Six TV masters — including David E. Kelley, Noah Hawley and Lisa Joy — reveal the risks and rewards of storytelling without a net: "It's a gut check: If you start thinking about whether it's appropriate for everyone, you're left with oatmeal."
Just as Westworld's co-creator Lisa Joy is revealing how much (or little) the actors in her sweeping HBO drama know about where their characters are headed, the power in the Hollywood soundstage where she and five other showrunners are gathered on this early April afternoon goes out. Queen Sugar showrunner Ava DuVernay, 44, leaps out of her chair, while the others — Noah Hawley, 50; Ryan Murphy, 52; Jenji Kohan, 47; and David E. Kelley, 61 — sit frozen in silence as a string of nearby lightbulbs shatter.
Left to their own devices, the six present, among the most talented figures in the art of dramatic storytelling, could craft some harrowing, twisty, culturally resonant narrative about what has just happened. But before they can put their heads together, the group is informed of the source of the chaos: A traffic accident has left a car wrapped around a power pole down the street, causing the neighborhood-wide outage.
So instead of spinning a dystopian tale of haunted power grids or evil energy overlords to pass the time, Joy, 39, and her fellow producers move back to the table — once a generator is up and running — to continue their frank discussion about everything from the storylines that make them nervous to the pressures they feel to build an empire.
Many of you have multiple projects right now. How much industry pressure is there to build an empire?
JENJI KOHAN (Orange Is the New Black, Netflix) There's a lot.
DAVID E. KELLEY (Big Little Lies, HBO; Goliath, Amazon) I think we should defer to Ryan.
RYAN MURPHY (Feud: Bette and Joan and American Horror Story: Roanoke, FX) Once you get an opportunity to get a yes, you lean into the yes because you're used to years and years of no. If you are so lucky to have something that works, that's a dream come to life — and if you get another dream, your impulse is to move toward it. What I've learned to do is to have a group of three or four really strong collaborators who can help me, who also have the same dream.
NOAH HAWLEY (Fargo and Legion, FX) I think there's a freelance muscle where you know it's feast or famine. Certainly as a showrunner in broadcast, you put everything you have into a show and they cancel it after two episodes, and then you have nothing. The more things you have going, the less you're riding that roller coaster.
Was there ever a point where you looked at your plate and realized it was overflowing? And if so, what did you do about it?
HAWLEY Well, yeah. For me, what I didn't realize was: At the point at which the show that you make is successful, then whatever you say yes to is going to get made. I was still in the old paradigm. So that's how I found myself with so many things. I've learned to say no. Well, I'm not sure I have yet, but I'm learning. There will be a no soon.
How hard is it for the rest of you to say no? Do you have the confidence to say no?
KELLEY It gets easier when you're older. If you look around this table, they're all good at what they do — and with success comes the burden to be successful.
AVA DUVERNAY (Queen Sugar, OWN) Embedded in that very question is the idea that privilege does not apply. For me to say no — in my mind, there may not be another chance. There's a natural tension with anyone to keep the chance for the open door. When you add to that issues of representation and marginalization that go on top of the artist's feeling of, "Can I get my thing made?" it becomes challenging for me to say no. I get an opportunity from Netflix. "Do you want to make a doc?" "Yes, I want to make a doc." Apple: "Would you like to make a commercial?" "Yes, I will make that commercial." I'm running around doing everything because I love it, but also because there is the fear that any artist has that there won't be another question asked to say no to. And on top of that, the fear that the industry might shift in terms of its attention to women right now or the current renaissance regarding people of color, specifically black folks on TV, and then you're left with nothing.
LISA JOY (Westworld, HBO) There is that pressure not only to be prolific but to not f— up. And especially when you feel the added burden of being a woman who is doing this now. I represent opportunities for other women and other people of color, and I'm trying to start my own kind of movement.
KOHAN Everyone loves a new baby. And giving birth to a new show, it's a high. You get a hit off that and it's hard to turn that down, especially if you've been grinding something out for a really long time and it's a little more awkward, a little more adolescent. The thought of, "Oh, you can start fresh and create something new" is exciting.
Collectively, you've explored themes including harassment, rape, murder, racism, misogyny, mental illness, etc. When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tackle a big subject?
KOHAN I don't get nervous about that, although we had to take terrorism insurance out …
KOHAN Yeah, we're developing a teen Jesus project [for Netflix] that got some people nervous. It's like The Wonder Years but with Jesus, and there are all sorts of things where we cross lines — and there are crazies out there. I remember Shonda [Rhimes] telling a story of people camping out outside her house when she killed McDreamy [on Grey's Anatomy]. People get crazy because they bathe in these characters, and they take it personally.
KELLEY The writing [about domestic abuse on Big Little Lies] was upsetting and disturbing. It took a toll on [Nicole Kidman], and it does for the writer as well. You don't live in that and then go whistling home to pick up your Starbucks. But once you've surfaced from the world and the scene itself, you put your producer hat on and ask your confidants for opinions, because you want to make sure that you've treated it responsibly.
MURPHY In the executive suite, it has changed. If you do a piece of material that doesn't dig into the things you just listed, the executives tell you you're failing, you're not doing enough. Whereas when I started, you couldn't do anything. A gay person trying to write a gay character in 1998 — it was so difficult. There has been a generational shift in people coming up who are more socially [conscious], liberal, more interested in leaning into that. There's an enlightenment going on in every arena of television now.
KOHAN Which doesn't reflect society.
HAWLEY It's not the job of the show to lecture or preach or tackle a subject. There's a lot of ideas and research that go into the work, but my hope is that it's invisible on some level. I live in fear of the "this week on a special episode" announcement. It's not my job to be topical. My job is to tell a good story.
What do you say to your actors to get them in a place where they're comfortable with the material, particularly if that material is challenging?
DUVERNAY Well, our cast signed up for a show where the challenge and the mission was to create a world in which people of color, black people, had concerns other than being black, which is the way that I move about my day. Like, I have lots of things that have to do with race, but there are also some things that have to do with culture, with class, with gender identity, with how black folks deal with, handle and reconcile their association with other people of color. Within the show, it's about a black family that owns a farm, and they found that the way they feel about the previous white landowners is the way that brown people feel about them. So everyone signed up for this experiment to see if we could make something that was appealing to all audiences and very much speaking to an audience of black television lovers that allows us to kind of get underneath the family drama, into these issues that so often aren't tackled in black shows because you're always talking about being black.
MURPHY One thing I always do is just tell actors that I'm as afraid as they are, because I can sense that and I feel it, too. I did that with Susan [Sarandon] when we were shooting Feud. She was signed on, but I constantly thought she was going to bail. I finally got her to admit that she was afraid of tackling it, and I said, "Well, I'm afraid, too." And from that came a communication of, "OK, how can we make this better for you and a safer space?" And that's just what I try and do. And I am now at a point where I'm only interested in doing stuff that scares me because that's where the goodness comes from.
Ryan, in making Feud, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the entertainment business and a woman's role within it?
MURPHY Probably that nothing has really changed. For me, talking to a lot of the crewmembers who were older and, specifically, talking to Jessica [Lange] and Susan, who have been around since the '80s, that was the most painful thing: how women are treated and the ageism in our culture. There has really not been that much progression. The saddest part about it was hearing Susan and Jessica talk about the last years of Davis' and Crawford's lives and their own current creative lives: how difficult that has been for them and how much they have to give and want to contribute. And they both have said, you hit 40, 42, and suddenly the phone stops ringing, and that's right when you're figuring it out. So that was not fun.
What about the conversations where you have to tell an actor that you're going to kill off their character? Jenji, you had to do that with Samira Wiley's Poussey on Orange Is the New Black. What did that conversation entail?
KOHAN It's very difficult. And in that case, she was so beloved. I hated losing Samira, but her death would have the greatest impact. And she was fantastic about it. She said, "I get it, I understand." A lot of the other actors got very nervous and were outraged, like, "How could you do this to her?" And it's like, "I'm not doing it to her. This is the journey that this character has taken. This is where the show is going." But it's hard because they're enmeshed with their characters as well, and you try to separate the actor from the part or the writer from the material, but it gets mushy sometimes.
How much do you fill your casts in on upcoming storylines?
JOY It depends. For somebody like William [Jimmi Simpson], who, through the course of the season, evolves into a different character, the Man in Black, and it's two totally different timelines, it didn't make sense to us to tell him initially, because he didn't need it for his performance. But on the other hand, for somebody like Jeffrey Wright's character, he's playing two people basically: Arnold Bernard and then the robot version of Arnold Bernard. He's such a gifted actor and so in order to modulate his performance, we would tell him, "OK, now this is you in this timeline and this is different." So, it's a case-by-case basis.
Do you feel a desire or a pressure to tell different stories in the political era that we are in?
MURPHY Yes, it is a true American horror story, and we're leaning into it. [Next season's] American Horror Story begins with election night and the national conversation and both the euphoria and the fear.
DUVERNAY We're shooting season two of Queen Sugar, and it's about a black family in the present moment, so there's no way you can't address the current climate and what we see on the TV and are assaulted with every day. So, it's certainly incorporated in the narrative in a way that is not a very special episode of Queen Sugar. It's the residue of all of it.
KOHAN It was frustrating because during the election, we were already in [production], and we were stuck. We were also limited because our timeline is slower than the timeline of life, and we want to address these things, but do we just throw the timeline out the window? [Piper has] only been [in prison for] a certain number of months, so can we embrace the current culture? We're still debating it. I'm not sure how it's going to go. Season five is season five, but for six, I don't think anyone can help but incorporate some of the feelings associated with what's going on and the divisions and all that stuff.
Jenji, on a recent season of Orange Is the New Black, you took on the Black Lives Matter movement. How much pressure did you feel to get it right?
KOHAN There's definitely that pressure. Sometimes you get things right for a certain audience and wrong for another audience. You can't please everyone. At the end of the day, it's a gut check: Am I enjoying this, or am I feeling this, or am I entertained by this? Because if you start thinking about whether it's appropriate for everyone, you're left with oatmeal.
Noah and Ryan, what are the upsides and downsides to the anthology format?
HAWLEY You just have to be OK with risk and the unknown. You have to be OK with the fact that when you're done, you're done, and you have to come up with something else. But I'm used to that. I had two shows canceled after one season. I've never made a second season of anything, and I find it exciting. Doing a second season of Legion will be the first time I have to continue the story.
MURPHY The only downside is [there's] no network money. (Laughs.) But creatively, you just can't beat it. When you were doing something that was 22 episodes, it was so creatively difficult and physically taxing and the actors were falling apart. And forget cold and flu season. If you just do eight episodes, it feels like your soul is much more nourished and you're able to function as a human being and a family person.
Jenji and David, when your show is on a streaming service, do you find you write differently knowing it will be binged?
KELLEY People watched Goliath in a weekend, and I thought, "There's got to be a law against that." The best feedback I used to get was when people would be arguing in their living room about who was right and wrong, depending on what a character said or how a case came out. That dialogue was gratifying, and we derive currency from that. Big Little Lies got that because it was on once a week on Sundays, so people would talk about it on Mondays. But Goliath — whoosh. It's a launch, and it's done.
KOHAN And then it's out of the public consciousness for a while. You go dormant, and then you sizzle up again. It's an odd thing. The one benefit I can say about it is when people are watching in that inundating way, they bathe in the characters and the story. It is so much more real for them.
Several of you have adapted material from books. How do you decide what to keep and what to discard, and how do you weigh the readers' expectations in making those choices?
KOHAN We had to let go pretty quickly because legal came and said we can't use any of the characters in [Piper Kerman's] book except Piper. It's like, "All right." So then it's a launching pad and we could go off from there. And actually with Piper's blessing, which was nice.
David, you very much honored the book Big Little Lies. The one thing I noticed you didn't have in there is Bonnie's backstory of abuse. How do you make that decision?
KELLEY On that particular decision, in script form, we did include a little of that backstory, but it became problematic because in the book, that backstory came after the reveal of the crime. So it felt a little expositional and it also felt that we were at the peak of the hour in the series and didn't want to [weigh it down] with explanation. And filmically, we also wanted to go out without dialogue. I think the last 10 minutes or so of the series, no one was saying anything. We were doing it all with the camera, and there's only so much you could do with the camera. We couldn't fill in the backstory of the character you're talking about. But we ultimately all felt we didn't really need it. The pieces were there. The character, the actress playing the character [Zoe Kravitz] knew her backstory, and as long as we were truthful to it, we could honor the book without being maybe, per se, faithful to the page.
Lisa, you've worked on predominantly male-centered shows, beginning with Burn Notice. What's the draw?
JOY Nobody ever has a problem if a man writes a woman, and I wanted to be able to say, "Well, I can write your men and your action, too. You don't just have to give me the love scenes, which I don't even think are my strong suit." It was about trying to take as many topics and saying they're not off-limits for me or people like me.
Hollywood tends to put creators in boxes. What are the types of projects that you find you are consistently approached for?
DUVERNAY I get the first black everything. First black firefighter in Tacoma, Washington. First black ballerina to dance in Kansas City. I mean, it's getting so specific that it's like, every first black [thing] doesn't need a movie.
KELLEY They always want me to do a law show. People want you to do what you've done — and instinctively, a lot of writers want to do what they haven't done. But the law actually still interests me. I'm fascinated by it, and I think it's a great vehicle for exploring the ethical and moral centers of people. I miss it. In fact, in Big Little Lies I made Celeste a lawyer just because it was like a binky for me to have one lawyer in the mix.
MURPHY Anything with a feather boa, I get offered first. (Laughs.) It's always about what you just did, so when I did The People v. O.J. Simpson, it was a lot of true crime stuff. Then I did Feud, and now it's a lot of Hollywood biopics.
KOHAN I get offered wedding movies. I'm like, "What in my body of work would make you think that I'd want to write about a bride?" It's so weird.
DUVERNAY Oh, I would go see that.
KOHAN Maybe it's my personal challenge to subvert the paradigm of wedding films. (Laughter.)
We're going to end with a lightning round of questions. If we could ask the 10-year-old versions of you what you're going to be when you grow up, what would they say?
DUVERNAY I wanted to be a lawyer.
MURPHY I wanted to be a pediatrician.
KELLEY Part of me wanted to be a lawyer, part of me wanted to play hockey.
HAWLEY At 10? Probably a baseball player.
KOHAN I was going to be a singer named Rainbow Star.
What's the TV show that you can't miss?
JOY Atlanta right now.
HAWLEY [Last Week Tonight With] John Oliver.
DUVERNAY 60 Minutes.
MURPHY 60 Minutes.
KELLEY I'm a news junkie, so I could go on and on.
Who is your favorite character on TV that you have nothing to do with?
KELLEY Archie Bunker.
KOHAN Molly Dodd.
HAWLEY Got to be Omar.
DUVERNAY Cersei Lannister.
MURPHY The OA.
And how about the TV family or character you most identify with?
MURPHY The family on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That sort of formation of a workplace family where you can maybe get the thing that you could not get from your real family was always very intriguing to me.
KELLEY I don't know if it was a family, but Andy Griffith. It was that sense of community and the idea that people nurtured each other and cheered for each other that was just a wonderful ideology to subscribe to. The very first show I did was called Picket Fences and The Andy Griffith Show was in the back of my brain when carving that out.
DUVERNAY I didn't grow up seeing a family that felt like anything that I was connected to. Even the Cosbys, they had a lot more than me, so I just couldn't quite get into it. But I see more of that now, so [going forward] hopefully everyone has a good answer to that question.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.