Interview: PEN15 Director Sam Zvibleman Explains the Show’s Evolution


Sam Zvibleman interview

(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2019 )

Hulu’s hit comedy series PEN15 has developed into one of the streaming service’s best shows. Starring Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine as awkward middle schoolers, the show has gotten critical acclaim over its first two seasons. got to chat with co-creator and Season 2 director Sam Zvibleman about the unique production problems the show faced during the second season, when we’ll see new episodes, and how the show has evolved over time!

Check out our full Sam Zvibleman interview about PEN15 below!

Tyler Treese: As a director, what is it like working with so many young actors? I imagine it’s very rewarding, especially as you get to see their growth as performers from Season 1 to Season 2.

Sam Zvibleman: Yeah, man. That was amazing to see. I adore working with the kids, the young actors. They’re fearless, and they take their work very seriously. I thought there was like a major, major jump from Season 1 to Season 2. They really brought it. I could tell from day one on set, and they really knew their characters and sort of took ownership over them to the point where I could be like, “What do you think Sam would do?” or “What do you think Maura would do?” They had a better answer than what I could come up with, and I was writing it, you know, it was awesome.

It’s almost as if the first season, Anna and Maya, they’re kind of acting around the kids, but like you’re saying, they’re really just full-fledged actors and full characters in the second season.

Well, that’s nice to hear. It’s a little hard for me to see some of that being so in it, but I thought that they were remarkable. [They] could hold their own. It’s tough. Anna and Maya are geniuses and to hold your own in a scene with those two is really something, but, like I said, they came to play, and they showed up, and they worked hard.

Early on, a lot of the appeal of the show was kind of like the cringe comedy, but over the two seasons, we’ve seen these characters get fleshed out so much that there’s real drama and stakes in these interactions. The viewers get so invested. How do you balance that type of cringe comedy with also creating something that’s so compelling with overarching storylines?

Yeah, I mean, right at the beginning of the show, it’s obviously super funny to see these grown women have crushes on actual boys and have sort of rivalries with young girls, but we sorta knew that that that you can only play that, that note for so long before it gets maybe a little old. I mean, it’s still funny, but you have to kind of… There’s so much more in middle school to explore than sort of that dynamic. I really personally enjoyed watching some of the true, sort of sincere dramas that play out. Anna and Maya are so gifted at acting they’re not comedians. We just wanted to explore the kitchen sink of emotion and drama as part of it, and seriousness and heavy stuff is a part of middle school life. So, we had to evolve as a show from sort of like that cringe to you have to love these characters, not just the visual gag of it all.

You directed a few episodes in the first season, but in the first part of season two, you directed all the episodes. How does it differ getting to direct an entire arc rather than just a few?

Well, it’s sort of nice to have sort of the whole thing sort of in your head. I guess one of the benefits is for me, I could be like, “Well, we could, we could shoot this scene in front of the mirror, but we’ve kind of done that already. So let’s try something new and in, in a new location and a new way.” So I was able to kind of know what we did and change it and evolve it and make sure that it keeps growing organically. The other thing is just simple, a simple matter of practice. Where in the first season, I did four episodes and I was just starting to hit my stride by the end, and then you have to stop. So, in the second season, I was able to kind of use that rhythm that you find naturally with your crew and your actors and that rhythm, and you don’t have to stop, and you can keep going. I thought our stuff got better as we went along, and that was sort of the theory. It was also really hard.

Can you speak to some of those difficulties that popped up during directing that second season?

Yeah. All sorts of productions face this issue of you want to create this world, but the world has no interest in your plans. So, we’re not unique in having production problems, but for instance, we’re supposed to shoot day one of Season 2 on a Monday and come Friday, right before a few days before we had these fires in California and we lost our location that we’re supposed to shoot in in a couple of days. That was like the pool party. It was also Maura’s house for the sleepover. So we had to almost completely flip our schedule. So we had to shoot stuff that I hadn’t planned for at all in a couple of days, then the same thing happens another week later we’re supposed to shoot in the woods, but there was, it was too dangerous because of I believe the Santa Ana winds come in.

Okay. So you’re going to shoot something else. You don’t have any idea what you’re going to do. Then there’s like personal tragedy in our, in our cast and crew too that would happen. So things just kept coming up that threw curve balls at us. I really had to learn to fly by the seat of my pants and sort of play jazz instead of my usual way, which is sort of meticulously knowing what I’m planning and what I’m going to do. It was just, you know, shoot from the hip, take what’s coming and, and try to make it work. It was super stressful, you know, ’cause I like to know what I’m going to do. I know the crew likes to know what I want to do, but that’s life. So it was a really amazing sort of boot camp for shooting and for life in certain ways.

Maya and Anna have such amazing chemistry on screen. Is there much improv on the set, and has the amount of improv changed between Season 1 and Season 2?

Maya and Anna are best friends in real life, so that chemistry comes through very naturally. You just gotta park the camera in front of them and let them go. So, yeah, there’s a lot of improv. We know where the scene has to kind of get to. There is a script. We often do a take or multiple takes where we do the script, and then they’ll sort of find their own way of saying it as we go. Anything to help them sort of stay and milk and find those gems, those truthful moments is great, but that was the same with the first season. When you discover you have a strength — in this case, it’s our performances, not that it was a surprise to me — you sort of ride with that strength.

Nostalgia is such a huge part of the show. The AOL Instant Messenger scenes really take me back. I think it’s really wonderfully balanced because it’s like window dressing, and it’s a component of all these plot lines, but it’s not overbearing. You don’t just make a ton of references to stuff. How do you find that balance of making sure the key story is still the focus while the nostalgia just kind of surrounds it?

I think the three of us starts and ends with character and what’s real. We’re always catching ourselves saying, “what’s real?” We don’t like to sort of play the greatest hits of the 90s. We never thought of it really as nostalgia or trying to be nostalgic, or at least I didn’t. We were just trying to be what was truthful and what happened. A big part of life is some of that. The music, AOL, the clothes. So that’s just going to happen as almost texture, as opposed to us being like, “Look at our nostalgia!” or “Everyone pay attention to this 90s Tamagotchi watch.” It’s just sort of there to be picked up, you know? I think that’s just our taste and sensibility more than anything.

Sam Zvibleman interview

(Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD aTVfest 2019 )

Renewals are always up in the air with streaming shows. When writing a show like this, how long term do you think with the plot lines? Because we saw so many seeds planted in Season 1 that really paid off in the first part of Season 2. How do you balance not knowing if you will be able to do more of this show and making sure there is a meaningful payoff for what we do have?

That’s a good question. I think that we just have so many stories and everyone we’re friends with has so many stories from middle school. I almost remember more from my middle school than I do from high school or college. It’s such formative times. We always call it like a circus or a freak show. So we’re not really ever, at least I’m not, you can’t really think about renewal or those things that are kind of out of your control. All you can do is just sort of, what tickles us? What’s making us laugh? What story do we really need to tell? I know that there are more of those moments and stories for Anna and Maya. We keep doing our thing and be truthful and tell those stories, and if people keep digging it, you hope that that’s enough.

You talked to this a little bit about how you’re just being truthful to the middle school experience. We’ve seen so many people latch onto the show, and it really embodies that teenage awkwardness. There are exaggerated parts, but so many people can see themselves in it. How rewarding has it been to see so many viewers just latch onto these characters and love the show?

It blows my mind, man. When we made the first season, we had this like web series budget. No one knew about the show. Only a few people at Hulu and our producers sort of knew what we were up to. It was me and Anna and Maya with our editor till three in the morning trying to make our deadline and the cut. There weren’t many notes. So I didn’t think anyone was going to see this thing. I thought if they found it, that they would dig it because I knew how funny it was. I knew that we really brought it. So still to this day, you know, it’s surreal to like even hear that people have seen it and relate to it.

Cause we are never trying to be like, “What’s the most relatable thing?” We’re just telling our stories. So it turns out all these people have these stories. Really what I think it is, is all these people have these emotions. You know, I met a woman from South Africa who was like, “That was my middle school experience in South Africa.” That just really, you know, can you believe that? It’s so cool. You know that touched them, and I really think it speaks to Anna and Maya’s performances that people can connect with what they were feeling through all these things at the time. So it’s really kind of astonishing to me.

For my last question, I’m sure a lot of fans of the show are wondering when the second part of the second season’s going to air. Do you have any rough idea of when that’ll be out?

Well, the long and short answer is no. Anna and Maya are just are raising the new, you know, 2050 cast of PEN15. They had kids during quarantine. They’re enjoying being new moms. So, you know, it’s going to happen, but I don’t truly [know]. I’m not even being like coy. I have no idea, but it’ll happen.

The transparency is appreciated and I appreciate your time today. It’s been great speaking with you.