Entertainment

How 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' Wrangled Gators for That Big Twist in the Pilot

on becoming a god
Showtime

As summer 2019 winds down, it's important to give it up for the creature that emerged an unexpected champion in these weird times: the gator. First, alligators got the old shark treatment in the thriller Crawl, hunting Kaya Scodelario and her on-screen dad. Then, an actual, real-life gator showed up in Chicago for some reason. And now, another hungry scale king -- or queen, it's actually unclear -- plays a pivotal role in the new Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida, providing the pilot's biggest twist. 

The series, co-created by Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, focuses on a 1990s suburban couple living in the shadow of Orlando -- at least at the beginning. Yes, for most of the pilot Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd's mullet-wearing Travis Stubbs seems to be guiding the action. To the chagrin of his wife, Krystal -- played by the brilliant Kirsten Dunst -- Travis is a true believer in a pyramid scheme called FAM, buying and hawking household goods while listening to cult-like tapes narrated by the company's founder Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine). And then, about 30 minutes in, he gets eaten by a gator while wearing an ill-fitting tux. 

"I think that everyone loved that surprise, that like, [gasp], halfway through," showrunner Esta Spalding explains in an interview with Thrillist at the Television Critics Association in July. Sure enough, Travis, encouraged by his friend Cody (Théodore Pellerin), quits his actual job in spectacular fashion, striding out of his grim workplace. He then gets in his car and, overcome by exhaustion, swerves off the road, lands in a swamp and becomes gator food. It's a hilarious and ignominious end for the character, made more shocking because of Skarsgård's star power. "Our whole intention when we cast it last summer was, 'How do we find somebody who can play against Kirsten who can seem like they're the lead,'" Spalding says. 

Showtime

Dunst, speaking with reporters after the TCA panel, said she personally asked Skarsgård, her co-star in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, to appear. "He's such a goofy sweet, he's a really dorky dude," Dunst added. "Everyone sees him as this really handsome, serious actor, but I feel like this is closer to what he would enjoy doing. He was so sad when he left the show." 

Initially, there was a plan to keep Krystal, the true protagonist of the series, more of a background player before Travis' demise, but the creative team found that it needed her presence. "It surprised us when we got into editing how much we wanted to feel her in the first half of that show," Spalding says. 

Because it is Dunst's show. In the wake of Travis' death, she learns how much of a financial hole her late husband dug for her and their infant child. Despite her keen sense that FAM and everything it stands for is is bullshit, she's forced to essentially beat the system, lest she be subsumed by it. The writers, led by Spalding, created a whole mythology for FAM -- though Spalding says there's no religious allegory. "What we kept on the board in the writers' room was a giant pyramid, which was Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which is this idea of what human beings need in order to survive," Spalding says. "And at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy is the sense that you actualize, you become your true, strong self. Our goal for the season was to see Krystal going through that pyramid of needs and getting better and better and better off and getting to a point where she could actualize. What you hope is, oh, please, please, please Krystal, don't stay in this scheme to actualize, please step away." 

As Krystal gets deeper into the world of FAM, the series grows more surreal, the offbeat tendencies of the earlier episodes morphing from the quirky to the bizarre. Not as if that DNA wasn't there from the beginning: In the second episode, Dunst, seemingly evoking her role in Drop Dead Gorgeous, does a pageant routine with a chorus line of puppets. Later, Krystal ends up teaching splashercize at the waterpark where she works. (The set full of slides and pools was built in the back of a New Orleans zoo.) And then, of course, there are the gators. At the end of the pilot, Krystal, overwhelmed, drives out to the swamp where her husband perished to go gator hunting with a shotgun. 

"We were shooting with rubber gators," Spalding says. "We were shooting with gators lurking nearby. We were also knew we were going to see CGI some elements. And meanwhile, there was some kind of hurricane or thunder watch and there were lightning strikes every half an hour. So we had what seemed impossible to get all of this stuff, including Kirsten with the gun." No one ever said gator hunting was easy.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.