The timely hour, which was informed and enriched by their perspectives, is an exploration of pain and grief in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as experienced through conversations between the series’ firefighters and a therapist (played by Tracie Thoms) brought in to help them heal.
Vernoff, a self-described “middle-aged white lady,” knew better than to rely solely on her own creative instincts to tell the story; instead, she invited her diverse body of actors, writers and support staff to share their ideas and points of view. And while those who weighed in were not formally credited — a decision that came down from the studio — each of their names is listed on an end card that flashes at the episode’s conclusion, along with a note that says Vernoff’s script fee was donated to the Color of Change Education Fund.
Here, Vernoff and her director of diversity, equity and inclusion Kasha Foster, speak candidly about the experience, from Vernoff’s initial hesitation to their collective hopes surrounding the episode’s impact.
Let’s start with the genesis of the idea, both the story itself and how you went about telling it.
Vernoff: The genesis of this episode really and truly was rooted in just a failure on my part to properly actualize a regular episode of Station 19 that paid proper tribute to the moment in history that was triggered by the murder of George Floyd. We’ve been building this season that is very clearly rooted in 2020 and we knew all season that that moment would come and there were scripts — drafts after drafts written by the writing staff at various stages. We kept trying to do it, and I kept saying, “I can’t hear George Floyd’s name next to punchlines.” Any time we tried to weave that event into any regular episode of Station 19, it just felt too painful. He’s a real human being with a real, living family and it hasn’t even been a year. So, the writers kept trying and I kept signing off on stories and then I kept getting drafts that were really valiant efforts at doing it and then I kept saying, “No.”
So, what changed your mind?
Vernoff: Well, meanwhile, we’re working with Color of Change, they’re coming to the writers room, Black Lives Matter leaders are coming to the room — and I’m arguing with my No. 2, Kiley Donovan, who keeps saying, “Yes, we can say his name. Everyone wants us to say his name. They understand that it’s a fictional show, but it won’t be experienced as disrespect.” And I keep getting these drafts where I say, “I can’t …” So, what happens is we put out a draft of the episode prior that culminates in everyone watching the video [of Floyd’s murder,] and I’m like, “That’s it. We did it. We’re going to feel that impact and then we’re going to move on with these other episodes, where the world is going to be on its axis and we’re going to be dealing with protests and things.” Then the actors called, and the writers called, and they all said, “This isn’t OK.”
What did that mean?
Vernoff: I got on a [Zoom] meeting with the actors to explain that I had not made this decision lightly — that I myself had tried a page-one rewrite of a previous draft that was a stay-up-all-night-and-rewrite-it thing and the next day I read what I’d written and was like, “This is terrible.” But that cast is so eloquent and that writing staff is so extraordinary, and everybody was saying, “No, this can’t be it. It has to change everything.” Barrett [Doss, who plays Victoria] made a very passionate phone call. Jason George [who plays Ben] made a passionate call. Boris [Kodjoe, who plays Sullivan] made a passionate plea. Oak [Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays Dean] said to me, passionately, throughout all of this — all season, he’s called and said, “If this moment in history, this murder, doesn’t change our show, then what are we doing? It has to change our show, it changed our country. It has to change us.” And as I listened to them, I realized that the mistake was trying to make anything resembling a regular episode of Station 19 — that the whole world had to just stop to talk about it and in that moment, I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, I have an idea. What if we get Tracie Thoms [who played the therapist in a previous episode] back?” I remember one of the actresses started crying in relief because I was listening — I was hearing them.
So, you settle on the format, but how about the decision to take their contributions?
Vernoff: Well, at that point, I said to the cast, “I wrote the last therapy episode, I can’t do this one on my own. I’m not equipped. I don’t have your life experiences. So, I’d like to ask you each to please write to me — whether you want to actually write a monologue or scene, or you just want to write me an email about what you think your character might be unpacking around this murder or what you personally unpacked around this murder, I need your input.” And then I said the same thing to the writers room and the support staff in the writers room. It’s a very diverse room and a very diverse support staff and I said, “I’m a middle-aged white lady, I need your lived experiences here.” And everyone wrote these beautiful scenes, monologues or just emails, and I took all of that material, and that’s what I was working on [back in March] because it had to be done quickly — I had created a bit of a crisis moment. And that’s the very honest answer of how it all came together.
Tell me about the experience of opening up your email and reading these deeply personal and often painful perspectives, which ultimately made their way into the episode.
Vernoff: I just sat crying. The same way I sat crying when I watched the episode come to life. The profundity of everyone’s lived experiences and the pain, it was a lot to take in. And it felt like a beautiful privilege to get to create this hour on TV. Every email I opened, I got some new understanding, and my hope was that in packaging it and putting it on TV, everyone might get some new understanding.
When we last spoke in early March, you were trying to get ABC to let you credit everybody who contributed to the episode, which clearly didn’t work out. What happened there?
Vernoff: I wrote to the studio [ABC Signature] and said, “I’d like to make this written by everybody” and I got a “No” back. I honestly don’t know if it was the Writer’s Guild or the studio, but it was a hard no. (Laughs.)
I imagine there’s got to be some precedent issues there with business affairs, and maybe some Guild complications as well …
Vernoff: Exactly. At that point, I didn’t want to put my name on it. I didn’t want to take the credit. What was said to me by Kasha Foster, who’s my director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Trip the Light Productions, was, “Yes, you’re taking the credit, but you’re also taking the hit. Do not put someone else’s name on it.” And I said all right, but I didn’t feel right collecting the money for it since it was a collaborative effort. So, I decided to donate the script fee for the episode to the Color of Change Education Fund. Initially, when you and I spoke, I’d been thinking about creating some kind of screenwriter scholarship, but I wanted [to reveal] it on the end card — all of the contributors’ names and that the donation had been made. So, it felt important that it go to an established charity that ABC had worked with before.
Foster: Krista didn’t feel good about saying, “This is my episode written by Krista Vernoff with my name on it,” but when Krista puts her name on it, she also takes the kicks in the teeth if someone is mad and calls it too strident. I can’t even remember what the most recent liberal insult is. Oh, yes, “ABC is ruining the show with woke politics.” Let Krista take those slings and arrows because, A) she’s in charge of the show and B) as a powerful showrunner, she can.
I’m curious, what did the process entail once you wove together a script? Did those who had contributed get to see and weigh in on drafts?
Vernoff: I always appreciate notes from my writers and my actors — and always on the subject of race, but particularly on this episode, I welcome notes. Jaina Ortiz, for instance, had sent me some initial thoughts for the character of Andy and then someone in the writers room had sent me additional thoughts, and I’d put out a version of the Andy scene and Jaina read the draft and she wrote to me and said, “I don’t think we’ve hit it yet. I don’t think we’ve hit the truth of what Andy is unpacking yet.” So, it was Jaina who pitched some of the very important and poignant moments in the scene [we ultimately shot]. Jason George also wrote to me and said, “Thank you so much for including so many of my ideas, I missed this one, which I think connects the dots.” There’s a Filipina writer, Rochelle Zimmerman, who had provided a lot of the Travis monologue and then I’d edited it together with some other ideas and she reached out to me [once she read the draft]. She’s a newer writer on the show and she was very nervous because speaking truth to power in this town is hard — but she wrote to me and she said that she felt it had been edited in such a way that it suggested a false narrative to her and she wanted very specific words and language that supported the Asian American experience. I said, “Open the draft, write it in and send it back to me. I want to get this right.” So, there were multiple rounds of drafts. Multiple. And Kasha had a lot of notes, too.
Vernoff: One of the things I remember is that I’d written the monologue about the Native American genocide and I’d spoken of it as a past tense thing, and she said, “When we work with these Native American groups, one of the things that they’re struggling with is the contemporary erasure.” So, she pitched me the line that is gutting in the episode, which is, “The ones who survived are still struggling with a society that wants to pretend they don’t exist.” So, as you can see, this episode was a really beautiful group effort — and I have 22 years of therapy under my belt, so my work was to make the therapeutic conversations sound somewhat like therapy. (Laughs.)
Foster: One of my big notes was, “Please let’s not use his name as a shorthand or a shortcut. If we’re saying George Floyd in this episode, please be referring to George Floyd, the man. He’s not even a year gone; his family could see this and just out of respect, if we use his name, please be talking about him.” And my other thought was that this is recording a moment in history. Yes, yes, it’s a TV show, but how is this show going to play in a year? How is it going to play in five years? So, I read the draft and looked at it with an eye to, “Let’s use this opportunity to show the complicated truth of this moment — the messy, painful and emotional time that it was, especially for Black people.”
How do you feel now about the finished product, and what are your hopes and fears as you release it into the world?
Foster: Look, it’s a TV show, but I wanted it to have the weight of what happened, the weight of what it was like. One of my dear friends is a historian and so much of his job is looking at books, newspapers and media from the time, and I wanted this to be that — so you could look at this as how people were feeling and it was messy and confusing and peoples’ hearts were broken and they just went to work because what else are you supposed to do? You just run through this world knowing everybody hates you, but then they don’t because everybody’s out protesting. It was so confusing. And I really wanted the episode to feel true to that experience and not to feel like an after-school special and not to be an episode that was going to have lessons, because we weren’t in an emotional space for lessons. And so I really love the way the episode turned out. I feel like it’s an accurate reflection of how people experienced it.
Vernoff: I think it feels like we found a way to do it — a way that feels reverent and respectful of George Floyd. He wasn’t just an idea, he was a human being and his death had a massive impact. And now I guess my hope is that people see their experiences represented in a way that makes them feel more seen and heard. And that the people who have done some work toward understanding the tidal wave of pain that was triggered [by his murder] learn what it’s rooted in. By using this [show] to platform the voices and experiences of such a diverse community of artists, I hope that the diverse community of humanity that witnesses it feels changed or seen or educated in some way. I know my daughter, who’s 14, has done a huge amount of reading and research and studying and understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, and she watched it with me, and after, I asked her, “Did you feel you learned anything here or thought about anything in a new way?” And she said, “Yeah, I’ve never spent real time reading about or understanding the Asian American experience and I was so moved by that section.” So, hopefully there’s something like that for everybody; and if there’s not, it’s just a powerful and entertaining hour of TV.
You certainly wish so much of it weren’t so timely, but alas, here we are.
Vernoff: It’s a very strange and unexpected thing that this episode is now airing in the wake of [the Derek Chauvin] trial. That was not something we anticipated.
Is there anything that I have not asked that you wish I had?
Vernoff: I guess I just want to say that my biggest fear in speaking about this is that I’m going to sound like I’m trying to be an expert in something that I’m not an expert in. Or that I’m trying to preach. This was a powerful learning process for me, and the best thing I did was listen. And I want to add this, too: It’s been a profound education for me ever since Kasha Foster came into my life. She was my assistant, and she came to me one day two years ago and she said, basically, “There’s an entire hundred-year history of Hollywood that makes the power dynamics such that your writers of color can’t always tell you the whole truth — and they shouldn’t be left to always tell you the whole truth because they should be allowed to just be writers, too. They shouldn’t feel like they constantly have to represent the truth of their race and every other race as you tackle these subjects.” And she came to me with this while she was my assistant and she said, “So, with that in mind and with respect for how much everyone needs to keep their jobs that they worked so hard to get, I’d like to tell you the whole truth about how you’ve approached race in this episode.” And I said, “Please tell me the whole truth,” and she said — and she swears she didn’t use these words, and I swear she did — “This writing is lazy and damaging.” (Laughs.) But Kasha was brave enough to explain to me that hiring writers of color wasn’t enough, that I had to create a culture where everyone felt like their voices were welcomed and heard and where they didn’t always to have to offer them. So, hiring Kasha to do this job and be the one to tell me the truth hopefully frees those writers up to have more freedom in the room.
So, what do you remember, Kasha?
Foster: I mean, I was emotionally ready to get fired. But I was like, “Krista seems very cool and open; I guess we’re going to find out.” So, I went and spoke to her about this scene and I feel confident I did not use the words lazy and damaging, but that was the gist of what I told her, 100 percent. The interesting thing about that conversation is that Krista was like, “Really? What do you think it should it be? Take a look and tell me.” And I was like, “Wow. OK.” And so I broke it down and gave her notes on what’s messy and why and she made adjustments and then she thanked me. And I’m like, “Well, OK, I’m not fired. This is great.” But I was also like, “Let’s see if she ever makes eye contact with me again.” Because people say they want to hear it, but they don’t. The difference is that Krista did, and she continues to.
Conversation edited for length and clarity. Here is the end card that appeared after tonight’s episode.