Drama Showrunners Roundtable: John Singleton, Sam Esmail, Nic Pizzolatto & More | Close Up


(upbeat music) – Hi and welcome to Close Up with The Hollywood
Reporter: Drama Showrunners. I’m your host, Lacey Rose and I’m here today with Sam Esmail, Marti Noxon, Nic Pizzolatto, Steven Canals, John
Singleton and Sera Gamble. Let’s get started. You guys have tackled a lot
of heavy, weighty subjects in your shows. Curious, what was the moment or scene that made you or your
collaborators nervous? – The show You has a lot of Penn Badgley braining people with hammers or convenient rocks or pieces of brick. The scene that actually
made me nervous though is in the pilot. Very early in the first
episode of the show our character masturbates
on the street in shadow. And I was watching it
at a screening in Austin and I was like, oh, we’re gonna lose them and they’re never coming back because he’s jacking off
in the street in New York. And then the next scene
came with him and the woman and everyone was back on board. And that was the moment I
knew the show would work. I was really doing it on
faith until that point. – I love it. Anyone else? Top that. – I’m not really nervous about anything because in the writer’s room, I’m a performance artist. I try to act out what I think
the characters should do. We’re all in kind of a
competition for eyes. So it’s like I’m trying
to find the most shocking, organic, natural thing that the characters would go through. And so if people bump against it and they’re like, no, we can’t do that, I say, that’s why we’re gonna do it. – So give me an example. What’s one of those where they said, eh, we can’t do this? – There’s a couple things. We had in the first season, we had a situation
where a really tough guy robs our lead character Franklin thousands of dollars in drug money. And Franklin’s still a kid, he’s encountering for the first time these really, really
dangerous types of people. And so he’d have to get his money back. And he and his best friend are with this guy who they’re enlisting ’cause he’s helped to find
the money from another guy. And I suggested well, this guy gets frustrated but interrogate the other guy. So he takes him out in
the back and rapes him. And I say this in a writer’s room and they’re like, oh my God. And I was like no. And I acted out. – Not sure how that goes. – I know I’m affecting the writers when they’re envisioning aghast. And that’s like we gotta do this. – Mmhmm, I love it. Anyone else have anything
that comes to mind? – I feel like just the
idea of adopting a podcast like Homecoming to a TV show, I remember people thought that that was a little nutty. You know, it’s two
people talking in a room. And then on top of that, I was like, yeah and
we’re still doing that. We’re still doing the two
people talking in a room. Oh, and it’s still gonna be 30 minutes just like the podcast, even though it’s a drama. And I think a lot of people felt like that wasn’t going
to feel cinematic enough. And then there was that whole
argument about the run time which is a little archaic right now just to think about at
this point with streaming and all the other options of
how you consume television, it’s whatever I think
fits the story, right? And why would we want to drag it out when it worked so well in the podcast? So I think it never gave me pause, I felt very strongly about it but it definitely I think
made everybody around me pretty nervous. There was also like, every time we made a decision
that was a little nutty, like the aspect ratio thing, I remember that was a, in the future storyline,
it was in a smaller aspect, I just remember there was, you’re gonna do that the whole season? But I think to John’s point, whenever people got nervous, it actually just made me more excited. I was like, oh, then
we’re definitely doing it. Whenever there was any kind of pushback, then it was like me sort
of digging in my heels. But I think that’s part of the excitement is that you want to feel like
it’s rattling some cages. You want to feel like it’s
gonna spark some conversation. – Yeah, I think that’s exactly right.
– That’s what nerves do, right, they get you talking? – Sure. When was the last time you
guys were completely wrong about viewers reaction to what you put on screen? – I thought that people would
be angry about Dietland. – In what way? – Well, we threw guys off buildings for being sexual predators and tortured them and we had a fat woman
in the lead of that show and sort of celebrated, ended up sort of celebrating
all these different body types. And there were just so
many things in that show. I think there was so much that people just were like it’s a wash. But I thought that we’d
have more of a reaction but I think the last few
years in the real world have been so insane, that it just kind of ended up matching the world instead of feeling so outrageous. But when we were making it, we’re like, we’re gonna piss people off and then it came out and people were like, well this is a nice little show. It’s like really? This body positivity show. We’re like, but the guys and
the getting killed, okay. So I was wrong about that. – I think to go back to
your earlier question, the entirety of Pose made me nervous. And I think that I got it
all wrong right at the start. – In what way? – Well I spent two years
pitching this pilot in and out of rooms and being told no. It was too queer, it was too trans, there were too many black people, too many Latin people, it’s a period piece. And so to finally have
the show be produced and to have a collaborator
or collaborators in Ryan Murphy or Brad Falchuk, it’s like I won the lotto and yet I was dealing with a little PTSD from all of the no’s that I thought, oh, it’s gonna go out into the world and people just aren’t going to get it. My fear the entirety of
filming the first season was I’m gonna be the person
who co-created this show with Ryan Murphy that’s a bomb. And then it goes out into the world and people embrace it and they love it and they understand exactly
what our intentions was, the heart space that we
approached the narrative with. And so I’m glad that I was wrong. – Yeah. What about you, Nick? – I don’t know if wrong
is necessarily the word but flummoxed might be
a little bit better. There was a way with this season that I tried to be as
transparent as possible with the narrative. Because of the two later timelines and the way they all interact, it’s telling you what is going to happen before it happens. If I can keep you interested in knowing what’s going to happen, that would be really something for me. You always want your work to, you hope it stirs passion
in people and devotion and investment. But to see from some viewers the sorts of theories that were to me coming out of left field sort of like no, we just told you that’s
not going to happen, we said this is going to happen, what I tend to do and what I’m most interested in is character and the human experience of the individual. And there’s a contingent of viewers though that have been programmed
by the sorts of storytelling we’ve had over the past few decades that are simply intent on looking for what would be the most outre twist. Never mind if it would make no sense. And so I was surprised
probably by some of that more than anything.
– They try to get ahead of what you’re doing instead of watching it play out. They’re trying to write it for you. It’s like Hitchcock would say, basically he’d design his pictures so that he knows what the audience
expectations are in advance and he tries to go in another way or naturally in another way. But not in a way that’s plot-based. – The character has to
dictate to some degree. It becomes symbiotic, the
plot and the character, because there’ll be an incident and it’s gonna depend
on how our characters react to that incident what the next incident is. And you’re right, it’s almost like they’re
trying to outguess but along the wrong sort of tracks. – And then they stick to their thing of what they’ve written in their mind instead of what you’ve laid out for it. – I think that we’ve sort
of benefited from that in Sharp Objects because one of the
things about the story is the people who seem the
most like the killers are the killers. And we tried, when we took the book, one of the things I said to Gillian was, I think we need to build the world out and offer some other viable suspects because the minute you meet these people in this creepy house, you’re like, they seem like really creepy
people in a creepy house. And I think we benefited from the fact that people just went, well that seems kind of obvious. And of course we tried to make
them look in other directions but yeah, the audience
is so ready not to look at the thing that’s
right in front of them, even when you’re saying like, no this is gonna be a story about this. It is exhausting to– – It’s hard to get that overlap between character and plot. – When there is a disconnect, when the plot betrays the character, then that’s when I think you get, yeah it feels like a cheap
twist or a cheap reveal. – That’s how I always feel is if we’ve witnessed a
character do something which seems entirely against their nature given what we know, for the sake of a contrived twist or just some sensationalistic moment, that’s usually when I check out. – One of the reasons why
I loved Homecoming was their twists are completely character, because again, it’s two
people talking in a room but that, I don’t want to spoil it but there’s a story
that gets told early on that you think is a funny anecdote about the Titanic II and they were putting
it on for the soldiers. But then later that becomes, again, no spoilers, but that becomes a big reveal. And I loved that it
would slip in like that as a natural, organic character trait and then it materializes as a plot. But when you try and outmaneuver, even just trying to think ahead of like, okay, well if the audience
is expecting this, then we should do that, you’re already kind of
going down the wrong road. – That’s a dangerous game. – I agree ’cause then you’re not following character and you’re not staying true to whatever the motivations
of the narrative are. You’re playing a game against yourself and your assumptions of what other people’s
assumptions might be. – And you’re probably gonna lose. So I want to turn to you because obviously you write this show and you have this character at the center who is really doing
some pretty awful things and yet, the audience, or at least, a very vocal
portion of the audience is basically rooting for this guy. How much did that surprise you or did it not surprise you at all?
– It did not surprise me. It’s based on a book. Joe is at the center of the book. You’re inside his thoughts. It’s called You because he’s addressing back in his head, we retain that voiceover for the show. And there is a very
vocal contingent of fans of Caroline Kepnes’ book
who are like, I heart Joe. Essentially what she’s done is taken the classic romantic hero and just peeled back the gloss and sheen and John Cusack with the boom box and she followed it to
its logical conclusion. If you just turn off the sappy music and turn on a David Fincher score, romantic comedies are stalker movies. The plot of pretty much
every one I can think of, and we have watched all of them any times in the writer’s room, pretty much all of them
are contingent on the guy, first of all he has to do a
certain amount of fucking up so she can forgive him and also he has to get over
some of her shortcomings. I mean that’s love, right? But also he’s like chasing
her through a fucking airport, chasing her on a freeway, watching her sleep ’cause
he feels protective. Romantic comedy behavior
in real life is criminal. So that was basically the
starting place for the show. – There it is with its big naked windows. It’s nice, too nice. I’m thinking subsidized school housing. Jesus, it’s like you’ve
never seen a horror movie or the news. But you want people to watch, don’t you? You know I plan on asking
you about this quality when we get to know each other better. – This guy has read all the great books, he’s watched all the great romances and he’s a bit unhinged. How does he process that? What does he think he has to do to be a good man and a good boyfriend? – And then you have in your star, Penn. – Doesn’t hurt. – Sure. But also there he is on social media sort of clapping back at these people who are in fact rooting for him. What are those sort of
conversations that you have and do you want to do the same thing or do you sort of let
that unfurl as it will? – I try to have the prime directive, to answer the second part
of your question first, I’m happy to interact with people online to talk about like how
do you outline a script but when they’re like, why did you do that thing, it’s like you watch it the
way you want to watch it. For Penn, I think when Greg Berlanti and I were talking about the casting, which is I think maybe the
single most important thing when you’re making a show, we talked about how we needed an actor who really felt like Joe
Goldberg was on paper and Penn is all of that great stuff. He’s thoughtful, he’s a reader, he is a humanitarian, he is a feminist. He is extremely disturbed
by Joe’s behavior. Joe is extremely, Joe would never do those
things that Joe does. And a lot of our conversations
throughout season one when we were making the show they were largely about
his level of discomfort with each thing I was sending him. And by the way, he was like A plus number
one on the call sheet. He’s never like that feels
weird, I’m not gonna do it. He’s always like, we’re gonna
do it, we’re gonna do it, let’s talk about, and by the way, I’ve never been more
uncomfortable in my life. I also think he’s got
a good sense of humor. I think there’s something
kind of funny and glib about the way that he’s doing that that’s actually very sweet to the fans. He expected them to be like that. They’re like that about the book. So I think his approach
is kind of admirable. – What about the rest of you? I’ve noticed on Instagram, you chime in and say, you don’t quite have that right. – Yeah. I had never been a
social media guy, really and a friend of mine pointed out to me that Instagram might be a more positive
platform or something and I was really enjoying
the reactions of the fans and interacting with them
and answering questions. And I guess it was experience
from the other two seasons where I didn’t want to really
control an interpretation so much as temper expectations. Because if you’re saying something
wildly out of left field, I had the urge to sort of protect the expectations of
the story and to just say, no, no it’s not. Spoiler alert, it’s not Amelia. And then you find out that that doesn’t really work because people are then like, he’s messing with us. It’s Amelia and I’m like I swear I’m
not messing with you, it’s not her. And yeah, yeah, sure. – That’s actually so
kind of you to do that. They just suspect your motivations. I’m like tune in, find out. – Yeah, I was just, there’s a fine line between wanting people to be invested and passionate about something but also wanting to protect that it doesn’t get hijacked sort of by what John was saying
people writing their story. And so to sort of protect what’s actually
happening in the story, there were just a few times where I kind of wanted to help people out and just say, if you’re waiting seven
weeks for this to happen, it’s not going to happen. – I will say though for us on Pose it was important sometimes to
ruin narrative, if you will. – How so? – Well our show centers the narratives of five trans women of color and at present, the life expectancy for
trans women of color is 35 years old. And so on our show in the pilot, we have a character, Angel,
played by Indya Moore, who meets Evan Peter’s character Stan and that’s the beginning of a love story. But the audience who was tuning in, specifically, the trans community, they were watching that narrative and they were afraid that he was going to
be violent against her because more often than
not in the real world that is what is happening. And so by the time we got to I think it was probably
the fourth episode, we finally, all of us, the writer’s room, just had to tweet out to
everyone who was watching, like Indya’s gonna be fine. She will not die, there will be no violence
enacted towards her this season. They were coming in week after week holding their breath just waiting for that moment and we were like, that’s
not our intention here. – But is there a piece of
you as dramatic storytellers that sort of wanted that
holding their breath aspect to the watching? – No. Because I think the trans community is one that has been
victimized historically and so we certainly didn’t want to retraumatize the community in any way. It was important for us
to let the audience know that that’s not the intention with the story that we’re telling. – And even though they’ve seen Evan Peters on American Horror Story. – Which I don’t think helped. (upbeat music) – Sam, you’re somebody
whose spoken in the past, and certainly this was
the case in Mr. Robot where you felt it’s
important to sort of find, draw from yourself and your
own sort of experiences with your characters. I am curious when you came to Homecoming, this was somebody else’s
story as a podcast. Do you need to then turn around and find the pieces
of you in your story in it to tell a better story? Are there pieces of the PTSD experience that you find a way to relate to? – I think that’s mostly
about theme, right, or mostly about what you’re
trying to say in general. If that connects with some
world view that you have. And in this case, I do think there is this like mistrust with the world and reality and things around you that’s going on that for whatever reason
resonates with me. – I’m just saying, all
right, I’m pointing out, that the only reason I
think we’re in Florida is because that’s what
they told us, right? I mean that’s the only reason
we have to believe that. – If we’re not in Florida, where are we? – I don’t know. That’s my whole point, see, why would they hide that from us? – Or they’re not hiding it, you’re wrong and we are in Florida. – Why, because I’m usually wrong? – No, you’re not. – Or because I’ve never lied to us before? – I try not to impose too much on it. I really wanted Eli and Micah, the writers of the podcast, to be the writers on the show and to really retain the
spirit of what I loved when I listened to it. I did not want to start
putting in my stuff and contaminating ’cause I think that’s just
gonna end up compromising something that I thought was
really special to begin with. So I just wanted to draw
out what did resonate from when I listened to
the podcast initially. And I try not to psychoanalyze it a lot. It was a weird thing. After I listened to Homecoming and I jumped on board, it was after that I started to realize, oh, there’s an evil corporation and people are paranoid. It really was that. But I didn’t want to go
down into the weeds too much because then I felt like
I would overthink it and start to bring out more
of it than I should, you know? – So Marti, obviously you’re someone, I think you’ve called
your last three projects what is it, the self harm trilogy, is that how you described it? What are the pieces
that you identify with? What’s the sort of scab
that you’re picking in? Is it, in fact, cathartic to put these projects out there? – So much of what motivates me as a writer is to sort of connect with people who feel unseen in a way. And for me, issues of
addiction or feeling othered because you don’t have the right body type or in the case of Camille, this sort of grab bag of disorders. She’s an alcoholic, she self harms. But all of these things to me feel like parts of myself that I always felt were super shameful. And the more I contribute to
putting those things on screen and sort of not, they’re not normalizing them ’cause nobody wants these
things to be emulated but I think that you feel less alone. – I’m just in town on business. – Business. I didn’t expect you. My house is not up to par
for visitors, I’m afraid. – Looks just fine. – Come on inside. Can I get you something to drink? Alan and I are having amaretto sours. – I’ll just have what
you’re having, thanks. – We’re in back. It’s nice and cool now with a breeze. – Certainly makes me feel less alone to write them and then have people say, oh, me too. And there’s so much of that
with those last three projects. But I do feel like I’ve sort of excised it and now it’s all comedy and musicals. – Rainbows and flowers in your future? – It’s hard to make serious
drama face ’cause I, and I was going through my own hard time. I’ve struggled with
addiction my whole life and I kind of wrote my way
out in a different place. But yeah so next it’s just
gonna be jokes, jokes, jokes. I’ll be at the comedy
round table next time. – I love it. For the rest of you, what are the pieces of these characters that you identify with? The pieces of yourself that you’re either writing into them or like Sam, realizing afterwards, oh, there’s a piece of me in here? – I think for my characters in our show, I’m keying in on them
trying to control something that is uncontrollable. They’re going into a world
that’s very, very dangerous and there’s so many different
moving parts and factors. – I didn’t invent this Rod, but I’mma blow it up. Detroit, DC, Chicago,
Philly, St. Louis, New York. Send a team of trusty men every city. Set up cookouts, create the demand. We’re talking 50, 100 keys a week. Lot of keys. – They say this when you’re
learning how to write, no matter how you try to sublimate it, we’ll find out who you are as
a person through your writing. And even if you tried not to, you’re stuff is gonna be personal. And we’ll be able to know
what kind of person you are through the characters that you write. And I think that that’s very, very true. – So what kind of person are you? What have you learned? – My thing is I’ve kind of like, I’ve evolved into kind of
a zen master where like I know what I can control
and what I can’t control and I celebrate not being
able to control certain things so that it makes it more
enjoyable to see things propagate and be fascinated with what’s happening. When I got into the business, there was really, it was a dicey thing
for even a guy like me to go to film school and say,
I’m gonna be a filmmaker, I’m gonna be a writer. I went to school to be a writer to make the types of films or tell the type of stories
that I wanted to tell because I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to rely on someone else to do it. So the world’s changed in the time in which I was a kid and now going into a
filmmaker and a storyteller and a TV producer, it’s still the kind of
same thing for me of, and we were talking about, Nic and I were talking about this, we’re like you want to do the
things that are very different and there are other people that don’t really see
it the way you see it. Sam, you can attest to that. And you have to retain your
passion for what you’re doing. And I see the kind of
characters that are on our show, what they’re doing is so absurd but they’re so passionate
about what they’re doing. But it’s so dysfunctional. We’re all kind of dysfunctional work because we come up with
these fantastic, crazy ideas and then umpteen people help us put together armies of personnel to actually go out and put forth. – Yep. – I think that’s so, to me, it is all about point of view and being very specific and weird like, ’cause I remember Boyz N the Hood is like one of my all-time
favorite movies growing up but before Boyz N the Hood, you had never seen that world before, not in that way and I related to it even though I didn’t grow up like that. It was so specific and so authentic, that’s gonna always bleed
through if you’re trying, I think the counter to that is when people try and appease everybody and compromise as much as possible and then you lose that point of view. I think that’s when things get
very vanilla and formulaic. – And I’m sure all of you as producers can attest to this, things that I bitch about on my show is we’re doing a story that’s
set at a certain time and I call it a nostalgia show. It’s not Happy Days but it’s the ’80s and I’m trying to basically make sure that the writers and all the creators comment on the stuff that’s like, the minutiae of the ’80s, what they’re saying, what
they’re doing in that time. Some of the stuff that
I’m not even aware of that I want to discover. Like I always feel like
we’re one step away from jumping the shark where because people who have lived this and they’re watching it and they have to be able to look at it and rate it good or bad,
positive or negative, they have to say that was what it was. They have to say that is what it is, that is what it was. But if you get that wrong once, we’re in a world where it goes on Twitter, it goes on Instagram. So I’m like really, I hammer hard on that. It’s like when I was
watching your other show, what I loved about that one was it was so specific to that ’cause I tried my hand at
hacking when I was a teenager and I was just like I
can’t believe he got that. You know what I’m saying, all of you guys. It’s like– – You tried your hand at hacking? – I wasn’t any good at it. Before any of that dial
up and all that stuff, I got into the auto company. But it’s just like, I love seeing the specifics within a story that maybe a lot of people in
our audience doesn’t get it but it’s so specific to that that you have to go back and ask what I call the repeat
value of telling that story because people have to roll back and say, and if they don’t know it, then they want to know it. What was he saying there or what was she expressing there? Why was she doing that? And it makes it fascinating. And they’re seeing a
reflection of a certain life. The characters are living
and breathing for them. – I think that that specificity is the reason why it’s
critically important that particularly groups that often haven’t had
a seat at the table, women, people of color, LGBTQ+
people do have that seat. – [Lacey] The stuff that you guys do, it’s amazing.
– You know, I grew up in the Bronx, grew up in housing projects in the ’80s. Childhood directly impacted by
both crack and HIV epidemics. But I wasn’t part of
the ballroom community, never walked the ball. We have nine consultants on our show who all were part of
the ballroom community. – That’s incredible, nine consultants. I’ve never heard of that before. It’s incredible. – But it’s great and they’re critically
important in aiding us in the process of crafting our story. There are checks and balances. – Right. I’m curious for you, ’cause you are sort of
striking this balance between both celebrating
the exuberance of the period but also there’s some real bleakness. What is that sort of navigation in the conversations that you’re having with the writers as you do that? – Right at the inception of Pose, Ryan and I spent a lot of time talking about the juxtaposition between the two worlds, the physical posing that is
happening on a ballroom floor and then the posing that
happens in your everyday life, the masks that we wear, who we pretend to be. And I think the show is trying
to highlight that experience, what that means to have goals
and to have aspirations, to want to live a life bigger than what the world has
deemed you should live. And I think that that’s at the core of what Pose is all about. (upbeat music) – The category is high
fashion evening wear, ladies of luxury. Why are you in a nightgown? A lady do need beading for a formal fashion affair. – It’s chiffon. – It’s a tricky balance, right. We’re like constantly
sort of toeing the line, walking a tightrope between juxtaposing what is happening in a ballroom community which is fun and colorful and
effervescent and full of life with the very real reality that a lot of the folks who were a part of the
ballroom community in the ’80s were HIV positive. And being black or being Latin meant that they didn’t have access to healthcare or they were
being denied opportunities for employment. And so what does that mean? What does that mean for
this community to exist at a time where the government was saying your life has no value? And then finding a
community in the ballroom where you absolutely do have value but know that there’s a ticking clock that says that very shortly you’re no longer gonna be on this Earth. – Yeah. Nic, I want to touch with you on, so you go to Mahershala, you want him to be on the show. Initially, it’s not for
the character he plays. He comes back to you and says, consider me for this. I know this character was
written for a white person. Curious sort of what that conversation was and what the ultimate realization was that led you to say, screw it. – Well it was a short conversation. Because I knew I would
be really, really lucky to have an artist of that
caliber playing this role. I said, hey, love the idea. My only concern was sort
of in the times we live in this is a story about
time and memory and love and I wouldn’t want those
themes to be subsumed because suddenly we’re telling a story that is messaging about race or something. And I don’t think I’m the right person to
be doing that anyway. And he basically said, no, I don’t want to do that. And what Mahershala had told me was that what he liked about the role was that this was a fully
formed man and human being and often actors of color, the role they’re up
for is defined by race. So that he says, if I’m
playing a detective, I’m playing the black detective. If I’m playing this, so at the same time though I didn’t want to ignore race and pretend that it didn’t exist. It was just more in the
fabric of the world. So again, it was a brief conversation and I just said, well let me go rewrite
the first three episodes and let’s see if this would work. And then I did that and realized oh, it works just fine. And seeing how Mahershala
played the character, I thought it was such a force multiplier to have an actor of color in that role. He’s always on the periphery
of things a little bit, a little bit looked over. But that also gives him the opportunity to be a much closer observer and the sort of existential isolation we always associate with the
classic idea of the detective, like along these mean streets, a man walks alone, I thought that sort of concretized that in an experiential way for the character. – In police there is no certainty. A lot of the time there’s
no clarity at all. You just do your best and learn to live with ambiguity. – I was just incredibly grateful that he wanted the role and I thought it helped me a lot to open up my work in ways I would’ve maybe just been shy sort of wondering like well,
is that my story to tell? And then where I landed on that was I am actually the only writer on Earth qualified to write about Wayne Hayes because he’s a figment of my imagination. – Exactly, exactly, exactly. – For the rest of you, we talk about sort of the state
of the business right now. How much pressure do you feel to sort of strike while the iron is hot? You guys have a lot of sort of buzz and juice around you guys. Is there a sense of I’ve got to sell more projects, do more? Is there that pressure from the outside for you guys? You’re laughing as
though the answer is yes. Or no?
– Are you looking at me? I’ve never experienced
this before right now. I was very happily, pretty much today. I was very, very happily
working on exactly, I had reached a point in my career where I was working on exactly
the projects I wanted to. Frequently those are in the fantasy and science fiction space. And so I like carry a little
water at Comic Con sometimes but that’s looking at
Marti, who understands. In my spirit, I don’t really differentiate
between these things. I go where the story takes me and I don’t know how to do this job if I’m not really excited
about the writing of it ’cause the rest of the job is long and it takes a lot out of you and so you want to be passionate. You was the same. You was Greg Berlanti
coming to me and saying, I have this very unusual book that I think you and I should
write the pilot together. And we just saw eye to eye. And that show was bought by Showtime. We had different visions for the show. Lifetime picked it up to series. Lifetime was a fabulous
partner in season one. This was a departure for them. The executives were excited. They were sending me
these beautiful emails with great ideas, they were great partners. Didn’t work for their business model. We got canceled. And so I’m like, this is essentially how I thought my career
would be this year. And now for the first time, I’m working on a show where I go on Instagram or
whatever and there’s a meme and I’m like, wait a minute, that’s Penn on our show. So yes, there are people saying, oh, your iron is hot now, that’s what that is. And I don’t know if it’s
a defense mechanism or I just don’t believe any of that is real. I was happy doing the show at Lifetime, I was happy writing
the script for Showtime and super happy that so many
people watch it on Netflix. The rest of it, certainly as an artist, as a craftsperson, I have to build a wall between myself and anything that’s about
cash money in my life. I want that to be, I mean listen, I don’t hate money. I’m not against being paid for your work but I don’t believe that this is a moment and that the moment is gonna go away. The thing that I’m most excited about is that the next thing
will be so different because of this thing. And beyond that, I’m in
denial about all of it. – I have to say I’m in
the exact opposite place. – Really? – Where I have a lot of anxiety, specifically around how do I
make this career sustainable? There are so many incredible storytellers who have worked on wonderful shows and then they just disappear. Where have they gone? What are they doing? I recognize that I have an
incredible opportunity right now with working with one of my idols and certainly one of the
most prolific TV producers working today in Ryan
Murphy and in Brad Falchuk. And there’s a part of
me that is hyper aware that at a certain point we’ll
be done telling this story and then what is next? I’m very methodical. I’m a pre-planner. And so there’s a part of me that’s like, I don’t want fear to be the compass that I use to navigate my life. I’ve lived that life before and it did not serve me well. So I think at this point I know I need to put the fear
to the side right now. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that there’s still a little anxiety around how do you continue to sort
of navigate this career? If you’re gonna sell another, when you decide to sell another show, what is that show? What does that look like? There aren’t a lot of
people in this industry who look like me that I can then use as models. And so that I think is
one of the other anxieties is like who do I then point to to say oh that’s the kind of
career I want to have? – I had a similar, I don’t know if it’s, when Mr. Robot, when we were going into the fourth season, I always had an end game for the series. So we went into the writer’s room and I put up the last two episodes ’cause I always knew what
the last two episodes were, I put it up on the board and I said, here’s where we are from
end of season three. How many more episodes
without treading water? I’ve always said between four and five but everyone thought, oh, we definitely have
two more seasons left. And it wasn’t no, it was
basically one last season. So I went to the network and everybody was sort of like, no, this can’t be the last season. And we kept talking about
it and talking about it and there was a lot of anxiety of like, am I really ending? Nobody wants it to end right now and the cast didn’t want it to end, the network didn’t, and then you start asking yourself, well this isn’t the only story I can tell. I’ve got like five million other ideas. And when you start
playing the game of career and thinking about five
year plan or whatever, I just think what does that have to do with the story that you’re telling? It should have nothing to do with it. And of course there’s the money and you’re looking at that and you’re doing this whole other season, a whole other 10 episodes,
residuals and all this other– – Yeah, it sounds pretty good. – Yeah and you’re just like, and you just keep going. And you understand why
shows go on and on and on. What did Law and Order just hit, 20? – We had a similar thing
with Buffy way back, low in the olden days of Buffy. Joss and I kind of looked at
each other and we were like, we’re vampired out. We got, and nobody wanted it to be over, but there’s something great about I think one of the things
I learned from Joss was that he always had confidence in the storyteller inside of him that there were other stories. And I didn’t have any of that. I was just nervous wreck
always about this is the end. But I knew that we were, we had told the story and anything after that was gonna feel like we were doing a
disservice to the characters who we loved so much. And I think there’s something too about when you leave people
wanting a little bit more instead of being like yeah you guys really, you beat that horse. – Yeah, it’s like the dangerous question in the writer’s room is all right, so what are
we gonna do this episode? And when you start saying that it’s like, wait, what? No, we’re driving
towards something, right? I mean it’s almost like
the anthology format is for me like the exciting thing ’cause you basically finished the story and then you wait until
you get inspired, right? Until something–
– If the network allows you to. (laughing) – Yeah and I’ve had both experiences where okay, you have to do
something like yesterday and it needs to be done by this date and start shooting this date. But having done the anthology and I find now I would like to not do that because make these characters and feel for them and come to have great affection for them and investment in them and I would like to stay with them for more than a season. And even while having an
end to a story in mind, four seasons would be nice. That’d be nice to live
with somebody like that and towards the anxiety question, I’ve already seen so much up and down that I got very zen
about oh, it’s all over. Not working from a place
of fear or anxiety, the way I found to remove
the fear and anxiety was to just sort of, let’s imagine worst case scenario, it’s not that bad. Maybe you do something else. Maybe you’ll make plays, maybe write novels. That let me sort of work form
a place of inspiration better rather than wondering about markets or saleability or something like that. – Ugh. – Yeah. I could care less. – Yeah, obviously there’s anxiety but the good thing is is like when that conversation starts happening I just check out, I don’t care. – Yeah. And I think if I tried to create something
towards concerns like that I think it would be terrible because it would essentially
be me faking something the whole way through and I think it would be
miserable for me too. I think it would be really unpleasant.
– It is a weird balance. It’s like everybody is
the CEO of a company and then the entire company is this like little anxious writer and it’s like you have to take care of the little anxious writer or you have no product, I guess, to be really blunt about it. ‘Cause I walk around with anxiety, I mean I have it every morning actually first thing in the morning before I even start drinking coffee. But I have my little
tricks that I pull out. – What are your tools? – I have one I can share with the class. I was a staff writer below the bottom rung of the ladder at Supernatural at this point and my family all went
somewhere with a casino, I don’t remember what it was, somewhere in California and I walked underneath an LED sign that said that the jackpot
was four million dollars which was more than I expected
to make in my lifetime. And I just stopped and I
stood there and I stared at it and I asked myself if you had four million dollars today, what would you do? And the answer right away
was I would be a writer, I would keep writing. I actually wouldn’t even quit my job. It came so quickly and
with so much confidence it actually surprised me. And so when I am not in such a panic that I forget to remember that moment that’s the one I come back to, that’s the one that I, it’s like I can’t think of a situation short of losing my actual mind where I wouldn’t want to write about it. And yes, the rest I just
assume will all crash and burn. (upbeat music) – In what ways are you like
and not like your reputations? – It’s so funny ’cause when you say that I used to think that my reputation was like being really nice. And now I’m like, ooh,
I think my reputation may be that every other show I do I either quit or get fired. And then the other show
is like a nice show. So I’m like there’s probably like, I probably have multiple, I don’t have just one reputation. And actually, ’cause a lot of what you
guys were just talking about I was like the biggest journey is learning how to stay true
to the show that you’re making. And that’s the only
thing that I’ve learned which is that the next show will be when I know what the show is meaning I have a lot of ideas but there’s certain ones where I go, oh, that’s a show. And I know what it is and I know what the tone is and I will defend that and I don’t care if people like me in the defending of this thing. And I don’t even care if
the show doesn’t get made if I stay the course. To me, that’s the number
one showrunner job is I know what the show is and no matter what happens, that’s my job to get up every day and remind everybody what we’re doing and why we were doing
it in the first place. And so like I used to
think I had a reputation of being a really like
pleasant person to work with. Now I hope it’s like
well she makes the show. She fucking makes the show and sometimes it’s not pleasant and sometimes she’s
super good to be around but she does make the show. And if she doesn’t think
the show’s gonna stay in certain shows I’ve quit ’cause I’m like that’s not
the show we were making. And I’m willing to do that. And to your anxiety, as long as I stay true to that, there always seems to be another job. It’s when I start worrying about I was told on one of the
first shows out of Buffy like you were, and it was kind of a hot mess ’cause I was trying to
make everybody happy and I was trying to be successful and I wanted to show everybody that I had a show in me after Buffy. And when it crashed and
burned rather spectacularly, one of the executives said to me, wow, you were so great to work with. You took every note, maybe too great to work with. And I was like oh God, they don’t pay me to be nice. They pay me to tell them what the show is. Uh oh. – I love that. What got the best of you? In what ways do you feel like– – I don’t know what my reputation is. Do you? – I hear you’re tall. – Okay, I am like that. – Certainly for some
controlling, a point of view. I think a lot of, to your point of, in success, that can
come with the territory is that really knowing what you want and sort of taking no
prisoners in getting it. – I think yeah, we all
have to be controlling. That’s what we’re hired to do. – And they want you to basically, at least to feel comfortable with you knowing, you’re responsible and
you’re telling the story that should be told. I think part of my reputation comes back because I started in features that I don’t like is that
I’m some black militant guy, really serious and I
don’t like white people. And it’s like dude, I’m kind of a goofball. I’m funny, I’m self-effacing and everything but I’m very serious about storytelling and then like you say, telling the narrative that
hasn’t been told before. And what I don’t like is when I have people who are
not from various culture that I’m trying to storytell me dictate to me what they think it is. And you guys can all attest to that, when an executive feels that
they know better than you the story that you’re telling. Then I turn to like, you’re not gonna fucking
tell me what my story is. It’s like this is why
this character does this and you bought this for a certain reason. And if I do this, I know the audience is gonna
respond in a certain way. If I do what you want to do, we jump the shark and they’re
gonna turn their eyes off. I don’t feel there’s a
lot of people of color in the business that
feel comfortable saying, it’s gonna be like this, I don’t care what the hell you say. And I’ve gone through that throughout my, I started when I was 22 years old. So it’s like what the
hell can you tell me? You said that this wasn’t
gonna work and it worked and then you said this wasn’t gonna work and it all worked. So I’m coming from a very
organic place that as a, first of all, an oral storyteller, first, not something I research. And I don’t like that we’re like, I’m running into that brick wall of like being passionate about
something in a certain way, like you say, and then having people say, oh well, we like it, we’re intrigued, but you should do this. And it’s just like if I do that, I can’t do that. That’s what I’d say, if anything that I don’t
like, is the sad thing ’cause I think I’m a
pretty charismatic dude. – You’re very charming. – I just like people
trying to subvert my vision of what I’m thinking. – Sorry Nic. – No, I was just gonna say and if you didn’t fight and capitulated you’re not doing your job. – Exactly. – And I’ve actually used that line before that if I let you do this, I’m not doing the job you hired me for. – Exactly, exactly. – There’s always a weird line where, and it always is followed
by an awkward silence where you say, yeah but
I don’t want to do that. – No. – Well I don’t even say no, I just say I don’t want to do that. And there’s this weird, okay so and then it’s like yeah, I’m not telling you, if that’s what you want, great. Then I’m not, and you just have to commit. – I just want to feel the thing where people feel like they
have to justify their jobs by subverting what
you’ve been hired to do. – And I always feel like too, like I would never say no. I feel like if I can’t explain well why we’re doing what we’re doing, then you’re right and we shouldn’t be doing
it the way I’m doing it. If the only way I can answer something is you’ll have to trust me, then I don’t deserve the job I have. And I tend to think people who just say you’ve got to trust me generally don’t know what they’re doing. What you were saying is I think a lot of those more about people trying to
justify their jobs and stuff, I think at our best, we’re trying to work from an organic place that speaks to some form
of human experience. And they’re working
out of a place of fear. – But also it’s a subjective medium. And one of the reasons I love baking, my biggest hobby in the world is baking because everybody knows what a cake is. And generally if you say it’s chocolate and you cut it and you taste
it, it’s a chocolate cake. But what we do, it may not just be to find our job. (mumbles) – When we turn in a script, giving notes on something like that, the only thing you can do is say, well this is what I feel. And it’s this weird struggle of but I’m empirically right, but I am and the fact is you have
to keep your ears open. And sometimes there’s notes and you go, that’s a really good idea. I heard that. But it’s this weird idea where we’re all agreeing
that we’re making something that everybody can like in the same way. So I guess I always feel like sometimes I really think, no, every single three pages
of single spaced notes you gave me on that 10 minute sequence, all six of you who put that notes down, you all agree about
these contradicting notes and they’re all true. But I’m the one who has to figure out where we started in the first place. – Right. – All right, I’m gonna end with a couple of quicker questions. What is your most unusual
prewriting ritual? – Hmm. – Well I’ll just start ’cause it’s easy, I have no rituals. – I fall down the rabbit of YouTube. – [Lacey] What are you watching on there? – Everything. Everything. These days I’m watching a lot of The View which I think is because I’m
reading that book at the moment which is really good. – [Nic] What’s the book? – It’s all about the behind
the scenes of the show and chaos and it’s great.
– Lot of chaos. – Yeah, it’s good. – I jump in my kayak and I go off and made
it past the break water and I go near the pier and I face the kayak towards the shore and I let it go and let the tide take me
all the way in and fall in and I try to clear my whole mind out. And I’ve been lucky so far that I haven’t like when the
surf comes up on the beach that it doesn’t topside us. And in fact it goes up and
goes right on the beach and comes in boop, on the sand and that’s like it’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be great. – I was recently writing a pilot about, among other things, someone who suffered a
traumatic brain injury, and before I started writing I would light a saint’s
candle to Oliver Sacks. It’s all burnt down now because I finished the pilot but that was the most recent. – I love that. – I don’t think I have
time to have rituals. Well because I have to be constant, I kind of have to be constantly writing. And so I’ll write on the way to set. And sometimes writing is just I’m walking the dog and
thinking about something. Emmy will look at me and
she’ll be saying something but of course I’m in my head, and she’s like, oh, you’re writing again. But I think I yeah, kind of just have to fill in gaps. I like it when we travel. I don’t think she likes that but yeah. – Like you’re in a new country and she’s like let’s go have dinner, like it’s happening. Yeah, I’m similar. I love finding a new place to write. The people that talk about, like Stephen King has this table that he goes to every day in his house and he writes fives pages and I’m like, no man, I need to mix it up. So it’s often just about
finding the cozy place and some place a little bit distracting. But on days when you have to write then there’s no rituals
allowed, you just write. – I msut be a weirdo. I love writing at the kitchen table. – Yeah. – It’s strange. It’s like my favorite spot. – That’s sounds reliable. – I’ve found I like writing
around other people. ‘Cause for so long I
was just alone in a room and now I try to take myself out and just be around people. Like even, I’ve always hated that cliche of you always see all these
screenwriters in coffee shops but it’s really like– – Starbucks birds. – Yeah, yeah. – You don’t find it distracting? – No.
– I’m one of those. – I don’t. I find the sort of white
noise of human activity comforting in some way and like I’ll go sit at
the bar at a restaurant and I’ll just write there and eventually I’ll order a meal just so I have an excuse to be there. And it’s kind of just to not feel alone, to not feel like I’m
drifting in outer space. – Are you an introvert or an extrovert? – I’m a combination. On that Meyers-Briggs, it
was introvert, extrovert. But I’ve felt like I spent so much of the first half of my life, 35 years, alone in a room doing this and I’m tired of being
alone in a room kind of now. And I don’t generally strike
up conversations with people when I’m doing it or anything. I just like the hum of life. It makes me feel connected to the species in a way that being in a room alone I’d start to feel trapped
in the jail cell of my head. – Yeah, like you’re being
punished for something. – I used to get sent to my room when I did something bad as a kid. Now I’m sending myself
to my room all the time. What’s going on here? – I do the cafe thing too but I’m more evil than you are ’cause I put headphones
on with nothing in them so that I don’t look
like I’m eavesdropping and I straight rip off conversations
around me all the time. I went places where people were on dates when we started writing You so I could hear what that
awkward first date banter was. – Beautiful.
– That’s great. – I mean it’s super rude. – It’s great. It’s great though. – I love it. All right, speed round. The film or TV show that made you want to
do this for a living. – So growing up my parents were not big movie folks. They didn’t want to take me to the movies ’cause it cost too much. So I was just watching movies at home. And the movies that I did watch at home, and randomly, I don’t know
how I got these movies but I remember French Connection being the one I watched obsessively. And I was like watching
bad slasher horror films. And I kept hearing about this
movie coming out called E.T. And it was like oh my God, everyone was going apeshit. Everybody in school was talking about it. So I convinced my parents to finally let me go to the movies. And they did it. I was five. They didn’t go with me. They bought me the ticket, I walked in and I watched it and I was really bored, I was bored. I was not a fan. I was like what is this? It’s super boring. I was like in this room the whole time– – You saw it at the movies or video? – No, in theater. I just was like, where’s all the fun? It was like they were playing dress up. I don’t know. – You had a different expectation. – I had a different, it was a movie about aliens, I thought, again I was
used to French Connection. So I remember walking out thinking, I can do better than that. – Wow. – Spielberg. – So I was a little shit, that’s how it started, a little five year old shit. – I grew up on movies. Movies, I always believed that films saved me from delinquency. I watched movies in the
theater at an early age and I also watched a lot of
television at an early age. But specifically speaking as a writer, what really inspired me to write and have a certain kind of
specific cultural vision as a writer. It may not be politically
correct to pull up his name but Woody Allen, when I was in high school,
to a revival theater and I went to see Bananas and Annie Hall and I was watching these films and I was like funny
and dramatic and stuff and then I realized this
guy wrote every word there. Nothing was improved, everything was on book. And I was just like, okay, so this is what I have to do. I have to really learn
a lot about how to write in a way that the actor or someone can tear the material and
it just rolls of the tongue. And so for me it was
really watching Annie Hall and watching the pictures of Woody Allen.
– That was sort of pre-creepy Woody Allen. I think we can all sort of
agree on the pre-Manhattan. – All right, now we’re
really doing lightning round. What are the film or show? – So I, like Sam, it’s a Spielberg film. It was The Color Purple. I remember being a
little boy five years old and my mom– – [Sam] You hated The Color Purple? – No, I loved it. (laughing) – He wasn’t a shit. – A little different, a
little different from Sam, a little different. But my mom had read the book and I was fortunate to have parents who allowed me to watch
anything and everything. And then we would have
a conversation about it. So I was hyperaware at a very young age that film wasn’t real but the emotions that
you were feeling were. And that was the first time
that I’d ever been in a theater. I was only six I think at the time but that I saw people who looked like members of my own family on screen. And then the deep catharsis at the end when Nettie and Celie are reconnected. I just remember even at
that early age feeling like oh whatever I do with my life, I don’t know that I knew
that I’d be a storyteller working in Hollywood but I vividly remember
feeling in that moment whatever job, whatever
career path I choose, I want to make people feel that same way. – Sure, sure. All right, what’s your show? – When I was a kid, Twin Peaks. – [Lacey] Twin Peaks was your show. All right, what about you?
– I had no idea that you could, I was like, that can be TV? Then I’m interested in TV. – What about you two? – I watched musicals, MGM musicals made me want to, they took me away. It was every Saturday
afternoon on Free TV. – What was your favorite? – Oh, I mean Fred Astaire
doing anything could, the way he danced. Judy Garland, I felt her deeply. – [Lacey] What about you, Nic? – When I was eight, my father called me out of bed to come watch a movie with him and it was The Godfather. That really made this kind
of indelible mark on me about what film entertainment could be. And then sometime in my pre-teens I saw The Singing Detective. I didn’t even know that
something like that was possible. – Sure, I love it. We’ve done it. Thank you guys so much
for being a part of this. – Thanks guys. (upbeat music)

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