‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ Creator Finds Poetry in Oddity

‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ Creator Finds Poetry in Oddity

Francesca Sloane loves those scenes in spy movies when a man and a woman on the run evade their pursuers with an impromptu kiss. With little warning, the man draws the woman close to him, plants one on her lips and — just for as long as it takes for the bad guys to lose their trail — awakens the dormant passion between them.

Given the chance to write her own version of this scene, Sloane made a few alterations. It appears in the second episode of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” her new Amazon series, created with Donald Glover and based on the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film from 2005.

Rather than have the typical embrace in a dark alley, John Smith (Glover) and Jane Smith, played by Maya Erskine, share their first kiss while crawling on all fours in a brightly lit parlor, with a looming, perverted billionaire (John Turturro) commanding them to lick and sniff each other like dogs.

“I thought, ‘What is the grossest, most awkward, weirdest way to give them their first kiss,’” Sloane said in a recent video call from her home in Los Angeles. “It just felt like a really fun and silly way to play with the trope.”

Though “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is Sloane’s first production as a showrunner, she has a record of turning familiar story conventions on their head. For Glover’s breakout series, “Atlanta” — a show never afraid to zig where others would zag — she wrote or co-wrote three mold-breaking 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 show’s central will-they-or-won’t-they relationship is resolved.

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

For a writer with a distinct point of view, a remake of a big-budget action movie from nearly 20 years ago may seem like an odd assignment to take. It 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 initially laughed at the idea, assuming Glover was joking. But after a series of phone calls during the pandemic summer of 2020, she warmed to his pitch: Where the original movie had been a deconstruction of the perfect-seeming couple, their version would be about two people who manage 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 that were about what marriage means,” Sloane said. “The awkward in-between moments, the idea of loneliness and true vulnerability. The more we talked about it, the more it felt like we could actually be the perfect writers to do this.”

Sloane, 36, joined the writing staff of “Atlanta” 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 she said she was given 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 accountable for his ancestors’ ownership of slaves. Marshall tries to ignore the suit, assuming it is without merit. But, as in a horror film, the inconceivable gradually becomes the inevitable.

“I tried to write it as straight as I possibly could,” Sloane said. “Something we talked about a lot is the idea that if you set a story at a 1 and let things gradually creep up, by the time you get to a 5, it will feel like a 10.’

“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” applies a similarly grounded approach to the spy genre. John and Jane are new recruits to a mysterious agency that assigns them to live and work together as a team of assassins. Their marriage, at first, is purely a cover. But love blossoms. Each episode is built roughly around the milestones of their relationship — their first time sleeping together, their first vacation together, their first visit to couples’ therapy.

As their relationship intensifies, so do their missions, which bring life-or-death stakes to every squabble and rough patch. An ill-timed argument over the semantics of infidelity allows a dangerous rival (Michaela Coel) to outmaneuver them in a high-speed subway chase.

“She came up with this thing she called the ‘spy sandwich,’” Glover said. “Every episode should start with the realness of the relationship, then you add a spy thing, then more realness on the other side.”

In the original movie, Jolie and Pitt present as such flawless physical specimens that watching them clash feels 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 starts to sour.

“We liked the idea of doing the reject version of ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’” Sloane said. “Their conversations aren’t all stylized and coy and debonair. They say the kinds of things that you would hear in bed at the end of the day with the person that you’re closest to.”

When the show was first announced, in 2021, the role of Jane was to be played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of “Fleabag.” She eventually exited because of what Sloane described as differing creative visions.

“She gave a lot creatively and was super-invested over months of phone calls and Zoom meetings across different time zones,” Sloane said. “But it became very evident that Donald and I had one vision of the show, and she really supported us going in this different direction.”

Their offbeat approach to the story wasn’t a guaranteed recipe for success. In test screenings, audiences objected to the first-kiss scene, where John and Jane are made to act like dogs. But Sloane was undeterred.

“She never for a second considered cutting it, or trimming it down,” Glover said. “The fact that people were weirded out made her so happy. She was like, ‘Yeeeaahh. That’s what’s going to make this good.’”

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