Twelve Showrunners open up about writing scripts based on their own lives

The Hollywood Reporter gathered Ryan Murphy , Judd Apatow,  Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar),  Noah Hawley (Fargo), Lisa Joy (Westworld), Gloria Calderon Kellett (One Day at a Time),  David E. Kelley, David Mandel (Veep), Scott Silveri (Speechless) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) to talk about writing. Some of the questions were:

Judd, you’ve said, “For a long time, TV was just the land of the handsome, beautiful people, and now it’s the opposite.” Is that true everywhere on the television dial?

ALL No. (Laughter.)

APATOW It seemed really weird when we did Freaks and Geeks [in 1999] that we said, “Let’s do a high school show with these kids.” NBC went for it but ultimately didn’t seem that happy about it. It was the era of Dawson’s Creek and a lot of fantasy-fulfillment TV. Now there are a ton of shows that are about the freaks and geeks of every age. When we did it, people looked at us like we were nuts.

DAVID MANDEL We [Silveri and Mandel] had a pilot on one of the mainstream networks about two years ago, and there was definitely pressure when we were casting a mom. I can simply tell you there were the funny people we wanted and then the people who I can only assume they thought had a nice rack.

SCOTT SILVERI Well, they did, objectively. (Laughter.)

PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE There’s never a funny rack, is there?

Phoebe, you recently said, “Since you [write] those things about women, therefore you are a role model and an icon and you can’t f— up now because you have to be sensitive to something political. And everything a comedian wants to be is funny.” Can you expand on that?

WALLER-BRIDGE I said that after a few glasses of wine. (Laughs.) A lot of the time when I was being asked about [Fleabag], it was through the prism of feminism, which was one very important part of that show for me, but there were so many other themes I was grappling with and so many ways I was trying to f— with the genre. I started feeling like I was suddenly being moved into a different [category]: It wasn’t so much that I was a writer, it was that I was a feminist writer. Which I am, of course, and I’m proud of the fact that that’s how my work is being received, but I do think, especially with female writers who write honestly about women and their experiences, it’s “Oh, that’s a feminist show.”

Hollywood tends to put creators in boxes. What are the types of projects that you’re consistently approached for?

DUVERNAY I get the first black everything. First black firefighter in Tacoma, Washington. First black ballerina to dance in Kansas City. I mean, it’s getting so specific that it’s like every first black doesn’t need a movie.

KELLEY They always want me to do a law show. People want you to do what you’ve done — and instinctively, a lot of writers want to do what they haven’t done. But the law actually still interests me. I’m fascinated by it, and I think it’s a great vehicle for exploring the ethical and moral centers of people. I miss it. In fact, in Big Little Lies I made Celeste a lawyer just because it was like a binky for me to have one lawyer in the mix.

MURPHY Anything with a feather boa, I get offered first. (Laughs.) It’s always about what you just did, so when I did The People v. O.J. Simpson, it was a lot of true-crime stuff. Then I did Feud, and now it’s a lot of Hollywood biopics.

KOHAN I get offered all these wedding movies. I’m like, “What in my body of work would make you think that I’d want to write about a bride?” It’s so weird.

DUVERNAY Oh, I would go see that. (Laughs.)

KOHAN Maybe it’s my personal challenge to subvert the paradigm of wedding films.

BARRIS I did Girlfriends, and then all the offers would come up and I was like, “I just have to get off a black show.” I shouldn’t have to think that way, but I remember The Game had literally broken every cable record on TV when it debuted, and I walked into a staffing meeting [at another network], and they were like, “What show is that?” and I’m like, “F— you!” Then one of my best friends, a white guy, was like, “Yeah, but those are all black people watching.” And I was like, “F— you, you like me and you’re saying this?” (Laughs.)

GLORIA CALDERON KELLETT My first writing job was on the short-lived Quintuplets, and after that I got offered a huuuge bump to go on the George Lopez show. Or I could repeat and be a staff writer again on How I Met Your Mother. Granted, I was just newly married and had a lot of fun stories about being in my 30s, so there was a gut thing that told me How I Met Your Mother was the right fit. But there was also a huge part of me that was like, if I go down the George Lopez path, I’m going to be “Latina writer” forever. So I went to How I Met Your Mother and had a glorious time.

MANDEL I’ve never been shocked by Hollywood’s inability to think beyond where you are or who you are. And believe me, I’m not likening this to being considered the Latina writer or the black writer, I’m just saying I can remember steps in my career where it was like, “Well, you can write a five-minute sketch, but how in the world will you write a sitcom?” Or, “Oh my God, you wrote a sitcom — how in the world will you deal with the three-act structure of a movie?” They just like to put you in a box. The good news is they’re also very cheap, so when I did want to write a drama and I said, “Just pay me the minimum,” they went, “We believe in you!”

Lisa, you’ve worked on predominantly male-centered shows, beginning with Burn Notice. What was the draw?

JOY Nobody ever has a problem if a man writes a woman, and I wanted to be able to say, “Well, I can write your men and your action, too. You don’t just have to give me the love scenes, which I don’t even think are my strong suit.” It was about trying to take as many topics and saying they’re not off-limits for me or people like me.

A few of you have written shows that are based on your own lives. Where do you draw the line?

SILVERI They tell you to write what you know — they don’t say it will kill you when you try to do it. The first draft of the script for Speechless was very close to my actual experience growing up [Silveri’s brother has cerebral palsy], and it was just suffocating. It’s hard enough to make one of these things entertaining, but when you’re walking that line between therapy and comedy writing. … And there’s also the added burden of “What in this script is going to piss off my uncle at Thanksgiving?” (Laughter.) So being able to take a little bit of license just takes a lot of the pressure off.

WALLER-BRIDGE People approach me thinking that I’ve been through all of [my character’s experiences on Fleabag]. They’re always really disappointed that I’m married. Like, “What? We thought you were f—ing everyone!” That humor and a lot of the anecdotal stuff I amplified from my own life, and then I weaved a dramatic story out of it.

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