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Emmys: 'Game of Thrones,' 'Downton Abbey' Writers Reveal Their Most Difficult Scenes
"Keep it simple, and trust your actors": That’s how one Emmy-contending writer got through the angst of scripting a pivotal episode. It's just one lesson learned by this season's most competitive scribes in drama and comedy series writing.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
How I Met Your Mother, CBS
One of the hardest scenes was from the episode "Sunrise," in which Ted (Josh Radnor) breaks down and admits to himself and his ex-girlfriend and probably a few people walking by in Central Park that he's still in love with Robin (Cobie Smulders). It was one of those juicy but hard-to-write moments that call for a character to drop his armor and become completely vulnerable and exposed and honest. Writing that way -- with painful honesty -- is always worthwhile, but it's also really scary, especially when your words are going to be spoken aloud in front of millions. Luckily, the person doing the speaking was Josh, who as always transformed a speech that could have felt like a cringeworthy excerpt from a teenager's diary into a really moving and memorable scene. That was really the secret of our writing success on How I Met Your Mother. We had amazing performers speaking the words.
David Benioff and Dan Weiss
Game of Thrones, HBO
We first saw Rose Leslie on Downton Abbey, and even though she had a small role, something shone through: fierce intelligence, tenacity and, well, red hair. We immediately thought: Ygritte. She came in to read for the part, and just like that, the search for our wildling heroine was over. Rose took possession of the character from her very first scene, bravely facing death at the hands of Jon Snow (Kit Harington). As his captive, she perfected the flirtatious/disputatious mode, and soon he was her captive. Thus began the most captivating romance in the GOT world, a world in which the romantically minded generally die gruesomely. Rose was with us in Iceland, from the frozen Lake Myvatn to the Vatnajokull glacier; she was with us in Northern Ireland, from Magheramorne quarry to the mountains of Mourne; and in fancier shoes she joined us at our premieres in Los Angeles and New York. We loved writing for her because she infused every line of dialogue, no matter how prosaic, with Ygritte's fire. We loved being around her because Rose Leslie is good people. But none of that changed the fact that in the ninth episode of the fourth season, we had to kill her.
Writing Ygritte's death scene was brutal, in part because we had come to love the character so much and in part because we knew this meant saying goodbye to Rose. Plus, death scenes are tricky. Too much dialogue, and you're left wondering how she managed to make a speech with an arrow through her heart. So we didn't give her many lines, but Rose doesn't need much dialogue to convey a feeling, and Kit Harington needed precious little to project his grief over losing the one woman he has ever loved. Add to that a spectacular death shot devised by Neil Marshall and the brilliant cinematographer David Franco, and you have one of our favorite moments from season four.
Devious Maids, LIFETIME
I have a historical difficulty writing anything that's super-testosteronal, anything involving cops, technical language and attaching a macho feel to a scene. I don't know how guys like that talk. I grew up understanding the rhythms of women. But in our fourth episode, the daughter of an African-American family, employers of Rosie (Dania Ramirez), catches Miguel (Octavio Westwood) misbehaving and spanks him. When I wrote that, the networks and studios were appalled. They said there was nothing funny about spanking. And I was like: "Sure there is. Coming from a household where I was spanked regularly as a child -- and deservedly so -- I happen to know this." I understood everyone's point of view and had to work hard on the storyline to make it something the network and studio would accept. To their credit, they liked it.
Downton Abbey, PBS/MASTERPIECE
The rape sequence involving Anna (Joanne Froggatt) was very concerning to write. I felt there was something useful in having a rape victim who was innocent, as opposed to, "She shouldn't have gone out in that skirt." Our way of dramatizing it was to make a rape story where the victim hadn't done anything to merit it except be nice. What was particularly difficult, in filtering it through the prism of Downton, was to present it from the perspective of the response to the event rather than the event itself. We were interested in the scene afterward where she's crying on the bed. I wanted to get that line between Anna's own feeling of being dirtied, feeling soiled for her husband, and yet be quite clear that we didn't think that at all. I had to walk a narrow line in the script. It helped that Joanne was so sensational.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, FOX
➻ In the season-one finale, in the last act, Jake (Andy Samberg) says to Amy (Melissa Fumero) that he's about to go away and he wishes there was something that could happen to them romantically before he leaves. This interchange sparked a huge debate in the writers room about what exactly Jake should say. We wanted Jake to admit he liked her before the end of the season. And this was it. If he says nothing, he's a wimp. We ultimately agreed that Jake had to go further. I wrote this dialogue 15 different ways. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking in the writers room, and it's 1 a.m. the day before the table read. Finally, I just deleted it all and started over. Now it's 2 a.m., and I decide to write it totally simply. That got the biggest laugh. But I promised to change it at the table read if it still sucked.
Modern Family, ABC
Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam's (Eric Stonestreet) wedding scene was probably the toughest to write because we've all seen so many wedding scenes on television. How do you do it differently? How do you make it funny and unsentimental but not stint on the genuine emotion? It was a tricky balance. When the time came to shoot the scene, all of the castmembers cautioned us that there would probably be a lot of tearing up in the first take, and there was, on both sides of the camera. These are fictional characters, but in that moment, they didn't seem that way to any of us.
Nurse Jackie, SHOWTIME
There was a scene I wrote with Tom Straw in the last episode of the season in which Zoey (Merritt Wever) confronts Jackie (Edie Falco) about her drug abuse and about something truly immoral she's accusing her of doing. Zoey has to let Jackie know she's aware of it because she has to. It's two best friends having the most difficult conversation of their lives. And it's heartbreaking to watch. It was equally breathtaking and difficult to write. We'd lived with these characters for six years and with the brilliant actresses who play them. Our job as writers is to take the emotions that are there and put them into words. The actor's job is to take those words and put them back into emotion, only better. And that's exactly what happened. It proved to be an utterly spellbinding scene -- and, in an odd way, an inevitable one. But it was so wrenching to write that, I'm feeling it again in my gut even as we talk about it.
By far the most difficult writing assignment I had last season was scripting the final cellphone conversation between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) before his hanging execution. She's sort of in this seat of denial that she can save the day. He's in a state of acceptance. He's trying to tell her, "It's over, Carrie." Both of them sort of know it's the last time they'll ever talk, though she is still holding out hope for a Hail Mary, last-ditch saving effort. He tells her, "I want it to be over." [Creator-showrunner] Alex Gansa and I wrote this together and did quite a long back-and-forth on it. There was a lot more to it that didn't wind up making the final cut. There was discussion about his wanting to name the baby after his father that didn't get in. Brody was such a huge part of the fabric of the show and, despite his demons, there was a real love for him. So his having that final goodbye was awfully tough.
Alpha House, AMAZON STUDIOS
In the third episode, there is an opening scene with Andy (Mark Consuelos) and Adriana (Yara Martinez) in bed. And I must have rewritten it a half-dozen times. I wanted it to be sexy, funny and credible all at the same time. That was really hard. I had to rework it over and over because it was important that they both remained charming. They're important characters and need to have heart. One thing I found in writing Alpha House is, if characters are throwing zingers at one another, it's tougher to build relationships between them. For Andy and Adriana, I was determined that they get off on the right foot and show their relationship as playful and entertaining and funny in a sexy way. Finally, I got it into a shape that was as good as I could get it and had to let go.
The Mindy Project, FOX
Mindy [Kaling] and I wrote the episode when Danny (Chris Messina) and Mindy finally kiss. That one, and the one before it where they're on an airplane, were particularly difficult to script. They are the emotional center of the show. Fans are invested in their relationship and the whole, "Why haven't they kissed already?" As a writer, you're dealing with a particularly delicate thing. In the outline for the kissing episode, we put a placeholder of "Romance to come." We agonized over how it should go off. I looked up romantic quotes online and totally overthought it. Ultimately, it came down to trusting what we had set up for them, keeping it simple. That's always the best lesson. That, and trust your actors.