Drama Showrunner Roundtable: Watch the Full, Uncensored Conversation With Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, Matthew Weiner
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
While the 2014 drama showrunners roundtable kicked off Emmy season as the cover of THR's May 23 TV Writers issue, what follows is the full conversation among this elite group of writer-producers. Ray Donovan's Ann Biderman, 62; Bates Motel's Carlton Cuse, 55; Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan, 47; True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto, 38; The Newsroom's Aaron Sorkin, 52; and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner, 48, gathered near downtown Los Angeles in April to debate the ups, downs and unexpected revelations that come with making truly excellent television.
Matthew, you are in the throes of capping off the final season of Mad Men, a position in which many of you have found yourselves. Do any of you have advice for him?
VINCE GILLIGAN I don't need to give you any -- you're the man! The old, time-honored, cliche advice: Enjoy it while it's still going on, which is hard. You're in the middle of it, and you're working your ass off. I live my life always looking backward. I'm not really in the moment. It's the goofiest, most lame-ass, cliche advice of all, but I would say enjoy it.
MATTHEW WEINER I talked to you at one point near the end [of Breaking Bad]. That was pretty hard, right?
GILLIGAN Well, I was freaking out.
WEINER It sounded really bad.
GILLIGAN I was like, "Yeah, this is going to suck!"
WEINER At this point -- everybody here knows -- there's some autopilot there. You're doing your job, being busy. The more work there is to do, the less I think. (To Gilligan) But I do remember talking to you near the end. You directed your finale, and I'm going to do that. The loss is pretty overwhelming.
GILLIGAN And the loss doesn't hit you until the last day of work is done. Then you're like, "Wow, this really did end; it's really over."
WEINER Well, this makes me feel better.
ANN BIDERMAN It's going to hurt so much!
Vince, how did you cope with all the pressure and expectations everyone had for the Breaking Bad finale?
GILLIGAN No. It was tough, but thank God I didn't turn into an insomniac, 'cause that's the escape. Every night, going to sleep! But no, I didn't really escape it. Most of the pressure at the end of the day is -- I shouldn't speak for anyone else, but I bet you folks would agree -- mostly self-imposed. There's no reason you can't, at least theoretically, tune out all that noise that comes from outside. That voice in your head that's telling you it's not good enough, and tuning that out. I wish I had some great advice for that, but I don't know.
Carlton, you were there with Lost. Is there something you wish you'd known in that process?
CARLTON CUSE Well, the thing that I didn't anticipate is that there were six endings to the process. We finished writing the script, and it was cathartic -- we shed a few tears. Then you finish shooting, and that's another very cathartic moment. Then we finished scoring the show. Then we actually locked the cut, and there were more tears and tequila. Then we had a viewing party to say goodbye to each other. I was so wrung out at the end by how many times we'd gone through the process of saying goodbye.
This begs a bigger question: How do you know when to say goodbye? Aaron, you're wrapping up The Newsroom this year after only three seasons. How is this unfolding for you?
SORKIN Well, I did choose to say goodbye this year. But I would say this about the pressure: It's a glamorous problem to have when the things you're complaining about are the things you used to dream about. You're in pretty good shape, right? If somebody had said to you, "Listen, your biggest problem is going to be that you haven't quite fixed this second-act problem in your hit TV series," you'd have taken that. But I also think that I'm scared of giving up the pressure. (To Gilligan) You said it was self-imposed, and I think you're right. When someone says: "Listen, can't you just relax? Can't you just take one night and relax and forget all about that?" I'm worried that if I did do that, I wouldn't finish and that it wouldn't be good. The pressure, self-imposed or not, is what's keeping the train running.
You all have tremendous credits on your résumés. What are the challenges of following up on those successes?
WEINER It sounds narcissistic, but I really feel like this is some kind of intervention directed at me! "Will you ever do anything else?" Sopranos happened to David Chase at 55, and that is very encouraging to me. It happens when it happens. I look back [on Mad Men] and think about the steps along the way. How did I think of that? What if I'd never met Jon Hamm? What comes out of me now? Who knows?
CUSE Whatever your intentions are when you're making television, there's this alchemy that either happens or it doesn't happen. It's really out of your control. If you get lucky, you get the great cast, the network supports your show and you get the right time slot. All these things coalesce, and you only control a small subset of those factors.
SORKIN And if you're as lucky as we've all been here, you're going to get compared to yourself down the road. You guys are about to find that out. But it's a small price to pay. I don't want to ever think that I've already written the best thing I'm ever going to write. If somebody came along with a crystal ball and said, "Listen, you're going to earn a living for the rest of your life, but I can't tell you what it was, but you've already written the best thing that you're going to write," I don't think I could write anymore. That would be really sad.
WEINER But there is … Bruce Springsteen shows up, and he plays "Born to Run" for you, and you're like, "He better do that every time I get there." And it's really old, it's some of his older work, and you're like, "No, 'Born to Run.' It's pretty good."
SORKIN Clear the dust away from that, and what you have left is that Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born to Run." I hope he feels that way.
Killing characters has become a popular plot device. Some say this is lazy storytelling. What are your thoughts?
BIDERMAN I don't think you're doing it for [ratings]. You aren't sitting there thinking, "We must have that happen in episode seven." I think it has to feel inevitable in some way or it is gratuitous, you know? You aren't sitting at the beginning of the year thinking, "I need this many bodies, and they need to come here." Good storytelling means there is this sense of inevitability to the characters dying.
WEINER When I was on Sopranos, people would ask, "When's Tony going to whack somebody?" More people died on the show than the mob killed during those seven years! There is a genre aspect to it. I like Agatha Christie, I like soap operas, I like comic books. I also love the way the Bible is told, filled with details and then it will be narratively dense at different places.
NIC PIZZOLATTO I think it's important to remember, too, that anything that's going to be worthwhile isn't going to be all things to all people, nor should it be.
WEINER You're like, "Well, let me see your show!" No matter how much action you have, no matter what it is -- James Bond movies -- every once in a while, you have to stop and see James Bond in bed. It has to calm down. You're sort of like, "Will you trust me?" There are things that are happening that will be valuable here. We're lucky enough not to work in the specific network model anymore, where they really did not want a continuing storyline because it was so bad for syndication. The revelation when I was on The Sopranos was that people were watching all 13 episodes. It was like, "Oh my God, they're keeping track and we can reference other seasons?" When I worked in network TV, it was like, "Can we shoot these out of order?"
Nic, were there versions of the True Detective finale in which Matthew McConaughey's and Woody Harrelson's characters died?
PIZZOLATTO No. The vision that created the story was dictated by the characters and how they behaved in the circumstances I had set out for them. It was certainly something I considered, but the trajectory of their personal arcs and where the journey took them was much more interesting to me with them left alive and altered in some way. I've never ended a show before -- I've never made a show before -- and all the episodes were in the can before the first episode aired, so there was no possible way I could manage anyone's expectations.
True Detective is a great example of a show that was anchored by two huge stars.
PIZZOLATTO Talk about luck!
There never has been more pressure to attach A-list actors to series. How do you manage those expectations?
CUSE I think it's the opposite. I think the material is attracting talent. The barriers between movies and television are evaporating. For Bates Motel, I always had Vera Farmiga in my mind; she was my prototype. A woman around 40, sexy, smart, who could play an incredible range of emotions. I loved her in the stuff I'd seen her in, but I didn't think I could get her. And [Bates co-creator] Kerry Ehrin and I wrote the first three scripts, and I sent them to Vera with a note saying how much I loved her as an actress, and she said yes. I was kind of shocked. But actors just want to do good work. The barriers don't matter.
PIZZOLATTO I don't know what HBO had to pay them, but we didn't have to make any concessions for Matthew and Woody. They were really right on with the material. They wanted to dive in. With guys like that, the overall concession would be that we're not going to use them again. People who have active cinematic careers don't want to come back for six years.
CUSE But Woody and Matthew did the show, and that's going to lead to other movie stars doing projects for television.
PIZZOLATTO I hope so. The first thing I did when they arrived for preproduction was hand them box sets of Deadwood and The Wire. These guys didn't have time to watch this stuff -- and they loved it. It's getting to where if serious actors don't want to play superheroes …
There's nothing left.
PIZZOLATTO Yeah, so give them a season of television. There is no question that characters and narrative in television over at least the last 10 years are far above what I've seen in film.
WEINER You're not going to get a big argument in this room!
CUSE The only dramas in the movie business are written by Aaron. (Laughs.)
PIZZOLATTO They make like five serious adult movies a year now.
WEINER All written by Aaron!
SORKIN The best theater in America is on television. Stars don't have the same relationship to the material that they do in the movies. And television actually has more of a habit of making stars now. Bryan Cranston came out the other end of Breaking Bad a much bigger star than he was when he went in. Jeff Daniels was just the guy we wanted for The Newsroom. We weren't given a mandate to find somebody who's done a bunch of Woody Allen movies.
Or Dumb and Dumber.
SORKIN That's true. He did that.
WEINER I remember premiering the same year as Damages with Glenn Close and thinking, "I would probably watch that before I'd watch Mad Men." No one knew who Jon Hamm was.
SORKIN (To Pizzolatto) Was your show cast-contingent?
PIZZOLATTO We had our leads before we pitched. WEINER That's a strong pitch!
PIZZOLATTO The benefit -- besides being able to show to a wide audience -- is that it let us control it and make what we wanted because those guys signed on to do that. But they were fantastic. I've seen it before where the movie star walks onscreen, and you're like, "Julia Roberts just walked into the scene." But Matthew and Woody really disappeared into those roles.
Ann, how much input did Liev Schreiber have in the casting of Ray Donovan, since getting him to do the series was quite a coup?
BIDERMAN It's called Ray Donovan -- he's the lead in the show. He did chemistry reads with certain people, and he participated in the process. I wanted him to be happy with the casting.
How difficult was it to get him to commit to doing a series?
BIDERMAN He's funny. He claims that I hit him over the head like a seal hunter and dragged him! No, I think he was ready, but it was hard for him. He has a very active career in the theater, and I think it's been frustrating for him because he plays a very impacted character who doesn't have a lot of access to language. He'll say stuff like, "Look at me, Frank." I'm not giving him Shakespearian speeches, but I think he's enjoying it. And I agree that the material draws the actor. But I didn't want to make the show with just anybody. It had to feel like the right fit. We were lucky with the timing.
CUSE We knew [Bates actor] Freddie Highmore was the guy for Norman, but we had to work around that he's finishing his degree at Cambridge and needed six months off to finish school. I moved mountains because he was the guy. If I were doing the feature version, I wouldn't pick anybody beyond Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga.
BIDERMAN I feel the same way about Jon Voight, Paula Malcomson and Eddie Marsan. Eddie is an amazing actor who kind of surprised us. He was living in England, and I had seen him in Mike Leigh movies, so it felt slightly anomalous at first. But he sent in a self-tape because he wanted to be on the show. He wanted to change his life, so there you are.
Carlton, you mentioned sending a note to Vera. What are the wildest things you've done to land an actor -- whether it was successful or not?
GILLIGAN Slept with them. (Laughs.)
BIDERMAN What else?!
GILLIGAN That's how I got Bob Odenkirk!
SORKIN Mary-Louise Parker, who ended up on The West Wing, left a message on my voice mail saying: "Hi, this is Mary-Louise Parker. Josh Lyman [Bradley Whitford's character] badly needs to get laid, and I'm the one to do it." She was in the next episode.
BIDERMAN Some claim that my team and I were at the Chateau Marmont and I started shouting, "I need a man for this part!" But people thought I was just shouting, "I need a man!"
Nic, you talked about writing season two of True Detective. How will you maintain the essence and tone of the series with a new cast and storyline?
PIZZOLATTO I'm treating it like this year's novel. It's going to be in the same genre, and what carries over is the authorial vision and voice. The same way you pick up a book by a particular author. There's a consistency of vision there. I might have built myself a nice coffin, but writing got me into this, and writing's going to have to get me out. I trust the process.
CUSE There's a kind of weird joy and comfort in having your back up against the wall.
WEINER You talk about keeping that fear going. I had a bunch of stories in the first season of Mad Men. I had nothing when I did the second season, except for a couple of ideas. That was scary. So I hire amazing writers, and they come in right away with their enthusiasm for the show, with their personal lives.
PIZZOLATTO These are all permutations of the problem of the blank page.
WEINER But you have to find a way to not become incapacitated by the pressure.
CUSE I think it was David Milch who said, "Never believe anything you think about yourself as a writer when you're not writing."
SORKIN That's great.
WEINER But we've all sat next to somebody in the trenches who was completely incapacitated. There is a tenaciousness that requires keeping your head when you see people like that. It's like, for some reason, even though I have no focus, and I'd rather be sleeping, I am not incapacitated by this experience.
SORKIN A healthy fear of failure helps, too. I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. I don't want it to, but it's going to happen again -- it's like electroshock therapy. I don't want it! So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that's pretty much the jet fuel for writing. Like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason just hits a beautiful shot. That's the reason they keep coming back.
WEINER Do you have a nonsports metaphor for some of us? (Laughs.) I don't know what you're talking about.
SORKIN I don't play golf, either!
WEINER I'm perpetuating a stereotype about writers, which is 100 percent accurate.
GILLIGAN I think about failure all the time. I think we're not engineered to enjoy it. It scares the hell out of me and keeps me awake at night. But when I'm being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. The rare success I've had in my career, Breaking Bad, coming off of that … I don't know what to take from it, other than to do my best to enjoy it. I've never actually solved a Rubik's cube …
WEINER This [metaphor] is working better for me. (Laughs.)
GILLIGAN Finally, you get it right, and you're like, "Wow, how the hell am I ever going to do that again?" That's what it feels like.
WEINER Going to this season's premiere of Mad Men, seeing the show go on the air, I was like, "Why do I keep doing this?"
PIZZOLATTO "I'm painting a target on my back."
WEINER But the glory is the work. It's worth all the failures. And I think most of us don't even know what our failures are.
SORKIN I can name them!
PIZZOLATTO We should differentiate between the types of success. There's something that might hit an audience really big and might be seen as a popular success that you're not satisfied with.
SORKIN I know what you're talking about.
PIZZOLATTO There needs to be a personal meter. It's important for a creator to always have the audience in mind but be careful of what your yardsticks are.
GILLIGAN That's good advice [but] hard to take.
PIZZOLATTO If you stay off the Internet, it's easy.
GILLIGAN That's the first rule: Stay the hell off the Internet!
WEINER That's very hard.
GILLIGAN Except for the porn.
PIZZOLATTO The first month of the show, I was still reading comment sections.
WEINER Don't do that!
PIZZOLATTO They had an intervention with me, and I was OK.
WEINER It's irresistible; especially if things go well, you get drawn in again.
What's the toughest part of the writing process?
GILLIGAN Structure and shape. Dialogue is fun -- that's the hot fudge. What we're doing now with Better Call Saul, we're sitting around the room like we did on Breaking Bad, and we use the word "shape" a lot. What's the shape of this thing? There are pleasing shapes and less- pleasing shapes. You know if it's wrong.
PIZZOLATTO It's like musical structure. Even if you can't play an instrument, you can still hear if somebody messed up.
SORKIN I love dialogue, but I am not a natural storyteller. I'm not the guy sitting around the campfire. But dialogue has always sounded like music to me, and I wanted to imitate the sound of that. I consider plot and story to be this necessary intrusion on what I'm trying to do.
CUSE It requires immense discipline to do the hard story work, particularly when you're in the middle of making a show and somebody wants to do show you pictures of cars and wardrobe. "No, I'm trying to figure out the structure of this episode!"
SORKIN "You have 17 key rings. Choose the one that you want."
CUSE But it's more enjoyable to choose the key ring than it is to figure out your narrative.
WEINER Getting a show to time is very painful for me. In the end, you don't miss anything, but you're mad at yourself for shooting stuff you didn't need!
SORKIN Are you usually long or short?
WEINER Always long. But I want it to be a little fat so I can cut out things I don't like.
SORKIN I'm usually long enough that just one more scene, and it's a two-parter.
WEINER I never have enough for that, I'm always like three minutes over. If it's 20 minutes over, they're very excited. If it's three minutes over, they're like, "No, absolutely not. We need those three minutes." But it's very hard to choose, and you're sort of like, "Why did I conceive this this way?" And I can almost never reshoot on my show. The sets are usually gone by the time I'm cutting, the actors are gone by the time I'm cutting, and we work on a very tight budget.
Whom do you most trust to read a first draft?
BIDERMAN Our writers. It's not necessarily a democracy, but we're all of one mind at a certain point.
How much do your scripts change during shooting?
BIDERMAN Someone once said, "The script is innocent until proven guilty," and I believe that. The rule on set is: Do it the way it's written. We've spent many hours writing. At the same time, you'd be an idiot not to let certain people do improvs. Jon Voight, in the pilot, came up with this thing when he was with a hooker, and he starts dancing. I thought, "This is gold!" You want to leave room for those happy accidents.
WEINER The first time I remember someone saying, "Just tell him to do it both ways," it was on Sopranos, and I was the new guy. I will not even say who the actor was, but he looked at me like, "Do you think I was born yesterday? I know which one you're going to use. Why am I even wasting your time?"
BIDERMAN "You're humoring me and condescending to me."
WEINER I'm so defensive about everything [when] I go into the writers room and see what worked and what didn't. [Mad Men writer] Semi Chellas runs the room, and when they do notes on my scripts, they don't allow me to be there. I see it when I'm with the writer's assistant later, and then I'm like, "Who said this?!"
GILLIGAN Is it always anonymous?
WEINER It's totally anonymous, unless the writer's assistant has written the script with me, in which case, they might say, "I don't really agree with that, but I wrote it down." The most exciting thing is cutting something down and having it still work. And then 24 hours later you're like, I didn't need any of this!
GILLIGAN I love that feeling, too. And much of it is the magic of having great actors.
BIDERMAN You don't need much.
GILLIGAN Another lesson that I love relearning is in the editing room: We can cut all this stuff out because the actors can say it with a look.
WEINER You didn't think anyone would get
it, and they walk in and got it. It's shocking.
Spinoffs can be tricky, particularly with something so beloved and, in the case of Breaking Bad, so recent. Vince, what has that process been like for you so far?
GILLIGAN It's scary. It opens you up to a lot of fears. Is this going to be Frasier -- or After MASH? If it's After MASH rather than Frasier, it won't be for a lack of hard work, wishful thinking and a lot of smart people doing their best. But it's a high-class problem.
WEINER Did you take any time off after Breaking Bad?
GILLIGAN A couple months, but I was doing a lot of press and talking about Breaking Bad right up until we started the new show. But it's not a bad thing. What's that old expression? You can rest when you're dead? That gets closer by the minute!
BIDERMAN I took some time after season one.
SORKIN Tell us how to do it!
BIDERMAN But by the time we finished post, I needed to start the room again and …
WEINER That is not a real vacation.
CUSE Post-Lost, I went hiking in Switzerland with my daughter, which was completely awesome. I was so exhausted. I had just monastically been devoted to that show for six years, and it was a network show, so we made 121 episodes. I was just recharging my batteries. And I read books!
SORKIN You made your daughter walk up a hill for no reason?!
The need for a vacation figures into the amount of stress you're all under as the CEOs of your show. How you do manage it while keeping up morale and handling conflicts on set?
PIZZOLATTO One moment at a time. You deal with whatever's in the headlights.
SORKIN I'm actually big on morale at the show. I want everybody to be really psyched.
BIDERMAN "What is essential today?"
WEINER I thought I was an indecisive person, and then I started making hundreds of decisions. The medicine for me is that I am surrounded by really funny people -- I didn't realize that my mood could emanate into an organism of 300 people, but it can -- so I felt a little bit of responsibility to not be as moody.
GILLIGAN You need good producers, too.
CUSE The greatest lesson I've learned is the power of collaboration. You can't do everything, and your show is better for it.
WEINER Someone says, "There was a fire in the kitchen," and you're like, "Oh, I didn't know." You're in a bubble; a brain in the jar.
GILLIGAN We had a guy get bitten by a rattlesnake on our crew. I didn't know about it.
BIDERMAN It's also about eating well and getting enough sleep.
SORKIN I can't sleep anymore.
BIDERMAN I make myself get off the iPad because it's too much stimulation.
GILLIGAN The worst is when you wake up in the middle of the night. But all the worst problems at 3 a.m. aren't quite as bad in the morning, but at 3 a.m., they're insurmountable.
SORKIN Then on a Saturday, you have all these problems, and it's worse because they can't be dealt with until Monday. So you spend a weekend waiting to solve problems on Monday, and you forget that you had these two days off!
You've all written for several characters over the years. Who have been the easiest to write for, the ones for whom you felt most comfortable?
PIZZOLATTO I could write Rust Cohle forever.
GILLIGAN I didn't know I could write TV until Chris Carter hired me onto The X-Files. I would hear those characters' voices in my head. It felt like transcription. After that structure was in place, you have that freedom … though it doesn't sound like freedom, ironically.
PIZZOLATTO But the restrictions can be freeing.
GILLIGAN And knowing where you're going.
CUSE It's like asking to choose among your children, but I loved writing for Josh Holloway on Lost. Sawyer was acerbic and irreverent, kind of a bad boy.
GILLIGAN Hurley must have been fun, too.
CUSE Yes. There was a lot of earnestness on Lost. Characters who were counterpoint to that were fun.
SORKIN There's never been a time when writing was easy. There have been plenty of times when it was fun, but I don't want to pick a favorite character. It feels wrong.
There really isn't one you found easiest to write for?
SORKIN I play all the characters as I'm writing them. I'm jumping up and down, acting it out. But no, I don't think that there's one …
BIDERMAN Leave him the hell alone! (Laughs.)
What's been has been the most embarrassing moment for you as a writer or showrunner?
GILLIGAN I wrote a scene in X-Files where Mulder was talking about a victim of a kidnapping siding with her kidnapper, and I wrote it as "Helsinki syndrome" instead of "Stockholm syndrome." I think it's actually a joke, too, in the first Die Hard movie. And then David Duchovny, who's a brilliant guy, did the scene, and he goes, "Hey, I like that shout-out you gave to Die Hard with the Helsinki syndrome." I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, it's Stockholm syndrome. Or was it like some weird copyright thing where you couldn't say that?" (Laughs.)
SORKIN In the second-season finale of The Newsroom, Jane Fonda's character had a throwaway line -- she was stoned -- where she says, "I'm going to get the Allman Brothers back together." A few days after it aired, I got a letter from the band's manager saying the Allman Brothers never broke up.
BIDERMAN Oh God.
SORKIN They were understandably offended, but I was just knocked out that the Allman Brothers watched The Newsroom. I couldn't apologize enough.
WEINER On set, the weirdest thing for me is when there are love scenes -- I'm on basic cable, so they require a lot of choreography. For some reason, when I start talking to the actors, I always end up playing the woman. Invariably, Jon Hamm will be looking at me like, "Really, you did this again?"
BIDERMAN In season one of Ray, Jon Voight's character is incarcerated in a cinder block cell. He plays a rather foulmouthed character, so it felt right that he stand up and pretend he's a chimp. And in his state of rage at being in a cell, he jerks off and throws it into the camera. And Jon and I were standing near a large group of people, and I'm pantomiming how to do this for him. I thought, "This is so wrong on so many levels." One of the greatest actors ever …
WEINER And known for his masturbating.
BIDERMAN And I'm instructing him to be a chimp and jerk off?
GILLIGAN We had a writer on Breaking Bad, Sam Catlin, who, whenever things got quiet in the writers room, he'd pantomime masturbating angrily. He was the angry masturbator.
WEINER Sam's going to love the shout-out.
PIZZOLATTO That's a closer.
CUSE That's hard to top, honestly.
SORKIN Good seeing you guys!