Russian Doll

Last spring, Emmy-winning comedy Russian Doll returned for its second season but this was no groundhog day repeat of the formula that made the Netflix show a hit. In Season 1, the story followed Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), who repeated her birthday every time she died (some people counted this as 22 times dead and brought back to life again). In Season 2, she doesn’t die, she travels back in time.

It’s about much more than that of course. As Lyonne herself puts it in The Hollywood Reporter 1 , “The idea in Season 1 was, what does it mean to be self-destructive? The main characters Alan (Charlie Barnett) and Nadia can’t stop dying until they find a connection. In Season 2, it’s about: Now that I’ve stopped dying, how do I start living?”

Episode 1 of Season 2 takes place a few years after the events in the finale of Season 1, but we find Nadia in familiar contemporary New York with friends Maxine and Lizzy (played by Greta Lee and Rebecca Henderson, respectively). However, we’re taken back to the 1980s, with a metro train journey used as the time machine. In later episodes we jump with Nadia and Alan to the 1960s and finally to WWII, also traveling to East Berlin and Budapest, on the trail of a fortune in gold Krugerrands and of her family tree. “I remember joking – ‘more is more’ for this show,” says Todd Downing, ACE. “It had to work on multiple levels from screwball comedy with Natasha’s quips and improvisations and it had to work on a sci-fi level and be a drama about family trauma – it was a balancing act.” Downing cut Season 1, for which he received an ACE Eddie nomination, but admits to being a little nervous about returning for Season 2.

“I guess it was sophomore fear, following on from a show that did so well. We do start Season 2 with connections into the world of Season 1, such as using some of the old score, [but] Natasha definitely wanted to go into a new direction. For me it was throwing everything up in the air and starting afresh.”

Downing likens the show’s approach to that of David Lynch and Twin Peaks. “The similarity is about ripping apart the layers to go deeper into the characters. It was a deep dive into the psyche and subconscious.” As Nadia leaps haphazardly into the past she is connecting the dots between her own sense of dislocation, her mother’s mental-health problems, and her Hungarian grandmother’s experience of the Holocaust.

“The ultimate goal was to marry the surreal and the emotional, seeing how far we could push the craziness while still keeping the viewer engaged with the characters and abstract story,” says Downing.

One of the quirks of the show is that the overlapping timelines mean that Nadia embodies her mother (Chloë Sevigny) but remains on screen for the most part as Nadia (Alan also time travels into the body of his grandmother with scenes in which we see him dressed as himself too). The audience gets occasional glimpses of Sevigny “just to remind people once in a while that every other character in that scene is seeing Nadia’s mother, not Nadia.” Downing explains, “They shot some scenes with both Natasha and Chloë and no matter how good our actors are they aren’t the same person and they are not doing impersonations of each other so on a technical level it took some finessing to find the balance and the right emotional tracking each time we swap between  views of them.”\

Perhaps the hardest scene he cut was the first time that we see Nadia and her mother inhabit the same frame. This is through a bathroom mirror and shot using the familiar trick of a mirror cut out and reversed sets on either side. “No matter how much you rehearse it is very tricky to match movement and facial expressions. It took a really long time. I applied some speed ramps and fluid morphs to get them a bit tighter before handing over to our VFX supervisor Gabriel Regentin who applied some sheen on the mirror and fixed small little hand movements so they would match up.”

Lyonne, who co-created the series with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler through her production company Animal Pictures, took over from Headland as showrunner for this season. She also wrote four of the seven episodes, directed three and was hands-on in the edit.

“She loves being in the edit room. It’s not ‘go away and do these notes’ – her involvement is real minutiae. Alex Buono (an executive producer who directed the other four episodes) was very involved in the edit too. There was a lot of back and forth, adjusting performances, adding a joke here or taking one out there. “I really don’t think we could have done it remotely. For a show like this it was important for us to work together in person.

I did my editor’s cut at home in New York and after they wrapped, I flew to L.A. to work in person with Natasha and Alex at Animal Pictures in Studio City.” He also credits assistant editors Sara Schultz and Corry Seeholzer “who helped a lot here to prep and transfer media. We had our own COVID-safe bubble and turned that into our post-production commune.” Editor Debra Simone who co-edited three of the seven half hours for this season was with them in L.A. too. Simone and Downing both worked on a particularly tricky and trippy scene at the end of Episode 4, set in the ‘60s, where Nadia has taken a psychedelic drug. Cue strobe lights, weird-out juxtapositions and rapid montage.

“Deb started on that and I inherited it and it took a long time. They had an abstract storyboard but they didn’t want it to b too ‘music video-ey’ – not too cool. They wanted it to be a bit more messed up.” Downing added in a clip of Nadia falling, which appears at length in Episode 7, “as a kind of premonition of what would happen to her” and subliminally drew on the classic dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

“I’d also lived in Berlin for a while and gone to those crazy former-power-plant-turned-warehouse parties so I kinda know
the East European vibe,” he jokes. The sequence is cut to a remix of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” one of a number of pop tracks laced throughout the series. “We worked with the same music supervisor as Season 1 (Brienne Rose) and same composer (Joe Wong) so there was a lotof synergy but Natasha is very, very into music. I remember she gave me an 18-hour Spotify playlist as prep. She was heavily into Pink Floyd at the time.

“Sometimes we go off the rails. We even jokingly tried everything on the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack. We bonded over a love for just trying out music. Sometimes it was left field. Like who would have thought to use Van Halen
for a baby being born on the subway?” The last scene of the final episode plays out to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” Downing says, “I like that it’s not ‘pat.’ That song has a complex structure which reflects the conflicting emotions going on with Nadia’s character.”

The show is also crammed full of cinematic references which only the most eagle eyed cine-literate viewers will spot. These
range from John Cassavetes and Cronenberg (notablyVideodrome) to Orson Welles (Touch of Evil) and Spike Lee. None is more present than Robert Altman, of whom Lyonne is a huge fan. Season 1 leaned heavily into The Long Goodbye (including a subplot about a lost cat).

“Natasha definitely liked to use the technique that Altman pioneered which is having everybody talking with overlapping dialogue. That vibe is definitely in there. In Season 2 we lean into Altman’s more avant-garde work like 3 Women and Images which have themes of split personalities.”

Their collaboration has been so successful that Lyonne made Downing a co-producer on this season for this creative input. “We were fine cutting and someone sent me the end credits and I saw my name. I immediately said thanks. She said, ‘I meant to ask you, “Is that ok?”’ I said, ‘Of course!’ And she started singing the Bee Gees’ ‘More than a Woman.’ I guess I helped set the tone for the show in Season 1 and Season 2. It was a bit emotionally draining but I am so dedicated to it and this is exactly what I always wanted to make. I am super emotionally involved in it.

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