'How to Get Away With Murder' Creator Breaks Down Shondaland's New Drama

Showrunner Pete Nowalk talks with THR about the structure of the Viola Davis-starrer and how it compares to 'Scandal'
ABC/Nicole Rivelli; AP Images/Invision
"How to Get Away With Murder" and Pete Nowalk (inset)

A new star is emerging from Shondaland. Scandal and Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers have a new protege in Pete Nowalk, the creator of ABC's freshman drama How to Get Away With Murder whose resume includes all of Shondaland's biggest hits: Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and Private Practice.

The drama stars Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, a brilliant and mysterious criminal defense professor and her students, who all become entangled in a murder plot. The events kick off when a new crop of students enroll in Criminal Law 100 — or as Keating calls it, "How to Get Away With Murder."

Below, Nowalk talks with The Hollywood Reporter about coming up through the Shondaland ranks and the lessons he learned from Rhimes, the structure of Murder and how it compares to Scandal — and if Keating and Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope could ever come face to face.

You're a first-time showrunner. How did you get your start?

I started as a staff writer on Private PracticeBetsy Beers and Shonda Rhimes literally were Santa Claus for me. I loved Grey's Anatomy. It was season three and I was always trying to write movies. I was an assistant in Hollywood. I wrote a book about being a Hollywood assistant. Then I wrote a pilot, and Betsy read it. She liked it and she gave it to Shonda, and next thing I know I got a job on Private Practice. I'd never been in a writers' room, and I was an idiot in terms of that. But I just had nice people to teach me and be patient with me. I worked on Private Practice, then Grey's and then Scandal.

What's the lesson you were able to take from your time in Shondaland?

Shonda is so true to her gut and her instincts. It's really hard to be that way. I worked for her for eight years, and I've seen how she's unwavering about doing certain storylines. She's so bold and I realized that's the only kind of boss to be. It's nice to work for a showrunner who is that way because they're clear. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to be decisive, and I have to try to be confident even when I'm not feeling it. That means listening to what idea you like best. You might get pushback from people, and luckily through this process — and why I think the Murder pilot turned out so much like I thought it would be — people went with my instincts. That's because I had Betsy and Shonda producing, and they were protective of that.

How does the structure for Murder compare to Scandal?

I hope they're different. I've always liked Shondaland shows, so I think it fits in the brand. One of the things that makes it feel different is that we play with time a lot more. I love going between the flash-forwards and the present. We're going to keep doing that through the season. We're going to return to the night [of the murder in the pilot]. We're going to see different pieces of it. We're going to see the ends of scenes we didn't see. We're going to see the beginnings we didn't see until we're putting together this whole puzzle. Playing with time is a really fun puzzle; it's a challenge as a writer. That feels really different than Scandal. What feels super different is I never want to be with Annalise completely. I always want her to be five steps ahead of me, and that means telling the show from the student's perspective. Yes, we have private moments with her, but I want to pick and choose those. Olivia Pope, we're with her. We understand her journey. Annalise is a very different character. Almost mythical. The point of view of the two shows will be very different. The pace, the mood and the psychological thriller aspects of mine — they're different genres.

How does Annalise compare to the other leading ladies of Shondaland: Meredith Grey and Olivia Pope?

They're all so different. They might feel similar because there's a lack of strong, interesting, weird and complex female characters as stars of TV shows. When you group them together they seem similar, but these three women would never be friends. I know what Annalise's backstory is, and it's very dark, and edgy and upsetting, and her point of view is very skewed because of that. Olivia believes in the White Hat, and there's no hat for Annalise; there's reality and justice. I don't think she thinks there is justice; it's kind of whoever plays the game the best.

Could Olivia and Annalise ever cross over?

I hope they exist in completely different worlds. I'll never say never because you can't; but I never think there will be a crossover. For example, Scandal alum Amanda Tanner [played by actress Liza Weil] is in our show. I pointed her out as an example as a character mystery. They all are, though. Everyone will be wearing a mask and will take it off slowly but surely.

One of the themes with Murder is that no one is 100 percent good or bad. How do you draw the line and find the balance?

It's about the moment and the situation the character is in. They can do something completely terrible in a moment like we all could if we're pushed. You have to stay true to that character in that moment. It's nothing else.

Annalise is wickedly fierce but the pilot doesn't present her as very likable. Are we supposed to be rooting for her?

It's a hard question to answer. Are we with her? I can't think in those terms. It feels like a matrix. I just want to be compelled by her. Some people might be turned off and want to turn it off. Some other people will be like, "Oh, she's different, and that's interesting. I might root against her sometimes, and I might root for the students. Or I might root for them all to win this case." I think it's more compelling. That's all I want.

What about the structure of the show: There's the overarching story of the central murder in the pilot. But what's the show on a weekly basis?

There will always be a case of the week. Annalise will use the students, and Frank (Charlie Weber) and Bonnie (Weil) to win whatever her case is. She'll have defendants — like a very wealthy billionaire in our second episode. There's an insider trader, a very powerful woman. There's a teenage boy who everyone thinks is a sociopath and is accused of killing someone. Every week I want to make those cases emotionally driven, strong and relatable. I want the crimes to feel like crimes any of us have committed: normal people in extreme circumstances, like the students. We'll watch how Annalise is a crazy genius to win her cases. Sometimes she'll lose, and sometimes she'll win. Our challenge as writers is to find new ways to tell a legal show. We don't always want to be in the courtroom; she can win cases outside of it. She can manipulate a lot behind the scenes, which is true to how real lawyers do it: a lot of back-room dealing. There's also a personal soap. There's character inter-dynamics, which is the heart and soul of every good show. There are romances, workplace competition. The students are not friends. That's what I love about these kids: They would never be friends; they're just thrown into a job — i.e. a murder — together. They're going to be butting heads and arguing, and maybe relating to each other and helping each other. But at the end of the time, they're in this this weird f—ed up family because they didn't pick each other. There will be the classic episode stories that are small as we're telling the longer arc of how Lila Stangard led to Sam's (Tom Verica) body. They're interrelated.

Like Scandal, will the cases of the week tie into the central theme?

Yes. The cases will impact the characters, and the students are learning a lot through these cases. We might see them apply the lessons when they're criminals themselves. The whole season is about the first semester of law school, and all the lessons you learn and how you apply them to life.

Is every season going to be a different semester? Could there be a new batch of students every season?

We can do that or we cannot. We can skip ahead a semester if we want or we can tell a semester in a month. I hate formula. I stopped watching network shows a lot because you get the joke after a while. I want to keep it fresh. We have a plan for season two and what that storyline is. But how we're going to tell it, over what length of time, who the students are … I love these actors and these characters and I think we're going to be invested in them. Certain parts of them will remain characters maybe as new characters come in.

The anthology is a hot format. Would you put Murder in that category? Could this show follow a new group of students taking Annalise's "How to Get Away With Murder" class every season?

It's not an anthology. If it was, it would be a completely different show. I want to watch Annalise and these students. You always introduce new characters, but it's a standard series. It would be easy to see, "Oh, once we've solved this murder they're not going to be interesting anymore."

The semester ends. They only have a certain amount of time with Annalise.

There's no reason why they can't keep working for her, especially when you see what happens. The ripple effect is as interesting to me as the act of doing it. Any tragic, dark thing that happens to anyone in their lives infects them for the rest of their life, and I think that's what's cool.

How to Get Away With Murder joins ABC's Shondaland Thursday lineup starting on Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. Will you enroll? And in case you missed it, check out the Murder trailer here.

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

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