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From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV’s most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them — and their shows — alive.
The show that inspired me to write:
Kitsis: Northern Exposure. I loved that show, I loved the way it was able to have episodes where somebody finds a woolly mammoth, he calls the museum in New York, they send a guy out, and the mammoth’s gone because someone ate it. To me, that was everything I ever wanted to do. That show mixed emotion, humor and the surreal all at once.
Horowitz: Oddly the one that stuck with me was L.A. Law. The characters were so amazingly drawn, and the stories went all over the place. The show could get crazy, but it was always grounded by real emotion. It also was one of the first serialized — not heavily though — shows. The other show that affected me was watching reruns of the original Star Trek when I was a kid. That was more in line with what we’re trying to do with Once.
My first big break:
Kitsis: The first thing Adam and I wrote together was a sketch show for the local Fox channel in Madison, Wisc., called Hot Tonight. It was produced by a dentist, it had two local comedians, and our Intro to Television college professor got us the job. Adam and I would write skits — almost like the digital shorts on Saturday Night Live — and we’d actually be on the show, which aired Thursdays at 10:30 so no one saw it. The dentist made a deal to get his own advertisement, and the local Fox station would let him do local programming, so we would have meetings at his conference room and he would run in — in full dental gear — pull his mask down and be like, “I got a sponsor, I need 20 minutes of content!”
My TV mentor:
Horowitz: The first people to hire us were Andrew Schneider and Diana Frolov from Northern Exposure, and they hired us on the remake of Fantasy Island that aired on ABC during the ’98-’99 season. That was our first staff job. They were the first ones to take a chance on us.
Kitsis: Ryan Murphy. We did two years on his first show Popular, and Ryan was the first to let us go to set, to bring us in on note calls, to bring us into editing and show us how our words got made. From there, we went to Carlton Cuse, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. Damon and Carlton on Lost really showed us how to be showrunners. They would bring us into a call and we would say why are you doing this? They said, “Someday you’ll need it.” Cut to three years later on the first season of Once, and it’s like, “Ah, I get it.” When we wrote the pilot for Once, we realized that it was a weird mixture of influences from Ryan, Damon, Carlton and J.J. Certain characters on our show are very Ryan, and certain characters are very Damon.
My proudest accomplishment this year is:
Kitsis: The fact that we got the show on air. This is an idea Adam and I have had for nine years, since Felicity, and we stuck with it and we always wanted to do it. We never thought they’d pick it up, we never thought they’d put it on air, and we certainly never thought we’d survive against football and the World Series. When the pilot aired, it was like a nine-year odyssey that these two idiots pulled off.
Horowitz: The moment that crystallized it for me was when we sat down with the cast and the crew to watch the finale. It was then [that] I realized we produced 22 episodes of the show. That was probably my proudest moment of the last year, because I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would be able to take this idea and have it turn into this.
The toughest scene to write this year:
Kitsis: There was a scene where little Snow White betrays the Evil Queen to her mom, Cora (Barbara Hershey), and what was so tough about it was the entire series was about the Evil Queen’s hatred of Snow White. In a way, we needed to make Snow culpable, but at the same time it was tricky emotionally to have everybody in the wrong and everybody in the right. That was the scene we probably wrote 30 drafts of.
Horowitz: The scene between Emma and Henry toward the end of the pilot when she finds him. That scene was tricky, because this character of Emma is fun and smart and witty and quick, and this was the first time we had to bring down her walls and allow her to be vulnerable and reveal herself.
The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Horowitz: The most absurd note we ever got was go ahead and make the show.
Kitsis: This is a show where we’ll have to choose which unicorn we want, so the whole thing is ridiculous. When you have a scene where the genie from Aladdin is killing Snow White’s father and then becomes the magic mirror, everything is ridiculous. We added an eighth dwarf last year and killed him, and his original name was Sneaky. We were told that seemed derogatory, so we changed it to Stealthy. They were OK with us adding an eighth dwarf and killing the eighth dwarf, but they weren’t OK with his name being Sneaky…They were probably right.
The one aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate:
Horowitz: The hard part for me about being a showrunner is the time, and you can’t really delegate that. There’s so much you want to do and it takes up so much time that that’s the biggest sacrifice you have to make. If you can surround yourself with talented and smart people, that can mitigate that.
Kitsis: To do this job, you really have to love what you’re doing. We love the show, we love the people, so it becomes a collaboration. Hopefully there isn’t anything you don’t want to do, because if there is, then that usually is a problem.
My preferred method for breaking through writer’s block:
Horowitz: The preferred method is doing exactly what we did, which is hiring the best writers we could possibly find. If we have writer’s block, we all sit in a room until we can all hash it out together.
Kitsis: The other thing I find helpful is to throw a tantrum, say this will never work, why don’t we move on? I find that that usually motivates everyone.
If I could add any one writer to my staff, it would be:
Kitsis: Absolutely, it would be Damon Lindelof, who was the godfather to this project right from the beginning. This show wouldn’t be on air without him. If we could have his brain in the room every day, we would be happy.
The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
Kitsis: My guilty pleasures tend to be weird, old shows that I find on channel 20 that I’ve never seen before like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or the Planet of the Apes TV show. My guilty pleasure, to be frank with you, is The Monkees. I loved it when I was young, I still like it, I’m trying to get my child to watch it, and I still dig it.
Horowitz: The old ’60s Batman show. It is so crazy and over the top, but just watching how committed every actor on that show is through the absurdity of what they’re doing is pretty amazing. It’s fun to see it through the eyes of my kids, who see it as straight drama.
The three things I need in order to write:
Kitsis: Nicorette, iced coffee and the couch in Adam’s office.
Horowitz: A nice bottle of water, some Led Zeppelin, preferably Led Zeppelin IV, and, I guess, Eddy on the couch.