In the HBO comedy “Doll & Em,” Dolly Wells becomes the personal assistant of her lifelong bestie, the actress Emily Mortimer. Over six episodes, Mortimer and Wells, who has so far largely worked in British comedy (including being one of Bridget Jones’ buds), explore a friendship as a crack runs slowly through it. In real life, only the bestie part (and Mortimer’s Hollywood stardom) is true.
“We have a shorthand where we can understand eachother,” Wells explains.
“We find things funnier sooner than somebody watching us. We fill silences with words,” says Mortimer. “We needed someone else in our lives.”
That person became Azazel Jacobs, the filmmaker of oddly rhythmic comedies like “Momma’s Man” and “Terri.” (He’s also the son of avant-garde titan Ken Jacobs.) “I think if there’s anything I brought to the process, it was being someone who’s outside a relationship that’s so incredibly tight,” Jacobs says. “They have their own language. They don’t have to say many words for the other person to understand them. I felt like a conduit. I could sense what the audience would feel like [watching them].”
Mortimer and Wells had long wanted to work together. They thought it would be funny if Wells played her assistant, and modeled the overall arc — in which Wells starts getting more attention than Mortimer — on “All About Eve” and the Harold Pinter-scripted psychological thriller “The Servant” (albeit told with two giggly, sweet-natured people deathly afraid of confrontation). They weren’t sure if it should be a movie or a play or what.
They brought in Jacobs, who they’d known since his days studying at the American Film Institute. He suggested making it into a self-contained TV show, not too unlike the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon show (and then whittled-down film) “The Trip.” They shot a test pilot while Mortimer was filming “The Newsroom.” The test became the first 20-minute episode.
Jacobs wrote the scripts with Mortimer and Wells. “It always came down to seeing if we could say this or that clearer,” he says. “If there was a fight it was always towards the same goal: to be as clear and truthful as possible.”
“It became what we then decided what we wanted it to be, which was a movie with all the aesthetic qualities of a filmmaker’s movie, made over six episodes,” Mortimer says. “It has the production values and the sensibility of a movie. But it just happens to be on television.”
The fact that it’s about showbiz came about not because they had a burning desire to add to the deep genre devoted to it. “We tried other things before, but they weren’t things we knew very well particularly. We’d get bogged down in trying to imagine another world,” says Wells. “Whereas the idea of being actors we both really knew about. There was something about me being an assistant that really resonated with us, because it seemed so funny and sad at the same time. That’s our humor. There’s a darkness to it.”
“It was an experiment that ended up being the show,” Mortimer says. “We got locked into quite a lot of thing by necessity. We were just using what we had — the set I was on, the trailer I was in.”
Even the fact that their characters have the same name — and same general relationship, at least initially — was part of that. “We were calling eachother by our real names, thinking it wouldn’t be seen by anyone but us,” recalls Mortimer. “We were too lazy to come up with others.” Their fate was sealed when Jacobs labeled the file of the test episode “Doll & Em,” which still makes them queasy. “We’ve had moments of hating it,” she says.
That ended up adding a nice, not cloying sentimentality to it. “Without sounding sloppy, it became our love letter to our friendship and female friendship,” says Wells. “That’s such a huge part of women’s lives.”
Jacobs agrees: “Their friendship is where this came from. That’s what’s being celebrated here. At the very base of this is something true, and that’s in those names.”
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