KINGSPORT — Nearly five years after first putting pen to paper, Model City native Robert Funke will soon see his television show come to life on screen.
Funke co-wrote and executive produced “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” a dark comedy about a woman who cons her way up the ranks of a multibillion-dollar pyramid scheme. The one-hour series will premiere on Showtime on Aug. 25 at 10 p.m.
“I’m deeply proud of the work that we’ve done,” Funke said. “I’ve seen every episode at this point dozens of times, but I really love them all.”
Funke was born and raised in Kingsport, where his family still lives. After graduating from Dobyns-Bennett High School, he studied English and neuroscience as an undergraduate before deciding to pursue film.
“I came out to Los Angeles in 2011 and went to film school at USC … and worked a lot of jobs in between, some in the industry and some not,” Funke said. “My first TV job, I was a researcher on the show ‘Mad Men’ for season six, and then I got a writer’s assistant position on an HBO show through some work that I had done for one of those producers.”
Funke left that job around the same time one of his friends, Matt Lutsky, was also looking for work. In 2014, the two began writing a script about direct sales and multi-level marketing, which became “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.”
Funke and Lutsky began developing the project with Smoke House Pictures, George Clooney’s production company. From there, the project went on quite a journey before ending up at Showtime.
“After a while, we sold it to AMC, and then it left AMC and went to YouTube Originals,” Funke said. “Then as of a couple months ago, it left YouTube Originals and is now safely and finally at Showtime, where it will premiere on Aug. 25.”
About the show
Starring Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Kirsten Dunst (“Fargo”), the 10-episode series is “a darkly comedic story about the cult of free enterprise and one woman’s relentless pursuit of the American Dream,” according to a press release.
Along with Dunst, the series stars Théodore Pellerin (“Genesis”), Beth Ditto (“Nocturnal Animals”), Mel Rodriguez (“The Last Man on Earth”) and Ted Levine (“The Silence of the Lambs”). Several other big-name performers will make an appearance, including Usman Ally, Mary Steenburgen and Alexander Skarsgård.
Filming of the first season began in New Orleans in October of last year and wrapped up in February. Funke said he was present for most of production and worked with nine different directors, along with the cast and crew.
“Prior to doing this, I had never really been a part of a production where each individual department elevates what you do,” Funke said. “I think when I was in film school, a lot of the time, you have an idea of what you want and you’re trying to get something that’s as close to as good as it is in your head onto film. But working on this, it was totally different working with these professionals and artists and people who take the ideas in your head and actually make them better.”
Another Kingsport connection
Funke isn’t the only Kingsport native to have worked on the show. Stephanie Riggs, a Sullivan South High School graduate, co-wrote the ninth episode after developing an “immediate shorthand” with Funke thanks to their Kingsport upbringings.
“It’s been really amazing to draw on our shared experiences from growing up in Kingsport,” Riggs said. “Even though it’s set in Florida, there’s definitely a lot of Kingsport sensibility in there.”
Though he didn’t know Riggs while living in Kingsport, Funke said he got to know her in film school and was eager to get her involved in the show.
“A lot of the way that the suburban Orlando that we’re writing about in our show comes across is informed by the way that I look at Kingsport and where I grew up,” Funke said, “and having Stephanie in there to sort of be a person who knew all the same places and a lot of the same people that I grew up around but from a very different perspective, it’s been really wonderful having her along for the ride.”
Funke said he’s hopeful for another season of “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” though he won’t know whether that’s a possibility until the ratings come in. In the meantime, he’s got a few other projects up his sleeve.
“I really hope there’s a lot of life left in the show, but Matt and I do have other projects that we’re working on,” Funke said, “and then I have a movie project that I’m working on independent of Matt. … It’s been a lot of fun to get back to writing after doing a lot of the more producing-style things.”