After working on popular and acclaimed shows like Rick and Morty and Community, writer and producer Dan Guterman delves into a very different kind of story with the Netflix original animated series Carol & the End of the World. After humanity learns of an exoplanet hurtling towards Earth that is slated to end all life, unassuming protagonist Carol Kohl struggles to find her place and purpose as society around her takes advantage of their final months. Carol navigates this world in the midst of a mass existential crisis, looking to find the meaning of life in the face of impending doom.
In an exclusive interview with CBR, Carol & the End of the World creator Dan Guterman talked about the process behind bringing the animated series to life, including writing its deeper themes and finding the perfect cast and crew.
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CBR: Dan, what are the origins of Carol & the End of the World?
Dan Guterman: The show comes from a lot of different places and is the accumulation of a lot of different influences, as well as the desire to express a lot of different feelings. We wanted to create something new, something very few people had seen before in animated television. We didn’t just want to make a comedy, and we didn’t want just to make a sci-fi series. We wanted to mix different textures and weights. Different flavors. Various moods. The funny and sad, the sweet and surreal, the melancholy. We wanted a show that was existential, that was universal, that could talk about the ethereal. The things in life that are difficult to grasp, that are difficult to parse, difficult to place. And so, we built a story that we felt could encompass all that.
We wanted to do something very different with Carol. We wanted to mix naturalism with surrealism to create these half-hour tone poems — these quiet ruminations on life and living. [We] wanted to make something atmospheric, something mood-driven. Something driven by tone. More than anything, we wanted to communicate a feeling. Something that, as a viewer, you could sense deep within your gut. Something that felt honest [and] true — that, in some small and quiet way, expressed the human experience and the questions we all face.
But to answer your question more succinctly, where the show really started — where it actually began — the seed that took root and became Carol – came from a personal place.
One night, drifting off, I had a realization. I realized that if I knew the world was ending, I wouldn’t want to travel, go skydiving, or run around naked through the streets. Instead, I’d want to continue completing and repeating my loop. Over and over again. Without having to confront what it was that I wanted out of life. Doing laundry. Paying the bills. Going to work. Staying distracted. For as long as humanly possible.
It’s that instinct and fear that grew and flourished and became the show. A show about denial in the face of annihilation. A show about the end of the world that’s not really about the end of the world. A show about running away and somehow finding your way in the process.
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How did you come up with the animation style for this show?
Well, the short answer is we had an incredibly talented crew of artists and directors — an incredibly talented crew — who, from Day One, understood the show and what it was about. Understood what we were trying to accomplish, what feelings and moods we were trying to evoke, what sensibility we were trying to chase.
Because Carol is so different, so nuanced, so subtle, so quiet — and sometimes so silent — we knew that we needed to approach both design and animation in a very intentional way. Our character designs needed to feel grounded, and more than anything, there needed to be a humanity to them. The same way a writer will write a character to feel alive and make them leap off the page, our designers needed to come up with a style that almost gave our characters a kind of soul. Something in the eyes and facial features. Something in the way they moved. Something vital and vibrant. A kind of quality that made them come to life.
Carol’s design is especially interesting. So much of what Carol expresses falls between the lines, is based on non-verbal cues, [and] is communicated through long stretches of silence. We gave her these immense eyes with which to emote, eyes we could use to get across a particular feeling or even line of dialogue without ever having to say a word. There is so much in a Carol look, in a Carol glance, in a Carol sigh — and none of these micro-expressions would’ve been possible without incredible design and directing from our crew and beautiful, subtle animation from our partner studio, Bardel.
Bardel understood what we were going for. We were after a live-action sensibility. That we were chasing naturalism — chasing realism. And they were not only up to the challenge but they elevated the entire show. The animation in Carol & the End of the World is so quiet, meticulous, and precise that the faintest nod, the faintest smirk, [or] the faintest half-frown can dictate a whole exchange.
But it goes beyond character. Because Carol is primarily a mood-driven show, our paint and color teams really had to deliver when it came to the show’s lighting. They did an extraordinary job, bringing just the right tone to a particular scene or pulling the right feeling from a particular sequence. These talented artists single-handedly transformed entire episodes, working with texture and color, different notes and flavors blended together to clarify the stories we were trying to tell.
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Carol is just looking for her place amidst the impending apocalypse. What appealed to you about having a character like her as the protagonist?
No one writes a show around a character like Carol. Quiet, anxious, unassuming, shy. A short, pear-shaped, lovable lump of a woman who spends evenings eating frozen dinners alone. And yet, she is compelling to watch. Carol is a mail-in warranty. A reminder on a post-it note. A dependable metronome. And she’s funny. Funny in a way that’s different from other characters on TV. Funny in a way that comes almost entirely from character. From being three-dimensional and real. From being alive.
I’ve always been attracted to introspective characters [and] have always been attracted to stories with internal conflict. I very much wanted to write a show about someone going through an existential journey. Wanted to put down my thoughts and feelings about what it’s like to feel alone, to feel paralyzed, to be lost. As we started to write the pilot, to create this world, and within this world, to create this character, we instantly knew there was only one person who could play Carol.
I first met Martha Kelly in the summer of 2002 at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. We hung out, two uncomfortable people, at an industry panel. Away from the action. Awaiting the end of the night. And the way she spoke, thought and the ability to express life’s detours and cul-de-sacs stuck with me. So much so that halfway through writing the pilot a decade and a half later, I immediately sent her a few pages from our script, asking if she’d have any interest in playing the lead role. It’s still hard to believe but, amazingly, she said yes. Martha immediately got what we were trying to do with the show. The type of stories we wanted to tell. And she was onboard for the ride.
We get a slow drip of information about Carol’s sister across the show. How did you want to build and pace the unveiling of this backstory?
To be honest, Elena’s initial brief appearances came about organically. At first, we wanted to use her as a counterweight to Carol, an extrovert to Carol’s introvert as a way to illustrate a dichotomy [of] two sisters at opposite ends of a spectrum: one living her life to the fullest, and the other is lost and paralyzed.
So initially, Elena, while being a character we instantly adored, not only served to further the story of the show, but she brought Carol into sharper focus.
I think, almost immediately — in addition to her guest appearances — we knew we wanted to have an episode that was just between the two of them. Just Carol and Elena, and nothing else. Just two sisters alone in the woods together as Keppler hurtles towards Earth. It was interesting for us to develop what Carol was like around her sister. It’s fascinating to us because, at once, Carol is simultaneously the most open we’ve ever seen her, and yet, at least initially, she remains closed off [and] continues to play where she’s at and what she’s doing close to the vest.
And while we love Carol, having an episode with Elena was an opportunity to show some of the frustration that’s possible when you are close, or trying to be close, with someone who’s so emotionally buttoned up.
It occurs to me that, so far, I’ve only discussed Elena in relation to Carol, and I want to make a point of just how much we love Elena as her own person and character. She’s funny, sweet, exuberant, curious, freewheeling and was brought to life with an incredible performance by Bridget Everett. I know the show is a limited series, but if we were ever to come back for maybe a special or three, we would definitely do an episode with Elena in Spain. Or maybe Germany. Or maybe Ireland — who knows.
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There is a lot of ambient quiet and stillness in the show, including the dialogue and music. How did you want to approach the use of sound in the series?
For starters, the way the show was written, it was almost like writing music. Our dialogue functioned like a score, stretching from the very start of an episode through to the end. There’s a musicality to the language, the pacing, [and] the phrasing of sentences and words. Every episode is like its own song.
As writers, Kevin Arrieta, Noah Prestwich, and I were very attuned to the sounds we were creating. The flow of dialogue needed to “ring right,” needed to “ring true,” and needed to — I’m searching for the right word here — but it almost needed to rhyme.
In addition to the musicality of our dialogue, we did, in fact, score the show. And we scored it heavily. There’s wall-to-wall music within many of our episodes. Or at the very least, long stretches of music that play over various scenes. We had an incredible composer, Joe Wong, who did our entire score, and he and almost everyone involved not only “got it” but hit ball after ball out of the park. His compositions were beautiful, delicate, and precise. Each more lovely than the last. Joe did a lot to develop the show’s musical themes and motifs. And he just drenched what was already a gorgeous show with even more beauty.
I believe the show’s soundtrack will be out by the end of the year, and I can guarantee you it’s something you’ll instantly fall in love with. That said, there are times when we kill sound altogether and just sit with a moment. We let moments breathe on the show. We let moments linger. We let moments cascade and blur into each other. And we very often let moments sit in the silence around them. Some shows will do about anything to avoid even a second of stillness and quiet, but we embrace it on Carol.
The show is definitely not afraid of silence.
To build off that, Carol & the End of the World has a sort of serenity that might surprise someone approaching an apocalyptic story. How did you want to tell a story about facing the imminent ending of all things?
I think, first and foremost, I didn’t want to make a show that was about the end of things. The goal was always the opposite. To me, Carol was always about how things begin, how they take shape and build and crest. How they slowly develop over time. How connections are made and meaning is found. I wanted to make a show that celebrated life. The complicated messiness of life. With all its various eyesores and imperfections. I wanted to make a series that was uplifting [and] impassioned. [I] wanted to make a show that was sweet and warm and honest and kind.
Our approach to the apocalypse is different than most “end of the world” shows. Where most shows focus on the apocalypse itself for plot and world-building, for story, we instead decided to focus almost entirely on character. We wanted to tell simple stories against a complicated backdrop — stories about connection, people coming together, finding purpose, finding resolve, rising to the occasion, [and] being okay with the eventuality of life.
We built a rich, high-concept world. But you only see it in the background of scenes — quickly passing through, peeking out from between the gaps and cracks of the stories we tell. For us, the end of the world is mostly texture. Sculpting clay. Shading. Something that enriches and informs our character stories but that never draws or pulls focus away from them.
Carol’s journey is the show’s primary focus. We were interested in telling existential stories rather than sci-fi, plot-heavy stories. That said, one very much affects the other. The end of the world hangs heavy in the air. It’s impossible to escape [and] impossible to ignore, but if you watch the series, it’s rarely ever mentioned. It’s just an extra layer, an extra coating, on our characters and what they are going through.
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Dan, what else can you tease as Carol & the End of the World premieres on Netflix?
I think maybe the most exciting thing about the show — or one of the main reasons to watch — is that we’re telling a complete story. There’s a definitive beginning, middle, and end to Carol & the End of the World. One that we set up, built towards, and landed on right from the start. So, if you tune in and watch the show, I can promise you will very likely leave satisfied. Or that’s our intention, at least. There are no cliffhangers here. No loose ends.
We’re telling a full story in 10 installments.
That’s not to say that we couldn’t come back and do a few specials if the show was popular. There’s still stuff to explore, but when you sit down to watch Carol & the End of the World, you’ll be watching a complete story. There’s a destination to the journey. A pay-off at the end. What you put into it, you will get back.
Created by Dan Guterman, Carol & the End of the World is now streaming on Netflix.
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