How the Author of 'Sweetbitter' Turned Her Bestseller Into a Tantalizing TV Show
When adapting her bestselling novel Sweetbitter into a television series, Stephanie Danler knew she needed to think big. In the novel, which was published in 2016 and partially inspired by Danler's experiences working at New York's Union Square Café (and other fine-dining restaurants), we follow 22-year-old Tess, played by Maleficent's Ella Purnell in the TV version, as she receives a whirlwind education in sex, drugs, and oysters at a fictional Manhattan establishment. It's also over in a year -- presumably Starz, the premium cable network currently airing the first six episodes, would like to see the show run for many seasons. This isn't a single-course meal.
"If we were making a totally literal adaptation, we would run out of story," Danler says during a recent interview in Starz's midtown offices. "But one of the goals is to be able to go home with any of the characters. There really is endless story." With the hope of exploring every square inch of her fictional world, Danler told Thrillist all about turning her book into a show, finding the perfect Tess, and why the series just had to be set in 2006, the moment right before the iPhone ruined everything.
Thrillist: Some authors have the opportunity to work on the TV or film adaptation of their novels, and they say, "I'll just take the money and let someone else figure this out." What specifically made you want to dive back into this story?
Stephanie Danler: I think because it was television, and not a movie. I wasn't going to be literally adapting exactly what happened in Sweetbitter. I don't know if that project holds that much fascination to an author, because you're redoing the same arc essentially. But the idea with television was that we could expand on the world that was already built. We could use the characters, we could use the restaurant, but we could go anywhere and tell any kind of story. We could stay in the kitchen, we could follow a guest. I think the first season is very Tess-centric as we introduce her to the world and our audience, but the freedom was why I wanted to write the television show.
Was it a tough decision to commit your time to the adaptation? I assume you're also working on another book project.
Danler: Yes, oh my god. That's a soul-crushing debate, going back and forth. I think that I am a novelist, and to not be writing books is hard. But I'm also a very curious person, and I like to think of myself as an eternal student, and so I'm learning a lot. I think a lot of writers, when they're not "writing," start to feel despair. So I have to remind myself that I write every day and I'm just learning this new form and this new type of storytelling. Also, television production, which is not even writing, has expanded my brain and made me a better human, thinker, and manager.
I was reading an older interview with you where you said so much of what you love about writing is "writing beautiful sentences."
Danler: Of course.
Screenwriting is a craft where no one really cares what your beautiful sentences look like.
Danler: Totally. It's the first thing to go. That was really hard for me. I think now when I go back to the book that I'm working on, I'm so in awe of what language can do, and I really am fetishizing the sentences more than ever because the scripts are really notes for a director and an actor to find something magic in the moment. You want to write, "A crystalline blue morning in June," but it's just, "Morning. June." [laughs] Even just: "June. AM." That's it.
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.
I like that the show, like the book, is a mid '00s period piece. Did anyone ever try to convince you not to set the show in 2006?
Danler: It is a period piece.
Yeah, it is! Was that something you had to fight for?
Danler: It was something we talked about. The show wouldn't work now for many reasons -- first being the technology. Storytelling in the age of the iPhone is not something I completely understand because it erases action more or less. It has erased most of our moments of "I wonder," which often lead to action in film and books. The other thing is the restaurant industry now. If Tess was moving to New York in 2018, she would be so savvy, and she wouldn't ever be alone. She would know what these restaurants were, and there would be no risk associated with taking a job in this industry. Food culture hadn't exploded yet.
In the last year, the restaurant industry has reckoned with a series of high-profile sexual harassment scandals. Did those stories breaking while you were making this show have any effect on the final product?
Danler: It was everywhere in the news, of course. But my book already dealt with the full gamut of sexual politics from workplace romances to abuse of power. It's already built into the show. We didn't have to change anything. If anything, the show is proof of why the conversation needed to happen 12 years later. It took a long time.
There's also a point late in the season when the character Sasha makes a critique of the restaurant's manager, Howard, and his tendency to mostly hire white people. With that moment, did you want to acknowledge the whiteness of the show and certain restaurants?
Danler: Of course. Oh my god, it's a huge story. We cast the show in the way that a restaurant might have been cast in 2006. This was true of my experience. When we cast Jasmine Mathews to play Heather, she and I talked about her experiences being the only African-American server in "fine-dining" restaurants. To speak to going home with any of the characters, that's a story we want to tell. We want to tell stories about immigration and the divide between the front of house and the back of house and what it's like for Heather to navigate this world, and what it's like for Sasha, whose under a different set of constraints. The reason that line is in there is that it's all a part of the story we're telling.
This interview has been edited and condensed.