THR Emmy Roundtable: Matthew Weiner, Aaron Sorkin and Other Drama Showrunners Debate Violence in Hollywood and Being Control Freaks
TV veterans including Alex Gansa, D.B. Weiss and Kevin Williamson and newbie Beau Willimon also reveal who consults with the CIA, who wants to write for "Girls" and what it's like when a show falls into someone else's hands.
THR: Beau, you're fairly new to the showrunner game. What's been the most surprising or difficult part of the job?
Willimon: I don't think I could have imagined how challenging it would be. The sheer titanic size of the effort. I mean, it's a form of insanity. It's the equivalent of making seven movies in one year, and for some folks twice that! Aaron and I were talking about the blessing and curse of that, which is, there's a certain speed that you have no choice over. You have to create 800 pages or more, there are dates when they're going to be shot, so you have to rely on instincts a lot. This liberates you at times from self-doubt and self-loathing because you can't luxuriate in that. But the downside when you are are relying so much on the fumes of instincts is that you falter and stumble. Those mistakes can be surprising and interesting and lead to a new place. But now, looking back at season one, all I see are the mistakes. I don't beat myself up about that … it's just f--ing exhausting. (Laughter.)
Weiner: There's a certain point each season where I get to bed at night and literally think, "OK, this is the part where the guy goes to sleep." You're outside of yourself like a kind of psychosis because you're living in that world all the time.
Sorkin: The schedule is ferocious, but a lot of people have exhausting jobs who aren't rewarded nearly as much as we are. I love doing series television. I love the immediacy of it. If I were writing a screenplay and wrote a joke today and everything went perfectly, I would hear the laugh two years from now. But I'm writing a TV script right now that's going to be on the air in a couple of months. I love that we're telling a big story, chapter by chapter. The part that is really tough is when you're not writing well, and for me, that's more often than not. If I can put two or three good writing days in a row together, that's a winning streak. But that's an anomaly. Most of the time, I'm not writing well. There's stage fright that goes along with it.
Williamson: You panic.
Willimon: It's much closer to the way theater works -- being able to respond to what you're seeing and adapt and evolve scripts later on down the line. For instance, the whole Russo-running-for-governor storyline on House of Cards … that was originally a whole other character we hadn't cast yet. But Corey Stoll was doing such a great job that in the first few episodes, I thought, "Well, it's a monumental amount of work and a lot of painful rewrites, but let's shift that whole story to him." Since that was a few weeks or months ahead, we could do that.
Weiner: That's why I try to break more [stories] than the first five [episodes] at once. You want to adapt the scenes as they come in, you cast people, they score, you didn't expect them to or they seem more interesting, and we can't stop talking about them in the room.
THR: Matthew, was there ever a time on Mad Men where you took a character to a place you didn't anticipate?
Weiner: Duck, in season one. [Actor] Mark Moses came in, and by the first season, I didn't even know if there were going to be more episodes. We had to hire an accounts-man character. Mark is a really gifted actor -- this was the last two episodes of the first season -- and I got this flood of response from people in advertising who said, "You finally got an account man on the show." They were all annoyed that Don was so good-looking!
THR: Alex, does that happen on Homeland?
Gansa: Oh, over and over again. We didn't even know at the beginning that Brody and Carrie would spend time in each other's company very often. I think it was the third or fourth episode of the first season. … I remember seeing the dailies, and the word "chemistry" was just flashing on the top of the screen. And I said, "We're gonna have to completely figure out a way to put them in each other's company in a way that we hadn't planned to before." We had to go back and look at the scripts that we'd already written and figure out a new way to tell the story.
Weiner: I'm in season six now, and I've still not gotten used to the fact, after having struggled for a long time, that what I write will actually get shot.
Weiss: I know. I'll be sitting in a room in Santa Monica or Hollywood and write, "200 mounted riders, one line, ride across the ridge." And then within three months, I will be in the beautiful north coast of the Irish countryside, and there will be 200 guys on horseback riding across the ridge -- the experience of seeing things in your head and then having it in short order.
THR: D.B., you must feel a big responsibility to stay true to George R.R. Martin's novels, Game of Thrones' source material. How involved is Martin in this process?
Weiss: He's a tremendous resource. We're all living in his dream to a certain extent, but for us, as many readers as George already had … we had a buffer in that way, it was a blessing. There was at least a core of people who were interested in what we were doing no matter how badly we f--ed it up. But we also knew that that number of people was not nearly large enough to justify what we were doing. We needed to make a show that everybody could watch, or, if not everybody, a much larger one that would reach far beyond our core people. That meant that 10 times out of 10, if you had to make a choice between staying true to the letter of the source material or staying true to what was best for the show, 10 times out of 10, we had to choose what's best for the show. For us, that often involves radical compression and condensation because the books are massive and the show is complicated. But the show is a tremendous simplification of something even more complicated, and ultimately, 10 hours is a fair amount of time to tell a story, but it's still only 10 hours.
Gansa: How many novels has he written?
Weiss: He's written five or six …
Sorkin: God, what I would do for five 700-page novels!
Willimon: I'd like to give a shout-out to Lord Michael Dobbs, who actually wrote the books that the BBC version of House of Cards is based on, for which Andrew Davies wrote an amazing script. The English would say he "knocked it out of the cricket park." It's an incredible miniseries for anyone who is slightly interested, or even hates our show, to watch.