Nicholas Hatton on Jury Duty: ‘We wanted to do a show like The Office – with a real person at the heart of it’

In Amazon Freevee's new comedy Jury Duty, 11 jurors are actors - and one of them is a real person, with no idea he's in a sitcom. Producer Nicholas Hatton breaks down how a show like this can exist.

Ronald Gladden in the jury box in Jury Duty, surrounded by other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)Ronald Gladden in the jury box in Jury Duty, surrounded by other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)
Ronald Gladden in the jury box in Jury Duty, surrounded by other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)

Jury Duty, Amazon Freevee’s new documentary-style comedy, chronicles the inner workings of an American jury trial through the eyes of one particular juror. What sets that juror - Ronald - apart from everyone is that he’s the only real person in the courtroom: unbeknownst to him, everyone else is an actor, and everything happening around them has been carefully planned out.

Nicholas Hatton, an executive producer on Jury Duty who’s previously collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen on Who Is America and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, recently joined Alex Moreland to talk about what goes on behind the scenes to make a hybrid reality sitcom like Jury Duty. Hatton broke down the development of the show, from the initial ideas to the pitching stage, explained how the production found both the actors populating their pretend courtroom and the real-life person at the heart of the series, and discussed some of the unusual challenges that presented themselves across the production.  

What was the starting point with Jury Duty – where did the idea originate?

Originally, it came from two of our producers. David Bernad and Todd Schulman had been kicking around ideas for doing stuff in the reality/hybrid-reality space. They knew Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky really well, and those guys had a project that was essentially a sitcom based on jury duty. They put their brains together and went hold on, why don't we take the sitcom Jury Duty and put a real person in the middle of it? The idea being “what would happen in Jim from The Office was a real person, and everyone else around him was an actor?” He’d just be surrounded by lunatics, trying to get through his day. That was essentially the genesis of it all, seeing what the hell that would even look like. Ultimately, Jury Duty is the end result of that thinking.

How do you pitch something like this? How do you actually go and sell it to people? I know you’ve got experience in this hybrid-reality space, but I assume its still an unusual enough idea that it’s going to be a more difficult one to get commissioned.

Funnily enough, actually, it's kind of a clean pitch. A lot of pitches can be a bit more convoluted, but if the pitch is “hey, yeah, we want to do a show like The Office, but we've got a real person in the middle of it – then let's see what happens”. It's kind of insane, but also something you can sort of grasp? From there, it just requires a lot of faith from the network to be like, okay, I get the idea, how are you going to pull it off? That's really the challenge of a pitch like that, but fortunately, Freevee had faith in the team to be able to actually execute it. A lot of us came from and had experience in this Sacha Baron Cohen, Nathan Fielder kind of world, dealing with real people – there’s a very specialized weirdo expertise that comes with that, when you're dealing with real people. Fortunately, we were able to build a team that was really, really great in all in all elements of that, and we've been able to make the show.

Ronald in Jury Duty, surrounded by the other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)Ronald in Jury Duty, surrounded by the other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)
Ronald in Jury Duty, surrounded by the other jurors (Credit: Amazon Freevee)

I’m curious about the casting, across a few different angles. First, the big one: where did you find Ronald? How do you find someone who can be the real person at the heart of the show like this?

What you do is you hire very smart people! But the way it starts is you put postings up in various places – Craigslist or Facebook or something like that – and you say “Hi, are you jury eligible in a US citizen? And are you interested in taking part in a documentary style projects about a civil case?” You keep it very vague from there, and then you'll get plenty of people who just want to do something different, or try a new experience – we had over 4000 tapes coming off the back of that, 4000 submissions, and then you start whittling it down. When you're whittling it down, it involves a very small team of people – it was led by our producer Alexis Sampietro, who is a veteran of Sacha world. She watches every single tape, and then from there she has follow up interviews. 

It's really a gut feeling. It's an art, not a science, when it comes to dealing with real people: you just have to have an instinct about how they're going to do. With Ronald on this show, the difference between Jury Duty and some of the other stuff in this space is that we really, really wanted the audience to root for our hero. We really wanted them to have a connection with Ronald, we didn't ever want him to feel like he was the butt of the joke, or that we were punching down. You needed to have that sense of someone, and with Ronald we just had that that intuition, going to meet him and during interviews, that this is someone who has a core sense of decency and likability. He’s someone who we’re going to be emotionally invested with on this journey. That, luckily, ended up being the case – but again, it's an art, it's not science, he could have been a complete bust, and the whole thing could have collapsed on its face almost entirely.

So, when in the process do you know for sure that he is working?

I would say that, in an experience like this, you're very nervous for the first 24 to 48 hours, because your two things are at play. One is has this world, this Truman world that we've created, is it holding up? You have to think of every single contingency: we built every element of his experience, from how he got to the courthouse to where he slept at night, and we control every single element, but it’s with the perception that he was free to do whatever you want it to do. So, you're really stress testing what you created in the first 48 hours. [The second is when you] then start introducing weird characters and jokey stuff, and you have to be like “stay with it, stay with it, stay with it”. 

Once that 48 hours is done, I think my personal belief is that humans just accept the reality that they're presented with. From that point, they're really themselves, and you see who they are as people. That played out with Ronald after we took his phone away – which is a terrifying point, because who wants to have their phone taken away in this day and age, it’s an insane proposition. As soon as he had his phone taken away, he just wanted to start chatting with all the other jurors and getting to know them, and it was wonderful and friendly. That was his first instinct, and we were like, “this is the guy, he’s perfect, it's amazing”. So, two days in, we had a pretty good sense that Ronald was gonna was going to be our hero.

And if he hadn’t worked for whatever reason, what then? Presumably there’s a point at which it just would’ve been too late to change him.

You plan contingency after contingency after contingency, with all these different escape plans and everything, but with a show like this, what makes it different than your traditional scripted comedy or scripted drama is that… If you're making one of those shows, and let's say maybe the writing isn't as good as you thought it was, or maybe the acting is a bit rubbish, or maybe you did a bad job of directing and producing it, at the end of the day, you can still hand upon a product over to the network and be like “sorry it wasn't great, but you asked for 10 episodes, and here they are”. With this, if it failed, then there was nothing to hand over other than a video of me crying for four hours. So, that was the stakes – it was sort of terrifying. In that sense, it was a kind of social experiment, and there wasn't really a safety net.

The jurors are sworn in on Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)The jurors are sworn in on Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)
The jurors are sworn in on Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)

What I’m also curious about, in terms of the casting, is how you find the rest of your cast. I recognise a few of them from different shows, but are there conversations about the level of fame you can cast at, to make sure Ronald doesn’t go “hang on, I saw them in…”? What kind of conversations are you having there, how do you approach that?

It is exactly that. We have to have a sort of ‘level of fame’ ceiling for our ensemble, and frankly, if you're above that ceiling, we can't have you, because Ronald could be like, “hold on, I saw you in a cell phone commercial that plays across the country during every single sports event”. So yeah, there was a limit, and essentially the task was to find incredibly talented performers who hadn't quite made that leap into the public sphere yet. 

We had an amazing casting director named Susie Farris, who just dived in with us, and we got through so many different tapes again just finding these people. I mean, the one good thing I'll say about LA is that there's plenty of very talented actors who haven't quite had their chance yet. We're in a really rich and fertile area for very, very talented people. We had a couple of folks coming from New York as well, it was a nationwide search to find this this cast. But yeah, that was certainly a consideration, and it did narrow the pool somewhat, but we got so lucky with everyone.

Are there any unusual challenges that came with this? I mean, I imagine it’s all just a string of unusual challenges, but obviously you’ve got experience with this through Who Is America? and Borat – was there anything on Jury Duty in particular that came up that surprised you? Something you weren’t anticipating, an unusual challenge even by the standards of an unusual challenge?

You know, what’s interesting is – well, two things. One is I think the difference with this, compared to some other hybrid stuff that has been done in the past – even very complicated stuff, and on Borat 2 there were things where the process behind it was completely mad, incredibly high wire stuff – but the difference with this is it’s a long game. You’re keeping someone in the maze, as it were, for weeks; usually when you do those other things, you’re with these people for maybe a few hours, and you cycle through them. What you end up seeing in the show or a movie is whoever was giving us the best bit, essentially, but if it doesn’t go well you can just pull the plug and get out of there. You couldn't do that with this show. That made it also terrifying, because there's a real cumulative effect – all the good work you could do over the first, let's say ten days, could be completely undone if someone said the wrong thing in front of our hero on day 12. That was very, very stressful. 

In terms of being surprising? You know what, it was the emotional investment that our cast had in Ronald, that really surprised me. Usually, with things like this, you have one actor who goes in and does the thing around the episode, and Sacha is a great example of that – with this, we inverted the formula and have our incredible cast. You could sense them sort of falling in love with Ronald, and that meant that when we put Ronald through any sad or dull or challenging moments – which there are a couple of in the show, where we do things which if you saw in real life, you’d be a bit bummed out? “Oh, why is my friend behaving that way, that's so out of character of them, that's really nasty” – it that might make you feel a bit sad. Actors saw Ronald going through that, and feeling sad about it, and they felt very affected by it. 

That was a tough thing, actually balancing them knowing what they needed to do to put Ronald through this this roller coaster on this journey, but knowing that they that he would feel sad at a certain point. At the end of it, they were really concerned that, when the truth was revealed, he wouldn't think that their affection towards him was fake. They really, really did love him, and really felt like they’d created these friendships with him, but just with completely fake names, and completely fake backstories. So, that was interesting; the reveal was a very emotional and very tense moment, because you could feel all the actors really sort of terrified at that moment, hoping that he would still realise that they loved him. That was my surprising thing, I think actually, their emotional investment in Ronald. 

Have you given much thought to the future of Jury Duty? Is it naturally a one and done project, or is there a way to do it for another series?

It's good question. We have lots of different thoughts – it's tricky to repeat something exactly the same way, because the way we find people, they can't be clued into it or even have any suspicions. We have to be very, very careful about how we sort of set up the appearance of the show and the appearance of this documentary style project, so it's tough to repeat things exactly the same way. But this format, I think, has a lot of exciting places it can go for many, many seasons. We're really, really excited about that, and we've got some pretty wild ideas. We're thinking a long time ahead.

Alan Barinholtz and Rashida 'Sheedz' Olayiwola in Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)Alan Barinholtz and Rashida 'Sheedz' Olayiwola in Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)
Alan Barinholtz and Rashida 'Sheedz' Olayiwola in Jury Duty (Credit: Amazon Freevee)

When you’re coming to something like this, what sort of creative influences are you drawing on and looking to? I know obviously you’ve got your past experiences with these hybrid shows, but do you look at all to, say, other shows about trials and courtrooms?

When it comes to creative influences, it's just “what's funny?” What we wanted to try and do, though, is create a sitcom with the slightly trope-y storylines, like a will-they-won’t-they and some traditional character dynamics, but with a real person it it. That’s something you're keeping your mindset: what would happen here in a sitcom, and how can we engineer this so that it feels like sitcom with this crazy twist?  That was the only real touchstone we had, just to try and keep that in mind – in terms of actual jury duty itself, no, we weren’t influenced by other legal shows.

What we did want to do, and what we had to do, was make sure that it felt completely and utterly real. One of our writers, Evan Williams – he ended up playing Sean Saunders, the Defence Attorney –used to be a litigator, a very successful litigator in Louisiana. He gave us that that truth and that reality that we could hold on to. Similarly, Judge Alan was a prosecutor for a long time, and the actor who played the other attorney also had legal experience. So we really relied on them very heavily to give us that touch of reality on everything, which is what you needed to allow Ronald to settle into the world and not be suspicious.

Have you ever done jury duty, out of interest? Real jury duty, not in Cannes.

I haven't! I was summoned when we were prepping for the show during COVID, which was terrible timing, but they never selected me. From everything I’ve heard though it's extraordinarily dull, so hopefully we've made it seem a bit more exciting than that in our show.

Just to wrap everything up, then, is there anything in particular that you’d hope people take from Jury Duty, in terms of their experience watching the show?

What we really wanted to do was show in a project like this – again, rather than being something we used to punch down on a regular person – was can we use a regular person to show that people can improve the world around them? In little ways, we're not talking about massive things, but just by being a decent, courteous, empathetic person, you can really brighten other people's lives and be slightly inspirational.

It sounds a bit grandiose, but it’s a bit of a weird time in the world right now, coming out of COVID and all that stuff. We wanted to create a show that people felt good about watching, and can be charmed by the experience, and can look to this guy and be like “that's a lovely real human being, who is doing his best to make the world a better place for the people around him, even if he doesn't even know them”. That was what we hope people will take away from the experience – and also just enjoying it, and having a laugh, and enjoying the comedy of it all. We just want it to be a truly memorable and enjoyable experience.

The first four episodes of Jury Duty are available now on Amazon Freevee (a free ad-supported streaming service), with new episodes available each week. 

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