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'Parks and Recreation' co-creator Mike Schur on writing the perfect finale (again and again and again)
Tonight's first episode won't end the series, but it could have
Greg’s running this last season of “The Office,” and one of the things he's done in terms of returning to the past is talking about the camera crew again. They’ve done a lot of it this year, where people acknowledge the existence of the camera crew. You’ve never really done that at any point. Do you just treat it as a device at this point, and not as a film crew in City Hall?
Mike Schur: That was the way it’s been on this show since the beginning. On “The Office,” it was reintroducing the world to this device where the last time you saw it was was, like, “Spinal Tap.” And (on “Parks”), we didn’t have that debt we had to pay or that hole to dig ourselves out of. And so we always treated it much more as — it’s not as quite what “Modern Family” does. They rarely look at the camera or engage at all. We’re somewhere in between, but we’re closer to the “Modern Family” version of it.
Yeah, April and Ben will look at the camera quite often.
Mike Schur: Yeah, and Andy will sometimes and occasionally Tom will but it’s very rare. And we’ve also done fewer and fewer talking heads as the show's gone on. You know, there were times when “The Office,” in the early days, we'd have dozens of talking heads in episodes. And we have always done fewer, and I think we’ve even gone fewer and fewer and fewer since the beginning. On “The Office,” I know that it’s a big part of their final season to have that, and I know they have more plans to keep doing it. So I don’t anticipate ever making that a big issue 'cause it’s never been one for us.
There’s never been any evidence that there’s a documentary crew at all, whereas on “The Office” you would see characters wearing mic packs back in the day.
Mike Schur: The rules in “The Office” were super strict. And the directors meetings at the beginning were hours long, because it would be like, “You can’t put a camera anywhere where if you cut to that camera, you would theoretically see the other cameras and the crew.” And I think in the first episode that Louis C.K. did on our show, where they were staking out a community garden to see if marijuana was growing there., there was a shot where Louis and Amy are down in the garden and he’s piecing together what he thinks happened. And he says, "And that’s where your friend lives, right there?" And it cuts to this gigantic crane shot from way up high looking down in to the garden and there’s no cameras anywhere. And one second ago there were cameras right here. And it was this weird moment where we were so used to “The Office” version that when we saw that shot, we just convulsed. We're like, “You can't do that; that's impossible.” And then we decided, “What the hell, it looks really good, and who cares?” No one really cares at a deep level. On “The Office,” at some point, we either had the feeling or we saw evidence that only about 40 percent of the viewers of the show even knew that it was a documentary. It's just not a thing that you're consciously thinking about when you’re watching TV, and if that was true of “The Office” in season 2, it’s true of 98 percent of the people in “Parks and Rec” season 4 or whatever. So we made the decision a long time ago to use the style and not the hard rules. But there were times in “The Office” when we bent over backwards to avoid that. And it was fun; it was interesting. It was a cool obstacle that you had to write in such a way, and act in such a way.
How would the cameras be at this particular scene?
Mike Schur: I've told this story before, but there was a moment where, in the episode where Stanley says, “Did I stutter?” to Michael, where in B-roll, under a talking head, Michael comes out of his office and is going to go to the kitchen and he sees that he would have to walk by Stanley. And he’s so freaked out by Stanley that he goes the other way. He takes a right, goes out the door, goes down the stairs, all the way across the parking lot, comes up the back door and comes in through Toby and Kelly’s area and gets coffee, and then goes back and walks all the away around. And Randall Einhorn, who was directing it, wanted to cover it in a certain way and we made him/he made himself take the camera and run. He had someone walk the path, and then he sprinted with a giant camera on his shoulder to every location he wanted to shoot from to see if it were plausible that a cameraman could get to all those positions to catch Michael doing all those things. It was really fun, and it felt cool and interesting, but in retrospect, it was insane. We should have just planted cameras wherever we wanted to. No one in the audience is thinking, “How did you shoot that?” You're just watching it unfold in front of you. But the joke on the show was that it’s the same documentary crew and the success of “The Office” had led to the budget for this documentary crew being seven times as big, so they have way more cameras. That was the joke from the beginning: “Oh, they’ve got twelve cameramen; it’s fine. They can be wherever we want them to be.”