Showrunners Sound Off: Judd Apatow, Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay on Empire-Building, Pigeonholing and Saying No
Twelve star producers — also including Kenya Barris, Noah Hawley, Jenji Kohan, David E. Kelley and David Mandel — open up about writing scripts based on their own lives, how Trump is affecting their shows and getting put into creative boxes. Says DuVernay, "I get the first black everything. Every first black doesn't need a movie."
Jenji Kohan already was in production on the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black when Donald Trump was elected president. But as she looks ahead to season six, she’d like to find a way to weave the fallout into her socially conscious prison dramedy. “Do we just throw the timeline out the window so we can embrace current culture?” Kohan, 47, wonders aloud (season five ends, narratively, in 2014). “I’m not sure how it’s going to go, but I don’t think anyone can help but incorporate some of the feelings associated with what’s going on.”
KENYA BARRIS As a writer, there’s always that feeling of fraud — that you’re going to be found out, so get it out before you are. I wanted to be the black Judd Apatow because I wanted to be able to jump around, but this year [I found out that] it was unbelievably hard to multitask in that way. Because as a writer, you get passionate and you know that your best work comes from something that you’re really focused on, and whether you like it or not, when you start taking on more things, it becomes a bit of a filtered-down process.
JUDD APATOW Only if you’re better than your writers, but everyone that I work with is better than me. So when I’m not around, things improve. (Laughs.)
NOAH HAWLEY I think there’s a freelance muscle where you know it’s feast or famine. Certainly as a showrunner in broadcast, you put everything you have into a show and they cancel it after two episodes, and then you have nothing. The more things you have going, the less you’re riding that roller coaster. What I didn’t realize was, at the point at which the show you make is successful, whatever you say yes to is going to get made. I was still in the old paradigm. That’s how I found myself with so many things. So I’ve learned to say no. OK, I’m not sure I have yet, but there’ll be a no soon.
Do the rest of you have the confidence to say no?
BARRIS I have the confidence and a little bit more money. (Laughs.)
DAVID E. KELLEY It gets easier when you’re older. If you look around this table, they’re all good at what they do — and with success comes the burden to be successful.
AVA DUVERNAY Embedded in that very question is the idea that privilege does not apply. For me to say no, in my mind, there may not be another chance. There’s a natural tension with anyone to keep the chance for the open door. When you add to that issues of representation and marginalization that go on top of the artist’s feeling of “Can I get my thing made?” it becomes challenging for me to say no. I get an opportunity from Netflix. “Do you want to make a doc?” “Yes, I want to make a doc.” Apple: “Would you like to make a commercial?” “Yes, I will make that commercial.” I’m running around doing everything because I love it but also because there is the fear that any artist has that there won’t be another question asked to say no to. And on top of that, the fear that the industry might shift in terms of its attention to women right now or the current renaissance regarding people of color, specifically black folk on TV, and then you’re left with nothing.
LISA JOY There is that pressure not only to be prolific but to not f— up. And especially when you feel the added burden of being a woman who is doing this now. I represent opportunities for other women and other people of color, and I’m trying to start my own kind of movement.
KOHAN Look, everyone loves a new baby, so giving birth to a show in that first year is a high, and it’s hard to turn that down, especially if you’ve been grinding something out for a really long time.
Judd, you’ve said, “For a long time, TV was just the land of the handsome, beautiful people, and now it’s the opposite.” Is that true everywhere on the television dial?
ALL No. (Laughter.)
APATOW It seemed really weird when we did Freaks and Geeks [in 1999] that we said, “Let’s do a high school show with these kids.” NBC went for it but ultimately didn’t seem that happy about it. It was the era of Dawson’s Creek and a lot of fantasy-fulfillment TV. Now there are a ton of shows that are about the freaks and geeks of every age. When we did it, people looked at us like we were nuts.
DAVID MANDEL We [Silveri and Mandel] had a pilot on one of the mainstream networks about two years ago, and there was definitely pressure when we were casting a mom. I can simply tell you there were the funny people we wanted and then the people who I can only assume they thought had a nice rack.
SCOTT SILVERI Well, they did, objectively. (Laughter.)
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE There’s never a funny rack, is there?
Phoebe, you recently said, “Since you [write] those things about women, therefore you are a role model and an icon and you can’t f— up now because you have to be sensitive to something political. And everything a comedian wants to be is funny.” Can you expand on that?
WALLER-BRIDGE I said that after a few glasses of wine. (Laughs.) A lot of the time when I was being asked about [Fleabag], it was through the prism of feminism, which was one very important part of that show for me, but there were so many other themes I was grappling with and so many ways I was trying to f— with the genre. I started feeling like I was suddenly being moved into a different [category]: It wasn’t so much that I was a writer, it was that I was a feminist writer. Which I am, of course, and I’m proud of the fact that that’s how my work is being received, but I do think, especially with female writers who write honestly about women and their experiences, it’s “Oh, that’s a feminist show.”
Hollywood tends to put creators in boxes. What are the types of projects that you’re consistently approached for?
DUVERNAY I get the first black everything. First black firefighter in Tacoma, Washington. First black ballerina to dance in Kansas City. I mean, it’s getting so specific that it’s like every first black doesn’t need a movie.
KELLEY They always want me to do a law show. People want you to do what you’ve done — and instinctively, a lot of writers want to do what they haven’t done. But the law actually still interests me. I’m fascinated by it, and I think it’s a great vehicle for exploring the ethical and moral centers of people. I miss it. In fact, in Big Little Lies I made Celeste a lawyer just because it was like a binky for me to have one lawyer in the mix.
MURPHY Anything with a feather boa, I get offered first. (Laughs.) It’s always about what you just did, so when I did The People v. O.J. Simpson, it was a lot of true-crime stuff. Then I did Feud, and now it’s a lot of Hollywood biopics.
KOHAN I get offered all these wedding movies. I’m like, “What in my body of work would make you think that I’d want to write about a bride?” It’s so weird.
DUVERNAY Oh, I would go see that. (Laughs.)
KOHAN Maybe it’s my personal challenge to subvert the paradigm of wedding films.
BARRIS I did Girlfriends, and then all the offers would come up and I was like, “I just have to get off a black show.” I shouldn’t have to think that way, but I remember The Game had literally broken every cable record on TV when it debuted, and I walked into a staffing meeting [at another network], and they were like, “What show is that?” and I’m like, “F— you!” Then one of my best friends, a white guy, was like, “Yeah, but those are all black people watching.” And I was like, “F— you, you like me and you’re saying this?” (Laughs.)
GLORIA CALDERON KELLETT My first writing job was on the short-lived Quintuplets, and after that I got offered a huuuge bump to go on the George Lopez show. Or I could repeat and be a staff writer again on How I Met Your Mother. Granted, I was just newly married and had a lot of fun stories about being in my 30s, so there was a gut thing that told me How I Met Your Mother was the right fit. But there was also a huge part of me that was like, if I go down the George Lopez path, I’m going to be “Latina writer” forever. So I went to How I Met Your Mother and had a glorious time.
MANDEL I’ve never been shocked by Hollywood’s inability to think beyond where you are or who you are. And believe me, I’m not likening this to being considered the Latina writer or the black writer, I’m just saying I can remember steps in my career where it was like, “Well, you can write a five-minute sketch, but how in the world will you write a sitcom?” Or, “Oh my God, you wrote a sitcom — how in the world will you deal with the three-act structure of a movie?” They just like to put you in a box. The good news is they’re also very cheap, so when I did want to write a drama and I said, “Just pay me the minimum,” they went, “We believe in you!”
Lisa, you’ve worked on predominantly male-centered shows, beginning with Burn Notice. What was the draw?
JOY Nobody ever has a problem if a man writes a woman, and I wanted to be able to say, “Well, I can write your men and your action, too. You don’t just have to give me the love scenes, which I don’t even think are my strong suit.” It was about trying to take as many topics and saying they’re not off-limits for me or people like me.
A few of you have written shows that are based on your own lives. Where do you draw the line?
SILVERI They tell you to write what you know — they don’t say it will kill you when you try to do it. The first draft of the script for Speechless was very close to my actual experience growing up [Silveri’s brother has cerebral palsy], and it was just suffocating. It’s hard enough to make one of these things entertaining, but when you’re walking that line between therapy and comedy writing. … And there’s also the added burden of “What in this script is going to piss off my uncle at Thanksgiving?” (Laughter.) So being able to take a little bit of license just takes a lot of the pressure off.
WALLER-BRIDGE People approach me thinking that I’ve been through all of [my character’s experiences on Fleabag]. They’re always really disappointed that I’m married. Like, “What? We thought you were f—ing everyone!” That humor and a lot of the anecdotal stuff I amplified from my own life, and then I weaved a dramatic story out of it.
Collectively, you’ve explored themes including harassment, rape, murder, racism, misogyny, mental illness, etc. When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tackle a big subject?
KOHAN I don’t get nervous about that, although we had to take terrorism insurance out …
KOHAN Yeah, we’re developing a teen Jesus project [for Netflix] that got some people nervous. It’s like The Wonder Years but with Jesus, and there are all sorts of things where we cross lines — and there are crazies out there. I remember Shonda [Rhimes] telling a story of people camping out outside her house when she killed McDreamy [on Grey’s Anatomy]. People get crazy because they bathe in these characters, and they take it personally.
KELLEY The writing [about domestic abuse on Big Little Lies] was upsetting and disturbing. It took a toll on [Nicole Kidman], and it does for the writer as well. You don’t live in that and then go whistling home to pick up your Starbucks. But once you’ve surfaced from the world and the scene itself, you put your producer hat on and ask your confidants for opinions because you want to make sure that you’ve treated it responsibly.
MURPHY In the executive suite, it’s changed. If you do a piece of material that doesn’t dig into the things you just listed, the executives tell you you’re failing, you’re not doing enough. Whereas when I started, you couldn’t do anything. A gay person trying to write a gay character in 1998 — it was so difficult. There’s been a generational shift in people coming up who are more socially [conscious], liberal, more interested in leaning into that. There’s an enlightenment going on in every arena of television now.
KOHAN Which doesn’t reflect society.
HAWLEY It’s not the job of the show to lecture or preach or tackle a subject. There’s a lot of ideas and research that go into the work, but my hope is that it’s invisible on some level. I live in fear of the “this week on a special episode” announcement. It’s not my job to be topical. My job is to tell you a good story.
Jenji, on the most recent season of Orange Is the New Black, you took on the Black Lives Matter movement. How much pressure did you feel to get it right?
KOHAN There’s definitely that pressure. Sometimes you get things right for a certain audience and wrong for another audience. You can’t please everyone. At the end of the day, it’s a gut check: Am I enjoying this or am I feeling this or am I entertained by this? Because if you start thinking about whether it’s appropriate for everyone, you’re left with oatmeal.
How are Trump-era politics being infused into your shows?
MURPHY It is a true American Horror Story, and we’re leaning into it. American Horror Story begins with election night and the national conversation and both the euphoria and the fear.
DUVERNAY We’re shooting season two of Queen Sugar, and it’s about a black family in the present moment, so there’s no way you can’t address the current climate and what we turn on the TV and are assaulted with every day. So it’s certainly incorporated in the narrative in a way that is not a very special episode of Queen Sugar. It’s the residue of all of it.
CALDERON KELLETT We’re doing a Norman Lear show, and it’s about a Hispanic family living in Los Angeles; we have to talk about it. And I’m the only [Latina showrunner in] TV right now. No Latino shows got picked up. None. I don’t want to be the only Latino show on TV; I would love to just be known as a good family comedy. But I can’t not have that on me because there’s obviously such a misperception about who Latinos are in America, and constantly I feel a [responsibility].
MANDEL I very much try and separate [me and the show], which is to say that David Mandel voted for Hillary Clinton, donated money to her campaign, is outraged on an hourly basis by what is going on — but the show Veep isn’t. The show prides itself on being equal opportunity, attacking both sides and the hypocrisy of power, which right now might be a little more hypocritical than perhaps other times.
When your show is on a streaming service, do you write differently knowing it will be binged?
KELLEY People watched Goliath in a weekend, and I thought, “There’s got to be a law against that.” The best feedback I used to get was when people would be arguing in their living room about who was right and wrong, depending on what a character said or how a case came out. That dialogue was gratifying, and we derive currency from that. Big Little Lies got that because it was on once a week on Sundays, so people would talk about it on Mondays. But Goliath, whoosh. It’s a launch, and it’s done.
KOHAN And then it’s out of the public consciousness for a while. You go dormant, and then you sizzle up again. It’s an odd thing. The one benefit I can say about it is when people are watching in that inundating way, they bathe in the characters and the story. It is so much more real for them.
Noah and Ryan, what are the downsides to the anthology format?
HAWLEY You just have to be OK with risk and the unknown. You have to be OK with the fact that when you’re done, you’re done, and you have to come up with something else. But I’m used to that. I had two shows canceled after one season. I’ve never made a second season of anything, and I find it exciting. Doing a second season of Legion will be the first time I have to continue the story.
MURPHY The only downside is [there’s] no network money. (Laughs.) But creatively, you just can’t beat it. When you were doing something that was 22 episodes, it was so creatively difficult and physically taxing and the actors were falling and forget cold and flu season. … If you just do eight, it feels like your soul is much more nourished and you’re able to function as a human being and a family person.
There is a tendency to want to prolong success by crafting spinoffs. When does it make sense?
SILVERI The story has to dictate it, not the market. For those of you who have forgiven me or even forgotten, I co-created the Joey spinoff of Friends, and my initial reaction when approached to do it was, “Oh God, no.” And then after a couple of days, I thought, “Well, [Matt] LeBlanc is a special guy, and I get to continue working with him and it scares the hell out of me.” Sometimes the things that scare you most are the exact things that you’re supposed to do or the thing you’re definitely not supposed to do, and it’s very hard in the moment to choose which one.
BARRIS Our idea [for a Black-ish spinoff] was completely copying the notion of A Different World for me. That show made me want to go to college. We’re at this place right now where college is not as big a deal to kids as it was for us because there’s this big notion of overnight success. So the idea of rebooting the notion of college for kids was a big thing for me. We’ll see what happens.
APATOW Maybe you can call my daughter? Every week she’s like, “Dad, I think I got enough out of it. I think I’m about done.” (Laughter.)
Complete roundtables with the comedy and drama showrunners will run in separate THR Emmy special issues in June. Conversations with actresses, actors and nonfiction stars and producers also will roll out in the coming weeks. Look for exclusive video clips at THR.com/roundtables starting May 22 — then catch the full conversations on SundanceTV’s Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 25, with extended versions available on THR.com after broadcast.
This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.