“Intimacy Can Save You.” Screenwriter-Producer Alyson Feltes On Hit Netflix TV Show ‘Ozark.’
Alyson Feltes, writer on Netflix TV hit Ozark, starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, spoke to Creative Screenwriting Magazine about her experience on the show.
“I would disagree that Ozark is a drug story,” said screenwriter Alyson Feltes. “I feel that it’s a story about the Byrd family trying desperately to stay together – how to survive in a dangerous situation. As you’ll see in Season 2 of Ozark, there are coming-of-age issues addressed that are familiar to all of us. The money laundering aspects, and the presence of a drug cartel, puts extra pressure on this family to deal with their own crisis. It isolates them. It makes them strong.” This is the thematic core of Ozark.
“Unlike other drug stories, the whole family is involved. For right or wrong, the entire family is both aware of their danger, and active in staying alive in spite of it all. The drug cartel is merely a backdrop in a story of survival. Who would have imagined living a life where a cartel is your backdrop?” quipped the writer.
As a writer and producer, Feltes has made a name for herself by building emotional characters within a muscular TV landscape. “Can I bring anything unique to a particular character that has been set up by the original writer?” she asked herself while working on Ozark. Despite her personal writing flair, it’s imperative that the showrunners’ vision of the show is honored and maintained.
When asked about a female tone in the show, she replied “I think there is a woman’s voice. I feel that my voice was very much heard in the writers’ room at Ozark.… There were things that were unique experiences of mine as a woman, and as a mother, that I brought and they shifted the way that Wendy Byrde (Laura Linney) might say something or might react to something.”
“I’m certainly drawn to developing those characters and to find a way to disempower Ruth (Julia Garner). Well, why don’t we make her terrified of water?” In one example, Feltes drew upon her own childhood experiences, and discussed swimming under a dock as a kid to hide, with a plan to later scare people passing over the dock. These types of specific moments are powerful when shaping characters.
“Those things were particular and those were the things we talked about in the room,” added the screenwriter. “I think growing up on smaller TV production budgets forced me to be more creative and more intimate in my storytelling. There was nothing to fall back on that could get me out of a tense, emotional moment. It wasn’t going to be broken up by an explosion. I needed to find something else that gave the audience relief from the discomfort of that intimacy.”
Thanks to Feltes’ work on shows like Flash Forward, Traders, Jozi-H, and Mental, she learned how to write lean and powerfully.
OZARK’S SETTING IS A CHARACTER
“Ozark is both southern in some ways and Midwestern in terms of values. The rural nature of taking this urban-Chicago born-and-bred family and forcing them in this place, where you have to be careful not to hit a deer crossing the road, was really necessary to have them say, ‘How the fuck can we fit in here?’”
Feltes said that the characters’ private school backgrounds, clothing, and values made them stand out amongst the travelers and natives to the Ozarks. “It adds to the tension. When we think about the difference in a hillbilly and a redneck—that can now get you killed. Do not call Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) a redneck…” Feltes insists on including these nuances to ensure the authenticity of the characters.
“There’s a learning curve and a danger in the environment around the Byrds. There’s a danger of being found out. We try to use the lake in the sense of things coming up from the lake or the chance of falling into the lake,” added Feltes. “It was important to disorient Charlotte [Byrde].”
While creating this unusual setting, packed with dangers, the creators also worked hard to develop a series of principles for the Byrde family to live by. “We talked about it and I thought about it in the writing… There’s a core moral code and we take a long time to break it. I think the Byrds made a fateful mistake when they decided to take this on, but they did it for a bunch of family-related reasons.” What’s good or bad is no longer absolute.
“In these sorts of money laundering situations, the Byrds were able to keep their moral code early on because their hands weren’t dirty yet. It’s someone else who is handling the little brown drug packages who passes them to someone who chops it up who passes them onto someone who is selling it… You’re able to hide behind that.” They could justify their choices.
“ I’m not advocating for anyone to become a drug dealer,” joked Feltes. “I’m not a drug cartel fan, but the reality of the drug world and the complicated morals that exist outside of your comfort zone, mean your moral code can change through desperation… Look at towns in Columbia where schools were built, and electricity was turned on, because of the ‘giving back’ to the community of drug cartels… If you want to sleep at night, you think about that.”
“The moral code for the Byrds begins to shift and waiver when drugs actually hit their hands.” As the code for the Byrde family falters, the writer’s room created more and more obstacles for them. With Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) facing drug cartels, the Kansas City mob, and unpredictable low-level criminals, it certainly suggests a recipe for disaster in the writer’s room. Feltes said it was the opposite. It spurred the exploration of the characters and their predicament.
“I DON’T BUY IT. DO BETTER…”
Feltes claims Ozark is essentially a family drama. We feel that our family is unique in the television universe. Some of the tropes used to get families or individuals out of the way of bad guys have been used again and again.”
“We were in the unique situation of having the FBI always in the woods surrounding us. These were great times in the writer’s room. One of the writers—his M-O was to walk around and say, ‘I don’t buy it.’ We were trying to persuade ourselves and I’m sure this happens in every writer’s room. I hope they have someone like Ryan [Farley] who says, ‘I don’t buy it. Do better.’”
“All of us came to speak that mantra after a time. The unique thing about our room—and thank God for our studio and Netflix for giving us this luxury—is that we were in the writer’s room for ten weeks before shooting Ozark. That’s unusual. We have 3-4 scripts fully written before the camera starts to roll. We know the entire season in detail before any actor utters the first word. So we’ve gotten out of that corner before they start shooting.”
In terms of being as accurate as possible about the story, Feltes said the writers did some research and considered setting up a fake University to launder money through. “We absolutely want to be accurate. We had a legal advisor. We had an FBI advisor. We had a lawyer who was on the ground in Missouri for specifics about state legislation. We talked to all sort of people to be meticulously accurate.”
“What you don’t want is for members of your audience to go, ‘I can’t watch this. This is absolutely ridiculous.’ But, the other trick on the other side of that is…to be able to push that envelope as far as you can, but you’re only able to do that if the drama in that scene is so engrossing for an audience member that they’re not going to be able to detach [from the scene].” If the scene tension is high, and the stakes higher, the audience will grant you some poetic license.
INTIMACY CAN SAVE YOU
“Intimacy is really interesting to me. In our case, in Ozark and some of the things I’m working on now in the off-hour, intimacy can save you. Letting go of a crucial secret at a certain time can save you. Doubling down at a certain time on a secret can save you,” iterated Feltes. “The secrets can make you go places and find out things that you never would before.”
In addition to her work on Ozark, Feltes is also working on new material based on books by Chelsea Clinton. “As a writer, this is the most exciting time. I never thought I would be here. When I first started, I could have never imagined the breadth of stories available to tell.”
“I feel like I’m making mini-movies all the time. The production values are fantastic. The caliber of acting you get demands high-caliber writing. It’s so exciting. People want to hear interesting pitches. I am so exhausted and frightened by today’s political climate, but I cannot imagine immersing myself in another West Wing. That was a fantastic show, but that was at a time where people felt very different about politics.”
While Feltes isn’t looking to help re-create the next big political drama, she does have some advice for the ongoing relevance of films and TV in Hollywood. “I think you need to read a ton. You need to participate in things. I think it’s really hard if your tendency is to be isolated. You need to know character arcs and be able to talk to people comfortably about those things. You need to exist and immerse in the world.”
“Television writing is extremely collaborative [but] you need to walk before you can run. Even if you can write a script like Aaron Sorkin, you’re not going to be the showrunner. The whole machine needs to be fed by a bunch of people that you will find are equally as smart as you are. You can’t use a script and say, ‘Aren’t I smart?’ You want to get it made.”
In terms of a screenwriter’s role in today’s Hollywood, Feltes offers a role of social reflection. “I think we should reflect the state of the world. In the mouth of our characters, we should have them ask questions that we ought to be asking in real life. But, we shouldn’t write in an effort to preach. We should write to entertain. We can enlighten, but it has to come through characters. Otherwise, you’re writing some sort of public service announcement that only a small segment of society is going to respond to.”
“In that sense, it was the awareness of other people in the state of the world and who is talking about it that changed the way I wrote about it,” said Feltes. “We have elected officials, for better or worse, to do the job of shaping and changing our communities.”
Feltes concluded, “My teenage children changed the way I presented what I was writing for my adaptation of Chelsea Clinton’s books. They said, ‘Mom, you’re a middle-aged woman. Don’t you be telling our generation that if we just try hard enough, things are going to be okay… Your generation has made things not okay for us and they were really firm and harsh, but I thought, they’re right.”