Killed Characters, Fired Bosses and Canceled Shows: TV's Top Drama Showrunners Tell All
Six top writer-producers -- Vince Gilligan ("Breaking Bad"), Howard Gordon ("Homeland"), Shonda Rhimes ("Grey’s Anatomy," "Private Practice," "Scandal"), Glen Mazzara ("The Walking Dead"), Veena Sud ("The Killing") and Terence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire") -- talk writers' block cures, the "torture" of Twitter and the most painless way to kill off your lead.
This story originally appears in the June 4 Emmys Watch special issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
On a sunny morning in early May, six of television’s busiest showrunners enjoyed that rarest of luxuries: two hours away from writers rooms, sets and, most frightening, blank computer screens. Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), 45, Howard Gordon (Homeland), 51, Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal), 42, Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead), 44, Veena Sud (The Killing), 45, and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), 52, run some of the most powerful and critically lauded drama series on TV. In a candid discussion about the pressures of their jobs, The Hollywood Reporter heard how some have killed off popular characters, how Mazzara coped with replacing his boss Frank Darabont, the rave reviews Gilligan receives from addicts for his spot-on meth recipes and Gordon’s struggle — shared by the others — to live a life despite “being perpetually haunted by these stories.”
[Warning: Spoilers throughout]
The Hollywood Reporter: Terry, why did you kill off Michael Pitt’s character in the season finale of Boardwalk Empire?
Terence Winter: I always knew he would die at Nucky’s [Steve Buscemi’s character] hand. In plotting season two, it became clear that if we were going to tell this story honestly, it was going to happen at the end of the year. He was such a huge character, and we love Michael. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make as a writer. We spent a lot of time waffling: “OK. Well, what if this happened?” But we kept going back to that place. Then the secret was, How do we keep this from getting out? It became clear to Michael, too, as the scripts were being produced. He was on a fishing expedition: “Have you thought about killing Nucky’s brother?” I said, “Yeah, I’ve thought about that.” And he asked, “Have you thought about killing me?” and I said, “Yeah, I’m thinking about it right now, actually.” And he goes, “Well, it’s really hard to do this, to not be certain.” I said, “Well, if I were an actor, I would use that because the character of Jimmy is also very uncertain about what’s happening.” Then, as it got closer to the end, we had to have the conversation.
THR: What was that conversation like?
Winter: Michael was in upstate New York; I was in Manhattan. [Executive producer] Martin Scorsese was going to be on the call, as was Tim Van Patten, another executive producer. Finally, Michael gets on the line. He said: “I’m sorry; I’m in upstate. I’ve had a hard time getting good reception.” So we started to make small talk, and Marty said, “Well, just, you know, I’m in the middle of editing my movie,” et cetera, and then it went “beep,” and Michael was gone. So we waited for another 10 minutes, and you know, Marty is really busy, and he’s got to leave, and we said: “Well, we’ve got to stay. We’ve got to have this conversation.” And he said, “Michael’s texting me.” Finally, at 5:20, Michael gets on the line again. I said: “Michael, look, I’m going to talk really quickly. You know, we have talked about this before, but the reason for the call is …” — beep! — and he was gone again! (Laughter.) Marty was like, “Let me just e-mail him.” I said: “We can’t e-mail. We have to have this conversation.” But we couldn’t get him back on the phone. So ultimately, I felt horrible, but I had to send him an e-mail: “I don’t want you to get the script and read this, but you sort of knew where this was going.” He was totally fine with it. He said, “Obviously I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to stay on the show, but this is the best way we could do it.”
THR: That’s a mature reaction. Have the rest of you experienced other reactions?
Howard Gordon: Homeland is still new enough where we have a pretty low body count, but 24 was littered. Actually, I was talked out of a couple of deaths, believe it or not.
Winter: By the actors?
Gordon: By the actors. But more often than not, it was taking them out on “the walk” — “We need to talk.” (Laughter.) Sometimes it would take people by surprise. I guess what’s always stunning to me is that actors don’t always know. Some have a great sense that their story has come to an end, and others don’t.
Shonda Rhimes: Killing characters is never fun. I remember for Private Practice, trying to get in touch with [actor] Chris Lowell — it was the same thing. He was on a mountain in Africa. He was like, “Well, I’m in the most beautiful place in the world to hear that my character’s going to go.” And then he said: “OK. Can you at least just kill me in the worst way possible?” And I was like, “That I can do.”
Winter: Joe Pantoliano made that same request on Sopranos. He said, “I love being on this show, but if you have to kill me, please take me out with a bang.” We said, “Done.” [Pantoliano’s character, Ralph Cifaretto, was decapitated after a brutal fight with Tony Soprano.]
Vince Gilligan: That was an amazing scene. We were paying homage to that last season. We had a big fight between our two main characters, and we were watching that scene, and that fight was brutal. That was amazing.
Winter: Yeah. Directed by Tim Van Patten. He can do a fight scene.
Gilligan: With the bug spray in the eyes. Very impressive.
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