After nearly 20 years of making a name for herself as a TV writer and producer on shows as varied as “Charmed,” “Private Practice,” “Shameless” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” showrunner Krista Vernoff is about to add another credit to her IMDB file. On Thursday night, she makes her television directorial debut with with one of the darkest and most powerful “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes of the season, titled “Anybody Have a Map?”
Vernoff spoke to The Times about making her television directorial debut, keeping a popular, long-running drama from burning out, and the influence the current climate has on storytelling.
Have you always had ambitions to direct?
I went to Sundance one year, and I saw Jill Soloway’s “Afternoon Delight.” I was so moved by that film. Jill and I came up in television together. And I spoke with her after, and I said, “Look, I’m just so blown away. I see you in this film. I see your vision and your voice, so totally ... it inspires me to not want to hand my work over to somebody else to actualize, but I am afraid to try directing it.” And she said, “So many women are afraid to try directing, because we’re afraid of the technology. We think we need to speak lenses, and we don’t.”
She basically told me to stop handing my work to men, to actualize it. I went away really inspired, and knowing I wanted to at least try.
It came to me one day, like a hot flash, almost. This vision for this short film, and I ran inside and wrote it down in, like, 20 minutes. I immediately emailed it to Abigail Spencer, who’s an actress I’ve worked on several pilots with, and said, “I want to direct this. Do you want to star in it?” And she said, “Yes.” Within a month, I shot that short film, mostly in my living room. I financed it myself. For the first time in my career, I didn’t have any studio or network, notes or intervention. I had no one to please but myself. I just was proud of it, like at a deep, deep cellular level, because it felt utterly mine. But that was three years ago.
What motivated the decision to direct an episode of “Grey’s”?
When I came back to showrun “Grey’s Anatomy,” pretty quickly [executive producer] Debbie Allen said I needed to get my butt back in the chair. I resisted it. Because shooting a short film in your own living room is a completely different beast than a television show — you have nine days to capture fifty-something pages, and it’s going to air within weeks of you completing it and be consumed by a worldwide audience.
I’ve been doing one career for 20 years. I have been laser-focused, and I was afraid of failing. I was afraid of public humiliation. I was afraid of somehow letting down women. And then my assistant said to Debbie one day, “Don’t you think Krista needs to direct?” And Debbie said, “I do.” It just felt like, “Why be a coward?”
There were a couple of days where I sent the crane home too soon or I cut off the scene too early and I panicked. My ego would come flaring up like, “Oh God! This is going to be awful.” But at the end of the day, Jill was right. All of the gifts that I have, and all the skills that I’ve cultivated as a showrunner, are what you really need as a director.
Did the episode you directed present any interesting challenges?
We had to design a whole other hospital for my episode, and a whole other visual look, because I was doing this episode that was more like a movie. It wasn’t on our standing sets. I made this, ironically, as hard as possible for myself. Debbie tried to make it easier on me. She tried to assign me a different episode. [But] there was a story that Elisabeth Finch was writing, the story of her own journey through cancer. I felt so privileged at the thought of getting to bring this story to life. I wanted the experience that episodic directors have, of having a writer-producer on set, with whom you collaborate.
This episode was being centered around Jim Pickens Jr., and around Debbie Allen, and Greg Germann, Kelly McCreary, Jesse Williams and Ellen Pompeo. To only work with six or seven cast members in a show that generally works with 12 or 13 actually felt like a kindness to myself as a director. But it was hard. We were all over town. We didn’t have our regular crew. But boy, did I get a great script.
It’s a pretty dramatic episodic directorial debut considering your goal has been to make the show lighter.
Yes, it’s the most serious, and most dramatic episode we have this season, which is another reason I chose it. I worked really hard to make “Grey’s Anatomy” a romantic comedy again. I love to write comedy, and I love to watch comedy, but I know that comedy is much harder to direct. I knew that I could get honest, dramatic, emotional performances. I’ve directed in theater, I know how to do it. But if an actor is missing a punch line, and you’re on an eight- or nine-days schedule, I wasn’t sure that I would nail that. I’ll try comedy next time.
In the thick of your second season as showrunner, how would you describe what it’s like to helm the series at this stage in its life?
I’m only beginning to fully understand this gift that [creator] Shonda Rhimes gave me in handing me a show in its 14th season. It’s like Shonda gave birth to the baby but I helped her raise it for the first seven years, and then we broke up — not really, we stayed friends but I went on and did other things for seven years, and she raised this kid. Then the kid was 14 and she was like, “Ugh, I’m tired, it’s your turn.”
But what had happened in the seven years that I was gone is that the show went from a hit show to an iconic show. It went from a show that people loved and cheered for to a show that people had grown up with for their entire adult lives. People who started watching the show when they were 13 were now 27.
It was both exciting and daunting because when I came in, people were tired and had been in these trenches for 14 years. That’s a long time. So I felt like part of my job was also to come in and reinspire the cast and crew, to say like, “I am not tired. I have been away for seven years.”
I have been mostly working from home. I was working on “Shameless,” where there was a nine-hour-a-week writers room, I was making pilots, I was taking my kid to school, I got a break. So I got to come in and Ellen would look at me some days, I’d be bouncing around that set and she’d be like, “You know, Krista, I know it’s all fresh and shiny for you now, but you’re going to get tired again soon.” I feel like part of my job as that showrunner was to help everyone wake up and get excited again, and I think I’ve done that.
You’re shepherding the show at this critical time for women — for a production company, Shondaland, that has been heralded as one that champions women. And you’ve been vocal about Hollywood’s culpability.
It didn’t feel like an accident that when Harvey Weinstein came down and the #MeToo movement happened, I was back in this matriarchy where I felt protected. I wrote some think pieces that were a little bit terrifying to write because women who have succeeded in Hollywood historically have done so by going along to get along. I put my voice out there in a way that, had I not been back in Shondaland and felt very protected by the matriarchy of Shondaland, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to do it. Had I not had the power of this job at that moment, I don’t know that people would have paid as much attention as they did to my voice.
As all of Hollywood has been sort of reckoning with the changing rules and the changing tides, I have felt a personal responsibility to live into that, whatever that means. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my own writers room about safety and wanting to be a safe place, and if anyone has anything they want to come and talk about, I’m here and I’ll help them figure it out. I just feel like we all went along to get along for a really long time and now that’s done, and we’re saying, “Hey, there’s a better way.”
It was shocking to me that people were shocked by any of it. We had a conversation in the writers room at “Grey’s Anatomy” one day where the women started talking about the amount of times unwanted penis wagging had happened in our lives. The first time somebody masturbated at me and asked me to watch, I was 8 years old. The second time was at a public pool when I was 10. How many times have you seen men whip out their [penises] in cars driving by you? Every single woman in the writers room had that experience randomly in their life.
The men in the room were stunned. It was amazing to me to realize that prior to #MeToo and Time’s Up, even we women in Hollywood were only talking about these experiences with each other. The men in our lives, our spouses and our partners had been unaware of these experiences because we only took them to the other women in our lives. There was just this collective silence, which was a collective enabling.
How does it change in the storytelling, though? Here is a show where romances sometimes develop in the workplace — does it change how you tell those kinds of stories?
Yes. If you look at, for example, Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd through the lens of Time’s Up and #MeToo, he was her boss, she was an intern, and she kept saying, “No, walk away from me,” and he kept pursuing her, and that is probably not a story we would tell on the show today, and it’s a beautiful reflection of the changing times.
This season, we’re doing a little bit of a reversal as we begin to build this love triangle that’s emerging with Deluca as one the people in that triangle, and he is a resident and Meredith is an attending, and we’re having to address it differently than we ever would have before. We’re having to talk about and look at power dynamics. It is an ongoing conversation in the writers room. How do we tell that story in a way that feels honest and romantic and sexy and yet proactive and progressive?
The question on everyone’s minds is the future of the show. Ellen extended her contract through at least Season 16. Have those conversations happened? What is your forecast right now?
I won’t begin to plan the end of the show until Shonda and Ellen and ABC all sit me down and say this is the end of the show. I don’t think it’s my job alone to figure out where Meredith Grey ends, but I’m not planning the end because so far it doesn’t feel true to me that it’s ending.