Drugs, Nudity & Pool Sex: That Trippy Euphoria House Party Is Only The Beginning

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Before it even premiered on HBO, people were talking about Euphoria. The new series from Assassination Nation's Sam Levinson, based on an Israeli show of the same name, immediately became a hot topic once the internet learned that a single episode flashes at least 30 penises. Then, Zendaya herself, who plays Rue, a 17-year-old high schooler struggling with drug use who forms a friendship with new student Jules (breakout star Hunter Schafer) warned her followers (many of them left over from her days as a Disney Channel star) that not all of them should tune in to watch. The trigger warning acknowledged the intense subject matter, and the show's interest in revealing the harsh realities of being a teenager in 2019. Euphoria’s world is one depicting a post-9/11 generation that sends nudes as currency and have never known a selfie without a Snapchat filter.
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Like most shows aimed at teenagers, there's a lot to take in — the drugs, the sex, the language — but unlike other shows aimed squarely at Gen-Z that make older generations clutch their pearls, Euphoria has an HBO glossiness. From the moment the show starts, it’s clear this is something different and new; but what feels brilliant to some, feels exploitative to others. No matter what side of the Euphoria debate you’re on, its style and ambition is undeniable. What other show has a premiere episode with Zendaya walking on ceilings and a Beyoncé song?
Curious to know how a zeitgeist-y show like this comes to life, Refinery29 reached out to director, writer, and actor Augustine Frizzell, who directed episode 1, thus setting the tone for the rest of the groundbreaking series. Frizzell also wrote and directed Never Goin’ Back, a comedy about two young best friends who live equally interesting and messy lives, the first two episodes of season 2 of Sweetbitter, and recently wrapped a pilot for Cazzie David’s upcoming project with Amazon Studios.
In an email, Frizzell broke down the process of filming Euphoria’s Inception-meets-Skins house party, the responsibility that comes with filming explicit sex scenes with a young cast, and what about the show made her nervous (yes, one of them is the knife scene).
Refinery29: Did you know exactly how you wanted to approach the sex scenes and nudity? How closely did you work with intimacy coordinators?
Augustine Frizzell: “I knew from the get-go that these scenes would need to be as non-sexy as possible. I didn’t want them to feel exploitative, and I didn’t want any slow pans across naked bodies, or a leering camera. And if I remember correctly, I feel like Sam, myself and Amanda [Blumenthal, the show’s intimacy coordinator] went on set and physically blocked out exactly what the action was gonna be for the actors, then Amanda went and told them so they’d be fully prepared and aware of what was expected of them. We kept it very clinical.”
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“For example, the scene with Kat [played by Barbie Ferreira] and the twins [played by Tristan and Tyler Timmons] in the bedroom; we ran it several times and felt it was lacking tension. I had an idea that Wes [played by Nolan Bateman] should dare Kat to take her shirt off. Sam liked the idea and quickly came up with some new lines for the actors. I told Amanda, who then asked Barbie how she’d feel about doing this so last minute. Having a request like that come from Amanda, rather than me or Sam, takes so much pressure off the actors and eliminates any chance of them feeling intimidated into doing something they don’t want to do. I’m a woman, and it’s still awkward to approach a young female and say, ‘We didn’t plan this but mind taking your shirt off in this scene, like right now?’”
Rue’s overdose scene was especially intense. Was there anything you were nervous about filming after reading the script?
“Two scenes. The scene where Rue and Jules first meet was something that I had imagined very specifically in my head. The awkwardness, that bodily discomfort when you’re standing there and you don’t know what to say or do with your arms, but it might be love at first sight so you need to say/do something! We rehearsed that scene weeks in advance and tweaked and tweaked, and the girls just nailed it on the day. Every time I see it I feel it viscerally, like I’m a teenager again. And the knife scene in the kitchen. I wanted to avoid melodrama. We probably over-rehearsed it, but I’m still in awe of what Hunter and Jacob [Elordi, who plays Tyler] did with it.”
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Twitter was freaking out over the scenes following Rue’s character when she gets high at a house party, and feels like she’s walking on the ceiling. Walk us through directing those scenes.
"The house party was a combination of things. It was written as Rue being in a spotlight and everyone around her silhouetted as she does various drugs. Sam [Levinson], Marcell [Rév, the show’s cinematographer], and I spent about a week in a room with our storyboard artist, Peter Beck, where we plotted out every shot in the show. For this scene, I’d just seen Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water. The party scene from that movie was a big inspiration to keep the camera on her face and just walk with her through the party as she does these drugs, never cutting away to people, just staying with her the whole time. Anytime Zendaya had to be high in the show, we talked a lot about the physicality in her face, eyes, and body. The lighting is all Marcel’s genius."
“The hallway scene was actually described as Rue walking on the walls and ceiling à la Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding. Our brilliant production designer, Michael Grasley, designed and built this incredible set to mimic a hallway in one of our location houses. It was a massive piece, strapped onto a huge gimble with a breakaway bathroom and the whole thing rotated in a full circle. At some point our script supervisor, Steve Gerke, had an idea that made the shot even better. It was written that Rue is in the bathroom, snorts the drugs, then walks down the spinning hallway. Steve suggested we have the scene start in the hallway pre-drugs, then she’s in the bathroom, then we see her in the drugged up state in the hallway. It was exactly what the scene needed to make it feel real and give the audience that proprioceptive experience.”
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You said in an interview with us that you were psyched about a vaginal birthing scene. It didn’t make the cut, while Eric Dane and his erect prosthetic penis did. Are you surprised it didn’t?
“Not at all. However, showing Cal’s [played by Dane] penis and him putting a condom on his erection weren’t in the script either, so I consider that a triumph. And it wasn’t just about, We’re showing boobs later, we also need a penis! It was about the scene needing that moment. I feel there’s a responsibility as a filmmaker to show someone taking the time to put on a condom, especially in a scenario like that. It’s the same reason why I always make my actors wear seatbelts in driving scenes. There’s a definite double standard with male/female nudity in film, and figuring out what it takes to even the playing field is a process I’m still learning.”
How did you get Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” in the pilot?
“Never in a million years did I think it would be approved. The other song that I was very attached to was the final song by Agnes Obel, titled ‘Run Cried the Crawling.’ She’s one of my favorite artists, and it fit so beautifully, I couldn’t imagine anything better for the ending of the show. I only just found out she’s had songs in both Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects.”
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Half of the episodes were directed by women. How did that influence the tone of season 1?
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“I think anytime you can bring a different perspective to the screen it’s beneficial. I do think male and female directors often, and not always, but we can experience emotion differently and interpret performance differently. For me it’s a gut feeling and intuition, and I’ve seen some male directors view emotion more mechanically. They know how they think it should look, but can’t connect to how it should feel. The gender in film issue goes so much deeper, and isn’t black and white. ”
You also directed two episodes of Sweetbitter’s second season, another show about sensations from drugs, sex, food, and drink. How do you direct a feeling or sensation?
“Working with the actors and their connection to those tactile sensations is all about finding their emotional vulnerability and helping them bring that to the surface. That part is very similar in both shows, but the camera is totally different and so are the writing styles.
“I think the big challenge in Euphoria was making sure it was all purposeful, that the style never felt forced, or overused. I could pull things back when they needed to breath, or be slowed down to match the experience Rue was having at any given moment. Sweetbitter is a lot more grounded, while Euphoria is meant to feel hyper-real, everything on overdrive — the way it feels to be a teen.”
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