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‘Palm Royale’ Writer on Pulling Off Episode 4’s Havana Nights Party

[This story contains spoilers from episode four of Palm Royale, “Maxine Rolls the Dice.”]

When Katie O’Connell first read Mr. and Mrs. American Pie, Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel that was adapted for Apple TV+’s new period comedy-drama Palm Royale, she was “obsessed” with its 1960s setting.

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“It just felt like such a cool time period to explore,” O’Connell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I loved the idea of an outsider coming into what’s seemingly the most un-woke group of women on the planet. It just felt like there was something there.”

Laura Dern and her Jaywalker Pictures producing partner Jayme Lemons agreed when O’Connell brought the novel to them, using it as a springboard for the 10-part series Dern now executive produces and stars in alongside Kristen Wiig, Carol Burnett, Ricky Martin, Allison Janney and Leslie Bibb.

“The book is very different from the show,” explains Lemons, also an executive producer. “Most of the characters you see in the show are not in the book. But Juliet built a really interesting backdrop of a society of women who are at odds over certain things, who are striving to find their place in a social ecosystem and doing it in this environment of absurd wealth in a particular time in the United States that was very much a powder keg ready to be lit on fire.”

When first thinking about developing the series, Dern and Lemons reached out to director Tate Taylor, who introduced them to Abe Sylvia, who then wrote the adapted screenplay.

“The magic of what happens with development is, separately, Abe, had been thinking about the world of Slim Aarons. And as you know, with an adaptation, a novel is one thing, but you really have to have someone who sees it as a series,” explains O’Connell. “Our first meeting with Abe was quite remarkable with him sharing with us his vision, creating the feminist character, the counterpoint character, and that world which wasn’t in the book, locating it in Palm Beach with all the reasons and ideations around that. It was really a seedling of an idea that has become what we have today.”

Below, Sylvia chats with THR about his adaptation process, the musical sequence in episode four, “Maxine Rolls the Dice,” and why he considers Palm Royale a “gay fantasia.”

***

How did you approach the adaptation for this series?

I’d always wanted to set something in Palm Beach. I think it was an unexplored world on television, and it’s unexplored for a reason. You can’t shoot there. It’s such a rarified thing. And it was certainly in the zeitgeist, what with our former president having the winter White House there and having it be this sort of new center of power in the country. As much as it’s about 1969, the show is about right now — and that the more things change, the more they actually stay the same, and how tragic that is, how funny that is, how absurd that is. All those things created this alchemy and this unique tone that I think the world is ready for, but they haven’t seen before.

What about the work of Slim Aarons inspired you?

As beautiful as they are, I think those images are also sort of sinister, and that’s why they stand up as great works of art, because there’s no sense of the outside world. In 1969, the world was on fire. Stonewall had just happened, there was the quest for civil rights, and yet, these people get up every day and have lunch as if it’s not happening. There’s absurdity and tragedy in that. That’s why it was important for us to pull the Robert character forward in the series and then we also created the world of the bookstore as the counterculture and our club for the true outsiders.

In episode two, Dern’s character Linda gives a speech about women’s right to choose, saying, “If we have these conversations now, in 20 or 30 years, we won’t ever have to look back.” It’s pretty ironic given the current climate.

We wrote those first couple of episodes before Dobbs was overturned, so it was an organic process to set these people in their time and see what their concerns are, just as people. I think if you start from a place of “let’s make a commentary” or “let’s make a satire” about this thing, the audience can feel it. And in this case, there are several things that happen in the series that were popping up in the headlines. I don’t want to give it away, but there was one very particular thing that happened at Mar-a-Lago that was basically happening in our show with Carol Burnett’s character. We were shooting it while that happened, and I was gobsmacked. So I’m like, “Let’s just keep going and working from a place of authenticity and what’s interesting to us now, not ripping things from the headlines.” But if you’re a consumer of culture and media and history, that stuff makes its way to the forefront, whether you’re trying or not.

Which characters did you keep from the novel?

Some of the character names made their way over. Evelyn Rollins, Allison Janney’s character, is in the book. Maxine’s (Kristen Wiig) husband’s name is also Douglas in the book and her gay friend is named Robert, but Robert has a much different storyline than he has in in our show. In fact, the book takes place in Palm Springs and he’s never in the Palm Springs setting of the book, but what was interesting was this particular relationship that Maxine had with this gay man in the period. You have this iconoclastic woman who makes an unlikely friendship with a gay man. And as a gay man myself, I’ve had many relationships with iconoclastic, irreverent women who are bulls in a China shop, whether they’re trying or not, and they delight me as much as I delight them. That relationship was something I was really excited to explore, and we were fortunate enough to get the great Ricky Martin to play that role and bring so much humanity and grace to the part.

Robert also adds a lot of context about the difficulties of life for gay men at that time.

Yes, this was a time that it was illegal to be gay. He’s got this wonderful relationship with Maxine, but also with Norma (Carol Burnett), and I’ve seen time and time again in my life, relationships where a gay man and an older woman see themselves in one another and they form unlikely bonds. The show really is sort of a gay fantasia, so I think Robert’s character and what Ricky [Martin] brings to it in some ways, he’s the straight man amongst all of this wackiness and zaniness and mad cappery that goes on, and you always need the eye of the storm, the consciousness. He’s the Dean Martin to Kristen Wiigs’ Jerry Lewis. He’s our Clark Gable.

Which scenes or storylines were most challenging in crafting the series?

Probably episode four, the Havana Nights scene. That musical sequence, which is 12 or 13 minutes long, is one big musical number, essentially. I come out of the world of musical comedy, so I was chomping at the bit to do something like that, and I’ve never done anything of that scale. We had 200 dancers and 14 showgirls in addition to all of our cast, and Jon Carlos built a fountain in the Biltmore Hotel downtown. It took us about a week to shoot that sequence, and my dreams of being Vincente Minnelli came true for those five days. We shot that whole sequence with the song playing on set. So as you see the people moving through the space, they’re moving to the rhythm. All of the background people are actually dancers, because I wanted them to be able to move with a certain elegance. Not that professional background actors couldn’t do that, but there’s a light and an artistry that dancers bring to every gesture so that even as they’re just walking through the space, it’s got that extra little zhuzh on it.

This series has been about five years in the making. Did the recent strikes cause any delay in its debut?

We were wrapped and picture locked by the time the strikes happened. There was still some post to finish up, but we were in the can and done. I think, if anything, it affected when we could premiere. And because we have such a unique tone, we need the support of the creatives and the cast, so I’m just happy that we’re all back to work. I feel like our show has landed at the perfect moment in time for it to premiere.

Palm Royale, which launched with the first three episodes, releases new episodes Wednesdays at midnight PT on Apple TV+.

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