Six of television's top drama series bosses — Sam Esmail, Julian Fellowes, Nina Jacobson, Marti Noxon, Melissa Rosenberg and John Ridley — open up about the stories that made them genuinely nervous, the things they still can’t believe they got past the network censors and the ongoing inequities of being anyone other than a privileged white male.
Sure, the paychecks are lovely, as is the recognition. But that doesn't mean the role of showrunner is devoid of anxiety and heartache, which became clear when The Hollywood Reporter gathered six of the industry's top drama producers for a candid conversation about working in television in the year 2016.
For Jessica Jones' Melissa Rosenberg, 53, crafting a storyline about an interracial relationship for the first season of her Netflix series landed her on a Nazi hate site. In the case of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story's Nina Jacobson, 50, the very idea of a team of white creatives taking on a racially polarizing case had her in a cold sweat. And for American Crime auteur John Ridley, 50, exploring a male-on-male sexual assault case in the anthology's second season knocked him and the executives at ABC into a panic far outside their comfort zone. On the following pages, the three showrunners — along with Sam Esmail, 38 (Mr. Robot); Julian Fellowes, 66 (Downton Abbey); and Marti Noxon, 51 (UnREAL, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce) — expand on those concerns along with, yes, some of the happy surprises along the way.
Between the six of you, you've touched on powerful, if at times risky, themes including suicide, rape, murder, sexism, classism, addiction and mental illness. As storytellers, when was the last time you were genuinely scared to tell a story?
FELLOWES With that list, I thought you were just talking about Downton. (Laughter.)
ROSENBERG I was dealing with a lot of different issues on Jessica Jones: rape, abortion, interracial relationships, feminism — all this stuff. What made me nervous was how the audience was going to [react]. The one I thought was really going to get the most flak was the abortion story; the one that actually got the most, much to my horror and disappointment, was the interracial relationship.
ROSENBERG Yeah. I got put on a Nazi hate site. It was terrifying.
FELLOWES When we did the story where Anna, the maid, was raped, a woman said to me, "There is one thing I don't understand." Now on Downton, we used to repeat last week's show on Sunday afternoon and then show that week's episode in the evening. So she said, "I watched that program on Sunday and then I watched it again on Sunday afternoon the following week and you had re-edited it." I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well, you'd taken all the graphic stuff out of the rape." There was no change in the edit at all; it was in her head. She was so horrified by the story that she had actually elaborated it in her brain to something that was almost unacceptable.
JACOBSON I was scared of taking on O.J. overall as a white person, knowing that this is a polarizing case. We made every effort to have an inclusive team, but ultimately you started with a bunch of white people, and we know that the case means different things to different people. That was much scarier to me than, say, what we were talking about with episode six, the "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" episode, taking on issues of feminism and sexism in the workplace.
John, the first season of American Crime dealt more with racial politics, which hit close to home for you. You've said that for your second season, which centered on a case of sexual assault, it was a little harder to find an entry point. How did that impact your storytelling process?
RIDLEY We really wanted to look at the things we didn't talk about in the first season, and there was a lot of conversation [at the time] about sexual assault on campuses, and that's where we started to go. Michael McDonald, the other producer, and I felt like we're going to go into something and have maybe a bit of a predisposition about things or even a distance because we are two guys. We were a little nervous about that but also nervous about, are we yet another male voice going into a subject matter that — I don't want to say better suited to women, as though men or women or black or white can't do things — but are we just one more additional voice in a lot of very adept voices trying to talk about something? And actually we had read a few stories about male peer-to-peer sexual assault, so truly in the eleventh hour I called Michael and said, "Do you think we should go down this road [instead]?" We delayed our pitch to ABC by a couple of days and then we went in. They couldn't wrap their heads around it [at first, but we all felt like] it's happening, so maybe this is something we should be talking about.
FELLOWES I'm sure it was a very good decision, but I don't think writers can be held back by the fact that, I can't deal with rape because I'm not a woman, I can't deal with anti-Semitism because I'm not Jewish, I can't deal with racism because I'm not black. None of us would be able to write anything! And of course you think, "I hope I'm being faithful to this; I hope I'm not being offensive; I hope I've got the right elements of this," but to some extent it's an act of faith when you write. You just have to jump in.
RIDLEY It wasn't just, "Oh, let's not do it because we're guys." It was, if we are going to talk about it and we're going to try to add yet one more voice, could we take that extra two days and say, "Is there something else that's not being talked about or making us even more nervous?" I'm not saying [looking to Jacobson], "Well, I don't want you talking about black people because you're white." Or [to Noxon,] "I don't ever want to see you talk about dudes."
NOXON I only like to write about people with vaginas, so you're safe. (Laughs.)
This came up on last year's roundtable. Empire co-creator Lee Daniels said he finds white people writing for black people offensive. But I wonder whether it goes beyond white people writing for black people to black people writing for white people, men writing for women …
ESMAIL You write what you know, but I think you can also write what you really want to know — if you have a genuine curiosity to know about a culture, a race, an orientation. You get into problems when you don't have a curiosity and it's just, "Oh, we need to have a diverse cast, so let's just make that person black or that person a woman." If that's the way you're treating it, and you don't really have that curiosity about getting into that world, then you will get the comments.
NOXON We also can't write worrying what the internet is going to think. I had this moment I don't know how long ago, when I realized none of the showrunners whom I respect the most are well liked by everybody. And it's because they're not afraid to put stuff out there and make people angry. And when I finally got to a place where I was like, "Maybe I can pretend I don't care," I found my output changed dramatically. You can't live hoping that you're not going to offend people — you should live hoping you are going to offend people because then you're doing something interesting.
What can't you believe you have gotten away with — or haven't — on your shows?
ESMAIL We had a sex scene that the network did talk to me about because it was between two men and it was pretty graphic. My argument to them was, "If this was between a man and a woman, would we be having this conversation?" That was the end of that conversation.
ROSENBERG The beauty of working at Netflix is you don't have limits. But I also work with Marvel, and their brand is generally PG-13, so no f-bombs. And if anyone was going to say f—, it would be Jessica Jones. But what's funny is that people have said: "She didn't say f—? I could have sworn she did." Because Ritter can deliver a "f—" with her face.
RIDLEY On ABC, you can't say "asshole," but you can say "ass" in any other combination of words. So we have this litany of ass fill-in-the-blanks: ass-can, asshat, ass- … anything.
JACOBSON We get emails from Standards & Practices about language, certainly about the N-word, but we're like, "It's an essential part of the show. It's not gratuitous; it's got to be there." And ultimately, FX was very supportive of it and stood behind us.
ESMAIL We had f-bombs everywhere, and Standards & Practices would say, "You can't say this on air." And I'd say, "OK, we'll drop the audio out" because I knew online and on iTunes we would have it. Eventually, they caught on to that and just started to be more lenient because they knew I would just drop the audio and then throughout the episode they'd have all these audio dropouts. (Laughter.)
ROSENBERG Yeah, I can saw a guy's arm off and have the blood spurting up but I can't say the word "f—."
Melissa, in crafting a female superhero, were there tropes you actively were trying to avoid?
ROSENBERG We had several rules going in that I felt very strongly about. One, she was never going to play the honey pot, meaning she was never going to put on the tight bandage dress and heels and go seduce the guy she needs information from. That was just never going to happen because it's not in her character to do that, and it was never going to happen because for every single female cop who's ever been on TV that's the go-to. And she was never going to go to the strip club. That got pitched a lot. I'm like, "Yeah, no, we're still not going to the strip club." And then I also didn't feel like I needed to hear the word "bitch."
Nina, you and Melissa have worked on blockbuster film franchises (The Hunger Games and Twilight, respectively), an area in which there are few women in prominent roles. What challenges did you face that you might not have if you were men?
JACOBSON I definitely think it's very different. In general, men can and frequently do fail up, and women can and frequently do succeed down — and you're just aware of the fact that as a girl, you can't screw up. Like one screw-up and you're in jail, whereas there are countless male executives, writers, directors who get so many chances. And the ability to fail is an essential part of creativity. You look at the world of startups and Silicon Valley, and all of the most successful people have countless failures, and that's not held against you. As a woman [in Hollywood,] you always feel like you make that one mistake and you're done, or maybe you don't even make that mistake and suddenly you're done anyway. And there isn't a female equivalent of that guy [for whom] you're like, "How does that person have that job still?" or, "How does that person get hired over and over again?"
Have there been points during your careers when you felt pigeonholed? And to that end, have there been types of projects that you aren't entrusted with that you feel you'd be more than capable of executing?
RIDLEY Everything. (Laughter.) Among the things that infuriate me is, with respect to white dudes, seeing a white dude coming out of Sundance with an OK film and getting handed a multimillion-dollar franchise — you don't see [that] with women; you don't see it with people of color. There are certainly mornings where I wake up and go: "You know what, I'm doing things I love and that I have an immense amount of control over. Why walk into the $200 million franchise where you know you're going to have to put up with things that are going be very hard?" But there are other days where I wake up and go: "I've got kids who are 12 and 16. They deserve to see even a little bit of my perspective injected in here in some mild indoctrination."
NOXON There's also this attitude that is very corporate, which is, "Well, we have a woman directing a film on our slate of 30, and we have John Ridley — he's doing this show that's very topical, so we're covered." How many times have I heard: "Oh, you're doing that lady movie. We've got that one."
ROSENBERG Or have you gotten the one where your agent goes to put you up for a job, and they say, "We already have a woman"?
NOXON Oh yeah.
FELLOWES But I think if you get anywhere in this game, it's usually because you've got one thing that you're known for and you do quite well. And then you become the go-to person for that particular kind of job, and then you do more and more of it, and of course you start to think, "Why can't I do a superhero movie?" For me, I was asked to do School of Rock [on Broadway], which seemed about as unlikely as anything you could imagine. And it was thrilling because you just think, "Who in the world would think I would be the guy to go to for School of Rock?" But that's a battle for any screenwriter or any actor who has gotten anywhere by being known for one thing.
Several of you worked on first-season shows that came on under the radar and then exploded. Knowing that you won't have the benefit of low expectations for season two, how is your process impacted?
ROSENBERG It seems to me the way to approach a second season after a first one has done very well is to not try to imitate it.
FELLOWES For exactly that reason when we decided to have a go at doing a period drama — and the thinking at that time was that period drama was dead — we deliberately started it in 1912 because if it did have any legs it meant the second [season] would be in the First World War and the third [season] would be at the beginning of the '20s. So they were all completely distinct. But having said that, at the end of the first [season], there's a scene when the war is announced, which could be the last — if it was never recommissioned. Because the one thing people forget is that you don't know if it's been a success until all of the filming is over and the editing is over. You're just like a Spartan mother exposing your child on Mount Taygetus to see if it can sustain itself in the weather.
Nina, in your case, you've opted to go in a very different direction for American Crime Story's second season, focusing not on a high-profile murder trial but rather on Hurricane Katrina. How did you come to that decision, and do you have any hesitations about the choice now that you've seen how well a celebrity murder trial played?
JACOBSON O.J. is a singular case that is unlike anything else, so it's not like there are a bunch of other stories just like that. The idea is that each of these seasons will be a crime in which the America that we think of ourselves as, or want to see ourselves as, and the America we see in the mirror at that moment are at odds. So, it is a different definition of an American crime than a case or a trial, but we wanted to go to something very different and very bold but keep that thematic focus on this portrait of America as seen through these watershed moments that are crimes, defined one way or the other.
Julian, in your case, there has been a lot of chatter about continuing with Downton by doing a movie. Are you writing the alleged movie?
FELLOWES If the alleged movie comes to pass, I will allegedly write it. (Laughs.) I'd like to do a movie. I think it would be fun, with a bigger canvas and broader strokes and all that. But we don't make those decisions. We just sit like Oliver Twist with this bowl.
Do you have ideas about what it would look like?
FELLOWES Yes, only because I don't want to be in the position where they say, "OK, it's a go, but can we have it in four weeks?" I want to know slightly what I'm going to do.
What are your best stories about the casting process on your series, be they the biggest challenges or the happy surprises?
JACOBSON Casting with Ryan Murphy as your partner is unlike anything I've ever experienced. For one, so many actors really want to work with him and know that he does right by them. But then he also is able to get the studio and the network to pay for all of them. Usually you get like, "Oh, you got that one great person — you're good; now just cast the rest of the show." We kept thinking at some point they're going to say, "That's enough with the first-on-the-call-sheet types." But the character that was hard to cast was Chris Darden because there were a lot of black dudes who were like: "No way — I'm not playin' that guy. I hate him." Not to mention the fact that you had to get somebody who could on one hand be charismatic and sexy enough that you were rooting for him and that you really cared about him but on the other hand let himself be bowled over by Johnnie Cochran. A lot of actors would walk in and couldn't do it: They were either so charismatic and alpha that they couldn't be the guy who got overwhelmed, or they were so beta they couldn't be the guy you rooted for.
FELLOWES In Britain, you come up against a lot of snobbery about actors, and if they've been in a soap opera, if they've been in this, been in that, it's, "Oh no, we don't want to have them." And they're perfect, so then you have to go to war.
ROSENBERG I knew casting Jessica Jones was always going to be a huge challenge. The reason for that, among other things, is that you have to believe she can kick ass. So some teeny little thing with teeny arms is not going to do it. And then she also has to be a great dramatic actress, and she has to be able to deliver a dry line. There are a lot of actresses whose dramatic chops are fantastic, but, man, the comedy goes to die with them. [Krysten] Ritter was always very close to the top of the list because I knew she could at least deliver a dry line. And then I saw her run in Breaking Bad and I'm like, "Oh, she's a dramatic actress and she's phenomenal."
ESMAIL Rami [Malek, who stars as Elliot on Mr. Robot] was a nervous wreck — he was shaking. He literally said the script breeds anxiety, and it was nerve-racking [to watch]. I was like, "I don't know, is he going to get through this audition?" And by that point we had seen maybe 100 guys, and it was not right. It was the "f— society" speech, and it felt didactic, and I was like: "This is terrible. We've got to call USA and cancel this because this is not good." But then Rami just did it. I [still] don't know if that was all part of the character. The other thing I'll say is, in particular with TV, you don't want to cast an asshole, as good as they might be.
And yet I imagine every person at this table at one point has cast an asshole.
RIDLEY Oh yeah. (Laughs.)
FELLOWES And even if you haven't cast an asshole, some of them turn into assholes.
NOXON It's probably apocryphal, but there was a story that was told that Steven Bochco had a death scene for each of his characters on all of his shows, and if one of the actors started to really become problematic in a way that was destructive to the show, he'd just call them up, pull it out and hand it to them and say, "Read that." I've always thought about that.
A few of you have memorably killed off characters. Do you panic about how the audience will react?
FELLOWES The death of Matthew goes down as one of the great television crimes of our day. (Laughs.)
ROSENBERG I'll never forgive you for that.
FELLOWES Of course, the lovely thing is that the audience believes in the show to such an extent that they assume a character only dies because you've decided to kill them — not because the actor [Dan Stevens] is desperate to get off and do a show on Broadway, which was the real truth.
I imagine you have found yourselves inspired by other television shows at points in your lives or your process. Anyone have one?
NOXON Hill Street Blues. I went back and watched it for a project that I was doing and God, that pilot is incredible. NYPD Blue, too. I want to do a police drama at some point.
ESMAIL For me, The Twilight Zone. It just made you lean into the TV as you were watching. It's the very definition of, "I want to know what happens next," and that excited me.
FELLOWES For me, television is getting involved with the characters. It isn't enough for me to have a new story every week, like a small movie. I like movies, but there's something about the extended narrative [that TV offers.] In the days of ER and The West Wing, they rediscovered that you can have a relationship with television characters that you don't have in the cinema. And often they're more grown-up [stories], and you get strong women in television far more often than in film.
NOXON Although I would say most of [West Wing creator Aaron] Sorkin's gender politics are pretty retrograde. I have a real problem with his gender stuff.
RIDLEY But other than that, the shows were terrific.
NOXON No, he's brilliant. Brilliant. I went on a rant about this to a friend [because] I have a whole thing about The Newsroom. I do the impressions and everything. And I did this for my friend because she had mentioned that she knows him and maybe we could go to dinner, and I went through this whole thing and at the end she went, "Oh my God, he'd love you." (Laughter.) Which is a scene out of The Newsroom.
Which character do each of you most identify with on your respective shows?
ESMAIL Elliot, in every way. He's a thinly veiled version of myself. I wrote what I knew because a lot of the details of his life and the loneliness were issues I've dealt with basically my whole life. I know, poor me.
NOXON I was gonna say Mary [on UnREAL], who went off the roof. (Laughs.)
FELLOWES I think there are bits of us in all the characters we write, particularly as we put them into predicaments where we've often lived through something fairly similar.
If each of you were to turn the cameras on yourself and do an autobiographical series, what would be the logline or working title?
ESMAIL Mr. Robot. (Laughs.)
NOXON I'm a little bit like Sam. It's called Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce. That's pretty ripped from the headlines. (Laughs.)
RIDLEY It would be about a 50-year-old black dude writing in Hollywood. Titles are not my forte. Ironically, you know what the original title of American Crime was that I went and pitched to the network?
NOXON American Crime Story?
RIDLEY No, it was called The People Vs. They said: "That's too arcane. How about American Crime?" These two shows cannot get away from each other.
ROSENBERG The content of mine would be about failure — I've gotten fired more than all of you put together. If I were a white dude, I'd probably have failed a fraction as many times before I hit it big.
FELLOWES I'd call mine Uphill. I was 50 before anything happened.
JACOBSON I'd probably go with There's Gotta Be a Pony in Here Somewhere.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.