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: What’s your best cure for writer’s block?

Gordon: Just start writing, assuming you have an outline. I’ll just type. Typing begets writing, hopefully, and then writing begets good writing eventually, in a perfect world. And also deadlines. I love deadlines. I learned early in my career that I wasn’t going to do anything until I had a gun to my head, and then suddenly there’s no block. It just has to be done.

Sud: For me, it’s writing on a legal pad with a pen or pencil because you don’t feel that anything is committed. You’re just messing around, kind of doodling, and it actually flows. It’s shocking how it works.

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Gordon: I can’t read my own handwriting.

Winter: You know what’s a good thing for writer’s block is to just commit to writing the absolute worst scene possible and get it out of the way. You’ll end up laughing at yourself, and then there’s no pressure because it can’t be that bad.

Gilligan: I have six excellent writers, and thank goodness for them. I only wrote two episodes. The hardest scene to write was in the first episode, where Gus cut Victor’s throat in the super-lab. It was hard to write for the weirdest self-imposed reason, which was that there was very little dialogue. How am I going to make essentially what could work out as like 4½ pages of script play as a 10- or 11-page act? It was a weird mechanical issue… a lot of scene direction and having it read like a novel, something someone would read for enjoyment. But emotionally, the show is kind of easy to write. I’m so tuned in to this creep.

THR: Glen, how difficult is it on your crew to shoot in Georgia in the summer?

Mazzara: They are like the Marines taking a beach. It’s 100 degrees, humid, and people are covered with ticks and chiggers. We had one guy driving a golf cart — he hit a deer last year. Poor guy broke his ankle. Then a production designer comes in just two days ago, and a snake just crawled right in front of him. It’s just very, very challenging. Last year we were all exteriors and very few scenes that maybe we could use for, you know, rain cover or something, but it’s challenging. But the cast and crew like that. It adds to the grittiness and the reality of the show.

THR: Speaking of challenging moments, at the beginning of last season, you took over for show creator and showrunner Frank Darabont. What was that phone call like from AMC?

Mazzara: It was scary. I went to the show to work with Frank, and I know what it’s like to lose a show that you’ve created — it happened to me on [Starz’s] Crash. So I knew it was a painful situation for him, the cast and the crew. I know what it’s like when all of a sudden the creator’s not there. So I went in, listened to the cast and said: “I’m not going to be the new sheriff in town. We all have to pull together, get through this crisis, and I’m not going to try to be Frank Darabont. That’s not fair to Frank; that’s not fair to me. There’ll be a script coming down the road that will be in my voice.” And they all were like, “OK.” We released that script a few weeks later, and it created a big panic. So I listened to all of the notes, rewrote it and listened. I think that made them feel better, and the next script was OK. I went back to the writers room, which is in L.A., and I said: “You know, everyone expects us to fail. We have to pull together.” And those writers and I wrote through the night, did draft after draft and found the show that we wanted to do. We have great producers, Gale Anne Hurd and Robert Kirkman and others. We just kind of rallied together.

THR: Did you see the whole thing coming?

Mazzara: I did not. I was completely surprised. What was challenging was, I started to have a feeling of what I thought the show should be, but it was different from what we had done. As I started writing it as the showrunner, I just kept saying: “It feels like this. It feels like that.” And then, by the end of the finale, people said, “Oh, now we get it.” So now I have at least seven episodes that I can say, “Oh, that’s the show.” That I feel I can do and hopefully get it to 100 episodes.

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THR: When the show returned, the ratings were higher than ever and the acclaim was there, did you feel vindicated?

Mazzara: No. I was just happy to be out of the woods. I never wanted it to be a competition between me and Frank.

THR: Has Frank contacted you?

Mazzara: We traded e-mails when everything first went down. He’s started shooting a pilot for TNT, so we wish him well. I think he has moved on, and I’m happy for him. I don’t think he watches the show now. It’s probably painful. When you are working this hard, everybody’s giving it their all, you become very, very close, and you’re working with incredibly talented people — and to suddenly be out of that is painful. I know from personal experience.

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