Writing a show like The Dropout, which follows the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, wasn’t easy, says showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether. Not only was research for the story extensive, given its scientific nature, but COVID-19 also delayed the project by three years, and Holmes’ trial started while Meriwether was finishing the script.
“It was definitely a lot of research, but if you spoke to anybody who’s done a true story, I think there’s just a moment when you have to put [things] aside — you learn a lot of stuff and then you have to think about what the story is that you want to tell. It’s always that push-pull of what really happened and how can the narrative be condensed and how can it be the most effective,” Meriwether tells THR. “That was all really new to me. It was hard, but it was really fun.”
Meriwether spoke with THR about why she was drawn the project, now nominated for six Emmys — including the first nom for star Amanda Seyfried — and the challenges they faced during production.
Where were you when you found out about the show’s Emmy nominations?
I was at a coffee shop in my neighborhood [with my husband and my son] and we’d just dropped our daughter off at day camp. … I just looked at my phone and everyone was texting me. But we were very randomly sitting next to [Everybody Loves Raymond creator] Phil Rosenthal at the coffee shop. I’ve never met him, and he was like, “What’s going on?”
How did you get involved in the show?
I read a piece in Vanity Fair about [Holmes] that Nick Bilton wrote, and I just thought it was a crazy, amazing story. But then I didn’t do anything. About a couple of years later, Searchlight said that they had optioned the [ABC News] podcast [of the same name] and they had Hulu and Kate McKinnon attached, and they wanted to know if I wanted to come in and meet on it. At that point, there had been a documentary and a book and a lot of reporting about it, and I wondered if we needed to also have a limited series. Then I listened to the podcast, and there were so many amazing anecdotes that went to her point of view and her experience of the story, and I felt that was a part of the story that needed to be told and hadn’t been told in the reporting. The podcast really brought that home for me; it was just these really funny and interesting insights into her mind. I met with them and then we were supposed to start shooting in March 2020. That didn’t happen, and now we’re here, which is amazing.
What kind of research goes into making a show like this?
We did a lot of research. The podcast was an amazing resource, and then I also flew to New York and sat with [host] Rebecca Jarvis and the other producers of the podcast in a hotel room for two days and just downloaded all of their experiences of making the podcast. And then there was about 10 hours of deposition tape that we had that was really useful for Amanda, because deposition footage is just that one shot of the person. It’s just [Holmes] for 10 hours. We had all those transcripts from the deposition, the reporting, the book, the documentary, and then we also did our own interviews with a handful of people like Edmond Ku, Phyllis Gardner, Avie Tevanian and a couple other people [who knew Holmes]. We had to speak to a science consultant to figure out the chemistry and the engineering. And all of it is happening while we’re constantly in communication with lawyers and making sure that we’re thoughtful about the story that we’re telling and aware that most of the people involved are still alive. Then, when [the script] was all done, we were shooting — then the trial started! That was a whole bunch of new information. In the middle of shooting, we got hundreds and hundreds of pages of the transcripts of text messages between Sunny [Balwani, Theranos COO] and Elizabeth. They were in spreadsheet form and [it was] just staying up late, reading these text messages between them to see if there was something very different than what we’d already shot.
How long was prep?
Because of COVID, I ended up having about a year with the scripts by myself, which for me, coming from network and coming from the relentless pace of a sitcom, was a very strange experience — to be alone with the scripts and actually have time to write, but also have time to worry. Network [TV] was so much about moving so fast without even thinking, and then this was like, “Oh my God, I have a year.” Obviously, Kate McKinnon’s schedule ended up not working out, and then [we had] to put it all back together again after it fell apart. From start to finish, it was three years.
How did you strike the balance between what really happened and then taking creative liberty?
It was really challenging. When I made a creative decision, I tried to make sure that I could back it up … from a foundation of research. For example, the anecdote from the podcast that Ana Arriola, who was one of the employees at Theranos, saw Elizabeth Holmes in her car early one morning, dancing to hip-hop by herself in her car … off of that anecdote, we built this idea that she dances to hip-hop by herself as a kind of release. That’s what our character in the show does. I have no idea if that’s what she really does.
The soundtrack plays a big role in your show. Why was the choice of music so important for you?
This story covered so many years, I wanted it to have a drive and I had to cover a lot of time, but make it feel like it was really building and had momentum so that each episode didn’t feel like you were restarting with everything all over again. It became clear that the fastest way to do that would just be playing a song from that year, because it’s such an emotional thing. I feel like you hear a song from a year and you’re transported to that time in your life, and it’s a fast way of getting the audience oriented. And it was just so fun.
What were some challenges for you?
I was really afraid of writing the finale. I kept putting it off. I’d been putting it off for way too long and Hulu was like, “You need to write this finale!” It was definitely hard for me, like, “How do I wrap this story up in a way, when it’s ongoing?” For the ending, we initially had envisioned it at Burning Man, because she made this trip to Burning Man with her new fiancé, Billy, and they had posted all over Instagram about it, and it just felt like a really interesting place for a quote-unquote rebirth. But then it was weirdly a blessing in disguise because with COVID, we were definitely not going to Burning Man. We had to rethink that whole ending, and it just became her getting into an Uber, which totally worked. With her relationship with Sunny, it’d been in a slow boil for episode after episode, and then I felt like, “We owe the audience a big fight between them.” But I was definitely avoiding writing a big dramatic fight because I’m a comedy writer. I was like, “How do I write this very dramatic scene without it feeling melodramatic?” That was a challenge for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.