6:18pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
TV Showrunners Talk Sexism in Writers Rooms, Hiring Diverse Staff and Weinstein's Blacklist
Staffing and running a writers room has never been quite as challenging as it is today.
That was a resounding theme Saturday afternoon during an ATX Festival panel in Austin, Texas, centered on the power dynamics inside writers rooms. On hand for the discussion were six past and present showrunners including Liz Tigelaar (Little Fires Everywhere), Christopher C. Rogers (Halt and Catch Fire), Shawn Ryan (Timeless), Rina Mimoun (Everwood) and Patrick Sean Smith (Greek), as well as moderator Glen Mazzara (Damien).
When asked how a showrunner can put his or her writers in a position to succeed, Ryan brought up the importance of leading by example. "If, in the first day of work, you’re making crude jokes about women sexually or you’re making ethnic jokes, people are going to think that’s how the show is going to run," he said, noting that it helps to have a diverse staff. That means diversity of gender and race, but also geographic diversity and diversity of thought, he explained. Ryan added that he finds the most trouble when the room is monolithic. "You get problems when it's a herd mentality," he noted. "If everyone is unique in the group, it doesn’t go like that."
Tigelaar, for her part, was particuarly forthcoming about her own experiences with staffing writers rooms and at times overlooking the importance of diversity. When she was hiring writers for her former CW show Life Unexpected, she remembers focusing on whose scripts she liked, who she connected with most in meetings and which people were going to complement each other the most in the room. "When I thought I was being thoughtful, I was being thoughtless," she acknowledged. "Now, obviously, I’m thinking about it in a much deeper way."
It's something Tigelaar is in the thick of with her upcoming Hulu adaptation Little Fires Everywhere, which will star Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. As she staffs the room, she's looking very specifically at some of the details in the book and "which voices might lift that material up." She added: "And not in a token way, like I checked a box — but in a deeply substantial way. I'm not just talking about staff writers but co-EPs and others shaping the show." The race of Washington's character in the book, for example, wasn't specified — but with an African-American in the role, that's something Tigelaar wants to have represented in the writers room. And with the story largely about motherhood, she's aiming to have not only moms in the room but also dads and people who don't want kids, too. "I want to round it out in a full way," she said.
But writers rooms didn't used to be so inclusive. Mimoun recounted a time when she became the token woman on a comedy years ago after the showrunner was forced to hire a female writer by the studio. He ended up pairing her up with a male writer on staff so he wouldn't have to pay her a full salary. "It was constant hazing. Naked pictures being drawn of me," Mimoun recalled, adding that the material was "one rape joke after another." But she also had a overwhelmingly positive experience working for one male showrunner in particular — Greg Berlanti. In fact, when he was ready to move on from Everwood, he wanted to hand Mimoun the show, but Warner Bros. TV executive Peter Roth was not thrilled about the switch. "At the time, he was like, 'Hell, no,'" said Mimoun, who attributed it to her young age. "But Greg stood up for me and said, 'Well, she's doing it.'" (Roth has since become one of Mimoun's biggest supporters.)
When Rogers was working on AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, he was looking for an upper-level female writer who had more experience, considering the show takes place the year he was born and he wanted someone who had preferably lived through it. He would ask the agencies for a list each year and every time they would get the same eight women. "That category of writer is gutted from years of white guys hiring white guys," he said. "So we had to really go outside the traditional agency system to fill that slot." That meant trying out playwrights, writers who weren't as tested and women with bad reputations. "I think you have to inspect the bad reputation when it's, 'She's difficult.' Well, what does that mean? Why was she difficult? Was she in a difficult situation?" explained Rogers.
One example of that is Lexi Alexander, a director that developed a reputation for being difficult to work with who argued that she didn't deserve that label. When Ryan heard about her, he met with her — and he enjoyed the meeting so much that he hired her to helm an episode of his CBS series SWAT this coming year.
"I think this is something we've learned from the whole Weinstein scandal, that maybe there were actresses who he was bad-mouthing [because] there were some I'd always hear whispers about being difficult to work with and now many years later, I'm like, perhaps she was mistreated by Harvey Weinstein and as a defense mechanism these rumors were put out there that I was just accepting third-hand as just being real," said Ryan, adding, "We cannot accept these rumors anymore. We have to do our own research."