When Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson first moved to Los Angeles, working as a dog walker and P.F. Chang’s bartender, respectively, the native New Jersey couple liked to splurge on dinner and drinks at Tam O’Shanter — the 100-year-old Scottish house of prime rib in Atwater Village. These days, however, it’s where they go to break story on their Emmy-nominated drama, Yellowjackets. “It turns out that this place is kind of a writers’ haunt,” says Lyle, next to one of the Tudor building’s dormant fireplaces on a recent March afternoon. “I’ve seen Dan Harmon here a few times. And Jason Segel, who we worked with on Dispatches From Elsewhere, he fucking loves this place.”
The husband-and-wife team were not, like so many TV creators these days, an overnight success. Prior to Yellowjackets, their co-creation that courted a rabid fan base out of the gate in 2021 and brought much-needed buzz to Showtime, they wrote on The CW’s vampire drama The Originals and Netflix’s Narcos. Now, with Yellowjackets returning March 24, they talked about the tumult at Showtime, the plight of the screenwriter in 2023 and why they have no interest in debating “likability” in the characters who populate their taut survival mystery that often makes Lord of the Flies look like Madeline in comparison.
What’s the first thing you two wrote together?
BART NICKERSON When we were trying to get out to L.A., we wrote 20 pages of a Scrubs spec script super fast. That was the first and last time that our collaboration has allowed us to move quickly.
ASHLEY LYLE We both wanted to be comedy writers at first, so we have a suitcase full of spec scripts — Scrubs, 30 Rock, My Name Is Earl — because that was still a thing back in the day. We were just at the end of that thing where it was like, “Oh, just write a pretend episode of a show that you like.”
So when potential staffers are submitted for your room, you don’t get fantasy Yellowjackets episodes?
LYLE Nope. And, as a showrunner, I really wish we could bring it back. There’s development writing and then there’s staff writing. They’re such different things. When someone wants to come on your staff, what you really want to know is, “Can they write in your voice? Can they write your show?” It’s a shame it’s gone, because it’s a great exercise.
It’s been said you received more than 250 writing submissions for season two staff, well above the norm.
LYLE It was flattering to see how many people wanted to come on board. But we love our writing staff, so we didn’t have a ton of room. We didn’t for season three, either.
I imagine it’s flattering but also a little intimidating, no?
LYLE It was weird.
NICKERSON I don’t know that we’re entirely comfortable judging our peers. You want to just honor that enthusiasm and be like, “Yes, come on in!” But that’s not practical. And our show is not going to give us that kind of budget.
Former Showtime boss David Nevins has been open about not seeing Yellowjackets working. Did that trickle down to you? And do you know when you changed his mind?
LYLE It did trickle down that he wasn’t sure it was for the network. It’s absolutely a credit to him that he listened to his team, who were all very strenuous in their support of the show. Gary Levine’s been there 22 years, and he believed in it from the pitch. I know that our team went to bat for us with David.
How do you feel about the fact that so many of those people aren’t sticking around amid all the Paramount consolidation?
LYLE We’re obviously heartbroken. Gary has been with this show from the beginning. He bought the pitch, and he’s staying with us throughout the remainder of this season — so that will be a resource for us.
Did you get a heads-up about all the changes, or were you learning about the network rebrand in the news?
NICKERSON By that point, we knew enough about what was coming that it wasn’t destabilizing. And being in the very fortunate position of having a show do well, we felt reasonably confident that the show would survive the merger. It was a little bit less stressful for us than it was for a lot of people.
New Showtime boss Chris McCarthy has been vocal about leaning into franchises. Are you already being pushed for a spinoff?
LYLE We’re aware that it’s something they’re interested in, and we certainly aren’t closed off to the idea. It would have to make sense. We have a couple of ideas.
How are you metabolizing the pressure on season two? People love to tear down the sophomore season of a first-year hit.
LYLE I describe it as … soul- crushing. (Laughs.) I think we came out of nowhere for a lot of people. Before it premiered, Jason Segel told us, “Don’t worry! There are three or four shows that everyone talks about and loves. There are three or four shows that everyone talks about and fucking hates. The other 595 fall right in the middle. Find a little audience and it’s fine.” We thought we’d be one of those, so this season feels different.
NICKERSON As a very insecure person, everything I’ve ever written has been such a terrifying experience that this actually doesn’t feel any different. It takes me forever to send an email, so I live in that baseline of pressure.
Your co-showrunner, Jonathan Lisco, recently told EW that if you do your job right, cannibalism won’t be the most transgressive thing to play out on the show. Is there a line you don’t want to cross?
LYLE Tony Soprano is an absolute monster — but, because he’s so well drawn, you understand him. That’s what we’re aiming for. We have conversations about what could be too far, but it’s less about likability for the characters and more about the type of story. We never want to be shocking and salacious for the sheer joy of it.
Your season three renewal came early. Was that to get a jump on a potential writers strike?
LYLE The possibility of the strike is very real. All we can do is keep moving forward until we have to put our pencils down.
What do you want out of this negotiation — for your peers, if not yourselves?
LYLE The main issue is the future of the livelihood of writers. Frankly, it’s not tenable right now. We were incredibly fortunate that our first job was with Julie Plec on The Originals. She was an incredible mentor and threw us into the fire. We were first-year staff writers covering set, running tone meetings and working with actors. That’s invaluable. Nowadays that’s not the reality. I think it’s really shortsighted of the studios and the networks to create a scenario where only upper levels are being sent to set.
Do your staff writers go to set for their own episodes?
LYLE We had three writers who came to set and worked for free. We did our best to make that as painless as possible, bought them all their dinners. But we fought and ultimately lost to be able to pay their way. They were so hungry for that experience that they did it on their own dime.
NICKERSON There is a devaluing of the place that the writer should occupy — both literally and metaphorically. Overall production budgets have grown, as the writing budget for most shows has shrunk or stayed the same. In some quarters of the industry, there is this idea that writers are interchangeable — that it’s more about the idea.
Speaking of Julie, how did working on a CW drama prepare you for the level of fan scrutiny Yellowjackets courts online?
LYLE There was this infamous moment with our showrunner, Mike Narducci. Every morning, we would all meet in the writers room. But one day, the door was closed. Everyone was wondering what was happening inside — and it turned out that Mike was fighting on Twitter, probably with a 13-year-old. He came out all frustrated, like, “You can’t reason with these people!”
NICKERSON He’s a former English teacher, so he was trying to talk about theme and story and just got nowhere. Fuel for a different kind of fire.
Are you taking any time off when you finish post on season two?
LYLE We go right into season three. We’re starting the writers room in April. No break.
NICKERSON We hope to take a little one at the top of the summer. Otherwise, we might die.
Well, it may be a very long break.
LYLE The network is like, “You can take a break in May and June!” I see what you’re doing … so generous. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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