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St. Louisan brings his own history to Netflix's 'Ozark'

St. Louisan brings his own history to Netflix's 'Ozark'


Somewhere in a strip mall off Highway 94 in St. Peters, Bill Dubuque is thinking about money.

Dubuque, a St. Louis native and 1984 graduate of Rosary (now Trinity) High School, is plotting a sequel to “The Accountant,” the 2016 financial thriller he scripted for Ben Affleck.

“Money fascinates me,” Dubuque says. “How we view money, the power of getting it, the pressure of holding onto it.”

Money is also central to a project close to home for Dubuque: “Ozark,” a darkly funny 10-episode drama now streaming on Netflix. The St. Louis native created the series, starring Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, and wrote the first two episodes.

Bateman plays Marty Byrde, a Chicago wealth manager and part-time money launderer who runs fatally afoul of the boss of the second-largest Mexican drug cartel. To save himself, he impulsively pitches the idea of shifting the whole operation to Lake of the Ozarks, a place he has never visited and has barely even heard of.

The move requires packing up his wife, Wendy (Linney), and their two kids and heading for south-central Missouri in a minivan loaded with bags of cash. Wendy describes their destination as being “where camouflage is a primary color.”

Dubuque has been fascinated by Lake of the Ozarks since he worked there in summers as a teen. At the family-owned Alhonna Resort and Marina, he did “pretty much everything,” from handyman chores to working on the dock to manning a barbecue grill.

Dubuque went on to work for years as an employment headhunter before trying his hand at writing scripts in 2008. His screenplay for “The Judge” became the 2014 movie starring Robert Downey Jr.; he also wrote last year’s “A Family Man,” with Gerard Butler as a headhunter.

But the St. Louis area has always been home, and Dubuque and his wife, Tara, have been taking their three kids (ages 17, 16 and 12) to the lake all their lives. “They eat it all up, spend the whole day on the water, stuff themselves with junk food and ice cream,” their dad says.

In “Ozark,” the Byrdes are less enthusiastic, skeptical about the move and even more dubious about their new home on the “Redneck Riviera.” But even teen Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz) and younger brother Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) are silenced by their first sight of the huge lake, “with more coastline than the state of California.”

“There’s nothing like it,” Dubuque says.

The sprawl of the manmade lake, 92 miles from end to end and with 1,150 miles of shoreline, is one reason Dubuque saw it as a setting where someone like Marty might set up a nefarious business.

But more than that, “the lake is both a real thing and a metaphor for capitalism,” Dubuque says, “After all, it was built by Union Electric to make money.” (The lake is a result of UE’s 1929-31 construction of Bagnell Dam to generate hydroelectric power.)

The location, pretty much dead center between St. Louis and Kansas City, makes Lake of the Ozarks a real melting pot, he adds.

“You can buy property right down to the water. It attracts all kinds of people and all kinds of boats, from bass boats to yachts. There’s wealth, and there’s poverty. You can see $4 million homes and in minutes see trailers.”

Lake of the Ozarks on its own might have been fine fodder for a TV series. But when he’s working on a script, Dubuque says frankly, “I want to write what I know, but also something someone will buy.”

Thus, “Ozark” isn’t just a story about the interesting characters who “really capture what the lake is like,” although they are many.

Instead, there’s the “Breaking Bad”-esque angle of a good guy “who does highly illegal things,” or a guy ignoring lots of laws who at heart is a Midwestern family man.

Apologizing for comparing his protagonist to Walter White or even Tony Soprano, Dubuque says, “if we capture the twists and turns and the feelings they’re having, you can’t help but root for them, even if you shouldn’t.”

The goal was “to create a family story that feels real while raising the stakes. If viewers don’t care about the family, even after all the evil things they’re involved in, they won’t feel invested.”

Residents and regular visitors to the lake “might have expected Hollywood to take a simplistic view of life there and dumb it down,” Dubuque realizes. “I wanted to capture the intelligence of business capitalism around the lake.”

Intelligence, after all, “isn’t a geographical thing.”

He has given the Byrdes “clever, intelligent, capable antagonists,” he says, adding, “You can’t stereotype; that’s not going to work. It’s not good TV if it’s not true.”

In the episodes he wrote before turning “Ozark” over to showrunner Chris Mundy and his writing team, “I also wanted to look at how these children become more well-rounded because of this experience,” Dubuque says.

He is happy with the way “Ozark” evolved. “I created the outline, the bible for the show, but I’m back in St. Louis. The writers have the freedom and creativity to carry on.”

In the second episode, Marty visits a resort called the Blue Cat, which was inspired by Alhonna and is likely to look familiar to anyone who has visited there. Dubuque wants to be clear, though that “none of the illegal shenanigans” that take place at the Blue Cat are true for Alhonna. “They’re good family people.”

Shirley Gross-Russel, whose family has owned Alhonna since the 1980s, told the Springfield News-Leader last summer, when “Ozark” was still in the early stages, that she had been apprehensive about having her resort connected to a drama about crime. But she said she trusted that people would realize it’s just a TV show.

And Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau, took a positive view, telling the newspaper, “I think it could expose all of the great things that the Lake of the Ozarks has to offer to the millions of people who watch Netflix.”

Lake of the Ozarks, where the population swells with visitors all summer, brings abundant tourism dollars to Missouri, although little of that money was generated by “Ozark.”

Because of Missouri’s lack of tax incentives for film production, only a few scenes were shot there, with most of the production in Georgia.

“If Missouri had tax breaks,” Dubuque said, “you’d see more of the real lake.”

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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