Emmys: 'Walking Dead,' 'Arrested Development' Writers Reveal Their Toughest Scenes
This story first appeared in a stand-alone special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The right words matter, but a great script often hinges more on what isn't said than what is. In describing their most challenging moments of the past season, many of these top scribes focused on the dialogue they pared away. Exhibit A: the wordless opener of The Walking Dead's season-three premiere. "The hardest thing for writers to do is peel back," says The Good Wife's Robert King. He and 13 other Emmy-contending writers share with The Hollywood Reporter -- in their own skilled words -- how they cut, pasted, stetted, scribbled and struggled to create the scenes that tested them most.
Bates Motel (A&E), "Midnight"
As Norman (Freddie Highmore) waits for his date to the dance, Norma (Vera Farmiga) makes a startling confession: She was abused by her brother as a girl.
The incongruity of Norma dumping this seismic backstory on her son then giving him a nice hug and sending him off with Emma [Olivia Cooke] and saying, "Now have fun at the dance!" was something that [co-showrunner] Kerry Ehrin and I really liked. What you learn in that scene answers a lot of questions about Norma. It makes us love her for her ability to have overcome a really traumatic and difficult childhood. It makes us feel every ounce of her desire to be in control of her life and find some form of happiness. We needed to give the audience something big and tangible that would help them understand what makes Norma tick and what informs her relationship with Norman. At the end of the day, our goal all along was to subvert expectations of what the show would be. Bates Motel was a high-degree-of-difficulty dive in that not all of the previous sequels to Psycho were well received. We felt that setting it in contemporary times -- taking the iconography of the original but telling our own wholly new story -- was the right approach. That freed us from slavish imitation of a movie that was so good, it doesn't deserve to be messed up.
Tina Fey & Robert Carlock
30 Rock (NBC), "Finale: Hogcock!/Last Lunch"
As he prepares to set off on a solo sailing trip, Jack (Alec Baldwin) expresses his true feelings for Liz (Tina Fey).
Fey: This scene was challenging because you have to figure out a way to express affection befitting their unique non-romantic relationship. In the rewrite process, Robert and the other writers came up with this overworked speech from Jack on the etymology of the word "love," tapping into all the resources of Jack's Ivy League education, parsing it and making very clear the kind of non-romantic love it is that he feels for her.
Carlock: Then Liz just says it: "I love you too, Jack." From a writing standpoint, it felt like, a) someone should say it; and b) it let her cut through the mess. Emotionally she wins a little bit there, which we think is very Liz Lemon.
Fey: I feel like, with the kind of restraint that we had used with Jack and Liz over the years, they had earned this moment. We never wasted it on having them hook up.
Carlock: We did shoot a scene where Jack tosses Liz a rope and she gets dragged by the boat into the water, as an undercut of that moment. But then we decided, no, we don't need to undercut it -- we can let the emotion be there.
Etan Frankel & Nancy Pimental
Shameless (Showtime), "Survival of the Fittest"
Frank (William H. Macy) and son Lip (Jeremy Allen White) bond after Lip receives his diploma. Later, Frank, hospitalized for excessive drinking, is given an ultimatum by his eldest child, Fiona (Emmy Rossum).
Frankel: With Lip and Frank, it was the question of, how do you get these guys to a place where you believe that Lip would spend his day with Frank, given the animosity between them? It was a story I was a little afraid of writing. Often the stories you're afraid to write and shy away from are the ones that end up being the most rewarding. Both Lip and Frank are at a crossroads. That's kind of the theme of the episode; a lot of the characters are thinking, "What now?"
Pimental: Crafting the emotional arc for when Fiona visits Frank in the hospital was a challenge. She really has to confront him and say: "You need to change, and you need to do this for us. Otherwise, you're going to die." And she also has to say: "A part of me really wants you to die. I prayed for that. I wished on that." I had her being more broken down at the end of it, and between Etan and our director [Mark Mylod], they thought it would work better having her not. These kids don't really show their full hand; they probably don't even have access to it.
Arrested Development (Netflix)
In a scene that unfolds through all 15 episodes of the season, the family gathers for a party to send George Michael (Michael Cera) off to college.
The whole season was complicated by the fact that over 70-something consecutive shooting days, [executive producer] Troy Miller and I shot 20 shows' worth of material in a jumbled order to accommodate the actors' schedules. That required constantly tracking the stories and committing to a lot of attitudes and character drives before the rest of the script was written, which was especially challenging for scenes with the most characters. The most difficult scene was what we took to calling "the penthouse scene," which included all the members of the Bluth family and was shot early on during one of only two days we had all the regulars together. The conceit was that the audience would first believe it to be a scene between Michael Bluth [Jason Bateman] and his parents that then revealed Buster [Tony Hale]. In the next episode, we'd see that Gob [Will Arnett] was also there. Then, in the following episode, we'd discover Lindsay [Portia de Rossi] and so on -- until, ultimately, in a final episode, we'd discover the entire family was there, and what we thought was a family meeting turned out to be a party for George Michael that had been hijacked by the family for their own ends. That scene set each character's story in motion and determined the order in which the stories would play out. It required what could only be described as a stupid amount of work.
Veep (HBO), "Andrew"
Over dinner with her ex, Andrew (David Pasquesi), and their daughter, Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) learns that Andrew has made some impolitic moves with their business -- and that the president has kiboshed her budget deal.
That episode is dominated by a huge, long party scene, so the challenge was trying to make the restaurant scene feel like it was topping the party that came before it. For our rehearsal, we booked a table at a restaurant in Baltimore, and we had dinner with Sarah and David and Julia and [director] Chris Morris and a couple of the writers. We worked our way through the scene, talking about the relationships and trying out ways of them being quite bitchy and aggressive with one another without it being apparent to people sitting at tables nearby -- with Julia trying to keep a smile on her face while cursing. For two-and-a-half hours we just kept throwing suggestions at them, and little instants started bubbling up, little looks and gestures. Chris could see an awful lot of it was going to hang not just on what was being said but on their facial appearances, trying to smile while having a [fight] and Catherine being stuck in the middle of it. These rehearsals let you know how to shape the dialogue, where you should pull it back and where actually a gesture is much more eloquent than a paragraph of a tirade.
Robert & Michelle King
The Good Wife (CBS), "Red Team/Blue Team"
While arguing about the firm's decision to rescind partnership offers to her and other associates, Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Will (Josh Charles) kiss.
Robert: Alicia and Will's kiss was very hard to write because it felt like it could easily slip into -- "bad TV" is a bad way to put it -- TV that …
Michelle: The romantic version of melodrama.
Robert: Yeah. It could be melodramatic that at the height of angry passion, they kissed. The combination of pulling away lines that we'd written and the chemistry that Josh and Julianna have toward each other pulled us through. We kept trying to write it less and less each time. It was very important that, in a moment when they weren't talking about anything to do with sex, there would be this intimacy. Alicia's anger has lifted her out of her subservience to Will, into this peer-like place where she can give as good as she gets. And that passion translates into a kiss.
Michelle: There have been a number of sexual, romantic and angry scenes in the history of the series, and they tend to get sweated over by us. It's people operating at a heightened level -- and since most people aren't operating at a heightened level most of the time, you take extra care to make sure it seems real to the characters.
The Walking Dead (AMC), "Seed"
In the dialogue-free opening scene, Rick's (Andrew Lincoln) group searches for a new home after a deadly zombie attack evicts them from the farm.
The concept was that our group has evolved into well-oiled machine -- a strike force, if you will -- and they are picking up one another's cues like cops busting in on a drug raid. To do it all through movement and body language was fun and challenging but tricky. We had to make sure everybody had something particular and special for their character; everybody had a function on that team, and Rick was driving all of it. We also had to show that Carl [Chandler Riggs] had advanced. I wanted to show some development of the characters because we were skipping the winter between seasons. I wanted to have Daryl [Norman Reedus] as a strong No. 2 for Rick, yet we also wanted to show tension between the characters without making anybody unlikable. With any season premiere, you hope a new audience is going to show up -- and for a new audience to learn who all these characters are and what their relationships are without any expositional dialogue was tricky. We didn't talk about doing it wordlessly when I was discussing it with the network or other producers, but when I wrote it out, I felt like I didn't need words to tell this story.
Nurse Jackie (Showtime), "Soul"
The staff at All Saints supports a dying patient with no family, and Jackie (Edie Falco) administers last rites.
I wrote the episode with Tom Straw -- he did a beautiful job where Jackie administers last rites. We had gone round and round about how that scene was going to work: Was it going to be a priest turning the patient down because he's gay? Was there going to be some hospital rule? Instead, we realized that if it just came from Jackie, from the family in the hospital: Coop [Peter Facinelli] says that we're going to keep this guy comfortable; Akalitus [Anna Deavere Smith] says, "How can I help?"; and Thor [Stephen Wallem] is there through the whole thing. Coming together to give this man a family in the last moments of his life, after having survived everything he survived, turned out to be poetry. Writing is always a challenge when you're going so deep, but we went into that script knowing how good it was going to be, and that doesn't happen often. We couldn't wait to get at it.
Scandal (ABC), "White Hat's Back On"
In the season-two finale, fresh out of the hospital where he was treated for a heart attack, Cyrus (Jeff Perry), having learned of an attempt on Olivia's (Kerry Washington) life, confronts her about her relationship with the president (Tony Goldwyn) -- and reveals a dark secret about him.
You want Cyrus to really deliver a punch, but Cyrus has been operating at operatic levels the entire season and has just had a heart attack. He almost died today, and Olivia almost died today. He thinks he's arriving at her place to find a friend and compatriot who's in the same place emotionally that he's in. All season long, at every turn, Cyrus is continuously finding himself to be the only grown-up in the room, and for him, this is the last straw. Not only is he the last grown-up in the room, but Fitz and Olivia are behaving like children. There are so many larger things at stake, and Fitz and Olivia are talking about being in love. In Cyrus' mind, it's, "Is love even relevant in the larger scope of the world that they're living in?" I tried to approach it from that angle; Cyrus' level of sarcasm reflects how immature he thinks what they're doing is, how silly and surreal. He's literally thinking, "Someone tried to assassinate you, and that's not enough for you to decide that maybe you should be single?" He truly can't believe what's taking place. Jeff was incredible in that scene, and I love the priceless look on Olivia's face when Cyrus tells her that Fitz killed Verna.
Joe Weisberg & Joel Fields
The Americans (FX), "Trust Me"
Elizabeth (Keri Russell) pounds Claudia's (Margo Martindale) face in after discovering the KGB was behind their torture and interrogation; Philip (Matthew Rhys) learns that Elizabeth informed on him.
Weisberg: There were multiple levels of emotional betrayal. The problem was how to handle that in a way that made sense and was impactful and was not going to blow up this marriage so badly that it could never recover, and wouldn't alienate Elizabeth from the KGB.
Fields: We discussed and debated every possibility: Elizabeth never attacks Claudia; Elizabeth kills Claudia. Once we landed on the beating, we had to decide how hard it was, how does Philip react. We were still writing in the editing room. Elizabeth starting to drown Claudia was scripted such that she lets her off at once, but in the editing room it became extended, and there was a silent exchange between Philip and Elizabeth. Equally as important was the scene afterward. There was a version that started in the midst of an argument, then we decided to start on them feeling like a married couple, partners that had been under attack, until the moment Philip suddenly realizes there was a lot more than Elizabeth had let on. We found that the more we pared things down, the stronger they were.
Additional reporting by Philiana Ng, Rebecca Sun and Erin Weinger