Dave Snyder On Collaborative Vision, Alan Cumming, and The New Yorker Presents

TV Features The New Yorker
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Every new Amazon pilot has a blessing and a curse in the success of Jill Soloway’s Transparent. On the one hand, the success of Golden Globe-winning comedy brings much greater visibility to the new batch of pilots. Those of us who fell in love with Transparent will automatically have high hopes for new projects, like The New Yorker Presents. And then of course, there’s the fact that potential shows like The New Yorker Presents stand in a great shadow. What’s exciting about the hour-long pilot, in which the award-winning magazine comes to life with the help of Alan Cumming, Jonathan Demme, Marina Abramovi?, and others, is that it is so unique from Transparent—or any other series, for that matter—it resists any comparisons to current TV. A mixture of fictional stories come to life, comics, documentary shorts, and performance poetry, The New Yorker Presents feels like a coming together of many worlds, in part because it’s a collaborative effort between Dave Snyder who produced and directed, and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney. Paste caught up with Snyder to talk about the exciting new pilot, working with Amazon, and Alan Cumming as God.

Paste Magazine: I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I watched the pilot, so there were lots of surprises. Can you talk about what the plan was at the beginning of this project? Did things ever change or veer away from your original vision?
Dave Snyder: No, I don’t think so. From the beginning this was a communal process between Alex Gibney, David Remnick, folks at The New Yorker, and Condé Nast, and Amazon. There were a lot of discussions from the beginning. One thing that I strongly encouraged was that the series embrace formats other than pure documentary programming. I feel like that’s one of the great joys of the magazine—you never know what’s going to touch you. It’s not as simple as, “I’m a poetry fan, so I love the poetry,” or “I’m a fan of fiction, so I’m going to love the short stories.” Different mediums speak to you. That’s what makes the magazine so thrilling.

And this is just the beginning. Moving forward, there will be lots of other ways to explore other mediums.

Paste: Alex Gibney once said that one of the goals for the series is to “make you feel that you’re in same universe even though you’re visiting different planets”. Now that you two have been working together for some time, can you talk about what the collaborative experience is like with him?
Snyder: Besides being a brilliant filmmaker, Alex is a brilliant collaborator. He’s able to work on so many projects because he surrounds himself with talented people, and then he gives them clear direction about what he wants. He has very strong opinions, and he’s able to quickly focus in on what appeals to him, and what doesn’t. So he’s able to move things forward in production on an array of projects at one time. And the quality of the films demonstrate that he is able to do that successfully, to a remarkable degree. And that was the case here.

Paste: Anyone who watches The Good Wife will really enjoy seeing Alan Cumming as God in that first sketch. It just makes sense! How did that come about?
Snyder: I loved it too, and I would love it if he really were God (laughs). He has done a number of really cool indie projects over time. There’s a great web series called The Outs, and he’s been in it, and I’d seen him out and about at different clubs, and had been thinking that he’s the kind of guy who could do this. Folks were like, “There’s no way! He’s on Broadway, he’s filming The Good Wife, and he’s on a book tour. This is impossible.” And, in fact, he came and did it when he had a show that night. So he is amazing, and someone who—when he feels like something is interesting—just jumps in.

NEWYORKER-tyrone-hayes.jpg

Paste: I think the piece on biologist Tyrone Hayes was one of my personal favorite parts of the pilot. I just fell in love with him, and then went looking for the original article about this plot against him. How did you end up bringing Jonathan Demme into this, and what was it like working with him?
Snyder: I thought it was important that the documentary capture who Tyrone was, because he’s such an incredible guy. I was worried about a very sober, straight forward, just-the-facts kind of documentary. I suggested a few filmmakers to Alex—some who I thought would really understand the spirit of Tyrone, and Alex gravitated immediately to Jonathan. And then it turned out that Jonathan—who probably thought I was tapping his phone at that point—had been thinking about that particular piece from The New Yorker. His daughter had sent it to him and he loved it. He had been really fascinated, and was trying to see if there was a way for him to develop it into a film. So this was incredibly serendipitous.
Paste: Yes, that’s amazing!
Snyder: Jonathan is one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. He has this incredible combination—the likes of which I’ve never encountered before—where he’s incredibly down to earth, sincere, and he pays attention to anybody he meets, but he’s also very strong-willed, and has a vision of what he needs. He’ll drive people forward to achieve that vision in a way that’s really remarkable. It’s this combination of real heartfelt sincerity and warmth, with determination. Often those two things don’t go together so well, but with him they go together wonderfully. He’s an extraordinary person.

Paste: Transparent creator Jill Soloway has had great things to say about working with Amazon. Why did you end up going to them for the pilot?
Snyder: I loved the idea of Amazon’s historically literary connection. They were extremely interested in expanding into television and trying new things, and were very supportive creatively. With Marina Abramovi?, she has some very provocative art, so we didn’t know how they would react to the footage—some of which is pretty outrageous. And they didn’t bat an eye. They were totally enthused, and I thought that was a great sign (laughs).

Paste: On the one hand, the target audience for this series is obvious. But how would you say the series could appeal to those of us who don’t regularly read The New Yorker, or don’t read it at all?
Snyder: If you’re a fan of a particular actor, or musician, or filmmaker, or if you’re serious about a particular topic or subject, the show will lure you in—hopefully—with one of those. And once you’re there and stay for the whole hour, most people will find that you get a lot of variety, and you’ll learn things that you never knew before. You walk away feeling like you’re experiencing something that’s cultural, and creative, and funny, and gripping.

Paste: Do you have any ideas for upcoming episodes, or a full vision of a first season?
Snyder: (laughs) I am pouring through hundreds of articles and stories, and we’re thinking about actors, and filmmakers and reporters, and everything. That’s what we’re doing now and it’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also hard to believe that we’re paid for it, because it’s so much fun.

Paste: Thanks so much for this! I really enjoyed the pilot, and I can’t wait for more.
Snyder: Thank you.


Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.

Also in TV