Ask five top showrunners if, in this moment in history, they feel creative, and the response is a resounding no. At least not in the traditional ways.
“Not on the things I’m being paid to create,” says Power boss Courtney Kemp, who’s joined on this early June afternoon by Watchmen‘s Damon Lindelof; The Good Fight‘s Michelle King; The Terror: Infamy‘s Alexander Woo; and Little Fires Everywhere‘s Liz Tigelaar, for The Hollywood Reporter’’s (virtual) Drama Showrunner Roundtable. “The stuff that’s under deadline, I’m like, ‘Ugh, how do I squeeze out something to say with these characters?’ It’s almost impossible,” Kemp adds. “But I wrote a poem the other day. I haven’t written a poem since college.”
Tigelaar has had a similar experience while in isolation. Any ounce of creativity she has, she says, has been channelled into making signs and time capsules with her 5-year-old son. “Sitting down to work is a challenge,” she acknowledges. “I’d rather make sidewalk obstacle courses. And I’ve gotten very into puzzling, so maybe I could puzzle a script together somehow?”
Over an hour-plus, the five showrunners spoke candidly and emotionally from their homes about their concerns over resuming production in the middle of a pandemic, the pressure that they’ve felt from above to push the hero cop narrative, and the deeply flawed Hollywood system that seems to allow white writers to explore stories that Black writers cannot.
Damon, I want to start with Watchmen, which is an all-too-relevant meditation on racism and policing in America. You’ve said you struggled a lot with this idea of “Is it my story to tell?” Can you elaborate on that internal dialogue?
DAMON LINDELOF The first thing I was really struggling with was that Watchmen was a continuation of these 12 comics that I read in the 1980s whose co-creator, Alan Moore, very specifically said, “Do not touch this.” So I felt like once I was defying his wishes, then it became a responsibility to really do something with it, something that made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Then there were all these voices in my head saying, “This is going to be incredibly problematic, this is going to be difficult, you probably shouldn’t do this,” and I started trying to find ways around that where I’m like, “If I avoid all problematic material, isn’t that in and of itself a problem?”
The first thing that was obviously [problematic is] that I’m telling a story about race, about systemic white supremacy, about Tulsa ’21. And so I immediately said, “I have to create a writers room and it has to go beyond the writers room. I have to reject tokenism and create a balance where I can literally be overwhelmed by the consensus,” which happened myriad times, to the show’s benefit. I went into it saying I’m going to cede power until I start to feel really uncomfortable and then I’m going to grab it back — but in about a week or two, I tried to grab it back and it was gone. And that was a struggle — it was very unpleasant, but it was completely and totally necessary.
You reached out to Ta-Nehisi Coates at one point. What did you learn from that experience?
LINDELOF Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me, which was the first piece of writing of his that I read. And the reason I got it was [because] all my white sort-of-woke friends in Los Angeles said, “You’ve got to read this.” I just have to make it very clear that I bought the book so that I could virtue signal, but when I read it, I had the experience of someone who is going to church with someone they have a crush on to show, “Oh, I’ll go to church with you,” but then they hear the sermon and they’re like, “Oh, I think I’m a Christian now.”
His book transformed the way that I saw the world, and then I did the deep Ta-Nehisi Coates dive and read everything he wrote. And it was in one of his essays, “The Case for Reparations,” that I first saw mention of the Tulsa massacre of 1921, which I’d never heard about, and then I did a deep dive on that. And so when we were putting together the writers room, I reached out to Mr. Coates’ agent because I was like, “I want to talk to him about what I’m doing here, I want to acknowledge that he inspired this work. And he’s a comics writer, so maybe he has ideas for Watchmen, or at the very least I can present to him the big idea and he can tell me whether or not it’s cool.” His agent was very polite and I [also] sent a couple of emails and got no response. About two months later, I heard Mr. Coates on a podcast saying, “All these white people in Hollywood are trying to reach out to me so that I will give them the approval stamp for their projects, and I’m not interested in doing that.” At first I was like, “That’s not what I was doing!” And then I was like, “That is exactly what I was doing.” And this is part of the culture of appropriation that the show was trying to first shine a light on but then criticize. And having those moments in your own body where you realize that you’re a part of the system, it’s … “humbling” isn’t even the word for it, it’s depressing.
Liz, Little Fires Everywhere tackles this idea of white fragility. I believe you had your writers read a book on the subject. I’m curious about the conversations that it inspired in the room and, later, on the page?
LIZ TIGELAAR Yeah, White Fragility [by Robin DiAngelo] was required reading coming into the room. What we set out to explore with the show was this idea of white liberal women who feel like they are “post-racial.” That they have it all figured out and that they’ve done their part because they see the world in this binary way, you’re either racist or you’re not racist. We’ve used the term “microaggressions.” Obviously the show takes place in the late ’90s, and that’s not a term certainly white people were using then, but the show really explores that [concept]. And what we hoped is that by exploring that white liberal woman who legitimately doesn’t see herself as racist, or the experience of a Black, queer artist or a Chinese immigrant who is in this country illegally and has to fight for her daughter, they are jumping-off points for dialogue. And really the hope was that the show would do exactly what we did in the room, which is have a group of people with vastly different life experiences — but all experiences that connected to the material — and that we would use the story to explore our own prejudices and biases and shortcomings. And that through that, we’d broaden and expand our worldview, and hopefully that would happen to the viewers, too.
What lessons have all of you learned from the trenches about curating your writers room?
COURTNEY KEMP I’m not learning something new about curating a room that’s diverse. I just want to point that out — like, that’s not news for me, I don’t need a primer on like, “Ooh, how do I learn to accept a voice that’s different from mine,” since I grew up in a time in this business where I was a “twofer.” A lot of procedural TV would hire a black person or a woman, and if they got to hire me, they got both and they didn’t have to hire anyone else. So even the question of “How do you curate a room?” “Do better” is the answer. Do better. I wouldn’t be here in my career if Robert and Michelle [King], if Greg Berlanti, if people who didn’t look like me hadn’t hired me and hadn’t already been comfortable with having someone who is different from them before it was trendy, before it was cool, before you [had] an ability to be virtuous by doing it. And so to me, this is a question that even implies white fragility. How do you curate a room? You do it.
I mean, I hire people who are different from me specifically because they have a different perspective. They don’t have to be racially different from me to be different in perspective. But I haven’t hired a northeastern, double Ivy, African American woman because I don’t need that perspective — she’s here already. She showed up to work every single day. I need everybody to be different from me. And what I think is, frankly, so silly about our business is that it has supported the idea of hiring people like you for years. I have never built a writers room like that. In 2013, when I was building my writers room for Power, I didn’t hire anybody who was just like me. The fact that people are right now going, “Oh my God, I should hire different people,” that’s sad. That’s like saying, “I should pay women the same amount as men.” Oh, really?
I think everyone here would agree with that. Alex, I know you were initially hesitant to sign on to The Terror because, similarly, a story about Japanese American internment camps wasn’t “your story.” How’d you get comfortable?
ALEXANDER WOO I’m Chinese American, so my experience is not literally that of what Japanese Americans went through during World War II. But I plugged into it as an immigrant story, and the feeling of coming to this country with hopes and dreams and embracing a country that doesn’t always embrace you back is something that I could tap into and that I was very familiar with. And then I knew I needed writers who could tap into it from a specifically Japanese American perspective.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the wake of George Floyd’s killing about the hero cop narrative that has long permeated TV. Courtney, in addition to multiple Power spinoffs, you’re working on Dirty Thirty at HBO, which is inspired by an early 1990s story about corrupt cops. What initially attracted you to the subject, and what can its power be in this moment? Notably, you’re setting it in present-day.
KEMP Yeah, because I was interested in body cams and in certain things that weren’t available in the ’90s. Like many Americans, I have an obsession with shows that are about force, life and death, high stakes — and police corruption is one of the highest stakes of all, as we are all seeing. So, I was attracted to the subject matter and any story that’s about New York. And I wanted to do something that was about Black cops, so I’ve reframed the real story and made it about two African American cops who are brothers trying to navigate some corruption. And in that way, I wanted to talk about the contrast of being both Black and blue. I’m always curious about African Americans in odd situations, and [here] what the uniform allows you to pass as or what the uniform forces you to become. But this show has to be for people who come in, like me, having a healthy suspicion of cops, having been raised not to trust cops, all the way to someone who feels the other way.
As TV writers, how much responsibility, moving forward, falls to you to stop pushing that cop-as-the-hero narrative?
LINDELOF One of the first shows I was staffed on was Nash Bridges, and I grew up believing that Don Johnson was a hero from Miami Vice. Obviously there were storylines on Miami Vice where there were bad cops, but Crockett and Tubbs were not bad cops, they were never compromised. Then I went and worked on Nash Bridges, so I was writing for this guy who I viewed as a hero. And I went up to San Francisco and did ride-alongs with SFPD and, obviously, with a TV writer in the back of their car, they are going to be on their best behavior. This isn’t to say that they were bad cops, but I’m not exactly Jane Goodall in an anthropological experiment on how policing works in that scenario.
But now I’m in the driver’s seat with [Watchmen]. I’ve got my fingers on the keys, and so I want to tell a story about all the things that Courtney was just talking about where it’s, “Let’s create a world where a liberal has been president for 30 years.” And to what Liz was saying, like, “Are we post-race now?” Like, 30 years of Robert Redford in the White House, he’s flipped the Supreme Court, we should be beyond this conversation. No. Don Johnson has a Klan robe in his closet. And it had to be Don in many ways.
And this idea of basically saying good cops, bad cops, that’s not the conversation that I wanted to have — the conversation that I want to have is, the system of policing is infected by white supremacy. It’s an infection. And now everything is moving so fast, we’re having this conversation in early June, but who knows where we’ll be in September or October? A week ago, I had not heard the phrase “Defund the police”; now, I’m pushing out that phrase, I understand what it means. It’s not as frightening to me as it first was. [So,] the first thing that we have to do, and it’s going to sound so Pollyanna-ish and stupid and preachy, is educate ourselves. Like, the moral of the story of Watchmen was, I had not heard of the Tulsa massacre. I educated myself. And now it’s our collective jobs to understand the history of policing in this country, and then hopefully that will inform our storytelling.
KEMP Can I jump in for a second?
KEMP I just want to say that the two conversations that we’re having are connected. If you start hiring more people of color in writers rooms, you will get more nuanced and differing portrayals of police. In other words, the hero cop situation that we have on TV is directly related to the lack of voices of color in the rooms. They’re not different. I have never written a hero cop, never, not once. It was not required on The Good Wife in any way when we were there. (Laughs.) But also it just isn’t something that I have ever done, and that’s because my perspective is different. But again, they are connected ideas. If you don’t bring people of color into your writers rooms, there’s only one way that that’s going to look.
I had a conversation recently with a very well-meaning friend, for whom the police are the good guys, and I’m like, “Well, do you understand why you see it that way? Do you understand where your positioning is that you have the luxury to see it that way?” I’m sorry. I’m going on. I’ll stop.
MICHELLE KING No, Courtney, you’re not going on. And I’m going to take it one step further, which is the notes we’re getting from the studios, even if you have an inclusive writers room, you get executives saying to you — because we are producing a show that involves some police corruption and race issues — and we’re getting notes of, “But I don’t think the cops would do that.”
Safe to presume these are white executives?
KING That would be correct. So, there is a problem even in the best-built room if you’re being pushed away from it. And it’s very difficult to fight against other people’s life experience because you can only show someone so many articles. If they’ve never seen that, it’s really tough to then just push it through that [filter of], “Yes, but this is what happens in my fictional universe,” because you’re arguing about what seems real.
WOO This is a really key point. The question, ideally, is suited for the people who are at the heads of the studios choosing what shows get made and then who is at the wheel of the car. You’ll get a very different show if you put Courtney at the wheel of the car than if you put someone else at the wheel of the car or choosing what show it is to begin with. So it’s our responsibility, sure, but there’s also a level above us that has a responsibility of what gets on to begin with.
KEMP I’ll just say also that in Damon trying to bring forward certain elements that he put into Watchmen, Damon gets to do that because Damon is Damon. Damon can say, “Hey man, I want to tell this story,” but if you have an average kid on their way in, a kid of color, who is like, “I want to tell this story, and I think I can take Watchmen and put in the Tulsa massacre,” who is listening to that pitch? 0.00 people are taking that pitch. Let’s call it what it is.
Damon Lindelof can say, “You guys, there’s a really interesting way to tell this story and I believe in it.” And they go, “OK, Damon, we’ll try it.” That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. I’m not going to take away any of the struggle to develop, because it is what it is. But I’m saying that there is also the fact that you’ve got to get the door pushed open by someone who the studio even begins to trust in order to even have the conversation for them to then shut you down, which is what Alex and Michelle are talking about, where they say, “Oh, but that’s not my experience,” or “That’s not real.” Like, you even have to get into the development in order to be told that you’re making up something that they don’t believe.
LINDELOF Let me just co-sign on that 1,000 percent. And this goes to Michelle’s point, which is that entire journey started with me sitting in a room full of Warner Bros. executives and HBO executives, who are all white, with one exception, maybe, of 15 people I pitched this idea to, all white. And so there is this idea of, like, “Have you fellows heard of the great Tulsa massacre of 1921? Don’t feel bad, it’s not your fault that you haven’t heard of it. But wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t we all feel pretty great about ourselves if we could illuminate that inside the context of Watchmen, which is a superhero space that allows for actual historical content?” But the way that that conversation is going if I’m a person of color walking into that room from the jump is radically different. I couldn’t agree with what Courtney said more.
Speaking of pushing against authority, Michelle, The Good Fight has made a sport of attacking the current administration. Do you ever get nervous? And if not, why not?
KING Well, we’re on All Access, I’m not sure how many folks are watching. So that helps. We don’t get nervous — perhaps that just makes us stupid. But we’re having a fine old time and amusing ourselves, and so that just keeps us going forward on that. And also, how can you not? I mean, I cannot begin to imagine having a show and not addressing what’s going on politically, especially with the characters we have. We have a bunch of liberal characters, so if you’re going to be honest about it, they are going to have a point of view and they are going to be talking about it. So it would not have been possible to tell the story without addressing it that way.
Is there such a thing as “too far” when it comes to your studio and network executives?
KING I’ve got to tell you, they have been actually terrifically supportive. We are not idiots, we do call them ahead of time and say, “We’re talking about doing something about Trump urinating on a bed in Russia,” or “whether Melania divorces him,” and “What is the problem you see moving forward?” so that we can be a little bit nimble. And generally, it’s like, “Yeah, no, you’ll be fine, you’re going to need to be careful about this in terms of lawsuits,” but no, typically we’ll be fine.
Damon, I want to turn back to you. Why did you wait as long as you did to tell your star, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, that his character, Cal Abar, was Dr. Manhattan?
LINDELOF The first reason was we did a pilot and you don’t know if the show is going to be picked up or not. And people say, “Of course they were going to make it,” but HBO just produced the Game of Thrones spinoff and it’s not going to series. And the reason you make a pilot is you can learn from it. This isn’t to say that we were not totally locked in on the idea that Cal Abar was going to be Dr. Manhattan at the time that we shot the pilot, but I felt like, I’ve just met Yahya, we are hanging out in Atlanta, we’re talking about these scenes. And so, from an acting point of view, if the character doesn’t know who he really is, perhaps you’re overcomplicating it with the actor by saying, “I want you to play all these things but also you are an omnipotent, 100-year-old white man who basically lived the first part of his life in the 20th century as a young boy fleeing Germany, then became a watchmaker, then became a particle physicist, then there was an accident, he became blue and all powerful, he won Vietnam, he left the planet and …” Just, what would the look on Yahya’s face be as I was explaining all these things to him?
The other thing that’s more important is that when you’re writing characters — at least this is the way that I see it — it’s not an off-the-rack outfit. You really have to break out your measuring tape and start to measure the person who you’re making the garment for. And then, to switch metaphors, you become co-parents of the character. Every time that I have tried to force an actor into my construct of the character, it’s gone very, very badly. [So, I say,] “Here are the words, this is kind of the way that I see them, now you go; it’s yours too.” And I don’t like to be on the set for this reason because an organic discussion starts to develop between the director and the actor as to what the character is going to be, and it comes back into the editing room and there is this new, exciting sense of discovery and then I start to write the character based what the actor has done. The pilot basically creates the space for that.
So, you tell Yahya after making episode two, and implicit in this news is this idea that he will be naked a lot. You’ve spoken about the importance of normalizing male nudity in the past, and I’m curious about that conversation and the process of ensuring that Yahya was comfortable?
LINDELOF It’s different for every individual. If it feels like that character is definitely going to involve nudity, it’s a conversation that you have after you’ve hired them because you don’t want it to feel like it’s a prerequisite. Like, “Hey, just I need to know that you’re comfortable with nudity before we actually close the deal.” Once the deal is closed, if the actor says I’m not comfortable with it, then we don’t do it, like, full stop. That’s just the way that I have always done it.
It brings up an interesting point about how much your talent knows about their characters in the larger story. Courtney, I believe you shot six or seven different finales without the actors knowing which you’d use. Walk us through that decision.
KEMP I wish I had a big, fuzzy cat to pet while I’m explaining my Dr. Evil-ish ways. (Laughs.) Here’s what it is. Power had a lot of hackers and leaks. We were constantly dealing with the fact that, for a lot of reasons, our content was never protected. Somehow it would always leak. And so I had to shoot multiple endings because I couldn’t send out red script pages and I couldn’t tell the actors how the show actually ended. I am a big fan of telling actors before they get the script that their character is going to die, so there were a lot of uncomfortable conversations that I had to have in a very short period. But I do feel that in taking care of your actors sometimes you have to not tell them things that their character wouldn’t know too far in advance because then you actually color the performance. But I do the opposite of Damon. I tell people that there is nudity for the part before they audition. So, everyone is different. I totally get his version. My version is, like, “Don’t even come in if you don’t want to do it because I know what’s going to be required by my network.” (Laughs.)
Alex, how much do you prepare your actors for what’s to come, and when was the last time that was uncomfortable?
WOO In my case, this is the first-ever opportunity in a long form for a group of Japanese and Japanese American actors to tell the story of the mass incarceration. So, in a sense, we all were in it together. There wasn’t a lot of uncomfortable conversations. It was an enormous opportunity for these actors to tell their family story. In my naivete, I didn’t realize every Japanese American actor we cast has some connection to the internment. And this will probably never happen again in my career, but we had people dropping everything to come work on our show because this was their parents’ story or their grandparents’ story. So, in a way, we got very, very lucky that everyone understood what the story we were telling was and why we were telling it the way we were, and that saved us from some more difficult conversations.
Liz, in your case, your stars brought this book to you. You had something like 24 hours to read it. What did you see in the book that you immediately connected to and felt, “There’s a TV show in here”?
TIGELAAR I read the book in 24 hours and I fell in love with it. I had done a show, Life Unexpected, a decade before that had been a very personal story, but [until this] I really hadn’t yet found the thing that just hit my heart in the same way. And when I read Little Fires Everywhere, it so viscerally felt like a story that I was so connected to. I’m an adopted kid, I feel like a relatively new mom, even though my son is 5 now, I’m a bisexual woman — there were just a lot of ways that I felt deeply connected to and moved by the story.
And then it was really about finding the team who I was going to tell the story with because certainly there were a lot of connectivity points for me, but there were also a lot of places that I couldn’t connect to the material in the same way. And so, back to the idea of building this room, it meant having children of immigrants, it meant having Black and Asian writers represented in the room. It meant having writers who were raised by single parents — it was all-encompassing. And to Courtney’s point, that’s what made the show so much more nuanced and thoughtful.
As a storyteller in the year 2020, what do you see as your biggest challenge?
KING Filming these shows and not getting the crew killed.
KING I mean, there’s been so much talk about how do we make these shows and an impulse, in terms of the corporations, of “OK, let’s get filming.” And yet you read the health experts and what are the areas to avoid: being indoors, being in large groups, being together for long periods of time. Welcome to my set.
Does it change the stories that you’re telling?
KEMP Of course. We have a show, Ghost, which is the first spinoff of Power, and the main character is a basketball player. We were going to shoot him playing basketball in the college arena. Guess what’s not happening? We shot a lot of frat parties season one, guess what we’re not shooting? So, you look at crowd scenes, you look at what you can shoot smaller, you look at not having as much recurring cast, which will have to travel from place to place. But for me, personally, it’s about having the conversations with the studio: “You guys are going to have to spend more money to get the same thing. And I know that’s terrible and I know that’s your worst nightmare, but the truth is, if I can only have my lighters light and I can’t have the cameramen on the site working on the cameras while these people are lighting, and no one can rig and no one can fix this piece of the set because everyone has to work in shifts. That is going to take a lot of my day.”
KING And how do you get folks there if you’re filming in New York where half the crew takes public transportation? Again, money addresses a lot of this and no one wants to hear you’re going to have to spend so much more money to make it.
LINDELOF I haven’t seen the white paper [the production health guidelines submitted by unions to state governments] yet, but I’m very concerned for all the reasons that have already been expressed. And in particular, there are guidelines for how to have a safe set, but what I’m not seeing is what happens when you hear about the first infection?
And so, we’re looking at this in a way that it’s either, “The power is on” or “The power is off” and we’re about to turn the power back on, versus the way that we should be looking at it, which is, “We’re running on a [generator] and it’s going to be loud and it’s going to smell like gasoline and there’s going to be brown outs.” Because we have to iterate forward what this looks like. We can’t all go to Orlando and test every day the way the NBA can. We are all in different places, we all have different cultures. Everybody is like, “Let’s all just go to New Zealand; they’ve snuffed it out there.” That’s certainly a way to do it, but it doesn’t seem completely and totally pragmatic or practical.
And what all of us, back to what Michelle said, are solving for is safety. How many deaths is acceptable for you to get your new season of x show? And the answer is zero. Zero deaths.
KING Well, I’ve read the white paper, and just in case y’all aren’t aware, our union, the Writers Guild, aka the folks that are supposed to be representing showrunners, did not contribute. So in case you want to think about that for a moment, there is that. But there’s much discussion about how we can deal with craft services because everyone is really happy to talk about things that aren’t going to cost any money. Yes, we’re going to have our snacks individually wrapped.
TIGELAAR Don’t put your hands in the cashew jar!
LINDELOF Slim Jims!
KING Yeah. And not a whole lot about testing because testing is time-consuming and expensive, and not necessarily something we can rely on yet.
KEMP I mean, I could’ve come up with, “Let’s buy Lunchables for everybody.” That’s not really the issue.
I’d love to end on a decidedly lighter note. What’s your go-to cure for writer’s block?
WOO Video games. Showering helps a lot, too.
KING We have deadlines. That seems to get things done.
TIGELAAR The writers room because you have all these other voices, and even if you’re hearing what you don’t want it helps you figure out what you do want. But more often than not, what you’re hearing in a writers room is what you could have only wished you thought of but someone else did and then you get to build on it. So, I miss a writers room. I find that that camaraderie and laughter is the thing that shakes your brain loose.
KEMP Ru Paul’s Drag Race helps tremendously. And I journal, I have to write what’s going on in my head because what prevents me [from writing my shows] is my inner monologue. So, if I can get rid of that, then I can write.
LINDELOF I have this voice in my head, many voices, but the predominant voice is the shaming voice, basically the, “You suck, you’re bad at this, just because you made it to this point …” It’s some version of, “The emperor has no clothes.” And when I say that, people are like, “ha ha,” but it’s real. I mean, it’s talking to me right now. And what I do is I reprogram that voice to basically shame me for not writing. This thing about writer’s block is it only exists with writers. Like there is no barista block, there is no bus driver block. So, the idea of having to go out into the world and explain to people that I am blocked, I just program the voice to say, “How dare you have writer’s block? And then it kind of gets my fingers moving. Shame is very powerful motivator.
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.