Emmys: How to Turn Kyle Chandler Into a Murderer
That's just one of the secrets spilled by 20 of TV's top writers, who share the tricks (and pain) of their trade.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
The Knick (Cinemax)
BEGLER "Since I work as part of a team with Jack, when one of us is stymied, usually the other is still flowing creatively. Being able to turn to him and say, 'Hey, why don't you take a shot at this one?' is a welcome relief. Teams are forced to split their incomes, but in the moments where your partner is carrying the ball because you can't, that split is worth every penny."
AMIEL "The toughest scenes are usually the ones with lots of moving parts — surgeries, explosions, riots — that also have to serve multiple story and character purposes. It's in those moments that I ask the simplest questions: Whose scene is it? What's the least amount I can say and still understand what the scene is about? Is there more research I can do to find a new piece to add? And most importantly, have I already done a scene like this? If the answer is yes, then I need to find an alternative that can make the scene fundamentally different. If that means cutting it up, entering the scene at a different point, only showing the aftermath of the scene and letting the audience fill in the gaps, or telling the story from a different character's perspective, it all serves to loosen things up and keep the flow going."
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
"One of the hardest things about writing a show about sex is writing the sex scenes. How do you make each one unique and not repetitive — emotionally and physically? There was a storyline in season two where Johnson [Lizzy Caplan] is rattled when a female doctor she respects and is working with finds out about her affair with Masters [Michael Sheen]. She judges her for sleeping with her boss. It shames Johnson, so she asks Masters if sleeping with him is a condition of her employment. He says no, but when he instantly sees she means to cut him off, he changes his mind. 'Actually, it is.' They then go to have sex in a hotel. But I couldn't figure out how a woman who's essentially feeling trapped into sexual service but also has enough power in the relationship to be able to dictate the sex on her terms — a woman 'in this humor,' as Shakespeare puts it — could possibly be wooed. I didn't want to reward or justify male coercion, but on the other hand, they did need to continue having sex! I finally decided she would remain dressed, but she would make him strip and crawl toward her, basically turning him into an object. Poor Michael Sheen had to crawl across a set, buck naked, and then pleasure his co-star without her taking her clothes off, all while she timed him with a stopwatch. It was a truly odd scene, and certainly not one I had ever written before. But when it finally made it to the screen, there was something strangely compelling and powerful about it. And it certainly wasn't boring."
"The scene was simple. Lee [Kathryn Hahn] and Thom [Steve Coogan] are having a romantic evening in her barn/studio. Candles, booze, kissing, under the shirt, over the bra, the usual. For Happyish, it was a relatively simple scene. Then, the weekend before we were scheduled to shoot, Kathryn invited my wife and me to dinner where I met her husband, Ethan. Now here's the thing: I come from the prose-writing world where characters can kill, stab and commit adultery without it actually impacting anyone. You know, real. Ethan, unfortunately, was a great guy. He was funny and charming and welcoming. It was horrible. I left dinner feeling like shit. For a series featuring a healthy fictional couple, I was going to violate a healthy nonfictional couple. I felt like a hypocrite, like some kind of television pimp. Back home, I began rewriting the scene. It was too late to change the location, but maybe instead of making love, Thom and Lee were spending a quiet evening, I don't know, reading. 'Reading?' my wife asked. 'Yeah,' I said. 'Just a quiet evening reading books together. I think that could be really, uh, romantic and, uh, different.' She disagreed vehemently. So did everyone else. In the end, less-conflicted heads prevailed and the scene was filmed as I originally wrote it. Nobody seemed to mind but me, and I mind to this day. Incidentally, two weeks later, the production moved to Los Angeles to film a later episode. Saturday was a down day, so I decided to go to the Promenade in Santa Monica and just enjoy the warm weather. I had only been there a few minutes when a homeless man walked by and, without warning, punched me square in the face. I think he had a point."
Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche
BLACKWELL "At the end of each season, we like to paint ourselves into a story corner. This leads to exciting finales but also leaves us in a corner surrounded by paint."
ROCHE "Last season's finale was particularly cornery — we changed the entire premise of the show. Selina, always one pretzel away from power, becomes president of the United States."
BLACKWELL "So the problem for this season's opener was how to show that everything had changed — Selina was now the leader of the free world — but also that it was still dysfunctional business as usual with Team Meyer."
ROCHE "Multiple drafts and applications of paint remover later, we hit on a solution. By opening on Selina's first speech to a joint session of Congress, and then jumping back in time — something we'd never done before — to witness the writing process that led to it, we could establish the presidential pomp, then show the familiar Veep world of compromises and curse words going on behind the scenes."
BLACKWELL "Like Selina's speech, it was hard to write. Unlike Selina, we were really happy with it in the end."
Mara Brock Akil
Being Mary Jane (BET)
"I knew two things going into the season two premiere. One, we would pick up right where we left off: David [Stephen Bishop], the love of Mary Jane's [Gabrielle Union] life, chose another woman. And two, after a journey of exploration for why he didn't choose her and Mary Jane bullying her way through the episode, I wanted Mary Jane to finally have to ask David to her hotel room and get the answers she needed, directly from him. All was going great, the scenes were writing themselves — but when I read back over it, something was missing. The story felt disconnected, although that storyline had a singular drive. And worse, I didn't feel like I earned the last scene. So I did what I always do when I'm stuck. I asked Salim, my husband, business partner, EP and director, what he thought. He agreed that all the notes were there but it wasn't 'singing.' Then he gave me the best and simplest note. Instead of Mary Jane just being heartbroken and wanting answers, he suggested I have her 'investigate' her own breakup. That note didn't change the plot, or the scenes for that matter — but it targeted right at the core of the character and changed her intent and drive, allowing me to nuance the scenes with that motivation, making the quest for answers even more visceral. It was the breakthrough I needed, and the episode fell into place."
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
"I wouldn't say we had writer's block, but our most rewritten scene was probably the one in the pilot episode in which Kimmy [Ellie Kemper], having lost her money and her job, tells her roommate Titus [Tituss Burgess] who she really is. That moment when both characters: A) against their better judgment fully bare their souls; and B) consequently let themselves down — Titus by putting Kimmy's needs ahead of his, Kimmy by giving up — had to work on a whole mess of levels, including comedically. (Titus: 'I'm pretty but tough. Like a diamond. Or beef jerky in a ball gown.') Having written and read so many iterations of the scene, I don't think I was any kind of happy until we cut it together in post. That's when I was able to confirm my suspicion that Ellie and Titus are special. It's one thing to 'know' (those are my quotation marks) you have an idea that could actually be a show. It's another thing entirely to realize you have actors — aka 'talk-meat' — who are going to turn it into something better than what you imagined."
Mad Men (AMC)
"In the episode 'Lost Horizon,' Peggy [Elisabeth Moss] is left behind in the move to McCann Erickson — her new office isn't ready — and Roger [John Slattery] can't bring himself to leave the SCDP office. We knew they were going to linger there, there'd be organ music and roller-skating, that Roger would give her Cooper's 19th century Japanese print, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. But then what? Peggy finally goes to work? How would that be climactic? When you can't finish a story, it makes you wonder if you even have a story. In one of the most entertaining afternoons I've spent in a writers room, it finally came together: After 14 hours of drinking vermouth, Peggy's hangover would be crushing. Sunglasses. An erotic painting in her hands. An outfit she never thought she'd wear — all on her first day at work. (She has no idea that Don Draper has walked out the day before and kept on going.) We imagined Peggy striding down the hall unaware of the commotion she was causing. The perfect ending was a new beginning."
Luke Del Tredici
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
"In the season two finale, Jake [Andy Samberg] and Amy [Melissa Fumero] share a passionate kiss. Writing it was a nightmare. People talk about how awkward it must be for actors to kiss on camera, but nobody ever thinks about the poor comedy writers who have to sit alone in their offices, typing things like 'he caresses her face,' or 'they stare into each other's eyes' or — worst of all — 'tenderly.' It's weird and creepy and you feel like you're in a basement somewhere, writing erotic fan fiction. Initially I tried to make a joke of it: 'Jake kisses her. For real this time. They really stick their mouths together.' But we needed it to play as a sincere moment, so before the table read, we changed it to: 'Jake kisses her. For real this time.' Even that was too intimate, though, so by the final draft we landed on simply: 'He kisses her.' And that's how we shot it. I think it's still way too much."
Downton Abbey (PBS/Masterpiece)
"Every now and then, the page does look very white. Rose's [Lily James] wedding reception was difficult because I had to tie up about seven stories at once. When you're doing a multiarc, multinarrative episode, you have all these plates spinning away, but we needed to keep the anti-Semitic battle between the Sinderbys and the Flintshires going. Lord Sinderby [James Faulkner] is quite intolerant of his son marrying a gentile girl. I kept having to pause and had several goes at it. Preferably, you leave it for a bit and then you read it through and you think, 'Am I taking away everything from this scene that I need?' In the end, you've just got to get on with it. I was pleased with the way it turned out. I was particularly pleased with Rose's wedding dress."
Fresh Off the Boat ( ABC)
"There's a scene in the episode 'Home Sweet Home School' that was especially tricky. Some guys dine and dash at the family restaurant, and Jessica [Constance Wu] responds by chasing them down and hitting them with her minivan. Not only was it a challenging scene to shoot with stunts and setups, it was also hard to navigate in terms of 'character protection' versus 'character development and comedy.' Because it was so early on in the series, there was some concern that the moment would make Jessica 'unlikable.' But in the writers room, we felt the exact opposite — 'Oh, this is a woman who shows her love by hitting people who have wronged her family with her car? Awesome.' To us, that scene was vital to establishing Jessica's character: fiercely loyal with a sense of justice that transcends the law. It was a tonal risk I'm glad we took."
Michael Patrick King and Lisa Kudrow
The Comeback (HBO)
KING "The most challenging writing moment Lisa and I had was figuring out how harsh to make the monologue that Paulie G [Lance Barber] wrote for Valerie [Kudrow] to audition with for the fictional show within the show."
KUDROW "The monologue! We definitely got stuck — it had to be hard for her to say so it looks like good acting, but not so punishing to her that we and the audience won't want to see her sign up for that treatment every week."
KING "Then we hit on the possibility that in Paulie G's mind, he is the victim of her critical rants. The monologue expresses the anger he perceived Valerie must have had toward him nine years ago."
KUDROW "Then while performing it, Valerie gets carried away — lost in the feeling she genuinely has, and that's how she gave a good dramatic performance … which she mistakenly sees as a failed cold reading and having lost control of her instrument."
New Girl (Fox)
"TV often shields viewers from what's going on in the real world. But my character is a police officer, a black police officer, so there was really no running from current events. There is a scene in the loft between Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr. and me, where we talk about race [and how Johnson's character, who is white, doesn't share the same experiences as mine and Wayans Jr.'s]. It's such a distinct line. How do you talk with a friend you grew up with about a topic that you can never talk about — but you need to? If you saw the first draft of that, you would have thought it aired on HBO. The language was very strong and kind of one-sided. I wrote it out of a place of anger and frustration. And at the same time, I had to write jokes for Damon and Jake, who are so talented and funny and used to me goofing off on set. I had to sit on it and think about it and come to a neutral place where I could still get the point across. I ended up talking with a couple friends of mine, and Rob Rosell, who co-wrote the episode, and I realized that I had to write it for television but I could still get my point across. It went through a ton of drafts, but we got there without watering it down too much."
Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce (Bravo)
"The entire finale made me a stress bag, honestly. I felt like I had to land the plane just right or I'd break the show. I am a huge James Brooks fan and Broadcast News is probably my favorite movie of all time, and I wanted the scene where Abby [Lisa Edelstein] and Jake [Paul Adelstein] fight and then get back together — I basically wanted to crib the entire movie Broadcast News. But I felt a lot of pressure to make it satisfying and also realistic, so I just stared at my computer for hours thinking, 'How can I do anything even half as good as my favorite movie?' I think a lot of writers feel that way; they have something they admire. And basically I just stole some stuff. Actually, what I just did is a paid homage to my favorite writers. I followed my guru Dory's advice and just kept swimming. And Lisa Edelstein and the rest of the cast always make me truly happy in the end."
"I don't usually suffer from writer's block. The idea of fearing the blank page or the empty computer screen is something I left behind a decade ago. In general, I try to arrange my consciousness so that I'm always in receiving mode and the characters are talking to me and telling me what they want. Because of this technique, however, at times I do get overwhelmed with the voices of the characters, and they surprise me when I think a scene has already been written by telling me to go in a different direction. This happened in particular with the big scene at the end of episode five, where everyone meets Rabbi Raquel [Kathryn Hahn]. As we were getting closer and closer to shooting, it became obvious that Josh [Jay Duplass] wanted to cap off the scene by being on his knees, staring up at Raquel, and that the scene wanted to be a dance about welcoming somebody into the family to whom everyone wanted to hand over their power. I guess it's never writer's block that I have to overcome — the characters know what they want. Perhaps it's more like needing to overcome my own block when I no longer want to listen."
Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields
The Americans (FX)
WEISBERG "For anyone who has not seen season three of The Americans, stop reading this immediately and put your head in the sand (make sure you keep little holes for breathing). That spoiler alert considered, the scene where Paige [Holly Taylor] demands the truth from her parents about who they are was definitely the most wrenching. That dialogue was probably rewritten 15 times, which is a show record. The scene was then rehearsed with the actors and director, and rewritten again. Part of the issue was that the scene didn't just have to be good, it seemed as though it had to explore all the different possible reactions that the characters might have, and the only way to really get to that was to write it over and over again. What caused it to be stressful? Well, it's the turning point for the entire series. No pressure."
FIELDS "The biggest revelation in overcoming the challenges of this scene was the realization that the scene itself was not an end but rather the beginning of a new journey for the characters. Once that became clear, there was no longer a need to feel that every nook and cranny had to be explored, but rather, the characters simply had to express what would be true for them in this moment as everything in their world started to shift. Also, it was clear that if this scene wasn't right, the whole show would be destroyed. So that was a good, solid motivation."
"Turning [actor] Kyle Chandler into a murderer sounded like a fun idea for a show — until you have to sit down and actually write it. From the moment we started to sketch out the first season, we knew we had to create a scene in which Kyle's character, John Rayburn, kills his brother, Danny [Ben Mendelsohn]. The scene was far down the road, in the 12th episode, but it hung over our heads from the outset. If it didn't work, the season wouldn't work. The psychological underpinnings of the scene were always clear to us. What was most challenging was figuring out the mechanics of the murder. The possibilities were overwhelming. Was it planned? Spontaneous? Who strikes the first blow? Does John kill Danny in self-defense? Does he use a gun? A knife? A lead pipe? Months of deliberation ensued. When in doubt, look to your actors. As we watched Kyle's and Ben's outstanding performances over the course of the season, the answers to our questions began to emerge. The relationship between John and Danny had developed a certain intimacy that we needed to honor. The killing had to feel as personal as their performances, which meant it couldn't be cold and calculated or easily dismissed by a simple act of self-defense. And it couldn't take place at a distance. They had to be close. Face to face. The murder needed to be messy. John needed to get dirty. He needed to kill his brother with his bare hands."