A few secrets from Jill Soloway, creator and executive producer of Amazon Studios’ “Transparent”:
“I used to say ‘marijuana’ [when someone asked me what I need to write], but that’s not true anymore,” Soloway said, as the audience erupted in laughter. “Pot doesn’t make the writing any better, it just makes you think it’s better. And either way you have to go back and fix it.”
She also revealed something surprising. Because of her propensity to critique her own work, even after the show is locked and shipped, she’s never sat down to watch the finished “Transparent”– because she’s afraid she’s going to want to change something.
It’s really good,” Sarah Treem, the co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair,” told her, eliciting another round of laughter from the crowd.
It was a rare opportunity to get insights into some of the top shows on broadcast and cable in one place–all in one hour—at the recent Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s annual Hitmakers Newsmaker Luncheon, held April 8 at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom.
Besides Soloway and Treem, a rapt audience heard from Lee Daniels, co-creator and executive producer of Fox’s breakout hit “Empire,” Noah Hawley, EP of FX’s acclaimed miniseries “Fargo,” Michelle King, co-creator and EP of CBS’s “The Good Wife.”
With the exception of “The Good Wife,” which premiered in 2009, the other shows represented are new to the television landscape—and all immediately garnered critical and popular acclaim.
In a conversation moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Stacey Wilson, their showrunners touched on everything from how they got their start in the business to what they need in order to write and how they cope with the challenges of producing quality television.
One thing they have in common is an early affinity for writing and literature and as they moved into their careers, confirmation of their talent from others. Daniels, who before “Empire” was best-known as a feature director (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Precious,” “Monster’s Ball”), said that as a nine-year-old, he read Virginia Woolf in the public library and then wrote his own versions of the works. Later taking a screenwriting class in New York City in the 1980s – when he admitted he was on crack – the teacher said his work was a masterpiece.
Soloway, who based “Transparent” on her family and her father’s transition from male to female, said she knew she was on the right track as a writer working on “Six Feet Under” when Alan Ball emailed her about a script, saying it was “fucking great.”
But the real nuts and bolts of the panel was about managing current shows.
King, who works side-by-side with her husband Robert, was asked about the hot topics like email hacking and gay marriage that “The Good Wife” incorporates into its plots.
“We tend to read a lot, as does our entire writers room of seven other writers, about subjects that interest us. But sometimes things are burning so hot, we feel they won’t still be relevant a few months down the road,” she said. “We love the serialized stories and procedural elements.”
For Hawley, going into Season 2 of “Fargo” with an entirely new story and cast, the challenge is to make something new while staying true to the tone of the original.
“Joel and Ethan [Coen] never made the same movie twice,” he said. “’Fargo’ is a ten- hour movie and you have to know the end of it. My goal is to make something timeless.”
“Empire” has been a huge learning experience for Daniels. “Nothing could have prepared me for this journey. At first, I bucked the system because I’m so used to going it alone. Then you have a partner, Danny Strong. This wasn’t us fighting with Harvey Weinstein over a cut. This was a group of people with many ideas, and I learned to collaborate,” he said.
That extends to working with the actors, he said, who are given some creative license when it comes to how closely they hew to the script, noting how Taraji P. Henson has contributed to her character, Cookie Lyon.
“She’ll add a line or a word and make it sparkle,” Daniels said of the actress. ”It has to be honest and it has to come from a place of truth. Sometimes they’re more aware of the truth than I am.”
For other showrunners, actors changing lines is cause for concern. “We’ll get a call at 5 o’clock in the morning about that,” King said, noting that the show shoots in New York while she and Robert remain based in Los Angeles.
Soloway noted that the best way to get actors to stick to the script is to tell them they can say whatever they want.
The panelists also discussed the differences between British and American actors when it comes to the written word, with those from the U.K. being very reluctant to change it.
“British actors really like the text. They practice the text, and they’re perfect on the text,” Treem said. She also mentioned that American actress Maura Tierney is a “genius” at improvising. “She’ll come up with something that is honestly more instinctive and more natural than what’s on the page.”
Treem said “The Affair’s” dual narrative was the first thing decided upon before the story was developed or any actors were cast. “Everything is perspective. The idea of the affair was the second idea,” she said and remarked that people have very strong opinions about infidelity.
“I got hate mail after a New York Times article about the show in which I questioned whether monogamy can hold through a long-term relationship,” she said. “I was on the phone talking with somebody from France about the show and they had this totally different perspective. It’s great talking to the French.”
Wilson asked the show runners what they need in order to be able to write.
“Comfort,” said Daniels.
“A room with a door, to keep out the kid,” Treem said.