It is a fact now universally acknowledged that television has never been so creatively varied, ambitious and just plain good. Whether we’re bingeing, live-Tweeting or just trying to keep up with the rising tide of our DVR queues, we are a nation addicted.
A hallmark of this new gold standard is the rising profile of the showrunner, those men and women who create and oversee the writing of the shows that have made television the hottest art form. Where once most labored in relative anonymity, showrunners have become the new rock stars, selling out convention panels, gracing magazine covers and even starring in their own show (“The Writers’ Room” on Sundance.)
For this year’s Envelope Emmy Round Table of showrunners, we spoke with some of the very best: Michelle Ashford (“Masters of Sex”), Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), Joel Fields (“The Americans”), Scott Gimple (“The Walking Dead”) and Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”). For an hour, the group discussed this new age of television, the perils and pitfalls of the creative process and the foibles of their own particular shows. They didn’t always agree on everything, but their passion and innovation is precisely why TV is as good as it is and getting better every year.
Here are excerpts from the May 2 panel discussion edited for length:
So what is it about television that makes it the place where you want to tell your stories?
Julian Fellowes: Well, you have an adult audience. The big audience for movies, as you know, is teens and early 20s, whereas we have 30 to death, and that’s a big group. You can have adult themes, you can have complicated themes. Not everything is resolved. People can have emotionally contradictory natures, all sorts of stuff.
Scott M. Gimple: It’s the ongoing relationship with the audience -- where a movie is like an awesome date, a TV show is a marriage that you are entering into with an audience. And it can go on for years and years and years. And that also makes the storytelling incredibly powerful, if you’re doing it right.
Beau Willimon: If you have 13 episodes in a season, that’s the equivalent of making seven movies in one year. The most successful screenwriter on the planet, it might take them a decade to get seven movies up on screen. To know that you’re going to work on this material, 800 pages or whatever it is, and it will all be shot, and that people will see it is extraordinary.
And for me, personally, the collaborative aspect of making a television show is totally different than working on a film. You have an ongoing dialogue with the other writers in the room. You have an ongoing dialogue with the actors. You can absorb what they’re doing in front of the camera, let their voice, their instincts, their body language inform scripts to come, talk about them with where their character is going, work with lots of different directors who all bring their voice, and creativity and originality to your show, expanding it and deepening it. So you have this organic thing that continues to grow.
Fellowes: I completely disagree with you. I agree that character...
Willimon: But you would be nothing without your actors.
Fellowes: No, the actors are fine, and developing the performances, but the 1,700 heads in the producers’ office are the ones I have a problem with.
Willimon: I’m talking about collaborating on the creative side.
Fellowes: We only have three of us making our show and I think that is incredibly luxurious, compared to a show in America, where you have these whole shoals of producers, it seems to me, coming in all with the right to give you notes. And I think that’s why, in most of the shows that are standouts, you’ll find that isn’t what happened. The standout shows are when a clear vision is allowed to get through on to the screen.
Joel Fields: There have been times when we’ll reach out [to Fx] and say, “Hey, we’re thinking about this direction, we’re thinking about that direction, what are your feelings?” And I think part of the reason for that is that they never dictate notes. They don’t give us reams and reams of notes. They engage us in a dialogue but, ultimately, they give us the freedom to make the choices we want to make. And I think the openness that you’re talking about too, all of that support and all of that collaboration is what makes the product great.
What’s it like for you, Michelle, when you’re dealing with real people...
Michelle Ashford: I feel very blessed that my story is nonfiction. I actually love the parameters that a real story gives you because then you have to sit down and say, well, how can I best tell this story within these guidelines? And so we found this book, and when I read the story of Masters and Johnson, I realized, first of all, it was so Byzantine, complicated, layered. It went places that you would never have expected. And it was the most bizarre love story I’d ever read. And then for writing it day in and day out, week after year now, what’s fantastic is you get to go into so much history and bring this up, and bring it alive.
Fellowes: Did it have a sort of natural dramatic arc, or did you have to kind of impose one on it?
Ashford: It had twists and turns that you could’ve never made up, and so it felt a little bit like cheating. Because when you read this story, you thought, oh my God, it’s all there, that’s so fantastic. And it has arcs within it, and then it does have an over-arching sort of story that is very curious and strange. And so, now, we have to fill in a lot because this is really based on one book, and this is the only source material we really have. And there’s big gaps, but that’s where we do our work. We find these gaps and say, how did they get from point A to point B? What was really going on there? And so then we can fill it in.
Fellowes: I think that sometimes you do have to impose a kind of dramatic shape, narrative shape onto events, and sort of nudge them. But if this doesn’t require that, then you are the more blessed.
Ashford: Well, we do have a very complicated problem with the end, so we’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it since I first picked this book up. It’s like, ooh, how would you end this show? I mean, they’re both deceased, so that’s an obvious end. But...
Are we going to go all the way there?
Ashford: I don’t think we’re quite going that far.
Speaking of endings, traditionally television was open-ended, you just ran with it until they said, OK, you’re not making any more money, so you’re cancelled. But now you have these shows where the vision is very much planned out. Do you all have your ending, where your characters are going already?
Gimple: It’s knowing thematically where you’re going, knowing what you want to achieve, but almost accounting for expansion from that — having an end in mind that’s flexible. And even, I would say, our show could keep going as a story, but it would be a new story. Meaning the characters that we have, we would tell all of their stories but use the environment to tell new characters’ stories. But that’s wishful thinking that things would go on and on and on and on.
Are you telling us they’re all going to die next season?
Gimple: Next episode, actually.
Fellowes: I don’t really believe in that, though. I remember there was one doctor series in England called “Peak Practice,” set in the Derbyshire Peaks. And by the end of the series, the only thing that was still in it were the peaks! I mean, even the buildings had changed.
Willimon: I’ll give you a great example, “The Wire.”
Fields: “Game of Thrones” just does it brilliantly, and “The Wire,” that’s right.
Willimon: The greatest show ever made. I mean, every season, the frame was completely shifted. You were still in Baltimore, and you were still dealing with the interplay of institutions, but there was no protagonist.
Gimple: And that’s a show that could have gone on ...
But that was built into the show from the beginning. That was the conceit of that show. I think what you’re talking about is, you start off as, “We’re going to tell this and then if it keeps going and people still like it, we’ll move it on.”
Gimple: Well, I would say our show, and you know, the source material it’s based on, has just evolved so much every season that it’s a new show every eight episodes.
And you’re starting to see that now with “American Horror Story,” with “True Detective,” where people are kind of playing around with the idea of, this is a series in that it’s going to be a certain kind of thing, but the story’s going to shift, and the characters are going to be different.
Fellowes: And you’re not going to have that relationship that you have with, you know, “Mad Men” and all the rest of it, where you become very involved with the people. You didn’t do that with “The Wire.” You were enjoying it in a completely different way. If they suddenly said the next [season] of “Mad Men,” Don Draper’s been fired and now everyone’s different, I’m not sure you could make that work, because I think your enjoyment of that show is too much to do with your relationship with those characters.
Willimon: It’s not for every story, of course. I mean, some stories require a central pillar, you know? I mean, that’s how they’re built.
Gimple: I think the audience enjoys it. That’s what we did, our last season, our last half-season, pardon me, is we shift the focus quite a bit. The ensemble is broken into all these different groups, and generally, each episode, we focused on one of those groups. And, you know, the main character, Rick Grimes, was in four episodes, in half of the back half, and one of those episodes, in one scene. But he was always present.
With social media, the viewers can let you know in one second what they think of an episode. How does that affect your decisions to try something offbeat?
Gimple: You can do it and hope that they like it, but you start out by doing this and being confident that it’s what you want to see. But it put the onus on us to tell great stories, stories that we could stand behind, that didn’t have the, you know, top billed characters in them. And I thought that was a great place to be. And I think, you know, with a large ensemble, giving every character the spotlight every now and again helps the audience, I don’t know, gives the audience something else. They aren’t garnishes. They’re whole people. They’re somebody that the audience can be interested in and follow along as well.
Fields: We do look at the Twitter feed and we certainly read the critics and the bloggers who are not just writing what they call recaps, they’re really deep, rich analyses of the world, and you have to appreciate those.
Fellowes: But you can water yourself down if you’re trying to pay too much attention to all of that. You’ve got to keep forging ahead with ... I mean, I am perfectly sure that if you put your idea we’ve just been talking about onto Twitter and said, hey guys, I’m thinking about doing four episodes without Andrew Lincoln, [the audience reaction would be] aaaarrrggghhh, you know? I mean, you would never have done it.
Fields: I think that’s the challenge, is can you engage these things, A) without it eating up your entire life, and B) without it leading you. And if you can do that, it’s pretty interesting. But at the end of the day, it’s something that’s given to the audience. And it’s pretty cool to live in a world where, like the theater, you get an immediate response. That’s pretty neat.
Have you guys had reactions that took you totally by surprise?
Gimple: There was, in the mid-season finale, there was something that we had that I was very worried about the audience getting ahead of or not buying. Rick’s daughter, who’s a baby, in the aftermath of this raid on where they were, Rick and his son only find this bloody baby chair. The audience was, oh my God, I can’t believe they killed that child. And it was within the realm of possibility and, man, I hate saying this in front of everybody, but it’s an obvious thing: Nobody wants to see a baby eaten on television.
Willimon: Try killing a dog. That’s the thing...
Gimple: And in the first 30 seconds, too.
Ashford: That was right out of the bag.
Fellowes: We often underestimate how important these characters and situations and whatever become to our audience. Because however much we’re pleased with the way things have turned out, we were there when they were being filmed or cut or edited, and we took this shot down, and, you know, blah, blah, blah. But I remember, I was in New York not very long ago, and I was in Barnes and Noble, and I noticed this woman sort of following me slightly as I was going around. And finally, I stopped, and she said, “Just let Edith be happy!” And you know, you think, blimey, I’m really in this person’s life, you know? This stuff is important! And I think you have to remind yourself of that every now and then, that when you do bad things to them, you’re treading on people’s dreams.
Willimon: You can use social media tactically too. We desperately — spoiler alert, spoiler alert, spoiler alert — we desperately wanted to keep the Zoe Barnes thing in Season Two a secret, right? So we took a lot of pictures of Kate [Mara] on set, when she was filming the first episode of Season Two, and then we would just dribble them out over the entire production phase.
To fool everybody.
Willimon: To make, yeah, like on-set with Kate today. Miraculously, we kept it secret, but we made it appear as though she was with us the whole year. Disinformation.
What surprised you on your show, as the writer?
Ashford: One of the things getting into this show that I was apprehensive about was the amount of sex that was obviously going to be in it. And I spent many, many, many hours trying to figure out how I was going to approach this, what it was going to mean, and everything. And I think I was worried a little bit about, when you’re approaching actors, let’s say, like Allison Janney, how is that all going to work?
One of the things that’s really surprising is how, if you create the right environment, everybody wants to take their clothes off. I mean, it’s really extraordinary. And I realized it had to do with everyone coming in now knowing that, if they’re doing it, it is for a narrative reason. We don’t get into that kind of gratuitous stuff at all. And so once people feel safe, so that Allison Janney story is actually very funny, because her contract was just, like, red X’s all over. Will not do this, will not do that, will not do anything. And by the third episode, she says, “How come I never get to get naked?” I mean, she was really quite upset about it. And so I realized, somehow we’ve sort of put together something that actually feels safe in that way. I was happily surprised by that.
Fields: The happiest surprises for me are when our actors come at scenes differently than we’ve heard them in our heads. And you write something, and you see it a certain way, and there’s part of you that wants it to be realized exactly as you’ve seen it. But then you’re on set and you see people taking it in places that are deeper and more surprising, and that’s always fun for me.
Gimple: The biggest surprises this year have always been in the editing room, when just a couple of scenes put next to each other, the context changes completely, which is not a shock. I mean, that’s what happens in editing. But to see it happen to stories that you’ve been visualizing in a certain way, to see those just instant changes, and to get maybe just an incredible bump in the richness of a scene, just from a slight little change in the order.
Willimon: The character of Rachel, which was a byproduct of another great surprise. We always knew Corey Stoll was going to be amazing, but he was so great that I shifted a whole story of someone running for governor in the first season -- that was another character altogether -- into his story, so that we could see more of him, and to deepen his character. As a byproduct of that, Rachel, listed as only “the callgirl,” in the first couple of episodes, came back and became a character beause I was looking through all of our characters to see who are people that we’ve seen, that he’s engaged with, that we can use to expand his story? And she sort of came out of nowhere. And Rachel Brosnahan gave us such wonderful stuff every time she was in front of the camera.
Fellowes: I remember at the very beginning in the first series, we were hoping that we had created a dramatic world where we were allowed to be funny, and be quite lighthearted, but also have quite big, dramatic events every now and then. And the tester was, of course, the death of the Turk — based on an entirely true story, incidentally, but that’s another day. We’d had the first two episodes, which were both quite benign. And then we had the dead Turk, and the women struggling with him down the gallery. And it really woke the audience up and I realized in that moment that we were going to be allowed to have this world that was funny and also sweet and nice, but also these fantastically dramatic things happening in the middle of it.