TERRY DULLUM: The Dullum File — Paul Thureen: From EGF To HBO

It’s no exaggeration to say that one of the most highly acclaimed shows on television right now is the comedy-drama “Somebody Somewhere.” The hit series has just been renewed for a third season on HBO and was recently named one of The Best Shows of 2023 So Far by The Hollywood Reporter. Locally, even some fans of the show don’t realize it was co-created by East Grand Forks native Paul Thureen.

Paul grew up on a farm north of East Grand Forks and graduated from East Grand Forks Senior High. He’s now living in New York and working with his writing partner Hannah Bos.

And so, here are 20 (or so) Questions for Paul Thureen.

TD: Are you on strike?

PT: Yep. Pencils are down.

TD: What are your thoughts on the current Hollywood writers’ strike?

PT: I think no one wants to strike, and it’s scary not to be able to work, but I think we all understand what’s at stake at this moment, as is the case in a lot of industries. Especially with something like AI, it’s important to look at that and have language about it in contracts.

TD: Was “Somebody Somewhere” one of those overnight Hollywood success stories?

PT: One of the fun things about the show is that so many of us involved in it came up around the same time, hustling for a lot of years, working hard making our own things. So, to be able to have a show, on HBO no less, still doesn’t quite feel real and means so much to everyone. It’s incredible to us that it’s found an audience. We’re not cool or splashy, no big names, so it’s been more of a slow burn as people discover it and share it, and it means a lot that people are responding to it. The reception has been wonderful.

TD: How did the series come about?

PT: My writing partner, Hannah Bos, and I met in college, started a theater company and wrote and acted in plays together for many years. The first TV script we wrote was based on our play “Buddy Cop 2.” We were introduced to Carolyn Strauss, who had been president of HBO during the “Sopranos”/”Sex and the City”/”The Wire” era and then after leaving had produced “Game of Thrones,” and now more recently “Chernobyl and The Last of Us.” So, she obviously knows her stuff but is also the smartest, most thoughtful, classiest person. HBO bought our pitch, and we learned so much developing the script with Carolyn over the course of a year or so. That was our Grad School.

The show didn’t get made, but fast-forward a decade, Hannah and I had gone on to write for a couple of other shows and Carolyn and Bridget Everett were looking for ideas for a show for her. Bridget is from Manhattan, Kan. (“The Little Apple”) and I think Carolyn thought of us because we’re also from the Midwest. She approached us and we got the opportunity to dream up what show we’d create for Bridget … And I think we came up with something that really spoke to Bridget.

Of course, there’s a lot of steps in between, but we shot the pilot in October 2019, got the green light to write the first season March 2020 … and then turns out the world shut down and we spent a lot more time than we expected on Zoom writing our first season!

TD: What is Bridget Everett really like?

PT: I really can’t say enough about her. Deep thinking and self-deprecating. SO uniquely funny and talented. A fantastic gift giver. Leaves tips like you do only if you’ve spent a chunk of time waiting tables and bartending. She cares so much about the show, and representing where she comes from, and puts absolutely all of herself into it. She’s also a writer and executive producer, so she’s in the writers’ room every day, during post-production she’s in the edit every day. Along with me, Hannah, and Carolyn she has her eye on every single detail but of course is the final arbiter of all things music and all things Kansas.

As a performer she has such incredible range where she can be hilariously brash and bawdy one moment and heartbreakingly raw and vulnerable the next. But there’s never a false moment and she’s doing it all while making newcomers to set feel welcome and the crew feel taken care of. Bridget isn’t her character Sam, but she’s incredibly open about sharing things that find their way into Sam. It’s a dream to be making this with her and to be able to put all of that into the show.

TD: What is her enormous appeal?

PT: If you’ve seen her live shows, you know she can disarm anyone. There’s a playfulness and silliness I think that draws people in. And then she seals the deal with a knockout of a song or joke or family story that has you laughing and crying and just totally breaks down boundaries between people. She’s herself and real and she’s sharing parts of herself that you just don’t encounter that often.

TD: Can you tell us about some of the Grand Forks/East Grand Forks-inspired references you’ve written into the series?

PT: Since the show is set in Kansas, we put a lot of care into getting those specifics right and keeping the references local, but I still try to find room for some Red River Valley Easter Eggs when I get the chance. There’s a Crazy Days storyline in the first season. Bethany Lutheran Church, a shoutout to our church in rural EGF. A high school friend of mine, Kevin Lindgren, wrote to me during Season One saying how much he was enjoying the show and the local references. I told him if we got a Season Two, I’d have to see if we could slip a Lindgren in, and we did. There’re a few other names and places if you keep an ear out. If I’m allowed to self-plug, there’s also a Grand Forks shoutout in the movie that we wrote, “Driveways.”

TD: You’re from East Grand Forks. You live in Brooklyn now. Is writing about rural America any more difficult working in New York?

PT: I spend a lot of time out of the city, which helps. And have my Herald subscription. But I guess also being away from a place gives you a different perspective on it and helps you see what’s truly unique and special about it. I think when you come from a place that isn’t as often depicted, you are very sensitive and protective of it, and it always hurts a little when you see something about where you’re from and it misses the mark or reduces people to stereotypes. We try to look at everyone in the show as full human beings, with jobs and needs and dreams, that don’t talk like they’re on a TV show.

TD: In longer television series, most often the characters change over time. How have Sam and your other characters changed so far, and how do you think they will change from this point on?

PT: In life, people usually don’t change overnight, so we try to keep the changes real: slow and sometimes bumpy and backtracky. At the start of the series Sam is totally shut down, but meeting Joel helps her re-engage with the world again. Through the course of that first season — without spoiling anything — she makes a move from sleeping on the couch to sleeping in the bedroom. It’s a tiny move but also a huge step in her dealing with grief and self-worth. One of my favorite parts of Season Two is the evolution of the sister relationship, which again, it’s a lot of tiny steps and missteps and regression to old habits, but by the end of the season, I think we really get a moment where there’s a sense of how far Sam and Tricia have come, and it feels like a tiny miracle to them.

The central “love story” of the show is always going to be the friendship between Sam and Joel, and Sam’s opening up will always grow out of that.

TD: You created “Somebody Somewhere” with your writing partner and friend Hannah Bos. What is your writing process like with her? Do you write together in the same room, or separately like Elton and Bernie?

PT: Can’t beat Elton and Bernie, but we’re more Bert and Ernie. Always writing together at the same time. It used to always be in the same room. We were roommates for 10 years and waited tables in the same Tex-Mex restaurant. Woke up at noon after working til 3 a.m., walked down the hall, knocked on the door and started to write. Now with families, it’s more often both of us on our computers over Facetime. If we need a break, we’ll start walking towards each other’s apartments and meet in the middle after about 20 minutes and then walk and talk through ideas.

TD: A lot of the show centers on “family stuff.” How much do you draw on real life family situations? Is it ever difficult?

PT: No one is based on anyone specifically, but we want things to feel real and recognizable, so we draw details and feelings from all our lives. My dad was a hardworking, stoic farmer who everyone always fell in love with. The late, great Mike Hagerty (he was the most awesome guy) played Sam’s hardworking, stoic farmer father who everyone falls in love with. So, there was a lot of my dad in Ed, and that’s one of the things personally that I mined the most.

TD: Growing up on a farm, like I did, I assume you spent your fair share of time on a tractor, giving you a lot of time to think and write?

PT: And a lot of thinking time sitting in the grain truck trying not to get eaten alive by flies. But yeah, behind the wheel of a slow-moving vehicle is the best time to work things through.

TD: John Deere or IH?

PT: IH, Chevy, cats, Pepsi.

TD: Do the other writers and actors defer to you when it comes to accuracy of the “farm stuff” in the scripts?

PT: Yep. It’s nice to feel useful! Before my dad passed away, I would call him up to confirm any details I didn’t remember, like “What’s the door handle like on the inside of a grain bin?” Getting the details right is so important to us and also a really fun part of the work. But, of course, you can’t control everything, so there’s certain moments where your hands are tied and you’re shooting scenes talking about corn harvest, but it’s June and the corn is barely waist high, and you just gotta let it go and think: Well, my friends back home are going to be screaming at the screen, but it is what it is.

TD: How did your interest in writing begin?

PT: My mom taught French and later Norwegian at UND, but she also wrote children’s books and co-ran the Writers Conference in Children’s Literature at the university. So, I grew up with my mom doing writing exercises with my sister and me, reading her manuscripts, watching her write and rewrite and write and rewrite,and also meeting all the great authors who came to town over dinner at the John Barleycorn.

TD: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?

PT: What is a great question that I don’t know if I have a good answer to. I think anytime someone said, “You HAVE  to _____”. Whether it’s a place you have to live, or a type or job you need to take, or a certain method you have to use; that never matched up with how things ever worked out for me. There’s a million different paths and a million ways to do it, and you get to figure out what’s right for you, and it’s the way you do it that ends up making what you bring to the table special. Just sometimes takes a decade or two longer than you think.

TD: What advice would you give young people who want to do what you do?

PT: Make something where you are with what you have. For us, everything grew out of our tiny theater company, which we started out funding with stoop sales and chili cookoffs. We developed our own way of working, learned how to be good collaborators and realized things got a lot easier when we separated ego from ideas. Especially if you’re a writer or an actor, it’s easy to feel like you’re always dependent on someone else choosing you for something. This way, you can proactively make something great while also finding the people that inspire you that you want to keep working with.

Read and watch everything, play the long game, and as Fred Rococo says The Rock says: “Control the controllables.”

TD: Did you have a teacher or teachers who encouraged you?

PT: Oh yes. I 100% wouldn’t be doing any of this without them. Go Green Wave. Myke Knutson, a very inspiring artist and art teacher, was the first person who made me consider that a path like this was even a thing. So much knowledge and encouragement from my creative writing teacher Jan Jelliff and theater director Susan Koozin. And most of all my Journalism teacher Ardis Maney and another late-great: Larry Damico. Both were so kind, saw what was special about each student, offered rigorous instruction but entrusted us with creative freedom and had just the right amount of that punk rock sparkle of learning the rules to break the rules.

TD: With the success of “Somebody Somewhere,” what direction do you see your career taking after the series ends?

PT: I want to focus on “Somebody Somewhere” as long as they’ll let us keep doing it! No matter what, keep working with Hannah on things we love with great people.

TD: Care to share a few spoilers with us from Season Three?

PT: I am sworn to secrecy!

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