TV & Film

Amy Poehler Talks 'Parks And Recreation,' Pawnee, Directing, 'Wet Hot' Reunion, 'You Are Here' And More

Amy Poehler, who wrote and directed last week's hilarious debate episode, talks about Leslie's election chances, the show's approach to politics, and whether ascending the Pawnee ladder could change the town's most ambitious parks bureaucrat.

Nothing could capsize the unsinkable Leslie Knope -- except, maybe, losing an election.

The race between Leslie and goofy rich guy Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) ends in the May 10 "Parks and Recreation" season finale (9:30 p.m. ET on NBC). But in this week's episode, in order to make sure they leave no voter unconvinced, Leslie and her campaign team, in the exclusive clip below, embark on a final campaign swing through Pawnee.

Before you get to that clip, Amy Poehler, who wrote and directed last week's hilarious debate episode, talks about Leslie's election chances, the show's approach to politics (which Poehler and executive producer Michael Schur also discussed in here), and whether ascending the Pawnee ladder could change the town's most ambitious parks bureaucrat.

We started out by talking about the stirring speech that Leslie gave at the end of "The Debate," which serves as something of a mission statement for both the candidate and the show.

That final speech that Leslie gave, was that one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to write, or was it made easier by the fact that you know her so well?
When Schur and I were talking about the script, and he said kind off-handedly, "OK, I think we probably have Leslie give a speech here during the debate and shows everybody how she really feels." And we were both kind of laughing about it, because we were like, “Oh yeah, sure, just one of those.”

But it was a really satisfying writing challenge, because the thing I love so much about our show -- second to the people that are on it and that I get to work with -- is the fact that the show allows us to go big with our feelings and emotions. You get to play things real and have real feelings, and talk about themes like small towns, family, loyalty, commitment -- all that stuff.

So it was kind of a dream to write it, because it felt like I’ve never written anything particularly dramatic, and it felt like I was getting to write on a drama and that was really satisfying. I wrote it separately from the episode because I just wanted to kind of try to figure out how she would approach it. I wrote it and then cut most of it, and then went back and tried to kind of underwrite it. It was a fun challenge to go back and [go], "Okay, now take out all of this stuff that seems too writerly."

When I was visiting the set, I mean, the whole cast is talented, but Chris Pratt's improvisations were just so funny. It just seemed as though he had an endless variety of things to offer on the spot.
He’s the most natural. Pratt is such a natural actor. There’s really never a false moment from him. Everything that happens to him, to his character Andy, it just happens in the moment. He never does anything the same twice. He’s so fluid. I’m always frankly in awe of how natural he is.

How did you even choose from the footage of him reenacting different movies?
All credit goes to the editor, Dean Holland. I was writing a couple [of the movies that Andy was to re-enact], and then I just asked Pratt on set one day, "What would be a movie Andy would like?" And he started reenacting scenes from “Roadhouse” with Patrick Swayze, so that’s what ended up in the script, and two other films too. [Note: A longer Director's Cut of "The Debate" is available here, and longer versions of "Bus Tour" and the season finale will be posted on the day after those episodes air.]

Andy’s enthusiasm for life is what’s so funny, and when he cares about something, there’s no judgment. Andy doesn’t understand the idea of a guilty pleasure. “Roadhouse” is awesome, and he’s seen it many, many times. That day [we shot those scenes] was really fun because I was directing and I wasn’t acting, which is a dream, because you get to wear your own clothes. We just rolled on Pratt describing different movie scenes forever. Dean Holland and the other editors did amazing work cutting it down, because I think at one point, it probably went on for 15 minutes.

I’m interested in this idea that "Parks" has been able to pretty thoroughly explore politics, which is often a toxic and cynical subject in our culture. When I spoke to Mike, he talked a lot about how, by bringing it down to the local level, you make it less partisan and more human and relatable. Do you feel there are lines that you won’t cross with Leslie? What are the warning signs for you of what not to do or what do you think the show does best in the political arena?
We talk about it all the time, Mike and I, because we always kind of struggle with how corrupted Leslie will become, or would become. Or how cynical she will or would become.

This year there was an episode, a bowling episode, where Leslie finds out that [a voter doesn't like her]. She watches a focus group. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten a chance to do that...

I haven’t, actually.
I’m sure you could go online and read about people commenting about your writing.

As an actor, you can certainly, at any moment and at any time, discover 400 people who think you’re stupid, fat and ugly. But focus groups -- they can be poisonous as well as informative, I guess. In that episode, Leslie finds out that one guy just doesn’t like her, and it just drives her crazy. And it’s just a lesson that there [are some] people that don’t like you.

[Her opponent, ditzy heir Bobby Newport, played by Paul Rudd] just has charisma, personality to give away. What’s been so fun to play is -- and Paul’s been so great at this -- Bobby Newport is like a rich kid who has kind of had all these things handed to him, but he is not really sure what he wants to do. And that can be a deadly combination in local politics. Why Kathryn Hahn is so fun as a character is, she's just kind of a Washington insider who comes in and says, “Oh. You do A to B and then B to C, and this is how you win.” Pawnee is, in Leslie’s mind, one of the best cities in America. And then when someone comes in from the outside world, you get to kind of see how removed the Parks Department is from the big ol' political [world].

Does getting more power change the core of who she is? Is her ultimate goal a bigger political stage?
Leslie’s very ambitious. She wants to be the first female president of the United States. But the reality is she works in the Parks Department. It’s a scrappy struggle. The show doesn’t jump. It’s not like next season, we’re going to see Leslie in the White House or something.

When we first meet Leslie she’s in kind of a [bad] relationship. And she’s trying to get this park built. Now she’s in a real relationship and the park’s not built. When we met with people that work in the Parks Department, it takes 15 years to build a park and to get someone’s name on it, and to actually get people in there.

So the show is a fun combination of the slow and the fast. Fast choices, and fast comedy, combined with the slog of getting the smallest things changed. And how people work really hard to make small changes, and how those small changes affect people in a big way. So it’s a fast and slow combination that, I think, is what helps make the tone of the show.

Because you know, it’s not a show where there’s a ticking clock. We’re not all working together on something that has to get done today. But that’s what Leslie is constantly doing -- she’s forcing deadlines and creating these time constraints because she just wants to get things done. And she says that in her speech in the debate -- she says, "If I push too hard, it’s because I feel strongly. If I come on too strong, it's because I feel strongly. So sue me if I care too much kind of thing." That's her.

Mike was explaining that there are plausible ways the show can move forward whether Leslie wins or loses, but she wants it so much, it'll be hard to see her lose. Is it really plausible? How do you do that? Because if she loses, I’m going to be sad.
Well, it’s so exciting to hear you say that, because it means that you care about what’s going to happen. And I am with you. It’s hard to answer it without spoiling anything, but the show -- it keeps moving forward. Good comedy moments come out of her winning and her losing, that's the best way to say it.

This season had the really strong through-line of the election -- is that something that you hope to do again, or was that a one-off?
It’s hard to talk too much about what’s coming without it being spoilery, but I will say that this season, we were out on the road a lot because we were campaigning. What was really fun about those episodes is that a lot of us were all together. But I think -- and again, we haven’t written next season yet -- but Mike and I were talking about trying to kind of settle back in to, or just to enjoy, the Parks Department more [next] season, because we were out on the road.

There's just been so much change that’s happened to every character since the beginning of the show, and it's really satisfying to see that. Some things are teased at the end of the finale, what's going to happen to some people [regarding] change. As per usual, the show kind of leaves these big changes to the end and Mike has to kind of figure out how to fix them over the summer.

There are some really good, juicy, cliffhanger-y moments. And I have to say, that finale episode is so good. It will keep you on the edge of your seat. They did an awesome job, and Mike did an amazing job. I'm just really, really proud of it, so I think you're going to love it.

What was directing an episode like? Did you find that the things you feared or were nervous about ended up being problems? What did you learn from it?
Oh my gosh, so much. I mean, I'm still learning even just thinking about it, even talking about it. It's something I want to do more of, and I’ve always had a desire to do more. And I hope to do more.

I just love the idea of keeping the whole piece in your head -- having the whole idea in your head as well as your part in it. There's a sometimes really great feeling when you're an actor and you get to come in, deliver your part, and you hand over the control of the whole to someone else. I love the feeling of maintaining that whole piece as well -- I like the control of it. So to get to do both was really fun. And I got to work with such great actors and my friends. Just the delight of getting to just sit behind monitors and watch people perform -- which I do anyway when I'm acting -- but my favorite days were certainly the ones where I wasn't acting.

I wanted to just ask you quickly about “You Are Here” and if there's any news on a possible “Wet Hot American Summer” sequel?
I know we're starting “You Are Here” in a couple weeks in North Carolina. I'm really excited to work with Zach [Galifianakis], and Owen [Wilson], and ["Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote and will direct the film], of course, who I’m thrilled to be working with.

I think the “Wet Hot” reunion -- whenever they can do it, I'm sure we will all be there. That was an amazing experience to be a part of. I think everybody would do anything they could to make sure they could be involved in the second one. [Poehler doesn't have any specific information about when it might happens, but if it happens,] I'm there.

Below, check out an exclusive clip from this week's episode of "Parks and Rec" (Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Click through our guide of what to watch this week.

Mon., Apr. 30: "Bones"

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