‘Wilfred’ Creator Jason Gann Talks Mental Illness, Success and Elijah Wood [INTERVIEW]
When it comes to the idea of ‘man’s best friend,’ it seems that FX’s smash hit series ‘Wilfred’ is determining for all of us just what that expression really means. The series stars Elijah Wood as Ryan, a manic-depressive who, after attempting suicide, is introduced to his neighbor’s dog Wilfred—played by series creator Jason Gann. In the show, however, Ryan sees Wilfred not as a regular pooch but as a grown man dressed in a less-than-fashionable dog suit. Throughout season one we saw Wilfred act as both a saboteur of Ryan’s life and, in a weird way, his guardian angel.
The show is uniquely and awfully funny with some definite dark turns, however, it never ceases to be entertaining. It deals with heavy topics such as pride, fear, anger, trust, depression and mental illness.
We recently spoke with Jason Gann–the creator and co-star–about working on the show, how it got started, and it’s upcoming season, which begins June 28th on FX.
How’s everything going on production of season two?
Great! We actually finished shooting on Friday night about 1:30 in the morning.
You must be thrilled about the premiere.
Yeah, I am excited. It’s weird though. We actually shot the premiere three months ago, so I’m most excited about the stuff that was recently shot. But I am excited, really, for fans of the show to see it and to see what their response is. I love this season. I think it’s really funny.
Where do we start off in the second season? Some time has passed?
Well we have a pre-premiere episode. It’s online June 14th. That shows the length between the finale and the premiere. It’s got Robin Williams in it. I’m so excited. It sort of gets things back on a traditional Wilfred-level playing field. Then it opens up a bit like season one with the heady type stuff. There’s not much I can say without giving too much away, you know?
Absolutely. Season one explored a lot of angles. What are you touching on in season two?
It’s funny. We write the stories and then find that theme. Then we sort of have to massage it to the theme, sometimes vice versa. I’m the worst at remembering what the theme is. [laughs] There’s only so many basics you can do like fear, trust and truth before you have it start going Trust.3, you know what I mean? [laughs] We don’t want to be a slave to those themes but sometimes you can’t help it.
But all the while it’s kind of a buddy comedy between Wilfred and Ryan, a bromance really. There’s a lot of boxes we have to check before we say we’ve got a solid story. And then try to make it really funny as well. [laughs] Of all the shows I’ve worked on, this US version of ‘Wilfred’ is definitely the hardest to do but also the most rewarding.
Those themes, did you decide to do that because you have an interest in them or do they just tie so well into comedy?
I think that naturally that comes out of my brand of comedy that I’ve come up with over the years. It’s sort of dramedy really. It’s funny, sometimes in life; shit just gets so hard that you really just have to laugh at it. When you go through the ring of fire and come out the other side you can kind of look at life in a more comedic way. I’m very confident, and I think David would agree, that we didn’t know when we first started making this show that we were going to delve into the pain of recovery and any kind of mental illness, but we touched on to something that I think is very therapeutic to all of us.
We think you guys hit something there that a lot of people can really relate to.
Yeah, I get a lot of fans writing to me. I’m always humbled with how much of an impact this has had on their lives. It really is why I do it. Sometimes it’s not the most glamorous job, getting into a dog suit. I’m a clown trying to bring a lot of joy to people. [laughs] In the mid-nineties, that’s exactly what ‘Seinfeld’ did for me. For a half an hour that day the dark clouds parted and I was actually happy. Then when the episode ended I just wasn’t anymore. And I remember that I realized I felt that was my purpose, to help people help forget about their miserable stinking lives at times and just help them laugh. [laughs] So every time I hear from them and someone says it has that affect on them it makes me feel great.
So what made you get into writing and performing?
Well, Australian film and television, to survive there you have to adapt something else. But I realized I was never going to get ahead, no matter how good I was. So I started writing short films and the third one I did was ‘Wilfred,’ and it just sort of really resonated and exploded. Then somewhere down the line, over the next few years, it became my first love.
As a star of the show as well as a creator and writer, do you find it difficult wearing various hats?
Its less difficult here than in Australia. In Hollywood, this is where everything was created—TV and film—so people in this industry have a lot of respect for people that can do it. But in Australia it’s not such a big thing. [laughs]. So when I came here and they saw the two shows I starred in and did at networks they seemed amazed and saw me like a commodity. I originally did all that stuff in Australia out of necessity, so now that I’m in Hollywood all of those skills are sort of coming into place.
Does the American version of ‘Wilfred’ stay close to the Australian version?
Not really. It’s become it’s own creature that I’m so excited about. The Australian ‘Wilfred’ feels like the undergraduate or high school part before going into University. The idea that this guy can see a dog who torments him is the same, but we never went into the mental illness part or the whole trippy element in the Australian version. Wilfred, the character, has really changed. He used to just be a saboteur of Adam, who was the Elijah character in Australia. The guardian angel aspect didn’t exist. The new elements of messing with Ryan, poisoning him with chocolate, those elements are a lot of fun to play and just came out of the new production.
So when you started the American version did you plan on going into it with a new angle?
No, I really have to credit David Zuckerman with that. When we met with potential show runners, David’s take on it was so fresh and really had potential to go off in a whole new direction.
In the beginning of the series, people seemed skeptical about having Elijah Wood in a comedy series. How has the experience been working with him?
My thought was always that I’m in that dog suit and things can get really silly really quickly. [laughs] When I first did the character ten years ago in a short film I think people liked it because I didn’t play it up. I played the truth of this guy that’s caught in a dog’s body. The other people that we saw in America, I didn’t feel a connection with them. They were either competing with me or their comedic energy was off. To find a comedic actor to play Ryan’s part real was tremendously difficult. I’m not discrediting them because there’s a place for all different types of comedy but you were always aware that they were having a joke. It’d be a wink or a bit of a smirk and that just didn’t work for this. And when Elijah came in he brought exactly what we wanted. It was like we were family or something. He makes me look good because he believes in a character.
How did this idea come about?
[laughs] Well, I was baked one night and this friend told me he went on a date with this girl. When they went back to her house he got cock-blocked by her dog. So I just started putting a voice to this dog, interrogating him about their date. We thought it was hilarious and wrote it down straight away. A week later we shot the short film. We worked out what Wilfred looked like and I did a bunch of children’s theater during my early days as an actor and thought it was hilarious if I could figure out this dog like that. I wanted as crappy a dog suit as possible. And now here we are. It was just a joke and here I am.
Well, it’s a great show and we cannot wait for the premiere. It’s going to be great.
Oh, thanks a lot, Kyle. I appreciate it buddy.