In the pilot episode of AMC’s Lodge 49, from creator, writer, and executive producer Jim Gavin and showrunner Peter Ocko, we meet down-on-his-luck surfer Sean “Dud” Dudley (the terrific Wyatt Russell) and his banana yellow Volkswagen Thing—a boxy, four-door convertible that looks a duck boat before it’s hit puberty. At one point, waiting outside his childhood home, the bank’s foreclosure on which is among the cascade of disasters to befall his idyllic Long Beach, Calif. existence, a passerby drops a flyer in his lap: $$$ FOR JUNK CARS. “This isn’t junk,” Dud cries after him. “It’s a classic!”
The worth to be found in the forgotten, the abandoned, the tattered and frayed is among the central subjects of the series, which follows Dud as he pursues membership in a fraternal order known as the Lynx, befriending an industrial plumbing salesman named Ernie (Brent Jennings), a New Age shop owner named Blaise (David Pasquesi), and Ernie’s (married) love interest, Connie (Linda Emond), all while crashing with his sharp-tongued sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy). Combining the wit of Gavin’s well received collection of short fiction, Middle Men, with the whimsy of Ocko-produced series like Pushing Daisies and Dead Like Me, Lodge 49 is funny, relaxed, optimistic—blissed-out—where so many TV dramas, not to mention the news, is dreadful, tense, desperate. “It’s a cold hard world / These are cold hard times,” Lee Hazlewood sings in the series premiere, but as Dud mutters to himself at one point, “Don’t have to live like this. Gotta be another way.” That’s not a bad motto for cold hard times, if you ask me.
After a screening of the pilot Sunday at SeriesFest in Denver, Colo., Gavin and Ocko joined me on stage to discuss the genesis of Lodge 49, choosing their Dud, and much more. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Paste: What made you think, “You know what? Fraternal orders. That would make a great TV show”?
Jim Gavin: I have no real history with them, personally. They’re kind of invisible, in a sense. They feel like relics. You drive by an old Masonic hall or an old Elks or Odd Fellows, and they seem of another age, of another time. I’ve always kind of been obsessed with secret societies, in a certain sense, but not the sinister way it’s usually portrayed—just that these groups of people, people would sell insurance during daylight hours, at night they were, like, a Knight of the Brazen Serpent at a Masonic lodge. Those dusty old places, just driving by them, I’ve always had that sense. In the most basic way, the show hopefully might answer the question, “What goes on inside those places?” It might get strange, but it is mostly grounded in real people’s lives and these places as a place of refuge. In Long Beach, California, they had the largest Elks membership in the country. This was postwar California: The height of middle-class prosperity was the height of lodges in America, and you can see the decline of the lodges mirroring that. This is a tale of a place that feels like a relic, but one of the stories we’re telling is the possibility that these places might become repopulated. That it might be a good thing to have a place for people to go where they can meet face to face.
Ocko: I think secretly, too, we hope the show in fact does that. It would be the actual reason that lodges return. Just to put it out there again.
Paste: “It’s not junk, it’s a classic.”
Ocko: You got it.
Paste:That sort of feels to me like one of the through lines—this idea that some of the things we throw away, once we’ve thrown them away, we realize that they had more value than we maybe recognized. I’m wondering how you sort of take that idea and apply it to the characters going forward?
Ocko: Our characters are probably the least aspirational characters on television. They are… I hate to use the word “broken,” because it’s such an easy thumbnail, but these people are all searching, and I think it focuses, certainly initially, on Dud. He’s not a guy who’s trying to improve his life and get something else. He’s actually trying to go backwards when we meet him, and just reclaim this nostalgic sense of the life he had before. There’s a shared thread for all the characters: Finding something here in the lodge that makes them more whole than they would be without it.
Paste: How did you come to have Wyatt Russell play Dud? He’s so great in the role. Did you go through auditioning a lot of people?
Ocko: There was a list of one. I’m not kidding. We didn’t audition the role. We saw him in Everybody Wants Some, which was fantastic; he had that Black Mirror stint; he was on lists. But when we actually came to casting, we set up a meeting with him—Jim and I had lunch with him, and it was kind of like having lunch with Dud, only a Dud who could step outside of himself and is incredibly intelligent and self-aware. And he’s a lovely person, Wyatt is. There’s an optimism in him as a human that certainly flows through Dud. As soon as we had that meeting, we just appealed to AMC and said, “This is the guy.” And they were the first to agree.
Paste: One thing that I’ve been describing the show as is, “the blissed-out summer show I didn’t know I wanted.” And in a way, it kind of feels like it’s counter-programming what’s happening in the news, which is very frentic and tense. This show is kind of relaxed and optimistic, in a lot of ways. Is that something that you thought about when you were developing it, in terms of both what is going in the world of TV, but also what is going on in our own “cold hard times”?
Gavin: I don’t know that [we were] knowingly trying to make something “counter-programming” or to counter the unending horror of the news, but maybe those things contributed to trying to create a world that could be like I was describing the lodge itself—as a refuge for people, very flawed people, who often are doing the wrong thing but do care about each other on some level. This is a personal story for me, as far as kind of losing everything, watching my family lose everything, so that’s where it starts. I think if we were trying to knowingly make something along those lines, it wouldn’t be what it is. It was more just an expression of some inner need that we maybe didn’t even know we had.
Ocko: Jim’s initial pilot script, when I read that first script, I felt like I was reading a drama that took place in a comic universe, and I think that’s something we really jumped into. It’s AMC. They’re famous for their dramas, and we knew it was going to be a little bit of a pivot for them. It’s definitely more comedic. And I think there’s some reassurance watching a show like that these days. Forget the news. Just other television shows, where they’re trying to grab you by the ears and make you watch because there’s a bomb in someone’s stomach. [Laughs] I think personally, there was just an exhaustion at that. Television, there’s a moment where it starts to feel like homework, and we honestly wanted to try and make something that felt more like a joyride.
Paste: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the story behind Dud’s car. How did you guys find that?
Gavin: The actual car itself was purchased from a gentleman near where we were filming. He had totally restored it, and then we bought it and from him and turned it to shit. It’s also difficult to drive. Wyatt is a beast with a stick shift. It’s kind of his nemesis. He kind of hates that car.
Ocko: Not to spoil anything, a lot of those scenes you don’t see the guys pushing the car into the frame as it comes to a stop.
Audience member: What inspired the structure of the story, with all its interlocking parts, and how does it play out in the rest of the season?
Gavin: I worked in plumbing for a while, so that’s why I figured America was clamoring for tales of industrial plumbing sales. [Laughs] But really, I would say, the actual story, I had this image in my head for a long time of a young man knocking on a door and an older man opening. That was it. It was almost unpacking the meaning of that—everything that would come out of that. The pilot, we were trying to throw you into these characters lives. I think there’s hopefully some sense that they’ll meet, and halfway through the pilot, that happens. When I was writing the pilot, it was just trying to figure out who those people were, and the meaning of that moment, which is the whole show.
Ocko: For us, one of the challenges is—you can see in this pilot, there are certain things that are suggested in the magic of the world. It’s not really Long Beach. It’s “the Kingdom of Long Beach.” To your question of how do we unpack it moving forward, one thing we found writing it that helped was to really tell the story of the knight and the squire and the Kingdom of Long Beach. It allowed us to have this overarching idea of what the series was and still let all these characters breathe. The trick, obviously, is we want to tell these stories that are very real about these characters without people skipping to the plot points.
Gavin: Luckily, there are no plot points. [Laughs]
Ocko: I think we set your expectations right with the pilot. If you hang with it, that’s the world you start to feel. That is the story and it is moving, but it should never distract from these stories that the characters are actually living.
Audience member: What was the thought process behind the particular style and color palette of the series?
Gavin: For me, it was trying to capture some feeling of that low-slung, hazy Southern California as I know it. Places I kind of grew up. Which is a challenge when you’re shooting in Atlanta. We actually did shoot in Long Beach as well. When we first were doing color timing—this is going to get really boring, sorry—it was a very kind of slate-y, dark—
Gavin: Gritty, yeah. And it just didn’t feel like us, so we basically just boosted the brightness… We wanted an unhurried framing, letting these places breathe a little bit. We don’t do a lot of establishing shots, so what we do have there has to tell a story immediately.
Ocko: Again, the comedic universe of it all, we wanted to stay wide and we wanted to let scenes play where you’re just watching all the characters—rather than cutting much more in your face, telling you where the laugh is. That guided our style a lot. It’s weird to watch it in a theater. Imagine watching that opening shot—it’s just Dud on the beach in the corner [of the frame]—on a phone, which half the world watches on. it’s really strange to see that as a show, but it makes us really proud, because it does feel different.
Audience member: Can you talk about the symbolism of the snake?
Gavin: In the most basic, literal sense, Dud was maimed by a snake. But it does have a larger meaning. In alchemical terms, it’s a symbol of time. Something had to happen to him. [Laughs]. And also, he carries a wound. Our hero limps throughout. I’m personally terrified of snakes, so that might be a reason why.
Lodge 49 premieres Monday, August 6 at 10 p.m. on AMC.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.