Television

How To’s John Wilson Reveals Why He Almost Didn’t Tell His Sex Cult Story

It involves a dark secret from his past.

A man holds a camera while standing on the NYC subway. He's wearing a beige jacket and beanie.
HBO

A lot has changed since How to With John Wilson’s first season ended. While the six-episode season aired on HBO only a year ago, in fall 2020, the docu-comedy series—about the big and small moments in Wilson’s life, collaged together with infinite amounts of hilarious B-roll—didn’t reckon explicitly with what was happening in the real world. For us viewers, it continues to be impossible not to. We’ve seen thousands of deaths, vaccine rollouts, booster shots, and disturbing political uprising unfold in the finale’s wake, among countless other moments.

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But its unforgettable season finale, in which Wilson sets out to make the perfect risotto and ends up somewhere completely different, stumbled right into the beginnings of the COVID outbreak in New York City. Camera in hand, Wilson goes to the supermarket—which is chock full of people anxiously stocking up as the news warns that heading outdoors is increasingly unsafe. It’s a horrifying moment that drummed up striking memories in November of 2020, watching Wilson stand behind his fellow anxious March shoppers, unaware of the future to come.

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The second picks up, meanwhile, with the pandemic in fullswing. But the magic of How to With John Wilson is that its documentary conceit goes inward, not outward; it was purely by accident that the season finale ended up a portrait of the beginnings of lockdown. In Season 2, the desire to tell intimate stories about parking spaces, interior design, and going out with friends, all of which quickly spiral out of control, still trumps any attempt to reflect the world and its greater tragedies. It is at once surprising and, even more so, comforting.

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I chatted with Wilson ahead of the second season premiere, which airs Nov. 26 on HBO, about how he pieces those interests together with the hours of footage he shoots every day; how the generally non-comedic author Susan Orlean ended up in the writing room; and how the heck he ended up at an event sponsored by the pernicious NXIVM cult, among many other things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Allegra Frank: Season 1 ended right when the pandemic was starting and New York was entering lockdown. But Season 2 doesn’t pick up directly from there, instead opening with a story about your landlord wanting to sell the building and not referencing COVID at all. Why did you choose to start this season in this specific place—or, rather, a less specific place than where you ended?

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John Wilson: I feel like I told as much of the COVID story as I wanted to tell in the finale of Season 1. I just didn’t want to tell the same story as everybody else. I feel like this is just our new environment and … I didn’t really know what kind of catching up there was to do that I needed to explain to anybody. We all understand where we are culturally and everything right now, and with the pandemic. The real estate thing was just the next, most life-changing thing to happen to me, and I just started to document that whole experience. … I just wanted to just start telling this other story without having to give a full, “Previously on …” kind of thing.

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The pandemic was still going when you started filming Season 2—it’s still going on now. How did that affect the actual filming of the show, once you started picking up production again?

Well, during the off-season, I was still filming every single day by myself. I could just do whatever I wanted, because there was no network protocol with that. When formal production started, we did have to have a COVID compliance officer that kept an eye on us to make sure that we were okay. But also, it wasn’t actually that hard. A lot of the second season was shot in this sweet spot, right when everyone started getting the vaccine and before [the Delta variant]. People had this confidence with the vaccine before things mutated. It honestly wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. People just wanted to talk now more than ever.

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While we only hear your voice narrating each episode, you do have a team of writers. But how does the writing process actually work, knowing that you are filming so much, and then you have to whittle all that footage down into a story? How much of that footage is actually written into the script, and how much of the story comes together through editing?

It’s a process I still don’t quite understand myself, but the only rule is that you have to just keep writing up until the last possible second. The script never really stops changing until you’ve delivered the episode to the network. We have a formal writer’s room with me and Michael Koman, and Susan [Orlean], and Alice [Gregory], and Conner [O’Malley] this season. We nail down what the episode concepts are, and then we write a script that has a bunch of places that we would like to go and that maybe has some of the metaphors baked into it already … and then we try to go film a bunch of it. Half of it fails, half of it works really well.

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Then we rewrite it to support the stuff  that worked. Then it just constantly evolves. We just finished the finale a couple days ago, and we’re still writing up until the last possible second. It never ends.

It seems like there must be thousands of hours of footage to work through and break down for every episode.

It’s what I spend all of my time doing. There’s a psychotic amount of footage that I get. I watch 100 percent of it from every single camera department, including my own stuff. I just spend day and night making selects and just trying to find shots … I try to write specifically to shots. If there’s a shot that I think is really beautiful and also really funny, I’m like, “I got to get that in.” So, I will just write a joke specifically to it, and then I will build a section around that with other footage to support it.

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I try to think about it in chunks, because we have these interviews with people that I meet or that we arrange with, and then the in-betweens are these little sections that I then need to build in the edit. The editors are also part of the writing process, and Koman is by my side the whole time. I don’t know if it’s a formula I could really teach, but it somehow works.

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Adding two new people to the writing staff does suggest there is some level of teaching, or at least collaboration, possible. You got Conner O’Malley, who’s one of the funniest people in comedy right now, but he has such a specific voice himself. But then seeing Susan Orlean, I was like, “Wait, the woman that Meryl Streep plays in Adaptation? What is she doing here?” How did they both end up working on the show this season?

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I’ve always been a fan of Conner’s stuff ever since his early Vine days, when he was also just some anonymous creep behind the camera. When we were trying to crew up [for Season 2], I asked him, and he said yeah. Then with Susan, I’ve always been a huge fan of Susan’s stuff. Saturday Night is one of my favorite books ever. I was asking HBO, “Can we get someone like Susan Orlean?” because I thought that she would’ve been past that point in her career that she would humor something like this. They were like, “Well, we could just ask her.” Then they put us in touch, and she was super into it.

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Everyone brought our own obsessions to the table. I did want there to be some kind of diversity of skills and subject matter that people like to cover. All the writers are on screen, in one way or another, based on the kind of things they contribute. Conner was obsessed with the [Meal, Ready to Eat] guys—this niche micro-culture on YouTube, and he really wanted to get that in, and that was something [we used].

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Hanging out with someone obsessed with collecting old military rations was definitely a bizarre subplot to throw into an episode that was supposed to be about wine tasting. How essential is it to include those surprising threads in each episode?

I think that something I get from Nathan [Fielder, executive producer] and Koman all the time is never let the audience get ahead of you. You just have to constantly surprise people with where you bring things, no matter how much of a non sequitur it seems like. The MRE guy, obviously it’s not the most practical way to teach how to appreciate wine, but I always like to be a few degrees off, just because you could read any book, any wine book, and learn what you need to learn. But … if I’m looking at something, and I don’t understand why someone likes it, like wine or whatever, I go one door over, you know?

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In terms of unique, amazing tangents, episode two has a great one: You tell a story about an acapella convention you went to, and totally ruined, in college, which you discovered was hosted by Keith Raniere, a.k.a. the founder of NXIVM. How did you decide to fit in such an amazingly weird anecdote into the show, especially since it’s one in which none of the characters in it are people you’re interviewing on-screen?

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I resisted it at first, because I was really embarrassed about the acapella stuff. I thought that I could go the rest of my life without really ever acknowledging it. We had the NXIVM story on the back burner in the first season, but we felt like NXIVM fever hadn’t really hit yet, and not really many people knew who Keith was at the time—or so I thought. When the second season came around, that’s when I thought it was finally time to deploy this anecdote because people were familiar with him. I had spent the past decade in shame, almost, having had to apologize and being told that I was wrong for having caused a scene at this acapella event. Then as all the tabloids started to pick up the story [of the NXIVM cult], I began to feel more and more vindicated. I finally felt like it was clear who was the hero and … I mean, maybe I’m not the hero, but who the villain was in this story. It was so cathartic to finally be able to just put it on screen.

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I was like, “I’m sure HBO is so happy. This is almost direct promo for the next season of The Vow.

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Oh yeah, exactly. … We tried to talk to Mark Vicente, because he was the video guy, and we assumed he would have all the footage from that event, and we tried to just work within the HBO family to get it. But I guess the only footage that exists, that I think is still on the internet, I just had to pull it directly from Allison Mack’s YouTube channel, which, it’s still on there.

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To go back to the pandemic and the overarching development of the season, were there any surprising ways that the reality of what was going on affected writing and filming and creating the show? Did it contribute to any interesting or unique story turns?

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With COVID? I don’t know. I mean, I feel like you could say that all of it was. Everything that happened in Season 2 is a direct result of it in one way or another. I don’t think my landlord would’ve moved to Las Vegas if COVID didn’t happen. It’s hard to say what would’ve happened and what wouldn’t have, but we didn’t really want to mention COVID as much in the season. I think the one time I really mention it is in the parking episode, when I’m just talking about public space, but that’s just from a civic design perspective, and I didn’t really want to lean too much into the COVID story that everyone else is telling.

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What are your thoughts on pandemic-focused content? I remember even as early as late last year, there was content coming out that was so specifically about the pandemic. Did you want to avoid putting it in the story as a result?

It was a mixture of a couple of those things. So much of the content that came out that was pandemic-focused felt to me more like a victim of the pandemic rather than embracing the pandemic without comment, which is what I wanted to do. Like, this is the landscape now, this is the environment. We don’t really need to say anything else. This will be a comprehensive document of what New York looks like during this year, and I just want to leave it at that. I don’t want to have to just fatigue everyone with the same kind of content. … Personally, I think that’s some of the most disgusting imagery to me, the Zoom stuff. I want my show to feel refreshing, in that it’s showing images that no other pandemic show is suited to show, in a way, where you can actually just have the raw material there.

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