How Francesca Sloane Reimagined a More Relatable ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

Updating a 2005 action movie, one most remembered for a tabloid frenzy inspired by the on-set romance between its stars, was not on Francesca Sloane’s to-do list. And yet, Donald Glover called her a few years ago with that very proposition.

Sloane had been writing and producing on the final two seasons of Atlanta, a gig that cemented her membership in TV’s art house, and she anticipated her next project would be similarly less mainstream — an erotic comedy featuring animatronic dog puppets, for that matter. But Glover’s pitch was convincing. “I laughed, and then he explained why it’d be cool,” she says. “I was intrigued, then excited and then it became an undeniable ‘yes.’”

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Where their Mr. & Mrs. Smith landed is a more subtle spin on the married spy conceit — one that puts priority on relationship dynamics and finds absurd and often surreal parallels in espionage and assassinations. Again, it’s not really what Sloane had planned. But she initially didn’t see any of this for herself. Before she was writing for TV, she was making avant-garde video art — ”really lucrative for a non-trust fund kid to pursue” — and it was a whim of a screenplay, originally just a backdoor play for a career in higher education, that turned her on to the medium. Looking back now, she realizes writing was probably always in the cards.

“My grandparents, who were from El Salvador, were both writers,” says Sloane. Though they were on decidedly different paths — her grandfather, a journalist by trade, wrote science fiction and her grandmother, a poet, penned what Sloane calls “very sexy Jesus poems.”

“Part of my family, our genes, is to tell stories and laugh at tragedy,” she explains. “I don’t know if that’s a Latina way of coping or what, but I never in a million years imagined doing it for a career.”

That career has flourished. Now 36, Sloane logged some impressive entries on her résumé very quickly. In addition to Atlanta, she wrote with Noah Hawley on Fargo and Veena Sud on Seven Seconds. But as co-creator and sole showrunner of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which sees all eight episodes drop Friday on Prime Video, Sloane is stepping out onto an unfamiliar platform. It’s her first time showrunning, and her first time answering to the expectations that come with any remake … however loose.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter over Zoom in January, Sloane talked about finding her (and the show’s) tonal sweet spot, pivoting from the collaboration with initial star and co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge and why her show’s travel budget — Lake Como! The Dolomites! — kind of had to break the bank.

There’s been this massive shift in TV — in terms of the blurring of lines between comedy and drama. Atlanta obviously played a big part in that. Did you identify that tone as your sweet spot early on?

It probably arrived in an evolution. When you start out, and when you begin to take yourself seriously, you tend to be very dramatic. It’s almost like a middle schooler going through puberty. All of a sudden, everything feels really heavy-handed. I feel like my writing began very dramatic, because I wanted to be taken seriously. Then I started to become comfortable with the fact that that wasn’t necessary. I’m somebody who does toe the line of laughing at things that make other people uncomfortable. I enjoy taking moments of humanity, sitting with them, and finding why they’re funny later. Writing with Donald and our friends on Atlanta, I realized, “Oh, this is actually the place where my voice feels the most natural.” That kind of just very organically seeped into the tone of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

IP seems to find writers and filmmakers through different channels. Was this something that was offered to you and Donald — or was this something that you sought out? 

We definitely did not go looking for this. (Laughs.) Michael Schaefer, who at the time was working for New Regency, is a producer and one of Donald’s good friends. He came to Donald with the project. Donald and I both knew we wanted to do something together. We just had no idea what. When Donald called and said, “Hey, do you want to make Mr. & Mrs. Smith?”, I truly thought he was kidding.

Francesca Sloane
Francesca Sloane

Studios love remakes and reboots, but audiences are increasingly skeptical. We’re speaking the same day that a Mean Girls musical movie based on a Broadway show based on a movie based on a self-help book premieres. These are wild times. Is working with a known premise a bigger help or hindrance in this moment? 

When you describe it that way, it really does make it sound like we’re living in a simulation of a simulation. I think it’s a mixed bag. Part of what excited us about this was taking on the confusion, the trolling, the hate. I don’t want to speak for Donald — but, for myself, there’s always going to be a little bit of that punk kid in me … that naughty side of me that’s excited to get the big reaction. At the same time, in a wonderful naive way, I don’t think I fully understood the magnitude. When you take something on like this, and you want to surprise people, the pressure is then on truly delivering. I just really hope that we make good on that promise. Whether you love it or hate it, we really deliver on the big swing.

This is really a show about a new relationship — the episodes are even titled “First Date,” “First Vacation” and “Do You Want Kids?” — and the spy thing is essentially a delivery vehicle? At what point in the process did you identify that you wanted to take a more grounded approach?

Very early days. We first went down one road that felt a little bit more conventional, in terms of leaning into the action story. It just felt so unnatural. And if something feels like it’s not working, if you feel like you’re hitting your head against the wall, pivot until it starts to feel easier. In talking to Hiro Murai and Stephen Glover, Donald’s brother, we all kept arriving back to these relationship milestones being the touchstone. As long as we made sure that the spy missions spoke directly to these two people becoming closer and building to the finale, we felt like we’d be in good shape. Anytime we got into the weeds with the spy stuff, we would remind ourselves that the show is about the relationship.

When this was originally announced, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was attached. Was she attached as a writer as well, or just as a star? 

She was attached as a writer as well. When Donald and I initially discussed this, I remember saying to him, “Whoever Mrs. Smith is, we definitely have to find somebody that almost feels meta in terms of casting alongside you.” What Phoebe did for Fleabag is what Donald did for Atlanta. It felt like that made so much sense. She was going to come on as an actor and then asked us, “How would you feel about me writing it?” And being, to this day, as huge a Phoebe Waller-Bridge fan as there is in the world, I nearly fell over with excitement. But Donald and I had such a vision for this. Ultimately, we went in different directions, very amicably, all of us. Phoebe really respected that. She gave us her blessing to go off with the vision of what the show is today.

Having originally started writing for Phoebe, how did this change when you cast Maya Erskine in her stead?   

Initially we wanted Maya just because we wanted Maya. It wasn’t about anything beyond Maya having this innate ability to advocate for the underdog. She has this generous vulnerability. She’s hilarious, and we also thought she was a surprising choice. As we kept going forward with her, other things came into play. Identity became part of the fabric, even though that wasn’t the initial intention. So, without giving the audience a soap boxy, “Here’s your vegetables about others and society,” it felt like a strength that these two are not your conventional spies.

One of the more laugh-out-loud funny scenes of the series is this moment where Maya’s character is in a bathroom just before an interrogation and makes the most absurd face in the mirror to psych herself up. Are moments like that scripted or improvised?   

We scripted that part, because I can really relate to that moment. We were all dying! When I met with her on Zoom, after she had met with Donald, I told her that this show is really about those in-between moments. For instance, when do the spies have to use the bathroom? Maybe there’s a moment where one of them even has IBS?  And Maya said, “Oh my God, if I get to play Jane, please let it be the Jane that has IBS.” That’s when I thought, “Oh, this is exactly the person that we need to play this part — the person who wants to be on camera with IBS.”

Maya Erskine, Donald Glover in Mr. and Mrs. Smith
Maya Erskine and Donald Glover in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

There are a lot of epic location shoots across Europe. In scripting that, was even a small part of you pushing to see how much international travel Amazon would pay for?

I wish I was that cool. Moving forward, that’s something that I’ll start thinking about, but it was honestly more aligned with how we could deliver on those spy tropes. For me, the most important thing — the type of writer that I am, the type of writer that Donald is — is the relationship and the character study. That said, you still want to make sure that you’re delivering on the promise of this show. We went in such a different direction that I felt like we owed the audience the spy fun. Very early days, we asked ourselves how those tropes influence the geography. We thought about Hitchcock, in terms of skiing. Obviously, at some point, we want some gorgeous boat chase. And you need some kind of fabulous car chase that’s somewhere in Europe. That gave us these boxes to check, in terms of travel, including that quick jungle moment.

Can you talk to me about your dynamic with Donald? You’re the solo showrunner, but you’re also working with your co-creator who is the star.

When you work on something this hard, hopefully it makes you closer — which I think happened with us. There was a lot of trust in place. He really did let me lead. I will forever be grateful that he trusted me that way. It could have really gone in another direction. Because, Donald is brilliant. I don’t know anybody that has his mind. So I wanted to lean on him and collaborate as much as I possibly could. All of the people that worked on the show, all of our guest directors, approached it with the philosophy of, “Let the best idea win regardless of where it comes from.”

Amazon has really been picking and choosing when a show is delivered weekly, a few episodes at a time or all at once. This is coming out all at once. Do you have a preference for how it’s watched — or did you talk about that in the writers room?

The moment that I think outside of the tiny little room of whoever I’m creating with, I become a neurotic psychopath. So I can’t think about that stuff without letting an existential crisis enter the field. With that said … I do think, when I was younger, there was a lot of cynicism in regard to storytelling and not necessarily thinking about something as just enjoyable. As I’m getting older, there’s something that’s really refreshing in telling the story and in watching the story when you feel like you want to sit down and spend time in that world. In that way, I think it lends itself very naturally to being a binge watch. I just want it to be a fun ride.

What’s next for you?

Outside of a possible season two, making sure I’m still collaborating with friends. Yvonne Hana Yi, who wrote on Mr. & Mrs. Smith as well, is an amazing writer and a good friend. We’re trying to put together this show that she created. It’s an erotic comedy about a woman who sort of loses God and finds them again by way of animatronic talking dog puppets. It’s played very straight, but it is actually the most charming thing I’ve read in so long. I’m kind of obsessed with it. That’s something that I hope the world will get to see one day.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is now streaming all eight episodes on Prime Video.

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