[This story contains spoilers from Afterparty season two, episode seven, “Ulysses.”]
Peter Atencio’s Hollywood chops have mainly been planted in the garden of comedy for his more than 20-year career — Key & Peele, the Jean-Claude Van Johnson series and this year’s satirical mobster film The Machine, to name a few.
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But when old friends Phil Lord and Christopher Miller invited the 40-year-old helmer to direct what he was told would be one of the most complex and challenging episodes of the second season of The Afterparty — Apple TV+’s whodunnit murder mystery series — he tells The Hollywood Reporter that a more dramatic approach was needed to get to the core of the funny.
How serious can directing comedy get? Atencio breaks it down for The Hollywood Reporter in a recent Zoom interview.
How did you find your way to The Afterparty team?
I’ve known [creators] Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller], for some time. I want to say it’s been almost 10 years. But I first met them when they were doing Last Man on Earth, and I came on very early in that process because the network was asking them for a sizzle reel to show at Upfronts since the show was picked up straight to series. I also want to say they were finishing up work on 21 or 22 Jump Street. And they didn’t have time to make this little five-minute presentation for the idea of that show. They had seen my work on Key & Peele and said, “Hey, you want to do this thing?” I met with them and we just had this super fun time working together.
And since then, I keep begging them and saying, “Hey guys, I love working with you, let’s keep finding stuff to do.” And they keep saying yes! So, I feel very lucky to be among the people that they enjoy collaborating with. It’s a hell of lot of fun working with those guys.
Your season two episode (“Ulysses“) involved the characters Ulysses (John Cho) and his sister-in-law Vivian (Vivian Wu) becoming national dance champions and entering into a forbidden affair that tragically breaks the heart of his loving half-brother, Feng (Ken Jeong), and nearly tears their family apart. Unlike the others, your production required intricate dance moves and shots of Cho’s character traveling around the world Indiana Jones-style. What film genres influenced this episode?
When they pitched it to me, they were very forthcoming by saying this is a really big episode: “It’s very ambitious, we don’t quite know how we are going to pull it off, but we think you would be perfect for it.” And they pitched it to me genre-wise by saying, “It’s a big awards-baby romantic epic! Now, do with that what you will.”
Once I read the script — and Brenda [Hsueh] wrote an amazing script — I think because of the backstory of Ulysses and the fact it was about John Cho and Vivian’s characters and this sort of illicit love, I went immediately to [filmmaker] Wong Kar-Wai. I rewatched In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express and 2046. I just wanted to immerse myself in really rich visual, sumptuous romantic epics. And I watched some Merchant Ivory movies and some Anthony Minghella, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, because I think the kind of globetrotting aspect of the story was something [the writers and showrunners] were really excited about. It’s that sort of big epic sprawl. So, it definitely plays in both of those genres.
So, did you stay in one decade per say?
Yeah, they kind of wanted it to. There was a little bit of a ‘90s influence, because it takes place mostly in the ‘90s, but it’s also big Oscar-y movies, like kind of melodramatic acting. But they wanted it to be kind of real. That was the fun challenge; it has to be funny, but there’s really a love story we are telling between Ulysses and Vivian. And forbidden love comes up and the ramifications of it. We wanted the romance to be real and yet ridiculous at the same time.
The dancing is such an intricate part of the story. Did you have the actors take formal lessons?
Yeah, that was the other fun part! A longtime friend of mine, Kathryn Burns, was the choreographer for the whole show. And because this episode was so dance heavy, they started rehearsals with them really early. So, Kathryn had a really huge input and impact on the episode as well, because dancing is such a big part. To the actors’ credit, they took it super seriously. They threw themselves into it and rehearsed a ton. And they had to learn how to be credible ballroom dancers, and then learn how to do tangos. And then John’s and Poppy [Liu]’s character had to do this amazing dance scene at the wedding. They did a ton of work with the dance.
As a director, is it harder doing comedy than drama?
I think so. Comedy is so subjective. We can kind of universally agree on what’s sad, what’s dramatic. But I think to try to make something funny universally is pretty challenging, and there are so many opinions and tastes that come into that. The thing I love about The Afterparty, and the kind of stuff I find myself working on, is when there is also a reality of the emotional story; when there is also a desire to tell the compelling story and make it funny, it feels like there is twice as much stress that goes into that. But at the same time, it’s really fun when it pays off and works and catches people by surprise.
If you are straddling that line between serious drama and comedy, were there concerns from your leads on how to perform their characters?
They came into it like, “What is the tone of this? How do we play this?” And I was like: The more committed you are, the more real you play it, that’s what is going to make it funny. I mean, you have these people talking about dancing like it’s the most important thing in the world. Once they realized, “Oh, I just have to fully lean into the drama, and that will make the comedy funny,” then they had a blast doing it.
How did you do the globetrotting scenes?
That is something I am really proud of. When I first came in, they were expecting to do more of that through visual effects. But I was very adamant that there had to be a way we can be really creative with how we use locations to put the viewer in and make it feel as rich and real as possible. And I have to give it up to the locations department who did an amazing job. They were like, “Hey, we found this Spanish house that will be great for Spain, but it has this old pavilion in the back, maybe we can dress it up to look like an old Hindu temple.” So, it was really a group effort where people would say, “Oh, that looks like an Irish pub, but it’s close to the beach where we can do the dancing for Tampa.”
How has working on Afterparty influenced your future endeavors creating and directing in this industry?
Especially in doing features, most of that work has moved overseas in the last few years. And I’ve had a spell where I worked in Europe pretty non-stop. So, the opportunity to be back in L.A., working with an L.A. crew, working with a Cadillac crew that they had on this show! It was like working with the best of the best. It was super fun to play in their sandbox and nice to get home shooting.
Do you think there will be a third season of The Afterparty?
I would love to be a part of it. The show is just a blast to work on. I certainly think there will be. We’ve got to make a deal that gets the actors and writers what they richly deserve, and hopefully then everybody is back at work and they are working on season three.
And, who do you think is the killer?
(Laughs.) I’m biased because John [Cho] really had all of the heavy lifting to do. He really put that episode on his back! And I think the performance he gives is just incredible to watch. There are just so many layers to it. I am really excited for people to see his performance. But everyone on the show is just an assassin of comedy!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The Afterparty‘s second season finale releases Wednesday on Apple TV+.
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