Exclusive Interview: On My Block Creators Lauren Iunderich

Lauren Iungerich behind the scenes of On My Block

If you were watching season one of On My Block on Netflix, you were probably on pins and needles for season two. Two characters got shot in the season finale, and only one of them survives this season. Now season two is up and the remaining characters deal with the aftermath, and still try to get enough money to change their situations.

On My Block creator Lauren Iungerich spoke with We Live Entertainment by phone last week about the first two seasons of the show, her diverse collaborators and her upcoming Christmas teen movie I Won’t Be Home For Christmas. You can watch On My Block on Netflix now.

WLE: When you ended the first season, did you already know which character was going to survive?

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Lauren Iungerich: I knew going into actually before I even wrote the first season. It was part of a decision made when we were creating the show, from the very foundation of the idea was knowing that this was going to get to a place where we would sacrifice a beloved character. We make you love her and then we would kill her to remind audiences that this is not the world of John Hughes.

WLE: Were there other things you already knew before season one?

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LI: Definitely. The way that I create shows is I have to have a really good idea of where things are going and how to sustain story and how to create strong character arcs is what I endeavor to create a show. I think that’s the trick in television is can you sustain and can you really create these interesting characters for a long period of time. It takes some time to think that out. There are a lot of shows that have sort of thin arcs, thin character work and I’m not a fan of those shows. I want my shows to have a lot of story and be really complicated and have a lot of exciting character twists and turns and make people feel like the characters represent them. And in order to do that, you’ve got to put a lot of work into it. So, the foundation of any good show that I’ve pitched is the prep work of thinking about the show before actually taking it out. So a lot of ideas came from thinking about the show before the show was even written. And then even more come about as we’re writing the season.

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WLE: When you begin season two with such a tragedy, how did you know how long it would be before you could bring the comedy back in?

LI: Well, I knew we had to bring the comedy back in right away. Having Ruby get high with Abuelita was the first step. Because life is a series of happiness and tragedy all at once, right? When you’re really going through rough times, you’re looking for some kind of levity. You’re looking for something to give you a moment of relief. So I knew that that was the show tonally. The tone of this show is my trademark as a creator. That’s what Awkward was. This is how I write. If you read anything, you’ll see this tone is in everything I write. It’s these big tonal shifts that work because it’s what life is, right? And I was able to really make that work with the storytelling. Also, this is marketed as a comedy. It almost becomes more of that new incarnation of what a half hour is. It’s not really a comedy, it’s not really a drama. It’s sort of in between, although someone once said call it a dramedy. I think being able to tell stories that are truthful but still have a sense of humanity and fun, it’s important, especially for this world of kids. I didn’t want to make it so dire or dramatic that kids wouldn’t want to keep watching.

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WLE: How does Netflix classify On My Block in their algorithms?

LI: I think it’s under comedy, I think. I don’t know.

WLE: Do they add lots of other qualifiers to it?

LI: Yeah, teen, friendship, yes, there are a ton of qualifiers to being able to search in and around.

WLE: And for who they recommend it to.

LI: Correct. It was definitely not recommended to me. So I opened a new [account]. The first season I was like, “I can’t even see my show. Where is it going?” And they would be like, “Just trust the algorithm, trust the algorithm.” I was like, “But I watch all these teen shows.” Then I opened a new account and I put in, to see if it would come up, I put in 13 Reasons Why, Roxanne Roxanne and Black Mirror to throw it a curve, and I got it. It came up.

WLE: Mine is all messed up because the things I watch for work have no throughline that can tell it what I actually watch.

LI: That’s great. That’s actually kind of awesome because it’s playing with the algorithm.

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WLE: Is the money going to change these kids?

LI: I mean, doesn’t money change everything? It’s such an interesting question. Where we end at the end of season two, they don’t have the money. So, but the money is part of the long arc of the show. So what’s fun about these characters is that these kids, they get to this place where they wanted to use the money to actually do what they originally set out to do which was to save their friend, right? And then they achieve that but in a way that they didn’t really expect, and they’re pissed about it. But it’s true. It’s real. They go right back to sweating the small stuff again which is what life is which is what I love about this kind of storytelling. They’ve gone through these really high stakes, high drama situations and then you’re right back to sweating the small stuff. I mean, my mom had cancer last year. It was really touch and go for a minute. I was giving birth to my second child and my mom was getting her diagnosis. We didn’t know if cancer was in her bones and if she would be really sick and have a death sentence. And then she was okay and everything was okay and then it was suddenly right back to being annoyed at her, right back to what a parent/child relationship is without the gravity of potentially losing a parent. I think the same thing happens to these kids. They’ve had this money and this money has meant something really substantial potentially, and it’s also been able to do some good for their friends but they feel like it was sacrificed in a way it didn’t need to be sacrificed so now they’re pissed and it reset the alchemy of the group of friends which I think is going to be fun to see how that carries on in seasons to come and where that money’s going to come in and out. It’s not gone forever.

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WLE: Do you already know where season three would go?

LI: Yes. Yes, of course, I know where season three would go. I can’t end the show the way I ended it without knowing where it’s going, right? Basically what I do is I think I drive my writers crazy. In the first week, we talk about what’s happened. They basically arc the scenes, like what are we saying for these characters? And every character has a theme that they’re relating to. They each have their own arc. In season two, it’s giving up the ghost. For Monse it’s her mom. For Ruby it’s Olivia. For Jamal the money is what it means. For Cesar it’s his relationship with his family, the ghost is things coming back to haunt you. We work through all of that stuff and then also, and we’re also dealing with PTSD and what that really looks like for these kids and not wanting to get out of it too soon. We want Ruby to come back being himself but then we needed to keep reminding the audience that he’s not totally recovered and he might never totally be recovered. But with regard to how we ended the season, that first two weeks of our writers room which we don’t have a long room. It’s 12 people. I spent saying, “Okay, we need to figure out how we end it. What’s happening in season three and how are we getting to the end?” We worked on a loose break of season two and they were just hitting their head against the walls and I had this really great idea. It hit me and it all kind of came together. The original end of how I wrote the end of season two is now going to be the opening of season three which I can’t tell you. We basically pushed it back because it was such a great way to come in and leave a cliffhanger for season two. I think season three is going to be very exciting.

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WLE: How many seasons would you imagine in success?

LI: As many seasons… we love these characters. The last thing I want to do as a creative person is write a show that feels long in the tooth and is treading water. I think at some point, when these kids are graduating from high school, that’s it. I think all told, five seasons is probably the max of what this show should run for. But, you never know. Maybe we’ll have a longer gestation period. Maybe there will be some sort of turning point in breaking story. I personally think five seasons for a teen show.

WLE: Are there lots of things in the show inspired by real events?

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LI: The character of Ruby is really very close to home to Eddie Gonzalez who’s one of the co-creators. When I came up with this idea with my husband, it came from a deep place of pain leaving Awkward, leaving Awkward for self-preservation and realizing how big the fan base for Awkward was that were kids who were POC. And me realizing oh my God, these kids need a show for them. They need to see themselves and be represented. Then I realized I can’t, as a white woman, do that by myself because that would be disingenuous, to write a show for kids and not be inclusive of bringing on a creator who really is from that world. Thank God I have this incredible friend, Eddie Gonzalez who writes with another friend, Jeremy Haft. Together, I brought them the idea and I said this is what I want to do. I want to take what I’m great at, that teen voice and teen experience, and Eddie really responded to it. His parents were deported four times before they were able to stay in the States. He grew up in a really dangerous neighborhood and yet his experience was that of any other teenager. He’s wanting to be taller so he could get the girl. Was always yearning to have the John Hughes experience and sort of felt like he was living it in his own way. That was really exciting and so Ruby, Eddie’s very Ruby and as we were creating Ruby, it was just kind of looking at who Eddie is. It became pretty apparent who Ruby should be.

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I’m really connected to Monse so Monse was easy to come to. I’m a bit of a honey badger like she is and she’s smart and takes a while, now that I’m an older woman, I am much more easy to share my heart and how I feel. I’m a little bit more transparent with my feelings than she is, but I used to be like her. What we also did was we insured our entire writers room were writers who had some connections to this world. All of our writers are Latinx, children of immigrants, Latino, African-American. I really wanted to make sure we were even beyond just that kind of inclusion, just to go a little bit deeper and wanted to see if we could bring in young storytellers that might not otherwise have a bridge to working in television without going to college, without having connection. And bring them into our writers room and teach them television and give them opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And we were able to find two incredible young men, Walter Finnie and Kyland Turner. Walter’s from Watts, Kyland’s from Inglewood.

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They became story consultants along with my assistant Alexi Gonzalez who is from Montana. These are all young filmmaker storytellers who sat in our writers room, were part of our show and were able to share their experience in a real way that would help inform the storytelling as we were breaking story. Not only to support the storytelling but they’re like my kids now. I feel like I’m forever changed by working with them, knowing them. Being seen by them as someone who doesn’t feel seen all the time as a woman in this business, to be seen by these kids who I see them and they see me is just the most incredible mutual beneficial relationship and I just want for them to be kick ass. This last season, we brought them on and our incredible AD department trained them and were PAs on our set. I’m just looking to create avenues for these kids to work in this business and live their dreams, and doing it one kid at a time. That also really informs the storytelling. I think you can feel the heartbeat of these kids in our show. I really feel like one of the reasons why this show is so popular is because there’s so much authenticity across the board with the making of the show.

WLE: Had you always wanted to do a Christmas movie?

LI: No. In fact, I don’t even really watch Christmas movies at Christmas. Christmas to me has always been a shit show. While I longingly look forward to Christmas every year, once it approaches I realize oh shit. There’s gonna be some family fight. There’s gonna be some horrible situation, some preconceived notion that someone had that won’t be manifested. Like my dad every year wants to have a poetry reading and no one in our family wants to read a poem. So my husband said to me, I was looking to write a feature, I hadn’t written a feature in a long time and he said, “You need to write the seminal teen Christmas movie.” And I thought, “I don’t know. I don’t want to write a Christmas movie.” And then I thought about it and I’m like, “You’re right.” He’s like, “There’s never been a seminal teen Christmas movie. There is none.” And what would that look like? And then immediately thought that would look like a teenager who doesn’t want to be home for Christmas because it’s a shit show every year. That’s where the idea was born, so basically I wrote a Christmas movie for myself. I wrote what is the Christmas movie that I want to see and what can I be saying about Christmas and what it is about family and through the prism of a teenager. That’s what the movie became. It’s a pretty special script. I hope it becomes a special movie. Fingers crossed.

WLE: Are you shooting it this year?

LI: I’m shooting it starting in June. That’s our start date. We are still on the hunt for our lead but it’s been pretty exciting so far putting it together.

WLE: Is the plan to turn it around for this Christmas?

LI: That is the plan.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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