“Everyone Here Has Experienced a Crushing Humiliation”: Ben Stiller, Soo Hugh and THR’s Drama Showrunner Roundtable
Six TV power producers — including Dan Fogelman, Peter Gould, Jenny Lumet and Elizabeth Meriwether — on the big breaks (and bigger disappointments) that led them to the season’s buzziest series: "In a weird way, you don’t learn anything from something that works."
“Isn’t this what we all wanted in the first place?” asked Jenny Lumet, executive producer of The Man Who Fell to Earth, near the beginning of The Hollywood Reporter’s Drama Showrunner Emmy Roundtable. “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an amazing human moment on TV that makes you reevaluate your whole life.” Her hyperbole was not unjustified. The recent onslaught of prestige TV, while good for insatiable platforms and audiences, has made it more challenging than ever for creators to court the zeitgeist. So, when the voices behind a few of the fortunate projects to break through — This Is Us’ Dan Fogelman, Better Call Saul’s Peter Gould, Pachinko’s Soo Hugh, Lumet, The Dropout’s Elizabeth Meriwether, and Severance director and executive producer Ben Stiller — gathered over Zoom in May, the love fest quickly evolved into an existential conversation about popularity, career setbacks and the persistence of imposter syndrome.
We are coming off of a wild couple of months in TV, volume-wise. For those of you who launched new series in there, tell me about the moment you realized your series broke through the noise?
SOO HUGH I tell myself I’m never going to read reviews and always fail. So, I was getting my hair dyed — because I’m going very gray, too fast — and my phone starts lighting up as the reviews started coming. I held off for the first hour. Then, as I’m under the dryer, I open up that first link. And it’s positive! I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does. Because it means at least I’m not crazy for having spent the last four years on this.
ELIZABETH MERIWETHER I like that that’s the bar: “I’m not crazy for having worked so hard.”
HUGH If you spent four years on a project that wasn’t good, it’s terrible.
JENNY LUMET I read a review in The Washington Post that said, “The Man Who Fell to Earth is a ‘thank you’ to Black women.” Yes! Fucking yes! At least one person got it. When somebody else hears the message you were trying to put out there, that’s enough for me. I never need to get another review for the rest of my life.
MERIWETHER For me, it was when someone sent me a TikTok of a girl in a club doing Amanda Seyfried’s Lil Wayne dance. I don’t read reviews, but I do watch TikToks. So I was like, “Oh, OK. It’s on TikTok.”
Ben, what was it like for you? When you sold the show, Apple was still a wild card.
BEN STILLER We started with Severance almost five years ago. Apple wasn’t even a thing in TV, so we were excited that they wanted to do the project. But I have no idea how many people watch Apple. We don’t know any actual metrics. So you just hope people are going to see it. And you always want good reviews, but one of the reasons you hope the show will be well received by critics is to get people to watch it. Sure, there’s word-of-mouth, but any opportunity you get for people to hear about the show, that’s a big part of it. There’s so much great stuff that some people aren’t seeing.
Peter, the stakes are already so high for a show like Better Call Saul, and then your star has a heart attack on set while filming the final season. Naturally, Bob Odenkirk’s health was the top concern, but does your brain start thinking up backup plans?
PETER GOULD There’s no backup plan for your lead [having] a heart attack. That’s impossible. It reminds you that as preoccupied and as important as entertainment feels — and we all feel like it’s life-and-death as we’re working on these shows; I always feel like I’m on the verge of getting crushed by a boulder — it’s not. It’s a piece of entertainment. When someone who you care about goes down that way in front of everybody, it changes everything. The miracle was that Bob came back after five weeks. And he was exactly the same guy — maybe even a hair more generous.
What did those intervening five weeks look like for you?
GOULD We shut down for a little while, obviously. We all had access to counseling, and we were all waiting for the news of how he was doing. Pretty soon after that, we continued shooting everything that didn’t have Bob in it. Fortunately, at that point in the season, there were some other characters that we needed to shoot. When we found out he was going to come back, we didn’t know what it would be like. I was not there when he had his heart attack, but I was there the first day back. There was this emotional high from seeing him again. But also, there was this edginess. “Are we going to have to be careful of pushing him too hard?” Bob was all ready to go. In fact, when he was still in the hospital, he was calling me and saying, “Maybe you should send me some scripts.” Naomi, his wife, was in the background saying, “Don’t send scripts.” I don’t know if I’ve answered the question about backup plans, but there can be none. We wouldn’t have had a show. We would’ve scrapped the whole thing.
Anyone else have moments during production that you thought you might not be able to overcome?
HUGH A week before shooting, when your production designer comes to you and says, “We need to move to Budapest …” (Laughs.) I was like, “No. We’re not moving to Budapest.”
DAN FOGELMAN COVID was really bad. We were one of the first in L.A. to go back into production right at the peak of it. It’d be 3 o’clock in the morning and my producer would call and say, “We had two positives. And we’re putting PAs at this gate to turn people away until we figure out what we’re doing.” It was a lot.
STILLER Our shoot ended up going over almost 10 months because we had a bunch of shutdowns. Nobody knew what they were going into when we started up again. Everybody was playing it by ear. For the actors, it was really hard. They had to connect with each other and do scenes. Yet, there were all these barriers in between takes.
MERIWETHER Mine was the Elizabeth Holmes trial happening in the middle of the shoot because we were two-thirds of the way shooting and it started. I just lived in fear that some evidence would come out and make everything that I’d done meaningless. So I was up at night, reading through text message evidence and trying to see if I could use any of it or if it was going to change things.
Liz, you’ve said that you’ve never talked to as many lawyers in your career as you did while making The Dropout. How does that impact the creative process?
MERIWETHER I love lawyers. I wish I could talk to lawyers all day long.
STILLER Are you being sarcastic?
MERIWETHER I don’t even know, Ben … Can I call you Ben?
MERIWETHER It was challenging. I compare it to standards and practices when I was working on New Girl. They are so intense, and they were worse back then. We were finally allowed to say the word “dick” in the last couple of seasons, and that was a game-changer. Those external rules can sometimes really help you, though. I learned to love the process of running things by the lawyers because they kept me honest in a lot of ways. When you’re in the writers room, you go toward the drama. We want to write the most dramatic thing. But in real life, there are a lot of gray areas and things that don’t make sense. I appreciated moments when the lawyers were like, “Well, you can’t do that.” I had to go back and figure out a different way in, which helped me a couple of times.
Jenny, I want to hear about your pitch process. You’re loading themes of race and climate change into a sequel/reboot of a cult sci-fi film that starred David Bowie. That does not sound like not the easiest sell.
LUMET I suffer from a lack of daunt. That shit doesn’t occur to me. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Sure. Piece of cake.” That’s what I was thinking. But we knew we couldn’t chase David Bowie. Besides being a creative mistake, it would earn us every death threat on the planet. We originally presented it as this intellectual exercise, when it was at Hulu, and they wisely were like, “Yeah, well, what’s the show?” So we got more and more human. And then we wrote 10 scripts, which you don’t usually get the luxury to do, but it was a worldwide pandemic. I don’t know if the show, in any world, would’ve gotten made if we didn’t have 10 scripts and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris and Bill Nighy. This is the shit that you want to do! But, in short, I don’t know how the fuck we got this show on the air. (Laughter.)
Dan, there’s a moment in nearly every episode of This Is Us where you’re essentially daring the audience not to cry. Have you ever gotten a note from the network or studio asking for tears?
FOGELMAN The crying conversation caught us off guard. I thought the show would move people. But, by the first time the first episode had aired, there were tissue boxes at NBC with the show’s logo on it. I would write these really artful scenes, and then all over the internet, it would be like, “Share the moment” — and it’s an out-of-context scene that makes people cry. It’s not like we’ve ever sat around saying, “I don’t think we have enough to make people cry.” But people just cried a lot. I can’t entirely explain it. I know when characters die, people are going to be sad, but people would wait for those moments and videotape themselves crying.
GOULD That’s a good review.
FOGELMAN My dad gets one newspaper, the New York Post. He lives in Florida now and he still has it delivered. Every time I’ve ever had a movie or a new show come out, he calls me first thing in the morning and goes, “You got another shitty review in The Post.” And then, the night that the pilot aired, he called me. He was crying and he was like, “You’re a good person!” I still don’t know what to make of any of it.
You just aired the series finale. Peter, you’ll soon be in the same position. What did you learn about endings that you could share with people closer to the beginnings of potentially long-running shows?
FOGELMAN They picked us up for three seasons right away. Then I was like, “I’ll do another three if you pick it up right now so we can plan accordingly.” So we shot the bulk of the ending three or four years ago because I wanted …
MERIWETHER What?! You were that organized?
FOGELMAN We had little kids who were growing up really fast. I wanted to capture something when they were younger. We shot half of it and then put the footage away. I knew what the ending was going to be pretty specifically. Even though we had a hundred gazillion episodes in between, we treated it like one piece of storytelling. For me, at least, that made it manageable.
STILLER Just thinking about shooting those kids when they were still young makes me want to cry.
MERIWETHER That’s so not how I think about structure. I would never have known how New Girl was going to end when I started. I didn’t even know what the second episode was going to be. I was always trying to like, come up with a thing that would carry you through to the next season. Peter, what’s your experience with that?
GOULD What have I learned about endings? I don’t want to curse. It’s a complete mystery. Every show’s different, especially Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. They center on a main character who changes. Maybe this is a way to take my pressure off myself, but I think of the finale as being the last few episodes — rather than putting all the pressure on one final beat. Having said that, we took some turns [in this last season] that really shocked me. Hopefully the audience will go along with it because it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. It’s a pretty unusual way to end a TV series. But it’s a lot of pressure. You hope that the ending fulfills the potential of the rest of the project and doesn’t throw it in a bad light. You’re talking to a guy who’s in the middle of editing the last episode. I’m in a very vulnerable state right now.
Ben, Severance is a real mystery box and the first season ends on a huge cliffhanger. How much have you and your creative partners discussed the endgame?
STILLER Dan Erickson, who created the show, has so many ideas about where the show is going. We always knew that it had to keep going. There’s no closure, but we felt like hopefully the audience would be engaged enough that they would want to have another season. What I’ve noticed is that people bring a lot of their own feelings about other shows that didn’t answer questions or kept kicking the can down the road. We were really aware of that and wanted to make sure that we knew the answers to questions. By the way, to you who’ve been doing these shows for multiple seasons, my hat is off to you. This is my first experience in multiseason series. It’s so much work. And you see how the audience is watching every moment and every detail. It’s a responsibility. So going forward, we are going to answer questions and pose new ones, but there definitely is an end point for the show that Dan has in mind.
FOGELMAN I thought the ending of the season was just the coolest thing. But what if the show had come out with a fart and nobody got it? Were you already wrapped at that point?
STILLER We were all in from the beginning. We shot the season like a movie, block shooting and not episode by episode. So, it was all baked in already. Creatively, there’s so much freedom now to really go for what you want to go for. I think all of that contributes to everybody being able to have a little bit more faith in taking chances and saying, “You know what? I just have to go all in on it.”
GOULD One of the successes of Severance for me is that there are mysteries — and I want to know the answers to them — but, more than that, I’m worried about the fate of the characters. I feel for them. When the mysteries take a back seat, that’s a measure of having really accomplished something.
STILLER Ultimately, all of these stories are about people. It all comes back to the human experience. When people connect with that, it transcends the trappings of genre.
Soo, something that maybe didn’t translate to the American audience is how famous half of your cast is. These are A-list actors who haven’t had to audition in a long time. But you had everyone audition for Pachinko, right?
HUGH Everyone but one certain Academy Award winner [Yuh-Jung Youn]. She deserved a pass. And ignorance helped, right? I mean, Minho Lee has, like, 50 gazillion Instagram followers. But I did not know he was that famous. We made him audition five times. It spoke to him really wanting the role and working his ass off for it. Because the story was so personal for all of them, it greased the wheels and made it so much easier.
But you did ask Yuh-Jung Youn to audition, didn’t you?
HUGH Yes. I may have asked her to audition and she may have thrown the scripts in the trash. (Laughs.) We love each other very much now.
What are some of the tough talent talks you’ve had, in terms of killing off characters or storylines that audiences didn’t like?
FOGELMAN The show had blown up in the first season and crossed into the zeitgeist in a really cool, unexpected way. Right at the moment as all that success was coming, I had to go and tell Ron Cephas Jones, “Listen, in the second-to-last episode of the first season, you die.” When characters leave the show, I’ve tried to tell the actors early so they can prepare their lives.
MERIWETHER This is more from my experience on New Girl, but you’re never going to make everyone happy. At a certain point, you put your head down and do your work. But audiences love things so much. When you end a show, it feels like a little bit of a death. It’s personal. And they’re not always going to be happy. It took me a lot of therapy to be able to be like, “Sometimes people are not happy.”
STILLER I was a big Game of Thrones fan, and people were so hard on the last season. What about the amazing other seasons? Are people ever going to be happy with something when it’s ending? There are so many different ways to go. Ultimately it’s a personal choice of the creators of the show. Regardless of your feelings about the last few episodes, come on. It’s still a thing that people created that we enjoyed.
FOGELMAN In the six years I’ve been doing this show, the internet has gotten so much more vitriolic. Do you guys ever look to see what fans are saying about the shows?
HUGH It pisses me off a little bit. I love our audiences and feel so grateful to our audiences. But when they criticize like, “Oh the writer of this show is so stupid, they didn’t know how to do this,” or that kind of rhetoric … make your own show! If they think what we do is so easy, write a spec script. Write a pilot! If you’re that angry, there’s obviously some creative energy in you that needs to get out. I can’t obviously put that on Twitter: “Write your fucking own show.”
FOGELMAN I’m a big sports junkie, and I used to have no problem being like, “The first baseman sucks. We got to get rid of the fuckin’ first baseman.” With TV, they’re just like the fans who don’t like the first baseman. This is how I’ve talked about other fields in the public eye, so I try to step back. But it can be really jarring.
MERIWETHER I feel like when people get that passionate, in some ways it is a compliment. Just this week, I got an all-caps message on Instagram, screaming at me for breaking up Nick and Jess in season three of New Girl. I was like, “Dude, keep watching.”
HUGH Liz, I need your therapist. Really, truly.
MERIWETHER Oh, there’s been a few.
LUMET I also produce Star Trek. In the premiere of Discovery, we had Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green on a planet walking around. The hate mail! “There are no Black people or Asian people in space!” Yeah, I know. It’s tricky. “There’s the blue guy over there and a tentacle guy over there, but Michelle Yeoh? What the fuck is she doing there?” (Laughter.)
MERIWETHER We’re all lucky that we’re not Ben because it would suck to have to walk around the world and have people know who I am and give me their thoughts and opinions.
STILLER People take this stuff to heart because they’re affected by these stories. It’s more than just entertainment. It means something to all of us. And when people connect with something you’ve done, as a creator or an actor, you can’t know what personal experiences they’re bringing to it. We all have to be aware of that with anything that we put out. Hopefully, it connects to others in a good way. When it does, that’s the best feeling. But when people have an issue with it, you can’t personalize it.
Jenny, your first produced screenplay, Rachel Getting Married, was this huge critical success; it did well at the box office. But then you went through a long period of not getting any scripts sold or produced. And how have you metabolized that 15 years out?
LUMET Was there heartbreak? Yeah. But I wrote Rachel Getting Married and then five minutes later I was in meetings with really fancy people. I had two finished features and no one wanted to produce them. Looking back, there’s always the possibility that those scripts were bad. That’s a possibility. (Whispering) But I don’t think so.
Dan, when you pivoted to TV from a very successful film-writing career …
FOGELMAN It wasn’t that successful.
LUMET It was!
MERIWETHER The New York Post didn’t think so. (Laughter)
You had a few really brutal cancellations before you delivered two massive hits. Was there a moment where you thought, “To hell with this”?
FOGELMAN My first show that was canceled that I loved was this little absurdist sitcom on ABC that critics originally hated [The Neighbors]. The low point, the real nadir, was when our casting director came in and said, “Hey, Dan, I’m sorry, this situation is going to pass.” He meant “The Situation” from Jersey Shore. It was a respectful pass, but it wasn’t what he was looking to do.
LUMET What was he looking to do?
FOGELMAN I don’t know. It wasn’t a great part, in fairness to him. But I’ve had shows canceled in different ways. One that I loved, Pitch, was about the first woman professional baseball player. It was really well-received, and the ratings were meh, but I was sure we were getting to do more. Then it ended on a cliffhanger because we just were not prepared to get canceled. Moving forward, I want to use any currency I have to have those conversations ahead of time. What should I be planning for here so that I don’t get stuck in the middle somewhere?
MERIWETHER: I had a similar thing with a show. It was a love story, and we just needed one more episode to get the two characters together. If we had done that, it would’ve been like two seasons that you could put on some platform as a complete work. Give people a couple episodes to end it right.
Ben, as you’ve focused more on directing and producing, do the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons still call with acting gigs, or do you think people assume that you’re doing your own thing?
STILLER Yeah, I think that. (Laughs.) No, I love doing what I’m doing right now. If somebody calls with a great role, I’m open to it. But you also commit to something. Severance is a full commitment. For years, I did direct and act — often at the same time. Working on Escape at Dannemora, I found that I want to just do one thing at a time. And, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a director — I wanted to be like Jenny’s father [Sidney Lumet] and make those kinds of movies.
LUMET Thank you, man.
STILLER His book, Making Movies, was always where my heart was. I love acting, but doing one thing at a time is much more satisfying. I feel very fortunate to be able to work on something that is creatively all-consuming. I would love to get back to acting at some point, but doing this work now and exploring these worlds fully, I feel very grateful for that.
Does anybody here still have imposter syndrome? And if not, how did you get over it?
STILLER Whenever I do something, I have no idea how people are going to accept it, how they’re going to relate to it or if they’re going to think it’s good or not. I don’t know if it’s imposter syndrome or just insecurity syndrome. That doesn’t go away. But as you get older and keep doing it, you have the confidence to go, “I’m going to do this because I enjoy it.”
HUGH I don’t think I have imposter syndrome. But, like Ben said, I have so many doubts. Constantly. But I no longer care if I get fired. That part is the most freeing. For so much of your career, you’re on defense — even if you believe in yourself. At some point, you’re like, “You know what? It’s OK. Fire me.” I have more stories to tell. It doesn’t have to be personal.
LUMET I remember being told specifically, “Remember, Jenny, they never actually love you.” That was incredibly helpful. I never felt like an imposter. But sometimes I felt like I was dealing with imposters. Everybody’s just desperate for somebody to not choose somebody else.
MERIWETHER Getting more creative freedom scared the shit out of me. I was hiding behind network TV, blaming broadcast. I was like, “It’s like so hard and I can’t do what I want.” Then, when someone was like, “OK, fine. Do what you want.” I thought, “Oh my God.” That hasn’t gone away at all. It’s actually gotten worse.
FOGELMAN I had a film come out that I wrote and directed a couple of years ago [Life Itself], and it was the most proud I ever was of anything I’ve ever worked on. It failed in every way that you can fail. The reviews were so cataclysmic, and it bombed so badly. Every headline about it was about what a disaster it was. For me, it was like when you’re a hypochondriac and then you get the cancer diagnosis. Well, OK, the thing has happened …
LUMET … now I can relax.
FOGELMAN The worst has happened. Now I can breathe. But then you also have this PTSD for a while. Everything else you’re putting out, you go, “Is it going to happen again?” It scares the shit out of you.
STILLER I had that exact experience on Zoolander 2. It makes you question your own sense of what you think is good. That was the thing that shook me the most. The worst happened, but I want to keep doing this, so I’m going to.
LUMET Everyone here has experienced a crushing humiliation, yet here we all are, still doing it. Whatever it is that you think is going to kick the shit out of you actually doesn’t, which is perversely optimistic.
GOULD In a weird way, you don’t learn anything from something that works. The worst thing you can do is to try to replicate something that worked because you never capture it again. Talking about imposter syndrome, there’s the other side of it — which is pure economics. You can spend all these years trying to do this, but it doesn’t work and no one wants to hire you. I’ve seen so many brilliant people give up and leave the work that we do. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be doing this. But I think about all the folks who don’t anymore. My parents were both painters who never got any traction in their careers. My dad was brilliant, but he died at 29 and never had a gallery show. My mom recently died and the great regret of her life was that she didn’t get to make a living in art. So, yeah, I have imposter syndrome because my dad was so much more brilliant than I am. But it’s also gratitude because what a privilege to work with all these fantastic people and play in this sandbox that you get to make yourself. Maybe I’m going to get Liz’s therapist’s number. (Laughs.) I think it’s time for me to get all this together.
LUMET I feel like if I had imposter syndrome, I’d be letting people down. Maybe that’s the most fucked-up way to not have imposter syndrome. There aren’t that many people who have this gig, so I’m going to duke it out while I’m here. No matter how terrifying it all is, it can’t be as terrifying as quitting. Is that a super-privileged thing to say? I’m sure I’ll hear about it if it is.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.