Killed Characters, Fired Bosses and Canceled Shows: TV's Top Drama Showrunners Tell All
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
THR: What has been your most challenging moment with an actor?
Gordon: Where’s this running? (Laughter.)
Gilligan: I remember a good learning moment for me. It was on The X-Files, and I had written the scene where Gillian Anderson was about to get an ice-pick lobotomy by this crazy guy who’d strapped her to a dentist chair. I wrote that she was coming out of some deep anesthetic, and the scene needed to be scary. But I’m like, “This is not scary, because she’s not scared. She is drugged!” So I had to ask them to reshoot it. She was very upset with me. I don’t blame her. I sent her flowers. I learned from that that you got to be careful what you put on the page.
Winter: I can’t say it was easy walking into a trailer and sitting across from Tony Soprano, telling him that he has to say the dialogue exactly as written. (Laughter.) But it was really great when I realized that Jim Gandolfini is not Tony, and you can actually talk to him. We were real sticklers for having the dialogue said verbatim, and then it’s down to something like “You motherf—ing asshole” and “You asshole motherf—er,” and I had to explain why it was better the other way. (Laughter.)
THR: You are all at the top of your game, careerwise. But is there something you haven’t done in your lives that you’d still like to do?
Sud: Not as a career. But I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I want to go from Mexico to Canada. It takes three months to do that hike.
Gilligan: That would be cool. I’ve always wanted to do the Appalachian Trail, because I’m from back east. Both of those would be great.
Winter: I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I just wish I had more time to read things that weren’t related to what I’m working on. Some of the older books, all the CliffsNotes of books I was supposed to have read in college were great, but I just see people on the subway and on the street reading a book, and I say, “Wow. What’s that like?” I just really have no time.
Rhimes: About once a year, I announce to my sisters that I’m going to get my master’s in library science. I’m very serious about it. The idea of being a librarian is like the happiest job I can think of. My sisters laugh at me every single time, and they’re like, “It’s not going to happen, let it go.” But one day I’m going to have a library in Vermont somewhere.
Gordon: I’ve had on my desk a couple of applications to grad school. I haven’t filled them out, but I’ve actually done the research to see what it would take. Public diplomacy is one. International relations, I mean, I’ve always been interested in that and briefly considered a career in the state department until I saw the entrance exam.
Mazzara: I’d probably want to teach. I have a degree in English lit and was going to be a teacher at one point, and so I could see teaching, you know, English or maybe film. But this idea of the career ending is so scary. Let’s move on. (Laughter.)
From left: Vince Gilligan, Howard Gordon, Shonda Rhimes, Terence Winter, Veena Sud and Glen Mazzara, photographed at the historic Los Angeles Athletic Club
and hotel in downtown L.A. on May 3.
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