Amazon Instant Video just rolled out a host of pilots, asking viewers to watch and vote on what they want to see become a regular series on the site. Among them is Red Oaks, a comedy co-written by Haverford Township’s Joe Gangemi.
The Steven Soderbergh-produced series is set in a New Jersey suburb in the 1980s. It’s a coming-of-age tale about David Meyers (played by Craig Roberts), a recent college grad who’s working at a country club during his last summer before he has to face the world as a real-life grown up. Paul Reiser and Jennifer Grey also star.
The series has gotten all kinds of praise from media outlets calling it the best of Amazon Instant Video’s new lineup of comedies. I recently caught up with Gangemi, who took some time to answer some questions despite being barraged by phone calls from friends congratulating him on his debut. He was born in Wilmington and studied at Swarthmore. He now lives with his family in Haverford Township. This is his first pilot to get an order, though he’s written film screenplays, including Wind Chill and the upcoming Stonehearst Asylum, and authored two novels, including the Philly-set Inamorata.
Check out our interview and a behind-the-scenes look at the series below.
Ticket: How did the script for Red Oaks come about?
Joe Gangemi: I first became friends with co-writer Greg Jacobs back in 2007 when he directed my movie Wind Chill. In addition to being a director, Greg is Soderbergh’s longtime producer (and recent Emmy winner for producing Behind the Candelabra). Greg has been regaling Soderbergh and me for years with funny stories about his summer job back in the 1980s as an assistant tennis pro at a north Jersey country club. When Soderbergh “retired” from filmmaking a few years ago and turned his attention to TV he encouraged Greg to turn his tennis pro stories into a show. The goal being to create a blend of Caddyshack and The Graduate. … Greg suggested bringing me on board to help write, to contribute my own memories of growing up in the ’80s, and bring some outsider perspective to expand the show beyond straight autobiography. So while some of the characters are loosely inspired by people Greg knew, others are my inventions.
T: How does your time in Philly play into the story?
JG: I’m not sure that it does, directly. But I can say that living in Philly has been very important to me as a writer, even when I don’t use it as a locale, because it affords me a measure of “normalcy” that’s hard to come by elsewhere. For this writer at least, having my world circumscribed by my back yard, local brewpub, kids’ school, and a few bookstores makes for the sort of low-fi lifestyle in which it’s easy to daydream. And that’s what writing really is: discplined daydreaming. If I lived in L.A., there would be so many distractions, between the weather, industry gossip, and celeb sightings, that I think it would be hard to tune out the noise sufficiently to hear the quiet broadcast from the A.M. dial of my unconscious.
T: You’ve sold a few pilots, right?
JG: I’ve sold two other pilots but this was the first to be shot. But even having done this now for 15-plus years, it never ceases to amaze me when I step on set. Actually, if I’m being completely honest, the first thing I think when I see all the crew, trucks, cables, lights, catering vans, trailers, etc., is, “Whoa, I’ve done it now … ”
T: You have a pretty solid cast.
JG: Paul Reiser has starred in two of my all-time favorite movies, Aliens and Diner. Not to mention headlining his own hit sitcom in the ’90s with Mad About You. So he’s a real pro. Also a standup comedian who still tours; he’s so whip-smart. And Jennifer Grey is an absolute firecracker, in addition to being a bona fide 80s icon. … But I think the biggest casting “discovery” was our lead Craig Roberts, a young Welshman of great talent who I expect to have a really bright future. In fact after we wrapped he flew home to the U.K. and immediately started directing his first feature film, which he had also written and is starring in. Craig has an uncanny ability to be interesting on screen without doing anything overt or outsized. Hitchcock used to call it “doing nothing well” and said it was the most important skill an actor could possess. And Craig has it in spades. His dryly funny performance reminded us a bit of Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate.
T: And hello, Soderbergh!
JG: Soderbergh brings a ferocious and restless intelligence to everything he does, regardless of genre. In fact one of the things I admire most about him is his creative rigor. He’s constantly looking for fresh ways to approach a scene, story trope, even the smallest transition shot. You can see it in his new Cinemax Show The Knick, which dispenses with all the Masterpiece Theater clichés we’re used to seeing in period pieces. It really snaps you awake as a viewer. And as a creative collaborator it keeps you honest, because Steven doesn’t suffer fools. He challenges himself constantly to find fresh ways of shooting every scene and that sets a great tone for the entire cast and crew.
Red Oaks is now available on Amazon Instant Video. You can catch the pilot here.