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There was nary a tough topic left unexplored by the six drama writer/creators who gathered on a foggy April morning in downtown Los Angeles to chat about their craft on the eve of Emmy season. In the frank, freewheeling discussion, five showrunner veterans — Alex Gansa, 52 (Homeland, Showtime); Aaron Sorkin, 51 (The Newsroom, HBO); Matthew Weiner, 47 (Mad Men, AMC); D.B. Weiss, 42 (Game of Thrones, HBO); Kevin Williamson, 48 (The Following, Fox); and one television newbie, Beau Willimon, 35 (House of Cards, Netflix) — share their lingering insecurities about writing, the pain and pleasure of adapting source material, how they cope with unexpected plot twists and why being a control freak just might be the secret to their success.
The Hollywood Reporter: Violence in movies and television has been a hot topic this year. How much do you engage in the debate and how has the controversy affected your shows? Let’s start with Kevin.
Kevin Williamson: Yeah, I’ve gotten this question a couple of times. I’ve actually been trying to not engage in the discussion. When children watch violent television — there are tests and studies about it — it makes them more aggressive. So it is really up to adults to monitor their children’s viewing habits. The Following is not for children. Parents should turn the TV off or turn the channel. But I think there’s a bigger issue at play — mental illness — which I’m glad has finally come to the surface, and yeah, those people should not be watching The Following. How do I get them not to watch it? I don’t know. Is there a responsibility? I’m a writer, and I want to tell my stories. So should I be able to do that? I don’t have an answer.
Alex Gansa: Well, personally, I’ve been appalled by the violence on The Newsroom. (Laughter.)
Beau Willimon: It’s shocking!
Aaron Sorkin: The only thing anybody has to fear if you watch too much of The Newsroom, or really anything I write, is that you’ll start singing Gilbert and Sullivan.
Matthew Weiner: Equally scary!
Sorkin: I think we can all empathize with Kevin. But something that isn’t discussed in terms of Hollywood’s influence on the culture is that we’ve also created the mythology that — I don’t want to make this a liberal discussion — so many people, particularly on the right, want to restore America to this thing that it never was. Whether it was that World War II was a very glamorous war or, you know, that African-Americans are subservient people who occasionally impart wisdom. And that Father Knows Best kind of thing. Didn’t we create those myths as well as glamorizing violence?
Williamson: I grew up watching [everything] and feel like fiction is the place I can take these ideas and let them out. I don’t go out into the real world and create violence. I’m actually squeamish. The sight of blood terrifies me. I don’t watch horror movies anymore because I’ve grown into that old man who has a sensitive stomach.
Weiner: I don’t have the stomach for violence either, but working on The Sopranos, there was some competitive part of me that wanted to write a brutal, violent scene to capture who those people were — their disrespect for human life. But there are age restrictions on these shows. The stranger thing to me is that people have a very high tolerance for violence. Blowing people’s heads off, shooting them in the face. You can show somebody cutting off a breast, but you can’t show a baby breastfeeding!
Willimon: Shakespeare and the Greeks were way more violent and gory than anything that we’re up to. I think it’s interesting that people focus so much on physical violence and what they don’t talk about is ideological violence. What makes Birth of a Nation so troubling? It’s not the physical violence; it’s the anti-Semitism and racism, which is way more destructive. Great movies like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now … no one’s sitting around saying now, “Why are they so violent and ruined a generation of children?” The double standards are laughable. People had no problem seeing on House of Cards some of the ways people behaved emotionally or physically violent to one another. But we killed a dog in the first 30 seconds and people freaked out.
D.B. Weiss: When we killed a horse on Game of Thrones, people were not happy. But we didn’t actually kill a horse. No horses harmed!
Weiner: I’m always shocked by how much the audience has an appetite for viscera.
THR: Where does that appetite come from?
Weiner: Viewers are powerless, and they want revenge.
Gansa: But I would say that there’s a line at which things start to feel gratuitous.
Weiss: There’s a line beyond which it starts to work against itself and become comedic and look like The Evil Dead II and …
Williamson: Too bloody and fake.
Weiss: Violence in the real world is awful to witness. But it’s the sanitized versions of violence on TV that are worse because they’re letting kids watch. On network TV, people die in droves in a way that’s clean and easy to watch and fun. It’s more like an old video game.
Sorkin: The Louisville basketball player [Kevin Ware] who was terribly injured in that NCAA tournament game? You couldn’t look at it; the players were on the bench covering their eyes. But why, an hour later on one of our shows, can they look at something much worse?
Gansa: Because they know they’re watching fiction.
Willimon: At least in a drama or comedy series, there’s thought, narrative and framing put into it. In terms of our responsibility … the only responsibility is telling a good story.
Weiss: You start indicting violence in fiction, then you’re indicting the cornerstones of our culture: The Iliad, the Bible, Shakespeare. Things happen in the Bible that you could not show on HBO.
Weiner: Because it’s too expensive.
Weiss: Except for the History Channel!
THR: Another issue that’s come up a lot in the TV business this year is the shuffling of showrunners. How do you personally deal with these changes? Is there less power now given to the person who’s running the show to see his/her vision from start to middle to end?
Williamson: We’ll let you know after they fire us. (Laughter.)
Weiss: Having the same people at the beginning through to the further stages of the process is helpful. Any time somebody new comes in, you’re rewinding the clock and starting over. But the machine as a whole refines itself each successive season, and it’s a steep, steep learning curve. Doing any show, you learn a shorthand that increases efficiencies and makes the show incrementally better, so I would imagine that starting over can shake things up and introduce fresh blood.
Williamson: Casting the writers room is like casting a show. You have all these great writers, but you don’t know if they’re going to fit.
Weiner: Success has a thousand fathers; failure has none. I think when the show starts to work, there is a mystery about why it’s working. I joined The Sopranos in season five, and the idea that someone other than David Chase would be involved in that show was a mistake. I like to think I made a contribution — I know Terence Winter made a contribution, no one does it alone — but part of why that show was as good as it was was because David was there the entire time. It was very personal to him, and it was inspired by his energy.
THR: Matthew, the idea of anyone other than you doing Mad Men seems ludicrous, yet on AMC they’ve now had three showrunners on The Walking Dead, which has huge ratings.
Weiner: Well, when they threatened to get rid of me, it was like, “I knew someone would take that job.” There’s no doubt in my mind. I would not want that job, but I knew someone would take that job. Anyone who thinks they’re not replaceable is crazy.
THR: Aaron, did they really approach you for Matthew’s job, as was reported?
Sorkin: No, no, they did not. I got in touch with Matt right away, saying, “It isn’t happening, and it won’t ever happen, and this is your show. I can tell you that.” I left The West Wing after the fourth season. It ran for seven seasons. And almost as soon as the press release went out saying that I was leaving, I got a call from Larry David, who’d left Seinfeld early, who said: “Listen to me. Under no circumstances can you ever watch the show again. Either it’s going to be great and you’re gonna be miserable, or it’s gonna be less than great and you’re gonna be miserable. But either way, you’re gonna be miserable.” I thought, well, you know, it’s Larry David, he’s kind of professionally miserable. (Laughter.) So, at the beginning of the fifth season, Warner Bros. sent over a DVD of what would be episode 89, the first episode that I didn’t write. And I put it in the DVD player. And I can’t tell you whether it was great or not because less than 30 seconds after it started, I dove at the DVD player and slammed it off. It was like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend … so difficult to watch these characters in this world that I had created no longer needing me at all. Just doing it by themselves. I’ve never seen an episode of The West Wing beyond season four.
Williamson: I had the same experience with Dawson’s Creek. After the second season, I left the show, and Greg Berlanti took over. I couldn’t watch it anymore. It was my personal story, it was my growing up, it was my life. It hurt too much. I also hadn’t seen Scream 3, but I finally had to watch it when I did Scream 4. Big mistake. It was just torture.
Gansa: I can assure both you guys that when you get fired from a job, you feel the same way. (Laughter.) You don’t watch it after you’re let go.
THR: Beau, you’re fairly new to the showrunner game. What’s been the most surprising or difficult part of the job?
Willimon: I don’t think I could have imagined how challenging it would be. The sheer titanic size of the effort. I mean, it’s a form of insanity. It’s the equivalent of making seven movies in one year, and for some folks twice that! Aaron and I were talking about the blessing and curse of that, which is, there’s a certain speed that you have no choice over. You have to create 800 pages or more, there are dates when they’re going to be shot, so you have to rely on instincts a lot. This liberates you at times from self-doubt and self-loathing because you can’t luxuriate in that. But the downside when you are are relying so much on the fumes of instincts is that you falter and stumble. Those mistakes can be surprising and interesting and lead to a new place. But now, looking back at season one, all I see are the mistakes. I don’t beat myself up about that … it’s just f–ing exhausting. (Laughter.)
Weiner: There’s a certain point each season where I get to bed at night and literally think, “OK, this is the part where the guy goes to sleep.” You’re outside of yourself like a kind of psychosis because you’re living in that world all the time.
Sorkin: The schedule is ferocious, but a lot of people have exhausting jobs who aren’t rewarded nearly as much as we are. I love doing series television. I love the immediacy of it. If I were writing a screenplay and wrote a joke today and everything went perfectly, I would hear the laugh two years from now. But I’m writing a TV script right now that’s going to be on the air in a couple of months. I love that we’re telling a big story, chapter by chapter. The part that is really tough is when you’re not writing well, and for me, that’s more often than not. If I can put two or three good writing days in a row together, that’s a winning streak. But that’s an anomaly. Most of the time, I’m not writing well. There’s stage fright that goes along with it.
Williamson: You panic.
Willimon: It’s much closer to the way theater works — being able to respond to what you’re seeing and adapt and evolve scripts later on down the line. For instance, the whole Russo-running-for-governor storyline on House of Cards … that was originally a whole other character we hadn’t cast yet. But Corey Stoll was doing such a great job that in the first few episodes, I thought, “Well, it’s a monumental amount of work and a lot of painful rewrites, but let’s shift that whole story to him.” Since that was a few weeks or months ahead, we could do that.
Weiner: That’s why I try to break more [stories] than the first five [episodes] at once. You want to adapt the scenes as they come in, you cast people, they score, you didn’t expect them to or they seem more interesting, and we can’t stop talking about them in the room.
THR: Matthew, was there ever a time on Mad Men where you took a character to a place you didn’t anticipate?
Weiner: Duck, in season one. [Actor] Mark Moses came in, and by the first season, I didn’t even know if there were going to be more episodes. We had to hire an accounts-man character. Mark is a really gifted actor — this was the last two episodes of the first season — and I got this flood of response from people in advertising who said, “You finally got an account man on the show.” They were all annoyed that Don was so good-looking!
THR: Alex, does that happen on Homeland?
Gansa: Oh, over and over again. We didn’t even know at the beginning that Brody and Carrie would spend time in each other’s company very often. I think it was the third or fourth episode of the first season. … I remember seeing the dailies, and the word “chemistry” was just flashing on the top of the screen. And I said, “We’re gonna have to completely figure out a way to put them in each other’s company in a way that we hadn’t planned to before.” We had to go back and look at the scripts that we’d already written and figure out a new way to tell the story.
Weiner: I’m in season six now, and I’ve still not gotten used to the fact, after having struggled for a long time, that what I write will actually get shot.
Weiss: I know. I’ll be sitting in a room in Santa Monica or Hollywood and write, “200 mounted riders, one line, ride across the ridge.” And then within three months, I will be in the beautiful north coast of the Irish countryside, and there will be 200 guys on horseback riding across the ridge — the experience of seeing things in your head and then having it in short order.
THR: D.B., you must feel a big responsibility to stay true to George R.R. Martin’s novels, Game of Thrones‘ source material. How involved is Martin in this process?
Weiss: He’s a tremendous resource. We’re all living in his dream to a certain extent, but for us, as many readers as George already had … we had a buffer in that way, it was a blessing. There was at least a core of people who were interested in what we were doing no matter how badly we f–ed it up. But we also knew that that number of people was not nearly large enough to justify what we were doing. We needed to make a show that everybody could watch, or, if not everybody, a much larger one that would reach far beyond our core people. That meant that 10 times out of 10, if you had to make a choice between staying true to the letter of the source material or staying true to what was best for the show, 10 times out of 10, we had to choose what’s best for the show. For us, that often involves radical compression and condensation because the books are massive and the show is complicated. But the show is a tremendous simplification of something even more complicated, and ultimately, 10 hours is a fair amount of time to tell a story, but it’s still only 10 hours.
Gansa: How many novels has he written?
Weiss: He’s written five or six …
Sorkin: God, what I would do for five 700-page novels!
Willimon: I’d like to give a shout-out to Lord Michael Dobbs, who actually wrote the books that the BBC version of House of Cards is based on, for which Andrew Davies wrote an amazing script. The English would say he “knocked it out of the cricket park.” It’s an incredible miniseries for anyone who is slightly interested, or even hates our show, to watch.
THR: What was it like to adapt a foreign format?
Willimon: Well, the BBC version was three parts of four. That’s the sort of British model where four episodes comprises a season. And each was based on a different book.
Weiner: Are they longer? Like 70 minutes or something?
Willimon: No, just four hours. They moved very quickly, and the tone of the BBC version is much more tongue-in-cheek because the story is so much more compressed. You’re not doing as much character development in those films. Also, TV was just a lot different in 1990. It was one of the first examples of an antihero, which all of us have indulged in to varying degrees. We are all professional thieves.
Weiss: I think it was Steve Martin who compared the process of adaptation to a failed marriage. Everybody starts out in love and with the best of intentions, and you run into rocky waters, and you’re trying to make it work and you know it can work, but at a certain point, either amicably or otherwise, you realize that the source material and what you’re doing need to kind of stay apart.
Gansa: I can still remember reading the first script of Hatufim, which is the Israeli format that Homeland is based on, and I had this euphoria because I realized that all we had to do was change the names “Haim” and “Nimrod” to “Nick” and “Jessica,” and we’d be just fine! Of course, it didn’t turn out that way at all. We realized quite quickly that two POWs returning to Israel was a very different proposition than a POW coming back in America. They are really national figures in Israel, so you could create whole stories around them.
Willimon: As corny as it sounds, each show has to find its own voice. The voice is way more powerful than the narrative mechanics of whatever you’re adapting. That’s what people actually connect with because that’s what the actors connect with, and really the only reason we exist is so that the actors can have something to do because people like to watch actors.
Williamson: Did Kevin Spacey‘s character narrate the show in the BBC version?
Willimon: Yes, there was direct address. We definitely stole that in the very earliest conversations.
Williamson: I find that so fascinating. How involved is Kevin?
Willimon: Kevin’s an executive producer, and as an actor, he’s incredibly insightful and diligent but has a deep respect for the text, which comes out of the theater world.
Williamson: I love the relationship between Robin Wright‘s and Kevin’s characters.
Willimon: Well, they save our ass constantly. And Robin is incredible in that she’s one of the few actors I’ve ever met who wants as few lines as possible because she knows what she can do between them. You stick a camera on her face, and the layers that will come up if you give her enough to start with are way more powerful than any words you can put in her mouth.
Gansa: By year three, they all want the least lines. (Laughter.)
THR: If we asked your writers to give a fair critique of you, what would they tell us?
Williamson: That I’m a control freak? I’ve worked with some really crazy people in my day. You kind of learn to tap dance with anybody. I don’t mind a personality dispute; I just want you to write a great script. If you deliver a great script, I don’t care about your personality. I’ll dance with you. But I don’t know — I think I’m controlling.
Sorkin: My writers room is unusual. I’m hiring mostly young, new writers. I don’t want people who are going to be frustrated by not writing. I’m looking for really bright people who have an interesting writing sample, whose background is interesting. I absolutely try to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and certainly people who think differently than I do, who will see this job as a one- or two-year paid apprenticeship before … I’ll do everything I can to place them in a show where they will be able to do more writing. But then once you have that room, you want people to feel ownership of the show, you want them to feel some kind of pride of authorship for the show. First of all, the room is going to be more fun that way, and you’re going to get their best work from them that way. But like Kevin said, if you staff up with eight, 10 people at the beginning of the season, you’re keeping your fingers crossed most of the time. If by the middle of the season, three of them are very valuable to you, that was a good haul. You did well. Then you hang on to those three people for the rest of your life.
Williamson: When they need you. And then they leave you!
Sorkin: Whatever they want, they will become, you know, executive producers of the show. And then you go looking for other people.
Williamson: You try to find one or two more as you stumble along. But yes, you find someone that you just really connect with, you don’t let them go and you hold on to them.
Sorkin: But I think if you’re asking, “What’s the bad thing that people often say?” Probably it’s going back to the schedule; we start shooting an episode a week after next that I haven’t started writing yet. And it’s a whole year of that. It’s a whole year of constantly feeling like you have a term paper due. You know that feeling that we all had in school, and when the script is finished, you’re happy for two minutes. Really, you feel that euphoria for two minutes before all it means is you haven’t started the next one. It must feel like Sisyphus doing a television series.
Weiner: It’s a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. (Laughter.)
THR: On Homeland and Newsroom, you’re riffing on issues currently in the public consciousness. How much do your scripts get altered for accuracy?
Gansa: Before season two, I took a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to sit down with various active and retired CIA people and intelligence officers, and my No. 1 questions were: “Is Israel going to attack Iran?” “Is Netanyahu gonna take out the nuclear sites?” Not because I was concerned about world affairs necessarily. (Laughter.) But that was how we were going to start our season. I was terrified that either it was or wasn’t going to happen before we aired. So I needed to know definitively. The responses were not uniform. Some said, “Absolutely, he’s going to attack.” Others said, “Absolutely not.” It was a fascinating window into the predictive nature of the intelligence community. Howard Gordon, with whom I created the show, and I are crazy amateur foreign-policy wonks and visit council meetings, and we try to talk to as many people as we can about what’s going on in the halls of power.
THR: And Newsroom exhibits a very close connection to the actual cable news universe.
Sorkin: We’re doing historical fiction, recent history, so we don’t invent news. But if Anwar al-Awlaki was killed on Thursday, and I need for him to have been killed on Friday and it’s not upsetting the apple cart in any other way, I don’t mind making that change. The more important thing is not leveraging hindsight to make your characters more heroic. When I do that, I pay the price.
THR: And a lighter final question: If you could write for any other show on TV, what would it be?
Weiss: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I love, love, love the show.
Weiner: 30 Rock is gone, but I would have loved to have worked there.
Gansa: We share a floor with New Girl, so when we’re in the room talking about how when a suicide vest goes off, the top of your head blows off but usually the head remains intact, they’re down the hall talking about Schmidt and whether or not you can break a penis. (Laughter.) I’d like to be in that room.
Willimon: I have to name two other shows that are no longer around: Deadwood and The Wire, both of which are masterpieces. I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in those writers rooms.
Sorkin: I would love to write for Parks and Recreation, but I’m worried I would ruin it. Also, I wouldn’t mind writing an episode of Girls.
Williamson: You stole my answer! We shoot next to Girls in New York, and I see them coming and going, and I think, “Well, wouldn’t that just be fun?” But mostly I’d like to go back in time and be a staff writer on The West Wing.
Sorkin: Oh, please do!
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