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Francesca Sloane, creator of ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’ finds poetry in the strangeness

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Francesca Sloane loves those scenes in spy films where a man and a woman on the run escape their pursuers with an impromptu kiss. Without warning, the man draws the woman close to him, places one on her lips and, in the time it takes for the bad guys to lose track of them, awakens the dormant passion between them.

Having had the chance to write her own version of this scene, Sloane made some changes. He appears in the second episode of “Mr. & Mrs.” Smith,” his new Amazon series, created with Donald Glover and based on the 2005 Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film.

Rather than kissing as usual in a dark alley, John Smith (Glover) and Jane Smith, played by Maya Erskineshare their first kiss while crawling on all fours in a well-lit living room, with a perverted, looming billionaire (John Turturro) ordering them to lick and sniff each other like dogs.

“I asked myself, ‘What’s the grossest, most awkward, weirdest way to give them their first kiss,'” Sloane said during a recent video call from her home in Los Angeles. “It was just a really fun, silly way to play with the trope.”

Although “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is Sloane’s first production as showrunner, she has a history of upending familiar story conventions. For Glover’s flagship series, “Atlanta” — a series that is never afraid to zig where others would zag — she wrote or co-wrote three groundbreaking episodes: “The Big Payback,” about a world where reparations become reality; “The Goof Who Sat by the Door,” a mockumentary about the rise and fall of a Black Disney executive; and “Snipe Hunt,” in which the central relationship of the series, whether they like it or not, is resolved.

“If there’s something she believes in, she’s pretty relentless,” Glover said in an interview. “In a writers’ room, it’s easy to throw up your hands when you’re stuck and move on, but she never really allowed us to do that.”

For a writer with a distinct point of view, a remake of a big-budget action film from nearly 20 years ago might seem like a strange assignment to take on. He came to Sloane through Glover, who had been approached by Michael Schaefer (the former president of New Regency) to reimagine the film as a television series.

Sloane laughed at the idea at first, assuming Glover was joking. But after a series of phone calls during the pandemic summer of 2020, she was receptive to his pitch: where the original film was a deconstruction of the seemingly perfect couple, their version would be about two people who achieve to succeed – for a while. , at least – despite real imperfections.

“Even though it was this spy thriller, we thought there was an opportunity to lean into the parts dealing with the meaning of marriage,” Sloane said. “The difficult times in between, the idea of ​​loneliness and real vulnerability. The more we talked about it, the more we felt like we could be the perfect writers to do this.

Sloane, 36, joined the “Atlanta” writing team for Season 3, after working on “Fargo” with Noah Hawley and “The First” with Beau Willimon. Her first solo writing credit on “Atlanta” was “The Big Payback,” an assignment given to her in part because she was “the whitest person in the room.” (She is Salvadoran and Jewish.)

The episode follows a mild-mannered office worker named Marshall (Justin Bartha) whose life is upended by a lawsuit seeking to hold him responsible for his ancestors’ slave ownership. Marshall tries to ignore the suit, assuming it is baseless. But like in a horror film, the inconceivable gradually becomes the inevitable.

“I tried to write it as straight as possible,” Sloane said. “We talked a lot about the idea that if you set a story to a level 1 and let things build gradually, by the time you get to a 5 it will feel like a 10.”

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” applies a similar approach to the espionage genre. John and Jane are new recruits to a mysterious agency that requires them to live and work together as part of a team of assassins. Their Marriage, at first, is just a cover. But love blossoms. Each episode is built roughly around milestones in their relationship: their first night together, their first vacation together, their first visit to couples therapy.

As their relationship intensifies, so do their missions, which carry life-and-death stakes into every feud and difficult time. An ill-timed argument over the semantics of infidelity allows a dangerous rival (Michaela Coel) to outsmart them in a high-speed subway chase.

“She invented what she called the ‘spy sandwich,'” Glover said. “Every episode should start with the reality of the relationship, then add a spy story, then more reality on the other side.”

In the original film, Jolie and Pitt present such perfect physical specimens that watching them compete seems vaguely impersonal, like an anthropological experiment or a child’s Barbie battle. But Erskine and Glover never seem anything other than mortal. Their romance feels lived-in and recognizable, which makes it all the more upsetting when it begins to deteriorate.

“We liked the idea of ​​doing the rejected version of ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” said Sloane. “Their conversations are not all stylized, shy and good-natured. They say the kinds of things you’d hear in bed at the end of the day with the person you’re closest to.

When the series was first announced, in 2021, the role of Jane was to be played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of “Fleabag.” She ultimately left the group due to what Sloane described as different creative visions.

“She gave a lot of creativity and dedication during months of phone calls and Zoom meetings in different time zones,” Sloane said. “But it became very clear that Donald and I had a shared vision for the show, and she really supported us in that different direction.”

Their offbeat approach to the story was not a guaranteed recipe for success. During test screenings, audiences objected to the first kiss scene, where John and Jane are forced to act like dogs. But Sloane was undeterred.

“She never considered for a second cutting it or reducing it,” Glover said. “The fact that people were weird made her so happy. She said to me: ‘Yeah. That’s what’s going to make it good.’”

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