'Handmaid's Tale,' 'Stranger Things' and More TV Bosses on Writing About Tricky Subjects and the Challenges of Working With Kids

10:56 AM 8/15/2017

by THR Staff

The showrunners and executive producers of this year's Emmy-nominated dramas open up about everything from writing about female genital mutilation and the responsibilities of writing about living figures.

'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Stranger Things'
'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Stranger Things'
Hulu/Photofest; Netflix/Photofest

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • The Handmaid's Tale

    Hulu

    Courtesy of George Kraychyk/Hulu)

    Talk about timing. When streamer Hulu premiered The Handmaid's Tale in April — its ambitious stab at adapting Margaret Atwood's beloved 1985 novel of the same name — real-life political divisions so closely mirrored the flashpoints of the dystopian America onscreen that the show barely needed to be marketed. Starring Elisabeth Moss in her first full-time TV gig since Mad Men, the drama was greeted with a rapturous reception from critics — even if the material left some uneasy. (The series' flashbacks to a fundamentalist regime violently knocking back protestors resembled the escalations from anti-Trump demonstrations on the news.) But Handmaid's was more than just opportune. With a unique aesthetic, an enviable cast and relatable writing from showrunner Bruce Miller (The 100), the show has made a true prestige player out of Hulu and will be on most top 10 must-see-TV lists come the end of the year.

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    It would be the ceremony scene [wherein Moss' Offred must submit to sex with Joseph Fiennes' Commander as his wife holds her hands] because you don't want to overemphasize the horror. There's enough horror in the scene as it is that you just want to make sure the audience feels connected with Offred.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    The female genital mutilation storyline [with Alexis Bledel's lesbian character, Ofglen].

    Read the full Q&A here

  • House of Cards

    Netflix

    David Giesbrecht/Netflix

    Can House of Cards see the future? That was a question posed by viewers of the political thriller after watching the fifth season of machinations by Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) Underwood. First, Frank's approval ratings dipped after he closed U.S. borders and declared war amid cries of voter fraud. By the end, however, he was no longer running the Oval Office — because the series welcomed its first female president before the country did. Pending a renewal, a potential sixth season will follow President Claire, who promises to be just as ruthless as her husband and had all but shut him out in the season's final moments.

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    PUGLIESE The last scene of season five, but that's true every season.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    PUGLIESE Stealing an election — they should really make that harder.

    Read the full Q&A here

  • This Is Us

    NBC

    Courtesy of NBC

    Proving that broadcast networks still can be Emmy contenders, Dan Fogelman's time-jumping drama was a pop culture phenomenon in its freshman season, landing broadcast's only drama series nomination (among nine others — including for stars Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown and Chrissy Metz). The 20th Century Fox TV-produced series also finished out the season as broadcast's top-rated scripted drama among the advertiser-coveted demo of adults 18-to-49, helping NBC win that crown for the third time in four years — this time without the Super Bowl or Olympics.

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    There were two: The big goodbye speech from William [Ron Cephas Jones] to Randall [Brown] at the hospital. I wanted to make sure I got every word so that it was hopefully sparse enough but right. And then the fight between Mandy [Moore, who plays Rebecca] and Milo [her husband, Jack] in the finale. Getting the rhythm of their fight so that they would have room to go back and forth, almost like dual dialogue, was challenging. I'm a writer who uses a lot of words, and it was a matter of getting your words right and using them efficiently. In the goodbye scene from Ron to Sterling, you're hopefully getting across the verbal point that you want to make without making it too talky or too perfect. The same is true for a fight sequence between Milo and Mandy, just in terms of not overwriting, but not underwriting. It's always the challenge for me.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    Toby [Chris Sullivan] falling through a coffee table on Christmas as our [midseason] cliffhanger. It was this very sweet Christmas montage that ended with a guy falling through a coffee table with a heart attack. I wondered if people were going to revolt. It turned out to be something that got them really excited and talking. That one was scary for me.

    Read the full Q&A here

  • The Crown

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Peter Morgan has a thing for the queen. After making an Oscar-nominated film about Her Royal Highness (2006's The Queen, starring Helen Mirren in the titular role) as well as a play (The Audience, again with Mirren), the British screenwriter turned to TV for The Crown. The big-budget Netflix drama follows Elizabeth II over several decades and has been a prestige coup for the streaming giant. The series landed a Golden Globe — as did breakout star Claire Foy for her portrayal of a young queen — and now it's up for 10 Emmys. Ahead of the primetime ceremony in September, Morgan spoke with THR about all things royal.

    Given that several of your subjects still are living, what's been the most challenging part of getting it right?

    They're still living, and you have to take that stuff really seriously. In the end, there's a lot of stuff you can find through research, but there's also a lot of stuff no one will ever know, and you just have to do your best. Funnily enough, I find from experience that if a show isn't getting it right, people reject it. Not just people who know but people who don't mind. When a show gets it wrong, it somehow smells wrong, and you just sort of go, "I don't buy it." But we've not been getting that response. So far, people have said, "How the hell did you know that?" And we've got a lot of people [saying that who are] pretty close to the center of the source.

    Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, has said he hopes the show runs for six seasons. Is that still the plan?

    I'd obviously have to see how the show is being received, and I'd have to get some help along the way. I'd very much like to find some collaborators who can come with me on that journey because I wrote the first season entirely by myself, and the second season, too. So I would want to find some help moving forward just so I'm still standing. (Laughs.)

    Read the full Q&A here

  • Westworld

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    What does $100 million for a first season get you? For Westworld, HBO's sprawling update on a little-remembered Michael Crichton flick, it bankrolled controversy, conversation, 12 million weekly viewers and, even sweeter, 22 Emmy nominations. The ambitious yarn — about a living theme park gone awry and the various characters (robotic and human) populating its Old West playing field — is now the heir apparent to that other HBO drama (Game of Thrones). For creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, partners in the writers room and in life, co-captaining such a high-profile project has its perks (dream-casting leads like Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton and Ed Harris) and drawbacks (it turns out imagining the worst possible scenarios of a tech-heavy future can bum you out).

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    NOLAN The scene at the end of the finale between Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in which Ford [Hopkins] explains what the fuck has been happening during the whole season.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    JOY Working with our dream cast in every single role and showing up to work every day at an imaginary theme park that became more and more real. Our daughter loves trains, and we brought her to work and showed her our train set — which is real.

    Read the full Q&A here

  • Stranger Things

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Before Netflix launched Stranger Things in July 2016, it was seen as little more than "that new drama with Winona Ryder." Perception changed almost overnight when the 1980s-set sci-fi adventure, about a group of kids looking for their missing friend, became a watercooler phenomenon. As much as critics were anxious to praise Matt and Ross Duffer for their nostalgic creation, the series didn't seem like awards bait. That changed with big prizes from the Screen Actors and Producers guilds, giving it some serious Emmy heat. The Duffers, who write and direct with such synchronicity that they rarely remember who did what, reflect on their runaway season.

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    MATT Any scene in Hawkins Lab. It's easy for us to write for nerdy boys, but brilliant scientists … not so much. Although we have some real science nerds in the [writers] room who help us sell the theoretical science. And rewatching the original Cosmos doesn't hurt.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    ROSS Having Eleven kill multiple adults over the course of the season. She's technically a mass murderer. But they all deserved it.

    Read the full Q&A here

  • Better Call Saul

    AMC

    Courtesy of AMC

    It is not common for a spinoff to supersede the original in the hearts of its biggest fans, but that's the feat co-showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould continued to pull off for many viewers with season three of Better Call Saul. AMC's quieter, less meth-y prequel to late Emmy icon Breaking Bad broke new and fertile creative ground with its character study of the McGill brothers — Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Chuck (Michael McKean) — as the narrative continued its collision course with the events of its parent series. (See the tantalizing addition of Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring.) Gould explains the unique balancing act he's doing at the show's Albuquerque, New Mexico, set, where avoiding courtroom cliches can be a full-time job in and of itself.

    The most challenging scene to write this season was …

    Truth be told, Vince and I were more than a little intimidated by the decades of terrific courtroom scenes that came before us. In fact, up until now we've made a point of avoiding courtroom scenes, but with [the episode] "Chicanery," we plunged in with a vengeance. Practically the entire episode takes place during the course of one very tense bar association hearing as Jimmy McGill fights for his legal career. The hour climaxes with Jimmy's examination of his imposing, brilliant older brother, Chuck, and a deception that forces Chuck to break down in public. It's a long, intricate scene, but what gives it real power is that, beneath the veneer of legalities, there's an ocean of complex, primal emotion between these two men.

    I still can't believe we got away with …

    Re-creating a Blockbuster store for our finale! The image made us laugh in the writers room, but actually making it happen for one brief scene was a real challenge. All kudos to production designer Michael Novotny and his team, ace director of photography Marshall Adams and an office full of people who handled clearances for dozens and dozens of DVD covers!

    Read the full Q&A here

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