Dan Futterman ('The Looming Tower'), Courtney Kemp ('Power'), Peter Morgan ('The Crown'), Bruce Miller ('The Handmaid's Tale'), David Shore ('The Good Doctor') and Lena Waithe ('The Chi') open up about race in the writers room, shooting awkward sex scenes and killing off favorite characters: "I was crying while I typed their demise."
A gathering of top showrunners can quickly devolve into a type of therapy session about dealing with audience pressures and network demands. But when this sextet — The Looming Tower's Dan Futterman, 50; Power's Courtney Kemp, 41; The Crown's Peter Morgan, 55; The Handmaid's Tale's Bruce Miller, 53; The Good Doctor's David Shore, 58; and The Chi's Lena Waithe, 33 — gathered on a late-April morning for The Hollywood Reporter's annual Drama Showrunner Roundtable, it managed to avoid the usual subjects of writerly angst, save some musings from Morgan, who lamented a U.K. system that doesn't nurture writers rooms as well as U.S. shows do.
"You can't find people in the U.K. [to write on your show]; everybody's got their own show," he explains. "And we're in this era now of boom TV, so the most inexperienced, fledgling writers have got two or three shows on, and it's like, 'But he's only 18.'" When it's suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that by the time The Crown reaches the season about Meghan Markle, he'll have had time to groom a room of writers, Morgan laughs: "I give you my word. I will not get to the Meghan Markle season."
Over the course of an hour, the group talked instead about the value of writers room debates, the politics of who can tell what story, the future of pay parity and the lengths each of them is willing to go to for the sake of a truly safe set.
Let's start broad: What's your best — be it the most amusing or the most horrifying — pitch story?
BRUCE MILLER The one that comes to mind is when I had a pitch that we were going to do a female genital mutilation story on Handmaid's Tale. You don't even know how to word anything, I'm just dancing around it as much as my upbringing would allow — and then you realize you're doing it to Rory Gilmore! [Alexis Bledel starred in The Gilmore Girls before Handmaid's.] But it was fine for them [at Hulu]; they loved it. I still haven't recovered. I'm turning bright red just thinking about it.
COURTNEY KEMP I was very, very fortunate because the first show I ever pitched was Power.
LENA WAITHE Overachiever!
KEMP Yeah, I walked into the room with 50 Cent and, at that time, [the late music executive] Chris Lighty. It was like a hundred dudes and me. There were no other women. Everyone would sit down, and the people on the other side would go, "OK, so who am I listening to?" And I'd go, "Me, the girl from Connecticut, I'm going to pitch you the drug-dealing show." It's not a funny story, but it does speak to how much has changed, even in the past five years.
PETER MORGAN There isn't such a culture of pitching in the U.K., so I pitched The Crown but really only to one or two people. [Of course,] when I wrote Frost/Nixon for the screen, I had a dozen unsuccessful pitches. Everybody thought it was a catastrophe.
MORGAN Well, because it's dull. (Laughs.) There are two people and they just talk to one another.
MILLER You've just described every movie I like. There are two people and they just talk to each other.
MORGAN I remember jumping up and down trying to animate it by saying it's Rocky with words. (Laughter.)
WAITHE That's good!
MORGAN I thought, "That will work." It didn't, so I had to write it as a play first. And then, having written it as a play, every single company came back and tried to get it as a film. It was like they just needed to see it first.
MILLER They needed proof of concept.
DAVID SHORE Or they needed something else to blame when it fails.
If I scanned each of your IMDb profiles, what would be the most surprising credit, and what did you learn from it?
DAN FUTTERMAN I played Barry on Will & Grace. It was a quartet of Will & Grace shows called "Fagmalion," and I was the gay man in training to learn how to properly be gay.
WAITHE That's so great.
FUTTERMAN Yeah. And when I met my now wife, Anya Epstein, who is the actual great writer in our family, she spent a good portion of the beginning of our marriage saying, "Please just tell me now [if you're gay]. Just tell me now 'cause I don't want to find out 25 years into our marriage." (Laughter.)
MILLER And exactly what you always dream of hearing from your wife. (Laughter.)
WAITHE I wrote on Bones for a season, and what I learned is that I'm not good at writing that kind of television. I also wrote on a Nickelodeon show called How to Rock, and I wasn't good at doing that either. The third show I ever wrote on was The Chi. I realized I like writing very specific characters, often people of color who are just living their lives — and since those shows are very hard to come by, I created one.
KEMP My first job was The Bernie Mac Show, and I thought, "Oh, this is awesome. My first job as a staff writer is on this great show." But I got fired because I'm not funny. You gotta come up with a joke, you gotta come up with a button, you gotta get out of the scene. There's a real structure to comedy, and I was incapable of that. But getting fired was the best thing that happened to me.
SHORE Back up. How did you get hired on it?
KEMP I actually wrote a Bernie Mac spec [script], and they hired me off of that. I'd come in and pitch them a bunch of ideas and because I was a black, upper-middle class kid, I had a bunch of stories about that experience. So, I can see the logic now. You would hire that person because they're walking material — and I was, but I couldn't write a comedy. So I got fired, and then my agent said, "Well, we have these comedies, but this is the moment where you can decide what you really want to do." I wrote a CSI spec and went the other direction.
WAITHE Knowing your weaknesses is such a strength. Sometimes when I ask writers whom I meet, the up-and-coming ones, "What do you want to write?" they say, "Everything." And I always say, "No, what are you really good at? What do you love writing?"
KEMP I believe young writers need a trade, so I became a legal writer. Every year when there were new law shows, I was the person going in and trying to get on one. Because that's what I could do. Even now, when I created my own show, there's a strong legal component to Power because I'm like, "I know I can do that."
MORGAN So, you're saying play to your specialized strengths, go narrow?
MILLER It's also develop your specialized strength, don't fight it. Mine was always female characters.
FUTTERMAN Like (to Morgan), I think that you should maybe think about focusing on royalty. (Laughter.)
MORGAN I had a fantasy of being able to [write] anything and everything. But it's a bit like a doctor, I imagine, you're going to go into all areas of medical practice, end-of-life care or obstetrics or whatever it is, and then you do one good operation on an elbow and suddenly you're the elbow dude.
Save Peter, who oversees a team of researchers, you all run your writers room. What's been the biggest debate you've had, in that room or with the network, about getting material to screen?
WAITHE A big one we had [dealt with the question], "Do black people call the cops?" which is very tricky.
FUTTERMAN Didn't they trust you to answer that question?
WAITHE I don't have a black executive on the studio or network side, and so there is a level of trust that they have to have for me. But this came up in the room, which is predominantly African-American, and sometimes things can be generational. So, there's a crime committed in the pilot, a character's younger brother is shot and killed by someone and he's dating someone from the right side of the tracks, who says, "Maybe you should call the cops?" Ultimately we decided to give him the line, which was, "I'm not about to call the cops, the cops are not about to do nothin'." And we did it because there was a writer in our room who basically said, "Well, if I'm in trouble, I call the cops" — a lot of us in the room would not.
MILLER So you took the debate from the writers room and put it in the story?
MILLER That's cool. When I started my career, there was often one woman in the room. And my room now is basically all women and me, and the thing you get from that is the disagreement. Because if you have one black person in the room, that black person speaks for all black people in the universe.
KEMP "Blackipedia" or "Blacktionary." Been both of those on many shows. (Laughter.)
MILLER We had a very long discussion in our room about what it actually feels like to get your period and how can you tell or not when you start to bleed. And the room, all they did was disagree with each other.
WAITHE Because everybody has a very different experience.
MILLER Right. And it's funny because you think, "Oh, there's a universal answer to this." And really, I just need a line. (Laughter.) But it doesn't help if you just have one person. It's one person's opinion and there is no one to challenge it.
FUTTERMAN We have a similar thing on our show [which follows the FBI and CIA in the years leading up to 9/11]. There's a lot about the Quran, and there's a lot of Arabic dialogue. And we were leading up to a big interrogation in the 10th episode with Ali Soufan and a terrorist named Abu Jandal, and it's in Arabic. A lot of the way he gets [Jandal] to speak is he shames him about his lack of knowledge about the Quran. And when we handed in the episode, we got a call from Hulu. They said, "You realize that this is 12 pages in Arabic and it doesn't cut to anything else, right?" And we said, "Yeah, we do realize that. (Laughter.) That was intentional, and we've been leading up to this." But in terms of the opinions, you ask two Jews about the Torah, you get three opinions; it's the exact same thing about the Quran. We had a couple of guys of Muslim descent, and then we had the actors, and we had about 14 opinions about where this conversation should lead.
SHORE My challenge is I have a character at the center of this show who has autism. So how do I make him fully dimensionalized while being true to people with this condition and on this spectrum? It's important that I don't turn him into the magic person with autism where he's got a condition, but he's fine, he'll solve all the problems. How do I be true to his weaknesses and his strengths? It continues to be a challenge.
One of the big debates can be about killing off characters. Courtney, you recently did so with a young character on Power. How does that decision and conversation go, and does it differ because of the actress' age?
KEMP On my show, characters die every season. I've had actors who I loved personally and I was crying as I typed their demise.
MILLER But they die so well.
KEMP They do die so well. (Laughter.) But in that case, I felt like there was no other choice, [storywise]. I did hide it from the network for a little while, but I always talk to the actor about a week before the production draft goes out. Here, you have to talk to the actor and their mom.
So what is that conversation?
KEMP This person will no longer be on the show after episode nine, and it's not personal and it's not about your performance, it's just about where the story takes you, no different than anyone else. [But it's a] child actor, [so they may] be frightened and confused, [so] you bring the parent in to say, "Hey, it's not the end of the world, there will be other jobs." That was a hard one — not the hardest.
What was the hardest?
KEMP I had one actor who told me that I was ruining the show and that if he wasn't on it, that a certain segment of the population would never watch it again. I was like, "OK, dude." (Laughs.)
SHORE "You just made it easier."
KEMP Yeah, in a way. But it's hard because you're firing someone. You're ending their employment. And especially for a series regular, that's a big check you're telling them they're not getting anymore. So, it's tough but it's also part of our show. And by the end of the season, there's a joke among the actors, "Do you have to go talk to Courtney?" (Laughter.)
MILLER You're the hammer!
KEMP I'm the grim reaper. (Laughs.) And some have to be real troopers because their dead bodies have to stay in one position for a couple of hours in the scene.
WAITHE They're thinking, "Did I put enough in my savings account? I shouldn't have bought that Tesla." (Laughter.)
Lena, you've said, "The hardest thing about being a black writer in this town is having to pitch your black story to white executives." How would it be received differently if that room was populated by a bunch of black executives?
WAITHE Usually it's predominantly white execs or there's often the poor token black exec they bring to the room, whoever they can find in the office, "Come on, we've got a black person coming in here, we want to look good." (Laughter.) And that black exec can either be friend or foe.
WAITHE Because they don't want to come off like, "Oh, I'm only vying for the black show." And there are other times, too, if their black experience is different from yours, if they are a black person who grew up in Connecticut or went to a private school, and I'm in there pitching The Chi, they're going to go, "Well, that wasn't my experience. I've seen that experience of black people before, I don't want to greenlight a show that's going to tell that story again." The truth is, going in to pitch is hard, period, but what people don't realize is that when you're someone who is "othered" — and it's not just for black people, it's if you're a trans person, if you're someone who maybe has a disability and you want to come in and tell a story about that — if you're sitting with people for whom that's not their experience, yeah, if you have something that's phenomenal and they can just kind of relate and get it, they'll do it, but oftentimes there is a level of not understanding and not being able to relate. Also, the top execs, the people with greenlight power, they live in Brentwood, their kids go to private school. It's Big Little Lies. So, if you're not pitching Big Little Lies, sometimes they're like, "Huh, I don't get it." Or they say yes and then try to make it more relatable to them.
Are those rooms changing with the success of projects like Power, Empire and Black Panther?
KEMP Certainly the people who are saying yes at the top haven't changed.
WAITHE Not at all.
KEMP I feel like you can go in two different ways, and this is what I tell younger writers. You can go in and pitch the universal part first. So, I go in and pitch Power and I say it's about the path not taken, it's about my first love, the one that got away, it's about, does my past dictate my future. Anybody can relate to that. You tell that story first, the specifics don't matter. That's one way of doing it. And if you can't find the universal in your pitch, it's not the right show. Because it's not going to work. A show that's just about you and living on your block is not going to be interesting enough. But you also have to research the people in the room before you go in because if you are just looking at them as a monolithic group of upper-middle-class white people, well, you screwed up, too, because somebody in there is specifically from 10 miles from where you grew up and then you can connect on that level.
MILLER Or have greenlit 20 really cool, interesting shows all over the map.
KEMP What appeals to them? Because if you go in and you see that this person has greenlit this, that or the other, they might actually vibe with one specific thing in your pitch. What are your references? What are the things that you like? I can go in and for the first 10 minutes talk about how much I love The Crown. Walls go down. Now when I pitch you the show about the drug dealer, it doesn't matter, I'm the girl who likes The Crown. I think sometimes we make the whole argument about, "I'm different, so they're not going to buy it." Nope. Go in with a good pitch and if the reason they don't buy it is because you're different, that's their loss. When I was pitching Power, I had an executive say, "Well, I already have a black show." He said that right to my face.
KEMP That's OK. It's not on his network. We did all right without him.
One of the more interesting conversations that has gone on in recent years is about who can tell what story. Bruce, I know this is a subject you thought a lot about when you signed on to tackle a feminist story.
MILLER The "Who the hell do you think you are" question. (Laughs.)
Whose blessing did you feel you needed?
MILLER My situation was relatively unique because I was writing based on a feminist novel that had had a long life. People had experienced it as a novel first, so it had a certain amount of credibility and it also had a live author [Margaret Atwood] who could bless me in terms of what I was doing with the book. That was helpful. But every time I write a character, it's not me. I mean, there are not too many 53-year-old Jewish guys with three children who live in Studio City on TV. So, you're always writing people who are different from you. What you have to do, and what I did because I was the biggest worrier in this, is look at your weaknesses and reinforce them with all the other people who you're working with.
KEMP But if you hear Dan talking about how careful he was about writing the dialogue between those characters in that scene; or David, he's not autistic, but he's very careful; and obviously Peter's not a royal …
FUTTERMAN I have mixed feelings about this because I actually asked Ali Selim, who is on staff, to write the 10th episode with me, and he wrote that scene because half of his family is Egyptian Muslim and he knows a lot more about that than I do, and I didn't feel equipped to do it. So, I wrote all the America stuff and he wrote all the Yemen stuff. I felt like I needed help in the room from people who had direct experience with a lot of it, and I think the show is better for it. Having said that, I don't only want to write about 50-year-old guys who grew up in Larchmont.
SHORE We're all writing about people who aren't us.
FUTTERMAN This is a complicated question right now.
SHORE But I'm not going to just write me, nor do I want to. There are going to be aspects of me in any character, but, at the same time, there are characters whose lives are so separate from mine that I wouldn't know where to start.
KEMP Of course, but when we start to say that only this person can write this narrative, those of us who are of color or somewhat othered, that means we can only write ourselves? Uh-uh, I ain't signin' up for that. I'm not going to say that only people of color can write people of color because that means only white people can write white people and that's not OK. Every writer should be able to write anything if you do the research and you're sensitive enough to ask the questions.
WAITHE Almost 80 percent of showrunners are white, straight men, and as the times change, that number hopefully will change, but that means most of what we're watching is a very similar narrative. Even if people are writing different stories, you can't help it, that's where you come from. So a big thing for me is if you're a white, straight, male showrunner and you want to tell a story that isn't like your life, that's totally cool, but you've got to have somebody whose life you're writing about right next to you and you've got to be asking them questions. Because what I don't love is the white male straight showrunner who acts as if they have the audacity to tell a narrative that isn't theirs without asking for help.
WAITHE And the problem is that they don't have to ask for help because, remember, a lot of the execs look like them and they're like, "Yeah, this story about this black family makes sense to me." "Me too." "OK, cool." And never asking a black person, like, "Yo, is this right?"
Peter, your cast just unwittingly found itself at the center of a controversy over pay parity. How much responsibility have you felt in the past and/or going forward to get involved in such things?
MORGAN I've been listening to everyone talking, particularly about firing people and stuff, and I wouldn't do that. No, no, no. Each one of us is doing six full-time jobs. So, you have to think, "Well, where am I prepared to let other people just take over completely?" And there are some areas where some of us write less, some of us write more. I have absolutely nothing to do with business affairs, nothing at all. So, when that story broke [about star Claire Foy earning less than Matt Smith], I was as horrified as the next person.
Are you guys going to be more involved or at least be knowledgeable going forward?
MORGAN No, but you can't be.
You can't be?
MORGAN If you want to stay healthy and alive — and I would suggest that all of us are on the verge of bad health and insanity — you have to delegate. Bruce tells me he goes on set a lot, and I really would love go to on set more. And to micromanage the culture of the show you're on, I'd love to know more about what decisions are we making with pay, who are we paying and what are we doing, but I simply have to let my colleagues and co-producers do that and I have to choose. I have to say, "Well, if I only have so many hours or so much energy, this is the bit I think I'm best suited to."
Given how hot-button this is and how much a conversation like this can usurp a show, do the rest of you feel a responsibility going forward to be more involved or at least check these things?
SHORE I'll probably make a phone call to Sony to say, "Hey, you're doing it right, right?" 'Cause I literally don't know what my people are being paid and I'm counting on them to be responsible.
FUTTERMAN I'm going to make absolutely sure that I get paid as much as the actors. (Laughter.)
WAITHE I've been very involved in Time's Up and that movement, and for season two, we're making sure that women feel safe on the set and we're hyper aware of what that means because there are sex scenes. We want to make sure we're talking to these actresses and also talking to our male actors and making sure they're aware. 'Cause I don't play. I'm like, "It's the city of Chicago, people die every day, so if you want to play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I'll happily call Showtime and say this person has to go, and you will get shot up and it'll be a wonderful finale."
KEMP I actually have, on sex scene days, thrown people off set. "It's a closed set, so, like, why are you here? What is your function? If you're not holding the boom or operating a camera and you're not holding the robe, [go.] There are, like, 10 jobs that are necessary for a sex scene. Other than that, you can get off set." And I will go around and boot people. In a way there is something about having a woman showrunner, which means that I have actually asked you to take your clothes off and go through this sex scene and I've promised you you're going to be safe on my set and you believed me because I was also female, so now I have to …
WAITHE It's your responsibility.
KEMP Right. I have to take the responsibility on.
FUTTERMAN Yeah, we did the same thing and I left set as well. There were as few people as possible.
MILLER We do a lot of very odd sex scenes. I have to say that our crew is so respectful to the point where every single monitor there has a whole box of black around it so nobody sees anything, and we have guys who stand on set with their backs to Lizzie [Moss]. So, the boom operator is doing his job, and the guy who is pulling his cable is not looking.
SHORE I don't do [sex scenes] as often, obviously, but, yeah, [when we did,] I chose to leave the set. And then the next day, the actress came to me and asked how she was in that scene, and I go, "Uhhh … Jesus, I don't know how to behave." (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.