Patricia Arquette and Director Jay Roach on ‘High Desert,’ the Writers Strike and Making an Underground Comedy
In the new Apple TV+ comedy noir series “High Desert,” Patricia Arquette and Matt Dillon play an off-and-on again couple so naturally that it seems like they must have starred together in some iconic 1990s indie movie. Surprisingly, they haven’t, but the off-kilter, sun-baked menace of films like Arquette starrers “True Romance” and “Lost Highway” permeates the new series, which is peopled with what Arquette calls “wild and weird creatures” in an environment that alternates between arid beauty and strip mall desolation.
In “High Desert,” Arquette’s methadone-dependent, perennial wild child Peggy Newman could not be more different than her buttoned-up “Severance” character Harmony Cobel, whether she’s piloting a dune buggy around the desert, swinging from a chandelier in a Pioneertown Old West show or getting mixed up with another half-baked scam. Peggy, who recently lost her mother, needs to raise money to stay in their house. She hatches a plan to become a private investigator, getting mixed up in cases involving art forgeries and a missing guru’s wife and more. “High Desert” premiered on May 17, with new episodes rolling out weekly.
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Nancy Fichman, Jennifer Hoppe and Katie Ford created the eight-episode series, which was partially inspired by Fichman’s sister Marjorie, who struggled with addiction. Jay Roach, the director of “Austin Powers” and “Bombshell,” came on to direct one of his only episodic projects, which also stars Bernadette Peters as Arquette’s character’s deceased mother and Weruche Opia as her flighty friend. It also features an appearance by Arquette’s daughter, Harlow Jane, playing her mother’s character back in 1986.
Your character Peggy has been through a lot — drug addiction, losing her mom. What was it like to play someone so uninhibited?
Patricia Arquette: I’ve known people who’ve struggled with addictions. Unfortunately, many of them have lost that battle. And while it was easy to kind of get angry at them for all the drama and chaos that they’d created, there was also a really beautiful quality that they have. There were elements in the script that also reminded me of my sister Alexis who had passed away — the way that Alexis had picked up broken people and was always trying to kind of take care of them, while her own life was kind of chaotic.
But I really loved Peggy — her weird way of looking at the world, and her funny sense of humor. Jay described her to me as a rock ‘n’ roll hummingbird.
Was the David Lynch vibe on purpose?
Jay Roach: This setting is inspired a little bit by the Coen brothers and David Lynch, how well they use a sense of place, like, “Fargo” or “Big Lebowski,” but also, “Mulholland Drive” or “Lost Highway” or “Inland Empire.” These somewhat lost, dysfunctional people — they are the people who all go out there to get away from regular humanity, to find each other and form whole other communities that are very unusual.
This sometimes-hostile place has this hidden beauty, this endless, unpredictable, weather. We went out to the desert, and it snowed while we were there, it was freezing — it’s all a surprise, everything is a little unpredictable.
Patricia, did you have ideas for Peggy’s distinctive look?
I’d known our wardrobe designer, April Napier, from a tiny movie that I did a little tiny part in. Very few people have that really great original eye, and she’s one of them.
We did talk about this kind of vintage-y thing, and that Peggy, she knew a nice quality of things. She could go in an apartment and be like, “Oh, that’s a Rudi Gernreich, that’s a Pierre Cardin piece” — not that she was such a label person, but she had good taste. At one point in time, she had some money, and her mom had good taste.
Roach: Patricia had a lot of great ideas about things like hair and makeup. [Peggy] is kind of a rock ‘n’ roll Lucy Ricardo, and she’s always jumping back up and trying the next thing, and causing trouble for herself — but being so delusionally optimistic that it becomes contagious in its own way. Patricia found this really unique, interesting attack on the dialogue, which just made it so much more rebellious and outlaw-like.
Jay, what kind of role did you want the desert to play?
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the edge of town. I had a dirt bike since I was 12 years old, and I would just jump on that thing and ride off into up through the arroyo into the desert, and just spent a lot of my days absorbing the beauty of the place. I love the motif of the cactus flower. It’s got so much complexity — there’s a scene where Peggy communes with the cactus flower, and that embodied what I remembered from growing up in the high desert, with a very similar looking terrain to what’s out there in Joshua Tree. Itai Ne’eman was such a fantastic cinematographer. We constantly traded images and clips, and talked about how to capture that tension of danger and beauty.
The desert will kill you. But it will also recharge your soul.
That was fun to see Patricia’s daughter Harlow playing young Peggy in the 1980s — whose idea was that?
Roach: It’s one of my favorite moments in the whole series. We went back in a time machine through Harlow, and it just was so moving to see this young person who not that many people have seen yet, and they’re about to have their minds blown.
Arquette: There’s no one else that really could play me like that. She watched me a few days on the set, and we talked a little bit — not as mother and daughter, but as actress to actress. I was so proud of her, and not really surprised, because she’s really a deep person.
So what was it like working with Matt Dillon? How is it possible that you never did a movie together before?
Arquette: I grew up like all girls my age, and had a mad crush on Matt Dillon in “The Outsiders.” At a certain point, we thought we’d never work together. When the casting director brought his name up, we all screamed “Oh my God!” We were so excited!
Roach: I’ve been such a crazy fan of his in so many different things. And I, I loved his comedy too, from “Something About Mary.” As soon as he got in and started talking with Patricia, they seem to bring out in each other that they’re good for each other — but they’re also bad for each other. He’s got a really wonderful edge to him, but he’s also one of the most charming human beings on the planet.
Jay, how was the portrayal of Peggy having been a drug addict meaningful to you?
Roach: Most of my understanding of it, and how it could work, was through Nancy, one of our showrunners, and Patricia just having long talks about experiences they’ve had. Because I wanted it to be a very specific interpretation of someone going through those kinds of things. There’s so many stereotypes about people suffering from those kinds of addictions. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a general generic portrayal. [Peggy] found this coping strategy — the dark comedy was that she was addicted to heroin, but now she’s proud of only being addicted to methadone.
In fact, she’s a more empathetic person, because she’s suffered, and she’s been around people who have suffered, and she knows everybody’s coping as best they can.
Patricia, you just directed your first movie?
Arquette: It’s called “Gonzo Girl.” It stars Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone. It’s based on this book that was inspired by this woman who worked for Hunter S. Thompson for six months. It’s about the way it was to be female in the ’90s, around celebrities — and what is beauty, what is finding your own voice?
I just finished it, like, last week, the final timing and adding special effects. We’ll see what its little path is going to be – it’s quite a time for independent film.
Patricia, what’s going on with “Severance”? What can we expect in Season 2?
Arquette: I mean, I can’t tell you anything about that show! I have signed my name in blood. People are so interested, but I also don’t want to ruin it for audiences.
So all I can say is, first of all, we’re not done shooting, and now we’re on the writers strike. So it’s going to be a while. A lot of it’s been shot. But we still have a lot that we can’t really finish. And second of all, it’s really going to be interesting for people next year. There’s a lot of different things that I don’t think people are going to see coming.
Speaking of the writers strike, do you have thoughts about it?
Arquette: Without writers, we really have nowhere to go, we have nowhere to start. I support them in their strike. I think also this AI situation is a very big deal — a way bigger deal than people understand. And I think we have to have this conversation now, before it’s too late. I’m very worried.
If we were to go the route of AI, you’re gonna end up with 100 million Marvel movies, rip off movies. And you’re never going to have a little weird movie. This is never going to come out of an algorithm, this kind of a show.
It’s the flaws of humans that make things that are special. Do we want to have humans have a hand in art that is the expression of our human existence? I think we have to fight for that.
Roach: I’m in the WGA. But I’m not really the writer and director of every single movie I’ve made. Every show I’ve worked on has been based on fantastic scripts, and very close collaborations. Writers on features sometimes aren’t kept close. But I’ve always had the writers in pre-production, prep casting, production, right through editing and even marketing. I learned on this show, too, that it’s a little different in TV, but in a great way. Because there’s a way of working that’s extremely collaborative. And our three showrunners are so fantastic to be collaborating with at every step.
But it is a trend with streaming lately to shrink costs and shrink writing rooms and shrink the amount of time writers will work, and sort of separate writers, to some extent, from the production process, because they’re expensive to keep around. But guess what? Making shows and TV and films are expensive, and they’re the ones creating these great stories that we’re all trying to interpret. So anything that devalues writers, or somehow takes away from the culture and working life of writers, I think, is a detriment to all of us.
So I’m incredibly supportive of writers and I think it’s worth the fight. I owe everything to great, great writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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