Netflix has become an indispensable part of modern romance. It’s a seduction aid at first, and then a binge-able backdrop for couples in nesting mode. (Nestflix, anyone? No?) The streaming platform loomed much larger, however, over Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin's love lives than most. The pair had to plan their wedding during the production of their new series, Love, which they created partly based on their own relationship.
"You can roll your eyes, but it is actually very romantic to be able to sit down and make something together and be proud of the work you've done together," Rust says. "If anything, it made me more hungry for the marriage and for the wedding to happen."
Arfin and Rust met at a birthday party around five years ago and became an unlikely item. She’s a writer for Girls whose achingly hip past includes a stint at Vice in its early days and the confessional memoir, Dear Diary; he’s a former Midwesterner with a deep improv background who wrote the new Pee Wee Herman movie with Paul Reubens. Sometime after they’d become an established couple, Rust’s manager suggested the two write something together about their relationship. Both found the possibility intriguing and began kicking around ideas. The show they ended up making, with Judd Apatow on board, was not only different from how they’d originally conceived it, but different from any love story told on TV or in film.
For one thing, the two originally intended to write a movie together, and not a series. For another, the autobiographical element ultimately become diluted into a small chunk of the show’s DNA. And what separates the show from any seemingly similar titles is that it’s the closest any project has come yet to depicting how a relationship forms in real time. Love unfolds at an even more compressed pace than Breaking Bad, which spanned just two years over the course of its five seasons. By the time viewers get to the end of Love’s first 10 episodes, they’ll feel as though they’ve been right there with the main characters, Gus and Mickey, every step of the way—even if the running time breezes by.
"The idea was that in a movie, usually the second through fifth date is a three-and-a-half minute montage, just because you're trying to get through the relationship so that by the 80-minute mark they can break up for a while," Rust says. "But in real life, a relationship takes a long time. Either somebody is involved with somebody else and that's ending, or somebody's hung up on an ex, or your job isn't going right and so you're focused more on that than relationships. It just takes a lot for two people to get together."
The idea of going the slowed-down route was Apatow’s. Rust had worked on a screenplay years before with one of the comedy mogul’s protégés, Charlyne Yi. Although that project never ended up in production, Apatow remembered Rust when it came time to find a cowriter for the Pee-Wee Herman movie he was producing. Out of that relationship, and just being around the same office a lot, the two organically began to work together on the project Rust had conceived with Arfin. But Apatow was the one who suggested that the characters Gus and Mickey (played by Rust himself and Gillian Jacobs) get more room to breathe than the real estate offered by a two-hour movie. Considering the kind of story the creators wanted to tell, the show was a natural fit for Netflix.
"The thing that I get most excited about is that it does feel like a new realm of storytelling is being created before everybody’s eyes," Rust says. "You can do something that's not exactly a movie and not exactly a TV show, something in between."
The bingeing possibilities of Netflix mean that viewers can check in with the cinematic unfolding of Gus and Mickey’s relationship at a pace of their choosing. Some episodes are like great dates that end too soon and demand continuation immediately. Others offer a slower burn that may require a breather afterward. None of them have the week-to-week feel of the typical romantic comedy show trajectory.
Rust and Arfin's actual relationship may have been the original blueprint for the show, but once they started writing, Love quickly became something different. There is still a cool girl with a past and a nice funny guy from the Midwest, but Gus and Mickey are now more like funhouse mirror versions of their originators, with shades of their friends and the show's other writers laced in as well. Getting away from the realm of autobiography freed the writers to infuse the show more with the messiness of life and, paradoxically, made it feel more real.
"We didn't want it to be a show about, 'Oh, if this damaged girl just allowed herself to be saved by the kind man, everything would be great!' We're trying to look at how that kind of thinking is a little fucked up. Instead, at all times we are simultaneously trying to defend both characters' actions, but also looking at them both with a critical eye."
While part of Lesley Arfin's personal life is literally an open book, Rust had never taken the opportunity to write about himself or for himself before. Most of the material he'd written in recent years had been absurdist, freewheeling humor for shows like the IFC series Comedy Bang Bang. Writing in a more realistic vein allowed Rust to draw from his own observations, behaviors, and motives. Also, writing with Arfin, with whom he'd never collaborated before, meant that even during downtime, he was never fully off the clock.
"An idea will come out of something happening between us, and then wondering what if it went a different way," Rust says. "Like, we were watching Making A Murderer and talking about what if one of us was killed. 'Would you want me to seek the death penalty for the person who killed you?' And both of us being anti-capital punishment, we agreed no, if the other person was killed we would not seek the death penalty. But then out of that came, 'Oh, well, an interesting scene could be somebody having an argument about, "Well, you're dead. If I want the person who killed you to die in the electric chair, I should be allowed to do that even if you don't like it."' The starting off points for the show might come from our lives but then the directions they take are where we invent stuff."
Between the lived-in feel of the show's central relationship and the fact that the series is populated by actual friends of Arfin and Rust—including cameos by nearly every working comedy person in Los Angeles—making Love inevitably blurred into the planning of a wedding. But the creative couple tried to keep the two blessed events separated.
"It definitely felt like we were in charge of two productions," Rust says. "But we timed it out as best we could. We wrapped the show at the end of July and then we got married in October."
The demands of a life in show business crashed directly into the newlyweds' matrimonial bliss, however. They had to start writing the second season six days after the wedding.