Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.
“Even though we thought it was a no-brainer, a lot of people clearly didn’t,” said “Wednesday” co-creator Miles Millar of he and writing partner Al Gough’s years-long experience trying to sell the series that would eventually become Netflix’s newest global phenomenon. “We thought, ‘Oh well maybe it’ll be a YA hit, more like an elevated CW show,’ but then it became much, much more than that. We never anticipated the level of impact and reaction it had.”
To briefly cover the timeline from Gough and Millar’s perspective, they had first come up with the idea for an Addams Family spin-off where daughter Wednesday goes to a supernatural boarding school full of mysteries in spring 2019. The pair knew Paramount had made the ’90s live action films, and that MGM was making the recent animated film franchise based on the iconic Charles Addams creations, but it was the Addams Family Foundation that owned the actual IP. Describing their phone call pitching the show to Kevin Miserocchi, who runs the foundation, Gough said “He really loved it because he saw it as being more sophisticated, which is what he really liked. He was not a fan of the animated movies because he just felt they were too kiddie.”
The Addams Family Foundation blessing got them in with MGM Television, and the project went to market in fall of 2019. “Netflix was the only buyer, they were the most passionate” said Gough, equating the greenlight from the streamer to “getting into our first choice college.” However, through “all the business machinations of MGM being on the sellers block at the time, and everyone circling, the deal didn’t make, so we thought it was dead.”
Their saving grace became Steve Stark, former president of MGM Television, who had the studio put up more money to re-develop the project in January 2020, allowing Gough and Millar to hire writers Kayla Alpert and April Blair to help write more scripts and break the full season. By Memorial Day of that year, with more materials in tow to show to potential collaborators, they took a big swing by trying to recruit Tim Burton to come on as an executive producer and director.
The celebrated “Beetlejuice” filmmaker was flanked by over a dozen life-sized dinosaur sculptures at his country retreat near Oxford, England when Gough and Millar reached him via FaceTime. “He’s wandering around his dinosaur garden talking to us about Wednesday Addams, who he describes as his teenage crush,” said Millar, setting the scene. “And he was really passionate about not only the character, [but] about this take.” Burton previously had turned down the offer to direct the ’90s Addams Family films, and an early 2010s attempt to make a stop-motion animated film about the family with Illumination never materialized. “What he really liked about this was it was a different chapter—a new chapter—and a part of the story and history of the Addams Family we had never seen before,” said Millar.
With Burton now on board, the creators found “the perfect marriage between filmmaker and material,” said Gough. Netflix agreed, finally finalizing the deal, and announcing the as-yet-untitled Addams Family project helmed by the director in October 2020. However, according to Gough, the producers still knew, “if we don’t get the right Wednesday, we’re dead in the water.”
The creators cast a wide net to find the star of their series, but it was clear early on that Jenna Ortega was the perfect fit. “Netflix had given us a list of actresses that they liked and Jenna was definitely on that list,” said Gough. “But we wanted to go through the process of seeing as many people as we could, just so that we were really [sure] we found the right Wednesday,” said Millar.
The Disney Channel star turned next wave scream queen, who already had “Scream” and “You” Season 2 on her resume before joining the Netflix series, has spoken openly about how she made the “Wednesday” role her own, something Gough and Millar said they welcomed. “The lead of any show becomes your collaborator in the show, they just do. It’s just inevitable,” said Gough. “And this character, there’s a precision to it. There’s a precision to Jenna’s performance, there’s a precision to how the character’s written, there’s a precision to what Tim does, and we all had many conversations about it because you’re just trying to make sure you’re landing the plane on a very small aircraft carrier in a very big ocean.”
“‘What would Wednesday do?’ was a constant conversation for us. So that exploration is something we really enjoyed about Season 1. And then also the actors finding their own voices within the characters that are written,” said Millar. “We welcome the collaboration. It’s not like we’re precious about it, but there is a precision to the lines, and to the dialogue, and to the comedy that is all scripted. So it’s all about clarity of communication and making everyone feel comfortable.”
While Gough and Millar, who also created the long-running CW series “Smallville,” reimagining Superman’s origin story, joked that superheroes are predictable, the challenge in writing the protagonist of their Netflix series is that “Wednesday is unpredictable. So [we’re] always figuring out what moments would she feel vulnerable or show emotion or not show emotion.” He added, “We certainly took some risks with the character. We never wanted to betray her. That was something that we were very conscious of, and I know Jenna was too.”
As for the viral dance scene that once again stamped Wednesday Addams as a generational icon, Millar said that Ortega’s push to forgo working with the choreographer they had recruited, and figure the movement out on by herself was “very Wednesday-like. . . it’s amazing to have the freedom to do that, to be that creative and to have that sense of freedom. And that’s why it’s so authentic to Wednesday, and why it works so well. It doesn’t feel choreographed. It feels really from character.” While they insist that kind of standout scene can’t be manufactured, Gough said that when he saw Ortega go for it, he thought “Oh my gosh, this feels like the new generation of the ‘Pulp Fiction’ dance.”
While “Wednesday” boasted a cast that includes Gwendoline Christie, Riki Lindholme, and Luis Guzman and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Gomez and Morticia Addams, there was one latecomer who proved to be both a benefit and an additional challenge to Gough and Millar’s first time writing a whodunnit. With Season 1 of “Wednesday” revolving around the leads trying to find out the identity of a murderous shapeshifter and their co-conspirator, the showrunners thought adding Christina Ricci to cast, who famously played Wednesday Addams in the ’90s films, would be “the most obvious red light blinking,” akin to how the culprit on “Murder, She Wrote” was always the big name guest star.
“We always thought that it was so obvious that Christina was the [villain] and that Tyler (Hunter Doohan) was the monster. It just seemed like ‘Of course! We knew it!’ But it was probably one of the most gratifying things about the show that a lot of people didn’t,” said Millar. Gough revealed that his writing partner came up with a way to gut-check their work, saying “Miles had done an impromptu screening of all eight for his teenage daughter and a few of her friends. And they didn’t guess it. And then we were like, ‘We’re in the clear now,’ because she figures out mysteries. Like she figured out the Vecna piece in ‘Stranger Things’ really early.”
“We had to get the seal of approval from teen girls who religiously watched ‘Criminal Minds’ and all the sort,” said Millar. “Those girls are ruthless, checking logic.”
Ultimately, “Wednesday” has surpassed its intended audience, with Gough sharing that he knew the show’s Thanksgiving week launch on Netflix had gone exceptionally well when his 80-year old parents had told him that their friends were calling them about it. Millar joked, “In terms of the demographics and stuff, it’s like everyone likes it. It’s like, ‘Really?!’” But Gough noted that one of the benefits of the particular IP they’re building off of is that Charles Addams was creating illustrations, not full stories. “There’s not a deep mythology in the Addams Family. Remember, they were characters in cartoon panels that weren’t even named until the television show in the 60s. So people really like to know more about them,” said the co-creator.
While Gough and Millar remain mostly silent about any details on what may come in “Wednesday” Season 2, as if they were under the threat of the intimidating character herself, they did share how one aspect of casting Ortega in the role has gotten their wheels turning. “It’s so rare to find an iconic [Latina] character of this stature,” said Millar. “We really try to find ways to [highlight that] authentically. What would Wednesday listen to when she was growing up? What would Gomez be playing? And finding moments where we could really make it feel like a girl who’s grown up in New Jersey with a Latino parent, and how would that resonate with her as a teen? Certainly this season we’re looking for more ways to explore that.”
With “Wednesday,” not only is Ortega one of the sole Latina stars in a TV landscape barren of that community’s stories, she’s also become one of the only actors under 30 in-demand with moviegoers. “It’s catapulted her into superstardom,” said Millar. “How do you make a movie star today? You put ’em in a hit Netflix show. That’s how it happens. And I think you see that with Jenna, and obviously it’s incredibly well deserved.”