Yeah. We were down for six months, and we came back up and had a month of prep. So, we did take a little extra time to prepare to come back, because of all the safety precautions. So, it was about seven months, and then we started shooting again.
Did your plans for the final two episodes change at all because you had either those six months to think about things or actors or locations were no longer available? For example, did they showdown with Buckley, that takes place in the hotel room in the finale, was that always how it was meant to be?
Yeah. So, we didn’t have to cut any big set pieces, because we were operating using a metric ton of PPE and using multiple times a week testing and all of the safety precautions with the zones. We were able to maintain our fight choreography, and we were able to maintain the two kisses that we still had to film. We had to film Cassie and Alex’s final kiss, which obviously is very important. But we also had to film Annie and Max’s final kiss. And so, we were able to get everything we needed to. I think really where we had difficulty and had to change some things were more in locations. But then, HBO Max provided us with an entire extra stage at Kaufman Astoria [Studios]. And our production designer got creative, and so we built a lot of places that we were going to go out to, like the hospital and the jail cell and places like that, so that it could be in a contained environment. So, that was sort of the biggest logistical challenge we faced, and above and beyond safety protocols.
The scenes that take place in Italy, had you shot those months before?
Yes. We shot, obviously all of our Bangkok stuff in November, right at the top. And then, we shot all of our Rome stuff in January, before we started back up in New York in February. [When the shut down happened] we had only finished the first two days of filming episode six. So really, we had three episodes left to shoot when we went down. But luckily, all of the Rome stuff in eight was already in the cam.
Was Michelle Gomez always in the show? And did you have to re-shoot her entire scenes? I’m sort of confused on her casting announcement and from what I’ve read online.
There was a creative change, and she was added to the show a little bit later. But, we only had to pick up a couple of scenes. And then, she’s just sort of dropped in pretty seamlessly from there. She joined us during episode three, so it wasn’t that far into it.
Yeah. There was the timing in the announcements. PR is a whole world that I don’t understand. You probably understand it much better than I do. But, yeah. She joined us during episode three, actually when we were filming the train sequence.
Deniz Akdeniz was never going to be in the final episode?
Right. Yeah. We felt very confident that we were going to bow tie their storyline in seven and then launch Annie into the FBI storyline. And then, we knew we were going to come around to have that wrap up. We wanted stories to start dovetailing, and. I mean, we love Max. We love Dennis. But he’s one of those great characters that when he shows up, it’s fun, and it’s like, “Oh good, Max.” And then when he’s not there, the show can keep moving. It got pretty lean in eight. We had a lot to get done in that finale. So, we decided that we would go ahead and wrap their love story in seven.
Obviously, the big reveal is that Griffon Matthews, who plays Cassie’s co-worker Shane at Imperial Airways, is a CIA agent.
That’s one of them.
There is a moment where you show that Buckley, for example, had been in all these places throughout the series watching Cassie. And if we go back and watch episodes, maybe we can see him where we didn’t realize he was there before, maybe not. Is that the same for Shane? Did you guys drop hints along the way and nobody just caught it? Or, was it meant to be a total surprise?
I think it’s meant to be more of a surprise. There’s some subtle stuff. There was actually one kind of big giveaway moment that we put in seven, that we pulled out because we realized it robbed the fun of the reveal in eight. But there’s Shane questioning Meghan about, “Oh, you have a friend in Rome? I don’t know about this person,” stuff like that, in episode three. Like, kind of just being inquisitive about what Meghan’s up to. Also, if you watch the first episode again, he’s got the whole bit where he’s speaking Russian to the FBI agents and it seems like a little lark, and he is trying to get information out of them. So, there are little things, all the way through, but not in the same way that the Buckley reveal is built.
Over the six month break you saw your footage. I’m sure you were editing those episodes.
I’m hoping you were happy with what you had.
This, in theory, is a “limited series.” But, you end in eight with an open door for all of these characters to return. Was that a decision that was made during the hiatus or was that always the plan?
As far as I know, to this point, it is a limited series. I’ll say that. So, I would say that we thought it was really important that Cassie’s story had a beginning, middle, and an end, and I think that it does. I think she has a very clean emotional arc through the series and the story gets wrapped up. There are some breadcrumbs at the end that I think is what you’re referring to. There could be another Cassie Bowden flight attendant adventure. That was always kind of like, “Why cut your nose off if you don’t have to?” But honestly, for us, it was making sure that the end of the finale felt dramatically satisfying and people had seen a complete story. And then, if there’s another adventure to go on, it will be an all-new adventure.
Shane hints that his boss might want to recruit Cassie into the CIA in a minor capacity. Have you day dreamed at all over who might play that role?
It’s also hinted that that boss is a woman.
Yeah. I probably do have dreams, but I’m a little bit superstitious about talking about that kind of stuff before. I don’t like to put the cart before the horse.
I totally understand that. In terms of aesthetics, one of the cool things about the show is, is you guys do these split-screen window moments. It’s very much a sort of a 60’s movie homage. Who’s idea was that? And what made you guys commit to it for the series?
All of the split-screen stuff is written into the scripts. And [director] Susanna Fogle came on in the first two episodes, and we filmed all the split screens. Obviously, we bonded over a reference, which is De Palma’s “Dressed To Kill,” and his use of split screens. And obviously, Alred Hitchcock was a huge inspiration for me because Kaley’s playing the male role in every Hitchcock movie, that are thrillers. And the tiling, I think really helped capture this 60’s, this throwback thriller identity that I wanted the show to have.
We’ve all seen her Zoisa on “Girls,” among other roles here and there. That being said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her be as good as she is in this series. How did you know she would be great for this role? Who suggested casting her in it?
Our original casting director for the pilot, John Papsidera, he was like, “Oh, it might be interesting to see Zosia for this role.” And we were like, “O.K., bring her in.” And honestly, I mean, she came in in jeans and a white wife-beater, with her hair up and all of her tattoos visible. But then, she read with Kaley, and their chemistry was instantaneous. I refused to believe that they did not know each other before this project. And her energy is so different but complementary to what Kaley is doing with Cassie. But I think it was instantaneously obvious to all of us that she was the best choice. And then, once we got into the series and she started delivering, it was like, oh, good for us, because we definitely made the right call.
There’s so many actors in this who I feel like after seeing them in here, we’re going to see them in tons of stuff down the road. Colin Woodell, who plays Buckley, Nolan Gerard Funk as one of the FBI Agents and even Griffith. A bunch of other actors who’ve been working for years, but it feels like this show gave them a spotlight they hadn’t found before.
Well first of all, casting directors are brilliant and invaluable. So, there is no underestimating their importance. But, look, we took actors who can do a lot of different things. Everyone in the show is a utility player. Everyone in the show is not like the, “I’m just a leading man, or I’m just the female ingenue.” Everyone has a full toolbox. And then, we just gave them, in a show that is in a lot of ways, very crazy, we gave them permission to use all their tools. And so, I feel like the show itself is a great platform for these performers. And in return, they gave us really amazing performances.
Have you seen the reaction to the show online?
I learned a lesson from my playwriting career, which is that it can be a stellar review, and then one line in it that’s mildly critical makes me want to commit ritual [suicide]. So, I think that I’ve done best to avoid pretty much what’s been written about the show. My reps are keeping me abreast that it’s mostly a positive response. And of course, on social media, there are hings that are being tweeted directly at me. I guess people wouldn’t tweet negative stuff directly at me. I don’t know. Maybe they would. But, it’s been largely positive, and I’m just thrilled. And I know that the network and the studio are very happy, which is great. So, yeah. I’m really glad it’s reaching people.
All eight episodes of “The Flight Attendant” are available to binge on HBO Max