Peabody Awards: John Oliver, 'Fargo', 'Inside Amy Schumer' Producers Share Storytelling Strategies
Alex Gibney, Ben Silverman, Joel Fields, Jack Amiel and Ray McKinnon also told THR their top narrative tips at the awards' first-ever red carpet gala in New York City.
The first-ever red carpet gala for the Peabody Awards took over New York City's Cipriani Wall Street on Sunday night to recognize excellence in TV, radio and web storytelling.
Fargo, Inside Amy Schumer, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and The Americans were among those honored by University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
After accepting their award in the ceremony — hosted by Fred Armisen and set to air with additional footage/interviews on June 21 at 9 pm ET on Pivot — the winners shared their top storytelling advice while backstage with The Hollywood Reporter:
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
"We're still trying to tweak our process to try to make the show better, and try to just make it — better," said John Oliver of the HBO series' second season. "It's like a duck, frantic underneath — although, we're a slightly panicked duck, we're flapping up a bit above as well!" When asked about storytelling strategies, he said, "My only tip would be, try and find a way to work under Jon Stewart for nine years and get taught by him. If you can do that, you're fine!"
Inside Amy Schumer
The Comedy Central series' co-creator Daniel Powell said of tackling controversial topics head on this season, "Generally, if you're treading on sensitive ground, you always have to be funnier than you are offensive — that's a subjective thing, but we have a lot of conversations about where the line is. The sweet spot for how to cover those topics tends to present itself through writing, shooting and editing, so by the time the final cut is delivered, if we don't all feel comfortable, it's not something we're moving forward with."
"My approach was always to be as inventive as possible while also serving these characters," said executive producer Noah Hawley. "I took my model from the Coens who've done everything, from a ten-minute parable sequence in A Serious Man to weird musical dream sequences in The Big Lebowski, and still manage to keep you on the edge of your seat. When in doubt, my inspiration was to make the unusual choice. ... We're so used to telling stories in the same old way."
Jane the Virgin
"It's one thing for us to be up against Modern Family; it's another thing for us to be celebrated with these incredible stories about things that really matter!" noted executive producer Ben Silverman of the ceremony. Of the CW series, "it wasn't about delivering one particular group to an audience, but telling a compelling, specific story. ... I always want the biggest audience for my stuff, so it's one of the reasons why I still love network television. I really do want the most people possible to laugh, but think."
"It's weighty! It feels substantive!" said executive producer Joel Fields of the FX show's award. "My father was a rabbi, and he would preach sermons with the purpose to inspire people to live better lives, to make the world a better place. But his best sermons were always stories — they're the things that capture people and transform them." Which plotline has been the most satisfying? "The moment where they finally were confronted by Paige and chose not to run away from that truth — that was a pretty great moment."
Though there are two typos on their trophy, co-writer and executive producer Jack Amiel and the cast were beaming with gratitude. "We love to balance the history and gore with the personal stories. ... you can't become too enamored by the era and the medicine and science — storytelling has to be our north star," said Amiel, who noted that one shocking season-two scene made him look away for the first time. Though Maya Kazan added, "The gore is always intrinsic to the story. ... The effects are incredible, but because we know they're not real, it's less traumatic for us than for viewers at home!"
The Honorable Woman
Writer, director and producer Hugo Blick said the BBC series "has a strong female voice within the structure of a thriller narrative, which is usually really masculine, so it offered the opportunity for nuance perspectives to come through. Often, male-dominated thrillers need to go in one direction and conquer everything — we were looking at different perspectives we didn't need to conquer." His advice for top storytelling: "Make sure you really know your world that you're trying to explore."
The Newburgh Sting
"We wanted to make a film that was bulletproof because if you're gonna take on the FBI, you don't want to be making mistakes," said co-director and co-producer David Heilbroner of the HBO documentary, adding that it's "a thriller with serious reporting." Co-director and co-producer Kate Davis said it was possible by "telling that story with a dramatic lens — with a strong narrative arc that's entertaining and not sensationalistic, but very passionate and emotionally-driven."
"I feel like I'm a faker — I make stuff up and they go out and film real-life events!" creator Ray McKinnon humbly said of the evening's other winners. On the Sundance TV drama, "we try to be honest in our exploration of humanity. ... It's difficult not to be seduced by conventional plots and still be organic and truthful to the characters." His advice on doing so? "If something feels false to you and your gut, then do something about it."
Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown
"It's a musician's film, but you see James Brown at the heart of a culture transformed by music," said writer-director Alex Gibney. The key to a well-structured documentary is "figuring out how, over time, the non-fiction is like a drama — how the story folds back on itself and all the themes keep amplifying so that you keep digging at it. At some point along the way, a funny thing happens: If you're willing to listen, the gremlins start to talk to you. 'This is a really interesting piece of material, but it doesn't belong in the story.' "