They almost wrote Jennifer Aniston off the show?! An exclusive look at the making of Friends

It’s time to wish our Friends a happy birthday. On Sept. 22, NBC’s era-defining sitcom will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its premiere. The story of six lovably neurotic friends — played by Jennifer Aniston, now 50; Courteney Cox, 55; Lisa Kudrow, 56; Matt LeBlanc, 52; Matthew Perry, 50; and David Schwimmer, 52 — navigating the caffeine-fueled excitement and terrors of New York City, developed into a cultural phenomenon over the course of its 10-season run, winning Emmys and amassing 52.5 million viewers (live!) for its series finale in 2004.

And Friends — or Friends Like Us, as it was once going to be called — has lived on in enduring Saturday Night Live impersonations, Central Perk coffee-shop pop-ups, old DVD sets, cable reruns, and endless Netflix binges. (Get those in while you can. In the U.S., the show will depart the streaming service for HBO Max in 2020.) It feels like the series is still at the height of its popularity, a success that owes everything to its magical combination of six practically unknown actors.

And yet! As author Saul Austerlitz reveals in his new book, Generation Friends (publishing Sept. 17), the show’s casting was hardly so simple. In fact, the sitcom was dangerously close to going in several different directions. Here, EW presents exclusive excerpts from the book, detailing the fascinating behind-the-scenes machinations that went into creating the definitive TV gang.

The One With a Melting Pot

The show only had eight weeks to find its cast—and preferably one as diverse as its New York City setting.

The producers expressed a desire to be open about race and ethnicity as well. They knew that the Ross and Monica characters were to be siblings, and had decided that they would be played by white performers, but were open to anyone for the other four roles. [Ellie] Kanner’s initial lists included numerous African-American and Asian-American performers. The flexibility was a step forward, to be sure, but some of Friends‘ later struggles regarding diversity were etched in stone here. Without an explicit desire to cast actors who looked more like New York, the producers were likely going to end up, as if by default, with an all-white cast. As later critics would note, comedy was a less integrated genre than drama. Dramatic series had room for a greater variety of characters, and their settings— hospitals, precinct houses, courtrooms—allowed for characters from different walks of life to interact. Comedy expected its audiences to embrace its characters and was far more tentative about asking them to identify with characters who were not white and middle-class. Television executives were more fearful of asking audiences to laugh along with characters of color, concerned that such shows would be ignored by the majority-white audience.

The One With a Different Monica

Reality Bites star Janeane Garofalo was offered the role of a much harder-edged Monica.

Monica was to be “tough, defended, cynical, sarcastic.” In an ultra- nineties reference, they described her as having “the attitude of Sandra Bernhard or Rosie O’Donnell and the looks of Duff,” referring to the MTV VJ and model Karen Duffy. Monica, in this original conception, was to be a blue-collar New Yorker with aspirations of starting her own restaurant. She would work at a Le Cirque-like establishment: “We just think it would be fun to see this tough, downtown woman in this uptown, French bulls— arena.” Monica would also have a “real maternal side,” looking after Rachel and adopting a pregnant woman who would end up giving birth in her apartment. Monica dreamed of becoming a mother but first found herself in search of a man to have children with.

The One With the Character Who Never Was

The six friends almost had a seventh comrade.

NBC was mostly hands-off after ordering [Marta] Kauffman and [David] Crane’s pilot, with their notes running to such minor matters as the beige-toned color of the couch in the coffeehouse. (They preferred a less repellent shade.) The one major suggestion the network had for Crane and Kauffman was the addition of an older secondary character. NBC was concerned that if all the main characters were in their twenties, it would distinctly limit the series’ breakout appeal. An older character—even one that made only occasional appearances—could convince hesitant older viewers to check in with Friends Like Us. Perhaps, the network thought, there might be an older acquaintance they ran into at the coffeehouse who could give them advice about their lives?

It was a poor idea, and while it would not sink the show, it would undoubtedly weaken its spell. Kauffman and Crane reluctantly agreed, and began trying to wedge the character, whom they referred to as “Pat the Cop,” after an older police officer who used to hang out in the movie theater where Dream On writers Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss used to work in Somerville, Massachusetts, during college, into their next script. The writers made a good-faith attempt, even casting the role, but hated the resulting script so much that they pleaded with NBC to drop the idea. If only NBC would kill Pat the Cop, they promised, they would give their six protagonists parents in notable supporting roles, and find older guest stars to attract a more mature audience. NBC gave its permission, and Pat the Cop was no longer.

Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The One Where Joey Was From Chicago

Matt LeBlanc’s character was originally written as a “smug” lothario from Illinois.

Crane and Kauffman initially pictured Joey and Monica as the central romantic couple for the show. Joey, the perpetual horndog, would be lured, and possibly tamed, by the warm, affectionate Monica. In this initial version, Joey was less dim-witted than he would eventually become, with an emphasis on his ladies’-man style and his city-boy attitude. Initially, the casting search was for more of a leading-man type. Crane was taken aback to find that this approach led Joey to feel more boring than they had expected him to be. None of the actors they brought in to audition conveyed the charm they had in mind. As it stood, Joey felt as if he did not belong in this particular circle of friends.

The One With the Casting Conflict

The team wanted Jennifer Aniston for the role of Rachel but she had already shot several episodes of an unaired CBS comedy, Muddling Through. If the CBS series was picked up, Friends would lose Aniston midway through its first season.

Muddling Through had already shot a half-dozen episodes, none of which had aired, and CBS, after some dithering, ultimately chose to put the show on its summer schedule, in the relative dead zone of Saturday nights. Hearing the news, [Warren] Littlefield turned to [Preston] Beckman, NBC’s scheduling guru, with a two-word order: “Kill it.”

Beckman returned with a crafty suggestion for eliminating Muddling Through‘s prospects. Beckman was sitting on a trove of unreleased original TV films adapted from Danielle Steel novels. They were practically guaranteed to attract a substantial, and substantially female, audience. If they were to be scheduled opposite Muddling Through? Well, no show about an ex-con motel manager and her daffy family was likely to provide stiff competition for Steel’s glamorous romances.

Beckman would schedule the Steel movies for the first few Saturday nights Muddling Through was on the air, with repeats scheduled for the weeks that followed. It was a necessary sacrifice, giving up some of the ratings the movies might have garnered on another, more attractive, night in exchange for eliminating a rival to potential future Thursday-night success.



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Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal tells all, 35 years later

Are you a Jessica or an Elizabeth? Long before women donned “I’m a Carrie” T-shirts, girls around the world categorized themselves as one of the Wakefield twins — the aspirationally perfect stars of Sweet Valley High. Francine Pascal’s blockbuster young-adult book series followed the charmed yet dramatic lives of impetuous, boy-crazy Jessica Wakefield and her studious, sensible sister, Elizabeth, two 16-year-olds with nothing in common but their “perfect size-six figures,” “sun-streaked blond hair,” and “sparkling blue-green eyes.”

Kicking off in earnest 35 years ago with a packaged trio of soapy installments — Double Love, Secrets, and Playing With Fire — SVH and its multiple spin-offs spawned dozens of imitators (lookin’ at you, The Baby- Sitters Club!), ran for 20 years, were translated into 27 languages, and reportedly sold 150 million copies worldwide. For many women between the ages of 30 and 50, these books and the characters within them are their Star Wars, their Avengers, their Lord of the Rings. Even a glimpse at one of SVH’s 181 covers — with their varsity-style lettering and gorgeous, soft-focus illustrations by James L. Mathewuse — prompts a rush of nostalgia endorphins. That’s probably why the series remains a hot property to this day: In 2011, a sequel titled Sweet Valley Confidential hit the New York Times best-seller list; Dynamite Entertainment released an SVH graphic novel in August; and the movie adaptation, long stalled, is newly in the works at Paramount.

Sitting in the living room of her elegant midtown Manhattan apartment, Pascal, 81, attributes SVH’s longevity to the universal agony of the adolescent experience. “The saying ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’ really applies to those years. There’s such similarity, no matter how different today’s teenager thinks she is,” says the author. “She’s the same in here [points to her heart] and in here [points to her head] as I was — but the clothes are different.”

Hangin’ Out With Cici (1977)

Pascal started her writing career alongside her husband, journalist John Pascal, crafting scripts for the ABC soap opera The Young Marrieds. “It was something neither of us cared about,” she says. “We needed the money.” Around the same time, John, Francine, and her brother, Tony-winning librettist Michael Stewart (Hello, Dolly!, Bye Bye Birdie) wrote the book for the Broadway musical George M!, about the life of musical-theater icon George M. Cohan, which ran for a year. Then one night, an idea came to her — fully formed, as she says most of her ideas do — for a book about a teenage girl who can’t stop fighting with her mother. Pascal went on to write three books in the Victoria Martin series; the first, Hangin’ Out With Cici, was adapted into the 1981 ABC Afterschool Special My Mother Was Never a Kid, starring Holland Taylor as the mom.

FRANCINE PASCAL: I was lying in bed, and it just hit me. I jumped up and I said to my husband, “This is it!” The whole thing was in three lines: A 13-year-old girl today who can’t get along with her mother goes back in time to her mother’s childhood and becomes her mother’s best friend. When I started to write about Cici and Victoria, I realized I had a lot to say about those years. I knew how to do it.

Sweet Valley High (1983)

Like so many great ideas, Sweet Valley High was born out of two key circumstances in a writer’s life: rejection and deadline pressure. After the success of Hangin’ Out With Cici and her 1980 novel, The Hand-Me-Down Kid, Pascal pitched networks a soap opera centered on teens in high school. “They were not interested,” she recalls. “They said it was too girly.” Then a casual comment from a friend — plus a looming obligation to her publisher — combined to spark magic.

PASCAL: A friend of mine had lunch with a [book] editor, a man, who said, “Why isn’t there a Dallas for young people?” I thought about it, and I actually had a book [proposal] due. There are a lot of twins in my life. [My agent] Amy [Berkower] is a twin. My sister-in-law was a twin. People are always fascinated by twins. You’ll never be alone. [Laughs] I thought about it, and this other soap opera thing was in my head, the one that I couldn’t sell. I sat down and I wrote a [character] bible and the first 12 [SVH] stories. It went quickly because it was such a fertile idea. Bantam Books loved it. They ordered all 12.

Pascal had a “heavy hand” in the creation of the first SVH book, Double Love, but she never had any interest in writing the books herself. “My [previous] writing for young adults was humorous, and I didn’t think there was going to be humor in [these books],” she explains. Instead, Pascal oversaw a team of ghostwriters who worked on her character bible and the detailed outlines she created for each story. When asked what her “do’s and don’ts” were for SVH’s ghostwriters, Pascal is blunt.

PASCAL: “Don’t do anything of yours — only do what I say.” It’s true! Because I trusted myself, and [the publisher] trusted me, and we just kept doing it. It was mostly very young, new writers. The story outlines weren’t chapter by chapter, more like acts: You get from here to here in the first quarter, then you have to get from here to here. Don’t forget, they already had the bible, where I had written deeply into the lives of the twins and their backgrounds. With the characters, you knew what they liked, you knew what the walls in their room [looked like], every single thing about them. The writers had to use those [guidelines] and follow them strictly.

SVH became an instant phenomenon, and publisher Bantam Books began cranking out spin-offs (including Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley High Senior Year, and Sweet Valley University). They also launched bonus installments like the murder-mystery Super Thriller series and the Sweet Valley Saga books, which chronicled the ancestral history of the Wakefield clan and other prominent SVH families. As the number of books multiplied, the storytelling boundaries expanded beyond boy troubles and intra-clique rivalries: Later SVH installments featured supernatural flourishes, like vampires and werewolves, and delicious melodrama, including a trilogy about a pair of murderous Jessica and Elizabeth doppelgängers named Margo and Nora (see: The Evil Twin, Return of the Evil Twin). Pascal conceived the stories for every book and says she took care to incorporate her “ethics and morals” into the narratives.

PASCAL: I had total freedom to do anything I wanted. If I wanted to make them fly, that was okay. If I had to do 10 more, I could do 10 more, but my God, I did every single thing.

The very important thing was, I was a liberal Jewish woman, and a New Yorker. So [my perspective] is going to be quite different from a lot of the people who are reading the books. I realized the power that I could have. I [think I] made Mr. Wakefield’s parents Jewish, in Europe, escaping from the Nazis or something. Why not? It’s mine, I’ll do what I please.

St. Martin’s Paperbacks (3)

By today’s standards, SVH’s characters are woefully homogenous — but Pascal intentionally made some inroads with diversity later in the series.

PASCAL: Don’t forget, it was the ’80s. Things were very different then. I never saw so many white people in my life as in Sweet Valley, it’s true. It finally had a Latino [character, in book No. 81, Rosa’s Lie]. I liked that one because Rosa was ashamed and pretended that she didn’t speak [Spanish], and then she had to save the little girl in the well who only spoke Spanish. [Laughs] There were really very few [diverse characters]. And it’s amazing because all over the world, particularly in the Philippines, they loved Sweet Valley, and I thought, “But there’s nobody like you there. Why do you love it?” But they did. I guess because of this common denominator [of teenage life] that I was talking about — it didn’t make any difference what color [the readers were], everybody was really essentially the same.

Right around the time Jessica Wakefield was dating secret vampire Jonathan Cain (book No. 127, Dance of Death) — a precursor to the YA vampire boom — the twins were given new life on the small screen. Sweet Valley High the TV series, starring former Doublemint twins Brittany and Cynthia Daniel, ran from 1994 to 1997 in syndication and briefly on UPN. Pascal worked with her daughter, casting director and producer Jamie Stewart, to find the perfect set of identical actresses through nationwide casting calls. (Stewart died in 2008 after battling liver disease.)

PASCAL: [Jamie] did the traveling to find them, yeah. All kinds of twins showed up to the auditions. And [Jamie] found a set of twins, Brittany and Cynthia, they were California twins. They looked like they just walked out of the books.

Hollywood has been trying to adapt SVH into a movie for a full decade. Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) was the first to take a crack at it, in 2009, for Universal, but the script stalled. The project has since moved to Paramount; Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Harper Dill were hired to write the screenplay in 2017 but were replaced by Emmy-winning Rick and Morty writer (and hardcore SVH fan) Jessica Gao earlier this year. Pascal, who does not have script approval but is consulting on the film, is still hopeful a movie can happen — but the years of delay have taken a slight toll on her enthusiasm. “I hope I live long enough for this [to happen],” she says frankly.

PASCAL: I had such high hopes for Universal because Diablo is a wonderful writer and she loves Sweet Valley, but I don’t think it was her fault. I think it was the story; it wasn’t good. Now they have a different writer, and they will consult with me on the story.

I think they want something new [rather than basing it on an existing book], and they have some good ideas, it’s just a matter of getting it right. I do want it to be done right. I would like it to be done. It’s so many years now that this has been going on, and it’s really a shame. They seem very serious, and the people in charge [at Paramount] are Sweet Valley fans, so I’m trusting them.

If Wishes Were Horses (1994)

Though she was generally “drowning” in SVH duties, Pascal did find time to write two adult novels: a psychological thriller called Save Johanna! in 1981, and If Wishes Were Horses, a fictionalized memoir about her love affair with her husband, John, who died from cancer in 1981. Horses follows Anna, who copes with her husband’s death by relocating to France, where she looks back on their turbulent courtship and loving marriage while struggling to acclimate to an often unforgiving French culture.

PASCAL: I was thinking about [writing] it all through the ’80s. I probably would not have done it while he was alive. First of all, it was a little close. And I thought, “Am I going to remember all those things that happened?” But when I sat down to write it, I remembered — I could see it all. And the fact was, my husband wasn’t there to say, “Don’t do that!” It gave me a lot of freedom.

[Writing] it was funny and sad. It was going back to a lot of things that I really hadn’t thought about and probably would never have thought about if I wasn’t using them [for the book]. Also, I could look with humor at a lot of these tragic things. It was cathartic.

Pascal says “the core of everything” in Horses is based in truth, including some of the most dramatic elements: Like Anna, Pascal was romantically involved with someone else when she met her future husband, was molested by a stranger at a nude beach, and was propositioned by an elderly French duke after lunch at his country estate.

PASCAL: That’s absolutely true. I can see him now, standing on the bed with his robe open: “Let’s f—!” I can’t tell you how stunned I was.

Pascal in her Manhattan home, filled with SVH memorabilia, in 1988

Pascal in her Manhattan home, filled with SVH memorabilia, in 1988

Evelyn Floret/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

Fearless (1999)

Pascal’s second-most-successful YA series tells the story of Gaia Moore, a 17-year-old girl who does not feel fear.

PASCAL: I thought to myself, “What if a girl was born without the fear gene? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?” Courage is a very important thing to me; I never think I have enough of it. And fear is something I have too much of. I remember there was a skier called Hermann Maier, and he took incredible risks — I thought, “There’s a person who if he’s not born without fear completely, it must be so tiny.” I just fell in love with that idea, and that’s when I wrote Fearless.

Fearless ran for five years and 36 installments — like SVH, Pascal created the stories while ghostwriters wrote the books — and Simon & Schuster debuted a spin-off series, Fearless FBI, in 2005. Gaia even got her own TV show…almost. In 2003, The WB announced a series based on Gaia’s FBI adventures, but the drama (starring Rachael Leigh Cook and exec-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) failed to jell creatively and never made it to air. For that, Pascal is grateful. The author is now working on a new adaptation of Fearless — but it’s not for the page or the screen.

PASCAL: [The TV show] had it all wrong. They had a Gaia who was almost silent. I talked to them about it — I sent endless emails, which they probably put in the garbage. It was really just so wrong, and Gaia was so terrible. I don’t know what they were thinking! At the end it was so bad, [Bruckheimer] put it in the can, which is where it has stayed. I wrote him a letter and said, “Thank you.”

Playwright Jon Marans and I have written a musical called The Fearless Girl. Right this minute! We’re just a couple of weeks from recording the music. Jon and I wrote the book and the lyrics, and Graham Lyle, who wrote several Tina Turner songs, he’s written the music. It’s really exciting. It’s about Gaia — she’s outspoken and tough. She’s outrageous, she’s incorrigible. She is the nightmare teenager with no fear — and because of that, because she doesn’t have the fight-or-flight [response], she only knows fight. She’s not quite Superwoman, but she’s very close. She can’t fly.

Simon Pulse (2); Crown; Viking Books for Young Readers

The Ruling Class (2004)

As one of Pascal’s only YA books that wasn’t part of a series, The Ruling Class — about a teenager named Twyla who clashes with a nasty clique of girls at her new high school — was overshadowed by a similarly themed pop culture phenomenon.

PASCAL I saw something on TV about “mean girls” [a phrase popularized by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book, Queen Bees & Wannabees], and I thought, “That’s great!” I sat down and started to write Mean Girls. I was halfway finished [with the book] and then [my agent] Amy said, “Bad news — Tina Fey is shooting a movie called Mean Girls.” So I had to rename it The Ruling Class.

[Being] first is crucial, and I wasn’t. I still think that message, that the strongest way to defeat a bully is in unity, isn’t emphasized enough. I think it should be taught in schools, because not only would it be effective, it’s exciting. It’s like the army of the good.

The Legacy of Sweet Valley

At 81, Pascal remains busy. In addition to the Fearless musical, the author has an adult novel coming out next year, and she also recently revised the book for Mack & Mabel, the 1974 musical written by her late brother, Michael. (New York’s Encores! theater series will stage the production in February.) Though she has no plans to revisit SVH, over the years Pascal has grown to appreciate the series in a deeper way.

PASCAL: I never really had the respect for Sweet Valley that I had for my other YA books. I felt it was a kind of soap opera, and that was kind of a lesser thing. I was wrong, because it had [an] enormous effect on people. Essentially it was very important and deserved [respect] — now I see it. At least a quarter of the fan mail that I got started off with “I used to hate to read…” It was sometimes from the kid, and sometimes from the par- ent, who would say, “She used to hate to read…” That’s the best thing that happened [with Sweet Valley]. That and money.

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A close read of Inland, the rare novel with a perfect ending

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the plot and ending of Inland.


“She saw it all.” The four words that end Inland read like the debris from a breathtaking literary explosion. Over its 350-plus pages, the new novel by Téa Obreht alternates with mythmaking flair between the entire life of Lurie, a wanted outlaw who adventures around the American West, and a day in the life of Nora, a frontierswoman residing in the Arizona territory circa 1893. Their journeys converge in Inland’s grand finale, an abstract masterpiece that distills everything these two characters carry into montage — blurring past and future, dead and living, pain and joy. The impetus for it? A horde of ghosts, a blind camel, and a sip of water.

So, spoilers. Rarely, a literary ending comes along that feels too perfect to limit to safe, vague praise. I’m not talking about the wild twists or clever reframings that’ve distinguished some of the year’s buzzier titles. Inland derives every dollop of its narrative tension from its climax-oriented structure, paralleling two character studies that must, by the laws of good storytelling, intersect. Obreht brilliantly approaches this inevitability by weaving it into the fabric of her haunted setting, where fate can’t help but grab the steering wheel.

This is Obreht’s first novel since her 2011 debut, The Tiger’s Wife, an immersive magical-realist family tale set in an unnamed Balkan country during the mid-20th century. (It was nominated for the National Book Award.) That she’d follow it up with a western? You could call the move bold. But the shift feels seamless. Obreht is a robust writer: There’s meat on her characters, places, plots, themes, dialogue — all vividly rendered, deep and fresh and exciting, offering plenty to chew on.

Frontierswoman Nora makes up Inland’s heart. Her husband, Emmett, is a failing newspaperman who hasn’t been seen in days; he left, supposedly, to collect water, but their struggling town of Amargo is enduring a horrid drought. She can’t say where her older sons, Rob and Dolan, have gone, either — the night before, she fought with them over the family’s dwindling prospects in Amargo, and they left in a huff. Rumors eventually swirl that Emmett has been killed and Rob and Dolan are on the lam for avenging his death. Nora is left, parched and lonely, to care for her youngest, Toby; Emmett’s potentially psychic teenaged relative, Josie; and her paralyzed mother-in-law.

Over the course of the day, Nora encounters various townspeople: Desma, an old friend and Amargo’s cofounder, grappling with its seeming demise; Doc Almenara, a wily old man yearning for the days of greater promise; and Sheriff Harlan Bell, the man Nora fell hard for, years ago, as her marriage fizzled. “She thought of Harlan sometimes as a fellow combatant with whom she had resolved never to speak of how close to disaster the battle had brought them,” Obreht writes of their current dynamic. “That they could be sentimental of the unspoken truth of their friendship was enough.” Nora emerges as a fascinating, gritty character: We learn about her upbringing of “unboundedness” and how she married Emmett “for love,” see how she lashes out at her sons and friends as she “hardens” — a process Obreht details in a particularly arresting paragraph of character work:

Nora had gone to considerable lengths to steel herself for the life into which she’d followed [Emmett]. This had required hardening…. Even if she had wanted to remain soft, the work would not allow it. Two people at full strength could barely manage all the chores of a homestead: plowing, sowing, raising fence. And if Desma, if her own mother…were hard women, then Nora must be, too. It must never be said of her that she had succumbed to the trials of her life and had to be gentled back to some easier state of existence.

Where Obreht conjures a bleak (read: dry) picture of the West in Nora’s anchoring story, she finds its wonder in Lurie’s saga. In the book’s opening chapter, which traces the man’s childhood (including his emigration from Southeast Europe) and adolescence, his father dies, he falls in with an outlaw gang, and he’s later wanted for the murder of a “New York man” — a killing which puts him on the run. His sections are written in the first person, addressed to what at first reads like an unknown entity. Only later do we realize he’s talking to a camel.

This camel, called Burke, is Obreht’s brightest creation. He is Lurie’s companion across endless redrocked landscapes. “My first day in the saddle, sickened by your rolling, I looked down at our many-legged shadow running out over the grass, lengthening in the dying sun, and found my throat gone tight,” Lurie narrates. “It struck me, without doubt, that I had somehow wanted my way into a marvel that had never before befallen this world.” They bond as Lurie rides and hides among the United States Camel Corps — a real historical thing! — but, all told, they travel thousands of miles, from Texas to Montana to Wyoming and sometimes back again, often in isolation. Obreht indulges the pleasures of great travelogues here, and employs these sections — slimmer than Nora’s, and slightly harder to track — for philosophical purposes, too, compelling her reader to ruminate on time’s passage, how people and stories and worlds live on after they pass. “Who would speak of these things when we were gone?” Lurie asks. “I began to wish that I could pour our memories into the water we carried, so that anyone drinking might see how it had been.”

All this and I haven’t mentioned that both Nora and Lurie talk to the dead. Nora watches her daughter, Evelyn, grow up alongside her — even though Evelyn died as a baby girl, of heatstroke; they talk, Evelyn guiding her mother through guilt and sadness. And Lurie sees ghosts everywhere he goes; they occupy, and soon overwhelm, his very being. He asks: “Must I now forever fill up with the wants of any dead who touched me, all who’d come before me?”

One spirit that guides him is Donovan, formerly of Lurie’s teen outlaw family and, later, hanged in a town Lurie and the Camel Corps pass through. Donovan’s ghost gives Lurie his water canteen, which Lurie never empties — only fills, “even if it was nearly brimming, so the water within mixed and tasted of everything: earth and iron and soil and the rain that spent half the day threatening and the other half flooding everybody out of the bunkhouse.” The canteen contains, in other words, lifetimes — the tattered hopes that brought loners and families and communities alike out West, dreaming of gold but faced with dirt.

Which brings us to the ending. Over the years, Lurie and Burke endure hardship amid adventure; they wind up in the Arizona territory, the former on his last legs, his dying wish that his companion finally “rest.” They’re drawn to Amargo, for Lurie hears Evelyn’s spirit beckoning; they sleep in Nora’s abandoned springhouse, only for Burke — who’s gone blind — to helplessly trash it. They encounter Josie, who sees in Burke a “beast”; days later, Burke, terrified, tramples her accidentally (an event teased in the novel’s opening paragraph).

By the time Nora finds them in the dark of the night, Lurie is dead, Burke close. Fate — drought, Evelyn, grief — has brought these souls together. Nora looks at the pair, man and beast, and takes on Lurie’s dying wish with cosmic empathy. “In the path of what should have been her terror was another, broader, more urgent one: that the camel, if she failed to hit it, might find itself ongoing,” Obreht writes. “The sorrow of its suffering journey — what the hell did she know of its suffering journey? — rushed into her, like a dream of the abyss. There was nothing at the bottom.”

So Nora shoots Burke — lays him to rest. The scene is powerful in a muted, pained sort of way. Nora calls Toby over to look at the dead animal; he runs back to the house, frightened, leaving her alone once more. She eases Lurie’s body off the saddle, and grabs the tin canteen — “marked with the crossbraces of some nameless legion.” She pulls it loose and hears “the strangest thing — the singing tumble of water,” at long last. She listens a little more. Then she drinks.

What Obreht pulls off here is pure poetry. It doesn’t feel written so much as extracted from the mind in its purest, clearest, truest form. When Nora sips the water, she really does see it “all.” Time and memory collapse into each another. She tastes the journeys of Lurie and Burke and so many others who’ve come and gone. She senses her family leaving Amargo, finally with nothing left, but Evelyn and Emmett still follow her — present, but not. She mourns her old Amargo house, “where they had lived once, and yes, been happy.” There’s something deeply devastating about this conclusion, embedded as it is with the tragic reality of its dusty milieu — the death, the heartbreak, the broken promises — and yet there is Nora, a hard woman as ever, loving and losing. She will fight another day. A


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God Save the Queen: The new stars of The Crown open up about the royal gamble of season 3

An impressive number of the royal family have assembled at England’s ancient Belvoir Castle to re-create the 1972 funeral of Edward VIII. We do not, of course, mean the royal family, but the members of Britain’s acting royalty who are portraying the clan in season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown, which launches Nov. 17 and continues to track the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Those present include Outlander alum Tobias Menzies as Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip; Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance as Philip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten; and Cinderella’s fairy godmother Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.

During a break from shooting last December, Bonham Carter reflects on a time she met the free spirit she embodies on the streaming phenomenon. “My uncle was actually very close to her,” the actress reveals. “She was pretty scary. At one point, she met me at Windsor Castle and she said, ‘You are getting better, aren’t you?’” The princess was referring to Bonham Carter’s acting abilities. Well, “I presume that’s what she meant.”

Queen Elizabeth herself is portrayed by Olivia Colman. At the time of EW’s set visit, the actress is already a national treasure thanks to television roles on Broadchurch, Fleabag, and Peep Show. But just two months later, she’ll confirm her position as acting nobility, winning the Oscar for starring as another British monarch, Queen Anne, in The Favourite. Despite her in-demand status, Colman didn’t play hard to get when she was offered the part of the Queen for seasons 3 and 4 of the show, which are being shot back-to-back.

“I was incredibly uncool about it,” she says. “The producers went, ‘So…’ [I said,] ‘Yes! Yes! I’m really excited! Thank you very much!’ I loved the first two seasons.”

Colman is not alone. Season 1 of The Crown, which covered the years 1947–55, premiered in November 2016. Part history lesson, part classiest soap ever, the show breathed vivid life into events most people knew only from textbooks, if at all. While Netflix has not released viewing figures, there is no doubt that the first two seasons — the second of which dramatized the years 1956–64 — amassed a large audience obsessed with following the marital difficulties of Elizabeth and Philip (Claire Foy and Matt Smith) and the romantic tribulations of Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). Both seasons were nominated for a hatful of Emmys, with Foy winning for her work on the second run of shows.

But those expecting to see Foy, Smith, and Kirby in season 3 will be out of luck. Almost the entire cast is new, which represents a huge gamble on the part of Netflix. How will fans of the first two seasons feel about the characters being embodied by these different, and older, actors? What is it like for Colman to play a part so recently portrayed with such award-winning brilliance?

“It’s horrendous,” says the actress. “Everyone loves Claire Foy, so I have got the worst job in the world at the moment. You’re saying all the worst things, thanks!”

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Uh-oh. Well, at least Colman doesn’t have the power to imprison pesky journalists in the Tower of London — right?

The true ruler of The Crown is showrunner, and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Peter Morgan. Just as the young Elizabeth didn’t imagine she would wind up becoming queen — that is, until Edward’s abdication put her next in line to the throne when she was 10 years old — Morgan never dreamed of becoming the monarch’s most successful chronicler. As a kid, Morgan wasn’t even interested in the royal family. “No, no, no,” he says. “It was a horrible mistake. I don’t know how we’ve ended up here.”

Let us help. Morgan’s road to the Windsors began with 2003’s Michael Sheen-starring TV movie The Deal, about the rise to power of British prime minister Tony Blair. Fascinated by Blair, Morgan then wrote 2006’s The Queen, which concerned Elizabeth’s subdued reaction to the death of Princess Diana and the PM’s attempts to prod Elizabeth into a show of mourning. Starring Sheen as Blair and Helen Mirren as the Queen, the film was a box office hit that won Mirren the Oscar and whetted Morgan’s appetite for another palace-themed project.

“I so enjoyed writing those scenes between the Queen and Blair that I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do a play about those audiences, because she’s had 13 prime ministers.” (Actually, that figure is now 14, thanks to the recent ascent of Boris Johnson.) The result, The Audience, opened in London in 2013 and later transferred to Broadway, resulting in Mirren’s Tony award. The Audience directly inspired The Crown, which Morgan initially envisioned as a film exploring the relationship between Elizabeth and Winston Churchill before it evolved into its current form.

“I thought, ‘It’s quite interesting to do a young queen, a middle-aged queen, and an old queen,’” he says. “Originally, when I went to Netflix, I was pitching it as three seasons. It just kept growing.” Morgan says he had enough material to have “easily” written three seasons starring Foy’s young queen, but he’s glad he kept it to two before changing casts. “By the time we got to the end with Claire and Matt, I think they were ready to go somewhere else,” he explains.

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Of course, this wouldn’t be a royal-family story without some scandal. In March of last year, Variety reported that two Crown executive producers let slip at a conference in Jerusalem that Smith was paid more than Foy. Although one of the EPs, Suzanne Mackie, insisted that “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen,” the news became a huge story. At the time, Foy told EW, “I’m surprised, because I’m at the center of it, and anything that I’m at the center of like that is very, very odd. But I’m not [surprised about the interest in the story] in the sense that it was a female-led drama. I’m not surprised that people saw [the story] and went, ‘Oh, that’s a bit odd.’”

By then, Netflix had announced the casting of Colman, whom Morgan regarded as essential to the show’s future. “Olivia Colman was a list of one,” he says. “I think I wanted to know [she would play the part] even before negotiations were done for seasons 3 and 4.” The only problem with casting Colman? Her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite would hit big screens before her turn as Queen Elizabeth arrived on small ones. “Obviously I’d have preferred her not to be playing another queen before,” says Morgan. “But it’s so different — such a different tone.”

The notable historical subjects covered in season 3 of The Crown include the 1964 discovery that the Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt was a Soviet spy, and Labour leader Harold Wilson’s rise to prime minister that same year. The show will also detail the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when an avalanche of coal waste buried a school in Wales. “I had never heard of it, which breaks my heart slightly,” Colman says of the event, which claimed the lives of 144 people, mostly children.

As for the intra-family issues explored, Morgan says the show will deal less than previous seasons have with the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip — which he believes became more settled in the ’60s after the early years of turmoil. Instead, the upcoming episodes will detail the breakdown of the union between Margaret and her photographer husband, Lord “Tony” Snowdon (Ben Daniels).

“They’re such extraordinary people,” says Daniels, “Completely addicted to each other. Even right up until the minute they were getting divorced, they still had a really strong physical relationship. People often said that it was like foreplay for them, having a big row. They would have these huge rows and then amazing sex.” Hearing this, Bonham Carter can’t resist encouraging EW readers to “try it at home!”

Season 3 also introduces adult versions of the Queen’s two eldest children, Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty). The relatively unknown O’Connor admits that one of the toughest challenges on set has been keeping his cool while acting with some of Britain’s most famous faces.

“I’m acting, acting, acting, and then I’m like, ‘I’m acting with Olivia Colman!’” he says. “It’s really weird.”

The season examines Charles’ youthful relationship with his future second wife, Camilla (Emerald Fennell), which began in the early ’70s, years before he met and married Diana.

“People always assume Charles cheated on Diana with Camilla,” says Morgan. “It’s absolutely the wrong way round. He was deeply in love with Camilla and forced to marry Diana.”

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The Crown’s Diana is being played by Emma Corrin, but the actress will not appear on the show until season 4. By the time that season premieres, likely in 2020, Morgan will know if viewers have accepted the series’ new cast — although he doesn’t seem too worried on that score. “It’s a bit like changing contact lenses,” he says. “I think it takes you about five minutes to get used to it.”

Assuming the show does continue to reign over viewers, Morgan claims he hasn’t even begun to think of who might replace the current cast to portray the characters in seasons 5 and 6. The obvious candidate to play the Queen is, of course, Mirren, who already almost has an EGOT for her performances as Elizabeth alone. While the showrunner has not discussed the subject with the actress, he knows that Mirren is a fan. “She loves the show,” he says. “She thought there was nothing left to say, and I think she’s really surprised.”

Back at Belvoir Castle, the woman currently playing Queen Elizabeth II is, all joking aside, surprisingly calm about stepping into Foy’s shoes.

“It’s the same as any classical play you do — everyone will have already played that part before,” she says. But? “The first week, I did feel myself trying to do Claire impressions. ‘What would she have done?’”

Well, surely it makes sense for Colman’s performance in early scenes to mimic that of Foy, given season 3 basically picks up where season 2 left off. “Yes, actually. Maybe it was a stroke of genius that I was doing that,” she says, letting out a laugh Oscars viewers may fondly recall. “That’s what it was! Yes, that was preplanned!”

Anything you say, Your Majesty.

To read more from the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble this Thursday, or buy it here now. (The issue will be available on all newsstands starting Aug. 22.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Related content:

Netflix just announced major details about The Crown season 3

See the first photo of Olivia Colman in The Crown

The Crown: Claire Foy looks back on her reign as Queen Elizabeth

Episode Recaps

Snakes, sandstorms, and strangulation: The making of 1999s The Mummy

By the start of the ’90s, the once-feared Universal movie monster the Mummy had become a laughingstock. “[The joke was] you could use him as toilet paper,” says director Stephen Sommers. But the studio believed there was still money to be found in those Egyptian bandages, and after years of development, it finally greenlit a pitch from Sommers. Released in May 1999, The Mummy was a huge hit, the start of a franchise that would rake in more than $1.4 billion around the world while making movie stars out of Rachel Weisz and Dwayne Johnson.

That success is remarkable, given the movie’s challenging Morocco shoot and the fact that even its leading man, Brendan Fraser, had no idea what kind of film he was in. “We didn’t know whether we were making a horror movie, we didn’t know if this was an action picture, we didn’t know if it was a romance picture,” says the actor. “All of the above? None of the above? We didn’t know. We. Did. Not. Know.”


STEPHEN SOMMERS (WRITER-DIRECTOR): I’ve always wanted to do a version of The Mummy. When I was 8 years old, I saw the old Boris Karloff one [1932’s The Mummy]. It took me to ancient Egypt, and Cairo of the ’20s and ’30s, and scared the crap out of me. The producers, Sean [Daniel] and Jim [Jacks], had been developing it for nine years. I was just finishing Deep Rising [Sommers’ 1998 aquatic horror film], and I heard they’d parted ways with another writer-director. They took me right into Universal. One of the first things I said was “Nobody wants to see a guy wrapped in bandages; they’re going to laugh at it.” I walked out, and Jim was like, “The studio wants to do it for $15 million.” I said, “I’m going to need that for visual effects alone.”

KEVIN J. O’CONNOR (BENI GABOR): Stephen’s theory is: If you can get someone who’s just as good as somebody else, but they’re nicer to have around, pick that one.

SOMMERS: My editor and producing partner, Bob Ducsay, as soon as he read the script, he said, “This is Brendan Fraser.” It made sense. Brendan’s a big, strapping guy, and he has a great sense of humor.

BRENDAN FRASER (RICK O’CONNELL): I liked the script very much. It was at a time in my career when, in studio-speak, I was bankable, so that must have played into it.

SOMMERS: Brendan’s character was easy to cast; he’s a dashing adventurer from beginning to end. Evelyn [Carnahan], she’s this meek librarian. But by the end, she’s this dashing adventuress. The studio started throwing up all these American actresses. Nobody knew who Rachel [Weisz] was. Rachel auditioned four or five times. The studio could see it was a good pairing.

JOHN HANNAH (JONATHAN CARNAHAN): Four Weddings and a Funeral changed my life, and then, not long after, I got Sliding Doors, which did not do huge box office-wise but did a lot of good for me.

SOMMERS: His agent really hyped him up to Stacey Snider [Universal’s president of production]: “He’s hilarious. Sliding Doors is going to be this massive hit.” Stacey got it in her head that John was this great comic actor. When I met John, he was like, “I’ve never been funny in my life!” He had no idea why we cast him.

ARNOLD VOSLOO (IMHOTEP/THE MUMMY): I remember thinking the script is really fun; it’s Indiana Jones-like. I went down to Universal and met Steve. I said, “What I think will make the movie stronger is if I can play a man in love. This guy loves this chick, Anck Su Namun [Patricia Velasquez], who happened to be married to the Pharaoh. He does it all for her and f— the world.” I think by the time I got back home to Santa Monica, I got the call saying, “You’re the Mummy.” I always wonder: If it were happening today, would I get the part? I mean, here I am — white, South African. They’d probably cast a real Egyptian.

OMID DJALILI (WARDEN GAD HASSAN): I have an Iranian background, so I was very aware that, if I ever did film roles, I had to represent Middle Eastern culture. This was at a time when there were very few Middle Eastern roles at all that weren’t terrorists. Steve said, “We’re looking for kind of Rifki from Midnight Express,” and that was a Turkish warden who was really evil. I said, “Look, why don’t we play him differently because, with all due respect to you, what you’ve written is not even one-dimensional. I can possibly get this to a two-dimensional stereotype.” So I did this piece to camera, it had nothing to do with the script, and he said, “That’s great. Does it have to be so funny?” And I said, “The only way I can do this without being lynched by my own people is to make it slightly humorous.” Then someone said, “What are you doing between April and September? Because we’ve seen 65 people for this role. I think he wants you.”

SOMMERS: The Mummy cost about $62 million.

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VOSLOO: They go, “All right, here’s your wardrobe.” It’s, like, a G-string. I liked my beers; I had a bit of a paunch — still do. Steve told me afterwards that the wardrobe master said, “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a fat Mummy!” So in Morocco I was just running and walking and eating whatever it is they make you eat to lose weight. It all worked out.

SOMMERS: It was a British crew, and I was this young American, and everyone was like, “Who is this guy?” And not in a good way. I told everybody, “We have a six-week shoot in Morocco.” They looked at the pages — [cinematographer] Adrian Biddle, the camera crew, and the grips. I think they thought, “There’s no way in hell we’re getting out of here in six weeks.”

FRASER: Jim Jacks said, “I took out million-dollar kidnapping insurance policies on you.” We were like, “So, basically, you put a bounty on our head?” He’s like, “That’s one way of looking at it.” I’ll never forget: Kevin J. goes, “How much insurance did you take out on me?” “Eh, $50,000. That should do it.”

O’CONNOR: You’d see one little black cloud and you’d think, “What is this?” This little black cloud would turn into a sandstorm that was blinding and threw the camera equipment around. It was insane.

VOSLOO: I went back on set, and the trailer that I used — [the sandstorm] had taken all the paint off the aluminum.

SOMMERS: It was hard. Snakes and scorpions all over the place.

FRASER: They sent a memo out describing a type of snake. I think it had yellow dots on it. They said, “If you see this kind of snake, do not go near it. Because if it bites you, at best, they’ll amputate your limb.”

O’CONNOR: I chose to wear open-toed sandals for my character. After my first night, I realized how wrong I was. I would look down and see something moving in the sand.

FRASER: Anyway, there I was, pissing down a rock, and I look down and there’s the yellow-dot snake. I was like, “F—!” I just ran for it.

VOSLOO: Everybody got sick. We were all like, “Let’s have gin and tonic with ice cubes. It’ll be fine!” [Makes a puke sound]

FRASER: We got a lot of B12 shots in the ass, whether we wanted them or not.

HANNAH: I struggled a bit doing The Mummy at first. I was like, “I don’t understand what I’m doing here!” Brendan’s the hero, and Kevin J. was doing the comedy stuff. I’m like, “Steve, what’s my function?” He said, “Just mess around in the background, and if it’s funny, we’ll cover it.”

FRASER: I did fully get choked out [in the scene where Rick O’Connell is hanged in a prison]. It was scary.

SOMMERS: [Brendan] is totally to blame.

FRASER: Rick is dangling at the end of the rope, and he’s such a tough guy that his neck didn’t snap. There was a hangman’s gallows, and there was a hemp rope tied into a noose that was placed around my neck. The first take, I’m doing my best choking acting. Steve says, “Can we go for another one and take up the tension on the rope?” I said, “All right, one more take.” Because a noose around your neck’s going to choke you in the arteries, no matter what. I remember seeing the camera start to pan around, and then it was like a black iris at the end of a silent film. I regained consciousness, and one of the EMTs was saying my name. There was gravel in my ear and sh— really hurt. Steven — he and I disagree — but I think he was trying to go, “Oh, that wacky Brendan, acting up a storm again!” I was like, “I’m done for the day.”

SOMMERS: He tightens the noose, and then, as we’re about to take the shot, he’s trying to make it look like it’s really strangling him. I guess it cut off his carotid artery, or whatever, and knocked him out.

FRASER: Technically, yes, it was my fault, that I was following direction from my director to sell it!

SOMMERS: He did it to himself.

FRASER: I remember Rachel at various points saying, “Oh my God, they’re going to confiscate my Equity card.”

VOSLOO: There was a scene — I think Rachel was tied up at my feet or something. The whole crew are down at the bottom of the sand dune. Steve says, “You’re going to conjure up the sand wall.” I said, “Just tell me to look left, tell me to look right, because I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.” Steve’s on a bullhorn, and he’s like, “Come over the sand dune! Now look at Rachel! Now gesture at the thing and shout!” I looked down at Rachel and I said, “We’re never going to work again.”

SOMMERS: You could feel the chemistry between Rachel and Brendan.

FRASER: Rachel is just a heck of a lot of fun to work with and easily someone you can have a platonic movie-star crush on for all the right reasons — to translate that to a chemistry that plays on screen.

SOMMERS: We got out of the desert in six weeks.

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SOMMERS: We shot all over London and out around Southern England. Some of the Nile stuff at night was the Thames. [Laughs]

O’CONNOR: I’m an old film fan, and being at Shepperton Studios was such a thrill. I remember one of the [other] Americans saying, “Oh, it’s so dank in here.” I was like, “Are you nuts? You know what was shot here? A Man for All Seasons! Hobson’s Choice!” You’re like, “Oh my God, be quiet!”

SOMMERS: In the first Mummy, ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] charged you if you ever moved the camera. It’s not that long ago where you said, “There’s 80 CG shots, and for 20 of them we can move the camera.” We really had to figure stuff out.

FRASER: That big fight with the skeletons at the end, there was a motion-capture camera that was the size — no kidding — of a very large industrial refrigerator. It was on rails, it was robotic, it was programmed, and you couldn’t mess up a move or improvise anything because then the camera wouldn’t capture what you did.

VOSLOO: They put me in one of those motion-capture catsuit things with white ping-pong balls. They just kept saying, “It’s going to be a skeleton, but it’s going to walk like you.” I was like, “I don’t know what the f— that even means.”

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SOMMERS: The studios always do tests, and nobody had any interest in seeing a Mummy movie, we were finding out. I’m like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” [Laughs]

VOSLOO: When I came back, my friends were like, “Why the f— did you do a Mummy movie?”

SOMMERS: Then people saw our 30-second Super Bowl spot. It went from nobody wanting to see The Mummy to, the next day, the studio was on fire. We thought, “Man, this film could do $20 million.” That would have been a pretty big opening. The next day [after The Mummy was released], I hear the phone ringing downstairs. It’s 6:40 in the morning. Ron Meyer [president of Universal Studios] said, “The movie’s going to open at $45 million.”


DJALILI: The Universal representative said the film’s opening was so strong, it saved the studio. Universal had a number of flops, and The Mummy literally saved the studio.

VOSLOO: Steve did a great job. He did an even better job with the second one [2001’s The Mummy Returns, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson’s debut film], I think.

SOMMERS: I only shot Dwayne for one day because he had to fly from the Sahara desert for a big wrestling deal. He had food poisoning and heatstroke. It was probably 110 degrees, and he would be covered in blankets, just shivering. I’m like, “Dwayne, we’ve only got one day!” I go, “Action!” Dwayne threw off the blankets and charged forward. We went all day. That guy gutted it out.

VOSLOO: I never saw the third one [2008’s Rob Cohen-directed The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor], and I never saw the Tom Cruise one [2017’s poorly received The Mummy].

SOMMERS: Whenever people find out that I directed The Mummy, it puts a big smile on their faces.

FRASER: It’s as familiar to some people as the furniture in their house. That’s nice. I like that.

O’CONNOR: I was doing There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis, and one of the local town kids, he was looking for a skinny guy that played Beni. He pointed to Daniel-Day Lewis and said, “Was he the guy in The Mummy?” [Laughs] I said, “No, that was me.”

VOSLOO: It comes back to Steve Sommers’ script. The movie comes out and people go, “Oh, Arnold, you made a great movie!” I’m like, “Thanks.” But what you really want to say is “You should look at who wrote the movie. You should call that f—er and thank them!”

A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly. You can buy all five covers, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, White Canary, and Batwoman. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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Brendan Fraser deserves some respect
Dwayne Johnson was seriously ill when he shot his part in The Mummy Returns

Riz Ahmed, Eva Green, more join 2019 Toronto Film Festival lineup

The Toronto International Film Festival had added a dash of star power to its 2019 lineup.

New projects from Emmy-winning actor Riz Ahmed (The Night Of, Nightcrawler), Eva Green (Penny Dreadful), and Julie Delpy (Richard Linklater’s Before series) will screen as part of the Canadian event’s Platforms section, the festival announced Wednesday.

Ahmed leads Darius Marder’s debut feature Sound of Metal, which is set to world-premiere in the festival section focused on showcasing emerging voices from around the world. The film follows a heavy-metal drummer (Ahmed) who, amid losing his hearing, reexamines his standing in the world.

Also joining the Platform section are Suffragette director Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, about a young, British girl suddenly tasked with caring for herself and her younger brother; Actor-director Delpy’s My Zoe, a suspenseful thriller about a recently divorced mother driven to untold extremes, and Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which stars Green as an astronaut questioning her motherly duties as she trains to enter space.

Of the 10 features included in the Platform section, four are directed by women. All will compete for the section’s $20,000 CAD prize, the winner of which will be selected by a jury consisting of a three-person jury led by Carlo Chatrian (Artistic Director of the Berlin International Film Festival), film critic Jessica Kiang, and director Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg). 

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“Competitions should celebrate the range of what great cinema is and what it can accomplish. Platform is alive to those possibilities,” Platform Co-Curator Andréa Picard said of this year’s selection. “Whether they are debuts or mid-career works, these films push the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in surprising and rigorous ways, some using documentary or experimental techniques in their approaches. Audiences will recognize similar themes emerge like a global collective subconscious, but what is truly exciting is the varied means of cinematic expression on display.”

What to watch on Wednesday: Beverly Hills, 90210 is back with BH90210, the reboot thats not a reboot

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We know TV has a lot to offer, be it network, cable, premium channels, or streaming platforms including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple, Facebook Watch, and elsewhere. So EW is here to help, guiding you every single day to the things that should be on your radar. Check out our recommendations below, and click here to learn how you can stream our picks via your own voice-controlled smart-speaker (Alexa, Google Home) or podcast app (Spotify, iTunes, Google Play).

Love Island

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Season Finale
After a month of recouplings, wild games, and TEXTS!!, the first season of CBS’ Love Island is coming to an end. The public has chosen the four pair of finalists: Weston and Emily, Caro and Ray, Dylan and Alexandra, and Zac and Elizabeth. They have taken care of crying babies, met each other’s families, went on incredible final dates, and, some have even found love. Now, it’s all back in the viewers’ hands to decide which of the final four will be crowned this year’s winners and receive the $100,000 prize before we leave Fiji, and the villa, behind until next summer. —Alamin Yohannes

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HOW/WHEN & WHERE TO WATCH: 9 p.m. on Fox

Series Debut
Tori Spelling, Jennie Garth, Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestley, Gabrielle Carteris, Brian Austin Green, and Ian Ziering are all back for this new take on the series that made them stars nearly 30 years ago, this time playing heightened versions of themselves as they attempt to launch a reboot of the classic series. “We wanted to do something different, and we wanted to do something that would cause noise and be groundbreaking just like our original show was back in the ‘90s,” Spelling previously told EW. Added Garth, who co-created the show with Spelling, Chris Alberghini, and Mike Chessler, “It’s about the characters behind the characters. It’s inside the lives of people that lived in those shoes for those 10 years, and it’s about them coming back together.” That means a “convention” reunion in Vegas, drunken antics, affairs, and so much more! —Gerrad Hall

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What Else to Watch

The Handmaid’s TaleHulu

8 p.m.
Expedition Unknown (season premiere) — Discovery
grown-ish (season finale) — Freeform

9 p.m.
Hypnotize Me (series debut)  — The CW
Big BrotherCBS

10 p.m.
YellowstoneParamount Network
YoungerTV Land

*times are ET and subject to change

From stolen DVD players to Black Superman, Fast & Furious writer shares secrets of the franchise

Once upon a time, there was a group of Los Angeles street racers who used their souped-up cars to raid semi trucks hauling DVD players. Over the years, as they’ve made stops in places like Miami, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and London, they’ve not only left behind their life of crime, but also taken to saving the world, one tank at a time. Yes, the past 18 years have seen quite the evolution for Hollywood’s most surprising powerhouse: the Fast & Furious franchise.

Now, after eight Fast films, the universe is expanding with the spin-off Hobbs & Shaw, which stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham as reluctant partners who must face off with Idris Elba’s genetically enhanced super-soldier Brixton Lore, who fancies himself “Black Superman.” (Definitely a long way from those simple streets of L.A.) It’s the latest entry in a winning formula that has raked in more than $5 billion at the worldwide box office, and much of that success can be attributed to Chris Morgan, the screenwriter behind Hobbs & Shaw and the previous six Fast films, whose life has now become dreaming up the craziest possible scenarios involving speeding cars and even faster-talking heroes.

Ahead of the release of Hobbs & Shaw, EW had a wide-ranging conversation with Morgan about the history and future of Fast & Furious, covering everything from Johnson’s casting to Paul Walker’s death to that signature F-word.

“We’re definitely not doing that”

Inspired by a Vibe article, director Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious starred Walker as Brian O’Conner, an undercover cop trying to infiltrate a close-knit team of street racers led by Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto. The 2001 film was a hit upon release, leading to 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, which Diesel decided to sit out, clearing the way for Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges to join Walker. With another hit on its hands, Universal Pictures began development on a third film by soliciting ideas from prospective writers. As a fan of the franchise, Morgan quickly threw his hat in the ring, only to quickly learn that his ideas were a tad too ambitious.

“I loved the idea of this crew that acts like a family,” Morgan says. “Technically they started out as thieves, but they stand for something bigger, which is each other. I had heard they were doing like an open call for writers for a third film, and I’m not a giant car guy, but I did some research and saw they were doing this thing called drifting in Tokyo. Originally, the story was going to involve Dominic Toretto having to go to Japan after someone he knew was murdered, and in order to figure it out, he’s got to learn a new style of racing on the opposite side of the road and gain people’s trust to solve the crime and bring justice for his friend. But they were like, ‘Listen, we’re definitely not doing that. This is a straight-to-DVD $10 million film set in L.A. Drifting is going to be expensive, Japan is going to be expensive.’”

A few weeks later, Morgan was called back in and a compromise was struck: Drifting would stay and the budget would be raised, but the film would be a reset, with a new cast of high-school-aged actors. And yet, ahead of Tokyo Drift’s release, Morgan was still drawn to part of his original pitch, culminating in Diesel making a cameo in the final scene.

“When the movie was getting closer to release, we just kept thinking about Dom and Letty [Michelle Rodriguez’s character] and the crew, and we had gone to the studio and said, ‘What about doing a tag at the end of the movie to suggest that these adventures will continue and we will see the family again?’” Morgan says. “The movie now has cult status, but when it came out, the audience didn’t respond to it at the box office as much as we would have hoped. But the thing that everyone universally said was, ‘Oh my God, Vin is coming back!’ And that is what gave us the shot to do Fast 4 and then Fast Five, and on and on and on.”

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“There’s a little bit of soap opera to it”

Moviegoers’ excitement over the tease of Diesel’s return opened the door to reuniting the original cast, along with Tokyo Drift director Justin Lin, for 2009’s Fast & Furious. “For 4, it was bringing back this crew, and specifically Dom and Brian, who hadn’t seen each other in a longtime,” Morgan says. “It’s pitting them against each other and then making them work together so you can get the audience to cheer in the moments you want them to. Because, from the first scene in that movie, you’re aching for Dom and Brian and Letty and Mia [Jordana Brewster] to just hug, fight together, win together; you’ve just got to run them through the gauntlet first.”

Part of that gauntlet comes early in Fast & Furious, when Rodriguez’s Letty is seemingly killed off, kicking Dom’s revenge plot into high gear. But the end credits of Fast Five would later reveal Letty to still be alive, and she’d fully return to the fold with a case of amnesia in Fast & Furious 6.

“Maybe it’s not the best term — I just mean it as an emotional roller coaster over a long, extended period of time — but there’s a little bit of soap opera to it,” Morgan admits. “There’s always surprises and reveals and things that turn the characters’ worlds on their heads. When we were on set for Fast 4, we had talked about where we would go in the future with this, and the tag at the end of Five is where we got to pique to the audience where that goes.”

“We just knew it would be Dwayne”

Fast & Furious was a surprise hit, breaking the record at the time for the biggest April box office opening. According to Morgan, the success allowed the franchise to “go a little bit bigger” with the next installment, Fast Five, which is widely regarded as the best film in the series. And when going bigger, there’s no one more fitting of the title than Dwayne Johnson.

“The original idea was a little bit of Butch and Sundance,” says Morgan of the setup for Fast Five. “Dom, Brian, and Mia are on the run, and someone is chasing them. Not a villain, but a contagonist; he is the most effective hunter of outlaws that exists. He kind of needs to be a little like the Joe Lefors character from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the man in the white hat who just won’t stop coming after them, and the one person they’re afraid of. So we wanted to open with them looking back over the horizon, and there’s a little bit of fear in their eyes because something is coming. I had written this character, Luke Hobbs, and this guy had to be unstoppable, determined, a force of nature, and we just knew it would be Dwayne Johnson. Everybody was on board. We went to Dwayne, he loved it, and he was in.”

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Jaimie Trueblood/Universal Pictures

“The F-word for the Fast franchise is family

From the beginning, family has been a theme in Fast & Furious, but as the franchise has gone on, that message has only gotten stronger. After all, we could never forget Dom’s famous declaration: “I don’t have friends, I got family.” For some, it’s become a running joke, but not to Morgan.

“I think that’s the heart of the Fast & Furious franchise,” he says. “We have amazing set pieces and travel the world, but there are plenty of movies that have good set pieces and travel the world that don’t resonate with the audience in the same way. And the reason is that I think the audience is able to see themselves more easily in our cast of characters. More than money, more than titles, more than their cars, they value their relationships. And I think sitting in the audience everyone feels that way: ‘I may not be the fastest driver, I may not be the best fighter, but what I do believe is I got a lot of heart and I do care about the people around me and I’d do whatever it takes to keep them safe.’ I think that’s Fast. It’s not something we actively go to put in the film, it’s just something that’s there. I’ve said it before, and even Dwayne says it, the F-word for the Fast franchise is family. It’s almost become like a drinking game: Any time someone says family, you take a drink. And my response, as the guy who writes it, is always, every time a character says family, they mean it. And I think the audience recognizes that and appreciates it.”

“Justice for Han is owed”

While Tokyo Drift was originally viewed as an outlier, it has retroactively become one of the most important films of the franchise, due to the audience and creative team’s affinity for Sung Kang’s Han. The character died in Tokyo Drift, but Morgan says Han was “so cool” that they adjusted the Fast timeline just to keep him around, meaning the fourth, fifth, and sixth films were all technically Tokyo Drift prequels. The action would finally catch up in the end credits of 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, in which it’s revealed that Han’s death was no accident, and he was killed by Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, making his Fast debut) as revenge for Dom’s crew taking down his brother Owen (Luke Evans). After serving as the villain in Furious 7, Statham’s Shaw was reluctantly forced to work with our heroes in The Fate of the Furious, and then fully positioned as a protagonist in Hobbs & Shaw. This hero’s arc for Shaw has bothered many fans who have called for “justice for Han,” and to those people, Morgan says stay tuned.

“I love ‘justice for Han,’” Morgan says, adding that Han is very important to him. “Sung Kang is a great friend, and Han is a character that I adore. I would say that the super-arc for Deckard Shaw is going to be one of the most interesting, cool, rewarding character arcs in the franchise. Justice for Han is owed. It’s something we have discussed for a very long time and want to give the right due to. I think the audience will be satisfied and should know it’s coming. There’s a line in Hobbs & Shaw that is right before the battle in Samoa where Shaw says to his sister, ‘There’s things I’ve done that I have to make amends for.’ That line was specifically written and put in there just to let everyone know that he is talking about Han — it is on his mind. It tortures him, and he’s going to get to it.”

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“Everyone truly believed in their heart that Paul would want that”

Six films in, Fast & Furious had become a well-oiled machine, so much so that Universal fast-tracked Furious 7 to come out in 2014, just a year after Fast 6. This led Lin, who had directed the previous four installments, to pass the baton to horror filmmaker James Wan. But the director and the Fast family would soon be dealt a heartbreaking loss. On the Thanksgiving break from filming, Walker, the face of the franchise along with Diesel, died in a car accident.

“It was devastating beyond words,” Morgan recalls. “The character of Brian is the eyes of the audience into the world; he is us. And just as a person, Paul was one of the nicest human beings of all time — so collaborative, so cool, so fun, so kind. I remember after the accident, the studio and all our Fast family went to the accident site and there was a line of cars like two hours long, patiently waiting their turn at this offramp to get off the freeway, pull by the crash site, and honk their horn in a little respect. That is just the level of people that adored him. I think maybe some didn’t realize how much he had meant to them.”

Production on Furious 7 was be put on hold, with the stars and creative team trying to decide if they would, or could, complete the film. The final verdict was that they needed to finish, for Walker. Aided by visual effects to recreate his likeness and his brothers acting as stand-ins, Walker’s Brian was given an emotional send-off that resonated with audiences and critics alike, and Furious 7 became the highest-grossing and best-reviewed film in the franchise.

“It threw everything into personal chaos for everybody, and then chaos for the film,” Morgan says. “He passed halfway through the film and had done a lot of the action stuff but almost none of the dramatic stuff. There was a real moment where the studio was considering shutting the film down and just not completing it. That is when we all got together and wrapped arms around each other and said, ‘First things first: Forget if we can do it, should we do it?’ And everyone truly believed in their heart that Paul would want that. So then we said, ‘Okay, well how do we do it?’ I went through all the footage we had of him from Fast Five on that we hadn’t used. Basically, we’d take him in those takes and then rewrite everybody else’s dialogue around him. So I knew the basic story that I wanted to get to, but now I had to do it with Paul and his existing dialogue, and then try to guide us to this new ending.”

He continues, “There’s so many people considering different things, but I just knew in my heart that Brian lives forever in the Fast universe — he just does. There’s no other option of anything but that. Again, we all linked arms and dug back in. It was incredibly emotionally difficult for everybody, but there’s a larger goal of giving him a great send-off in mind. I remember at a first screening over at the studio, normally you watch the film in a studio screening and the lights come up and everyone looks at each other and goes, ‘Okay, how do we fix it?’ In this one, the lights went up, there’s a moment of silence, and then everybody just started crying. No one said anything for like five minutes, and then everyone just got up and hugged each other and were like, ‘We did the right thing.’ It’s the thing that I’m most proud of. Our cast, our crew, our studio, and the entire Fast franchise really went the extra mile to do the right thing in honor of Paul. It felt like a very cathartic thing for everyone who loves Fast.”

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“I don’t have any context for it, but imagine this…”

It’s hard to pinpoint whether it was when they drove a safe through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or when they battled on the longest runway in history, or when they flew a car from building to building to building in Abu Dhabi, but Fast & Furious has become the signature franchise for “WTF, how did they just do that!?” action sequences. And somehow they keep topping themselves. So how does Morgan come up with something like, say, a nuclear submarine chasing cars in an icy wasteland?

“I went to the studio one day and I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t have any context for it, but imagine this: It’s kind of like this icy Russian landscape, and you start hearing a car engine, and then you start hearing Tyrese’s panicked voice going, You’ve got to go faster, man, and you come in and you see this car alone, hauling ass in this endless field of ice, and then suddenly this thing erupts out of the ice and it’s a submarine that’s chasing them down,’” Morgan recalls with a chuckle. “I pitched that and everybody just started laughing, and were like, ‘That’s cool, we haven’t seen that before.’ That was one of the conceits that kind of came out of nowhere. It’s not necessarily me trying to top each set piece, because I think that ultimately ends in an impossible situation. I just think we’re trying to make every set piece as unique as possible, as fun as possible, something you’ve never seen before. That’s the goal.”

He adds, “I always put myself where I started my journey with Fast, which is as a fan in the theater watching the movies. What gets me excited and makes me want to cheer? How do we use vehicles in a way we haven’t thought about before? There is a caveat to this, which is the old physics debate. We’ll bend physics, in fact we’ll bend it a lot, but we won’t outright break it. My dad was a science teacher and I definitely respect physics, but my rule is a little bit more flexible. I’d cite the runway at the end of Fast 6 as an example. Technically for the plane to be in the air for the duration of that set piece, the runway would have to be 26 miles long. True, but when you’re watching it, is your brain doing that calculation, or are you enjoying and locked into the movie and worried about what’s happening with Han and Gisele [Gal Gadot] and the other characters? If it doesn’t take you out of the movie, then it’s good for us, we’ll do it. People will always ask me, ‘Would you ever do this type of sequence or this type of sequence?’ And my answer is always, is the audience going to love it, cheer it, and enjoy it? If so, yes.”

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And with the stakes getting higher and higher, where does Morgan draw the line? Let’s just say he’s willing to go out of this world. “I would never shoot down space,” he says. “Never, never. I would literally never shoot down anything, as long as it hits the parameters: Is it badass? is it awesome? Will the audience love it? And will it not break faith with the audience as they’re watching it? I’m down for whatever.”

“If we’re going to do it, those are the two guys”

Since joining the franchise in Fast Five, Johnson had been rumored to be getting his own spin-off, and that’s now a reality with Hobbs & Shaw. But after years of trying to find the right situation and story, Morgan says it was Johnson’s odd-couple chemistry with Statham in 2017’s Fate of the Furious that sealed the deal.

“There has always been an agenda to expand the Fast universe,” he says. “We really began talking about that when the movies started taking off, and specifically at the fifth movie. We’ve just kind of been talking about it in the background, until Fast 8. That prison sequence, I remember being there on the day and putting Dwayne and Jason in cells opposite each other and just letting them start the smack talk, and each trying to outdo each other. Leaving that set, my cheeks were hurting because I had been laughing so hard all day. And from that moment, everybody said, ‘If we’re going to do it, those are the two guys.’ They’re fun and kind of perfect for what a spin-off should be. We have a very large ensemble crew for the main-line Fast films, and it doesn’t give you enough time to dig in to the backstories of some characters. So highlighting two characters, we’re able to get into where they come from, what are the things that haunt them in their past. They’re both alpha kind of hero characters, they want to do things their own way, they don’t like each other. The last thing they want to do is work together. But also, incidentally, we always take a bit of a genre trip in the Fast films, and for us, with Idris, he’s an imposing guy who is able to take very heightened situations and ground them in a real way, which let us push it a little bit farther than we normally could. The decision to make him a genetically engineered super-soldier was a step a little bit into sci-fi and a little bit into the superhero genre since he’s going to have to step in and beat down two of the biggest heroes in film history.”

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Speaking of Elba’s “Black Superman,” does Morgan ever think about how he’s taken Fast from street racing to saving the world from superpowered terrorists? “On a daily basis,” he says with a laugh. “Someone sent me a still of what the stakes were on the original film, and it’s just a truckload of DVD players and stereos — I love that. It’s a testament to how much the audience bonds to these particular characters and what they represent. They are equally compelling in a $30 million movie about stealing DVD players as they are in a story featuring the fate of the world, genetically enhanced super-soldiers, and trucks linking together to try and take down a helicopter on the edge of a cliff in Samoa.”

“We’ll see what happens down the road”

With Hobbs & Shaw looking to be a crowd-pleasing hit and Fast 9 and 10 already in development (plus a potential female-led spin-off, per Diesel), there will be no shortage of Fast & Furious content in the next few years — and Morgan is hoping for even more.

“I have things I’d like to really see,” he says, referring to the Fast universe as a “giant spiderweb” with interconnected story strands. “The thing I love about the spin-offs is that it lets you delve deeper into these characters. I would love to see more of that with some of our other core characters as well. I think they have incredible backstories and journeys and gauntlets that I would love to run them through. We just have to wait and see how everyone responds. We’ve had an idea for a Tej [Ludacris] and Roman [Tyrese] spin-off for a lot of years. It’s a really fun idea, so we’ll see what happens down the road.”

No matter how much additional mileage Morgan gets out of Fast, he’s loved every minute of living his life a quarter-mile at a time. “We’re fortunate enough to have a group that really cares about the audience and really struggles to make sure that we’re putting the best stuff out for them,” he says. “I love these movies. It’s not just a job, it means something to me.”

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw opens Friday.

Related content:
Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Gisele: A tribute to Gal Gadot in Fast & Furious
2 Fast 2 Underrated: An argument for the forgotten Fast & Furious gem
In defense of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Shaw get their own “Fast & Furious” spin-off.