ALTADENA, California — The first episode written by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch for their new Apple TV+ series, “Roar,” was also the most intimate. In the episode, a woman played by Cynthia Erivo returns to her demanding job after the birth of her second child. Shortly afterwards, she discovers strange bite marks on her body. In a nerve-wracking, surreal moment, she pulls a human tooth from the back of her hand.
“That might be the most personal thing we’ve ever written,” Flahive said during an interview at her home here earlier this month. Balanced over Pasadena, Flahive’s neighborhood was quiet and windy, and as we sat in her living room, the light changed to a soft late afternoon glow.
Flahive looked at Mensch, who nodded and added, “We both really related to that story, with its combination of maternal guilt and maternal ambivalence. So it was something we had easy access to, but within a genre that would be challenging for us.”
Very loosely based on a book of short stories by Irish author Cecelia Ahern, the show’s eight episodes each focus on a different woman (famous faces besides Erivo include Issa Rae and Nicole Kidman, who is also an executive producer), while the anthology format allowed the creators to play with genres ranging from horror to western. As creators and showrunners, Flahive and Mensch had the final say on nearly every aspect of the series, which debuted earlier this month.
Flahive and Mensch met in 2006 as young playwrights at the Ars Nova Theater in New York City, and years later they collaborated in the writer’s room on “Nurse Jackie.” But they are best known as the creators of the Netflix comedy drama “GLOW,” which fictionalized the production of a real-life 1980s TV show called “The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” In “GLOW,” the characters destroy each other in choreographed matches while wearing vibrant leotards with their hair teased up.
Although “GLOW” garnered a slew of Emmy nominations and won over the course of its run, Netflix abruptly canceled its fourth and final season in October 2020, citing additional costs and security concerns related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
When asked about that decision, Flahive and Mensch did not mince their words. “It’s like we built a house that we weren’t allowed to live in,” Flahive said. They had already written the entire season, including the series finale, and shot an episode and a half before production stopped. Mensch chimed in: “Although I take some weird solace in the fact that the original ‘GLOW’, back in the ’80s, was also unceremoniously canceled.”
Fortunately, the two had “Roar” waiting in the wings. Sitting cross-legged on a plush green carpet in Flahive’s living room, the women snacked on zucchini bread as they talked about their long friendship, their fruitful working relationship, and the women of “Roar.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What appealed to you about the source material of “Roar”?
LIZ FLAHIVE When we read the book, it felt like there was a lot of room for us to get in and do our own thing, because the stories are three to 12 pages; they are quite sparse.
CARLY MENSCH I think it started off thinking, “These are really tacky premises, and I’m still thinking about it three weeks later, and I don’t know how we’re going to get this on television.” For example, how would we make a television episode where a woman sits on a shelf for an entire episode? I don’t know! It almost felt like a challenge.
There are 30 stories in the book of Ahern. How did you choose which one to include?
FLAHIVE After bringing in the other writers, we sent them the book and asked them to pick some stories to respond to.
MENSCH It was surprising to see what people chose because it was almost never the ones we came in with.
I read somewhere that you initially had no intention of adapting the episode where a woman is in a relationship with a duck.
MENSCH It was one of the first things that Halley [Feiffer, a writer] said to us. She said, “I actually feel like the duck was doing mansplaining and being a little aggressive.” With every step we kept saying, “Just to be clear, this is a story where it’s just she and a duck? And we’re talking about a real duck, right? No CGI duck?”
FLAHIVE Many people wondered.
MENSCH I have to say this is where super producer Nicole Kidman really made it happen.
FLAHIVE On a phone call, when people questioned that episode, she said, “If we’re not doing this story, I don’t know why we’re doing the show. This is exactly what we should be doing.”
I liked that you allowed your characters to have complex relationships with themselves as women. I’m thinking in particular of that episode where a woman’s husband convinces her to sit on a shelf. In the end, she makes a controversial choice.
MENSCH Sometimes you have to free up some space and think, okay, how is this character feeling right now? She feels like a badass. She feels she made a good choice. But then in the blink of an eye…
Feminism is a complex and sometimes contradictory set of beliefs.
FLAHIVE I know that episode will piss people off, and I know it will be misread. And I don’t mind, because I’m glad it exists. I think it’s familiar.
MENSCH That was the game of the series: We love stories about messy women, but these stories have to be very clear – almost reductive – to get their point across. So how do we both do it?
You’ve called these stories “feminist fables.” Why did you want to make fables? And what appealed to you about working with surrealism on screen?
MENSCH Fables feel deceptively universal. They feel like they’re trying to communicate something bigger, and I think the fun for us undermined that. Like, in what ways are they a little hollow? And in what ways are there uncomfortable resonances? Also, fables give you the chance to amplify something, which is an exciting power. It’s like, what if we put so much effort into that choice, that idea, or that feeling? What if we took it literally?
FLAHIVE We’re pretty naturalistic writers at the end of the day, and we went into a few of these episodes because we thought, well, it could work… or it could conceptually fall apart on day 2, and we will have to figure it out.
There’s something about the high thread of trying to deliver surrealism or a magic trick in each episode that enlightens our brains in a different way. At least that’s the hope: that if you look at it, it will play with your brain differently.
Can you tell me how you first met?
MENSCH We were playwrights who both loved each other’s work, and then we both got on TV separately. But the real origin story is that Liz was an EP on ‘Nurse Jackie’.
FLAHIVE I had all the jobs on that one show for the entire run. I was a staff writer, I was a story editor, I was a producer. I mean, it was high school. I finally had some hiring power at the very end, when I was an executive producer, and Carly was one of the people I really wanted in that room.
Why is that?
FLAHIVE She’s just such a brain, and as an EP you want that person who walks into your office in the morning and says, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this and I feel like we’re going in the wrong direction.” You want someone who sleeps the way you are because it’s really comforting.
MENSCH Our friendship and work combined to form a kind of superpower that allowed us to start with, “I’ve been thinking about this character all morning,” and then we’d interweave personal things, and suddenly we’ve deepened the story.
Liz and I often disagree. But what comes out of the debate is usually better than what one of us brought alone.
Do your differences help you develop the story?
FLAHIVE Going in a circle is one thing, but going around and getting somewhere new… that’s usually where we land. There’s also something where someone will have a strong opinion, and we’ll argue about it, and it’ll take you to a place where you’re angry, “Well, what about this one stupid idea? Does that work for you?” And the other person will say, “That’s great.”
MENSCH We’ve come a long way since the “GLOW” pilot, when you handed me a scene you wrote and I just said, “Yeah, like this, but better.”
FLAHIVE I was like, “OK, here comes the scene, you jerk. Backwards!”
Did it work?
FLAHIVE I certainly wrote a better scene.
MENSCH I meant the note. But now I should say it better.