This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Just because the television business has made notable inroads in the realm of diversity this year doesn’t mean the subject is any more comfortable to discuss. So when Lee Daniels, co-creator of Fox’s Empire, recently questioned a table full of drama writer-producers about the racial makeup of their writers rooms, the group grew tense. But doing so ultimately led to an important discussion about the industry’s shortcomings — as well as the challenges of collaboration, their frustration with critics and the day that Beau Willimon, showrunner of Netflix’s House of Cards, danced shirtless on set with Russian punk-rock group Pussy Riot. Daniels, 55, and Willimon, 37, were joined April 28 in Hollywood for a frank conversation about the pressures and rewards of running TV’s hottest dramas by Damon Lindelof, 42 (HBO’s The Leftovers), Alex Gansa, 54 (Showtime’s Homeland), Michelle King, 53 (CBS’ The Good Wife), and Sarah Treem, 34 (Showtime’s The Affair).
Lee just wrapped his first season as a TV producer, during which his Empire hit the zeitgeist in a major way. It’s an experience that many at this table have had. What advice would you give Lee about how to sustain it?
ALEX GANSA Oh, I did a terrible job. Stop now, you’re ahead! There’s no advice to give; you just have to submit to the process.
DAMON LINDELOF At the time that it happened to us [on Lost], the zeitgeist itself became immensely distracting, and we took our eye off the ball at times to pay attention to the zeitgeist. Any time that you’re not writing the show is probably not time particularly well spent. And I said yes to everything. I mean, everything. If your mom wanted me to come over, it would be, “Yes. When does she want me there?” I just should have said, “No,” more. The other thing I’d say is, you should enjoy it. When I was on the ride, I was terrified. You look like you’re having fun, though.
LEE DANIELS A party. (Laughter.) But I get nervous, especially as we approach season two. You have to live up to season one.
How are the rest of you coping with those expectations?
SARAH TREEM I love season two [of The Affair]. I feel like season one was the rough draft. I like coming back and knowing the characters really intimately, and our world is much more complex.
MICHELLE KING We’re starting season seven, so the pressure’s a bit different in that it’s just trying to remember what we have done and trying not to repeat. We’ve lost some favorite characters, so it’s about trying to make sure we honor them and pay deference to how much the audience liked them and keep the world rich enough that the loss isn’t felt.
DANIELS Season seven? You’re richer than God! (Laughter.)
Are you able to manage and move past criticism?
BEAU WILLIMON I don’t read reviews. I’m much more interested in what my peers have to say than a stranger’s review of it. That’s not so much because I don’t have a thick skin; I started out in the theater, and you’ve got to have a really thick skin to be in the theater, where a review really can make or break a show.
LINDELOF Oh no, I listen to all of it.
TREEM Do you feel like it influences how you write?
LINDELOF I think it can. But very rarely am I surprised by somebody saying something that I haven’t already experienced in the editing room, or I’m like, “Oh, we f—ing nailed it,” and then it doesn’t land.
DANIELS I’m hurt [by critics]. It’s like taking a knife and stabbing you in the heart over and over. So I’ve learned to protect myself by not reading reviews. If my publicist says you really have to read this, I’ll read it, and then I’ll find the one sentence that f—s me up.
GANSA I sort of fall between you two, but I wait till the end of the season before I read reviews because I find that the immediacy of people’s opinions these days is crazy. They are down on you for an episode, and they don’t realize that most of us are telling serialized dramas.
WILLIMON That’s a good point. More and more of these stories are parts of a whole. Season three of House of Cards, for instance, we wanted to go in a different direction and take a more emotional approach — less about the political machinations and also to see the Underwoods stumble and fall and really feel the pressures of the presidency. By design, that was going to be fundamentally more unsatisfying than the victory after victory that they experienced during the first two seasons, and we end on sort of a down note. It’s a tough place to be in and an unresolved, sometimes unsatisfying place to pause the story. I don’t read reviews, but I’m aware of what people are saying, and you can often anticipate it, and I knew that there would be a contingent of the audience and critics who would not like that. But it was a necessary thing in order to continue the story.
From left: Alex Gansa (‘Homeland’) and Lee Daniels (‘Empire’); photographs by Joe Pugliese
What’s been the viewer reaction that’s most surprised you?
TREEM I was shocked by how personally people take the idea of infidelity. I thought we were making a show about two perspectives, and I thought the conversation was going to be like, “Oh, isn’t that interesting, men and women see things differently.” I didn’t think the affair part was going to be a surprise. But people will go to the mat on infidelity in a way that they won’t on climate change or child abuse or racism or anything.
GANSA Was it a puritanical response?
TREEM They were so angry at the characters, especially Noah’s [Dominic West‘s] character. How can a man with four children cheat on his wife? I think there’s something about the expectations that we have in our culture specifically of a male hero. We are comfortable at this point with the idea of an antihero, somebody who purely goes against the cultural norm or somebody who’s subverting expectations, and then we have this idea of a hero, somebody who always does the right thing; but in terms of a complex, flawed man in between, I just think it was unsettling.
LINDELOF Isn’t there a part of you that’s like, “You signed up for a show called The Affair?”
TREEM I don’t know what people were expecting. I thought it was interesting that everybody was so convinced that the show was going to be one season, or that it must be some sort of anthology because the story of the affair must end at a certain point. We’d always said that the first season was the crime and the third season was the punishment. It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond and the ripples keep going on and on and on.
DANIELS What upsets me is that there are many blacks who don’t like how I’m representing African-Americans right now. And I’m like, “Well, this is the world that I know. This is as honest as I can be.” My mom said to me prior to Empire, prior to even Butler, “Can’t you do movies like Tyler Perry?” (Laughter.)
Empire is one of several successful shows this season that have showcased diversity on- and offscreen. And if this past development season was any indication, the networks only want more. How much pressure do the rest of you feel to populate your show and writers room with diverse talent?
DANIELS Ah, look at all these white people! Why would you ask that damn question?
It’s a relevant question.
LINDELOF We started talking about the new season of The Leftovers in October, and one of the big ideas was that we were going to introduce a black family, and we were going to do it in Texas. There was going to be a complete shift away from the characters we had grown to know and love in the first season, and the question becomes, why are you doing that, and then the second season would be about integrating the ideas from the first season into this new spectrum. HBO loved the idea, and we were super excited about it, and then Empire happened. It almost made us cut bait on the idea because it felt like now we’re just basically jumping on the bandwagon.
GANSA I find that the diversity issue is worse behind the camera.
DANIELS Yeah. I don’t know what gives me more pleasure: watching my story unfold or going in and watching a room full of black people talking for me and writing words for black people. I hate white people writing for black people; it’s so offensive. So we go out and look specifically for African-American voices. Yes, it’s all about reverse racism!
TREEM I think you want your writers room to somehow reflect your show so that the conversations that are happening in the writers room can translate more easily to the screen. When we put the room of The Affair together, we specifically looked for half men, half women, and that’s important to our story.
DANIELS Are there African-American writers on your show?
TREEM There is one writer of color, but he’s not African-American.
DANIELS Are there any African-American writers on your show?
GANSA There are not.
DANIELS How about yours?
DANIELS How many?
KING Last season there were two, but one of them went off to create her own pilot.
DANIELS Good. How many on your show? I’m just curious.
WILLIMON How many women do you have?
DANIELS We have three women.
WILLIMON How many Asian-Americans do you have?
DANIELS We have no Asian-Americans.
WILLIMON Just, it’s a weird question. But we have zero African-Americans in our writers room of six.
DANIELS I’m not here pointing a finger. I’m just curious.
WILLIMON There are so many different ways to talk about or measure diversity, and not all stories are going to tackle the entire breadth of the diversity of the world.
From left: Damon Lindelof (‘The Leftovers’) and Sarah Treem (‘The Affair’)
Beau, how so?
WILLIMON A lot of times the story is about picking and choosing a sliver of the world that you might tell a story about, and that might just be about Jewish people during the Holocaust, where you’re not going to see any African-Americans. Or, if you’re in a concentration camp that’s just men, you’re not going to see any women. I think that our responsibility is to tell the truth, and if you’re telling the truth about your given sliver, however narrow or wide it is, then you’re contributing to the overall diversity of our collective story.
KING I was going to say last season we had two African-American women on our writing staff, and one of them said, “I’ve never been in a room where there’s another African-American woman.” We weren’t hiring for “diversity,” we were hiring the best writer at any given moment. But it was a telling remark.
DANIELS It’s repulsive is what it is. It’s inexcusable.
LINDELOF Let me preface this by saying that I take full responsibility for every decision that I have made professionally. That said, if I’m staffing a show, I’m going to get sent 40 scripts for people, and of those 40 scripts, how many of them were written by any people of color? Or women, for that matter? The pool that I’m being told that I should be picking from is a majority white male pool. And if you walk down the corridors of WME, CAA, UTA, you’re not going to see a lot of black agents, and they’re the ones who [would be] sending me those scripts. The most significant impact that we can have is to empower people, whether writers, producers or directors, who don’t look like us so that they can make hiring decisions. The Leftovers has a very strong female voice, and I sought out that balance behind the camera. Mimi Leder is our directing producer, and she said, “I’m hiring women directors.” The pool that she has to choose from for episodic directors is literally 20-to-1, but because she’s saying that’s really important and they’re out there and we’re going to find them, it’s happening.
DANIELS Good for her, I like her.
LINDELOF But that’s how it happens. And it’s great because basically all the African-American writers who are on Empire are now going to learn and they’re going to have an opportunity to go and create their own shows.
DANIELS It’s so beautiful to walk in that room now because I thought I was the only one. There are the Spike Lees, the John Singletons, you know that there are those, but you really believe that you are the only one until you see these submissions of incredible writers.
If your network executives were here today, what would they say about you and your style?
GANSA When Homeland started, not only were we the first show that David Nevins picked up for Showtime, but we were also the first show that Bert Salke at Fox21 did for the studio. So to say there was some anxiety attendant upon those that first season would be an understatement. There were deep, deep disagreements about so many things. You get to a certain point in your career and you’re saying, “I’m either going to fail or succeed on my own terms,” which I think is one of the reasons why these networks like to hire people who haven’t been around for a long time. So at the beginning, I think we were wondering whether the relationship was actually going to sustain. [David is] a strong-headed guy, and I’m a strong-headed guy, but we’re five years into the relationship, and it’s very sweet between us. (Laughter.)
KING Unlike a feature film, where you’re together for three months and then you’re split, success in TV [means] you’re with each other what, 10, 12 years and talking several times a week. My feeling is you can fight, but you have to fight fair. You might be having a screaming fight at 10 in the morning, and inevitably at 2 in the afternoon you will have to call them back about something else.
DANIELS Fox has been incredible. They only gave me one major note.
What was that?
DANIELS To take someone out of the series. There was a character that I wrote into the original pilot who was Hakeem’s love interest, a mother figure, [played by] Macy Gray. There was a love scene, and they said, “This is too much.” But other than that, we were on the same page. They know what they don’t know, which is great because they let me do my thing.
KING The disagreements we have typically come about in the world of standards and legal stuff. The biggest fight we had was about an abstract painting in the background of a scene that they didn’t want us to show because they felt that there were breasts. It was abstract. I mean, they were circles!
DANIELS Did you fight?
KING Oh yeah, because that’s fun.
WILLIMON Who won?
KING It’s so many arguments ago [that] I actually don’t recall who won. All I know is that the painting is somewhere in the production office.
What do you consider the most challenging part of collaborating on your show?
LINDELOF I consider myself a writer and became a producer as a result of my inability to cede any control. I need to have this unanimous agreement among my creative collaborators that an idea is great, and I also have this intense desire for everybody to like me. And that’s not a good management trait. In the writers room, I constantly feel like I’m juror number eight in 12 Angry Men, that I have to convince them all that this idea is great. They’ll be like, “You don’t have to convince us — you’re the boss,” and I’ll be like, “Why don’t you think it’s great?”
GANSA The classic example of that is when you have to rewrite somebody on staff. We’ve all been there. The people-management side of you knows that’s a difficult position, especially someone who’s been in the television business forever. I’ve been rewritten a bunch of times, and it hurts. Then you do it, and you just want the writer who you’ve rewritten to say, “God, Alex, that was great.” That’s just the writer in you talking, and that’s never going to happen — and you shouldn’t expect it to happen, but it’s, “Please like me, like my ideas.”
DANIELS It’s the hardest thing ever, I think. I have a partner, Danny Strong, he’s an incredible writer and really my backbone. So when we don’t see eye to eye, it’s painful. I have a very clear vision, and I come from film where director is God, so if there’s a clash, it’s painful. It’s like I’m fighting with my lover.
What was the biggest disagreement you two have had?
DANIELS [About] some music things. But I don’t want to fight with my partner! Let’s fight with the network, you know?
WILLIMON I don’t think that there has to be a ton of conflict in collaborations for them to be successful. I go to great pains to make sure that the drama stays on the page as much as possible and it’s not on set or in the writers room.
DANIELS Does it ever happen?
WILLIMON No, I’m the guy without the juicy tales. When I’m working with actors and directors, I’m very interested in input. In the 10th episode, there’s a very intimate scene after Frank has fired his own wife and asks Tom Yates, played by Paul Sparks, to come over because he needs to unburden himself. I thought I’d written a really good scene. [Then] Kevin [Spacey] reads it, and he says, “I don’t think where we get to in the scene is earned. I don’t know why I would trust this man to the degree that you’re saying I trust him.” The insecure side of me at least said, “Well no, this is a good scene.” But when I was honest with myself, he was right.
DANIELS Spacey and you don’t fight at all?
WILLIMON Our blood will get up.
DANIELS So you all fight.
WILLIMON No, it’s not fighting it’s …
WILLIMON Let’s both struggle to get to the thing that we need to get to but knowing that there’s no animosity and there’s nothing personal about it. We both want the same thing.
DANIELS Well, I fight with my actors. We get down. Pulling weaves, rolling on the floor.
From left: Michelle King (‘The Good Wife’) and Beau Willimon (‘House of Cards’)
What is your favorite scene you wrote this year?
TREEM I really liked when Helen [Maura Tierney] asks Noah to come home even after he’s put her through everything. I felt that scene was so honest. It pointed to what happens in a relationship after 20 years of marriage. You have to forgive people to stay with them for your whole life.
GANSA Carrie having the moment with her baby in the bath was a scene without any dialogue at all. It was sort of written in the editing room because there were so many questions to ask: Is she really drowning her baby? Is she just considering drowning her baby? How are we going to play the scene so not to make it exploitative but to make it a thought that might occur to somebody?
TREEM Did you get a lot of notes on that scene?
GANSA We didn’t. The first draft, which is the first time I saw it, the camera was the baby’s point of view. The camera went underwater and stayed underwater for 15 seconds and so you were shooting up through the water at Claire [Danes]. I was like, “She’s drowning the baby; that’s not going to work.” The problem was, that was the best take of Claire. We must have been in the editing room for four days trying to make that work, and ultimately the camera went underwater for a split second and then we just reversed the film, so you’re actually watching Claire’s expression twice. It’s just enough to make it feel like she actually seriously thought about it. It was a risk because it was like, are people going to come back and watch this character after that? The hysterical thing was that in the previous episode, Carrie Mathison had killed 40 people at a wedding and nobody even blinked an eye, but the thought that she might do some damage to her child and, my God, people were like, “We’re never watching this show again.”
What’s been your most embarrassing moment on your show?
KING [I have them] every day!
GANSA It’s usually a scene that I’ve written and actors come in to audition for it and I feel like crawling under the table because I can’t write, obviously. Nobody can make the scene work.
TREEM There was just a lot I didn’t know. You’re sitting there saying, “No, we have to have that angle because that person’s important in the scene.” And then you realize [the director is] 10 steps ahead of you. I’ve had to learn to keep my mouth shut on set.
WILLIMON Pussy Riot was on the show this season, and we decided we were going to shoot a punk video that we would roll over the credits. We got 300 people in downtown Baltimore, in ski masks and drag, and a couple of cars that we could completely destroy. We had orange fog machines and shot in 95-degree weather. I came down toward the end of filming, and they said, in their very persuasive Russian accents, “Beau, you must be in video.” I have a rule: I don’t do any cameos. The moment I start doing that, I won’t be able to stop myself. They said, “You must, you must.” I thought, “Well, when am I ever going to get the chance again to dance shirtless, in a ski mask, on top of a car, with Pussy Riot?” So I took off my shirt, put on a blue ski mask, got on top of the car and danced my ass off.
DANIELS That’s beautiful, dude.
If you did a spinoff of one of your shows, what would it be?
LINDELOF I’ve always wanted to do the comedy spinoff of a drama. [Leftovers actor] Anne Dowd, who we killed off in the show, is amazing. So the three-camera situation comedy could take place inside the Guilty Remnant, which for those who don’t watch the show, is a cult where the members smoke cigarettes, don’t talk and write messages to one another.
TREEM Sounds hilarious!
KING We’ve cast many actors on Good Wife who are in their 70s and 80s. Linda Lavin, Ed Asner. I’d love to gather them and concoct a show. That would be heaven!
Finally, if you were in a barroom brawl, which of your characters would you want on your side?
LINDELOF Nora Durst from Leftovers. She’s one of the toughest characters ever on TV.
WILLIMON [House of Cards’] Doug Stamper all the way for me.
DANIELS He’s resilient!
WILLIMON If you kicked Doug’s ass, you’ve just defeated like the biggest badass of all time so props to you. If he defeats you, there’s no shame because of course he’s going to beat you up. And then having a drink with him after would be interesting because it might involve a syringe. (Laughter.)
KING I want to fight some extras and then have [Good Wife characters] Alicia Florrick and Diane Lockhart represent me in the trial.
TREEM I’d want to fight [The Affair’s] Alison because it would be like fighting myself. An existential breakthrough. Then we’d have a drink and I’d quit therapy
GANSA I’d rather fight [Homeland actor] F. Murray Abraham. He’s haunted me for many years. I had a photo of him as Salieri in Amadeus above my desk. Under it, I’d written, “The patron saint of mediocrity.” It always felt like I wasn’t Mozart. I was Salieri, so I’d punch his lights out.
DANIELS I fight my characters enough, so I don’t need to fight them [in the bar]. We fight, we drink and we love.
The full Drama Showrunner Roundtable can be seen on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter, when it premieres Sunday, Aug. 30, at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Sundance TV and HollywoodReporter.com.
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