How Francesca Sloane’s Indie Background Breathed New Life Into ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’

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Photo Source: David Lee/Prime Video

On one of the hottest days of summer 2020, while the world was shut down due to the pandemic, Francesca Sloane received a call from her collaborator and friend Donald Glover. (She had worked as a supervising producer and writer on his show “Atlanta.”)

Sloane had recently gotten married, which made Glover’s idea to make a TV series inspired by Doug Liman’s 2005 movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” feel surprisingly relevant. “I thought he was joking with me,” she recalls. “But as we kept talking about making it a raw story about a relationship and throwing it into the action genre, I became intrigued.” 

She saw the original film when it was first released, admittedly for the same salacious reasons most did: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s torrid liaison that went beyond fiction. But the movie didn’t particularly stay with Sloane; so when she was approached to work on the show, she didn’t have strong feelings about it. “I’m an indie gal, which is why it was funny that [this] project landed in my lap in the first place, because it is sort of an odd fit,” she explains. 

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That it wasn’t an obvious match was precisely what convinced Glover she could bring an unexpected freshness to the project, she believes. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which was released on Prime Video in February, marks Sloane’s first time as a showrunner. “ ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’ is such a true statement,” she says. “I don’t think anything can prepare you [for something like this], because showrunning is a very complex job that is [actually] about 30 jobs.”

The series follows two people (Glover and Erskine) who, in order to be hired as agents for a shadowy organization, agree to marry each other and live under the code names John and Jane Smith. Glover was originally set to star alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”), but she left the show due to creative differences. That was when Erskine, who co-led and co-created Hulu’s “PEN15,” came aboard.  

Sloane says that tone was the most challenging aspect of the project to pin down, since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a drama with comedic elements set in the high-stakes world of espionage. Early on, The team decided that the best way to tell a singular spy tale was through the lens of an evolving relationship. 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

“You want it to feel like [Ingmar] Bergman’s ‘Scenes From a Marriage’; but at the same time, you want to have a laugh, because we’re working with these great comedy actors,” Sloane explains. 

She and the writers created two lists: one of tropes they had seen in other spy media, such as commonly used locations and action set pieces; and the other of touchstones in romantic relationships based on personal anecdotes. For example, what happens when you meet your partner’s parents, and how does a discussion about the desire to have children unfold? 

“Then we saw how those things could come together almost like in a handshake,” Sloane recalls. “We coined this cheesy term ‘spy sandwich,’ where it would be equal parts spy and equal parts romance.” 

Still, finding the right proportions was far from a straightforward science. Even during production, Sloane says, the team would rewrite scenes to adjust the balance between levity and seriousness. 

The creators’ guiding principle was ensuring that the relationship between John and Jane resonated; they grounded their dynamic in recognizable emotions that change as their bond strengthens or gets tested. 

“Anyone could be a John or Jane,” says Sloane. “That’s what intrigued us—trying to convince other people that: Maybe this isn’t so crazy. Maybe I would sign up for this weird, mysterious agency and be placed in this situation.

“Flawed characters just feel so much more broken and lonelier, and, therefore, tragically accessible—at least to people like me,” Sloane adds with a laugh.

This story originally appeared in the June 6 issue of Backstage Magazine.