Writers on 'The Morning Show,' 'Succession' and 4 More Shows on Creating a "Talent Cocktail" With Staffers

7:30 AM 7/7/2020

by Tyler Coates

Scribes from shows including 'Shrill,' 'Dickinson' 'Briarpatch' and 'Big Mouth' also discuss how they tackle writer's block and whether LaCroix remains the No. 1 drink of choice in the writers room.

Writersroom- Split 6-Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy Richard Foreman/USA Network; Apple tv+; HBO; Allyson Riggs/Hulu; Netflix; Apple tv+

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • 'Big Mouth'

    FILLING THE ROOM The writers room on season three of Netflix's animated comedy series about the horrors of adolescence was pretty much the same as the previous season, according to co-creator and executive producer Goldberg. But the room did suffer one notable loss in Jaboukie Young-White, who was brought on as a correspondent on The Daily Show in October 2018. ("We had to let him fly away," Goldberg laments.) Much like the voice talent, Big Mouth's writers room is made up of comedians and performers, many of whom co-creator Nick Kroll knew from the stand-up comedy and improv scenes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. "We're always looking for someone with a funny, new point of view," Goldberg says.

    A WORK IN PROGRESS With Big Mouth exploring the indignities of puberty, the show's writers room is a "very open" place, Goldberg says. "We know a lot about each other," he adds with a laugh. But that familiarity also helps get the work done. "We use the first week or so to figure out the stories we're most passionate about telling. Once you're deeper into the run of the show, you start to really trust and rely on your writers. What are they getting excited about? That's really telling."

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK Despite the freedom of animation, which allows Big Mouth to bend the rules of reality and feature characters that serve as personified emotions (such as the teens' hormone monsters, plus the villainous Shame Wizard and Depression Kitty), the writing process is not without its hurdles. "Story breaking is one of the hardest parts of the process for us," Goldberg says. "Sometimes I'd come in and [co-creators] Mark Levin and Jen Flackett would be in an editors' room with the lights out, the door closed. We'd sit for a half-hour in the dark, and that would often be the place where we were able to figure out the biggest jams in the story."

    BEVERAGE OF CHOICE "Like most writers rooms, we were big LaCroix people," Goldberg says, "but we slowly shifted to Spindrift."

  • 'Briarpatch'

    FILLING THE ROOM Greenwald, a former TV critic, was most excited about the staffing process. "After being a professional writer for almost 20 years, the thing I wanted to get away from the most was loneliness," he says. "I was really excited to work with other people." Keeping in mind that Briarpatch's protagonist is a woman of color — "Spoiler alert: I am neither," Greenwald says — a diverse room was key. "There were six writers in addition to me: five women and one other guy. Four were writers of color, which made the entire experience much more meaningful."

    A WORK IN PROGRESS Greenwald wrote the Briarpatch pilot in 2016, so he came into the room with a lot of ideas he wanted to try. "When I got everyone together, I talked them through the beats I was imagining — the types of episodes I wanted to do and where I wanted to end up," he says. "The early days in a room are a two-way street: The writers are trying to figure out your vision, but you're also figuring them out and learning their voices to get a sense of where their skills lie." Based on those skills, writers were assigned to specific episodes, from the more procedural to what Greenwald calls "the weirdest ones."

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK Although Briarpatch is an adaptation, that doesn't mean the writers didn't have their work cut out for them. "Huge swaths of plot and character were completely invented," Greenwald says. One premise the exec producer wanted to pursue was the protagonist's return to high school for a reunion, which he pitched on day one. "Everyone thought I was insane," he says with a laugh. "We had to figure out why our emotionally distant character would suddenly go to her 20-year reunion." Greenwald says he had to leave the room and let the writers figure out a plan, which worked narratively, even as Rosario Dawson's Allegra admits, "This is a bad plan."

    CREATIVE FUEL "The most radical thing I implemented from day one," Greenwald says, "is that we would collectively order lunch the night before. The worst time suck for all writers rooms is the hour you spend trying to figure out what to have for lunch." The only downside? "After you've eaten dinner, you're not hungry … I'd always order a salad for lunch, and the next day I'd be dying."

    BEVERAGE OF CHOICE "We were definitely a LaCroix room, although if I had the chance to do it all again," Greenwald says, "I would have shifted to Waterloo."

  • 'Dickinson'

    FILLING THE ROOM Smith was pregnant with twins when she sold her comic retelling of Emily Dickinson's early years to Apple TV+ in October 2017. "It was kind of a race against the clock," Smith says. "I was going to have these babies in April, so I needed to get the whole season written before then." Because of that tight schedule, Smith staffed the room with people she "already had a shorthand with." She adds, "I had been incubating the idea for the show for about four years at that point. I knew what the show was going to look like, and the tone, and I really wanted to find comrades who got my sensibility and supported me as an artist."

    A WORK IN PROGRESS Dickinson is based on the iconic poet's personal life, and Smith says recontextualizing her story — and the historical period in which she lived — was where the fun parts of the writing process took place. "We have a catchphrase in our room: 'Dark Fact,' " Smith says. "Dark Fact: They didn't have a toilet, you know? We love a dark fact, and have an appetite for finding them and building stories around them." Considering the era in which Dickinson actually lived, there was plenty of material to pull from without making it up entirely out of thin air. "I'm always trying to translate those facts into the modern experience," says Smith.

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK Because Apple was new to television production, and thus willing to experiment with style and tone in ways a traditional network might not, Smith (The NewsroomThe Affair) found the initial freedom to be a little scary. "When I first created the room, I was in the mind-set of this being a half-hour show, and needing to break 'comedy' stories," she says. But Apple's executives didn't want the broad comedy version of Dickinson — the pilot was a mixture of comic and dark themes, and the latter was what hooked them initially. "It was so liberating for me to hear that they wanted the show that I want," Smith says, acknowledging that she had already developed a much broader version of the first season before scrapping much of it. Instead, she came in with the major plot points she wanted to hit, and the collaboration in the room allowed the characters to navigate those stories more organically.

    CREATIVE FUEL Because Smith was pregnant during the first season of the writers room she'd assembled, it "interfered with my capacity as an absolutely professional coffee addict." But Smith's wasn't the only pregnancy during Dickinson's gestation period; writer Rachel Axler was also pregnant at the time. "She had the same due date even," Smith says. "It was a room of maybe six writers, and we were growing three babies. So fertile." On one very hot day without air conditioning, Axler fainted into the showrunner's arms. "One of the other writers called the paramedics," Smith says with a laugh as she recalls the moment when both her leadership skills and her maternal instincts kicked in. In the middle of the chaos, Smith shouted for a protein bar. "All she needed was a protein bar! And she ate one and was absolutely fine."

  • 'Shrill'

    FILLING THE ROOM Although the Hulu series is set in Portland, Oregon, the room for the second season of Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant (who also co-created the show and serves as executive producer), was based in New York City — a cross-country shift from the first season's room, which convened in L.A. Showrunner and executive producer Rushfield notes that local talent was a must, but she specifically looked for "people who were hilarious and had very specific points of views about the world and varied experiences of the world." Since the comedy series examines the experiences of a plus-size character as she navigates her life, Rushfield looked for people with talents beyond their humor. "Funny is essential," she says, adding: "Smart and thoughtful is essential."

    A WORK IN PROGRESS Rushfield and Bryant created the series with Lindy West, based on her memoir of the same name. As such, the three women already had notions of what to tackle for the second season. "Usually, Aidy and Lindy and I … come up with a basic structure of ideas, along with a couple of other writers, before the room starts," Rushfield says. "Some set pieces. Some locations we like. Some story ideas, big and small." Like with many writers rooms, however, those early ideas evolve and adapt once other voices enter the mix. "There is usually a very vague beginning and end point for the season before we get the room going," she adds, "but sometimes it can all get thrown out the window."

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK Rushfield says it was rare that the writers found themselves collectively blocked when it came to story. "On a day-to-day basis, sometimes the room seems to get an energy lag, and that usually means we are done for the day or should give out assignments that people work on at home and come back with the next day," she says.

    CREATIVE FUEL Rushfield admits that her favorite snacks in the room include "Red Vines, string cheese and peanut butter cups." When it came to lunches, the writers typically ordered from places nearby. "The room usually fixates on certain restaurants near the office where we are working to get obsessed with," she says. "In New York last year, it was Hampton Chutney." If anything, the writers appreciated whatever food came into the room. "Most of all, we like that everything is free," Rushfield says.

    BEVERAGE OF CHOICE LaCroix is naturally a favorite among the writers, but Rushfield had her own specific daily beverage tradition: "I usually had a shot-glass size of Coke every afternoon."

  • 'Succession'

    FILLING THE ROOM For season two of the HBO drama, Armstrong relied on writers who worked on the first season and added playwright Mary Laws and former Last Week Tonight writer Will Tracy. "Trying to predict precisely what new folk will bring to the room is probably a mistake," Armstrong says. "All you can do is choose people who seem like it will be fun to spend time with and whose writing you admire. Then, in the room, if it's working well, all sorts of new angles and insights emerge that you couldn't have foreseen."

    A WORK IN PROGRESS Armstrong admits he begins the season by bringing in his own ideas, "a broad pitch of elements of what the season might feel like." But ultimately, a TV show is a creative collaboration, and having more voices in the room — including "visiting professors to keep things sparky," plus The Good Place and Watchmen writer Cord Jefferson, novelist Gary Shteyngart, and U.K. playwrights Lucy Kirkwood and Alice Birch — makes the final product stronger. "It's all open to the room," Armstrong says. "The room is the executive council."

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK The Succession writers often find multiple ways to dive into the story. "The episode writers go away with quite a loose scene-by-scene, so if we can't nail a dynamic or a scene or a bit of plot, we can just leave it to the draft to work out." The writers often turn to real-life stories from the corporate and political worlds that intersect with the world within Succession, which in turn allows more organic stories to materialize for the show's characters. "[We] just follow the grain of how our characters would react to a problem, given everything we know about them," Armstrong says.

    BEVERAGE OF CHOICE The second season's room was based in London, and there's no LaCroix in the U.K. — which didn't upset Armstrong. "The fridges in the New York production office are stacked with it," he says. "It feels like I'm being invited into a cult. It's a fine soda drink. A real 6½-out-of-10 drinking experience."

  • 'The Morning Show'

    FILLING THE ROOM Ehrin had served as a showrunner on A&E's Bates Motel, so she knew what to look for when assembling the room for Apple TV+'s backstage drama. "Staffing a writers room is making a cocktail of talents, abilities, life experiences and sensibilities that when stirred together all create the vibe of a show," Ehrin says. "You want both a balance and an intersection." Because the world of The Morning Show is inspired by one very popular morning show that exists in our world, Ehrin needed a team that could craft complex and dramatic stories that were as believable as they were provocative. "The qualities I looked for in the writing were, in no particular order: superior writing, a political facility, edgy humor, poignancy, great character writing, skilled plotting, moral ambiguity, a sense of surprise in the way a script is written," she continues. But she didn't want the material to be full of surprising plot twists for the sake of shocking the audience, but rather "a way of unfolding a story where you don't see things coming. The perspective is fresh and unique."

    A WORK IN PROGRESS Ehrin likes to come in prepared with ideas to spark discussion and creativity in the writers room. "I generally have an idea of an arc, a tentpole, that I bring to the room and talk through with them," she says. "I like to have an idea of what I want to do as much as I can by the time we sit down for the first time." That usually means major plot points will be mapped out ahead of time, and then the story builds from there. One early example is when Jennifer Aniston's Alex Levy and Reese Witherspoon's Bradley Jackson join forces as unlikely co-anchors. "We knew that we had to figure out how Bradley would become Alex's partner, and that would have to happen in [episode] two," Ehrin says. But beyond hitting specific beats in the larger story, Ehrin explains that the episodes have to stand alone as their own smaller and concise stories. "Each episode is accomplishing the storytelling of [the season's] arc, but also each episode has a wholeness and a premise to it that feels noteworthy," she says.

    GETTING AROUND THE BLOCK Ehrin says writing involves sifting through a lot of ideas, and sometimes those ideas just don't stick. "Sometimes you want to just take the pressure off the room and off yourself — think broadly, open your net wider," she says. "And sometimes it feels like there's a gun to your head and you have to figure out an episode by the end of the day." For Ehrin, the creative process can be all-encompassing. "Running a show, I literally never stop working. Which is not great for my family or friends, because I'm always living in the excitement of the creation of the world — or the anxiety of the creation of the world. I'm thinking of the story all the time."

    BEVERAGE OF CHOICE "There is no doubt," Ehrin laughs. "There is not a moment of the day where there isn't a LaCroix on the table."