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.
THR: Glen, how did you decide about killing off Jon Bernthal’s character, Shane, last season on The Walking Dead?
Glen Mazzara: We had some major deaths. Jon’s character, and Jeff DeMunn’s, which was the big shock. We’re based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel, so people saw the Shane death coming, and Bernthal knew that it was coming. I felt it was sort of anticlimactic because everybody who had read the book knew that was coming. When I became showrunner, I had already talked to the other writers about killing off Jeff DeMunn’s character because I thought nobody would see that coming. But Jon did not want to go. He kept calling: “How about this? How about that?” I have an open-door policy, but ultimately I needed that to be about our main character. I had to stick the landing. I’ve had other people on the show who think it’s punitive when they are killed off, and it’s like, “Well, you signed up for a zombie show!”
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THR: Veena, what was the conversation like with the actor whose character ended up being Rosie Larsen’s killer?
Veena Sud: Really, really intense and very surprising. The character did not expect it, and yeah, I mean, just absolutely, they were shocked. Yeah, I know — I’m trying to be as vague as possible. (Laughter.)
Gordon: Did you always know it was that character?
Sud: Yes, from the pilot.
Winter: Was the person who found out this information shocked in a good way, like, “Wow, I’m bad?”
Sud: I think so. (Laughter.)
THR: Vince, you had a notable death in the finale of Breaking Bad where Gus, Giancarlo Esposito’s character, had his face blown off. How difficult was it to make that decision?
Gilligan: We sort of saw the whole season as a 13-episode chess game between Giancarlo’s character and Bryan Cranston’s character, and a lot like what Terence was just saying. We went through the 12 steps of grief — the writers all season long saying: “Does he have to go? He’s a wonderful human being, great actor, and people love this character.” But I take all my cues from Highlander: There could be only one at the end. (Laughter.)
THR: How difficult is it to keep these types of secrets? For example, Veena, your entire show centers on one crime being solved.
Sud: We just shot the finale, so there was a lot of secrecy around that, and basically for two years we’ve had a room full of people who know the answer. So thank God, they’re incredibly trustworthy.
Winter: There are people out there who are dedicated to finding out information and putting it on the Internet. People started analyzing our casting notices and trying to figure it out.
Rhimes: We have fake sides [specific pages from the script in which an actor’s character appears]. The media will report something that’s going to happen on Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s completely wrong because we have an assistant who spends all of her time writing fake sides.
Winter: Actually, [to Rhimes] you and I should swap sides. Your characters will be in 1923 driving a Model T.
Mazzara: We don’t have sides. Everybody just has to have it on their iPad. But we do have to write phony audition scenes. There are people out there who just want to spoil the show. [To Gilligan] You had a thing with Gus’ death, right?
Gilligan: Yeah, I heard that after the fact. My staff knew I have a weak heart, but there was some freeze-frame grab from some post-production house of Gus’ face.
Mazzara: We’ve had similar issues, and it’s impossible to trace.
Gilligan: We live in fear of it. We shoot at Q Studios in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and across the lot from us they were shooting The Avengers, and we didn’t know it. I heard through the grapevine that their entire script got leaked on the Internet, and they had to rewrite the ending. You’re like, “Those poor bastards.” Jesus.
Gordon: But you know that as soon as you finish, they are going to see it in China tomorrow. (Laughter.)
THR: Vince, AMC has set an end date for your show. Do you know how Breaking Bad ends?
Gilligan: With every day we have a little bit clearer picture of how it ends. I would like to know more about how it ends, frankly. I would feel more comfortable.
Winter: Just go on the Internet!
THR: How about the rest of you? Do you know how your shows end?
Rhimes: I knew how Grey’s Anatomy ended — if we had ended in season two or season four. But now we’re heading into season nine, and I have no idea. I have no plans. I’ve learned to let that go.
Mazzara: I don’t. I have an idea of what I would like the show to mean at the end of its run, but how you dramatize that, I haven’t figured out.