Emmys: Drama Series Bosses Reveal Writers Room Secrets, Biggest Challenges and Favorite Storylines

1:33 PM 8/13/2019

by THR staff

The creative minds behind 'Better Call Saul,' 'Bodyguard,' 'Game of Thrones,' 'Killing Eve,' 'Ozark,' 'Pose,' 'Succession' and 'This Is Us' open up about their nominated shows.

Drama Series-Publicity Stills-Split-H 2019
Courtesy of Networks

  • 'Better Call Saul'

    The fourth season of AMC's Better Call Saul was pivotal for the Breaking Bad prequel, as Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill was forced to sever emotional ties with his late brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), as he moved several steps closer to fully becoming Saul Goodman.

    Series showrunner Peter Gould, who created Better Call Saul with Vince Gilligan, spoke with THR about the key season of the drama, the gratification of seeing veteran McKean finally getting the first Emmy nomination of his storied career (as Odenkirk notched his fourth lead actor nom for his role) and the frustration of co-star Rhea Seehorn's ongoing Emmy shutout.

    What's it going to take to get Rhea Seehorn a nomination?

    Any nomination is a wonderful gift, and I am thrilled that in a universe with so many TV shows, our show gets recognition at all. But having said that, I think everyone on the show was disappointed and surprised that Rhea didn't get the recognition for the incredible work that she did in season four. What's it going to take for her to get a nomination? You know what? It's very hard for me to say. The Academy is made up of a lot of different people, it's not one hive mind. I really hope that she gets recognition for her work on the show before this is all done. I will say, on a happier note, it was a source of delight and celebration that Michael McKean got a nomination for season four. I was really beside myself that that happened.

    It's remarkable that he'd never been nominated. How did that feel?

    It's wonderful. To see Michael McKean get recognition is so special because he is brilliant on our show. He's brilliant in everything that he does. He brought such a depth and complexity and a tragedy to Charles McGill, and I miss working with him. I think we all do. The only thing we're sad about is that he's not joining us in Albuquerque everyday the way he used to.

    What goes through your mind when you see 30-some odd nominations for Game of Thrones?

    You know, this is a great year for Game of Thrones. I don't think anyone can argue that the show is an overwhelming piece of filmmaking. I happened to have spent a little bit of time with George [R.R.] Martin, who I think is a brilliant guy but also a very decent, funny human being. I'm as happy as I could be for him with all the recognition that the show received.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Bodyguard'

    Bodyguard, Jed Mercurio's six-episode series about a military veteran (Richard Madden) suffering from PTSD who is hired to protect a controversial politician (Keeley Hawes), blossomed from a British hit to a worldwide sensation after it debuted Oct. 24 on Netflix. The thriller has landed BBC its first nomination in the drama series category in nearly 50 years. Mercurio, 52, spoke with THR about why he thinks the show has become such a phenomenon, what he learned about bomb disposal and who from his cast would make the best real-life politician.

    What was unique about the way Bodyguard took TV by storm?

    It was an amazing kind of roller-coaster ride because the show had done extremely well in the U.K. But I think it maybe had something to do with the fact that every major country in the world has politicians and government and there are threats to these people and there are systems in place to protect them. So there were some universal touchstones there that I think help people access the thriller.

    What did you and Richard Madden work through to figure out his character?

    I've worked with Richard before, so I knew him and had a working relationship with him. That creates a very positive platform to start with because we have that kind of shorthand with each other. It was always about playing the truth of the character, always knowing that he had to find what the scene was about for the real person, the real David Budd, and what was going on in terms of the game we were playing with the audience — which was, is he involved in the assassination, or is he not? Is he what he claims to be, or is he a danger to Julia (Hawes)? Those were all things that he had to trust the director and the editor and me to be delivering on.

    There were lots of surprises in this story, including key character deaths. What is the process when writing those scenes that will stun the audience?

    It's always the same thing, which is, "What is the best thing to happen for the show as a whole?" It might be that the audience is attached to a particular character, but if something bad happens to that character or that character exits the story and as a result of this the story is propelled forward, the stakes are raised, new questions arise. The consequences to the characters left behind are really dramatic and involving. Then that's the balancing act we have to work through.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Game of Thrones'

    Seventy episodes of television built up to this: the White Walkers unleashing the full force of their undead terror on Westeros in "The Long Night," the climactic battle episode at the heart of Game of Thrones' final season.

    The result of the showdown: a handful of main character deaths and a much bigger surprise in the form of the White Walkers' crushing defeat, thanks to Arya Stark's unexpected killing of the Night King.

    Behind it all: Miguel Sapochnik, the veteran Thrones director responsible for so many of the HBO epic's biggest moments, such as the ambitious "Hardhome" and "Battle of the Bastards" episodes. He was charged with presiding over a very different kind of war in "The Long Night," without his typical action hero Kit Harington to lean on and with darker stakes involved — quite literally, as the episode drew criticism over perceived lighting issues. "I think [cinematographer] Fabian Wagner did an outstanding job" is all Sapochnik will say to THR when it comes to questions about lighting and "The Long Night," for which he earned a directing nomination (his second after a 2016 win for "Battle of the Bastards").

    Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss eschew most awards press, so Sapochnik, who's been working on the series since season five, weighed in on the ambitious "Long Night" episode and the show's swan-song season.

    "The Long Night" involved several night shoots. Walk us through that experience.

    We started shooting in January in Northern Ireland in a place called Toome that is known as one of the coldest places in that region. We finished shooting in mid-April. Monday to Friday I would usually work nights from 5 p.m to 5 a.m., depending on what time it got dark. Then Saturday midday I'd go to the edit room and review what we'd done, cut some scenes and discuss the next week's work. Sunday I'd scout or rehearse on location in the daytime, then try to stay up as long as possible, shot-listing in preparation for going back to nights on Monday.

    What was your reaction when you read about Arya's big moment, killing the Night King?

    I questioned everything and we worked long and hard to find the right balance of credibility versus wish fulfillment. Then we shot it and reshot it and found that what was really important was rhythm. At one point there was an elaborate plan to have her fight her way into the Weirwood forest, but as we progressed we realized she'd already done that earlier in the episode, so it felt like a repeat. In the end, we felt it didn't matter how she got there — what mattered was setting up that moment when the Night King catches her mid-leap and we think she's done for, then she pulls her knife switch and takes him out. I loved Maisie's performance post the takedown as well, sharing a moment with her brother, Bran. That weary smile. "Not today."

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Killing Eve'

    Emerald Fennell says she could talk about Killing Eve "forever — my husband says I could talk a person to death."

    Fennell knows a thing or two about death as the showrunner of the second season of BBC America's breakout drama. The season saw Eve (Sandra Oh) trying to avoid her own demise, but also grappling with her darker side and her feelings for her friend/foe/flame Villanelle (Jodie Comer).

    Fennell, who took over the showrunner job from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, spoke to THR about the show's Emmy nominations, why Eve and Villanelle have a unique connection and where the series may go in season three.

    Phoebe Waller-Bridge had a golden rule that Villanelle would never use her beauty to get what she wanted. Are there other golden rules?

    In general, it's "be honest," which sounds very extraordinary for a show about murders and assassins and spies. But I think the show is about saying, "OK, well, if I was in such an extraordinary situation, what would I realistically do? As women in peril, what might we do? How do you wash your knickers if you're on the run? You go to a laundromat." It's little things like that — which particularly genre stuff doesn't address — but the mundane things that come with thinking on your feet are what make this world very detailed and rich and very specifically female, too. 

    Like when Eve commits a murder in the finale?

    Yes, it needed to feel like a woman who had never killed someone having to do it. It needed to feel as horrendous and brutal and sort of inadvertently funny as that would feel. What Phoebe is genius at and what she establishes for everything is psychologically rooting it in the truth. I think that's why it's a show that people really feel connected to.

    Did you always know you would lead up to that "Killing Eve" title? Or at least so it seems?

    Yes, I think so. From the get-go, the most pressing question at the end of season one was, "Who's killing Eve?" Everyone in this world, actually, in a funny way is conspiring to kill her. Whether it's Villanelle in a literal sense. Then there's Niko [Owen McDonnell] and how stiflingly domestic we made her life this season. She's always doing laundry. She's cooking. It's the kind of thing that kills a lot of women, domesticity. Historically, women have felt very oppressed by it. And there's Carolyn [Fiona Shaw] and Kostantin [Kim Bodnia] and someone like Hugo [Edward Bluemel], who is one of those characters who will get what he wants however he wants it and can see people's weaknesses. But the thing that's most true to me was Eve herself is the person who does the killing, really. It was important that the conversation at the end of this season is that it needed to be her. She puts herself in peril because the rejection of the thing that she has been so tempted by is the thing that puts her in so much danger. Eve is a good person. At the root of it, whatever that means, she's a force for good.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Ozark'

    For season two of Netflix's money-laundering drama, Marty and Wendy Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney) and their two kids bet big on a waterfront casino to get them out of hot water. The tense second season resulted in nine Emmy nominations, including one for drama series, putting showrunner Chris Mundy and his team on a creative high as they film season three in the humid Georgia summer.

    Mundy spoke to THR from the set of Ozark, sharing details from the writers room as well as his favorite second-season moment.

    When Marty is forced to kill in order to save Wendy's life, he crosses a line that sends him into a dark depression. Is this the final red line for Marty, and are all bets off?

    I don't think all bets are off because this wasn't premeditated, it was self-defense — as Wendy reiterates afterward. Marty has a panic attack and breakdown, and that's when Wendy really picked up the slack to keep the family going. Marty is on a slippery slope, but he's not all the way down yet.

    Wendy certainly takes control during Marty's breakdown, but she seemed to be on this trajectory from the beginning of the season. Do you think that it was inevitable that Wendy was going to assert herself more?

    I think she was definitely on that path; Wendy found the combination of her North Carolina youth and her Chicago politics fused into a very useful combination in the Ozarks. Every time she's been put to the test, she's come through, and I would consider season two Wendy's ascension.

    This past season, Ruth Langmore (Julia Garner) is pulled between her biological father and her surrogate father, Marty Byrde. Where do we find her allegiance to Marty and the Byrde family entering season three?

    Ruth is more and more self-confident, but she's grateful to Marty for being the first person to believe in her and give her responsibilities. Going into season three, we see her very much wanting to be a member of the Byrde family. However, as she gets deeper and deeper into the enterprise, she starts to wonder if being a Byrde is the best thing to be.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Pose'

    As a kid growing up in the South Bronx, Steven Canals had big dreams — but he never imagined that his Hollywood aspirations would land him back in his native borough, where the production offices and soundstage for his FX hit, Pose, are now located at Silvercup Studios North.

    "I came from an environment where the expectations for me were as low as they could get," the 38-year-old co-creator and executive producer (with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) says of his groundbreaking show, which premiered in June 2018 and is up for seven Emmys. "For the work to be recognized, and for it to be work that uplifts LGBTQ people of color, is pretty incredible."

    Indeed, Pose centers on New York's queer ballroom scene of the late 1980s and early '90s and features five transgender actresses of color in leading roles — an unprecedented number for a scripted series in the U.S. — along with exceptional LGBTQ talent employed behind the camera, including Canals' fellow writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J. THR spoke with Canals, a graduate of UCLA's MFA screenwriting program who penned the first draft of Pose in 2014, about the show's journey from the page to the small screen and using his platform to combat LGBTQ storytelling tropes.

    You made history as the first Latinx producer to be nominated in the outstanding drama category. How does that feel?

    On one end, it's such an honor to have your work be recognized by the Television Academy, but then it's also a little shocking that I'm the first. I hope that this is the beginning, though, and that there are other young, black, Latinx and LGBTQ people out there who are dying to tell a story, who have a fire to work in this industry and are energized to go out there and make their dreams happen by seeing someone like me nominated.

    What were some of the most unexpected challenges of season one?

    The bulk of our production was shot on location. We were traveling all over New York, shooting in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. We often had to change locations within one day and travel from one borough to another. It was exhausting. We've figured it out now by building out those sets on a soundstage, so we've been able to consolidate everything. There are still long hours, but less travel. Somehow, it's just a little less stressful.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'Succession'

    It's fitting that Jesse Armstrong, the showrunner of a searing satirical drama about media power brokers, has a measured and somewhat skeptical approach to the Emmy Awards. "They're curious, awards," the British creator tells THR. "You don't want to get too tied up in putting all your worth in the hands of the big world of awards, but on the other hand it's ever so nice to get your work recognized."

    His HBO series, Succession, is nominated for five Emmys, including outstanding drama. Armstrong himself is credited on the episode nominated for writing — the season one finale — a nod he learned about from executive producer Frank Rich's assistant while on set shooting season two in Croatia.

    That second season (which bowed Sunday) follows the show's Murdoch- and Redstone-like clan, the Roy family, after a failed takeover attempt — by CEO Logan Roy's (Brian Cox) son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) — of the family's sprawling business, which includes a cable news network, theme parks and rockets. Ahead of the show's sophomore bow, Armstrong spoke with THR about his pop-cultural inspirations, his learning curve as showrunner and the series' surprising link to Arrested Development.

    What was the process on the first-season finale? Did you plan the end of the series at the beginning, or did it come about more gradually?

    Obviously, you want a dramatic finale, and we had a couple of contenders, for the variety of drama. Especially for this type of show, which takes place mostly in bedrooms, boardrooms and the corporate world, it was an unusually vivid event. Early on in the writers room, in the first few weeks, I pitched the idea and we had a certain amount of trepidation about accommodating it in the show, but once we landed on it, it started to feel a bit immovable, and other character stuff started to fall in place around it. For this [second] season, too, I like to know where we're headed early on because it suggests a sort of unity to the ideas.

    With Succession, you're writing American characters for an American cable network. How do you approach bridging the differences between British and American humor for the show?

    We have an Anglo-American writers room and we have all the cast, which has plenty of input, so I just write, write, write. It's quite an international family, and that's one of the advantages of writing these one-percent people, they're often quite international; it's not like I'm trying to write Roseanne. They're quite comfortable in London, New York, L.A., Sydney and Christchurch. But yeah, I find it a natural rhythm to write.

    You've been asked quite a bit about the real-world media and business figures and events that have inspired Succession, but what about pop-cultural inspirations?

    When I pitched it, I think one of my tongue-in-cheek versions of trying to get people to feel the tone was [the 1998 Danish film] Festen, as it's called in the U.K., or The Celebration, as it's called here. My pitch was "Festen meets Dallas." I thought it was interesting to be in the world of these rich people, as they're quite vivid and Dallas-y, but to mix that with the verite approach of that kind of — it's not quite docudrama what we do, but there's a connecting tissue between how [Adam] McKay shot the pilot and how we shot the season. Some people have felt the presence of real families being referenced, but one thing I hadn't caught is Arrested Development. I didn't see the parallels with the families before we did the show, but there are some.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

  • 'This Is Us'

    The second season of NBC's multigenerational family drama This Is Us solved the cliffhanger mystery of Pearson family patriarch Jack's death, which meant season three had much more room to explore the characters in a deeper way.

    Explains creator Dan Fogelman, "Once you've revealed every element of this big plot point, it's interesting to go into storylines that may have happened before it, may have happened after it, and have a different filter through which you view everything."

    Season three, then, was able to explore the time that Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) spent serving in Vietnam with a deeper understanding and to reveal more about the surviving characters and how their stories will be told going forward. Fogelman has told THR that he's reached the "midpoint" of the series, which recently was renewed for three more seasons. He spoke with THR about his favorite day on set, the difficulties of filming in Vietnam and his plan for the show's coming seasons.

    How did the experience change for you and the cast now that Jack's death no longer is a mystery in season three?

    The struggle for us was always talking about it when we were doing interviews and doing press. It was a difficult thing for us to navigate during that second season for myself and particularly for the cast, who were constantly being asked questions that they couldn't necessarily answer. Nobody wants to feel like a politician who's just saying words and not really saying anything. And so it was very freeing on that front.

    How did the flashbacks to Jack's time in Vietnam in the early part of season three play into your larger plan for the series?

    One of the benefits of the show being successful out of the gate, and giving us the confidence and early pickups of multiple seasons was that it allowed us to plan deep in advance for the stories we were going to tell. We knew that in the first season of the show we could layer in this backstory for Jack of a difficult childhood and how he met Rebecca and his Vietnam story. And then, only after we told the complete story of his death and passing, are we able to go back into this very interesting chapter of his life and get a fuller picture of the man — after we thought we've known everything.

    Read the rest of the Q&A.

    A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.