What we see on the surface isn’t always what it appears to be, and the new Apple TV+ thriller Surface explores that very concept. The limited series stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a San Francisco socialite who starts to experience bouts of memory loss due to a traumatic head injury that she’s told is the result of a suicide attempt, the details of which remain fuzzy. As she attempts to put the pieces of her life back together, she digs deep beneath its surface in an effort to discover the truth about her marriage and whether was she actually in love with someone else all along.
Surface began life as a spec script written by seasoned television writer/producer Veronica West (Dexter: New Blood, Chicago Fire, Bull, High Fidelity). The mysterious show was inspired by the French film Last Year at Marienbad, and it explores similar themes, such as identity and deception. With support from Reese Witherspoon‘s Hello Sunshine banner and Mbatha-Raw herself (she served as a co-EP on the series), West was given the opportunity to oversee the Apple TV+ series, which will wrap up next Friday.
Below the Line recently spoke with Veronica West via Zoom about what inspired her to write the script, which she describes as “unapologetically feminine.” West explained how she collaborated with various departments throughout each stage of production to bring her vision to fruition, and she also discussed the challenges of making the show at the height of the pandemic, and what changes were made to accommodate COVID-related curve balls.
Below the Line: What inspired you to write the script?
Veronica West: It’s something that I generated when I felt at a crossroads in my career and just wanted to try something a little bit different — something experimental and something I felt would be the kind of show that I really wanted to watch on TV. And I was given unbelievable support [from] Hello Sunshine, Apple, and Gugu, to bring [it] to life.
BTL: What inspired the central idea behind Surface?
West: My husband and I were watching Last Year at Marienbad one night and I was thinking about the central premise of this show. It’s basically this woman who comes to a palatial hotel in this beautiful, luxurious place and this man comes up to her and says, “You don’t know me but I know you. We were in love. We were having an affair.” The movie is this poetic journey around this question that [is] never fully answered. I just started thinking [about] what the real circumstances [would] have to be to make that scene make sense. What would have had to happen for Baden (Stephan James) to walk up to Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) on the street and say, “we were in love” and what were the circumstances around that? That was the germ of the idea, [which] obviously took on a life of its own.
BTL: What type of shows would you like to see on television?
West: I love all kinds of television, from Squid Game to Summer House. What’s exciting about this show is that it explores a genre that is familiar to people. These are stories that are [as] old as time and have been done [in] many brilliant ways, from Memento to The Bourne Identity, but to see a heroine like this at the center of that story felt fresh and new. To be able to make a thriller that was unapologetically feminine and lived in this escapist lush world was something that felt different and exciting to myself and the rest of the producers.
BTL: As a writer, does this give you extra pause because it’s your baby?
West: Anything that you pour your heart and soul into for years, you’re gonna care about it. As writers and creatives who work on all aspects of the show, to make art, you have to believe in it and invest your emotions in it. It’s exciting to watch other people put their energies into it.
BTL: How did you interface with all the departments?
West: What I loved about not just being a writer and turning in my script and calling it a day, but getting to see the process all the way through, was the incredible collaboration with artists from all different places, like our Composer, Olafur Arnalds, our editors, [and] our Cinematographer, Tami Reiker. Getting to learn from all these people and collaborate and share where I felt the story was coming from on an emotional level, and see how they interpreted that into the different aspects of the show, was incredibly rewarding.
BTL: Take me through a day-in-the-life of a showrunner.
West: There are [a lot of] different aspects to that timeline. For the longest time, it’s “heads down” with the writers, with the producers talking story, writing 24/7, rewriting drafts and drafts, and really assembling the building blocks that go on to become the show. Once the apparatus of physical production comes into being, it really comes to life. You do everything from picking the bracelet that Sophie is gonna wear to [picking] the color palette for the sets, [plus] going on tech scouts and picking locations.
Then, finally, getting to the shooting itself where it really becomes a theater experience in terms of rehearsing with the actors and rewriting on set, and working with the directors. All of a sudden it stops and everything is on film. You have the pieces and you get to go into this incredible assembly process with the editors, with the mixers, with the composer, [do] color timing, and really do a second pass [on] the writing to finalize the whole vision.
BTL: What are your favorite parts of production?
West: The thing I love the most is — back to [the] basics — looking at that screen and just hearing the characters talk. Sometimes when you’re writing and you’re doing the math of it and you’re writing, it takes on a life of its own and people start talking in your head and you’re typing it out and can’t keep up; that’s kind of the magic of it. Then, getting to see amazing actors like Gugu and Oliver [Jackson-Cohen] say those words out loud in a way that’s even more beautiful than you could ever have dreamed, those are the best moments for me.
BTL: When you were writing the script for Surface, did you envision your cast?
West: I honestly didn’t, and I never really do. When I’m writing, I think it helps to see a little bit of yourself in all of the characters. You have to speak for them and generate them out of nothingness and then they start to take on a life of their own for you. Then you get to collaborate with these amazing actors. When Gugu [came] on board, obviously, the character changes and is shaped by her point of view as we develop the character of Sophie. I loved using actors like they haven’t been used before, like Ari Graynor, who gives such a gorgeous dramatic performance in this show. It’s amazing to see how Stephan, Francois Arnaud, [and] all the actors brought everything to life.
BTL: What changes did you have to make to the script?
West: The show was originally set in London and Sophie was American. This idea of a stranger in a strange land and having run from a past all the way across an ocean and not telling anyone around you, even the people closest to [you], what you’re running from, was always baked in. This idea that Sophie was an expat was in the show, but when Gugu came on as an executive producer and, of course, to star, I hadn’t seen her play British on American television before, and [thought] it would be [interesting] to have her be British in America.
BTL: Who had to break the news to Gugu that her character, who’s got the Tom Cruise Run down pretty well, had to run a lot throughout the series?
West: I hadn’t noticed that she runs like Tom Cruise [laughs] but I applaud her for making it up those San Francisco hills — not something I could’ve accomplished. Running had always been part of the character as far as therapy and routine after the trauma that she’d been through. It also became a way for us as filmmakers to access Sophie’s feelings and really get inside her head and see what she’s thinking about. I wish I had time to run!
BTL: What were the biggest challenges for you as a showrunner?
West: Shooting the show while prepping the show at the same time while having two little children. [laughs] It was challenging to make a show at the height of the pandemic, which added an extra layer of complexity for everybody in doing their jobs. We had an incredible crew in Vancouver and safety was the utmost priority. I really applaud everybody going through that extra effort to make the show happen.
But everything is a challenge, starting with looking inward and finding a story that you believe is worth telling, all the way to ‘why are we getting up at three in the morning, standing in the rain under a tent with electrical cords?’ [laughs] There are always little mishaps, like, ‘oh my gosh, we can’t clear this necklace that’s supposed to be in the next three episodes that start tomorrow, so someone needs to make a necklace overnight!’
BTL: How would you describe the support you received from Reese Witherspoon and her production company, Hello Sunshine?
West: Reese is an incredible advocate for women writers and producers, and just a force to be reckoned with. She made this show happen along with her producing partner, Lauren Levy Neustadter, basically from myself [and] an idea. She brought Gugu on board, and they have this incredible ability to protect the vision [of] and advocate for the writers they’re working with, and to produce things at a speed and level of intensity that’s really astonishing. It’s amazing to work with almost exclusively female executive producers and our wonderful executives at Apple. We’re making a show that is in some ways for women, but it’s definitely about a woman’s story and it’s great to be able to tell that as a team.
BTL: What were the main themes that you wanted to communicate to the audience?
West: The show, for me, is really about identity and this idea of being different people at different points in your life. For everybody, I think you evolve and you change. I think about walking down the street and seeing the 20-year-old version of me and wondering if we would even be able to relate to each other and how different that person really was, and [whether we] would even recognize each other. I think everybody can relate to that idea, to an extent. If I had lunch with my 14-year-old self, I’d say, “just relax and enjoy the ride.”
Episode 7 of Surface is now streaming on Apple TV+, with the series finale scheduled for next Friday.