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: Howard, what type of feedback have you gotten from the CIA and the military about your show and its accuracy in depicting their operations?
Gordon: We have an interesting relationship with the CIA and the military. By and large they are surprisingly supportive. The whole premise of Homeland, when you think about it, is the CIA operating on U.S. soil, which, as far as we know, isn’t something that really happens. We have an adviser who has been a station chief. She became the person we would vet things through, and she actually provided a storyline that we used. I do have a lot of friends and people I’m in touch with who are active and retired military, and they are surprisingly supportive about the show. And we have a writer on staff named Alex Carey, who actually was a British soldier for 10 years.
Sud: We have two undercover cops from Los Angeles and an LAPD detective, and a Seattle homicide detective, and then just from years of writing Cold Case, I have a Jersey detective who informally guests. We run stories by them or ideas or information, just to make sure we’re being accurate.
THR: What’s something you altered because of that advice?
Sud: You know, it was more about basing what characters do on the advice. So, like, the character of Holder [played by Joel Kinnaman] is based on one of the undercovers. It’s more character stuff, and it’s interesting because I’ve heard on the Internet that there’s some criticism as far as police procedure on the show, but I hear the opposite when I talk to our detectives and other detectives and prosecutors.
THR: Maybe no one wants to believe police work is that slow.
Sud: Maybe! There’s always DNA now, and everything is solved very quickly.
Mazzara: Vince, are you getting notes from meth cookers?
Gilligan: We do hear from the occasional partaker of meth and former cooks. (Laughter.) I assume they are former. They are impressed with our meth skills. We get a lot of great help from the DEA in Los Angeles, Albuquerque and even in Dallas. We have a DEA chemist who oversaw our very first meth-cooking sequence in our RV, back in the pilot. “OK, this step here, this is where you detract the blah, blah, blah.” I asked, “What would it look like?” He said, “Sort of like Strawberry Quik.” (Laughter.) So I said, “Go get some Strawberry Quik!” One of the nicest moments was a season later: Some DEA honchos were in our meth lab and were like: “Wow. This is like the real thing.” That made me feel good. You take the pleasures where you can find them.
Winter: We once got a note from some mafia-connected people on The Sopranos that we incorporated into the show. Tony was at a backyard barbecue, and the note came in that a Don would never wear shorts. So the next season, Tony had a conversation with Carmine Lupertazzi, and Carmine said: “And by the way, somebody told me you were at your house. They saw you wearing shorts. Don’t do that.”
THR: What is the best or worst advice you were given when starting out as a writer?
Mazzara: The best advice I got was, “Move it up.” Like, instead of building to something and having a slow burn, pull up what’s working, get to it, and then fill in good story behind it. That’s something I’ve tried to do.
Winter: The worst advice in general was: “You’re out of your mind to leave your job as a lawyer. Who do you think you are?” I thank God I was such a terrible lawyer that I really had no choice. I think that the whole idea of just doing what we do for a living is so alien to people, you know, particularly on the East Coast. Everybody expects you to come back with your tail between your legs.
Gordon: The best advice is, “Don’t do it,” and the worst advice is, “Don’t do it.” (Laughter.) People ask for advice, and that’s what I say.
Rhimes: That’s what I say. Yeah. If you could do anything else, if there’s anything you want to do, as much as you want to be a writer, go do it, because this is not that simple.
Winter: There was a column I read once called “Throw in the Towel,” and basically what it is, it’s just a challenge. Do you think you want to do this for a living? OK, ask yourselves these questions, and it is just bone-chilling. But if you’re a writer, you’re going to write. To be able to make a living at this is just the greatest gift in the world. I’m just so blessed.
Gilligan: And if you aren’t a writer, the best advice I’ve heard is: Fail working on something you believe in. If you’re going to fail, you might as well go down working on something cockamamy that you actually believe in.
Gordon: Bernard Melvin said — this is depressing — but toward the end of his life he was giving the commencement speech at Columbia and said, “I wish I could’ve had two lives, one to have written and one to have lived.” I kind of get it. Like, how do you raise children? How do you be a husband? How do you live a life when you’re perpetually haunted by these stories?
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THR: What’s the answer?
Gordon: I don’t think there’s any mastery about it. I think you just get older and hopefully wiser, but it’s a little bit like being haunted, carrying these stories around in your head.
Winter: I’ll zone out at the dinner table, and my wife will go, “Where are you?” Whatever it is, I’m thinking of a story. She can always tell. I’ve also had friends call me up and say, “God, I can’t believe you put [in your script] that thing that happened to us.” “What are you talking about?” “That was us 20 years ago,” then I’ll be reminded it’s actually something that happened to me 20 years ago. A conversation, an observation or outright plagiarism from my own life.
Gilligan: Does that ever scare you, though? Speaking of that, I’ll come up with something, some bit of dialogue, for instance, and I’ll say, “Oh, that’s good.” And then I’ll get neurotic and freak out and say I must’ve heard that in a movie somewhere.
Winter: I did it on episode two of Boardwalk Empire. There’s an encounter between the commodore and his maid where he essentially challenges her about a piece of information, and — hand to God, I did not do this intentionally — somebody [online] said that was basically lifted from Remains of the Day. They had the clip, and it was basically the same dynamic. And I said, “You got me.” I swear to God, I had no recollection of this.
Rhimes: I’ll get the Private Practice script and I’ll get the Grey’s script, and I’ll be like, “These two patients are exactly the same, and look, they’re both saying the same thing.” But the writers don’t talk to one another! I’m the only common link, which means that I went from one writers room and pitched a story to another writers room, and pitched the same story but did not realize that I was doing it.
Sud: The worst is when you realize you’re rhyming your lines. (Laughter.) I’ll be on set, and I’ll be like, “Oh, my God. This is a couplet.” It’s awful!