Stephanie Danler

Lots of television shows mythologize New York City. But few succeed in depicting the city’s magnetism and allure as precisely as Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, adapted from her 2016 debut novel of the same name. Premiering last Sunday on Starz, the new series centers around Tess (Ella Purnell), a 22-year-old small town transplant pursuing a job as a waitress at a high-end Manhattan restaurant in 2006. Though the story is fiction, Danler — who is the series creator, writer, and executive producer — based it on her own experiences as a recent college grad navigating New York’s high cuisine scene. Nowadays, Danler spends the majority of her time in Los Angeles, but she still has a soft spot for the city — even during summer weeks like this one, when a stroll down the block can feel like “swimming in a thick soup.”

Bedford + Bowery chatted with Danler on the phone this week after the Sweetbitter premiere last Sunday. We talked city life, oysters, and how she can tell which of the season’s six episodes were directed by women.

BB_Q(1) I felt like New York City really becomes a character in the show, especially the ways in which we tend to mythologize it. How did you go about bringing that to life onscreen?

BB_A(1) One of our top priorities was to show the high and low. I think that a lot of shows tend to gloss over the struggle of arriving and finding friends and work and learning the codes and customs and the sort of language of the city, and so we really tried to linger there. We also have a restaurant, so there’s the high and low of that — the sort of $1,500 bottle of champagne followed by the cheap Szechuan at three in the morning. We really wanted to show a variety of food experiences. So much of televised restaurant experience now is about food porn. We really wanted to sort of keep it grounded. Yes, there are these these beautiful plates that we serve everything on during the night but then later we’re eating from halal carts, and both experiences are uniquely New York.

Sweetbitter S1 Marketing Shoot Dec 10-11 2017

BB_Q(1) There’s that line in the show, “New York is never a mistake.” You’re now based in LA, but how has New York, as a place and as an idea, changed for you since you first moved there?

BB_A(1) It stopped feeding me. Or I stopped being hungry in the way that I was. I was there for more than a decade, but a decade from [age] 22 to 32, and I wanted different things from my life that New York wasn’t able to give me. But I will say that the best thing I ever did for my relationship with the city was move to LA, because I’m in the city anywhere from six to eight months of the year now — that’s my secret. It’s where we filmed the show, and my book tour was based out of there. But now when I land, I’m energized. It feels like a gift instead of like a burden. And I think that is the way I needed to live with it now in my thirties.

BB_Q(1) At the end of the pilot episode, there is a kind of lyrical black and white montage sequence after Tess tastes her first oyster — shots of ocean water and bare skin. What does that sequence mean to you?

BB_A(1) We talked a lot about what happens the first time you taste an oyster, what goes on in your brain as you try to process a taste. And what usually happens is you recall images, asking yourself what is it, what is it, what is it, and then oftentimes you’ll say, “It feels like this,” which is when the images transition into skin and contact — it feels intimate, is what that is saying. And I think that’s the first time in Tess’s life that she’s ever had that experience, where she’s ever thought about what she was tasting, and wasn’t just consuming wine to get drunk or beer to get drunk or eating because it was time to eat and she was hungry, but is really saying, “What is this experience? How do I put it into words?” And because it’s the very beginning of her journey, all she can come up with is “salt.”

BB_Q(1) I noticed that you chose a different director for each of the six episodes — three men and three women, including Ry Russo-Young whose work I love. How did you pick the directors? Was it important to you to have a balance of men and women?

BB_A(1) Of course, it was very important we had such a high proportion of women on set and in the writers’ room. It felt very natural. I just looked for directors who I was really excited to work with. Ry directed an episode I wrote, so I feel particularly indebted to her. It’s interesting to watch and know which were directed by women and which by men, and I believe I can see some stylistic differences — little quirks of storytelling. We also had a female line producer, all female first AD’s which is something that I’m told almost never happens, and we had more women than men in the writers’ room. But first of all, this is a woman’s story, and a project created by a woman, so I think that it was really natural to have female directors.

BB_Q(1) What sort of differences do you notice between the male and female-directed episodes?

BB_A(1) This is going to sound cliche, so I apologize — every time a male director came on set, they would say, “I’m gonna need a crane.” And I’m like, “A crane! What do you need a crane for?” It was very boys and their toys. But I love those [crane] shots. There’s a beautiful shot in the pilot coming down to follow Tess as she goes into the restaurant. It’s just gorgeous and a really unique way of entry. The women didn’t ask for cranes. I really do think those [female-directed] episodes — 2, 4, and 5 — live on Tess’s face. They were searching for the emotion in the actors. There’s all sorts of beautiful creative shots. In episode 4, the way Shira Piven pans over the destroyed flowers, and the way that Ry Russo-Young shot the sex scene in episode 5 — I thought it was so gritty and intense and real, using the mirrors. And then you look at the way Cherien Dabis shot Tess’s monologue about John Lennon, and where the emotion was there, and how it plays between sincerity and comedy. They’re such beautiful moments. But then the crane shots are beautiful too!

BB_Q(1) In today’s Me Too climate, there is a lot of attention being given to the way that young women are treated in work environments — the restaurant industry being one of them — and while they’re new it’s easy for them to get taken advantage of. How do you think that will inform our watching of the show?

BB_A(1) I hope that the book and the show — which are faithful to the restaurant industry in 2006 without overdramatizing it or sensationalizing it, and without romanticizing it and pretending like it wasn’t a very tricky workplace for a woman to navigate — they are proof why the movement exists. Why the industry has needed more accountability. It had been lawless for most of its decades. It was beginning to change then, but it wasn’t widespread. It’s twelve years later and it’s still just beginning to change. And I think that seeing a place where there’s consensual romance and regrettable sex and really questionable abuses of power shows that this is something real.