10 Power Showrunners: A Day in the Life, From Carlton Cuse to Jenji Kohan
A voyeur's look through the bleary eyes of TV's busiest movers and shakers -- Ann Biderman, Jason Katims, Hart Hanson and Stephen Nathan, Scott M. Gimple, Armando Iannucci, Greg Berlanti, Kerry Ehrin, Jeff and Jackie Schaffer and Terence Winter.
These stories first appeared in the Oct. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Ray Donovan (Showtime)
With the early-fall sun piercing the windows of her scenic home office, Biderman reclines on her custom-made couch ("It's comfy but not too soft," she says) and digs into her morning's biggest to-do: Plowing through dozens of scripts in the hope of finding two new voices to add to her five-person writing team. "I don't want to read sample scripts for Ray," she says, flipping through one quickly and making notes with her pencil. "I want to read original material. I need to know their personal voices because I cast the writers room as carefully as I do the series."
Biderman, 62, is enjoying the peace of working solo inside her rustic 1940s home in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon while she can as she preps to return to the writers room for season two of Ray Donovan, the Showtime drama she created that stars Liev Schreiber as a clandestine Hollywood fixer. Today, in between binge-reading scripts and consulting with her assistant Alex, she fields e-mails from her fellow writers and Showtime execs about the sophomore season.
"I know solitude well, having spent so many years as a screenwriter," says Biderman of writing such films as Primal Fear and Public Enemies. "That's why I enjoy the conviviality of the writers room experience. I can't wait to get back in there." A few moments pass as she ponders both what she's looking for in new blood -- and what she isn't. "The minute I read 'handsome CIA agent,' I throw the script across the room," she says, laughing. "This process really is like sifting for gold." -- STACEY WILSON
Katims is running a bit behind. It's already 10:15 a.m. as he weaves his way through a series of hallways lined with reminders of his work, be it a Welcome to Dillon placard from Friday Night Lights or a shot of Parenthood's Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Amber (Mae Whitman), joining the About a Boy writers meeting in progress. The new midseason dramedy's room opened a week earlier, and Katims takes a seat among his nine writers and two writers assistants. First up: determining the direction that the Minnie Driver-David Walton vehicle should go.
"What I really want to do at this stage is to create an environment where everyone feels free to bring themselves to it," he says, noting the value of being able to infuse his series with relatable stories that often come from the real-life experiences of those in his writers room. Katims, 52, excuses himself at 11:30 a.m. to tend to his other show, Parenthood, which recently launched its fifth season. He scurries across the West L.A. complex to check in on the latter's edits, a process he jokes he rarely gets through without a few tears -- a trademark reaction to his shows. Fortunately, the married father of two has had experience with the dizzying -- or "daunting," as he describes it -- act of running two shows (the final two seasons of FNL overlapped with the first season of Parenthood).
"When I was young, I wanted to be a short-order cook," he says, seated now in his office where a sign with the FNL rallying cry, "Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose," hangs above. "I remember growing up in Brooklyn, and as a teenager I'd watch them at the grill with 10 things going at once, and somehow they all magically came out at the same time. After I became a showrunner, my wife looked at me and said, 'You got your dream.' " -- LACEY ROSE
HART HANSON and STEPHEN NATHAN
Over late-morning coffee and biscuits (with pancakes and scrambled eggs on the way), Hanson (left) and Nathan are going over the latest Bones script at John O'Groats on Pico Boulevard, a few blocks west of the Fox lot where they've made the procedural for nearly a decade. Their giggling (or whatever you call the infectious laughter of two bubbly middle-aged men) likely would concern fellow diners if they saw what was on the pages before them: a gory description of a dead body, the latest of Bones' notoriously comical and gruesome opening sequences.
"We have 70 years of doing this between us," says Hanson, who admits that scheduling usually requires that their morning meetings take place at the studio. "There's an old-man shorthand for us. If we talk through things with the other writers around, it would take forever." Adds Nathan, "And when we meet in the office, 25 people will come in and interrupt us." Such is their friendship and the creative process that has kept the series on the air for 171 episodes. The two never sit down to write an episode together -- Nathan says his patience for that ended when he moved out of comedy -- but their collaborative process takes on a good cop/bad cop approach while they dissect the script, a process that exudes a true yin-and-yang approach.
Hanson's script is bound in leather and filled with detailed and pristine notes; Nathan's is bent and covered with indiscernible scrawling. "It's like an anger relay race -- we pass the baton," jokes Hanson of his partner, as Nathan heads out for a meeting with postproduction. "When one is being really negative, the other is always really optimistic and excited." -- MICHAEL O'CONNELL
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
"This whole scene is better if she's giving him a hand job," Jenji Kohan says as she gives one of her writers, Lauren Morelli, notes on a script for Orange Is the New Black. Kohan will take her own pass at the episode -- No. 9 of the Netflix series' second season -- but right now, she's moving her pink pen from page to page and offering suggestions, which range in topic from sex to riffraff.
The married mother of three proved years earlier with Showtime's Weeds, about a pot-dealing suburban mom, that pushing the envelope is where she's most comfortable. At half past 11 a.m., she moves over to her treadmill desk, a gift from her agent, CAA's Peter Micelli, to catch up on e-mails and organize herself before joining the jailhouse dramedy's seven-member writing staff to start breaking stories.
Kohan tends to do her best writing at a Chinatown coffee shop or on the couch, wrapped in a blanket she "stole" off of the Weeds set, but there's no time for that on this early October afternoon. Twenty minutes pass and she walks over to the nearby writers room, which could be mistaken for a children's playroom with its mix of Lego sets, Nerf guns and Silly Putty lining the table. Soon, lunch will arrive from upscale Loteria, with Kohan noting that "good food" is one of the secrets of her room's success. She deadpans, "No KooKooRoo here." -- L.R.
SCOTT M. GIMPLE
The Walking Dead (AMC)
It's midday on Oct. 4, the day after the season-four premiere event for AMC's ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead, and newly minted showrunner Gimple already has been back at his Hollywood offices for a few hours following a night spent shaking hands and schmoozing. The famously shy writer-producer seems relieved to have completed the media-heavy day, which included a junket with reporters, red-carpet interviews and a speech at its premiere, which he attended with his wife.
In his first official season as showrunner, Gimple shuttles back and forth between Los Angeles and Walking Dead's rural Georgia set. So he's a little giddy (and relieved) about having scored some rare face time with New York-based AMC execs at the premiere party the previous night. "It's so much more expeditious for us to all be in the same place and move quickly through things," he says while taking a break to sit as his desk, which is covered with The Walking Dead comics.
Given that he's constantly in transit, this day is all about locking in the season's 13th episode, so by 1 p.m., Gimple is conferring with writer/co-executive producer Seth Hoffman and executive assistant Alex Coley Brown. Soon after, he bounces between story meetings and the editing bay. "It would have been a lot more nerve-racking starting something new," Gimple says of his fresh and now seemingly endless responsibilities. "At least here, I know where all the keys are kept." -- LESLEY GOLDBERG
Iannucci and his six-person writing staff are having a blast hashing out the final arc of Veep's upcoming season. It's a process, he says, that works largely because of his core professional tenet. "I don't recruit assholes," says a laughing Iannucci of his all-British team, which on this early October afternoon in urban London is delving into the sixth, seventh and eighth episodes of the political comedy's third season.
The mood is communal and intimate, as scripts are passed around the (very small) room and Iannucci places very detailed notes on each one. At this stage of the writing process, drafts are "very lengthy," but that will change after the brilliant Veep cast sinks its collective teeth into them. "We always make sure to have 15 alternative gags," says Iannucci. "People think the show is largely improvised, but it's not. It's just that the cast is good; they make it feel that way."
The Scottish-born married father of three says it's not as tricky as it sounds to maintain control of a series that shoots in Maryland in two-week blocks, sometimes rehearses in Los Angeles and bases its writers room here in London at Goldcrest Films. (The single-camera comedy also is edited and postproduced here.) And why isn't there a single American scribe present to help pen a series about a bumbling vice president of the United States? "I promise, I don't have a ban on hiring Americans!" says Iannucci. "It's just that all of these writers already knew me. But I do require them to check their egos at the door." -- S.W.
Arrow (The CW)
It's Tuesday at the Warner Bros. headquarters of Berlanti Productions, a homey and spacious bungalow in the shadow of the studio's famous water tower. Today, its principal finds himself on the verge of being double booked. Meetings with the showrunners on Berlanti's CW series Arrow and The Tomorrow People are running back-to-back, just as the shows do on the air. One of them was supposed to take place at the writers offices, but a fire drill has sent much of his growing operation to his own office.
Here, Arrow showrunner Andrew Kreisberg outlines season-two episodes 12 though 17, writing on a dry-erase board in rapid succession as Berlanti chimes in while simultaneously petting the doxiepoo -- a dachshund/poodle mix -- he has smuggled in for the day. ("I've never brought a dog in here before," he says. "I'm dogsitting!") Less than a half-hour later, Tomorrow People's showrunner Phil Klemmer arrives. Berlanti wipes the Arrow board clean (as if to erase signs of show infidelity), and the next rundown begins in the neighboring room.
It's a den of sorts, where plush couches are covered with pillows embroidered with the titles of Berlanti's impressive TV credits: Political Animals, Brothers & Sisters, Everwood, Jack & Bobby, Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone, among others. "My mom makes them," he says proudly before correcting himself to hint he might have inherited a specific strain of her genetic material: "She really has someone else make them, so technically she produces them." -- M.O.
CARLTON CUSE and KERRY EHRIN
Bates Motel (A&E)
Since the premiere of their Psycho prequel drama in March, co-showrunners Cuse and Ehrin have been taking turns heading north to the rainy Vancouver set of their series. But on this late September afternoon, they are -- shockingly -- in the same room at the same time tackling many tasks, including prepping a new script as well as doing on-camera interviews for a forthcoming featurette about Bates Motel for A&E.
"Our job keeps getting bigger and bigger," says Cuse following a 3:15 p.m. script meeting with Ehrin. "We are now brand managers, with responsibility for everything that falls under the moniker of Bates Motel, from T-shirts to Bates Lego houses." The duo, as well as their large writing staff, today also are navigating the team's busy schedule of script notes (4 p.m.), editing and, yes, even their own makeup session (4:30 p.m.) as they prep to film a writers roundtable video for A&E. The halls of their new office space (season one's digs were a few miles away in the Valley, in a smaller building) are appropriately lined with Alfred Hitchcock posters and Bates artwork in addition to an unruly amount of filming equipment cluttering the floor -- not for the series but for the on-air short.
Cuse admits he enjoys the chaos of this environment ("I liken it to doing a decathlon," he says), while his counterpart admits she'd rather keep a lower profile. "The biggest part of this job is communication, which I hate," says Ehrin with a laugh. "I'm a very internal person, and we are constantly having to communicate what's in the writers room from this group to that group. Thankfully, Carlton is really good at that stuff." -- L.G.
JEFF and JACKIE SCHAFFER
The League (FXX)
It's a cool, early evening in October, and Jeff Schaffer is sitting beside his partner and wife, Jackie, in their spacious dining room during a rare moment of not working, though you wouldn't know it -- the table is covered with scripts, production schedules and myriad Apple products and chargers. Their 15-month-old daughter, Arwen (named for The Lord of the Rings character), eats her dinner of sweet potatoes, peas and broccoli at the kitchen counter.
It's a rare moment of togetherness for the family as Jeff and Jackie, who generally write and direct every episode of The League, have a much-needed week off from shooting the fantasy-football comedy, though that only means they have more time for editing and location scouting (the latter of which, Jeff says, is "as awful as going on a lot of first dates"). It's the second season the Schaffers have had to balance caring for little Arwen with their series' "street-fight-like" production schedule.
"Last year was much easier," admits Jackie, peeking her head around the corner to see if Arwen has finished eating. "We'd just strap her on our chest and go to set. Now she is ambulatory! Thankfully, she's had her hep C and hep A shots, so it's not as dangerous for her to visit the scary places we shoot in downtown L.A." Arwen will go to bed soon, at which point her parents will leave her in the nanny's care while they return to their offices near their home to edit late into the night. Admits Jackie: "I have this Paranormal Activity-looking nanny-cam thing I watch all day on my iPad -- probably too often." -- S.W.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Here is serious cause for celebration on this Friday evening inside Brooklyn's famed Steiner Studios -- and not only because Winter and his cast and crew have just logged the final frames of their series' fourth season. "We actually only worked for 13 hours today … that's pretty civilized for us!" says Winter as actor Jeffrey Wright -- who joined the cast this season -- snaps a photo with his phone of a celebratory chocolate cake.
"We are all going to eat cake now and have some drinks to toast the occasion." Winter, along with his esteemed director, Emmy winner Tim Van Patten, and co-writer Howard Korder -- and the dozens of actors and crewmembers also on hand -- all have earned a round (or two) after wrapping this last day of shooting on Boardwalk's Onyx nightclub set. It's here where tricky song-and-dance routines have consumed three full days of the crew's energy.
"This year, 1924, was huge for jazz," says Winter of his Prohibition-era saga. "So we've infused a lot of performances into the storyline, which is very complicated but also a blast." Having shot at the Brooklyn studio space since the series' inception in 2010, Winter feels mixed emotions on the occasion of another season in the can. "It's daunting but also thrilling to think, ‘How can we possibly do this again next year?' " -- S.W.