Marti Noxon on the Eerie Timeliness of Dietland: “Unless We Find Our Voice, Nothing’s Going to Change”
The super producer talks adapting the revolutionary book to the screen, the myth of male creative genius, and that divisive ‘Buffy’ season.
“Men would rather destroy the world than let us run it,” Julianna Margulies’s chilly magazine exec Kitty Montgomery says in the third episode of Dietland. This line sums up the conflict at the heart of this brash, gloriously strange show about a woman discovering her power.
Though based on the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker, Dietland seems tailor-made for 2018, the year in which women’s anger is finally being heard – and amplified. The show centers on downtrodden magazine writer Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), whose lifelong struggle with her weight takes an unexpected turn when she’s recruited by Calliope House, a mysterious organization founded on body acceptance, that encourages her to break out of her dieting cylce. Plum’s increasing surreal journey unfolds against the backdrop of a series of vigilante crimes against men, carried out by a mysterious group called Jennifer.
Marti Noxon is the woman behind this adaptation, a TV veteran who has worked across a plethora of prestige shows since her beginnings on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though Noxon worked on Buffy from Season 2 onwards, she’s best know for helming the show’s divisive sixth season, which saw its heroine sink into depression and self-destructive sex. That thorny run of episodes set the tone for Noxon’s MO of writing complex, psychologically rich female protagonists. Two years ago, she co-created Lifetime’s dark reality TV satire UnREAL, and later this summer HBO will air her adaptation of the 2006 Gillian Flynn novel Sharp Objects.
In Dietland, the emotional violence of women’s everyday lives – the harassment and social isolation Plum deals with as an overweight woman, the despairing messages she receives as an advice columnist, the magazine’s faux-empowering cover lines – makes a compelling juxtaposition with the actual violence of Jennifer’s methods. “I’m very interested in what ladies do with their anger,” Noxon says, wryly, “as you may have seen from my work!”
Harper’s BAZAAR: I happened to watch the first episode of Dietland in mid-April, when the “incels” conversation was at its peak. To say that it felt timely is such an understatement.
Marti Noxon: This tension that’s been brewing between men and women for as long as I’ve been alive is reaching a boiling point. It really does feel like the idea of the war between men and women becoming literal is not that crazy. What’s interesting is how reluctant women are to defend themselves. We’ve really been taught not to rock the boat, and there was something so radical in this idea of women who take up arms to protect themselves. Later in the season, Plum mentions that three women a day die of domestic violence. That is a real war. We just don’t fight, and unless we find our voice, and there are real consequences, nothing’s going to change. A reckoning is not one guy going to rehab – although the Cosby verdict was pretty satisfying.
There’s so much that makes people who are marginalized – people who don’t fit a certain established mode of pretty and acceptable – feel less than human. And when you feel less than human, I think you’re much less likely to stand up for yourself when bad things are done to you. It took me a long time to draw the lines between these parallel storylines of Plum and her journey with Calliope House, and then Jennifer and this vigilante justice being dealt out by a militia of women. It took me a while to make the connection between those two experiences. Sarai really takes you on this empathetic walkthrough of Plum’s awakening, and I wanted to do the same in the show: to really put you in her shoes, and then go on this adventure of getting woke.
HB: At what point in reading the book did you realize it was a story you wanted to adapt?
MN: Part of the genius of the book is that I kept feeling set up for a more conventional turn. I kept thinking, “Oh, this is the part where Plum meets the man who loves her for herself!” Or “This is the part where she realizes that she wants to sing, and that’ll make her happy” or “This is the part where she gets a makeover and she feels great about herself,” but every time, it just kept taking a turn for the more surreal and more brutal, because no, it doesn’t always work that way. If you don’t like yourself, then none of those things are going to work. And there’s a moment in Episode 6 – not to give too much away – where everything kind of turns, and the show becomes a different show, and that was the moment in the book where I thought, “We’ve just turned the corner into a really radical idea.” That’s when I knew I had to get the rights to this.
HB: The show has a very surreal quality that comes close to magical realism in some moments. How did you settle on that tone?
MN: Yeah, it feels like Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz in that it doesn’t feel quite real. But then, the world stopped feeling quite real to me last year. So, how do we up the ante, when the world already feels so surreal? You turn on the TV and you’re like, “This can’t be happening.” So in order for the show to feel like it’s reflecting the world we live in, those surreal elements had to really pop. We had to push the envelope further. I was struggling early on with how to adapt the book, because it’s so much inside Plum’s head, and I finally had a breakthrough where I realized: I’m just gonna show that. It’s gonna be animated, we can do costumes, we can do fantasies, we can have a guy in a lion costume because I’m obsessed with the Wizard of Oz! That was a big influence, because Austen Media in many ways feels like Emerald City, this place of false fronts. And of course, the women of Jennifer disguise themselves as witches. They had to be old, angry hags, because what is scarier to this world than that?
HB: This may just be because I’m a die-hard Buffy fan, but I saw some parallels between the two shows…
MN: Oh, this show is the closest thing I’ve done to Buffy. It feels like a genre show to me, and the first season feels like a superhero origin story. Usually you dispense with the origin story in an episode or two, but this is a whole season of, “How do you go from a person who’s lived a tiny life to a radical?”
The reason I fell in love with Buffy was that she was still a girl, and she made choices that were often not the best. Season 6 is really divisive, but Buffy’s situation [in that season] felt very really to me as a young woman, having been saddled with this idea of being a perfect person – and then you get out of the house as a young adult and you go a little fucking crazy! I think for that show at that time, we took it almost too far. It’s interesting to see how it’s aged, and it does feel less incendiary and less like a betrayal of the character. But Sarah [Michelle Gellar] still feels like we took it too far, and I also learned that as much as you don’t want to listen to week-by-week audience feedback, people did get a kind of darkness fatigue with that season. By the time we got to killing Tara, people were like “Too dark! Enough! Please!”
HB: Last year, you spoke in support of your former Mad Men colleague Kater Gordon, who alleged that showrunner Matthew Weiner sexually harassed and later fired her. [Ed note: Weiner denied the claims.] “Male creative genius” seems to have been used as an excuse for a lot of terrible behavior in this industry, but is that finally changing?
MN: I hope so. I think we’re still really in the process. Too often, there;s just a machismo around creativity, this myth of machismo, and so for a woman to be perceived as also genus, she has to be macho. You have to forsake femininity if you’re in that club. And I think it really is important to say. You look at the Best Picture nominees, and it’s just one great fucking man movie after another, or at best it’s a movie made by men about women. Lady Bird was a wonderful movie, and this is in no way taking away from Greta Gerwig’s accomplishment, but that shouldn’t be the single female story that gets to be in the race. I can work myself up about this, because having made To The Bone – I mean, we took that to Sundance, we were the second-highest sale at Sundance, and we performed really well for Netflix, and we could not get anybody to take that movie seriously. And I don’t know if that’s because it was about “a lady issue,” although anorexia is not just a lady issue! It’s a serious movie, and people seemed to really like it, but I coud not get any traction because it didn’t fill a slot.
HB: As much as Dietland is a show about women literally fighting back against men, the male characters aren’t all villainous. How did you approach the writing of Dominic and Steven?
MN: This was one of the big changes. Dominic (Adam Rothenberg) was not a character in the book, and Steven (Tramell Tillman) was a female character. We just wanted to populate the world with some men who were also wrestling with this questing of “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Dominic, he’s really asking himself that over the course of the season. And I think having empathy for men at this moment is also important. I have a 16-year-old son, and he’s afraid to talk to women becuase he’s afraid that’s an aggression. I wanted to be clear that this show is not anti-anybody, it’s anti-abuse of power. I think we’ve all felt the frustration of wanting to be an ally, and having a learning curve. As a white, privileged woman, I spent a lot of time thinking I was doing just fine, I was here to help, and now I’ve learned I just need to open my ears and listen more.
Original article at Harper’s Bazaar