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Showrunners talk network notes, watching TV (and sex, violence and vibrators)

EL SEGUNDO, CA., APRIL 27, 2098---The ENVELOPE talks with EMMY contending Showrunners during a Round
TV showrunners, from left, Peter Gould, Marta Kauffman, Alec Berg, Ava Duvernay, Leslye Headland and Isaac Aptaker.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Blame them for why you’ve done nothing productive with your weekends.

Six showrunners from some of TV’s most distinctive series joined The Envelope recently to chat about their work: Isaac Aptaker of the time-jumping family drama “This Is Us”; Alec Berg of the reluctant-hitman dark comedy “Barry”; Ava DuVernay of the upcoming Central Park Five limited series “When They See Us”; Peter Gould of the sympathetic con artist prequel “Better Call Saul”; Leslye Headland of the mind-bending time-loop comedy “Russian Doll”; and Marta Kauffman of the senior buddy comedy “Grace and Frankie.”

The wide-ranging conversation touched on the art of dealing with network notes, a TV writer’s struggle to be a TV viewer, and obligations to the viewer (not to mention, sex, violence and vibrators).

Here are excerpts of that conversation, edited for length and clarity. The full interview will air all month on Spectrum News 1, starting June 21 at 9 p.m.

There are a lot of shows wrapping their runs in coming months. How top-of-mind is the endgame as you’re in the process?

Peter Gould: Endgame is always on our minds. We have 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad” and now we’ve already done 40 episodes of this show. And it’s a show that definitely has a beginning, a middle and an end. So we’re always talking about how do we end this and make it what it should be, have it be satisfying, have it not screw up the work that we did on “Breaking Bad”? As we’re breaking Season 5, for the first time we came up with a few ideas about where this is all going, very specific ideas — which because they’re very specific means that we probably won’t end up doing them.

In The Envelope’s Showrunners Roundtable, “Better Call Saul” showrunner Peter Gould talks about the discussions that take place on how best to wrap up the show.

Marta Kauffman: We have two actors who are … well, one of them is over 80 and one of them is close to 80, plus the two men, who are in their late 70s. So we think about it. We think about it a lot. We don’t know for how much longer they’re going to want to do it. So it is foremost in our minds and also, honestly, the idea of vacation is on my mind a lot.

What is your writing process like? Do you need to be at a desk? Do you need silence?

Kauffman: For 27 years, I worked with a partner [David Crane] and then I had to learn how to work alone. In the beginning, I would have typed conversations with myself, just, “Do you think that’s a stupid idea?” “God, yes!” And what I eventually learned was that I have a rhythm and I like to ride the wave of that rhythm. And then once the wave is over, I need to walk away, let things percolate and then go back to ride the next wave.

Isaac, you also work with a partner.

Isaac Aptaker: I don’t know if you and David were like this: We found if we stare at a blank screen at the same time, we’d kill each other. It does not work. So we divide up — you know, we split a script in half, we go off and we write our scenes. Then we put it together, we throw it up on a monitor and we rewrite it completely together sitting there. But we can never start from scratch as a duo.

Alec, you have to be a little more fluid with Season 2, right? Because co-creator and star Bill Hader was shooting “It” and you were also working on “Silicon Valley” at the time.

Alec Berg: Yeah, it’s sort of a leapfroggy situation, where I’m finishing “Barry” now and starting “Silicon Valley.” I also have always worked with somebody else, and it is interesting, even when I worked with other people, as you were saying, I feel like you can outline together, but actually typing from square one, I feel like weirdly is an individual pursuit.

Kauffman: David and I wrote every word together.

Aptaker: Really? Would you switch off who was typing or how ...

Kauffman: No, he always typed. So I had learned to write out loud. That was part of the adjustment for me was learning how to go from here [points to her head] to my fingers. But we wrote every word together.

Many of you are working on shows that are on cable or streaming, so there’s a little bit more freedom. What’s the process of knowing what works for your show?

Kauffman: I think what you said is the key. It’s what works for your show. We’re dealing with four very elegant people, and we can push the envelope to a certain extent; we can talk about dry vaginas and yam lube and vibrators. But we can’t get vivid about sexual things because they’re just too elegant and it would feel like I don’t need to know that about them.

In The Envelope’s Showrunners Roundtable, “Grace and Frankie” showrunner Marta Kauffman says it’s the show that tells you how far to push the envelope.

Berg: Yeah, it’s funny, on “Silicon Valley” we can get as vivid as we want and we never, ever have, because it just doesn’t — these are nerds and the idea that there’s nudity and violence in the world of computer programming doesn’t seem to sit.

What’s the hardest scene you had to work through? I mean, there are a lot of very emotional scenes in “When They See Us,” a lot at stake there.

Ava DuVernay: It’s difficult subject matter, so none of it was easy. In “Selma,” I was shooting riots and murders. In “13th,” it was digging through a thousand hours of racist, violent footage to put together the documentary. And then I did a movie where a little black girl was flying [“A Wrinkle in Time”] and I got to dress Oprah up in beautiful wigs. And so, to come back to this kind of subject matter, it was tough to get back to. So all of it was hard. Because even if you were in a scene that was about domestic life, I knew what was coming, what was going to soon be shattered. It was intense.

“Queen Sugar” and “When They See Us” showrunner Ava DuVernay on the most challenging scene she’s ever faced.

Peter, you finally reached the point with “Better Call Saul” where Jimmy says his name is Saul Goodman. Was that hard to get to?

Gould: I don’t know if it was. On our show, we talk about what people are willing to do rather than what they say. Some of it is how he presents himself, this character Saul Goodman, that Jimmy McGill has created. But a lot of it is what is he willing to do to get what he wants? And weirdly enough, a lot of the show is about morality. It’s about the things that people are willing to do, the stories they tell themselves to allow themselves to do things. And it’s also a little bit about the law, because those things are not the same; morality and the law are really, really different. So is he willing to put his own life in danger? Is he willing to put other people’s lives in danger because he wants to be significant? It’s a moral question more than a matter of what’s he calling himself or how he’s presenting himself.

What’s the weirdest or worst note from an executive that you’ve had?

Leslye Headland: For a show that is … and this is a technical term, “bonkers,” we didn’t actually get that many notes from Netflix or the studio, Universal. They really kind of embraced just from the beginning that it was going to be what we described as an existential adventure show. But elsewhere in my career, I was doing a film, which had some explicit sex scenes in it. When I have sex scenes like that, I usually storyboard them so that both the producers as well as the cast are able to see them ahead of time and know exactly what the shots are going to be and what we’re going to reveal and all of those things. And I showed them to the producers, and they asked me why the female in the storyboards wasn’t smiling. And I was like, “I don’t think I’ve ever smiled during sex.” I mean, I enjoy it — don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it — but I don’t think I’ve straight-up like creepy smiled. I just couldn’t believe they asked me it. And they said, “Well, how do we know that she enjoys it?” And I said, “I think that we’ll kind of get into that when we’re shooting. You know, in the performance.”

Kauffman: There was a great story: Warner Bros. had this museum, and one of the things they had in the museum is the original script, with notes, of … uh, Stanley Kowalski ...

All: “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

Kauffman: They had the original script for “Streetcar.” And one of the notes on the script — on a Tennessee Williams script — was “Does he have to rape her?” Which is kind of part of the story. And then they wanted to know if she had to be so crazy. So there are some dumbass notes out there.

Aptaker: I’ve been working in network for a long time, and I feel like it’s always the standards and practices stuff that you just can’t believe we’re still having these conversations. I remember, a few years ago, I was doing a John Stamos sitcom. We had a scene where Dr. Phil was playing his physician and giving him a prostate exam. And we had to have an hour conference call, with seven to 12 very highly paid writers, producers, executives about can we see lubricant going on the rubber glove? This is a medical procedure, and there are bigger problems in the world right now than how Dr. Phil is going to check Stamos’ prostate.

“This Is Us” showrunner Isaac Aptaker shares one of the strangest notes he’s ever received.

Kauffman: Standards and practices, that was some of our most difficult stuff. We were doing an episode of “Friends” about there’s one condom left and who’s going to have sex? And this is after the masturbation episode on “Seinfeld” where things had become very reactionary, and we weren’t allowed to take the last foil wrapper out of the box. We could only show the box and [shake it], so you’d know there was only one in there, but we couldn’t take it out.

Aptaker: But then the violence you can get away with on network. It is so graphic. There’s such a double standard when it comes to sex and our bodies and then people being decapitated and what’s OK to see.

Berg: I always feel like, the best notes are questions, always, right? Like, “Why does he do that? Why did she get so angry?” And you can go, “Oh, if that’s not clear, obviously it’s because of this.” I’ve actually gotten to the point where — I literally did it the other day — where I had an outline and I’m like, “I’ve been staring at this and I don’t know whether this works or not. I’m gonna send it to them and see what they think.” And they were like, “You don’t need this.” And I’ll go, “Are you nuts? Of course – dammit, they’re right. They’re right. I don’t need it.”

“Barry” and “Silicon Valley” showrunner Alec Berg shares one of the strangest notes that he’s ever received.

Headland: I had a note from Netflix when I turned in one of the first cuts of the pilot. And it was right after Natasha [Lyonne] got killed the first time, and I decided to cut to the door of the bathroom, kind of an omniscient point of view like establish we’re back in the bathroom and then cut to the back of her and then she kind of realizes where she is. And I got the note, “It’s confusing.” And I was like, “Well, they should be confused. We’re literally bringing the character back to life. This is actually a good confusing.”

How are you feeling about what’s going on with the writers and agents right now? Are you worried about how it might impact you or your peers?

Kauffman: I worry about how it will impact young writers. That’s my biggest concern. It’s going to make it much more difficult for young writers to get a foot in the door, to get read, to be seen. That’s my biggest concern.

When you’re coming up with a concept for your next project, are you looking for what gap in the marketplace needs filling?

DuVernay: No, I choose projects that I’m interested in. I’m picking things and selecting things that not only do I want to put my name on, but I’m going to spend a lot of time on this. So it’s never what’s in the marketplace for me. But I do write for an audience, at times, because I know that I’m prioritizing underserved audiences. And so I am very concerned with and very much prioritizing the representations, the characterizations, what has been seen, what has not been seen, what can we do that — gosh, I’ve never seen this from this kind of character before. And that’s considering audience in that way.

Berg: But do you feel like in that case, the audience you’re considering really is you? Like, what do I want to see? What have I not seen?

EL SEGUNDO, CA., APRIL 27, 2098---The ENVELOPE talks with EMMY contending Showrunners during a Round
Ava Duvernay ("When They See Us") and Isaac Aptaker ("This Is Us") share a laugh.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

DuVernay: No, because I mean, I enjoy Iranian cinema, but most black folks that I know, or folks of color, may not have been exposed to that. So the kinds of storytelling — both in form, structure, nonlinear structure, certain characterizations — that I might enjoy or know about or even be aware of are different than when I’m writing my show, “Queen Sugar,” for example, which is for a predominantly African American audience. I’m going to own that work. I’m looking to show them characters that they may not have seen and, you know, things that I already know and have enjoyed in another way. So it depends on the project, something like “When They See Us” is very plot-driven. It’s about this case and trying to put some intimacy around this epic event. But with something more serialized like “Queen Sugar,” I do find myself saying in the writers room, “Our viewers would like this. Oh, they’re gonna love it when this happens.”

Berg: [I feel] I have zero responsibility to make [the audience] happy. None. Right? My job, what they pay me for is to discern what I find pleasing and what I think is good. I’m not trying to guess what you like.

Headland: We sat down before we turned in the last two episodes and watched the entire thing all the way through. And I did have this moment where I was like, “I am so proud of this. I feel like we told the story that we wanted to tell. It’s about so many things that are so dear to my heart. I have no idea who is gonna watch this show.” I really had that moment of both intense pride and also like a deep sadness of just like, what if no one cares? It’s like you’re both right. Because on the one hand, I had to make peace with the fact that I have said something that everyone may not care about. And then have this odd experience of getting an incredible response back.

How important is consumption for you, to see what’s out there?

Aptaker: I think it’s really important to see what’s out there, and we all got into this, presumably, because we love television and movies. That said, when you’ve just spent eight hours in an edit bay, you know, re-editing and getting your show down to time and picking the perfect song to go under Mandy Moore crying, the last thing you want to do is come home and unwind with someone else’s hour of television. It just feels like you’re still at work.

Kauffman: Watching TV is like working. It’s not something I do anymore, except when it comes to “Game of Thrones,” just for sheer enjoyment and for the ride. You know, especially watching comedy, I’ll watch comedy and I’ll be like, “How did they get to that? Where did that joke come from?” And it feels like work to me.

Gould: I have the same experience. I love half-hours. So that side of the room is my viewing habit, because it’s just when you spend all day working on an hour, to break up the rhythm and to just see a half-hour. Although the dividing lines are not where they were. Everything is starting to get mushy — in a good way. Because you guys are making sometimes half-hour dramas, and there are some hours that I think are very, very funny.

What’s the next show on your list to watch?

Headland: Oh, “PEN15.” Everyone keeps telling me to watch it, and I’m just lazy.

Berg: I’m going to out myself. I still have never watched “The Sopranos.”

Kauffman: I want to watch the new “Twilight Zone.”

Gould: I want to catch up on all the shows that I’ve been missing. I want to see what happens on “Barry” next. I want to see the rest of “Russian Doll,” and I want to catch up on “Game of Thrones.” There’s too much. But I’m going to do it. I believe in me and a few cans of energy drink, and I’m just not going to sleep until I’ve seen it all.

Aptaker: I just started it, but I can’t wait to keep going on “The Act” on Hulu. It’s so good.

DuVernay: I started asking young people what they watch and there’s a series called “On My Block.”

Watch the video below for the full Roundtable conversation:

Isaac Aptaker (“This Is Us”), Alec Berg (“Barry”), Ava DuVernay (“When They See Us”), Peter Gould (“Better Call Saul”), Leslye Headland (“Russian Doll”) and Marta Kauffman (“Grace and Frankie”) share insights on running a TV show.

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