Killed Characters, Fired Bosses and Canceled Shows: TV's Top Drama Showrunners Tell All

2:13 PM PST 06/04/2012 by Matthew Belloni, Stacey Wilson
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Brigitte Sire

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: Will you stick with the graphic novel, or will you diverge?

Mazzara: We’ve already diverged. We’re our own entity, like a parallel universe to the novel. Ultimately, the tone, the spirit of it, is the same. That’s how I see it as being a faithful adaptation but really running wide from the storyline, if that makes sense.

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THR: Shonda, you’re very active on Twitter. Does that make your creative process easier or more difficult?

Rhimes: I don’t think that it affects it because by the time the audience is seeing something, we’re so far ahead and stuff has already happened beyond that, that it doesn’t actually affect what we’re doing. It’s sort of an exercise in torture. I sort of don’t know why I get on there. It’s a little like inviting people who hate you
into your house to say mean things to you.

Winter: I try to stay completely disengaged. It’s so overwhelming. There’s so much negative stuff, it’s astounding. Not just about our shows. I mean, any CNN news story, just go down and read the comments. I’m astounded how people just vent their spleen about everything.

Rhimes: Twitter is most useful for talking to the press because if I tweet something, reporters will pick it up and put it on paper. I don’t have to get on the phone. (Laughter.)

Mazzara: Yeah, I actually am enjoying Twitter right now. We have very, very avid fans who are constantly asking questions, and I think it’s a good way to engage them — and the message boards, the comment boards, those can be negative. On Twitter, you can just kind of skip and not answer the question or whatever.

Gordon: Between Twitter, Facebook, e-mail … I just don’t know what the protocol is.

Mazzara: You can’t answer everyone.

Sud: I still have a flip phone. Yeah, I really do! Everyone’s mad at me that I don’t have a real phone. I’m really slow with technology.

THR: When the Killing finale aired last season and there was the explosion online where people were mad about not finding out the killer’s identity, how did you find out?

Sud: I heard about it through the network. I was surprised and sad because we had planned from the very beginning to make this a two-season murder mystery. But, I mean, in a way it was a blessing not to be tweeting and e-mailing and all of that because I didn’t actually have to read and hear the negativity in my face.

THR: Shonda, with three shows, how do you make sure each episode still has your imprint and tone?

Rhimes: If you spend time in the writers room, it usually comes through. You know, I feel like I spend some time downloading my brain, and then I have to go someplace else and download my brain there. But what’s worked is, on Grey’s, I’ve kept the same writers since basically season two. Those people know me inside and out: “Shonda’s not going to like that.” They answer their own questions a lot of the time. On Private, I’m still continuing to hone that skill. But on Scandal, it was great because I said, “I’m just going to plop myself down in this writers room like the old days.” And then everybody can come ask me questions about the other two shows.

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THR: And it was great to get to just be there and …

Winter: Did you hire new people?

Rhimes: I took some people from different places. It was sort of like this very interesting dream team, and there were only five of us. We spent tons of time just planning everything out, and we had a blast doing it. We all went back to Grey’s Anatomy, but it was great.

Gilligan: Are you all in one complex for all three shows?

Rhimes: No. I’m on three different lots. I don’t know how it happened, but I do know that it requires the studio to pay for a driver for me. (Laughs.) So I’m not going to complain about it. That is the single greatest thing that’s ever happened. I was trying to do like two days here and two days there and one day here. That didn’t work; I probably hit two shows every day. They’re all on this side of town — Raleigh, Sunset Gower and Prospect — so it’s not so bad. I have a 3-month-old baby now, so I just said I was going to work from home and everyone had to come to me there! And they have this awesome editing system where you can edit from home. So that’s been good. Time management, I guess.

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