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‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ from the writers of ‘Atlanta’? ‘I couldn’t see it,’ at first

Showrunner Francesca Sloane stands near a monitor showing Donald Glover, her "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" co-writer and series star.
Showrunner Francesca Sloane initially didn’t see a way into “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” when her “Atlanta” colleague Donald Glover (seen onscreen) asked her to work with him on it.
(Annie Noelker / For The Times)
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“I didn’t like the ending,” said my dad about my “Atlanta” episode “The Big Payback.” I had just delivered my first and only child about a month before, and it would be the last time I physically sat in a room with my dad while he was still lucid. I wasn’t fazed; I chuckled. That script garnered the most personal attention I had ever received in my career at that point, but this was my father, a straight shooter who meant zero harm in his unwavering honesty. Not an ounce of bull— ever fell from that man’s lips. It paved roads for huge gains and even larger losses in his 76 years of life.

I admired his brashness and looked up to his authenticity. In a lot of ways, my relationship with my dad prepared me for Hollywood. I had a thicker skin, and approval was never the dangling carrot that drew me in. My dad was endlessly proud of me, but he never understood my creative choices or instincts. “Why don’t you write Dick Wolf and see if he can get you a job? … Now that guy knows how to make good TV.”

When Donald Glover called me to create a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” television series, I went on record to say that I thought he was kidding. It felt like a suggestion my dad would put into orbit for my profession. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” brought to you by the writers of “Atlanta? I couldn’t see it. Still, no one could rope me into a challenging brainstorming session better than Donald — it got me percolating on how we could see it. What if, instead of pulpy action, we focused more on the raw vulnerabilities of marriage? What if these spies weren’t superheroes but instead lonely dreamers? Would we able to relish the in-between moments while making an espionage action-thriller? What would be the effects of taking a predominantly masculine-charged genre and telling it through a female gaze? A daunting but exciting task.

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Donald Glover teamed up with Maya Erskine and “Atlanta” writer-producer Francesca Sloane to reimagine “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” as an exploration of marriage and commitment.

Feb. 2, 2024

By the time I was sitting in the room with my dad while he criticized my writing, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” had already endured quite a bit, and in turn so had I. Ebb and flow, up and down — all the things that come with trying to make something go from mush in your head into something tangible and collaborative. The first real win was the opportunity to cast a writers’ room with some of the most brilliant women I know, alongside Stephen Glover and Donald. This will always be monumental to me; their fingerprints on the Smiths are wacky, generous and irreplaceable. But we also had gone public with bringing one of my greatest heroes into the mix, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. When that ended up not being a creative alignment, after months of mutual parties trying hard to make it work, I was crushed. I was nervous. And I was also very, very pregnant with a slight case of hyperemesis gravidarum, which meant that I was sick for nine months straight. When Maya [Erskine] came on board as Jane, things started to fully click.

I said goodbye to my dad that day with a tower of suitcases and a 2-month-old and flew to New York City to start physical production. It became clear to me early on that no matter how much I thought I knew, the series showed us what it wanted to be, not the other way around. My biggest headache was nailing the tone. Is it doing all the things we want it to? Is it a love story? Is it a spy story? It’s a love story and a spy story! How do you make something feel big in terms of scope but still stay small in terms of intimacy between our two characters?

A man and woman lie side by side in bed in a scene from "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."
Donald Glover and Maya Erskine star in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
(David Lee / Prime Video)

Things were starting to jell; we were trucking along. But life has a way of making you stay humble. I learned that my father had fallen in Los Angeles. “I’m fine,” he said over the phone. A wave of relief washed over me until he continued, “I just ... can’t find myself … from myself.” His words became garbled. It was clear he‘d had a stroke. But here I was, my first showrunning gig, a newborn, an international shoot to complete. My sisters went to his aid, and I continued forth with production, fighting with myself to not run to him instead.

Pushing past jet lag and being totally in awe of Lake Como outside villa windows, we prepped a full-blown chase sequence down the cobblestone streets of Italy. In a meta way, my father-in-law, Ron Perlman, was coming to play a sort of baby man who forced John and Jane to become parental figures to him while protecting him from assassins. We had motorcycle stunts. An explosion waiting in the wings. I kept pressing that I wanted to make sure the smallness still maintained itself — let’s not forget, this is a small story about two people. And then, a phone call, one that made everything become as micro as stardust. “I’m so sorry.” A pause. “You need to come to say goodbye to Daddy. He had another stroke. It’s time.”

‘We were given the gift of a dream cast for a half-hour television comedy with mysterious twists and turns,’ writes ‘Only Murders’ showrunner John Hoffman. ‘We decided to triple down on the shot we were given.’

June 5, 2024

When I made it to his bedside, Dad was nonverbal, in a great deal of pain and not fully present. I held him tight. He hung on for the whole week my sister and I sat with him. Coincidentally, a new episode I co-wrote of “Atlanta” aired. I watched it as he snored beside me in a morphine-fueled slumber. I loved how it turned out. He would’ve hated it. I wished he could have told me so. I had to head back to Europe to reunite with the crew, which crushed me. He passed away an hour later. He spared me from watching him die. I miss him every day.

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Now that the show has aired, I’m shocked by the response. I’m blown away that anyone is watching at all but floored that people are relating to it. When I was younger, I got my rocks off being niche. Isolating people from my “craft” felt satisfying, because it meant that it was just for me. But this project, a title I was so resistant to at first, was bizarrely hitting a wide range of individuals. That feels kind of magical to me. And you know what? I think my dad might’ve liked this one. It’s no “Law & Order,” but it’s got spunk.

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