What draws viewers to a TV show? Sometimes it's the spark between the actors, or opening a window onto a new or rarely seen world. And sometimes seeing Bryan Cranston in his tighty whiteys is all it takes.
Meet the show runners, the people charged with spearheading a show's creative punch even as they must deal with the network brass. The Envelope invited five such executive producers (and, in many cases, the creators) of some of television's most compelling series — Alex Gansa of Showtime's "Homeland," Terence Winter of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," David Benioff of HBO's "Game of Thrones," Glen Mazzara of AMC's "The Walking Dead" and Vince Gilligan of AMC's "Breaking Bad" — to join together for a discussion of what makes a show work, violence in the media and the often troubling choices that need to be made in deciding a character's fate.
Here is the transcript of that April 29 conversation; it has been edited for length:
All of your shows have enjoyed popular and critical success, but I think what draws people to each of your shows is probably different. What do you think it is that people are connecting to?
Alex Gansa: Well, can I just first say does being here guarantee us a nomination?
It does, yes.
Glen Mazzara: What're you worried about?
What about their relationship do you think people are attracted to?
Gansa: I think it's their damage. It's that they're flawed, damaged people who recognize something in each other. And investigating that relationship is what makes sitting in the story room fun. Figuring out how they actually connect, and through what, and over what, and all the lies, and truths that exist in their relationship.
Terence Winter: I think for me what drew me to the project initially is probably what draws audiences as well. I mean, it's an era that has been seldom depicted on TV. There's something tried and true about the gangster genre that grabs people automatically. And also, for me, coming off "The Sopranos," that was sort of the end of the gangster era and this was an opportunity to explore the beginnings of that. It's a window into a world that doesn't exist anymore. And yet, what I think makes it relatable is there's so many issues that almost feel ripped out of today's headlines. I mean, basically, prohibition or illegal alcohol is really the illegal drug business. We did a story line last year involving women's fertility rights and that stuff is in the headlines. So, it's topical and yet it takes place a hundred years ago.
David Benioff: George's books [George R.R. Martin, the writer of the novels the show is based on] were certainly already really popular before the show came out. But Terry was saying it's a world that we don't know very well anymore, this is a world that's actually never existed and there's something great about, for me as a TV viewer, going someplace I've never been before.
Mazzara: I think people are drawn to "The Walking Dead" because they seem to buy into the concept of zombie apocalypse for some reason. They immediately put themselves in that set of circumstances. So, they, in a sense, play along at home. What would I do? We write the show so that people have to make moral choices, they have to make decisions about how to survive, who to partner up with, that sort of stuff. And we have terrific actors and they've brought these characters to life in a tremendous way.
Were you surprised at the ratings this year? I mean, you're beating broadcast shows.
Mazzara: It's something we don't take lightly. I think all of us, when we do our work, you're like, "Oh, I hope somebody watches this," (Laughs) and you just focus on making it as good as possible. And then, to put it out there, and these numbers come in, that's pretty exciting and something we're all very appreciative of.
What's bringing people to "Breaking Bad"?
Vince Gilligan: Five little words, Bryan Cranston in his underpants. (Laughter) That's what we got going for us. You've got to give the people what they want. (Laughter)
Benioff: Tighty whiteys.
A lot of your shows are about family, either literally or metaphorically. What do you think your show is saying about family?
Gilligan: On the face of it, "Breaking Bad" does seem to be about family and what it takes to keep a family together. But I really think—we're always ripping off "The Godfather" any chance we get, which is certainly about family, but I think we are really telling a story about one man who thinks he's doing the best for his family, trying to keep them solvent and together, but really, he's the worst family man ever because he's all about himself. He's all about self aggrandizement.
What about your show, Glen? They're a makeshift family.
Mazzara: They are and it's people thrown together in order to survive. In this apocalyptic world, there's no help coming, there's no government, there's no Army, there's not doctors. There's no salvation except for the people that you are huddled around the campfire with. And in this particular season, we were looking at is that enough? How do you step outside that family? When do you let other people in? But at the end of the day, those are the people who are going to sacrifice themselves for each other and I think you can only get that selflessness in a family. And that's part of the reason, to go back to the first question, why people care [about the show], it's because the characters care about each other.
David, you have so many families in your show. Let's confine your remarks to the Lannisters and the Starks, but what do you think your show is tapping into about families?
Benioff: Don't trust 'em. (Laughter) You know, those two families are so different and the Lannisters are always kind of conspiring against each other. And the Starks are more of an old-fashioned tight-knit group, and things don't go well for the Starks at all. I mean, those home spun values don't really actually work that well in this particular world. It's interesting hearing a character like Tywin Lannister talk about how everything's about family and every decision has to be about what's best for the family. And you know what he's really doing is what's in Tywin Lannister's best interest. He's got such a kind of megalomaniac world view that he thinks anything that's in his interest is in the greater interest. But I don't think the other Lannisters necessarily see it that way.
Gansa: We talk a lot about family on "Homeland," and my feeling about it is it excuses extreme behavior in a way. In other words, I think audiences are interested in watching characters on all our shows do outrageous things, but I think it's important at the same time to give them, the audience, a window into what a particular family looks like in each of these shows. So there is something that's actually relatable. Like how're they going to deal with that situation?
All your shows are very active among social media outlets. And I know this can be a blessing and a curse. Did you pay attention to that?
Gansa: Oh, I paid attention to social media when it was positive. (Laughter) And then, when it went negative, I just stopped listening. You have to stop listening because it will completely make you crazy.
Winter: Yeah, three years in, I'm almost completely weaned off of it. It does no good at all. It's amazing that you didn't read the negative ones because the negative ones are the only ones that I found interesting. But at the end of the day, it does not help and it's the same stuff over and over again.
Gansa: There's also such an immediacy about it. In other words, people don't take time to reflect and every episode on all these shows is one of a chapter in a little novel.
Winter: This is what drives me crazy, they're reviewing chapters of a book. Say, "Well, this went nowhere." (Laughter) Well, you don't know that yet.
Benioff: They're tweeting in the middle of the episode what their reactions are to—
Winter: You're not really watching.
Mazzara: When "The Walking Dead" is broadcast, I read the Twitter feed, believe it or not. So, there's two things going on. One is that there are critics and bloggers recapping the next day. And that's overwhelming. That's reviewing the chapter, you know, one by one, and all of these shows are arced out over a season. So, not every episode is going to be kickass and fast-paced. Sometimes it'll be slower because you're slowing things down to then build. It's also a lot of people trying to provoke you. It's a lot of people with strong opinions. And it's not necessarily people paying attention to the whole. So, you have to really take it with a grain of salt.
Benioff: You have a Twitter feed which is brave, because doesn't that mean that people can just say whatever?
Mazzara: Oh yeah, people send you stuff all the time, and it's a good way to engage fans, and try to be playful, and all of that. And it can be a lot of fun. I enjoy it, but there's a lot of—like I said, it's just kind of like people shouting at a ballgame. It doesn't mean anything. You have to tune it out because you can't let it affect your writing. It has nothing to do with when you sit down to write a script.
What's the biggest fight you guys have had in the writers' room?
Mazzara: We had this character, Andrea, who ends up being killed off in the finale, and that was a very divisive story line. Questions about what are we saying? Is that too bleak for the world that you go on this 16-episode journey, and then, you end up with really a senseless murder. It's a brutal act the way she's killed, and she's, in a sense, just sort of murdered. And I thought that was important. I thought, yes, this is a world in which the rule of law has broken down and anything goes, and the real monsters are the people that we're watching instead of the zombies. I thought it completed the Governor's arc, which was the main antagonist for this year. So, we designed his arc to have a journey where he starts, and he's part good, part evil. But then, at the end, he's transformed into an evil guy that would exist in this world. It was very personal. Everybody had a lot of—it was very emotional for the writers. I mean, what are we saying? What is the show? And I just really felt that that was right. I kind of stuck by my guns on that one.
So, the counterargument was it was too bleak to kill her off?
Mazzara: Yeah, sort of. I think the idea that it all comes down to that sort of felt like, "Is that going to be satisfying? Is that the right endpoint for that character?" But the larger story was that, going back to the family theme, is that our main character, Rick, is motivated by that to sort of open up his group and allow other people in. And I felt that that needed a blood sacrifice and she was a worthy sacrifice because the audience was invested in her.
Benioff: There's always that moment when we will send George Martin the outline for the next season and inevitably a lot of things are changed from the books. And then, we'll wait for the call or email where George is upset about certain thing we're changing. But I think the lucky thing is that George worked in television for a long time. He worked on Beauty and the Beast, and then, the reincarnation of "The Twilight Zone." And so he knows how the sausage is made, and he gets that there are going to be changes.
Was there some change in particular that he objected to?
Benioff: Any of 'em.
Gansa: We have a fight every year about how long we're going to keep one of these major characters alive, Brody. So, it's a big fight every year. But it's a fun fight. And ultimately, the network wins every time.
I think a lot of people thought that he may not survive the second season. Why did he?
Gansa: Frankly, he almost didn't survive the first season either. You know, when we first developed the show, the franchise was a CIA franchise. And the characters of Saul and Carrie were the ones who were going to lead us through season after season. And like "24" in a way, we would introduce a new storyline for them to get involved with each season. And then Damian and Claire started playing scenes together and we realized that there was something charged between these two people, these two actors. And it just became obvious that we should at least keep them around for two seasons. And here we are in Season 3. If there is more story to tell, compelling story to tell, especially when you have two actors who're playing so well with each other, it's like, maybe there is an economic reason to keep 'em around for another season.
I know you dealt with that a lot on "Walking Dead." The way this season started out, I was afraid there would be no cast members left at the end. But the Governor, for instance, in the comic book is not with us anymore, but you kept him alive.
Mazzara: Yeah, that was always my plan to run that character into at least one more season. But we had this other death, the Lori character died, and we were going to have that as the major death at the end of the season, and she was pregnant. So, we were wondering, "Well, what is this pregnant character going to do all year? What's her arc?" We're just kind of waiting for her to give birth. So, we said, "Well, what happens if you move the death up?" And when you did that, it sort of gave us a lot more story. It puts all of the other characters in motion kind of like a pool table — you strike one ball and all of a sudden, everything starts moving around and you start seeing story possibilities that weren't there before.
So, that's a test for when it's right to kill a character. Because these are difficult decisions. I'm the guy who has to call the actor. I mean, we all are. You have to tell them, you know, when—and the actors work hard to get there, and they commit so much. And then, to call people and say, "Sorry, you know, it's time to go." It's never easy. So, you really have to make sure that it's right for the show, that it's not just a cool moment in a particular script. That's kind of cheap.
I know we have the last eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" and at this time, it's relatively new in TV that you get to actually make your own ending. What do you think the elements of a good ending should be?
Gilligan: The biggest gift I ever got in my life was getting to do this show. The second biggest gift was being told "You have exactly 16 more episodes," so that the writers and I could structure, and build, and work toward the story that we knew was remaining. You don't typically know in advance when you're going to end. Having said that, what do you owe the audience? You owe them, it seems to me, your best attempt at a satisfying ending, which is not to say happy nor sad. Satisfying is a whole other thing and it could contain elements of happiness and sadness. I always think about "MASH" as a great ending for a series. And I wonder to myself, "Why was it so satisfying?" Because it's so obvious that the Korean War will end at the end of "MASH." But sometimes the most obvious ending is the most satisfying, the thing that you—the in-built promise that you witnessed in the first episode. Sometimes the least obvious ending is the most satisfying.
Winter: Cutting to black in the middle of a scene worked really well.
Winter: People seem to really love that.
Gansa: Really lucky I wasn't Twittering. (Laughter) I was enraged.
Do you all have endpoints for your shows in mind?
Winter: I have joked in the past that my endpoint is a very elderly Nucky walks into a diner and kills Tony Soprano. (Laughter) That probably won't happen, but I have ideas. But again, without knowing now exactly how long the series will go, it'll change. I hope I have enough advance notice to plot it out correctly.
Gansa: If someone will just tell me what the end of Season 3 is, I'll be happy. (Laughter)
I know you're dealing with George Martin having to write it or how is that working for an endpoint?
Benioff: Yeah, we needed to know where it was going because we don't know when the next books will come out. So, we flew out to Santa Fe where he lives, and sat down with him for almost a week in a conference room at a hotel just to — it was kind of like a scene from "Homeland." We turned the spotlight on him and started interrogating him. Stab his hand to get answers. (Laughter) So, we learned from him, you know, where the various character storylines are going, not all of which are going to happen the same on the show because inevitably as the show goes on, there're just going to be more and more deviations. So, we have, I'd say, a series of images in mind for various character endings.
You all deal in a world that is fairly violent. How do you look at that when you're writing your story? Where's the line for you?
Gansa: Well, "Homeland" has an immediate resonance with what's going on in the world just because we're dealing with issues like terrorism, and embassies overseas, and the Middle East. So, we try to educate ourselves into—to become sort of—get a small sort of little master's degree in foreign policy before we start talking about story. But at the beginning of last season, we posited that Israel hit Iran and took out four of its five civilian nuclear facilities, and we talked a lot about why were we putting this story out there? And in fact, I did take a trip to Washington, D.C., to talk to all our CIA consultants. And my main question to them was, "Is Israel going to hit Iran in the next two months?" Because if they do, we might be in a little bit of trouble on the show. I didn't want world events to be in front of our events.
Winter: Violence is part and parcel to the gangster world. So, if you're going to do a show about gangsters, you're going to see some horrific violence. I mean, we try to be mindful of that fact, we don't gratuitously say, "Oh gee, it's been 15 minutes, somebody needs to get killed." Everything comes from the reality of these characters, but the unfortunate reality in terms of the violence is that is often the way to resolve conflicts in that universe. But I like to think there's a lot more to the show and this is one of the things that's frustrating, when you read people commenting on it: If characters are talking for the most intense, human drama in the world, if nobody gets shot, then nothing happened on the show. "That was a ... episode. Nobody got killed." There's a segment of the audience that just wants to see some blood splatter and that's the stuff that's really disheartening as a storyteller.
Benioff: I think we're lucky that we don't have to worry about current events at least, because Iran's not breeding dragons or anything like that. (Laughter)
Winter: Not yet.
Benioff: It's a violent world. And again, going back to the very first time we pitched this show to HBO and said, "It's not like your PG-13 studio fantasy movies where there're a lot of swordfights but you don't see any blood. And where none of the hobbits are ever thinking about sex." I mean, this is a graphic world. This is a place where people get their heads hacked off a lot and I don't think anything's going to change that for us. We certainly are not thinking about society's current stance on violence when we're writing the scripts. And I don't happen to believe it I mean, — the Canadians are watching the same things we're watching and they're not as violent. And the Japanese are watching way sicker things than we're watching, and they're not particularly violent. So, I don't really believe in the link.
Mazzara: For me, because it's a horror show, there's a version in which it could be stylized, it could be sadistic, and the violence that we show is often very quick, brutal, kind of surprising and stunning, and then, we spend a lot of time on people talking and trying to process the trauma. And I think that's a very important part of what we want to do is show the effects of this world on people. That they're trying to make sense of it and they can't. All rules have broken down. And that's messy.
Gilligan: Yeah, Glen put it very well. We've had some truly horrific images on our show. We've had one in particular — I had trouble watching over and over again, as you have to in the editing room, and the mix, and whatnot, which was a throat cutting. And we don't shy away from them, and they're really horrific. But we don't censor them, clearly. The only thing, to amplify what Glen said or just to repeat that the only thing I would feel guilty about, that I would lose sleep over is if we showed scenes like that without consequences. They have to have consequences.
Benioff: We see a character get shot in "Breaking Bad" and then it takes him a whole season or longer to recuperate, and that made such an impression on us because it's so rare to see that. I mean, just the actual physical effects of an injury because usually you have a character in a show, or a movie, whatever—I was just watching actually a good TV show the other night, but a character gets shot in the chest, and then, the next scene, he's walking around. It's a week later, and he's kind of like scratching himself like it itched, getting shot in the chest. And it made a real impact seeing that you took a character and spent that much time with it and the guy was pretty much bedridden for episodes and episodes.
Gilligan: And the actor did not love it either. (Laughter) He did a wonderful job, Dean Norris. He did not care for that. (Laughs)
Sort of looking ahead to the future, obviously Netflix is making a splash with "House of Cards," all these different kind of methods of delivery of entertainment. You have Amazon now in the original programming business. What do you guys make of this?
Gansa: I think the more outlets there are for this kind of stuff, I mean, we're all going to be working for a while, which is good. I think it's something—"House of Cards" is fantastic. All that stuff is great. It's like the more, the merrier.
Winter: I still watch things on DVD. I have no idea what the new delivery systems are, but I'm all for it. The more ways we can get our content in front of a prospective audience, great.
Benioff: You think back not that long ago, it was only the three networks, and then, Fox, and then, the emergence of AMC, and FX, and TNT. Like all these stations started—or networks started making really great shows. And so, I think it's a really good thing that Netflix is now in that business.
Mazzara: The other thing that's great is not only are there more places that you could go, but as these places have to compete with each other, they'll take chances. So, it gives us the opportunity to push ourselves as artists and storytellers, and try to come up with something that's out of the box.
Gansa: It's fascinating just the viewing experience. When we all grew up, it's like you watched every week and you waited every week. And now, there's really this opportunity to sit down and to watch these shows in marathon sessions. And it has to alter the way the content gets received.
Mazzara: That's how I watch your shows. I watch everyone's show here and I binge watch shows. I can't stand watching a show week to week anymore. Maybe a comedy.
Gilligan: But back in the day, the conventional wisdom was, a fan of a show, the research bore this out, a fan of a show, a so-called fan, self-described fan, saw on average one out of four episodes of a TV show. With Netflix, or Amazon Streaming, or iTunes, or what have you, or buying the Blu-ray, or the DVD set, you don't miss anything.