Hung is HBO’s latest hit. The story of a well-endowed high school basketball coach who becomes a gigolo in the hopes of solving his financial problems is both timely and funny. The show’s creators, the husband and wife team of Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, sat down for a press conference. Not surprisingly the writers of a show dedicated to the premise that bigger really is better had a lot to say. Here are some of the highlights.
How does Ray and Tanya’s relationship progress over the course of the season?
Colette: We do, I think, as writers have a lot of interest in them as a couple obviously. We love what a marriage of opposites they are beyond just the most unlikely pimp and the most unlikely ho on a certain level. Sometimes we joke that they’re almost like a red state-blue state connection. We also talk about it being a very unlikely romance. In a certain way, Tanya’s like the weirdo drama girl in high school who every so often meets in the hallway with the football player. He thinks she’s cool for a moment and then gets distracted by something else. He thinks she’s weird and yet at the same time he’s kind of attracted to her. At the same time she’s his only friend. As the season goes on he realizes that there’s no one else he can really express his emotions to. She, I think, is really attached to him and attracted to him throughout.
Dmitry: We are more interested in how these people who do not have a lot of friends find each other and maintain their friendship in fairly precarious waters.
Are their friends and family going to figure out he’s a hooker?
Dmitry: That’s not a threat that we’re, as dramatists, that interested in. Keeping a secret, will they find out about the secret, that’s not where the stakes of the show lie. We’ll play with it but it would be false to go to that well all the time because we’re interested in the complexity of what he’s doing, not necessarily the legality of it.
In the second episode we see a lot more of the “how to be a prostitute.” Are we going to see that throughout the season?
Colette: He does dive into the world of prostitution. Every time on the show that he walks into a room and checks the door and she’s there… even though it’s just an actress I’m reminded that, at the end of the day, it’s a man and a woman alone in a room. There’s something very electric about it. We deal with it a lot in the season both realistically and sort of metaphorically because it’s really about Ray’s encounter with all this female psychology.
Dmitry: I also think that it’s more than how to be a prostitute. It’s how to be a consultant. We explore quite a bit how Ray tries and fails and sometimes succeeds in satisfying these women whose needs are complex. He is by no means limited to the sex. They have emotional needs. They want him to do things he never imagined he’d be doing.
Colette: He was a popular athlete. The premise of Hung is that he has to find a way to make them happy and at the same time not feel emasculated. It is a tight rope that he walks.
How did your marriage inspire you to come up with this concept?
Colette: We’ve been creating together for a long time. We went to graduate school together. We were critics in New York together. We were playwrights. We’re familiar with talking about dramatic ideas. The first sentence out of out mouths about [Ray]… we came at him from a socio economic perspective. We thought about a man’s man but we weren’t interested in violence. So how can we create this very manly guy and not be violent? We thought what if he’s a $1.50 coffee guy in a $3.50 latte world. Our first sentences were: what if he’s a basketball coach? What if he’s in the middle class and pinched? What if he’s having hard times and has absolutely nothing going for him? Then we were like, “He needs to have something going for him. What if he has a big penis?” Then Dmitry was like, “We’ll call it Hung.” Then we were off to the races.
Dmitry: In terms of our collaboration, I do think that we compliment each other in terms of our strengths. I think we offered slightly different things to the process, which is great. We don’t always agree.
Colette: It’s always better when we’re disagreeing. On a simplistic level, I think we come at it from a male place and a female place. I usually feel when I’m watching Hung whether I’m in the set or the editing room, that I’m watching for the women. There’s a certain way I want Ray to be so that he’s appealing. In episode four, when he touches this older woman, I wanted him to be very gentle and very delicate. I feel like when I talk to Dmitry or other men they’re aware of all the different women Ray encounters and that’s what they’re thinking about. I’m very conceptual and very idea based. Dmitri is very deep and very emotionally rooted. We both fuss over every line. We’re both interested in truth.
Can you talk about the casting and if any of the characters changed because of the person who is playing that role?
Dmitry: The character that changed the most based on casting was Jessica because when we wrote that character we actually weren’t sure what that character was. She was the ex-wife who left him, she was the cheerleader. When we cast Anne [Heche] who brought such complexity and lightness to the role we wanted to make her a restless soul, the person who without being that self-aware is constantly looking for fulfillment in her life that she’s just not getting.
Colette: She’s shallow because she chooses to be. It’s hard to find an actress that can pull it off. As the season went on we began to write to her more. I think [Heche] changed what we were writing because we admired what she was doing. Also, I do think that when Thomas Jane took on the role of Ray, I think there’s something in Thomas, in sort of the movie star trappings… that’s really benevolent. I really think that infused the character for me. There’s a certain goodness to him. In episode four, he’s not trying to hurt that lady’s feelings.
How do you balance the 12-year-old boy jokes inherent in the premise with the more serious stuff?
Dmitry: We don’t think of penis jokes at all when we write.
Colette: In the writers’ room, we’re trying to figure out what makes him tick. Every once in a while we’ll right a line like in episode eight or nine, one of the women Ray sleeps with is like, “Ray you have a beautiful penis.” and we would be really amused by that , but it comes form a place of truth. We don’t think of him as some porn star, gargantuan size. We think of him as being really well hung and feeling like he’s always sort of had that on his side.
You’re kind of treating his penis like the shark in jaws.
Colette: We do on a certain level as every woman who sees that penis thinks it’s the perfect penis for her. It’s kind of Plato’s penis. We haven’t shown it thus far because it’s in the mind.
How did you sell HBO on this unconventional idea?
Colette: When you go to pitch to a network you have to think it through on such a high level. You have to pitch two years, if not five tears worth of story engine. You’ve got to tell them where it’s going and you have to tap them on the conceptual level and the idea level. That’s very different from out usual conversation which is, “We think he should be a basketball coach. We think he should be going through economic hard times.”
Dmitry: The pitching process forces you to really do a stress test on the show. They have to believe that this is a show that could last seven or more years, that it’s something that has legs, that has a world you want to explore.
How much research did you do? Did you talk to porn stars? Or gigolos?
Dmitry: We didn’t. We did a lot of research in other areas but we really wanted to approach it from the perspective of these two people in Michigan. One, a coach, the other a proofreader temp/poet. How would these two people make it singular and compelling? We didn’t want to make a show about the prostitution industry. We wanted to make a show about these people in this place doing something interesting and perhaps extraordinary.
Colette: We had assistants giving us research on the male prostitution industry but ultimately it wasn’t that interesting. These are our characters. They aren’t doing research on the internet, of if they are it’s nowhere near as in depth as what we got. Tanya wants to be paid up front so that’s how they’re going to do it. We wanted it all to be completely idiosyncratic to them.
Dmitry: Tanya approaches it like this is something good to bring to the world. She sees it as a poet. She thinks they’re bringing a little bit of happiness to the world.
Colette: If she didn’t think of it that way, it would go against her politics on some level. She comes up with this concept so she’s able to embrace it without contradicting her theories about men and women and sex and relationships.
Why did you decide to set the show in Detroit? Is it because the city is a symbol of economic collapse?
Dmitry: There’s that. It did represent this great city that’s fallen on hard times. We also really wanted his house to be on a lake. We didn’t want to show suburbia in a way that had been seen before. We wanted something more in nature. We thought of it as the hook to Ray’s soul. When he’s drinking his beer on his backyard on his lake, that’s when he’s most at peace. [Detroit] has this Great Lake where houses open up right on them. It’s pretty wild. It’s not as circumscribed.
Colette: We wanted the economic disparity of the shack and the big house. I have to give [director] Alexander [Payne] a lot of credit for steering us to Detroit. in his movies he brings a real rootedness of place. Detroit was really interesting to him. We all spent hours on a boat. He found that location. We barely even dressed the house. We did manufacture the fire, but that little house is next to that big house.
How do you think being Hung has affected Ray’s life?
Coletee: We play it as an asset and a burden.
Dmitry: We do play to this idea that Ray was perhaps not as ambitious as he could have been because he never had to struggle to get anything he wanted to have.
Colette: He’s always been the most hung guy in the room. We imagine that brought him a certain sort of confidence. In high school I think people are aware of whose the most hung guy in the room. It’s sort of that American myth of how you peak in high school.
Do you think people need to see more than one episode before they can fully appreciate it?
Colette: The show has a Rorschach test quality. People respond to it very differently. Some people think it’s very funny. Some critics say it’s too shallow a comedy. We think of it as a comedy of awkwardness.
Dmitry: It does come out of painfully real situations which depending on the viewer is not very funny at all, just painful, or kind of hilarious.
If you two were going to venture into Ray’s line of work, who would be the pimp and who would be the ho?
Dmitry: I think I’d be the ho.
Colette: Dmitry would be the one who came up with ‘ Happiness Consultant.’ He’d definitely be involved in marketing.