'Empire' Showrunner: How a Petite, White Lesbian Became the Boss of a Hip-Hop Drama (Guest Column)
Ilene Chaiken, a veteran of 'The L Word' whose musical taste is more Joni Mitchell than Schoolboy Q, was picked by Lee Daniels to run Fox's hit show. She shares her story with THR.
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
I know most people wouldn't automatically think of me when they're thinking who should be making the great hip-hop drama. But I didn't respond to Empire as a "black show." I responded to it as a great story that I was sucked right into, and in that sense I felt that it was very much my world and my genre.
But Empire also is a show that is very culturally specific, and it would be a mistake to say that that's not fundamentally important. It's easy to say, "This is not your culture," but one of the reasons I was on the initial list [of potential showrunners for co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong to consider] was because one of the stories that was of paramount importance to them was Jamal's story about homophobia in the black community. That's a story that people would think I'd connect to, and I do.
There was this funny moment with Lee when, having watched a bit of The L Word, he said, "Lesbians aren't like that!" His experience was that the lesbians he knew were scary, tough women with pit bulls. (I have two pit bulls, by the way.) But he told me he loved the way I had taken on an interracial story on that show. He'd never seen anything like it. On my third or fourth meeting with him -- the last one before he would decide -- we were at the Chateau Marmont talking about our kids, and I could see that something was troubling him. It was like, "You have kids, so I'm not 100 percent sure because we've never really had this conversation on a personal level. … Are you a lesbian?"
I understood why that would be important to him. It's not just, "Are you a lesbian because I want to make sure you know how to tell this gay story." It was, "Are you a lesbian because I want somebody who experiences life from the point of view of an outsider because that, thematically, is very important to understanding Jamal's experience." I also appreciated that he acknowledged that I could make a TV series about lesbians and not necessarily be a lesbian.
The experience of running Empire is mine, but the experiences that I'm writing about are still Lee's. And I'm writing about it with a group of gifted, diverse writers who were carefully chosen to represent the vast experience of the characters on this show. Everybody is primarily hired on the basis of voice and talent, but I also knew for season two that it was important to Lee and to the cast to make sure that the voices of the street -- the voices of their cultural experience -- were represented even more profoundly than last season. So some of the writers we brought in are not just talented but also write from that experience.
You don't hire writers based on, "Well, have you been to jail? Because I'm looking for a writer who's been to jail." But you look for people who've lived these experiences because they can be valuable to a writers room. We've brought a lot of people in to talk to the room, too. Lee will bring people in like Gladys Knight to share experiences, and we've had music executives come in, from Rick Rubin to Jimmy Iovine. I still draw on my experience having worked for Quincy Jones Entertainment for a couple years because I was surrounded by this swirling life that I'm now writing about.
When it comes to actually writing, Danny and I have very different approaches. He's a little more fearless. He just dives right in; he gets the voice, and he writes the voice. [Strong said recently that he listened to 45 minutes of Kanye West interviews to prepare for writing the pilot.] That's not me. There are definitely people whom I go to for particular moments because I know that they have those voices, and there are people I look to when we're breaking stories because I know they're going to know what would really happen here: how he would react, what this would be about, that kind of thing.
I write in the voices of the characters, but I don't try to capture Kanye's voice, whatever that means. I try to understand the world that I'm writing about and the characters, and I leave it to a combination of other writers and the actors to make the language their own.
When it was first announced that I would be running Empire, I saw a couple people tweet things like, "Hmm." Look, my iTunes downloads include Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, some Bob Dylan, and because I have 20-year-old daughters, I have some modern-day alternative rock. That's not to say I was unfamiliar with this music. My wife is a huge hip-hop fan and knows the music of the show, but she laughs at me like a teenager laughs at her mother.
Of course, now I listen to a lot of it. I come home and I'm like, "Hey! Did you hear the new Schoolboy Q duet?"