'Empire' Producers on Chasing Money, Early Warnings and Avoiding the N-Word

Danny Strong and writer/co-EP Wendy Calhoun, speaking at the ATX TV Festival, also discuss the show's divided approach to stunt-casting, diversity as well as why viewers won't hear one specific word on the show.
Jack Plunkett
"Empire" at ATX

Fox's Empire nearly didn't happen as a TV series.

The hip-hop drama co-created by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels — which became a phenomenon last season and now ranks as broadcast TV's No. 1 show — was originally envisioned as a movie.

Co-creator Danny Strong, joined by co-executive producer/writer Wendy Calhoun, speaking Saturday at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, revealed just how he came up with the idea for the Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard drama.

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"There was a news story on the radio about Puffy and some deal he closed," Strong recalled. "Hearing that story, I thought, 'Hip-hop is so cool. I have to do something in hip-hop.' I constantly work from mythological or Shakespearean concepts. … Maybe like King Lear or the Lion in Winter. The whole concept flooded into my head in 30 seconds. We were in postproducton on The Butler and I pitched it to [co-creator] Lee Daniels. …

I pitched it to him as a movie. Lee and I could do a hip-hop musical movie, and Lee called me the next day and said he couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. Lee said, 'Do you want to be rich?' and in fact I do! He said we should do it as a TV show. I instantly knew he was right because it's about a family and TV shows are about families ... we instantly started talking about Dynasty and Dallas and we could do a black Dynasty. Empire was created from every single first idea that happened spontaneously."

Empire became a phenomenon last season. Fox's hip-hop drama is the No. 1 broadcast drama on television, was the highest-rated broadcast drama since 2008, highest-rated freshman series since 2005 and was the first show to build in live viewers every week in 23 years.

For her part, Calhoun came to Empire after having spent the past two seasons on ABC's country music drama Nashville, where she had been pushing — to no avail — to do the black version of the Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere starrer. Then Empire came along. She wound up leaving Nashville and jumped to risky Empire, which came with stakes that she was warned about in advance. "I was warned that if this fails, they won't let another all-black drama on TV for 20 years," she said.

In terms of Fox's feedback, Strong shared that the network — and all of News Corp. for that matter — had been on board from the start with nothing but support. Ten of Empire's first 12 episodes had already been completed before the show launched and became an instant mega-hit before Fox had a major note.

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"The final hour of the [two-hour] finale, the network hated the script," he said, recalling star Henson also had an issue with part of it. "[Empire showrunner] Ilene Chaiken and I wrote that script and we did this massive rewrite in two days. People loved the show at that point and I didn't want to disappoint people with the finale."

In terms of the show's diversity — almost every episode of the series was written and directed by people of color, with the writers' room equally representative as what's on screen.

"For me, up until Empire, I was usually the only black writer in the room," Calhoun noted. "So for years, I was carrying that torch. So to start on Empire and have that many black voices in the room … it was amazing. I started to realize we were able to get into the nuance of our culture. We were no longer just talking about the surface of our culture. We were able to get really down into it because we all were so familiar with it. Going to work felt like going to a family reunion. That family sense is important for your writers' room to reflect the DNA of the show."

Calhoun recalled all the actors meeting with the writers early on in season one and said the show's diversity really hit her when Kaitlin Doubleday (Rhonda) came in. "She said, 'This is our only white person on the show? And she's not playing the ingénue or the lead detective? I don't know what to do with it,' " she said.

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In terms of stunt-casting — Empire has a long list of stars who have expressed interest in a cameo including Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington — Strong said that's one of the big disagreements producers have on the show.

"I don't think we need to stunt-cast as much but there's pressure to," he said, noting that there are times when it works, singling out Courtney Love's arc."I want to hire people who need the job [not a celebrity for whom] this is some fun thing they do for pocket change. ... Then there are other people who like doing stunt-casting. I wouldn't say it's a source of tension but it's a source of disagreement."

As for Howard's recent comments that Empire should include the word "n—er," Strong said not to expect to hear it anytime soon. "I disagree with Terrence, I don't think we need to use that word on the show. If we were on cable, yes; but we're not on cable, we're a network show," he said, recalling Daniels' early pilot drafts that were laced with profanity. "It's not a documentary on hip-hop, it's a soap opera set in the hip-hop world; there's a heightened quality, and that's why you're able to watch the show and not think about profanity.

Empire returns in the fall on Fox.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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