'Stan Against Evil's Dana Gould on the Time Loop Finale and What's Ahead For Stan and Evie
Warning: Spoilers for Season 1 of Stan Against Evil ahead.
John C. McGinley told us that the Season 1 finale of the IFC series Stan Against Evil would make us "s--t a brick," and he wasn't far off the mark.
The season ended with Willard's Mill sheriff Evie Barret (Janet Varney) stuck in a time loop, going back to the beginning every time she dies. Her mission, she thought, was to rid the town of the specter of its evil, witch-hunting Comstable Eccles (Randall Newsome), but instead he snares her and takes her back to his 1600s time, where she got burned at the stake as a witch. In the meantime, Stan Miller (McGinley), is going through the same time loop, but notes in the last iteration that something isn't quite right.
The show's creator, Dana Gould (a veteran of The Simpsons writers' room and a longtime stand-up comedian), sat with us to talk about the season and where he thinks things will go if IFC picks it up for a second season.
You're an old hat at all this, but how happy are you with the reception to the show?
This is only the second show that I've created to really get on the air. I've worked on other shows, but I had a show on MTV in the '90s called Super Adventure Team that had a short run. It was basically the movie Team America before the movie Team America. I like to stress that it was first. [Laughs] Then Stan. Even though I've had shows on and stuff, I would be lying if I didn't say yeah, it's kind of my baby, and I'm really happy to see it. I've been really, incredibly happy with the way it's been received, and the way it plays. People really seem to get it. Hybrid shows are not always ... Is it scary or funny? I can't figure it out. People seem to get that we're trying to do both.
Any issue with IFC running them two at a time?
When I first heard it, I thought that they were just burning them off, and that they weren't behind it. I was on a series last year called Mob City that I felt was on unceremoniously dumped onto the airways by TNT. I think they showed the entire series from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. From what I understood [it] was because of the new habit of binge watching, I guess the executives at IFC and AMC, as the episodes were coming in, they were coming in two at a time, and the executives felt that the show really held together when they watched it that way, because even though it's a half hour show and it's a comedy, it still has a mythology and it still has an ongoing arc. They felt that it kept them engaged. I think they run really great two episodes in a row.
Were you surprised that your New York Comic Con panel filled one of the bigger rooms?
I'll tell you a true story. I have to describe this very carefully to sell the image. I was walking towards the room with Janet [Varney, who plays Evie Barret], and I said to Janet, "Oh God, I hope someone's here." As we approached the door, we could see the far right section of the hall, which was like six rows of seats, and they seemed pretty full, and I thought that was the whole room. I was like, "Oh, great. Look." Then we walked in, and what we had seen was only like 25% of the room, and the rest of the room was as full. Not only was it full, it was actually four times as full as we thought it was. We were truly astounded. I was stunned.
What is the feedback you've been getting from viewers, from people online, so far?
So far, I've been really, really happy with it. Everybody seems to get that it's a hybrid show. The only negative when it first premiered was it was getting compared to Ash vs Evil Dead more than I had ever intended. I think 90% of that is the title, and if I thought the show really was similar, I would not have called it that. If I thought I needed to deflect attention, I wouldn't have given it a similar title. It's a hybrid horror comedy, and it's going to have the tropes of the genre.
It is as much as Ash as it is The Night Stalker, as it is Buffy. In the same way that Family Guy is like The Simpsons, is like American Dad. Grey's Anatomy is Chicago Hope. There are tropes. A ska band is going to have a kettle drum. That's how it works.
You would also think that with your presence, John's presence, Janet's presence, it would be pretty strongly identified as a comedy.
The one thing I've heard is people were surprised how scary it was. I had a couple of friends who were like ... My mother had a nightmare about one episode. The pig demon really threw my mom for a loop. She voted for Trump, so she's familiar with pig demons. It's not new to her. That makes me happy. I like the idea of it veering back and forth. I think that's really great.
This is going to be a postmortem interview, after the finale airs.
Interesting choice of words.
At what point during writing the season did it lock in for you, or John and Janet, where you knew you coul combine the funny with the good storytelling and the horror?
I think that Episode 6 was where we figured out the map of the show. The one with the goth kids. We didn't film these consecutively. We filmed the first four all at once and then we filmed the second four all at once. I felt that, to me Episode 6 was really where the mix was perfectly fermented. It was scary, but it was funny, and both fed off each other.
Episode 8 is my favorite episode because I did think the story was really great, it was a little Russian doll episode sort of. It was definitely a good story. A lot of times we're trying to cram an hour-long story into a half an hour. Episode 8 was really perfect for the time we had. The Twilight Zone was a half an hour show for the first three seasons, and the fourth season it was an hour long. They extended it, and it didn't work. It fit perfectly in that amount of time.
Have the restraints of the format helped?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that as we go forward, should we be lucky enough to have a second season, I think I go into it a lot more informed over how to frame the story in the amount of time, and tailoring the stories to the amount of time. All of the shows that influenced this show are hour-long. The Night Stalker, The X Files, Doctor Who was a big influence on this show. The relationship between, people compare it to Ash, but I think the relationship between Stan and Evie is so much the relationship of Doctor Who and his companion.
That makes sense.
To me, it's like, "You guys. You got to look better. I'm stealing something totally different. You don't even know what I'm stealing."
With Episode 8, I thought of Groundhog Day, obviously ...
Yeah, sure. It was also influenced by a Doctor Who episode from last season. It was also he was stuck in a time loop, and I said, "I'd like to do an episode like that."
How do you construct it so you know that everybody gets that, "Okay, we've gone over this part of the day, and now we're going to a new part"?
Jessica Conrad, who wrote that episode, happens to be really brilliant. We worked pretty close together. Every time you go back, you have to show a little bit less, but you also have to show it a little bit differently, so it doesn't get redundant for the viewer. Everything, it's a little bit different, and it's a little bit shorter, so it's always a new experience. It's very much like building a watch. You really have to be very specific about what you're showing when and just enough information to get you to the next piece. I really backed myself into a corner with the ending. I know how I'm getting out of it.
When you end a first season like that, where Evie is being burned at the stake by the evil constable Eccles (Randall Newsome)...
Well, it's an alternate time stream. She changed the time stream. We don't know if she's in that coffin. I just know what it says on the tombstone.
In the last scene, Stan's doesn't know what exactly wrong, but he just senses something.
[The second season] is going to be The Search for Spock. If you remember when Spock dies at the end of Wrath of Khan, and he put his, whatever they called it, juju into McCoy at the beginning of the movie, and McCoy was walking around hearing Spock in his head all the time. That's what it's going to be. The connection between Stan and Evie is so strong that he either thinks that he's insane, he's crazy and the world is right or the world is crazy and he's right. That's what he has to figure out.
You mentioned at Comic Con that two of the episodes were mythology and the rest were monster of the week. All of the episodes had the through-line of Evie and Stan's relationship, so did it teach you a lesson that maybe you just do them all as mythology episodes, or are you still going to keep that pattern?
No, I still want to do monster of the week. I find the mythology episodes, by and large, aren't as funny, because they don't give you the ability to be as funny as the standalones. Episode 6 is a standalone. Well, I guess it's not a standalone. I guess it's a mythology show. If Eccles is in it, it's a mythology show. I think it's both. The beauty of the show is it allows me to do, like yeah, I'm going to do my Search for Spock episode, now I'm going to do my Night of the Living Dead episode, I want to do an episode that's basically All of Me where Evie is very strongly in Stan. I think it gives us a lot of opportunity to tell a lot of different kinds of stories in this very compact canvas.
We're going to learn more about Evie a little bit next season, because we don't know a ton about her this year.
No, we don't. This was definitely Stan's season, and kind of setting up his reluctant Van Helsing sort of job.
I want to know more about Stan's daughter Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), by the way. She is so, it's weird and very optimistic and naïve, and she's got a dark side to her.
Yeah, there's a weird thing that happens. This really wasn't planned, but her weird attraction to Kevin [played by Gould], the caretaker at the cemetery. I think something might come of that. It wasn't planned, it was just we just literally thought it was funny in that one scene, to literally just like, "Why don't you play like you're really into me?" I thought it was really funny.
Her and Stan came really from Sissy Spacek and Richard Farnsworth in The Straight Story. I wanted that kind of weird, these two people need each other. They can't live on their own. They can't stand each other, but they can't be apart either.
It's just the whole idea of in Episode 8 where she's going to clean people's teeth ...
A lot of that is just Deborah Baker just being funny. I'll just give her an idea and let her go. The way the Ku Klux Klan one, I just said, "Call the Ku Klux Klan," and she came up with the whole bit. It was really funny. "Ku Klux ... Oh, my. No." She rips the page out. I like that the Ku Klux Klan is listen in the phone book [Laughs]. They're in the phone book.
She's living the same day over and over. We don't even know what's going on with her.
Well, she doesn't know. She doesn't realize that it's anything unusual. Everybody else, to them it's just a day. You can't go pulling those threads.
What do John and Jane they bring to their characters made even mundane situations funny?
They were really good, and also in Episode 7, the spider episode, there really wasn't a ton of hilarity in it. Sam Boyd, who wrote it with me, we wanted to do like, "Let's just do a really scary one, and see how scary we can get." Then, as I was cutting, and I thought, "No, this needs to be funnier." I never said it wasn't scary enough, but I always said it wasn't funny enough, which will show you where my predilections lie. A lot of stuff Janet would come up with, just like, once you're stuck in the spider web, she goes "Really?" Stuff like that. That was all her. That's not in the script, that's just Janet being funny.
You patterned Stan, like you said at NYCC, after your dad, but John brought his own thing to it, and he has such that huge range of just being, the John McGinley thing. Is it easier to wring comedy out of something, when you know that your actors can really use just a gesture, or a movement, to be funny?
That was one of the things that I definitely learned, because I didn't know who was going to be Stan when I wrote it. I literally wrote it for my father knowing that my father who is not an actor and 86 is not going to do it, but that's who was playing the role in my head. I can do the comedic version of my father, so I was basically Stan as I was writing it. John came in, and it was the first time, really, because I'd been working in animation so much, that I had to give a character away to somebody, and go like, "Okay, this is what I wrote, now you're going to have to come in and fix it, and show me what you're doing." He's going to make something of his own.
It was different, it was better, it was a lot younger, more vibrant. It was a younger character than I envisioned, a much more vibrant character. I started to tweak it, and it basically became, to me, Quint from Jaws. Quint with a daughter, basically. Then it was like, "Okay, good. Now I can write to it. Now I know what I can write to, and now I knew where I can go."
I love the scene in Episode 8 when, and this is also John, suddenly like he's really into classic rock,and he's talking about Jimi Hendrix and making Bootsy Collins references. He kind of just started adding these weird colors. He knows who Bootsy Collins is. He just started to add stuff to it. That, and then that, it became a different character.
At the end of the season then, how do you think Stan and Evie evolved?
A lot of that, again, that's John and Janet. It's going to evolve more for John, in one way I know, in the second season, but at the end of Episode 5, the one with the evil flowers, when he's been with Claire, or he thinks he's been with Claire, and then he comes back out and he's home. There's that moment where he goes out on the porch and just kind of looks. That's him finally coming to terms with the fact that, "Claire's gone. She's not coming back. I've got to move forward." That was a big moment for John.
That episode is where he realizes that this is his life now and he has to live it. In Episodes 6 and 7, you see how Stan and Evie begin to bond. In Episode 7, where the spider dude is talking to them in the sheriff's station, and they're just sitting there complicit in their little secret, because they don't want it out, because there'll be a panic and people will go insane. That's a nice little bonding moment for them. What I want to delve into with Evie next season is more her ex-husband, what happened, why did she give divorced, what is he up to, how did that affect her, and how is she reconciling her old life with her new life, because she can't leave this town. She's stuck. She's 166 demons away from moving.
That's a lot of demons, eh?
If we got to a season after that, I'll find a way to make more. The last demon will be uploaded into ten sub-demons, and that'll get us one more season.
Is all this still going to be an annoyance to Stan?
Yeah, I think that obviously he'll go through phases where him and Evie will have the same goal, which is not, "This is our holy mission and we have to do it." It's, "We're not going to be able to relax until we get rid of this shit." It's really just more like a job jar than anything else. Yeah, I think that Stan will become more resigned to the fact that he has to do it. He's never going to have any reverence for his mission. He looks at it like he's an exterminator.
A lot of the funny just comes from John's reactions to everything.
Again, that's just my dad. That's just really ... That's just how my father is. I knew that part of the show would work because I've seen it all my life. When my grandmother was dying, my dad called me up and said, "Well, you better get on a plane. Your grandmother's got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel." There's an irony to that stuff that you get from people on the east coast. It's more like, "I'm saying this stuff, but we both know I don't mean it," sort of thing. That's what John really nailed. It's like, "Yes, I'm insulting you, but if I didn't like you, I wouldn't be talking to you. The fact that I'm insulting you is irrelevant."
What's your big takeaways from doing this first season?
I thought the spider episode, I wish it was funnier. I thought the spider episode could've been funnier. If I knew everybody's sweet spot earlier, I could've gotten to it earlier. I wish maybe that the title wasn't so evocative of Ash vs Evil Dead. That ship has sailed. The original title was The Haunted World of Uncle Kenny, because it was him and his niece, and it was my dad's real name. Yeah, might've been a better title. Too late. Maybe I need a time loop. [Laughs]