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This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Despite achieving golden-boy status this year for his debut series True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto, 38, briefly reverted to starstruck fanboy on an April evening when five giants of television joined him inside a downtown L.A. warehouse to swap tales from the TV writer trenches.
And who could blame him? Present was last year’s drama series Emmy winner, Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan, 47, who braved a gnarly commute from Burbank, where he and his team were prepping the first episode of the Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner, 48, a four-time Emmy winner for best drama series, was fresh from his season-seven premiere but quick to share his stress over the dreaded task of writing the show’s final episodes. Carlton Cuse, 55, the Zen-like Emmy-winning executive producer of Lost and co-creator of A&E’s Bates Motel, caught up with pal Gilligan as Oscar winner and Emmy veteran Aaron Sorkin, 52 — shooting the third and final season of The Newsroom and casting his Steve Jobs biopic for Sony — joked that his plan, for once, was to “not talk at all.” (Didn’t happen.) And Ann Biderman, 62, an Emmy winner for NYPD Blue, happily took a few hours off from shooting season two of her gritty Showtime drama Ray Donovan to meet peers and talk shop — so long as no one asked her the dreaded question: What is it like to be a woman writing such a manly television series?
Join in on what became the ultimate writer-therapy session as six top TV showrunners get real about topping their own successes, the feelings of inadequacy that never go away and why no task is too small — or too mortifying — to qualify as part of their job description.
Matthew is in the throes of capping off the final season of his series, Mad Men, a position that many of you have found yourselves in. What advice do you have for him?
VINCE GILLIGAN Enjoy it while it’s still going on, which is difficult because you’re in the middle of it and you’re working your ass off. It’s the goofiest, most lame-ass, cliche advice of all, but I would say enjoy it.
MATTHEW WEINER I talked to you when you were near the end with Breaking Bad. That was hard, right?
GILLIGAN I was freaking out.
WEINER You directed your finale, and I’m going to do that. The loss is pretty overwhelming.
GILLIGAN Yeah, and it doesn’t hit you until the last day of work is done. Then you’re like, “Man, this really did end; it’s really over.”
WEINER Well, this makes me feel better.
ANN BIDERMAN It’s going to hurt so much!
How do you manage all of the expectations?
GILLIGAN Acupuncture! No, I didn’t really escape it. Most of the pressure — and I bet you all would agree — was self-imposed. The voice in your head saying, “It’s not good enough. It’s not this; it’s not that.” Tuning that out … I don’t really know how to do that.
Carlton, you once were there with Lost. Is there something you wish you’d known during that process?
CARLTON CUSE The thing I didn’t anticipate is that there were six endings to the process. We finished writing the script, and it was cathartic — we shed a few tears; then we finished shooting, and that’s a very cathartic moment; and then we finished scoring the show. Then when we actually locked the cut, there were tears and tequila. I was so wrung out at the end by how many times we’d gone through the process of saying goodbye.
AARON SORKIN When someone says, “Can’t you just relax?” I think I’m scared of giving up the pressure. You say the same thing when you’re in the middle of writing something, and it’s, “You’re never going to be able to finish. Can’t you just take one night and relax and forget all about that?” I’m worried that if I did do that, I wouldn’t finish or it wouldn’t be good. The pressure, self-imposed or not, is what’s keeping the train running.
Following up a hit comes with tremendous pressure, too. How do you get past the psychological hurdle?
WEINER It sounds narcissistic, but I feel like this is some kind of intervention directed at me. What’s it like for it to end, and will you ever do anything else? (Laughs.) Before I had a career, there were people whose careers I admired. People who I’ve gotten to be friends with in some way, like Mike Nichols or Larry Gelbart, who passed away and had more than one success. You marvel at what it is, and eventually you get to ask them that question, and they say the same thing: Don’t do anything that you’ve done before because you’ll be bored, and don’t do anything for money. And if you are doing it for money, you’ll know right away because you’ll be bored.
CUSE The thing is, whatever your intentions are when you’re making television, there’s this alchemy that either happens or it doesn’t happen, and it’s really out of your control.
SORKIN If you’re as lucky as we’ve all been here, you’re going to get compared to yourself down the road. You guys are about to find that out. It’s a small price to pay. I don’t want to ever think that I’ve already written the best thing I’m ever going to write. If somebody came along with a crystal ball and said, “Listen, you’re going to earn a living for the rest of your life, but I can’t tell you what it was, but you’ve already written the best thing that you’re going to write,” I don’t think I could write anymore.
WEINER Bruce Springsteen shows up and he plays “Born to Run” for you, and you’re like, “He better do that every time I get there.” And it’s some of his older work, you know, and you’re like, “No, it’s ‘Born to Run.’ It’s pretty good.” There’s something about that.
SORKIN There is. But clear the dust away from that, and what you have left is that Bruce Springsteen wrote “Born to Run,” you know? And I hope he feels that way.
Some say killing off characters has become a lazy plot device, designed to shock and help a series stand out in a crowded TV environment. Is there any truth to that?
BIDERMAN I don’t think you’re doing it for that reason. You’re not thinking, “I must have that happen in episode seven.” It has to feel inevitable in some way or it’s gratuitous to think, “I need this many bodies.” Really good storytelling should have this sense of inevitability to the characters dying.
WEINER But the audience does have expectations. I remember being on The Sopranos, and people asking me, “When’s Tony going to whack somebody?”
BIDERMAN There are those.
WEINER More people died on The Sopranos than the mob had killed during those seven years!
Nic, were there versions of the True Detective finale in which Woody Harrelson’s and Matthew McConaughey’s characters died?
NIC PIZZOLATTO No.
So you never considered it?
PIZZOLATTO It was something I considered, but the trajectory of their arcs and where the journey took them was much more interesting to me with them left alive and altered in some way. Also, I’ve never ended a show before — I’ve never made a show before — and all the episodes were in the can before the first episode aired, so there was no possible way I could manage anyone’s expectations. The only other ending I considered, but [it] was never put on the page, was something more mysterious, where you’re not sure what happened to them. In the end, I felt that was too diffuse and moved us away from the hard realism of the show. The macabre aspects of it are grounded in a reality, this kind of poisoned dystopia.
You’re writing season two with a new story and characters. How will you keep the essence that makes it True Detective?
PIZZOLATTO I’m treating it like this year’s novel. It’s going to be the same genre, and what carries over is the authorial vision, the authorial voice. The same way you can pick up a book by a particular author. You have your favorite book by that author, and then his lesser works. I might have built myself a nice coffin here. But writing got me into this, and writing’s going to have to get me out. There’s a way in this business — I mean, I just started — but you have to get off on the pressure, right?
WEINER But you have to find a way to not become incapacitated by the pressure. What I found is that I am a person who feels better when I’m writing — as hard as it is.
CUSE I think it was David Milch who says, “Never believe anything you think about yourself as a writer when you’re not writing.”
SORKIN That’s great.
WEINER But we’ve all sat next to somebody in the trenches who was completely incapacitated, unable to think as well as they can when they’re not, and you’re sort of like, “Just do it.” There is a lot of luck involved — it’d be stupid to pretend like there wasn’t — but there is a tenaciousness that requires multiple rejections and keeping your head when you see people being incapacitated next to you.
SORKIN A healthy fear of failure helps, too. I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.
WEINER Do you have a nonsports analogy for some of us? I don’t know what you’re talking about.
SORKIN I don’t play golf, either, but surely you can understand the metaphor.
WEINER I’m perpetuating a stereotype, which is 100 percent accurate.
GILLIGAN I think about failure all the time, and I’m the same as you — I hate it. It scares the hell out of me, keeps me awake at night. But when I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing
I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career, I don’t know what to take from it. I’ve never actually solved a Rubik’s cube, but …
WEINER This [metaphor] is working better for me. (Laughs.)
GILLIGAN Finally, you get it right, and you’re like, “Wow, I got that. How the hell am I ever going to do that again?”
WEINER I think we don’t learn from it, on some level. Going to [Mad Men‘s season seven] premiere and seeing the show go on the air, I was like, “I just keep sticking my neck out there. Why do I keep doing this?”
PIZZOLATTO “I’m painting a target on my back.”
WEINER Yeah, it’s like, “Who needs punching?” But the glory is the work and coming here and having people say that they watch the show and enjoy it. I don’t want to get too deep into the psychological profile of a writer, but we have a lot in common. There is something about being heard and the chance to have that sort of controlled communication that I think is worth all the failures.
PIZZOLATTO But maybe we should differentiate between the types of success because there’s something that might hit an audience really big that you’re not satisfied with.
SORKIN I know exactly what you’re talking about.
PIZZOLATTO I think there needs to be a kind of personal meter there. It’s important for any creator to always have the audience in mind, but be careful of what your yardsticks are.
GILLIGAN That’s good advice [but] hard to take.
PIZZOLATTO Well, if you stay off the Internet, it’s easy.
GILLIGAN That’s the first rule: Stay the hell off the Internet. Except for the porn. (Laughs.)
WEINER That is a very hard thing.
PIZZOLATTO Yeah, the first month of the show, I was still reading comment sections.
WEINER You can’t do that. Don’t do that!
PIZZOLATTO They had an intervention with me. Everybody sat me down.
WEINER Good luck if you can [stay away]. You’ve got to go to Promises Malibu or something. You’re going to have to go into rehab every once in a while. It’s irresistible; especially if things go well, you get drawn back in again.
Vince, you’re working on Better Call Saul, the spinoff to Breaking Bad. Spinoffs can be tricky, particularly with something so beloved and, in this case, so recent. What has that process been like so far?
GILLIGAN Scary. It opens you up to a lot of fears, like, “Is this going to be Frasier — or After MASH?” I don’t know yet. If it’s After MASH rather than Frasier, it won’t be for a lack of hard work. There are a lot of smart people doing their best, but you just don’t know until the world takes it. I figured the best thing to do is get back up on the horse, which is an odd thing to say after something good happened. I just came over here from the writers room, and we’re a week behind, and we’re probably going to be two weeks behind at the end of this week. It may turn out that this was a mistake, but there’s no time to worry about it.
There also is mounting pressure to land A-list actors. Ann, how difficult was it to convince Liev Schreiber, who never had done television, to star in your show?
BIDERMAN He claims that I hit him over the head like a seal hunter and dragged him!
SORKIN I find that so easy to believe.
BIDERMAN It was hard for him. He has a very active career in the theater, and I think in terms of that, it has been frustrating for him because he plays a very impacted character who doesn’t have a lot of access to language. I’m not giving him Shakespearian speeches, but I think he’s enjoying it. I think the material draws the actor, you know? But I didn’t want to just make it with anybody. I didn’t want to make it just to make it. It had to feel like the right fit, and we were lucky enough at that moment. I think it’s timing.
CUSE One hundred percent. Bad casting on our show would have been disastrous. [Bates actor] Freddie Highmore was the guy for Norman, and we had to work around the fact that he’s finishing his degree at Cambridge. He had to have six months off to go back to finish school. I moved mountains to get everyone to agree to this because he was the guy. The chemistry with those two actors — if you were doing the feature version, I wouldn’t pick anybody beyond Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga.
BIDERMAN I feel the same way with [Ray Donovan‘s] Eddie Marsan. He’s an amazing actor who kind of surprised us. He was living in England, and I had seen him in Mike Leigh movies, so it felt slightly anomalous at first. Then he sent in a self-tape. He wanted to change his life.
What was the wildest thing you have done to land an actor?
GILLIGAN Slept with them. That’s how I got Bob Odenkirk. (Laughs.)
SORKIN Mary-Louise Parker, who ended up on The West Wing, left a message on my voice mail saying, “Hi, this is Mary-Louise Parker. Josh Lyman [Bradley Whitford’s character] badly needs to get laid, and I’m the one to do it.” She was in the next episode.
BIDERMAN Some claim that my team and I were sitting at the Chateau Marmont and I started shouting, “I need a man for this part!” But people thought I was just shouting, “I need a man!”
What is your most embarrassing moment as a writer or showrunner?
GILLIGAN I once wrote a scene where [The X-Files‘] Mulder was talking about the victim of a kidnapping siding with her kidnapper, which is Stockholm syndrome. But I wrote it as “Helsinki syndrome,” which I guess is a joke in the first Die Hard movie. David Duchovny, who’s a brilliant guy, says, “I like the shout-out you gave to Die Hard.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Well, it’s Stockholm syndrome. Or is it like a weird copyright thing where you couldn’t say that?” I was like, “Oh shit.”
SORKIN In the season finale of The Newsroom last year, Jane Fonda had a throwaway line where she was stoned and says, “I’m going to get the Allman Brothers back together.” After it aired, I got a letter from the Allman Brothers’ manager saying the band had never broken up.
BIDERMAN Oh God.
SORKIN They were understandably offended. But I was knocked out that the Allman Brothers watched The Newsroom. I couldn’t apologize enough.
WEINER I have so many embarrassing stories. When there are love scenes — I’m on basic cable, so they require a lot of choreography — for some reason when I start talking to the actors, I always end up playing the woman. I feel awkward being the guy with the actress, and invariably, I end up with Jon Hamm just looking at me like, “Really, you did this again?”
BIDERMAN In season one of Ray Donovan, there was a scene where Jon Voight’s character was incarcerated in a cinder block cell and — this is so disgusting; he plays a rather foulmouthed character — he needed to stand up and pretend he’s a chimp. In his state of rage at being in a cell, he jerks off and throws it into the camera. Jon and I were standing near a large group of people, and I was pantomiming for him how to do this. It was so wrong on so many levels. I mean, one of the greatest actors ever …
WEINER And known for his masturbating.
BIDERMAN And I’m instructing him to be a chimp and jerk off?
GILLIGAN We had a writer on Breaking Bad, Sam Catlin, and whenever things got quiet in the writers room, he’d pantomime masturbating — and angrily. He was the angry masturbator.
WEINER Sam’s going to love the shout-out.
GILLIGAN I know.
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