Born in Russia, Dmitry Lipkin began his career as a playwright, running a theatre company in New York with his wife Colette Burson for ten years. He then created and was Head Writer for THE RICHES for F/X.
His new show, HUNG, co-created with his wife, Colette Burson, premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 pm EST on HBO and HBO Canada. The show stars Thomas Jane as Ray Drecker, a middle-aged former sports star now down on his luck, who, with the help of a failed poet, Tanya (Jane Adams), exploits his only remaining asset: his big dick. He turns himself into a hetero male prostitute, with Tanya functioning as his pimp.
Crafty Screenwriting: What did you learn creating and then writing THE RICHES that you’re doing differently on HUNG?
Dmitry Lipkin: When I did THE RICHES, I actually did not know anything about creating a TV show. Network notes and many other factors went into this but I do think that we focused too much on driving the plot forward, and not enough on staying with the psychological reality of each character in that particular unique situation. And that’s something I definitely wanted to do on HUNG, to root us more in the situation, to really think through each step of a regular guy and this woman, this artist temp, how would they go about forming this partnership. How does a regular guy become a gigolo? Not skimming over any steps along the way --there’s nothing that happens on HUNG that happens offscreen.
On this show, we also got to write a lot more episodes before we started shooting, because we were writing all through development. On THE RICHES after the pilot we had a writer's room, and we sat down and said, "Here we are, what's the show?" Let's talk about what the show is for a couple of weeks. On HUNG we brought in a small writing room later, six episodes in. We already knew what the show was, we didn't want to open it up to "what the show is," we just wanted people to jump on board.
CS: Was this always an HBO show, or was there a network version of this show?
DL: We always had HBO in mind. One reason we went with HBO was, I love the idea of going to a place where a show can succeed or fail on the basis of how good it is, not on whether we get a good time slot. Going with HBO, I knew we can actually do this right. We can develop unique characters, create a distinctive tone. We don’t have to rush through it, run roughshod over the concept.
CS: You co-created this show with your wife, Colette Burson. Are you different writers?
DL: We’ve been working with each other so long, we know each other’s work so well we can pinch-hit for each other. We know what our strengths and weaknesses are. And we’re both pretty good at all these things. But I would say her strengths are idea and structure. I can really go off course -- she’s got an instinct for knowing what feels right...
CS: Because I’m mostly writing with my wife these days, and she has a million ideas, and I have very few ideas, but I know how to structure them, how to turn them into a TV show...
DL: She’s both actually, both the what if person and the structure person. I guess I’m the person who makes things ...
CS: ... Deeper and richer?
DL: Yeah. And that comes comes out of the playwriting experience.
We both ran a theater company in New York for ten years...
CS: So you’re gluttons for punishment.
DL: Yeah. But after that, you know, we made shoes for ten years and now we can make a good shoes.
CS: THE RICHES was a star-driven show -- you've talked about how it really took off once Eddie Izzard was on board, and he's such a strong personality. And you had Minnie Driver. How would you compare writing a star-driven show with writing HUNG, which seems to be a more story-driven show?
DL: I think Thomas Jane has a lot of star quality... but, that's true, I just never thought of it that way. Getting Eddie on board THE RICHES was a huge thing. The concept was kind of tailor-made for Eddie’s strengths as a performer. HUNG was very much a story, and then Thomas and Jane and Anne [Heche] fleshed out a story that preceded them.
CS: The premise pilot seems to go in and out of style. What made you feel you needed to show each step of the process of Ray getting into his new business, as opposed to starting with him in it?
[In the pilot, we don't actually see Ray sleeping with a woman for money; the closest he gets is knocking on a hotel door about nine minutes before the end of the episode.]
DL: We always planned to take it step by step. We looked at WEEDS. WEEDS started a few weeks into her job selling pot. But the act of selling pot is simple --you give somebody pot and you get money for it. The act of a sexual encounter with a woman for money is complex and multifaceted. That's a huge step that we wanted to see him live through.
CS: Were you tempted to make Ray a male hustler? Because in real life, almost all the male prostitution is homosexual -- and if anyone fetishizes big dicks, it's gay men. Was that too transgressive even for HBO, or did you want to make the attractive fantasy stronger?
DL: We didn’t go there because Ray wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t go there. He’s barely putting up with the stuff in his life -- his divorce, his kids. He'd pretty much have to be homeless for him to do that.
We did very little research into the sex industry. We didn't want to make it like twenty other shows -- we wanted to approach it from the point of view that this is a unique situation. A kind of grass roots oddball partnership that these two people form. How would these two people who know nothing about this business do it? How would she get clients for him? It's not about the sex industry, people trying to do this unlikely thing.
CS: I've only seen the pilot, but you kind of went out of your way to make him someone we have to struggle to sympathize with. He's kind of angry and resentful that life hasn't treated him the way he expected. Is that kind of the pay cable thing, the unlikable main character, or is that the audience you're trying to reach, men who feel hard done by?
DL: He was never ... it's more apparent in later episodes, but he’s not someone who hates the world. He’s a guy who’s very much lifted up by the world around him. He was the golden boy, the big star. These kinds of guys, they're not angry, they tend to be ... befuddled. The world has shifted and I’m here and where did it all go? As you'll see in the later episodes, he's a considerate and kind guy. He can be grumpy but he’s essentially a gentleman; this comes through in the later episodes. He wants to do a good job. He’s been taught to respect women. He has essentially a Midwestern good guy quality to him that’s very endearing.
CS: What was the genesis of the character?
DL: We wanted to do a show centered around a male actor. No guns, no mobsters, nothing you'd expect. He's nothing, he's average. And then Colleen said: he's got a big dick. And I said: we call it "Hung."
And for the longest time Collette and I were joking: He’s got a big dick. That’s all we had. Wanna buy our idea, this is all we got! And the networks were interested based on that alone. We took it to Fox21 before the strike, we had a little two page pitch not even an outline.
Toward the end of the writers' strike we began to flesh out the concept. Here's this quintessential insider, heralded by his home town, lettered in three sports, played pro baseball... what's it like to be that? What happens to these guys ten, twenty years down the road and they find themselves not all that any more.
You see all these shows about a fish out of water. Well he's not the fish out of water, he's in the water, but the water has changed. He's a 99 cent coffee guy in the $4.50 latte world.
He’s got a house on the lake, this is where he’s most himself, when he’s sitting out in his yard that he grew up in ... he’s most at peace drinking a beer on his lake. that kind of opened him up a little it.
CS: I sort of wonder as you talk about it if the show crystallized with the image of him camping out in a tent on his lawn after his house has burned down.
DL: ... holding onto the life that he had that he’s being edged out of.
Really, both characters crystallized in relationship with each other. Ray, and Tanya played by Jane Adams developed in tandem with each other. She's a creative person caught in a place that doesn’t value creativity -- Michigan values sports, not creativity, and Ray was sports. She’s a local poet who works as a permatemp in a law firm. She doesn’t want to get a permanent job because it’s selling out, but she’s there every night temping.
The most unlikely pimp hooks up with Thomas Jane and they decide to go down this peculiar route. Because neither of them is very good at this, they have no idea how to do it, and she takes a sort of poetic way to be a pimp. It was kind of a blue-state, red-state partnership. She wants creative fulfillment, he just wants to fix his house and get his kids back.
As we were beginning to pitch the show, we were already writing the pilot to understand the show more. So by the time we sold the pitch, we were really selling the script as a spec.
CS: What do you think are the most interesting shows on television for you, as a writer, to watch? Do you watch shows you think are good, shows you may not like but are popular, or interestingly flawed shows?
DL: We analyzed a few shows before we started writing. WEEDS is more arch, this is more grounded, but I like WEEDS. I watched the first season of BREAKING BAD, then ran out of time. Before we wrote HUNG we also analyzed CALIFORNICATION, because it was another sex driven man show. We're more of a comedy; they’re a half hour drama. I think it's interesting though to look at a flawed show.
CS: What did you take away from your analysis of CALIFORNICATION?
DL: I think a show like that is best when it services a through line... a season arc for the character, as opposed to arcs that run for three or four episodes. Every time it serviced the through line it felt good, but we felt it got distracted. So we try to keep close to our two main through lines, our two driving questions. One, will Ray make it as a gigolo... not just financially, but psychologically, emotionally. Second, will Ray and Tanya stay partners. We cared about them being together, we followed the ebbs and flows of their relationship.
CS: Dave and Maddy ...
DL: Yeah, we thought of MOONLIGHTING. Or LA STRADA.
CS: How far ahead have you thought through the show?
DL: We have some ideas for future seasons. We think the world is going to expand. We had all these ideas for the end of the season, and then we realized those were probably ideas for the middle or end of season two. The more we do it the more we realize we don’t need as many fireworks as we thought we did. You don’t need to throw in the kitchen sink. You can just live through it and have sort of anticipatory plot twists. The way we did it, we can keep going for years and years. HUNG premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 pm EST on HBO and HBO Canada.