Emmys 2011: 10 War Stories From the Writing Trenches
The scribes behind "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men," "The Office" and other nominated series confess to their toughest creative moments.
TV scribes are likely the most put- upon of all writers. They not only create the blood and guts of their shows, but many also lead the charge in the writers room, troubleshoot on the set and, in one case, direct, edit and produce. (Looking at you, Louie.) Here, this year's 14 nominated scribes reflect on their toughest creative moments, the power of comic relief and how The Real Housewives can be a terrible distraction.
The Office "Goodbye, Michael"
"My favorite scene from 'Goodbye, Michael' is a talking-head interview with Michael [Steve Carell] just after he has given Oscar [Oscar Nunez] his going-away present, a pathetic homemade burlap doll, which Oscar receives with great seriousness. We cut to Michael, who is laughing so hard he can barely breathe over Oscar's low opinion of him. Michael shows the top of his intelligence here: He is aware people think he's sometimes stupid, and he can play with it and laugh about it. Steve has an incredibly infectious laugh, and it is impossible not to be carried along when he really goes for it, providing a great moment of joy that this somewhat sad episode really needed. Also, for me over the seven years, those interview segments in his office were the most intimate scenes that I did with Steve. I would sit just off to the side of the camera and ask him questions, and he would look at me and often improvise. This scene was shot early in the week, and when Steve left to prepare for the next scene, director Paul Feig and I looked at each other and realized at the same time that, without anywhere near the appropriate fanfare, we had just shot Michael's very last talking-head."
30 Rock "Reaganing"
"The idea of Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy talking in the limo about Liz's sexual past was mostly Tina Fey's idea, but it was also an attempt to save some money. It was our attempt at a bottle episode [one restricted to use as few castmembers, effects and sets as possible]. But in classic 30 Rock fashion, we were like, 'Why is there a traffic jam?' The thing we ended up going with was there was this elaborate commercial being shot that was causing the jam, so that meant we needed to actually shoot an elaborate commercial. What we intended initially as something to be a cheap episode of two people sitting in a car talking became one of the most complicated episodes and probably one of the most expensive episodes we've done. It was a bit difficult to do an episode about Liz's sexual past; it was about striking the right tone because it's not traditional to do a comedy episode about someone's horrible sexual experience they had when they were a preteen. The thing that unlocked it was going into flashbacks and seeing Tina with a wig on and roller-skating down the hall. It was originally conceived where she tells the story and you don't see anything. She looks so stupid in that wig; you were allowed to laugh at it and allowed to laugh at the story. That ended up pulling it all together."
David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik
Episodes "Episode Seven"
Klarik: "Two guys who don't really fight trying to fight? It's silly. My favorite moment of the fight is when Sean [Stephen Mangan] punches Matt [LeBlanc] after he finds out Matt slept with his wife, and he's as shocked as Matt -- like, 'How did I do that?' The other thing that was really fun is that we came up with the Joey Cologne idea in the opening scene when Matt is in bed with Beverly [Tamsin Greig]. And then there was a moment when we realized, 'Oh wait, the cologne could be a weapon later on!' It was really fun. The part that we worked really hard on was the whole long run with Matt and Sean, where Sean puts all of the pieces together and figures out Matt is having sex with Beverly. It's endured in an honest way -- that we're with Sean as he's putting those clues together. And then Matt realized, 'Oh God, [Sean's realization] is getting closer; it's getting closer.' He knows he's drowning, and there's nothing he can do."
Crane: "I would say the final scene is probably our favorite. It encapsulates everything: a lot of emotion and pain and some really big comedy. We loved the fact that we bring the characters as low as possible and then at the very last minute say, 'Guess what?' -- and you get to stay there. And we'd been, in the course of the season, building the sexual tension between Matt and Beverly. We'd finally got them together in the previous episode, and it all led to this."
"I generally do a first draft of a script, and then it's mostly done. I e-mail it to my producer pretty immediately. Then, in watching the thing be read by a bunch of actors, I learn a little bit more about the script. I've cut whole scenes after watching the auditions; that's a huge part of the writing process for me. For this episode, I had a lot of my good comedian friends in the poker scene. The central poker conversation about gay sex came from conversations I had with Rick Crum years ago. Jim Norton is always a great voice. Nick DiPaolo has been on the show on and off -- I love using him. But I generally don't ad-lib a lot -- like, say, Larry David does on Curb -- because I shoot the show cinematically and precisely. In that poker scene, most of the exchanges were written precisely. But then, when we were talking about the gay sex club, I let all these guys run through it and we just kept rolling. I'm lucky -- I have a lot of autonomy. FX doesn't give me notes until it's all shot and edited. I don't go through a big vetting process. All that dialogue-vetting tends to perfect scripts to a place where they feel too common. I like putting raw first drafts out there and letting the producing and directing take over."
Steve Levitan, Jeffrey Richman
Modern Family "Caught in the Act"
Levitan: "The story idea came to me after my wife and I realized that our daughter had walked in on us [having sex]. We didn't say anything for a while about it; we just let it hang there for a bit. I brought it up at dinner one night with my daughter in a fun, joking way, and she said, 'Oh yeah, that was horrible.' I keep hearing from people who were involved in one side or the other, and it is apparently much more common than any of us realized. The other funny thing I've heard was because Modern Family is a show that a lot of families watch together, it creates some awkward moments. Everyone felt a bit closer after that episode or totally creeped out."
Richman: "I accidentally spilled wine on a friend's expensive rug then tried to turn the rug so that the stain was hidden under a piece of furniture. That was the genesis of the Mitchell [Jesse Tyler Ferguson] and Cam [Eric Stonestreet] story. At one point, we had the boys move the rug, and then we decided that was an unlikable quality. After having pitched the story from my life and finding out I had done something so unlikable, to have actual characters on television do that, I realized America wouldn't like them. That made me think twice about what to pitch next time."
Friday Night Lights "Always"
"I love the scene where Matt [Zach Gilford] asks Coach [Kyle Chandler] for permission to marry Julie [Aimee Teegarden]. My wife and I met when we were teenagers, so their story reminds me a lot of us -- at least some of us. That moment where you saw Matt and Julie as a married couple, it was like a mini Coach and Tami [Connie Britton]. The mall scene was the biggest and longest conflict Coach and Tami ever had to work through, and you really didn't know how that was going to resolve itself. The thing that was most moving to me was the silent sequence of the final football game leading into the ending. It was something that I felt was such an important goal to all of us as writers in that last season, to send the show off in a way that we felt was worthy of all the episodes that had come before it. When I was writing the script [for the finale], my father was dying, so I was writing during the last weeks of his life. A lot of that wound up in the script because this episode was about an ending and saying goodbye to something you really weren't ready to say goodbye to. When we wrapped the show, a bunch of people decided to go to the field, and we played touch football. I had been a part of making the show for 76 episodes, but that was the first time I felt like I was experiencing a real Friday Night Lights moment."
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Game of Thrones "Baelor"
"Originally we planned on shooting a large-scale battle scene. Tyrion [Peter Dinklage] rallies his troops and leads them into the fray. As we neared the end of the shooting calendar, though, we realized the battle wasn't going to work. We didn't have the money for all the extras and VFX work, we didn't have the shooting days to cover all the various set pieces properly, and Belfast in December gets about eight hours of daylight. So we had to come up with something else, fast. We ended up with a drinking game involving three of our favorite characters: Tyrion, Bronn [Jerome Flynn] and Shae [Sibel Kekilli]. Aside from a few nighttime scenes becoming daytime scenes, there were no drastic changes from the final shooting script. One of the reasons we love working with [director] Alan Taylor is that the scenes remain true to our conception but also mysteriously become much better. In the drinking-game scene, we were nervous about shooting nine pages in a tent. However, with those actors and that director, we could've set a whole episode there. But we are probably most proud of the execution scene. It was key to the whole season. It was complicated because it involved crowds and CG backgrounds. Typically we don't have time for writer's block. There's too much to write and revise, in addition to producing duties. Because of the complexity of the schedule -- this season, we're shooting in three different countries with 150 speaking roles -- we have to shoot scheduled scenes on the scheduled days. That means the writing deadlines are merciless. If one of us stalls, the other has to shove the car down the road. If both of us stall out? Luckily, that hasn't happened yet."
The Killing "Pilot"
"I wrote the diner scene late at night, in the middle of producing and doing 10 million things big and small. I had no real idea what this huge scene would be about, except 'Sarah [Mireille Enos] and Holder [Joel Kinnaman] talk about shit and get to know each other,' and Holder explains 'his weird-ass philosophy of life.' I went into it blind and hoped those two would know what they were going to talk about; I certainly did not. Thankfully they did because I think that was a five-minute scene! By the time we shot it, watching Mireille and Joel hit it out of the park in, like, three takes was one of the most satisfying moments I've had as a writer. We had about five minutes to shoot the most important scene in the script because a storm just came in, blowing the blinds in the background all over the place. They had no choice but to crush it. Joel ate so many of those disgusting burgers; I think he would have killed me if he had to eat one more. Looking back, there was only one moment I hit writer's block during the season. I wrote, 'Blah blah blah' for the first half-page until the writing just took over, and I knew I wouldn't get up again to make a sandwich or watch Real Housewives."
Mad Men "The Suitcase"
"Conversations have to become more revealing and deep right away. But you don't want it to feel mechanical, discussing the same thing over and over again. The scene with Don [Jon Hamm] and Peggy [Elisabeth Moss] in the diner, which was kind of a transitional scene between the things that came out in the bar and her in the super-confrontational scene, 'That's what the money's for.' To us, it was like, 'Why do we need this scene?' It was a challenge figuring out how to give a lot of information that the characters have never shared: Don talking about his father; Peggy talking about her father, how he died. It was tough to get all the information in, still beat and still have it transition into more intimacy. I had to strike the balance between the work conversation slowly becoming personal. Don never really talks about himself, and Peggy really hasn't had a chance to talk about herself to him, like when she says she'd never been on a plane. And then Don talked about going to Korea. And then she asks, 'Did you kill anybody?' That script was magical. Maria and Andre [Jacquemetton] structured the story very well."
Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton
Mad Men "Blowing Smoke"
Andre: "The scene that really resonates for me is the one with Midge [Rosemarie DeWitt], when Don comes to her apartment. He's shocked to see how crummy it is, meet her loser husband, see she's given up on her art and is now a heroin addict. She is his old flame, someone he really cared for. We thought, 'Let's bring back Midge; let's do a twist.' We always try to go down an unexpected path.
Maria: "There's that end sequence where Don is writing the letter, and it's a voiceover. You cut from him writing to Henry Francis [Christopher Stanley] reading it, Pete Campbell [Vincent Kartheiser] reading it with the piece of toast in his hand, and then Roger [John Slattery] reading it. You get everyone's reaction. It ends with Don coming into the office and getting the reaction from his staff, and then you see all the partners behind him, waiting. And he just ignores them and goes into his office. They come in and read him the riot act for pulling this maverick move that had nothing to do with being a partner. Don's coming at it from, 'I had to save our company.' He's self-righteous, full of himself. And then he gets this call from Robert Kennedy's office, and it turns out it's his rival pranking him. I love how we were able to do a scene like that, taking the audience on this emotional ride and you're totally rooting for Don. That's the great thing about Mad Men: We're given the freedom to do scenes where the hero doesn't always have to be heroic."
-- Reporting by Tim Appelo, Sarah Ewald, Lesley Goldberg, Philiana Ng, Lindsay Powers and Lacey Rose.
- Greg Daniels, The Office (NBC)
- Matt Hubbard, 30 Rock (NBC)
- David Crane, Episodes (Showtime)
- Jeffrey Klark, Episodes (Showtime)
- Louis C.K., Louie (FX)
- Steve Levitan, Modern Family (ABC)
- Jeffrey Richman, Modern Family (ABC)
- Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights (DirectTV/NBC)
- David Benioff, Game of Thrones (HBO)
- D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones (HBO)
- Veena Sud, The Killing (AMC)
- Matthew Weiner, Mad Men (AMC)
- Maria and Andre Jacquemetton, Mad Men (AMC)