'Masters of Sex' Showrunner on Sex Scenes, Stereotypes and What's Ahead for Season 2

Michelle Ashford talks with THR about the challenges of creating Showtime's newest drama: "We knew we had to figure out a new way to do sex."
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Michelle Ashford

Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford is admittedly uncomfortable with some of what she sees onscreen.

"We're prudes," she says of herself and her producing partner Sarah Timberman, who had to sit through scores of sex scenes in preparation for their Showtime period drama. Squeamish as the women were, the exercise paid off. Masters, which tells the story of real-life 1950s sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, is up more than 30 percent from Homeland's average in the same time slot during its freshman run. And on Oct. 22, the Michael Sheen-Lizzy Caplan vehicle was officially renewed for a second season.

As the series nears the midway point, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Ashford to discuss plans for the second season (she and her writing staff have been back in the writers room for a week already), sexual stereotypes the show has side-stepped, and her own concerns about Masters' sex scenes.

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What's the most difficult decision you've had to make about season two so far?

How far forward in time to go. If you look at the story from beginning to end, it has some very definite milestones in it. If we just went on the big milestones, we would basically have a four-season show. I think that in success, for business reasons, they want something longer than that, and so now we've had to think about how we would divide up the story if we make it longer than four seasons.

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Both Thomas Maier and his book, Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, played a significant role in season one. How do you anticipate that changing as you move into season two?

It really can't. We want to be faithful to their lives. We will always use Tom's book as the scaffolding for where we're going. There's still weird gaps when you read Tom's book as to what was actually happening -- between Masters and Johnson or the details of their careers -- so we feel like there are these pockets where we can take the characters on little detours. As long as we keep coming back to what we do know, we feel pretty good about that. And it's much more interesting to watch anyway.

If you could go back and change one thing from the first season, what would that be?

All my issues about what I would change have to do with the process of how we get stuff done. For example, one of the things I have tried to do this year that is different from last year is keep the writing as far away from production as possible … so that you don't have to deal with the runaway train that is production encroaching too much on the time you spend with the writing. The problem with production is once that starts, all hell breaks loose and my attention is fragmented into a million pieces. What I didn't like about last year is that the writing and the production overlapped too much, so I didn't feel like I got to take the time with the writing as much as I wanted to. [This year] we're starting now and we probably won't start filming until March or April, which gives me more time.

You explore what it means to be gay in the '50s with Beau Bridges' role. Is his character based on one that actually existed?

He's based on a weird amalgam of characters that were in their world in real life. Everything that Tom has in his book was vetted legally, so we can take in terms of Masters, Johnson and [Masters' wife] Libby, but once we start getting into those peripheral characters, we can't use actual people. Beau Bridges' character is a good example of that. … We do it for not only artistic reasons but also for legal reasons.

What has been the most awkward or difficult moment in the writers room?

What we're always saying is, "Is this too far?" One of the things that's fascinating about our show is that you can get very quickly into stereotypes. We were talking about potentially bringing in an African-American character and we just thought … about all these stereotypes that people associate with, especially in the '50s (and still today, which is why we feel our show is relevant), the idea that … African-Americans [are] perceived different sexually than maybe white people. Then you're immediately into incredibly charged territory, which is good, but you have to navigate through that very delicately and thoughtfully.

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Considering the provocative nature of the show, how much pressure did you feel to push the line in that respect?

I felt no pressure at all. In fact, my producing partner Sarah and I were always the ones pulling it back. My interest in this subject matter had nothing to do with being provocative in that we can show nudity. In fact, that part of the show makes me feel slightly uncomfortable because I just know what I want to watch and what I don't want to watch. The idea of really pushing things just for the sake of pushing things because you're on cable always feels incredibly phony to me and off-point. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the stories you're telling.

What does "pulling it back" entail?

There is so much film laying on the floor that we felt was either too graphic, too salacious or simply too much sex, and because one of the biggest questions about our show is: If it's going to be about sex, how do you do it so that it doesn't feel gratuitous? I knew for sure I didn't want to do a show where it felt like we get to watch people having sex and that's really what it is about. That had zero appeal. In fact, that would just be embarrassing. The truth is there has been a tendency in film and television over the years to quite often just show sex for the sake of showing sex. You're watching the story, the story stops, now you're watching people have sex, then the story picks up again. Personally, I find that incredibly boring. … What's the point? We knew we had to figure out a new way to do sex so that there was always story pulling through it. And there had to be a point of view to the sex, so it's either tragic or it's funny or it's confusing … but it could never be showing sex just to be sexy. Plus, I just have a gross-out factor about seeing too much sex or seeing it really graphically. I've seen it done on other shows and I just don't want to look at it. We're prudes.

You and Sarah have joked about being "the two biggest prudes in the world." How does that affect how you approach the sexual material in the show?

We just know when something is making us uncomfortable and we don't go there. We're remarkably on the same page about that. Sometimes we've had crazy disagreements -- she'll think something has gone too far and she'll say, "I think you can see inside her crotch," and I'll say, "No, you can't!" Just crazy conversations, but they're always done with a sense of fun because we find the whole thing slightly absurd. Then sometimes I'll just be really squeamish about something that everyone will say, "Oh my God, get over it."

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You've mentioned that you had to watch dozens of sex scenes from other shows to prepare for the ones in Masters. Tell me about that process.

Yes, we threw out a bunch of ideas of sex scenes, put them all together on a reel and went through and watched them. We talked about what we did want to be doing and what we didn't want to be doing. Before we went on this weird little project of looking at sex scenes, John Madden, who directed the pilot, and I were talking one evening about how to handle the sex, and we realized we both loved the same movie, Don't Look Now, where Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are in Venice and they have this very memorable sex scene. John said, "That movie has informed every love scene I've ever directed." It turns out Michael Sheen had also used that movie as an example of how to do it right. We knew we were all sort of swirling around the same idea. The question was: What made it right? I had assumed it was filmed in a very real, gritty way but, in fact, it's filmed in a way that's meant to be sexy. What they did was intercut [the sex scene] with the aftermath of the husband and wife sleeping together. All of a sudden it becomes really emotional because this encounter of theirs is bleeding into their lives. It's very layered, and we realized that that's what we wanted to do.