Awards Watch: Emmy Roundtable -- Drama Showrunners
"Are you trying to get us fired?" Matt Nix joked when asked how he handles disputes with his "Burn Notice" actors. Relationships and compromises -- with their co-writers, networks and rabid fans -- were a common theme during the hourlong discussion with our panel of Emmy-worthy drama showrunners.
The Hollywood Reporter: What do you say when people outside the business ask you what your job is?
Michelle King: That's assuming any of us talk to people outside the business. (Laughs.) I don't think most of us leave the office much.
Matt Nix: I say writer. If they're curious, I say writer-producer. If they're really curious, writer, producer, casting.
THR: "Manager" doesn't make it in?
Nix: You end up sounding like a douchebag if you say "I'm the manager."
Daniel Zelman: I lead with writer. The other stuff would be impossible to explain. Really what I feel like what I do is put out fires constantly. And it would be hard to describe what those fires are and what goes into putting them out. Sometimes I start a few of my own, as well.
Vince Gilligan: There are so many fires to put out. So much of it is about money. We don't have enough to blow up this car or paint the wall blue, sometimes. There's so little money in basic cable.
Zelman: Scheduling actors--for some reason on our show the actors seem to be working constantly on five different shows at once so we can never get them on the days we need to get them. That's a huge part of what goes into every day, just getting a production schedule together. As well as the money, of course.
Damon Lindelof: (Shooting in Hawaii), we're enormously blessed on the fire front because the war is being fought (there). We're piloting the drones (in L.A.) but we're dropping bombs elsewhere. We have two executive producers in Hawaii dealing with the day-to-day headaches, and we (Lindelof and fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse) get to stay in L.A. for the most part and focus on writing the show, editing the show. We spend two to three hours a day on the phone with Hawaii. We're dealing with the same thing you are where, we'll write a script, the number comes in, and it's like, "All right, cut 10 pages, nine less explosions, we have two units going so this actor has to be in three less scenes." So you have to creatively compromise all the time. If we were shooting on a stage right next to the writers' offices, you'd get sucked into that drama. We recently went to Hawaii, shooting the final episode, and even with four days left of production you get sucked into the drama. It's like, "You guys have done so well without us all the time." And suddenly, mommy and daddy are back and Mary Poppins is -- "F*** her, we need your ear!"
Gilligan: Our Season 1, I spent most of my time in Albuquerque (where the show shoots) instead of in the writers' room. If the writers strike hadn't come, we were headed for a shutdown because I was just farting around on the set all day long. It's better to be 800 miles away because I'll just waste all my time saying, "This prop isn't quite right."
King: We're on the opposite coast (from shooting in New York) and we still spend all our time e-mailing and phoning trying to put out the fires and the schedule. Maybe Hawaii is better. There are fewer distractions there. They can't go do a Broadway show there. They can't do another series.
Lindelof: It's an island prison in a lot of ways. (Laughs.)
Zelman: We've got the Broadway show problem in a big way.
Lindelof: Do you guys have directing producers on your shows? Because that's the other thing. If we didn't have Jack Bender, who's our directing producer -- he has literally been there all six years of the show. He directs every third episode and supervises the visiting directors. He's making decisions that we trust him to make; he doesn't have to call us and say, "What should I do with this person's hair?" There's stuff that we micromanage, but for the most part, he has total autonomy. The first season of the show, Carlton and I were commuting to Hawaii, and we were having the same problem that you describe. When you're on the set, you cannot call the writers room and be like, "What do you got?"
Nix: You can, but they don't have it. (Laughs.)
Gilligan: I tried to do that.
Nix: On both "Burn Notice" and "The Good Guys," we send writers out to the set. But we ended up with this weird thing where it actually influenced the hiring, because we basically have to hire staff writers whom we can deputize with the power of executive producer. Like, "Staff writer, you are in charge of everything. You are the voice of God." It's a weird thing to call people who have been on other shows and say "No no, this executive story editor can fire you."
THR: When you watch the final cut of your shows, what bothers you most?
Nix: For me it's geography. In the crush of making things manageable, there's always this tendency to be like, "OK, these two things could be just a little bit closer." On set, nobody wants to put the brakes on it and say, "You know what? It makes no sense that that person is hiding from that other person and they're five feet away."
Zelman: Props. In our show, a lot of story points are made through props, and a lot of our props can all look the same when we're trying to tell a very specific story with one prop. There's one file, one envelope-- it's a quasi-legal show, so files and envelopes and documents are very important -- and they all end up looking exactly the same. We're trying to trace once prop over a whole season sometimes and four others can come in that look exactly like it.
Lindelof: We run into the same thing. We want to say, "This is really important later but we can't tell you why."
Zelman: For us, our schedules are crazy and we're on a basic-cable budget. There are very few writers, there's no directing producer, so if it slips through our hands, it's gone.
Lindelof: For us, the thing that is hardest is we can feel really rushed in our storytelling. We have 14 series regulars and each one of them has their own story and we have 42 minutes now (per episode); that's all that's left, and we have to break it into six acts. That's an average of a seven-minute act. You can't really get a lot of moments in seven minutes of storytelling. You get into the editing room and you're six minutes over your 42 minutes and it's still feeling rushed. We've got to lose scenes to let others breathe. The experience of watching it on the air is really sucky for us because you're like, "Why would anyone watch television this way, with commercials?" (To Gilligan) I cannot watch even your show ("Breaking Bad") with commercials, I have to watch it in other ways. It would be like watching the first 15 minutes of "The Hurt Locker,"then they turn off the movie and you just sit there for two minutes.
Nix: For the purposes of your network, let me just say I watch the commercials and purchase the items advertised. (Laughs.)
Gilligan: We have three act structure (with a teaser) and we have 47 minutes. I wrote one episode for ABC five years ago of "The Nightstalker," and when (producer) Frank Spotnitz said it was a six, seven-act structure, I was like, "What the f***?" God bless you guys, I don't know how you do it.
Nix: "Burn Notice" is a teaser, four acts and a button, so it's not six acts: It's a teaser, four acts and a button. (Laughs.)
THR: What's your proudest moment as a showrunner?
Lindelof: That we negotiated an end date for the show. Three years ago, it became very clear to us and the audience that a show that was fundamentally based on a mystery engine needed to build toward a drawing room scene where you're telling the audience you're going to get some resolution. And in that same conversation we said we should make fewer episodes. Why are cable shows so good? Why is the bar so much higher if they have less money to produce their shows? The answer is that some stories shouldn't be told over 24 (episodes). I can't imagine a season of "Damages" that's 20 episodes long.
Zelman: I'd kill myself.
Lindelof: But also, the audience's brain capacity to track what you do and the emotional capacity of your show has to be finite.
THR: What's your advice to TV writers hoping to make the jump to showrunner?
Matt Nix, left, and Damon Lindelof
Lindelof: It's different for everybody. I did so much bad writing in my 20s. I got hired as a professional writer for the first time when I was 28 or 29, and I literally have thousands of pages of s***. A lot of people aren't willing to write s***, or they write two pages of s*** and then they stop. You have to plow through it.
King: Some people have the trust of the network. Even if they haven't created the show, they're recognized as being spectacular managers.
THR: But how do you get that trust?
King: Grown-ups. There's just a comfort level with the executives if you seem like someone who is going to show up at the office, get the work done and not create a lot of headaches. They prefer to avoid the drama and the crazy if they can.
Nix: All (network execs) want is to be able to look at somebody and say, "That person is responsible for the show. I can yell at that person if the show's not good. When I started "Burn Notice" I thought, OK, it's like an English class, everyone has homework and I have the most homework. But then I realized three episodes in that nobody else has homework. I have homework and I have people who can help me with my homework, but if they don't do their homework, I've got to do their homework. And I've got to grade their homework.
THR: But how did you get to the point where you were the one doing the grading?
Nix: I had never written an episode of television before I started running "Burn Notice," but I had worked as a feature writer for eight years and I had never been unemployed because I pitched on every single thing there was. When I looked over my old hard drive, I had like 75 movie pitches. I pitched on two different movies in which children have superpowers that are viewed as defects. It was ridiculous! I've done so much story breaking that when I started the show -- one of the biggest skills is putting out fires with writing. Anyone can say, "OK, let's do a stupid explosion or something lame that blows the scene and hurts the show." But what it comes down to is, can you get in there and come up with a creative solution that doesn't ruin the show?
THR: When you fight with your networks, what do you fight about?
Zelman: No, FX has been unbelievable. Early on, Ted Danson felt like an experiment, but looking back on it, it feels like a no-brainer. Once that happened, they trusted us. Probably the biggest thing we fought about was marketing. Our show is a very complicated show to market, so that has a lot to do with it. What is our show? Is it a legal show or is it a thriller? I can't tell you. I can just tell you how hard it is to make.
THR: How about spoilers in marketing?
Lindelof: They're not arguments, they're "combative discussions." (Laughs.) You respect that their job is to get people to watch your show and they respect that you want to protect your show. If the numbers go down, those are the people getting yelled at -- not me, ironically, because it's our job to make good television.
Zelman: I had the experience of stuff being in promos that wasn't in the next episode. Stuff that was cut.
King: Are you finding spoilers ending up on the Web? On "Good Wife," we would finish a script and six hours later it would end up on the Web.
THR: Nobody talks about "Lost" on the Internet, actually.
Lindelof: You can do two tacks, you can try to keep everything secret, and the effect of that is that you tell the people you work with every day that you don't trust them. Or you say, there are people out there who are going to want to know what happens on the end of the show, but there is nothing I can do to stop them. We've done a little bit like you guys do (on "Damages"), which is flip to the end, show me what happens to Tate Donovan, so now the show isn't about this shocking thing, it's about building to it.
Zelman: Early on, people became so into guessing the outcome. Their guesses became so wild, the most surprising thing became to do the most obvious thing. That actually ended up satisfying people, in a weird way.
THR: How do you feel about the the rise in the cult of the showrunner in recent years?
Lindelof: There was something starting to happen at the turn of the millennium when I was a fan of these shows and Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams were very much on my radar. At that time, certainly David Kelley was on my radar and (Aaron) Sorkin, but they weren't plugged into the geek culture the same way J.J. and Joss were. And the thing about Sorkin and Kelley was, they were like the J.D. Salingers of TV writers. They weren't interested in having a dialogue with fans. But J.J. and Joss were going on the Internet and having dialogues with people and showing up at Comic-Con and you could ask them questions. They created that thing that a lot of celebrities have where you feel like you know them. With "Lost," within a couple of seasons it became necessary for us to start a dialogue with the fans because they were getting so frustrated. Someone needed to say, "Hey, it's going to be OK and if you're mad, be mad at us, don't be mad at the show." Like with any sports team, you're either a hero or a goat.
Gilligan: I never go online. Ever. I mean, I go online for porn but I never look up the show online. (Laughs.) It's not because I'm not interested, it's because I'm too interested.
Zelman: I'm just like you, but I'm lucky enough to have a partner who's obsessed, so anything I need to know he tells me.
Lindelof: Carlton is like, "Stay away from that s***, it's toxic." But I'm kind of a geek, so I'm interested in going to those sites to see the new "Iron Man" trailer; and, in trying to track it down, there's a post that says, "Why 'Lost' sucks" and I have to go, "Oh, why does it suck?" (Laughs.) This contradiction has emerged. The two questions we get asked the most often: "Are you making it up as you go along?" And they want the answer to be that we have a total plan, we're not winging any of it. But the second question is, "How much input do the fans have?" And they want the answer to be a lot. How can both be true?
THR: The primetime audience majority is women. Why aren't there more female showrunners?
King: I have no idea. I work with my husband, so I don't think I can speak for what the female showrunner experience is, like what Shonda Rhimes is going through (on "Grey's Anatomy").