The characters boarding the SS Varuna, the location of the opulent locked-room mystery universe conjured in Death and Other Details by writers, executive producers, and showrunners Heidi Cole McAdams and Mike Weiss, have a lot of baggage—literal, figurative and emotional—to unpack. In their kit bags (and steamer trunks) are lifetimes of secrets, lies, sex and, yes, some video footage.
Someone on board the celebratory cruise—organized and paid for by Lawrence Collier, who is retiring from his eponymous company—is going to be murdered. And, as Rufus Cotesworth, the “World’s Greatest Detective,” played by Mandy Patinkin, intones after the body is discovered, “The murderer is among us.” Cotesworth may be the “world’s greatest detective,” but it’s Violett Beane’s Imogene Scott, who is the smartest “guy” in the room. To solve the case, Cotesworth will need Imogene’s mad skills of observation and subterfuge. The only problem: Imogene loathes Cotesworth, who abandoned the investigation into her mother’s murder when she was a child.
Death and Other Details may visually resemble an Agatha Christie-esque adventure but look—and listen—closely. The territory inhabited by this ten-episode tale of murder on the high seas lies between two lines delivered early in the first episode: “Details matter,” and “the world is ugly, and the people are sad.” The second line, from Wallace Stevens’ “Gubbinal,” is delivered by Teddy Goh, played by Angela Zhou, the groomed-to-the-nth-degree maitre d’ of the SS Varuna, while addressing the ship’s staff. Batten the hatches, rough seas ahead.
(Disclosure: Mike Weiss is my son-in-law)
Nancie Clare: In the press materials, you said that you are friends, but not writing partners, I need an explanation.
Mike Weiss: We crossed paths in writer’s rooms…
Heidi Cole McAdams: That’s not how we met!
Mike Weiss: That’s not how we met. That’s true. That’s true.
Heidi Cole McAdams: We met when I was an assistant working for a writer who wanted to develop with Mike because he really loved his work. We also had friends in common through Mike’s wife, Logan. Through the years we ended up in a few of the same writers’ rooms and enjoyed working together. We thought it would be fun to write something together. Then when the idea for Death and Other Details came to life it was the first script we ever wrote together.
Mike Weiss: It’s true. And it was remarkably easy. We didn’t argue very much at all! I think one of the things that makes us—if we are in fact—effective writers and producers, is that we have incredibly disparate interests. But there’s an overlap. And in the middle of that Venn diagram of overlapping interests and abilities, is a stylish, heightened murder mystery. We had an incredibly fun time working together and are still good friends.
Nancie Clare: Okay, you mentioned Venn diagrams. Am I imagining it or does the show seem to inhabit a territory—or the common area of a Venn diagram—delineated by two standout lines delivered early in the pilot episode: “details matter” and “the world is ugly, and the people are sad?”
Mike Weiss: I think you are getting to something that we strived to do from the beginning: we wanted to tell a smart fun story, which meant that we challenged ourselves in a lot of ways. We challenged ourselves to have intense plot twists and plot advancements in every single episode. And we challenged ourselves stylistically to be ambitious, to be a little bit literary and a little bit erudite, which all I think swims in the same direction as the backdrop for the show. But yeah, we aimed high. Heidi, is that right?
Heidi Cole McAdams: We like it that way!
Nancie Clare: Is Death and Other Details the first episodic show to draw inspiration from a Wallace Stevens quote?
Mike Weiss: As you know, my younger son’s middle name is Wallace because of my great affection for the mid-twentieth century American poet Wallace Stevens.
[NB: since Mike’s younger son is also my grandson, I did know this.]
Nancie Clare: I’m not sure if the rules of fictional universe building are the same for screenwriting as they are for crime novels. I’m not sure there are any rules at all! But this is a question I’m always interested in: When a new series is created, populated with new characters, what came first, the characters or the story, which informed the other?
Heidi Cole McAdams: The very first thing that happened was we knew that we were writing a murder mystery. So, the story started first, but then the second thing we started talking about was who is [lead character] Imogene Scott and what is her story? And what is this mystery that she’s entangled in and how is it personal to her and why does she care? It ping-pongs back and forth as we start building what was the murder and who was the murderer and who are the other suspects surrounding her. I think the [what came first, story or character] are interconnected in a way that you can’t really separate, at least for me.
Mike Weiss: Heidi, hearing you answer that, I think something that happens while you’re building one of these stories is you’re creating—hopefully—an interesting set of archetypal characters and figuring out how they fit into the mystery plot. But at the same time trying to figure out how to make them memorable and distinct from each other because Death and Other Details has a large group of suspects. In designing those characters, you think about what secrets they’re bringing with them. Because in a genre like this, each character has at least one important secret that they’re trying to hide from the detectives. In that way, you’re synthesizing backstory, character development, and also figuring out how those secrets are going to dovetail into the plot.
Nancie Clare: Novels are an incomplete art; they’re finished in the reader’s mind’s eye. Live action, though, completes the picture. The visuals in Death and Other Details—the colors are saturated, the costumes are colorful, the backdrop of the ship is very, very rich—how were they part of the universe-building for the show?
Heidi Cole McAdams: It absolutely was from the very beginning because we were doing such an overt homage to the Agatha Christie-era of detective fiction. We liked the idea of setting it on the ship that came from that time. The original pilot script is full of details about what kind of carpet and what wallpaper and the different pieces of furniture. We wrote with the intention of having it be visually rich.
Nancie Clare: I didn’t find Rufus Cotesworth—the “world’s greatest detective” played by Mandy Patinkin—a man out of time, regardless of allusions to historical fictional detectives. Cotesworth, is not a fussbudget Hercule Poirot; he’s very 21st century. What were the challenges in creating a detective who, while he’s a master at self-promotion, isn’t a paragon; he has feet of clay?
Mike Weiss: We talked about it from the beginning that we wanted him to be a flawed detective. We’re absolutely a show that is an homage to the golden age of detective and private eye fiction. But one of the ways that we wanted to update the character was to make him flawed and human in really relatable ways. In terms of updating him to make him feel contemporary: he’s a celebrity detective and on a downslide. I think the challenge for the character inside the story is to be believable and accurate even though much of the world has labeled him a has-been. And when you get a great actor like Mandy Patinkin making Cotesworth vacillate between these various states of brilliance and being clay footed and making mistakes, it’s incredibly fun.
Heidi Cole McAdams: Amazing. Yeah, we were having fun with the idea of the world’s greatest detective. And I love how you talked about him marketing himself because that was the genesis of the difference between Rufus and everybody else. Who he is on paper and how he presents himself in his book—and even calling him the world’s greatest detective at all—there’s obviously some fiction to that. The question in the journey for him over the series is: what am I really? Am I actually talented at this? Am I a total fraud? Is it clear I don’t have all the abilities that I’m purporting to have in my book, but does that mean I’m nothing or does it mean I’m still worthwhile? So that was where we were having fun with. He’s not Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes—he’s pretending to be—but that doesn’t mean he’s not [an effective detective.]
Nancie Clare: All of the characters are hiding secrets, many of them multiple secrets. Keith Trubitsky, for example, boards the SS Varuna as sort of an ugly American inventor of plumbing fixtures from Indianapolis, Indiana. And yet when Imogene Scott, the heroine with a tragic past dresses Trubitsky down because of his boorish behavior, he points out that Imogene is not a crusader for the little guy working from the inside because she’s not an insider, she’s a hypocrite. He tells Imogene that she’s a professional best friend; the poor best friend of the wealthy daughter of the host of this grand voyage.
Mike Weiss: In a horror genre, you show the audience that you mean business by killing off one of the main characters early in the story. Anyone could die at any time. And I think in the murder mystery genre where everyone is bringing secrets onboard this ship that could be exposed, the fact that Trubitsky is able to very quickly read Imogen and suss out one of her very closely held secrets, shows the audience that we mean business. All of these people’s secrets are going to be exposed, their masks are going to be ripped off during the course of the season. That’s one of the thrills of that early scene for me.
Heidi Cole McAdams: It’s also intentional. You want to look at Trubitsky a little closer and wonder what it is this man is hiding? He’s the victim at the heart of the mystery, and he himself has secrets that may or may not be the reason he was killed. Catching that this isn’t normal behavior for him to look at her under a microscope is wise.
Nancie Clare: The show takes place on the SS Varuna as it sails the Mediterranean, a ship that a former banker-turned-luxury-ship-owner Sunil Ranja, has painstakingly restored to its mid-twentieth century glory. But just in case we start to get lost in nostalgic glory, wandering around the decks is That Derek, a prepubescent influencer who wields his cellphone as he live-streams the experience. Can you guys talk about that? Because it’s pretty brilliant.
Mike Weiss: I’m glad you grabbed onto that. It’s a very intentional choice.
Heidi Cole McAdams: We really want the show to transport you, and we love the idea that the inspiration for that transportation brings you back to a different era where things were maybe a little bit more lovely, I guess. But it’s a contemporary story. We wanted to make sure right off the bat you understood that even though the clothes and the decor are transportive, it’s not a period piece. And we end up leaning into the fact that there’s technology in this world as the mystery unravels.
Nancie Clare: There’s an undercurrent, or you could say subtext, of socioeconomic commentary. As talented and deserving of being named CEO of her family business as she is, Anna Collier is a nepo baby. This is a contrast to Imogene Scott, Anna’s preternaturally observant, somewhat sticky-fingered, bestie. It’s Imogene who’s the smartest “guy” in the room, but just a professional best friend because she’s the daughter of the secretary who had the bad luck of dying in the Collier’s driveway.
Heidi Cole McAdams: I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel here. I think talking about classism is a huge part of this genre, and it was always a piece of our show, but we never wanted it to be a focus of the show. There are moments and things sprinkled in and out that are parts of the identity of the characters: where they come from and how much money they have. And as the show goes on, you will start to unravel the fact that the big baddie at the center has a lot to say—and think—about that one percent. But it’s meant to be a layer and not the focus.
Mike Weiss: Yeah, I agree. There is a tradition of the outsider character who’s able to navigate the world of the upper crust and get to the truth in a murder mystery. Heidi and I talked…
Heidi Cole McAdams: A lot about wanting to enjoy the luxuries of the one percent on the show, enjoying them while also exposing them, while also understanding where they came from and why our characters are even allowed to have that. We had our own point of view on these kinds of luxuries and what they do to the world.
Mike Weiss: As Imogene says in the pilot, “everything has a price.” And like Heidi said, these things come with asterisks on them. We wanted the audience to occasionally be made aware of [extreme wealth] without distracting from what is meant to be a fun, engaging, diverting entertainment.
Nancie Clare: Is there anything you want to say about your hopes or aspirations for this series?
Mike Weiss: I mean, Heidi really likes games in a way that I don’t, but again, in the category of overlapping interests, what we both love is the idea of building a big game-like story for the audience to play along with. And we’re really hoping that an audience finds the show and tries to, alongside our brilliant but flawed detectives, figure out what exactly is going on. We look forward to theories and conspiracies and whatever else the audience can ferret it out from our show.
Heidi Cole McAdams: Yeah, I mean, I love that you noticed and cared about Wallace Stevens and Thorsten Veblen and I hope there are a lot more little tiny Easter egg things planted in the dialogue, in the production design, in the props, in the whatever, that all add up to solving the murder. And it would be so much fun for us if people notice them.
Nancie Clare: Well, here’s hoping that I can talk to both of you at the beginning of season two.
Mike Weiss: That sounds like a dream.