Death and Other Details’ Mike Weiss & Heidi Cole McAdams

An international cruise liner. A murder mystery. A backstory murder mystery. An abundance of family secrets. Death and Other Details, now streaming on Hulu, is an Agatha Christie-esque whodunit created and executive produced by Mike Weiss and Heidi Cole McAdams. Featuring a sprawling cast of characters, the show is rooted in the relationship between Rufus Cotesworth, one-time “world’s greatest detective,” played by Mandy Patinkin, and Imogene Scott (Violett Beane), the young woman he teams up with to solve said cruise-liner murder mystery when she becomes the prime suspect—and its connection to the still-cold case of who killed her mother. Weiss and Cole McAdams tell TV Drama Weekly about how they came to work together on the show, its distinctive look and what viewers can expect from the second half of the ten-episode season.

***Image***TV DRAMA: Take us back to the beginning. How did you come together to work on Death and Other Details?
COLE MCADAMS: The two of us are not a writing team. We have been friends for about a decade. We’d never written anything together before. We had spent some time in writers’ rooms on other people’s shows—enough time to know it’s really fun to work together. We’d been looking for something to do, and we had a meeting with [director] Marc Webb, who we’d never met before. He said he was thinking about doing a detective series set on a ship, and that happened to become the Venn diagram of the things that I’m excited about and the things that excite Mike. We have a wide variety of tastes, but we both love detective fiction. We started working on it that week. It turned out to be the smoothest development experience of my career so far.
WEISS: For me, too. Sometimes, when you’re working with great people and have a simple, clean idea and don’t get in your own way, it can be smooth and shockingly pleasant. We kept on moving the ball forward. We would turn to each other and say, Here’s the notes call or the Zoom or something where this gets tricky, and it never did. We put together a long pitch. Usually, when we pitch shows, we both like to do it with 15 minutes of actual talking. In this pitch, there are a lot of characters, a lot of dynamics that you need to set up and a lot of housekeeping that goes into establishing all of the players in this game, so it was more like 25 minutes.
COLE MCADAMS: I think it was exactly 23.
WEISS: That’s because we were talking fast. We got to the big twist, which was probably 21 minutes in—if you ever speak for 21 minutes nonstop, it is an out-of-body, hallucinatory experience.
COLE MCADAMS: It helps when there are two of us.
WEISS: It helps. By the time we got to minute 21 and we revealed the big twist, the head of Hulu, who was on the Zoom, gasped in surprise. We sold it. We went away and wrote it. And they did something a little bit old-fashioned: They ordered a pilot. We’re so glad that they did. Heidi and I have broken tons of stories on other people’s shows. The pilot was fairly large in scale. We were on the Queen Mary. We had an elaborate wardrobe. It was just a lot to manage.
COLE MCADAMS: We learned a ton about what was working and what wasn’t. It’s a weird tone, so what to lean into and what to lean away from, how to establish all the players and feel like you understand enough of the bones of the murder mystery from the beginning while keeping the audience engaged. Things about the pilot, particularly the relationship between Imogene and Rufus, jumped out immediately. That’s a TV show—I want to spend time with those two people working together and solving crimes. Other things worked well on the page but didn’t work as well in production. We were so fortunate that we weren’t ordered to series and already down the line shooting the next episodes. It gave us time to sit back and say, What’s working, what’s not, what do we need to reshoot? What do we need to reimagine as we move forward and make the next nine episodes?
WEISS: When they ordered the pilot, at first, we were like, Well, this is ridiculous. We’re amazing; the script is flawless; what are we discussing here? Why aren’t they just giving us all the money and the resources? Why don’t we go and make the series? We were so wrong. We were so deeply lucky to get to change some things up, to go from the pilot to the series. There were little speed bumps here and there, as there always are. Production is hard. You’re going to war, and the enemy is the script that you wrote. But it was incredibly smooth, considering. And we had amazing collaborators to bring the show to life.

TV DRAMA: It’s such an unusual and distinctive look. Tell us about the thought process behind crafting the show’s visual aesthetic.
COLE MCADAMS: We wanted the show to be transportive from the beginning. We wanted to entertain people and take them away from the world that we are living in every day. Even though it’s a contemporary show, we wanted to create a world that felt like it could potentially be a piece of our world but heightened and a little bit outside of what we’re living in every day. We drew a lot of inspiration from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as we were building what the ship looks like and the costume design. So many detective series and novels of that era gave us inspiration for the story, so we felt it was an organic inspiration for the ship, the clothes and the world.
WEISS: We wanted the show to feel classical without ever being capital R retro. That was one of our overriding goals.

TV DRAMA: You said you’d never been writing partners before. How did you approach dividing up the responsibilities?
COLE MCADAMS: Differently every single day. We worked on all of it together and separately. Maybe there’s a scene that a writer from our writers’ room wrote, and then we looked at it together and changed a line of dialog here or there. Maybe there’s a scene that Mike wrote, and then I rewrote. There’s a scene that I wrote, and he rewrote. Many [moments] were me pacing the office and him sitting at a keyboard, talking out the scene. It worked. We’d never written anything together, but neither of us is very precious, and we can both take criticism well. We can criticize each other. Television, in general, is an exercise in constantly rewriting yourself. You’re rewriting through the whole script process but also through production and post. Both of us are not tired by that. We’re energized by it. And so that made it easier to collaborate.

TV DRAMA: What can viewers expect from the back half of the season?
WEISS: They’re trapped on the boat. There are certain scenes where we give you relief and take you off the ship for various reasons—flashbacks, character backstories, etc. But mostly, these characters are trapped on the boat, and the tension will rise throughout the season. One big murder took place in the pilot. It’s a murder mystery. No spoilers there. It’s not the only body that’s going to drop. People can expect that inside the genre we’re in. Hopefully, people are falling in love with certain characters. Hopefully, people are hating certain characters. Any kind of real emotional response is great for the creators. Not all of those characters are safe. Good things are going to happen to people. Mostly bad things are going to happen to people. We are going to answer the question of who killed Keith Trubitsky and why. And we’re going to explain to the audience how it connects to the murder of Imogene’s mother way back when. We’re going to give you all the answers that you crave and hopefully tease you for a different type of murder mystery in [a potential] season two.
COLE MCADAMS: The episodes that are coming down the pike are different from each other. Each one has its own identity, feeling and pace. I hope that we keep the viewers on their toes and excited by how we, in our writers’ room, decided to tell the story.

TV DRAMA: What was the approach to plot development and pacing? Does every episode need a big plot twist or cliffhanger?
WEISS: You don’t want the audience to get too comfortable. You don’t want them to think, Okay, the writers and the actors have set up a twist, and it’s got to come in the second to last scene in every episode. You want to syncopate it. You want to catch people off guard and surprise them. That’s one thing I think we did well in the back half of the season: create tension but also moments of comfort—which we jar you out of with hopefully surprising twists every episode. Every episode has a twist in it. I’d say every episode has a cliffhanger to it.
COLE MCADAMS: Some version of a surprise.

TV DRAMA: You mentioned that audiences are taken off the ship through flashbacks and backstories. Was the ship itself ever creatively constraining?
COLE MCADAMS: I think we constrained ourselves with that conceit. We were excited about the conceit of putting these characters on a ship. When the tension gets harder and harder, that forces secrets out. And there’s a lot of fun to be had because it was containing. Do you get into the writers’ room, and you’re in the middle of a story in episode six or eight, saying, If they could just get off the ship! That happens momentarily. But I do think, overall, it served the story and didn’t hinder it.

TV DRAMA: We know the challenges in the media economy right now and the slowdown in scripted orders. As creatives, how do you see the state of the market?
WEISS: The industry has decided that they want old-fashioned television. That doesn’t mean repetitive. It doesn’t mean carbon copies. It just means that they want stuff that feels like meat-and-potatoes television that is understandable and recognizable to an audience.
COLE MCADAMS: And repeatable. For years, every time you would pitch a television show, you would not be thinking just about what the pilot episode looks like or what the first season looks like but what episode 100 looks like. There was a period in which TV seemed to be moving away from that need. Now we’re in a place where these shows with legs, which can make those 100- and 200-episode marks, are in higher demand.
WEISS: Writers think they don’t want constraints and gripe about not wanting them. But having some rules and areas to stay away from is helpful for writers to operate efficiently.
COLE MCADAMS: And creatively.
WEISS: There’s something thrilling about staring at a blank page; your fingers could take you anywhere. But there is also something paralyzing about that. Being given some rules is helpful just to get started. Sometimes, that first sentence is the hardest thing to come up with. After you’ve got that, you’re rolling. I’m not scared about the moment we’re in creatively; I think it’s a little bit easier to figure out what that first sentence wants to be right now.