The scenes you remember from your favorite television shows don’t often start out that way. From conception to the page to the small screen, changes are made for creative, budgetary and/or time constraints that you’re often not aware of. In the From Script to Screen series, we break down a pivotal scene from the current TV season with the people who put pen to paper, to give us an exclusive inside look at how an original idea transforms into a memorable TV moment.
Inspired by the 2013 book Drama High by Michael Sokolove, Rise chronicles the daily struggles and obstacles facing a small-town Pennsylvania high school when an ambitious English teacher, Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), takes over the lackluster theater department by putting on a controversial production of Spring Awakening, galvanizing not only its faculty and students, but also the working-class town. Spearheaded by creator Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood), the 10-episode freshman season not only features a young ensemble cast with largely theater backgrounds, it faces the unique challenge of juggling nearly a dozen storylines — some provocative and thought-provoking, others life-altering and revelatory — along with charting the progression of a musical production coming to fruition.
On Tuesday’s episode, titled “This Will God Willing Get Better,” tech week rehearsals for Spring Awakening go into full swing as opening night approaches — and it’s the first time Lou, who up until this point has held a stoic (sometimes blind) belief that what he’s doing will be successful, has a true moment of weakness and uncertainty when everything goes wrong. As a result, Lou’s assistant director, Tracey (Rosie Perez), takes over rehearsals, breathing new life into the production and leaving Lou with a semblance of hope that the personal, professional and community turmoil hasn’t been for naught. Katims, who wrote the hour, zeroed in on the final sequence — which begins with Lou witnessing a beautiful rendition of “Touch Me” finally coming together and ends with Simon (Ted Sutherland), in denial about his sexuality, coming to grips with his identity — as a crucial pivot point in the story, just as the final act of the season kicks off.
“When we get to the end of this episode, it feels like a lot of culminating moments that have been led to — not only over this episode, but the entire season. It really sets us up for the final drive of episodes eight, nine and 10, which will hopefully feel like one rush of energy,” Katims tells ET, adding that the episode-ending montage was a guidepost he wanted to work toward while blueprinting the season.
Speaking more specifically to the sequence, Katims broke down the significance of each character beat, beginning with Lou. Right before he has an epiphany watching the student ensemble singing “Touch Me,” Lou hits a low point, breaking down emotionally in front of Tracey as he questions his own potential and decisions. “I really love this moment that happens for Lou, because he has this notion to take over the theater department and he does it with such good intention, such good will and such a positive spirit, but I love seeing him brought to his knees in a way. This is his lowest moment in the season, where he questions everything. He questions his own ability to do this. He questions whether or not it was a good idea to take this on. That’s the moment we find him in here — to be saved by the very students he felt he was letting down [and] to have this moment where seeing them, hearing them and the beauty that emanates from them is this moment of salvation for him.”
The journey for Simon’s self-discovery is perhaps the most heart-wrenching of all, culminating in Simon tearfully apologizing to Annabelle (Shannon Purser) after they try to have sex and fail. Not because Simon isn’t attracted to her, but because he’s gay. The dominoes began to fall when Lou cast him as the gay character of Hanschen, causing uproar within Simon’s ultra-conservative and religious family. “Simon is really fighting against that side of himself. He really wants to believe that he can be what he considers to be a normal kid based on the family that he comes from and the culture that the comes from,” Katims explains, crediting Simon’s storyline as one of his personal favorites. “This is the moment where he comes to realize that I can’t be that kid, that I have to take another path. I find that to be very moving.”
“Ted has done an amazing job in the role,” Katims says of the young actor’s portrayal. “It’s a clear example of subtext. He can never say anything out loud, so even from the very beginning of the pilot, when [Simon] talks about all the reasons why he doesn’t want to be cast in this gay role, he can’t say the obvious reason because he doesn’t want to see that or feel that in himself. All throughout the season, I can feel the subtext in every scene that [Ted] plays and that builds a natural tension. That tension has led to this moment here, where he tries to carry out of being able to sleep with Annabelle and be that person that he hoped that he could be. This is the moment where he realizes he can’t do that and it’s an incredibly painful moment for him to face that reality.”
But not everything is all gloom. As Katims tells it, it was important to balance out the dramatic with levity. He pointed specifically to Gwen (Amy Forsyth) and Gordy’s (Casey Johnson) unlikely romantic kinship as a welcomed respite from the characters’ unstable lives. “It’s two characters are going through, in their own ways, their own challenging journeys — Gordy with his drinking and Gwen with her family blowing up in front of her. The two of them finding each other is a very uplifting moment that also plays well against that same song,” he says. Another sweet moment: Lilette’s mother, Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk), and Gwen’s father, Coach (Joe Tippett), coming to terms with their own romantic relationship.
See Katims’ annotated script pages below.
Producers faced two obstacles in filming this specific episode, one from a physical production standpoint and the other from a creative perspective. From the production side of things, Katims said it was particularly difficult getting the Gwen and Gordy scenes off the ground; the original script called for the two teens to go to the beach, skinny dip in the lake and have sex nearby. That idea was nixed because it was below freezing the night of and there were restrictions with the location they were using.
Creatively, Katims admitted it was hard to create a believable sequence in the episode where the troupe was seen having bad tech rehearsals. “How do you make things look like they’re going wrong, especially when we have these talented actors?” he asks. “That’s such a true thing about the creative process. I’ve found that in writing, where you go along, everything seems fine and then it all falls apart. You need to go through that before it all comes together. Trying to capture things going wrong was surprisingly challenging because you’re doing a TV show where everything is prepped very carefully and shot very carefully. We’re trying to take things that are usually done well, and still do them well, but make it look like things are going wrong. We’d have a joke on set where [the director] would look back at me and say, ‘Was it bad enough?'”
Previous TV credits would serve as evidence that Katims has a penchant for telling large ensemble dramas — and Rise is no different. “One of the things I really wanted to do with the show was lean into the multiple storylines — having many balls in the air, having many stories going on — and that was what I really loved about other shows I’ve worked on like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood,” he says. “I wanted this to feel like a show that was really about this community and this town, that it wasn’t only singularly focused on [the troupe and the production]. That it was telling the stories of these characters and their relationships and their families.”
With only three episodes left in the season, Katims revealed that the tale will have a resolution as the season finale takes place on opening night of the school’s production of Spring Awakening. The finale will “give enough of a sense of closure to the stories,” while also asking “big questions about what’s next” should NBC order a sophomore season. “It’s a very satisfying episode,” Katims previews. “We’re leaving the end of the season with bigger global questions about where we started with Lou taking over the theater department and what’s going to happen to it, and also questions about the characters and their lives and relationships that we’ve started to explore.”
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.