There are so many bad shows about the food world and the service industry. When you were working in that field, do you remember watching movies or TV shows and thinking "they're getting this wrong?"
Danler: I would say less as a viewer and more as a reader. When I was writing Sweetbitter I was very conscious that we'd been getting one note from our food media, and that was a service industry that was dominated by a bullying, testosterone-driven male chef most of the time. And my experience in the service industry was so sensual and beautiful. It was really about learning to pay attention to the details of the world, learning to pay attention to the creases on a tablecloth, and also to flowers and to a wine and its components. That's almost a religious experience: slowing down that way. It's not about screaming and throwing knives. So I went into the show with the same intentions. We've seen the back of house so many times -- and in our show there's no chef screaming. That's on purpose. Instead, it's focused on the female sommelier type, and it's a very feminine, delicate, and almost "beauty in the mundane" world.
In the pilot, there's the moment when Tess tries oysters for the first time and has a sense-memory food flashback. What type of conversations did you have with your collaborators to figure out that moment?
Danler: With the pilot, it came to me impressionistically and suddenly in the way a lot of things come to writers. And once we were in the writers room, Stu [Zicherman], my partner, really wanted to understand what it was saying. I think that Jake's question before she tastes the oyster is, "What do you taste?" For someone who hasn't had the privilege of experience or has maybe never been to the ocean and can't identify a word like "briny," I think you roll through these images in your mind. I do it with wine often. If I smell a wine and there's something like dark berries or pine needles, or I see the fur on an animal, I cycle through -- before I can say red fruit, Rioja. Tess is at the very beginning of that journey and she identifies the foundation, which is salt.
Since you described her in the book, you clearly had a specific idea of who Tess is. What was the casting process like in finding the perfect Tess?
Danler: It was so difficult. I think we looked at over 200 women. I think we assumed that someone would be petite and blonde for whatever reason. But I think what we really wanted was a blank. That's a hard thing to three-dimensionalize. It's hard to do blank without coming off as naive. I remember the first time I saw Ella Purnell's tape, Stu and I were like, "Whoa, look at those eyes." We almost said, "OK," and kept going because she didn't look the part at all. Mostly because she has too much experience on her face. To me she looks like an orphan from a Dickens novel. But then I was like, "Can we watch that tape again?" And we couldn't stop watching her. What I found in Ella was not the blankness at all, but someone that I believed would move in the middle of the night to New York City alone, which is what we know about Tess. If you believe that, you'll believe everything that happens after.
Then for Jake and Simone, the dynamic between the three of them is so important to the story.
How did the casting work for those two roles? Did you need to see the tree of them together?
Danler: No, as it turns out, Tom Sturridge and Caitlin FitzGerald bonded immediately and had that sort of natural intimacy, which you can't plan and which is exactly what you want for those two characters. When Caitlin walked in, my stomach flipped. When Tom came in, I thought, This is the only person who can possibly play this role. I begged both of them to do it. I think I wanted actors who felt singular but also real. Jake is a tough one because he's a beautiful male bartender. You can imagine the number of tapes I saw of beautiful male bartenders. They are plentiful. Especially in New York and LA. But if he was too beautiful it would've been the death of the character. There's something in Tom's face where he's so classically beautiful but he is not relying on it. He's very reserved with his beauty, and that is the character.