Hunter Schafer as Jules with Zendaya as Rue in Euphoria
Storm Reid and Zendaya portray sisters Gia and Rue in Euphoria
The TV Showrunner's Roadmap by Neil Landau
Sam Levinson on Euphoria
The creator of the Emmy-winning HBO hit shares his emotional journey in the book The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap.
"I just follow the emotion," creator Sam Levinson says of his Emmy-winning HBO hit, Euphoria, now heading toward season three. Since its 2019 debut, the series has sparked debate for its depictions of teens struggling with addiction, trauma and identity, and some have wondered about its creator Sam Levinson's possible political motivations. But "my interest isn't in politics," he says. "It's in human beings."
Here, the showrunner shares his thoughts on the series in this edited excerpt from Neil Landau's 2022 book, The TV Showrunner's Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an On Demand World.
Neil Landau: Euphoria is based on an Israeli format. How did it first appear on your radar?
Sam Levinson: HBO had read a script that I'd written, and I went in to have a general meeting with Christine Kim [now director of drama programming]. She told me they had optioned this Israeli format. I went back home and watched a couple episodes, and then I set another meeting at HBO with Francesca Orsi [now head of drama and executive vice-president, programming]. We talked — mostly about life and addiction and various sorts of experiences that we both had. And I asked her what she had liked about the Israeli show. She liked how raw it was, and it is very unfiltered, messy and gritty. And I asked her if I could do something different with it... could I change the characters and do whatever I want while maintaining the spirit of the original? And she said, "Yes, as long as you put yourself into it, then we can make the show."
NL: So, in the Israeli series, there's no equivalent to Rue Bennett [Zendaya], a young, biracial female point-of-view. What are the most substantive changes you made in your adaptation?
SL: The original series is mostly about young men; there's a female character with some drug issues, and I think she's into self-harming. But I took my experiences at that age and wrote myself as a young woman. I think the idea that you should stick to precisely who you are doesn't hold water, because what makes film interesting is that it's a collision of perspectives. The melting pot of experiences and identities is what makes film and television so fascinating to me.
NL: Were gender fluidity and graphic pansexuality an aspect of the original, or was that something that you brought to your Euphoria?
SL: I definitely personalized it. I wanted to push the boundaries.
NL: Did you ever view it as a "high school" show?
SL: I don't think it's a high school show, because I didn't go to high school and I have no interest in high school. I was interested in that age from a formative, emotional, psychological angle. High school also gives us the opportunity to introduce new characters and storylines. But so does the whole city.
NL: You set the tone right away in that gorgeous prologue, accompanied by Rue's voiceover, from which we learn that she was born three days after 9/11....
SL: Actually, I wrote that prologue about ten years ago, and what you see in the first episode is almost identical to how I wrote it. I wrote a version of it as part of another script that I was working on. It never quite worked within the framework of that film, but it also dealt a little bit with addiction. When I started this project, it seemed like the right fit.
Part of what's tough about portraying addiction on screen is, if you're not inside the head of an addict, then people walk away with questions like, "Why should I care about this person who doesn't appear to care about herself?" But, in my experience, that's almost the exact opposite of what's going on inside the head of someone struggling with addiction.
For me, it was never that I didn't care about myself or my life or my actions. I cared deeply about all of it. Maybe even too much. And maybe that's the reason I was an addict. I wanted to convey that it's not a lack of emotion that exists within an addict — it's an overwhelming sense of emotion, which is a key aspect of Rue's character.
NL: Clearly, Rue is a hot mess. We understand why she wants to silence the chaos in her head. Can she be a reliable narrator? And is she an anti-hero?
SL: I'm not good at breaking down shows or films and looking at them from that perspective. Maybe that's because my organizational skills are so terrible and I was such a shitty student. I have an eighth-grade education. I just follow the emotion. As I write, I consider what I want to see and what subverts my expectations and the audience's expectations. It's not an intellectual process whatsoever.
NL: That's why the show feels like it's pure instinct. You're not following rules or templates. Stylistically and narratively, Euphoria feels like a mirage brought to life.
SL: It's interesting that you say that, because after I finished writing season two, I fell into a deep depression. I went back on antidepressants, and then the pandemic hit. So I thought, "Fuck it, I'm just going to rewrite the whole second season." And the further along I got, the more I looked at season one and I saw I'd been playing by all these rules and doing expected things.
The toughest thing about television is, you make something and then people respond to it. And then you're working in reaction to that response. But I just keep thinking, "I have to write this for myself." I can't do the conventional TV thing of going to all the characters when I'm supposed to, or doling out plot in equal measure. I'm not interested in those types of conventions. I don't like anything too ordered and tidy.
NL: Well, you've transcended conventional storytelling. In the season-one finale, during the football game, you have the real time of the game, but you intercut with other timelines. It's very fragmented, but in a great way.
SL: Right. But it's hard to not get suffocated by the form you created the first time.
NL: Yes, sometimes the pilot establishes the form. But viewers are more sophisticated now. They want to be challenged.
SL: I hope so. I think the question is always, how do we evolve the show from just a pure storytelling level in terms of its cinematography? How do we continue to evolve it and do something different so that you can't ever predict where it's going?
NL: Talk about bucking convention.... You've had animation sequences featuring a graphic sex scene between Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction. You've had fantasy sequences. You had the rawest depiction of an abortion I've ever seen, involving Cassie [Sydney Sweeney] that's intercut with Cassie's figure skating routine. You also had a voiceover from an omniscient character [Rue] who would have no way of knowing what she's telling us.
SL: I got a note about that V.O. from HBO: how does Rue know all these things? So I added a line of dialogue to explain it: "Sometimes when I do drugs, I think I'm psychic."
NL: I remember that. Meanwhile, throughout season one, I kept thinking about Rue's younger sister, Gia [Storm Reid]. What's your take on how addiction impacts others in a family?
SL: Addiction has a powerful ripple effect. It's especially hard for siblings of addicts to carve out their own space. It's hard to form a sense of self while you're walking on eggshells around an addict. But what's great about television is, I can start a character's journey in season one, and I can continue to build on it and dig deeper into the impact. I've been in therapy for a long time. It fascinates me to see how these traumas reverberate throughout life and shape us.
NL: One theme I've noticed in Euphoria is absent parents. Rue's father dies during the prologue to the pilot. But in flashback, we see that Rue witnessed his battle with cancer. There's a scene in which her dad is in bed at home — he's loopy on pain meds, and she's pilfering his drugs. They're both high, but they appear very connected. After his death, when Rue continues using drugs, she seems to want to replicate that feeling she had with her dad. Am I reading that right?
SL: Yeah, I'm always interested in strange spiritual connections, like getting close to death with drugs, and I think that's based on my own experiences with overdosing. I tried to mirror it in the final episode, where her father is the only person who can really see her — in the afterlife, he can embrace her. It's the reconciliation of the beauty and temporary relief that drugs can bring, mixed with the true horror and danger.
The media tends to depict addiction as an escape, which is sometimes very true. But I would also use drugs at times to feel the beauty in life. In my younger years, it would be the only time in which I could quiet all my anxieties and fears about myself and about being harmed, and I could be fully present. I was trying to play with those ideas.
NL: We also see Cassie's alcoholic mother, Suze [Alanna Ubach], accompanying her daughter to the clinic when she needs an abortion. It's a tender moment, handled with nuance and grace. It's also devastating.
SL: Early on, we got a lot of criticism that the parents are treated like totally ineffective losers. I think the design of the entire series is that it preys on viewers' preconceptions about individuals: what is it that you're not looking at and not seeing?
What I love about Suze's storyline with Cassie is we've seen that Suze has a drinking problem and been through some shit in life. Also, she cares deeply about her daughter and can be there for her and love her. The parents are as flawed as the kids. And it's not a judgment. I have no judgments about it. We tend to look at parents as if they should be everything, all the time, but they're fallible human beings. We all are.
NL: Nate [Jacob Elordi], Jules [Hunter Schafer], Maddy [Alexa Demie] and Fezco [Angus Cloud] also come from homes that are troubled, or missing one or both parents. And they seem to be filling their emotional voids with sex, drugs and adrenaline. Do you see a correlation between loss, trauma and addiction?
SL: I don't think there's a definite cause and effect. In terms of my own experience, I have an incredible relationship with both of my parents now. We had some struggles when I was younger, for obvious reasons, namely my being an addict. My father [filmmaker and TV writer-producer Barry Levinson] put so much of his emotion and thoughts into his work, but he's really hard to read in life. When I was young, I was always trying to reconcile those two versions of my dad. My mother is almost all emotion in really wonderful ways, so I had both sides. I felt like there was an absence, but there was also a presence of things. I took some of those feelings and transposed them into different circumstances.
My parents are still together and they're very happy. I see them a lot. They're kind of my best friends now. At the same time, there were a couple of people in my life that I have lost, and I'm still trying to understand what absence means — the absence of love, of comfort, of parenthood. I wanted the design of this series to represent that from the start, with Rue in the womb, and then ultimately bend it back around to have her mother, Leslie [Nika King] voicing her hopes for her daughter. Over the course of the series, I wanted to gradually shift to the parental perspective.
NL: This show would not exist without technology. When you look at the ability for everyone to connect — not only to friends but also to dangerous people — it would be impossible for even the best parents to regulate their kids' actions.
SL: There is no roadmap for today. I think the reason some people are critical of the show is because they don't want to admit that their kid could be upstairs right now doing... you have no idea what they're doing!
NL: I noticed a metaphor of masks on the show, not just in Kat's [Barbie Ferreira] dominatrix kitty outfit, but also with [the Emmy-winning] makeup. And Nate uses toxic masculinity as a mask to hide his sexual identity crisis.
SL: It's extremely difficult, especially for a young person, when the persona you've manufactured doesn't correlate with who you are as a person. How do you form a sense of self when you have two selves? We're looking at how an individual's psychology is formed from an early age and what these advancements in technology do to the psyche.
NL: I also view Rue's magenta hoodie as a mask. And in the season-one finale, you had a flash mob clad in magenta robes. What was your intention?
SL: That ending wasn't in the original version. Julio Perez, the supervising editor and one of my closest collaborators, came to the table read, and afterwards he was like, "This just feels too pat. There's not enough mystery, not enough cinematic mysticism." So I conceived a kind of musical sequence as a window into the relief that drugs can bring. It's like what we were talking about earlier — the relief and also the horror.
At the same time, there was a part of me that wasn't sure if I wanted to do another season of television. I wanted to be able to go, "Okay, well, this is the beginning of the end of this character if need be." I didn't want to close the door. She didn't get clean. She doesn't die. It's up to her now. I wanted to leave it on that, just in case.
NL: I heard that you had said to your production designer and your DP, "Fuck realism."
NL: And yet it's so realistic when Rue gets out of rehab and almost immediately buys drugs. But other sequences are very heightened. How do you balance those elements?
SL: One of the things I was really interested in was creating an emotional realism. That is what is constant and fixed. Rue is an addict. She will behave like an addict. And that holds true for almost all the characters: whatever is going on in their lives, we're going to treat it with sensitivity and without any easy answers.
And, aesthetically, we wanted a visual articulation of that. We wanted it to be something that reflected emotional realism, but wasn't married to reality. When you're trying to chase reality on film, it has its limits. Our hope was to get to a greater truth. Also, I wanted to separate our show from others that have dealt with young people, but did it with a gritty, handheld look. I wanted to approach everything from a formalized ideology. I used to have this one-page printout of the core tenets of our show: how to deal with the lighting... all the way down to what stop we should shoot everything at.
NL: Ultimately, Jules is the character who really stands out. Though, in the first two episodes, many viewers probably had no idea that she is trans. Why was it important for you to include a trans female character?
SL: I talk a lot about how Rue is very much based on me, but the same is true for Jules. Her backstory — and being committed to a psychiatric institution — are 98 percent my backstory. I think the Jules character is also a way to reflect on addiction and the choices that I made. And it's very much a way for me to reflect on how I feel about myself, as well as identity and gender. That feeling that you're a bit of an outsider — that can begin to shape your sense of self in a strong way. There is a lot of hope to be found in being a creative outsider. Those are the ideas that I was curious about and working with.
NL: You also equally feature the usual male gaze and the far-less-depicted female gaze (or the gay male gaze). What motivated that aesthetic?
SL: In terms of Nate and the female gaze or the gay gaze, I love subverting these tropes. The idea of a [supposedly] straight man walking through a locker room and spending all of his energy trying not to look at penises is really funny. It made me laugh. And then I was like, "Well, can I get away with having him trying not to look at penises, then suddenly slipping and looking at penises?" That gay anxiety that some straight people have, I find it fascinating. I thought, "I'm going to write this — maybe HBO will fire me, or maybe they'll dig it."
NL: I was also thinking about the role of shame in relation to addicts and outsiders. When Jules's parents realized she had gender dysphoria, they shamed and institutionalized her. When Jules subsequently sought out dangerous situations, was she trying to punish herself?
SL: That's probably part of it. There's also this idea that I get at a little bit more in episode seven: what is it about danger, particularly around sex, that makes one feel more feminine? It's a really tricky idea, and it's flammable nowadays, the notion that femininity in some ways equates to breakability and being delicate. Part of Jules's journey involves her exploration of femininity and power.
I want to explore what femininity is — and is femininity even the goal anymore? Or is it something greater? Is it a bigger, more abstract idea? I tend to think about things like gender from a philosophical angle, as opposed to a political one. Some people get very upset about the show because it's always looked at through this political lens: "What is he trying to say politically?" Maybe I'm not trying to say anything politically. My interest isn't in politics. It's in human beings.
NL: You've written every episode of the show and directed most of them. Do you have a writing staff?
SL: No. If this was a different show, I think I would put together a room, but I wouldn't even begin to know what to say to a room full of writers. If I were to show up and people were looking at me like, "Well, Sam, so what are the story beats? What do you want to say in this episode?" I would be terrified. I wouldn't even show up to work.
With season two, my producing partner, Kevin Turen, was like, "Let's outline the thing first." And so, because I love to talk about ideas, I outlined the whole season. And then I sat down to write it, and literally I could have cried every day because suddenly the life and unpredictability of it just disappeared. The only way that I'm able to write a show that's so personal is to just write it myself. If I had a writers' room, I would be trying to get to the next plot point, and those things end up suffocating my process. I just try to write with no sense of direction every single day.
Sam Levinson is creator, writer, director and executive producer of Euphoria; also executive-producing are Kevin Turen, Ravi Nandan, Drake, Adel "Future" Nur, Zendaya, Will Greenfield, Ashley Levinson, Ron Leshem, Daphna Levin and Hadas Mozes Lichtenstein. In 2020 the show won in three Emmy categories: lead actress in a drama series (Zendaya); contemporary makeup, non-prosthetic (Doniella Davy, Kirsten Sage Coleman and Tara Lang Shah); and original music and lyrics (Labrinth).
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "Emotions Spoken Here."