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HBO Max’s Made for Love Creators on Love, Technology, Sex Dolls

The new HBO Max dramedy Made for Love takes on romance in the online age from a unique angle, kicking off with a bedraggled Hazel (Cristin Milioti) emerging from an escape hatch in the middle of the desert, before slowly revealing the circumstances that have led her to seek refuge from her tech mogul husband Byron (Billy Magnussen) with her father Herbert (Ray Romano). It all comes down to an abuse of technology that is really an abuse of trust, which makes the show relatable to anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a bad relationship.

With some help from the Internet — Zoom, specifically — showrunner Christina Lee and creator Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the novel on which Made for Love is based) spoke with Collider about the show’s origins, the very-close-to-reality traits that define Byron as a tech bro, and what went into finding the show’s very unique tone. They also revealed whose face was used to create Diane, the “synthetic partner” who was, according to them, a real member of the cast.

Collider: I want to start off by asking, for Alissa, how the original book came about. And then Christina, how you got involved?

ALISSA NUTTING: Well, the book really kind of came out of my divorce. It was like this anxiety dream, when I realized that this marriage and this life that I built with someone for 12 years and had a child with was suddenly going to be separate from mine. And all of the worries and fears of how can I start over, when this had taken all of me for so long?

In terms of social media and technology and the internet, I knew he would always have this window into my life. Even if I blocked him, we had so many mutual friends. We’re on good terms now, but at the time — I think there is always some animosity at that stage. And I really didn’t want him to be watching and I was thinking, “How am I supposed to start over with him there judging my every move?”

So, it really kind of grew out of that hyperbole. And then, in 2019, when I started writing TV full time and was beginning to create the show, I was just thinking of, what are the different visual aspects and expansive ways to tell the story that are sort of specific to TV, that books can’t do? Especially since this book is so internal.

CHRISTINA LEE: And then, when I was introduced to the book, I was just so pleasantly surprised, because not only is it right in my wheelhouse of like, Sci-fi dark sinister kind of plotline, the book just made me laugh out loud so much. And so, totally what Alissa had done in her writing, I thought just made for a great TV show. And what I thought was so fun as a showrunner is that Alissa really wanted to expand the world from what she had created in the book. And so, we wanted to respect the core of the characters, but then expand that world and show the perspectives of the other characters around Hazel and Herbert. And so, for a showrunner, that was so much fun. And we joke that like when we met, it was like we had each other chipped — even though we had just met, we knew exactly what we wanted the show to be.

made-for-love-cristin-milioti

Image via Netflix

What were your guideposts as you were trying to sort out the tone?

LEE: I got to say, we’ve talked a lot about this tricky tone, but it was something that we all found so organically and that Alissa and I would say that, we let the actors really guide us in that.

NUTTING: Yeah, it was mutual.

LEE: It was very mutual. I think the understanding that we all had was that, despite the fact that it’s a dark comedy and it’s sci-fi, we wanted to tell an emotional journey. So, we approached it first with that in mind and the jokes coming last, and so the jokes come from a very earnest place with the characters. All of our cast approached their characters with so much realness and so much humanity that you really understood their perspectives — that’s why I think they were funny to us, because it came from a very real place for all of them.

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Nice. Also interesting is the way the timeline works, with there being a lot of flashbacks to different points in the characters’ lives — what for you was important about that approach?

NUTTING: Yeah. We felt like a fragmented narrative really aligned with the headspace that we first meet Hazel in, where she has a visitor in her literal consciousness. And we not only wanted to open the story at this point of escape, but also give out enough teaser information about how she got there that audiences would have this foothold on the world that she was coming from and who she had to be when she was there — and the world that she’s escaping to and what decisions she may be craving in terms of her own freedom.

LEE: And that was what was so incredible for us, to be able to cast someone like Cristin, who was able to like seamlessly go from the Hazel inside the hub to the Hazel in the desert, who are very two different kinds of people. And that just speaks so much to her range and her talent, that she can play those parts, be both comedic and also give the kind of performance that guts you. I mean, she can do it all.

NUTTING: I think Ray and Billy also, they just have this propensity to not only be so funny, but also just be really kind of emotionally cutting and effective and even sort of sympathetic in all their flaws. We absolutely lucked out in the casting.

When Ray was talking about his introduction to the project, apparently one of the first things his agent told him was, “Well, you’re having sex with a sex doll.” And I think that’s going to be an aspect of the show that a lot of people are talking about — it’s been in the marketing and everything. What is it about that element that feels essential to the story?

LEE: Yeah. A lot of what drew me to Alissa’s work and this show is just about how she explores different kinds of love without placing any judgment on it. And so with Diane, I really appreciated what Diane did for this show. We wanted to introduce her in the way that we all expect, she’s in bed with Ray, she’s a sex doll. But then in the series, we subvert that and show that, no, she’s actually a synthetic partner to him — and what does that mean? And that’s due to a lot of research that Alissa did in her book and for the show on like, “What makes somebody get a synthetic partner? What does it mean to them?” I think the initial judgment is, you think it’s just about sex, but it’s much more than that. And that was important for us to tell in the story.

What was cool, too, is that Diane the doll was treated very much like a cast member on set. So, there’s a lot of respect around her — just as you would have an intimacy coordinator for intimate scenes, that applied to Diane as well.

There was one night where we had to actually use the second doll of Diane, because a character is running with her and the actual Diane weighs a lot. And the second Diane doll, her head kept falling off and we had to duct tape it. And that was so upsetting for the casting crew. It was like a full-fledged cast member to us. Bu it was going to be daylight any second so we had to [get the shot].

NUTTING: Yeah, it was terrifying. And when it came time to pick out the doll, I decided to get my face cast for it. So, my face is actually Diane’s face. That really extended that sense of, this is a person on set. I did it for, like, proprietary copyright reasons, and so that we weren’t objectifying any doll that’s based on another real person. I was game for any possible objectification that would occur. But we really wanted Diane to be thought of in the same way as all of our human cast members.

You’re making me feel guilty for referring to her as a sex doll.

LEE: I did too, in the beginning.

One aspect of the show I really enjoyed is Byron’s neurosis — I was wondering, did you feel like you had to tone some of them down from what actually does happen with a lot of, for lack of a better term, tech bros?

LEE: No, we did a lot of research on tech bros. And we borrowed a lot from looking at that to inform who Byron was. But of course, we wanted to expand Byron’s character and make sure that he felt like a real person and then he was vulnerable. And at times that you would feel sympathetic towards him too. And I think that goes so much to Billy’s performance. But in creating Byron, we did look to those people as an influence.

Did you ever feel like you had to tone that stuff down in order to be believable in the context of the show?

NUTTING: In some ways with Byron’s character, I think we really wanted to make clear that the origin of this desire. I think so often with technology and discussions about technology and discussions about sci-fi even, emotion is left out of the equation. So, we really wanted Byron’s character to show enough that we understand this core emotional wound, where he’s coming from and what he’s compensating for and the unacceptable extremes that he takes it to.

So, I would say the aspects of him that we chose to showcase, we definitely wanted to include enough so that audiences felt like they could understand his journey instead of just seeing the present-day behavior.

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Image via HBO Max

So, along those lines, there’s this question I have written down as “Do we want to root for Hazel and Byron as a couple?” It feels like that should be a pretty blatant no, especially at the beginning of the season. But how do you feel about it?

LEE: I think that’s the question you want to ask. And I love that you’re even asking the question.

NUTTING: Yeah, it’s great.

LEE: Because you’re right. Initially, the answer is like, “Absolutely not.” She was controlled, she was abused, she was trapped. Like, “How could this person have been with him for 10 years?” But as we uncover the layers of their relationship and see the vulnerabilities of Byron and understand how their relationship worked, sometimes it’s not so cut and dry. And we think that that is much more true to real life, that relationships are never just black and white, are never just bad. And so, there are things that are compelling there, that you are almost rooting for them and you’re like, “Ooh, should I not do that?” I think that’s an interesting place to be.

NUTTING: Yeah. In the best of ways, I think we wanted to position that uncomfortably, hopefully for the viewer in a way that that’s interesting. Because I think the question that she’s asking with Byron and the question that I think we’re asking with a lot of technology, in general, is “Where do we draw the line?” Like, “What can we accept, or allow, or forgive, or get over — and what is kind of irredeemable?”

LEE: It was so interesting to us, because we had written this before the pandemic. And so, we had so many discussions of like, “What role does technology play in your life? What do you think of technology as a shortcut to human connections?” And then all of a sudden, we’re in a year where we’re relying entirely on technology for human interaction. Those shortcuts and convenience that was alluring before, we really sort of understood in this past year. So, I think that influenced the show and how we wrote it a lot.

The first three episodes of Made for Love are streaming now on HBO Max, with new episodes premiering for the next two weeks on Thursdays.

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