Emmy-Nominated Writers Reveal the Roads That Led to Their Honors

Writers Reception - Publicity - H 2019
Matt Sayles/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images

The screenwriters also sounded off on the industry challenges they're tackling.

No one had to stare at a blank screen waiting for inspiration, no one had to craft a speech and not a single note had to be responded to.

In other words, the Television Academy’s peer group reception for this year’s crop of Emmy nominees in the various writing categories was a Hollywood wordsmith’s holiday.

The laid-back fete at the TV Academy's North Hollywood headquarters offered a relaxed atmosphere for nominated writers across a range of genres and formats, including drama series, comedy series, variety series, variety special, limited series, movie or dramatic special, short form comedy or drama series and nonfiction. Among the feted scribes in attendance were Ava DuVernay (When They See Us), Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin (Escape at Dannemora), Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan (The Good Place), Stacy Osei-Kuffor (PEN15), and Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (Fyre Fraud).

Many of the writers came to their nominations via different paths. After writing several big studio films over the years, Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin admitted that he was ready to satisfy only himself.

"For the first time in forever, maybe, I was writing entirely for myself," Mazin told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was not concerned about anyone else. I had nothing else I had to try and no one else I had to convince — nothing else, no artificial barriers or anything like that, which in movies, that's all you have. So it was just me and I could write as purely as I wanted to — and it felt really good. I've got to be honest with you!"

That freedom, Mazin contended, resulted in both a personal triumph and the acknowledgement of his peers — each of which was refreshing and energizing. "I want to tell people there are lots of things you can do to help writers do what they do, but the most important one probably is to make them feel good about themselves while they're doing it," he said. "But a lot of executives and producers and directors and other people, for some reason, feel like they need to make you feel bad, and it makes the work worse."

"But listen, I worked for a while writing movies for The Weinstein Co., so I'm damaged." Mazin chuckled. "I'm deeply damaged."

For David Mandel, the showrunner of Veep, bringing the series to a close — including delaying the final season until star Julia Louis-Dreyfus had completed cancer treatment and leaning further in on reflecting the current, often equally absurd-feeling real-world Trump presidency — was an experience that resulted in a more effortless sense of achieving excellence.

"I was there at Seinfeld when it ended, so I've been through a version of it, but I wasn't, necessarily 'the guy,' which is different," said Mandel. "When we finally got going, more so than ever, it just felt like ... it's always hard, but it felt easy. I don't know how else to explain it. Like, 'This is right — here we go. OK, now here comes the end.' I keep using that word 'right.' There were no doubts. It was just like, 'Here it is.' To use the sports cliche, 'Here's everything we've got, and then we're done.'"

"I think the show had to change, because of what's going on in politics, not just in the United States, but across the globe — the tribalism, the rise of these authoritarian regimes and leaders, the war on facts," Mandel added. "The world is a darker place. The show got darker. I do think as we embraced that darkness, we leveled up on a version of a certain level of darkness, nastiness and the comedy that comes with that."

Even darker still is the world of Gilead, the dystopian setting of The Handmaid’s Tale, and showrunner Bruce Miller said he and his writing team had to rise to the challenges of exploring the world beyond what had been laid out in the source material, the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood.

"We felt we got emboldened with the fact that we could set up a new situation – and really, a situation that's inspired by the book and that a lot of things that were mentioned in the book, but really build it ourselves and tell stories in that world," said Miller. "What we really found out is how we stress-test Margaret's world, and you realize you're just very strong when you move around into places she didn't tell the story in and it still worked. It made us feel more secure that we could go anywhere and do anything, and we'd still be on firm ground as long as we followed the Gilead rules."

After the acclaim of the initial season, Miller and the nearly all-female writers room had to let go of any expectations for the roadmap-less expansion of the world. "The biggest thing when you start at a high level is not to scare yourself," he says, "because what happens is you get to the end of season one and it was incredible and it turned out just wonderfully, and then you get back in the room and you've just got to start again and what you have to remember is that actually you're the people that did the other one. It isn't a bunch of other people who did the first season: You did, and so I think it's just a question of not playing 'Can you top this?' We just try to say, 'Let’s approach it the way we did the first season: What happens to June?'"

Kira Snyder, nominated alongside Miller for penning the series' second season episode "Holly," said she knew the uniquely conceived and structured story would be an outlier within the series, and she was pleased with how it was received.

"It's an episode that we're really, really proud of, and we're really excited how people responded to it," Snyder said. "It's a really raw story, really focusing on June, and that's a risk. Elisabeth Moss is our not-so-secret secret weapon, but this episode, you're really just with her this whole time. I've heard it described as a feminist The Revenant, which I thought was a really funny, a really cool analogy."

"This is probably one of the very favorite things I've ever written," added Snyder. "I think it's a special script for a lot of reasons. And just really being able to be with this woman when she is at her lowest point. Finding the strength and tracking through this journey where she is lost and abandoned and alone, and finding her inner strength at the end. It was really empowering to be able to help tell that story."

Synder said that having a majority of women writers on staff has been a key to telling compelling stories with different perspectives. "Bruce really likes to have voices from all different backgrounds, so it's mostly women, and what that means is that you have a lively debate about things," she explained. "You're not just having one woman [on staff] ... having to speak for the entire gender. You actually get to have a lot of the debate about what is it like to have kids or give birth? We have a lot of moms and dads in the writers room, so a lot of feedback filtered into the story."

In recent months, writers have fueled several hot topics of conversation within the industry, including diversity and representation both onscreen and in writers rooms, gender pay disparity and how writers' business interests are represented.

"The changes are happening," said Snyder. "There's always more work to be done. There's always the wish that the change could be faster. And really the culture comes down from the top. The more women creators we have, the more women behind the camera, the more women producers doing the hiring, people of color in the same positions, you get more of that inclusion happening all up and down the line. It's great. The conversations are happening."

"What I hope is that the writers are saying is that, 'If you empower us we'll make better television that will make you more money,' and I think we've proven that," said Miller. "But now we're saying, 'Treat us like that.' I just hope we keep doing that ... The biggest thing, is to let the conversation exist, because until we figure out a way to talk about it, you can't, if you stop talking about it, you don't ever get anywhere."

"What scares me is that because of the way things have been going, there is a real income disparity that's happening," said Mazin. "We used to have a bell curve of income distribution, and now we really have a lot of people making on a low end and a few people making on the high end." At the same time, he said that the increased representation in writers rooms has been enthusiastically embraced, resulting in an influx of new talent. "The studios love to hear the word 'new,' because they translate that into, 'We're paying you nothing.'"

"This is where we start to see real squeeze," Mazin explained. "It's fine to say we're going to improve representation and hire writers of color and writers who are women and writers who are disabled and LGBT. But if you don't pay them, then I'm not sure you're doing anybody any favors."

"In this world of 'Peak TV,' where today another giant streaming service was announced, when it comes to television and these great shows that people love, 90 percent of them are a writer's vision," said Mandel. "I'm hoping that somehow out of that comes this concept or realization of just how important the writer is. Whether it happens or not, that's not up to me. But, you cannot deny that what is going on with, especially, the amount of television right now isn't connected to these wonderful and unique writers."

"There's a place for me in the kind of stuff I want to do, and there's a place for 20 other people to tell stories that five years ago there wasn't room to tell," he added. "That's incredible."