Behind the Science: An Exclusive Q&A with Natalie Sandy and Courtney McBroom from Apple TV+’s ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

Lessons In Chemistry

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Ahead of the worldwide premiere of the first two episodes of Lessons in Chemistry on Apple TV+, I had the opportunity to host an early screening in Atlanta for the series along with a Q&A with executive producer Natalie Sandy and the show’s food consultant, Courtney McBroom.

From how they got involved in the project to the biggest challenges they faced, I chatted with the two remarkable women who are making waves in their respective fields. But before we dive into the interview itself, let me provide some additional background information on each of these impressive ladies.

Natalie Sandy & Courtney McBroom

Natalie Sandy is an LA-based executive producer whose credits include the BAFTA-nominated series Little America and the limited series WeCrashed. Currently, she’s working on an exclusive overall deal with AppleTV+ alongside Piece of Work Entertainment.

Then there’s Courtney McBroom, a chef, cookbook author, and food consultant. Courtney is the founder of Ruined Table, an innovative platform that uses food and unique dinner parties to foster meaningful connections. She has shared her culinary expertise and vibrant personality on shows like Chef’s Table, Mind of a Chef, and Bong Appetit. Her writing and recipes have been featured in top-tier publications such as Food and Wine Magazine, Vice, GQ, and InStyle.

Courtney McBroom and Natalie Sandy
Courtney McBroom and Natalie Sandy / Photo Credit: Matt Rodriguez

A Press Tour Stop in Atlanta, Georgia

With a press tour stop in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 12th, I had the opportunity to interview both Natalie and Courtney in front of a theater full of fans of the new series.

For those not familiar with the show, it’s based on the book of the same name, authored by Bonnie Garmus. Its story is set in the early 1950s and follows Elizabeth Zott, a woman whose dream of being a chemist is challenged by societal norms.

Highlights from my Q&A with Natalie and Courtney are below!

How did you get involved in this project? You both have such incredible backgrounds. Can you talk a little bit about those backgrounds and how you got involved with Lessons in Chemistry?

Natalie Sandy: Absolutely. I’ll tee us off. So, I am an executive producer on the project, and essentially it’s pretty simple. I work with the showrunner and writer of the show, Lee Eisenberg. We have been working with Apple for years, and we read the book, knew that Apple had it, and we begged them to let us work on it.

We called them and asked, “What’s happening with it? Please let us work on this.”

And they needed producers. I read the book in one sitting, zoomed with Brie (Larson), and then we were working on the show. It was amazing. It was the best.

Courtney McBroom: As for me, I’m very lucky in that I am good friends with Brie. And I’m also obsessed with vintage cookbooks, and she knew this. So she called me one day. And she’s like, “Courtney! I’m working on this new show. It’s set in the fifties, and it’s about a chef. Can I come over and check out your vintage cookbook collection?”

And I was like, yes, of course. And then I didn’t hear from her for like three months. Because she went off to shoot a blockbuster film, as she does. And then when she came back, she’s like, “Courtney, I’ve really been thinking about this. I think you would actually be perfect to work on the show. Is that something, is that something you want to do?”

And I was like, “Yes, absolutely. That’s something I want to do.”

She was like, great. So she put me in touch with the producers. I had a little meeting, and we hit it off. And I started working on the show the next week. It was amazing. It was a wild ride. 

Natalie Sandy: I think when, when you read the book, if anyone’s read the book and are familiar, there’s so much food in the book, but you have to, you have to bring that to life, and I’m, I’m not the person who knows how to make all the fantastic foods in the book. And so we realized we needed a chef, a consultant, someone who can get in the trenches with us and help us figure out how to visually bring it to life.

Lessons in Chemistry Q&A
‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Q&A in Atlanta, Georgia / Photo Credit: Matt Rodriguez

Adapting a beloved novel is no easy task to undertake. You have fans who already have this established idea in their mind of what the show is going to be. How do you (and everyone involved) navigate that challenge? And what was your approach to staying true to the essence of the original material while still making it work for the screen?

Natalie Sandy: Yeah, I mean, it was a tremendous responsibility and a privilege to be able to adapt this book. It’s so incredibly special. And for us, since the beginning, and I think Brie felt this way, I felt this way, and Leigh felt this way, we wanted the book to be our North Star.

We wanted to really stay close to the book. But we also realized, a book exists in your imagination, and a show or a movie is a visual medium that you need to bring to life. There are certain things in the book that we’re going to expand upon in great detail that maybe Bonnie (Garmus) wrote about for two pages. And we thought we’d need to expand that. Or we took some liberties and expanded the world in a way that felt natural. So it was always a conversation. But the book is something we really valued and used constantly.

I know Bonnie Garmus (the author of the novel) was involved as well. How involved was she, and what was that collaboration like?

Natalie Sandy: I think for us, it’s actually kind of similar to what I said about using the book as the North Star. But then kind of expanding upon it. I think that was Bonnie’s feeling about the show as well.

We shared all of our outlines with her and all of our scripts. But she was on a whirlwind book tour for Lessons in Chemistry. So, she wasn’t able to be on set with us. But Lee was speaking to her throughout the whole process including the editing process.

And there was one time towards the end that we were going to put Bonnie in the show as an easter egg, and we were so excited. She was going to be at “Supper at Six.” And we flew her, we got it all situated and she was flying out. And when she flew out, she tested for COVID negatively in London. Then she landed in L.A. and tested positive. So she just called us and was like, “So I, uh, yeah, I’m just going to stay in this L.A. hotel room. Good luck! And then I have to go home because I have another thing.”

It was the worst. But we tried, we tried. That would have been amazing.

Lessons in Chemistry
Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Courtney, can you give us a glimpse into how you collaborated with the production team to ensure the food elements of the show were authentic and engaging? Were you involved in the writing process, or was it more reviewing the scripts after they were written?

Courtney McBroom: It was a little bit of both. Sometimes, the writers would call and say we want to do this. Or we’re thinking about this. What would be some good things for Elizabeth to make for this? Like, there’s a whole story about beef tallow, which I really worked closely with the writers on. 

Elizabeth is a woman of the 50s, for sure. But she’s also very much a woman ahead of her time. So we also wanted to ensure that was represented in her food. We really wanted the food to pop off the screen, to look super delicious, and for everyone to get super hungry while they’re watching the show and want to make all the food that they see.

Did you face any unexpected or unique challenges consulting for the show, and if so, could you share them and how you overcame them?

Courtney McBroom: In all transparency, this is my first time working on a film set. I’ve done, like, cookbooks and stuff, like photography, but never film for television. And, there was a little bit of a learning curve because of all of the takes. I didn’t think about the takes. So you’re not making just one lasagna; you’re making 20 lasagnas, and they all have to look exactly the same for continuity purposes. And that was something that I learned very quickly on the fly.

Was it challenging? Yes. Was it terrifying? Yes. But did I pull it off? Yes.

Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman in Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson and Lewis Pullman in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ / Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Science plays such a big role in the series. Yet, at the same time, you have this beautiful love story that unfolds in the first two episodes. And it continues to echo throughout the rest of the season. And, that love story doesn’t overshadow Elizabeth’s personal journey. How did you manage to strike a balance there and create such a compelling dynamic between Elizabeth and Calvin and also honor Elizabeth’s journey in such an empowering way?

Natalie Sandy: Yeah, that’s a great question. We followed the book’s path in using the love story and viewing the love story as the jumping-off point for so much of Elizabeth’s life.

I mean, it’s the catalyst, no chemistry pun intended. But yes, it is the catalyst for her and the path that she could have never anticipated. You guys have not seen the series yet, so I don’t want to spoil anything. But I will say, that I think when we all have meet someone or go through an extremely profound experience, we see it ripple in our lives for years to come.

Memories and people that come into your life because of this one event. And so that was what we really wanted to thread into the series. So, the love story will exist throughout the rest of the series, but in a different way. But I won’t say anything else. You’ll have to watch it.

Aja Naomi King as Harriet in Lessons in Chemistry
Aja Naomi King as Harriet in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ / Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Well, speaking of spoilers and not wanting to get into them… Can you talk a little bit about the character of Harriet? We see her story being woven into the first two episodes, almost in the background. However, she becomes a more prominent character as the episodes unfold. Can you discuss her character, story, and what’s to come?

Natalie Sandy: Absolutely. I will talk about her without giving too much away. Harriet is a departure from the book. For book fans, the character of Harriet is quite different than the Harriet that we have on screen.

And we thought that was critical for us for many reasons. One, I think, because Elizabeth Zod is such a feminist, we talked about intersectional feminism a lot in the room, and how this is a show set in the 1950s. And for people in Elizabeth’s life, black women especially, I mean, she has blind spots in terms of who she’s fighting for on a daily basis and the rights of women in the workplace, when she can’t even see what a neighbor of hers might be going through. They help each other to grow and call each other out on where they need help.

The character of Harriet in the book is an older woman, and we were more interested in exploring what a relationship would look like from peer-to-peer and for mothers. The Harriet character in the book is an older woman whose kids are grown. This Harriet is managing so much, just as Elizabeth is. But she’s coming from it from a completely different life experience. And that was something we thought was an enrichment of the material rather than sticking closely to the text.

Courtney McBroom and Natalie Sandy
‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Q&A in Atlanta, Georgia / Photo Credit: Matt Rodriguez

What was your most memorable moment during the Lessons in Chemistry filming? And what will you take away from this project into your future projects that will make you better at what you do?

Courtney McBroom: I think my most memorable moment on set… there’s a flambé scene that happens. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer.

There was so much stress about the flambé scene, because we’re working with live fire on the set. Brie was doing it, and I was the one that was making sure she was doing it right. And I didn’t want to be held responsible if she burns her eyebrows off, you know, all of this stuff. So ,everyone was really tense on set that day.

And, of course, Brie is amazing, and she did it in one take. The alcohol hit the flame, it went up so high. And Brie just was like, do, do, do, do, do. Delivering her lines while she did it. As though she did it every day. And then it was cut, and everyone on set started cheering. And I was jumping up and down.

It was great. It was a wonderful day.

The thing that I will take with me is from the experience, I think really of the story of Lessons in Chemistry. How important tenacity is. And how important it is to stand in your own conviction, know who you are, don’t take no for an answer, keep going, and keep doing what you know is right, even if you feel like the entire world is against you. Because it’s the path that you’re supposed to be on, and you are the only one who knows where you’re supposed to go. You just gotta do it.

Brie Larson and Gus in Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson and Gus in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ / Photo Credit: Apple TV+

As a Goldendoodle mom myself, I have to ask about Gus, who plays 6:30. Did either of you have the chance to interact with him? Or are there any funny moments with him that you could share?

Natalie Sandy: I love him so much. I interacted with him a lot. Like to the… detriment of the project sometimes.

His name is Gus. He is a professional. He is an actor, and when he would come to set, I would lose my mind and be like, “Whose a good boy?!”

And Steve Berens, his trainer, was like, “He’s in the scene. He needs you to keep him on track.”

And I’m the one who’s supposed to be keeping everyone else on track. So I was derailing the process. But, Gus is amazing, and Steve Berens is amazing.

A fun fact is Steve is an animal trainer who trained Will Smith’s dog in I Am Legend. Very iconic dog. I hope Gus becomes just as iconic as that dog.

Courtney McBroom: Something that I thought was really funny about Gus.. all actors have stand-ins, where they get the lighting and everything right. And Gus had a stand-in that was just a stuffed dog.

It took me a minute to understand what was happening. I was like, why is this stuffed dog always around? Oh, it’s Gus’s stand-in. You’d see it on the back of a truck. You’d see someone carting it out, and it’s like a dog upside down. It was very funny.

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The first two episodes of Lessons in Chemistry are now streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday through the season finale, which premieres on November 24th! So be sure to check it out. It’s a fantastic series!