Pamela Adlon Says Directing Every Episode of Better Things This Year Made Her Life Easier

Power naps and single-takes are the keys to juggling all her roles

After directing two episodes last year, Adlon (with her Better Things family) opted to direct the entire second season.
Pamela Littky/FX

When Better Things debuted last fall, it only received a fraction of the attention showered upon a certain Netflix series that also had ‘Things’ in the title, but the FX comedy ended up as one of 2016’s best new shows. And the series is even funnier and more ambitious as it returns tonight for Season 2.

That’s thanks to star Pamela Adlon, who modeled the series—co-created with frequent collaborator Louis C.K.—after her own life as a single, working actress raising three daughters. (Prior to Better Things, she was best known for her work on C.K.’s Louie and the animated series King of the Hill, where she voiced Bobby Hill.) Not only did Adlon dig deeper as she wrote this season with C.K., but she also directed all 10 episodes of Season 2, after helming just two episodes last year.

Ahead of tonight’s premiere, Adlon spoke with Adweek about how directing all of Season 2 actually made her life easier, working with C.K. and the importance of power naps.

Adweek: What was your approach to Season 2? It really felt as if you were broadening your focus compared to Season 1.
Pamela Adlon: I feel like in Season 1 I was finding my sea legs, and piecing together situations and scenarios where I would be with the girls or my friends. And this season was really well mapped out; it was crafted to be what it is. Louis and I started working on this in October and talking out these stories. It came together very naturally, and we wrote it very cinematically. It just really flowered for me this season. Last season was amazing, but it was more of a Frankenstein: I was directing for the first time, and there were a lot of major shifts and obstacles I had to overcome. [This season] I directed all of them, and things were a lot easier.

You must be the first person to say that directing an entire TV season, on top of writing and starring in it, actually made your life easier, and not 10 times harder. What do you mean by that?
Everything just flowed through me, so there wasn’t a committee, and having to wait for answers. It was super-efficient. I wasn’t daunted by the idea of directing the whole season. There was one moment, when Ali Wentworth was interviewing me at [New York’s] 92nd Street Y last fall, and she said, “Are you going to direct any episodes in Season 2?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to direct all of them.” And she just went, “Woah!” and all of the people in the audience went, “Woah!” And I was like, “Oh, shit! Should I be scared?” [laughs] Because I didn’t know.

But my life is like that. I’m a multitasking, single mother of three girls, so this was easier, because all of these people listened to me, unlike my daughters! I know what I want, I know what I like to see in a frame and I know what I can give to an actor to make a performance subtle, the way it can fold into my show. That’s the No. 1 thing I learned last year: if you can make a decision and be confident, then everything goes well, and everybody can shine in their job.

Louis C.K. also directs every episode of Louie. What advice did he give you about pulling that off?
He told me to conserve my energy when I can. It’s like I’m a boxer and he’s my corner man, and he gave me a lot of tips and ways that I can learn to rest on the ropes, conserve my energy and be able to sustain myself. And then I did things for myself. Last season, it was so nuts that I would have a production meeting every day during lunch, and I was out of my mind, exhausted. I felt like I was going to pass out. This season, I would eat lunch in the morning, and then I would go and lay down at lunch—take my pants off, is No. 1!—get into my character’s bed and pass out for 20 minutes. Nobody taught me this, except myself. And that kept me going.

So power naps did the trick?
For me, if I stop talking, it’s like I regenerate. And then it’s time to go back on the set, and a million people are asking me questions, and I know where to put my energy and where to keep it a little bit tighter.

You and Louis are the show’s only writers this season. What’s your writing process like?
It was different than last season and in other things we’ve done, like on Louie, where we would write stuff and send it to each other and then read it over the phone. This season we talked into a recorder. We were able to sit down, have long conversations and go down the road of the stories and the characters. Then his assistant transcribed it all for us. We had pages of material in front of us, and we would go, “I’m not responding to this, but I like this thing,” that we didn’t even think was a thing at the time. That’s the way we did it this season, and it was great.

In the sixth episode, you’re filming a car commercial that requires you to say the same line over and over again. Was that based on one specific experience, or just what making commercials are like for you in general?
I never really did commercials; I only did a couple. It’s just based on the monotonous drudgery of being an actor, and just being there: going with the flow and not letting it affect you.

What has been the most number of takes you’ve had to do in a scenario like that?
I remember one movie where I had to slap a girl who played my daughter, and I think we did it 27 times. I was devastated. And in animation, the directors go batshit crazy, and they’re married to a reading they have in their head before the session even started. They’re just trying to get it to the place that they wanted, as opposed to welcoming the actors’ interpretation.

You can’t afford to do 27 takes on Better Things. How many do you try to shoot for?
One. [laughs] Uno!

That’s a lot of pressure to nail it in one take.
Well, that’s the goal. My whole thing, and I said this to my crew before we started shooting this season, is, “I’m not going to scrape the marrow off your bones and make you miss your families, because I have a family.” I learned this from Tracey Ullman when I did an episode of her show like 20 years ago, when my oldest was a baby. And I saw a woman running, starring, writing, directing her own show, and wanting to get home to her kids.