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SYFY WIRE Poker Face

'Poker Face' showrunners on luring Nick Nolte, Phil Tippett for horror throwback 'Orpheus Syndrome'

The intel on Natasha Lyonne's episodic ode to cinema, Hitchcock's Vertigo and stop-motion animation.

By Tara Bennett
Natasha Lyonne in Poker Face Season 1

This week's episode of Poker Face is Natasha Lyonne's directing and co-writing debut for the series. "The Orpheus Syndrome" is an amalgamation of her love of cinema, mystery, Hitchcock, Nick Nolte and old school stop-motion animation.

It also features the incredible work of actors Cherry Jones, Luis Guzmán and Tim Russ. For our exclusive SYFY WIRE post mortem for the series, we got showrunners/executive producers Lilla and Nora Zuckerman to explain how it was having Lyonne in the writers' room with them, how they got legendary FX innovator Phil Tippett to do the animation of the episode, and the truth about that Tim Russ bust.

**WARNING: There are spoilers for Episode 8 of Poker Face below.**

There's so much going on with this episode. Was it Natasha's idea or was she just assigned this episode in the writing rotation?

Lilla Zuckerman: The idea of doing a practical, VFX movie magic, Phil Tippett-like world was something that was kicking around in the room for a while. As soon as we hit on it, we kind of knew that Natasha was the one to handle it because she's such a cinephile. It really is in her blood. We knew that she could embrace the world. And we knew that she could shoot the hell out of it, and come up with a really compelling story. We kept going back to the movie Vertigo as inspiration. She really grasped onto that. 

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Since she's the lead in the series and kinda busy, was she able to come to the writers' room to break this episode with you?

Lilla: Natasha came and visited us in the room and we were always keeping her up to speed on the episodes we were doing. She was reading scripts as they came in, etc. But because of her busy schedule with Russian Doll Season 2, we weren't able to have her in the room full-time until it was time to break her episode. You never know what it's like when somebody new is going to come into the room. But she just embraced it with such energy and such intensity and such passion. It was delightful. At that point too, everybody in the room had been working with each other for a couple of months, so to get some fresh blood in there was so great. 

Nora Zuckerman: It was really fun to have her and have her energy. The hour-long format is a bit new to her because with Russian Doll, the episodes are shorter. We took her through our process which really involves breaking these episodes very specifically. We really send the writer off with like a full outline. She was well taken care of in terms of sending her off to script. She ended up partnering with Alice Ju who she's worked with on Russian Doll Season 2. They made a really wonderful team. The two of them together, wrote the script. It's probably our most Hitchcock-influenced. We said Vertigo and that's a vibe that we definitely wanted. But the subject matter is something that is not very Hitchcock. The idea of these practical effects is such a cool, modern thing, but then to add that Hitchcock throwback, cool vibe to it, to us, felt really unique. We were really lucky to have Phil Tippett and his company involved as well.

As soon as I saw Nick Nolte's look in this episode, I wondered if he was literally based on Phil Tippett. How did that aspect come into the episode?

Lilla: This episode was partially inspired by the documentary [Mad Dreams and Monsters] a lot of people in the room have watched about Tippett and the golden era of practical, special effects. And so that was front of mind for us. But when this episode started to come together, here's the magic of working with [Poker Face creator] Rian Johnson. Rian is like, "You know what we should do? We should just call Phil." That does not compute, you know? [Laughs.]  He said, "Oh, yeah. I know, Phil," because they worked on Star Wars together. We knew that he was working on Mad God that was about to come out. It's all seemed very of the moment. So we called Phil and he was completely enthusiastic about it. To his credit, it can't be an easy call to get, saying, "Hey, we're doing an episode of this murder mystery about you."

Was he immediately on board?

Nora: He was very into it. In a way that we all got off our first initial Zoom and texted each other and were like, "Holy sh**, he's in!" Not only to have his sign-off and endorsement of the general concept, but to have his partnership, creatively. Tippett Studios really worked so well, like our production design team and our art department. We borrowed a lot of his pieces for the episode.

Lilla: He was so incredibly generous. They shipped us the real maquettes from Mad God, which were sitting around that set. Also, Phil himself came to set and taught Nick and Natasha how to work with the maquettes, and how to set them up and how to light them. He was very hands-on and incredibly generous with his talent and his time in this episode. He was a huge contributor.

Nora: As you can probably tell from watching the show, we're all total film geeks. And Lil and I with our background, we love genre television and we love genre in general. Having somebody like Phil Tippett, who's just a legend, being a part of this was really a dream come true. And something that we could have never anticipated. It was really just a treat and probably a once in a lifetime.

So, I have to ask is it movie magic that the bust of Tim Russ' Max looks that good, or was that actually him?

Lilla: Funny you should mention the bust. The maquette actually is Tim a lot of the time. [Laughs.] Also, the maquette itself was spooky, realistic. You'd come around the corner and not be sure if you were looking at Tim, or his likeness. But as much as we could, we did put Tim in a table and at one point, in a box. He has this really incredibly impressive ability to just go into the zone and hold himself completely still. It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it. We absolutely lucked out with him.

Last but not least, this episode has incredible guest stars. How did Nolte come aboard?

Lilla: If you ask Natasha about who is the guest star that she was most excited to get on Poker Face, I think having Nick Nolte on set was truly special. He brings such a sense of gravitas to the role, that I think you really, really needed. You didn't want his character to skew too wacky, or too oddball. He brings this really sweet gravity to the role that I think is special.

And then when we were looking to cast Laura, as soon as Cherry Jones' name came up, I got like a shiver up my spine. She is such a talent. She was such a thrill to watch on set because she can toggle between being really sweet and delightful to terrifying in like one second flat. Watching her was like a masterclass. My only regret of this episode is that there were so many takes where she was doing so many remarkable things that we couldn't use them all. 

Read our exclusive interview with Phil Tippett about "The Orpheus Syndrome".

Eight episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. Check in weekly at SYFY WIRE for our exclusive Poker Face post mortems with the creators and cast of the new series.