In HBO’s teen drama “Euphoria,” creator Sam Levinson offers an unflinching glimpse into the lives — and the minds — of a group of high school students navigating substance abuse, gender and sexual identity, and the particular challenges of growing up online.
While the series has attracted attention for its risqué subject matter, though, Levinson’s writing and direction are full of arresting ideas and images. That’s especially true of the season’s third episode, “Made You Look,” which not only features protagonist Rue Bennett’s (Zendaya) irreverent voiceover narration, but also an animated sequence, a split-screen text exchange, and a fourth-wall breaking tutorial for men who like to take a certain kind of nude photo.
We spoke to Levinson about deconstructing the teen melodrama, the almost parental anxiety of watching adolescent characters on screen, and the remarkable intimacy of texting.
Often, voice-over narration can become an overbearing technique. How did you ensure that it felt fresh and not old-fashioned?
As with the conception of the show, it’s, “Let’s break all the rules we can.” Because it feels like the way that we consume stories, or the way that we follow narratives, at this particular point in time is haphazard and meta.… It felt like breaking down traditional narratives was the perfect way to tell the story. Breaking the fourth wall [and] voice-over that shifts from first-person to omniscient was just part of the DNA of it. And we tried to be unafraid about it.
To me, the show feels a lot like a challenge to or deconstruction of the traditional teen melodrama. Would you say that you thought of it in those terms when you were thinking of ways to break down the traditional narrative?
Maybe to a certain extent, but I tend to work from a more emotional place than that. I tend not to approach things intellectually at first. Maybe after the fact i can look at it and see ultimately what it’s doing. I start with the characters and their inner lives. Particularly this show, which is all about subjective experience. I allow that experience to guide the story. Ultimately, whether it feels like a deconstruction or not is something that one can analyze, but it’s not necessarily how I approach it.
On the “subjective experience” point, what struck me about the split-screen montage with Jules [played by Hunter Schafer] and Nate [Jacob Elordi] there’s something unsettling about him knowing who she is, but not the reverse.
We wanted to show how intimate a text exchange can feel, and so it felt like split screen was the natural way to do that, in the sense that we can see two people in two different places connecting with one another. Reacting in real time to each other’s text messages. But at the same time, we know as the viewer that there’s something a little off about this. And the nature of split screen is a disconnect: It’s a line between two characters, two images, two realities. The hardest part of it was, “How do we get into it and how do we get out of it in a way that feels seamless?” In terms of the construction of it, and this is something we do for all the episodes, is we storyboard every single shot. It’s about 880 boards per episode… What I think is unnerving or unsettling about it is that we know more than Jules does, and it’s about when the online reality and the real-life reality collide.
I like that you think of it, even though it’s happening online, that it’s still a reality.
It’s all real life.
Can you tell me about how you came upon “writing smutty fan fiction” as a character trait for Kat, and how it came together that you would animate it?
Part of what was interesting was the idea that Kat had a life online in which she was extremely popular, and a life in school and with her friends in which she wasn’t. And that her creativity was siloed, and something that only her online fans knew about. So, in keeping with the idea of a subjective reality, and being inside of these characters’ heads, something that I thought was a fascinating or exciting idea was to take this burgeoning curiosity about sexuality that’s ultimately framed through the lens of fan fiction and allow it to come to life. It’s sort of what Kat’s dream would be if she could see an animation of one of her stories. That was the impetus behind it. It’s sort of allowing her wishes to come true.
In terms of the actual animation, we worked with the company Titmouse.… The idea behind it was a mixture of slightly rough animation and the surrealistic beauty of something like “Belladonna of Sadness,” where you have animated images exploding into other things and there’s an element of surrealism to it. Personally, I find animation to be extremely difficult. I’d never worked with animation before. It’s just, the possibilities are endless. Which at times can be tricky. It’s like, “So, where do we want to take this next?” And there’s a million thoughts that start to move through my head. It doesn’t have the same kind of confines as filmmaking, so it can be a bit daunting.
And at the end of the episode, you have Kat’s fantasy of hooking up with the dressing room attendant, but then it transforms into actual confidence in school, with her new look and the line, “I changed.”
There’s those moments, I think, when you’re growing up, you’re young, and you go, “[Expletive] it, I’m going to be who I am.” ... Those shifts in growing up, I remember them very viscerally. And the nervousness that precedes it. In that scene where she’s in the dressing room, I think Barbie [Ferreira, who plays Kat] does such an incredible job. Without any lines, you can feel the insecurity and desire for confidence, and then actual confidence, and then another flash of insecurity. There’s so much that moves inside of her face without saying anything. It’s an outfit leads to a perspective leads to a way of acting. Those are the markers of being young, in some way. And not dissimilar from the process of acting.
I remember with Barbie, on the pilot, she had such a sense of self-confidence that I think there was a certain nervousness about how she was going to play the earlier version of Kat. It was only when she came in with a photo of Thora Birch from “Ghost World” and said, “What do you think about this haircut?” … She cut her hair, and she became the character. You could feel all the insecurity. it changed the way that she held herself.
That’s the first thing I thought when I watched the scene: ‘Those are some real Thora Birch vibes.’ It’s so funny to me to hear that she was consciously trying to channel that.
One-hundred percent. That’s kind of what’s been interesting about seeing the reaction to the show. What’s unusual about it is, we don’t know where these characters are going. We don’t know if they’re going to be OK. There was an aspect of it that i wanted to frame it, narratively, from almost a parental perspective, in that there is a level of helplessness, and you don’t know which direction these characters are going to take. It’s where the anxiety of the show comes from.