Derived from one of the most critically hailed comic book series of the last 20 years, FX's new dystopian Y: the Last Man offers a unique, still fresh, and even increasingly timely twist on an apocalyptic scenario: what if a mysterious, devastating global catastrophe resulted in the simultaneous extermination of every mammal on the planet that possessed a Y chromosome – with the exceptions of Yorick, a young, not-exactly-together aspiring escape artist and his pet/assistant/sidekick, the Capuchin monkey Ampersand.
After a similarly long and circuitous journey to the screen, the series centers on Yoric (Ben Schnetzer) and his epic trek across a radically changed American landscape populated solely by the surviving genetically female diaspora, which includes his mother Jennifer (Diane Lane), an ambitious U.S. Senator who steps into the presidency, his sister Hero (Olivia Thirlby), a paramedic with a complicated personal life, and, he hopes, Beth (Juliana Canfield), the woman he'd wanted to marry despite a messy turn in their romance.
Along the way, he'll also encounter both characters well-known to readers of writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra's beloved series, including his uber-capable protector Agent 355 (Ashley Romans) and creations original to the series, like Kimberly Caldwell Cunningham (Amber Tamblyn), the image-obsessed daughter of daughter of the prior POTUS.
When adapting the material for television, showrunner Eliza Clark didn't shy away from breaking open the established mythology of Y, expanding upon the initial depiction of the cataclysm, broadening the show's perspectives beyond Yorick's, and taking a deeper, more diversified – and daring – dive into the inherent gender themes at hand. Clark joined TV Guide to reveal how she went about attempting to both bring some of the most beloved aspects of the beloved source material while simultaneously upending expectations.
What were the intrinsic things about the source material that you wanted to make sure you stayed as faithful to as possible? And what was the most fun to kind of blow up and come at from an entirely different direction?
Eliza Clark: I've loved this book for 12 years. I read it in 2009, and I think it's so important to me that the relationship between Yorick and 355 is as interesting and thorny and complicated as it is in the book. And also, I think that the way that the book explores how identity is formed from internal and external forces -- I think that is central to my adaptation of the series, as well. I feel like it's hard to answer, what was the most fun...I think in a lot of ways my adaptation is like a love letter to the comic book, but I get to spend more time getting my hands into some of the worlds that Brian and Pia created and spend a little more time with them and get into a little bit more of the issues within them.
Was there something you saw very clearly in how doing this material for television required a certain sort of adaptation? Because it's one thing to see it on the page, it's another thing to depict it with real flesh-and-blood folks. So how did that transition affect the way you viewed the material and wanted to present it?
Clark: I love the tone of the book. I love that it has this kind of madcap humor, a dark sense of humor, and it's irreverent, and there [are] twists and turns and all of that. I think that my adaptation hopefully retains that. I'm really excited about the humor and optimism in the show, but I do think that for an adaptation where you're seeing flesh-and-blood people that it is important to kind of ground it in realism. So, I think the beginning of the show has a sense of...A horrific event happens, and we don't shy away from that. So, it's scary and a little bit f---ed in the beginning: half the world's population dies. But all of that humor and adventure is embedded in this story. And I think it's worth the exploration of the realities of the situation. I think it only makes it funnier and more fun when you get those moments of levity.
It's amazing, the prescient topics that Brian and Pia dealt with in the comic book series, and how so many of those things have come into either a much sharper focus or just a very different focus in the time that's passed. I imagine that was exciting for you. I mean, nobody wanted to have a real-life pandemic for you to get this artistic opportunity, but there it is…
Clark: Yeah. Totally. I mean, I will say that I don't particularly want to watch a show about COVID because it's depressing, but I am excited about the ways that the show can reflect on the time that we're living in and the ways that we find things that comfort us, and relationships that give us joy, the clarity it gives about what's important. And then I also think that in a negative way -- a negative about the world we're living in -- we've also seen how conspiracies and insular thinking has increased in a time of tragedy and crisis. So yeah, I think that the show is resonant, I hope, but also hopefully can escape from COVID into a different kind of a crisis.
I'm curious about your conversations with Brian and Pia, which I'm presuming you had: what came out of those that turned out to be useful to you doing your job?
Clark: Brian and Pia were so generous as creators. I'm a huge fan of the book, and so hopefully they felt safe knowing that I really wanted to do justice to the story that they had told, but they also were very clear that they wrote it 20 years ago and that there were certain aspects of the book that really did need adapting. They were both very excited about the ways I wanted to update our understanding of the diversity of gender in the story. I mean, they were both like, "Yes, please. Let's broaden the scope here."
And for me, because I'm such a big fan, it was also hard for me not to be a little starstruck when I got to sit down with Brian. I want to ask him about Saga and Paper Girls [but] I'm supposed to be there talking about Last Man. He was very generous with his time, and he read scripts and he was amazing because he was sort of hands-off, but also a good cheerleader for the show, and would tell me, "You're doing it right," which was nice.
You wanted to incorporate this aspect of what you've termed the female gaze being part of the visual storytelling. And I can't think of a better property to incorporate that into. Tell me how you came up with it, as you thought that through, and as you worked with your directors to layer that aspect into the storytelling.
Clark: We had an incredible group of directors who happened to all be women. And we also had three incredible DP's, Kira Kelly, Catherine Lutes, and Claudine Sauvé. And we also had the benefit...This is a weird, positive spin on a terrible thing, but two weeks before we were supposed to start shooting our first episode, COVID hit and we had to shut down for five months or four months. And in that time, the production team that included Louise Friedberg, who was the pilot director, and then all of our department heads, costume designer and production designer and DPs, we would meet to talk about movies and really try to think about what the female gaze might be.
And we had like a little movie club and we would watch everything from Children of Men to I May Destroy You to Thelma & Louise, and then talk about how we could see the visual style of our show either taking something from those things, or avoiding it, or understanding genre in some way. What we ultimately decided is that the female gaze was rooted in subjectivity, point of view, and detail. So, one of the things that I really love about the visual style of the show is how close we get to faces, how much we're seeing the dirt under fingernails, we're seeing sweat, we're seeing the roots of hair growing in. It all feels like the types of things that women notice about each other and about themselves, and it was something exciting, as sort of an exciting thought experiment for us.
One of the great foundations you have to build on with this show is the presence of Diane Lane who has done excellent, excellent work from the time she was a teenager through today, and has lived and performed through just about every recent era of womanhood in Hollywood. So tell me what was great about having the benefit of Diane's involvement, not just as an actress, but as that sense of perspective that she brings.
Clark: Diane is a genius, I think she's incredible. I mean, and she's as kind and talented as she is beautiful and incredible. Also, she's an activist. She has been arrested alongside Jane Fonda in protesting climate change. She had a really unique perspective on motherhood, for example. She has an adult child, and she brought that perspective with her. She's the kind of person who could play every role in this show, and probably has at some point in her career. She was an incredible leader on set and a really great collaborator for me.
Then there comes the challenge of finding your title character, casting that role. Tell me what you saw in Ben Schnecter that made you say, "This is our guy!"
Clark: Yorick, the character, is a privileged, straight, cis-white guy in a world that has often been harmed by people like that, and he's oblivious in lots of ways. He has a really long way to go in his journey as a character. So it's a challenge to find a person who you're going to still root for while they are being, at turns, a doofus: at other turns, kind of oblivious to their privilege. Ben is one of the most lovable people I've ever met, and he is deeply kind, really smart, an incredible team player, a great listener, and a generous scene partner -- so I think it's impossible not to like him, even when he's playing Yorick's thornier edges. I also just think that Ben, as an actor, is extremely funny, and also has all of the depth that Yorick needs to have. So I can't imagine a better Yorick.
On a technical level, I know that Ampersand has got to be as iconic a part of the comic book as there can be, and yet there's a lot of practical difficulties that come with regularly including a monkey character in a television show. Tell me about how you accomplish that very daunting task.
Clark: For sure. Ampersand, yes, is an integral character; there's no Y: The Last Man without Ampersand. At the same time, it's ethically and morally like not awesome to use a primate as an actor. I mean, a wild animal should be free. And also, I think there's a lot of difficulty in working with animals, children. I feel like that's an old Hollywood saying. We had an incredible VFX department and an incredible VFX producer, Stephen Pugh, who made me feel very safe in the fact that he is an excellent storyteller in his own right, and he really wanted to bring Ampersand to life in a way that didn't anthropomorphize him. He is an animal. He's not a cartoon sidekick, but he has a point of view and he has a perspective on this story. And has a real relationship with Yorick. He is entirely CG. He is beautifully rendered by a team at ILM, and I often forget that he is not real.
For a long time Y: The Last Man has been kind of a secret handshake amongst comic readers to let each other know, "Yeah, I'm cool, too," and you're the person who gets to kind of put it out there for millions of other people potentially, hopefully, to fall in love with. What are you looking forward to in watching the greater TV world audience react to this story, and especially with the sense of gender perspective that you've also layered into it?
Clark: I think that it's really exciting to take a story that is full of fun and adventure and romance and sexiness and all of the things that people love to watch on television, and also have all these really interesting ideas and questions that are being asked by the story. I hope that an audience falls in love with the characters at the center of the story and that they also see themselves reflected, but also that they're able to identify with characters they wouldn't necessarily identify with in other stories. I mean, there aren't a lot of stories that are being told on television with this many female characters who are all different from one another and have very different points of view. There's also, I think, a really rich diversity of gender on the show, and we have trans characters and non-binary characters. We have a scientist, Dr. Mann, who's able to speak to how interesting and vast the variations are in this world and how gender and chromosomes are separate, and how what she really wants to do is bring back that beautiful biodiversity that we should celebrate in the world that we live in now.
Lastly, were you able to achieve a pretty wide level of diversity behind the scenes? Were you able to employ women and gender-diverse crew in more roles behind the scenes than maybe the typical Hollywood production?
Yeah, we had a really diverse, gender-diverse crew and writers, and our directors were all women and all from different kinds of points of view and perspectives. And we had a lot of female department heads, and I definitely -- I wanted to have as many perspectives as I could possibly have collaborating on the world-building of something that is this vast. I love imagining myself in other people's shoes; that's part of the fun of being a writer, but I also think it's really valuable to have those voices, lots of different voices in the room because it only adds to the richness of the storytelling. And so I think we achieved that. I think we still can go further. That's the hope, always: to get as many perspectives in the room as you can.
The first four episodes of Y: The Last Man is now streaming on FX on Hulu, with new episodes premiering every Monday.