If you haven’t been watching Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room, you’re seriously missing out. It’s a simple premise; each week Academy Award winning writer (and “Community” star) Jim Rash hosts writers from some of our favorite shows. Rash asks mostly the usual questions (“What are the show’s origins, how do you approach the source material [if applicable], did you have the series planned out ahead of time…”), and the writers wax poetically, sharing great anecdotes about their personal successes and failures within each show’s framework There are also cool pop-up factoids presented throughout the episodes. In the entertainment industry, we hear so much from the actors’ points of view; they’re the “stars” and presumably, everyone wants to know their approach to a series. But it’s just as—if not more—interesting to hear how things were conceived and developed even before actors came on board, and to listen to a writer tell how a crazy news story set off an idea in his head that later became one of television’s best series.
Writers hosted: Vince Gilligan, Moira Walley-Beckett, Peter Gould, Sam Catlin, George Mastras, Gennifer Hutchison, Tom Schnauz.
1. Gilligan and his friend Tom Schnauz met at NYU film school and worked on The X-Files together. Gilligan remarked that they were both jobless and near penniless. There had been an article in the New York Times about a guy cooking meth in his apartment building, and how he’d gotten a bunch of little children sick. Gilligan and Schnauz were “two angry old men” talking about it—“Did you hear what he did to those kids?” Vince called Tom a week later and said, “Remember that guy who was cooking meth?” Tom: “No.” Vince: “Well I want to develop that.” Tom, who says he’s often been credited as the Breaking Bad co-creator: “Everyone who thinks I co-created the show, that was it, the germ of the idea, a conversation with Vince.”
2. Bryan Cranston was taken in from the first time he read the opening scene; he described reading: “First page of the pilot: a pair of trousers falling down against contrast of blue sky and red rock…a man in only tighty-whitey underwear and a respirator—driving madly, with two dead guys sliding back in forth on the floor of the RV. As an actor, you start to imagine yourself in that role and it seeps into you.” Cranston hadn’t heard the pitch (Mr. Chips to Scarface); he just knew it was brilliant. He got his agents to move his meeting (with Vince) up; he knew other actors would “smell the meat.” “I wanted to get in there and lift my leg on it—make my mark…What he (Vince) was doing didn’t have a precedent…to allow a character to change. Television is always about stasis, characters were always about staying the same (Archie Bunker, Tom Magnum).”
3. When Gilligan first pitched the series, he said, “We’ll take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. People said, “…in the nicest possible way—we love the story, and if we buy it we will be fired.’ Nothing came of it until finally AMC contacted us, when they were developing Mad Men, and said they’d love to do it.”
4. The writers were always concerned with “Where is Walt’s head at; where is he on the continuum?” Jane’s death scene was “lightened up considerably.” The original idea was to have Walt shooting her up with an overdose or killing her, rather than just allowing her to die. The balance they had to find was about Walt taking it just far enough. Bryan was unexpectedly caught in the moment of that scene by his own thoughts that she could be his own daughter.
5. People always think they had the series all plotted out, but the writers were generally not far ahead. They’d “…get Walt and Jesse into an RV with Hank outside, with no idea how to get them out of there.”
Gould: “The thing about that kind of problem solving that’s great (as opposed to a storytelling problem) is…if we have a character that’s in a situation, like if we have…Walt going to Tuco’s; how is he going to turn the tables on Tuco? And I think it was Genny’s (Hutchison) first day in the office…” (Hutchison started out as a writer’s assistant) Hutchison: “I came in on my first day and they were like, ‘We need a crystalline substance that will explode upon impact; find it.’” After her initial panic, Hutchison did a little research and found it—fulminated mercury.
6. Their biggest problem was how to keep Skyler in the house with Walt. “Why isn’t she going to the police? ” The writers had endless fights over it. Tom is called “the immovable object, when he decides how it will be, that’s how it is.”
7. Gilligan drinks tea—iced—and calls it his “brain juice.” He is a pessimist who literally bangs his head on the wall. Gennifer is the cheerleader who reminds them how they got themselves out of other situations (the plane crash).
8. The script was originally set in Riverside, CA; New Mexico was suggested because the state offered a 25% rebate to induce Hollywood productions. Now Gilligan can’t imagine the show without Albuquerque.
9. When Rash asked what Breaking Bad would have been like if it had been picked up by a broadcast network. Gennifer said it would have been called White Lies; Cranston said Jason Priestly would have starred.
10. Vince Gilligan is influenced by the films of Sergio Leone and John Ford.
11. In the pilot script, Jesse was originally called Marion Dupree.
12. On filming the last episode: Gilligan saw a lot of tears, and wondered why he wasn’t crying himself. It’s “slowly dawning on him that it’s coming to an end.” He thinks the end of Casablanca was perfect, “We’re going for that.”
Cranston got a tattoo the very last day. “The crew guys were all going.” As an actor, he didn’t want it visible, and asked himself, “Where do I get it where my wife won’t even see?” He jokes, “Not my penis,” and shows the BrBa logo on the inside of his right ring finger.
Game of Thrones
Writers hosted: David Benioff, D.B. (Dan) Weiss
13. Benioff and Weiss were complete novices, Game of Thrones is their first series. When they screened for three of their friends—all writers—they got to the end and there was dead silence. One of them said, “You guys have a massive problem.” (Weiss: “I wrote it down in my notes: “Massive problem.”) It was “one of the worst experiences” of Benioff’s life.
Benioff called the series a strange film/TV hybrid experience. “A lot of money was spent fixing things. The episodes for season one started coming in way under time (about 39-42 minutes); a total of 93 minutes short for the season. They did “a two week crunch” to churn out added material dispersed throughout the season. It was a “great experience, because it forced them to find what they could do.” The budget was tight, so they couldn’t throw in a five minute battle sequence—they were forced to put in character driven bits.
14. David read A Game of Thrones first, and he had, at his home, stacked four books like a doorstop—Dan saw them, got book one and read “950 pages in two and a half days—it was like addictive crack.” Benioff and Weiss went to school together and have been friends for a long time. Both were D & D Dungeon Masters, as was George R. R. Martin; “…apparently a legendary Dungeon Master.” Benioff: The Dungeon Master is the storyteller; the other people are players. A Dungeon Master is like a showrunner. Benioff and Weiss felt Game of Thrones was made for them.
15. “Tackling the beast; they had to convince George.” Benioff: “He (Martin) was skeptical, suspicious—he’d already had offers from studios to do the books as features. (Martin was) first approached after Lord of the Rings had done well at the box office.” First thing, Benioff and Weiss said to Martin that they loved the books; which they didn’t think could work as films, but could be great on HBO. Martin loved Rome and Deadwood and had always thought it (A Song of Ice and Fire) could only work as series.
At the end of the five hour meeting, Martin asked them, “Who is Jon Snow’s real mother?” It was a test question They made an educated guess which turned out to be right, so they got the job.
16. On how they work as a writing team: They tried for one day to work in the same room; it didn’t work. Benioff: “We argued over every modifier. So we decided to split each episode in two, and swap halves each time. We don’t talk—we just email each other.”
17. The show has no traditional writing staff; there is one other writer, Brian Cogman (also a producer), and George Martin writes one episode per season.
18. They made a key mistake “which later seems so obvious; certain relationships were not obvious to the audience.” When Jaimie pushes Bran out window, one friend watching said to the writers, ‘Now those two, i don’t remember—are they supposed to be brother and sister?’ There wasn’t a point where you were explicitly told this was incest.’ Much of the pilot was reshot to rectify problems.
19. Before production all scripts must be written, because they shoot in so many different countries/places (Northern Ireland, Malta; Iceland [for filming North of the Wall, Morocco). The writers can refine along the way in ways that don’t majorly affect production. Season one cost over $60 million to produce.
20. Benioff couldn’t remember who coined the term (not him) “Sexposition,” which he described as exposition interrupted (or audience distracted) by copious sex.
21. They had to learn effectiveness of gore. Weiss: “A second or two can be the difference between horrible and funny.” Ned’s execution was originally scripted to with the sword passing through his neck; we’d see the stump of his neck and blood pouring out of it.
22. On the multiple season one problems, “Did you ever have that moment when you thought, ‘We’re not going to be able to pull this off?’” Weiss: “In the middle of the first season, everything had not been as smooth as possible. We got to this week where if that week of scenes hadn’t worked, it felt like we were going to be shunted over to the disaster control department…In Malta (filming a Dothraki wedding scene), a storm blew the entire set into the ocean—we watched pieces of production scenery flying out to sea and heard …veiled versions of ‘This is your Waterloo’ from the network. That was the time where I felt like we were flipping a coin over whether the show was going to work.”
23. When asked, Benioff declared Jaime Lannister one of the hardest roles to cast—they “…needed someone late 30s, had to be very good looking—it’s part of the character—charismatic and has to be a great actor…and you realize that all those things mean that the person is a movie star. And so basically we found a Dane, we found this great Danish actor, because if he’d been English/American, you know—he’d already be a movie star. And now Nikolaj is becoming one, of course.”
American Horror Story
Writers hosted: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Tim Minear; actress Lily Rabe
24. When asked what it’s like to go between his two sets (located mere feet from each other at Paramount studios), Murphy feels like the Glee and AHS energy is the same. It “feels like I’m going from one group of daffy brothers and sisters to the next.”
25. Both Murphy and Falchuk have always been interested in horror —one of his favorite films is Rosemary’s Baby; Brad’s is Jaws (Murphy notes they have a feminine/masculine kind of thing going). They asked themselves questions like, “What’s the true horror behind monsters?” (We) “thought about monsters at home and the horror of a marriage breaking apart.” They talk for months about character before writing any plot.
26. Murphy “…always wants actors to play opposite of the character they played before.” Rabe will next be opposite of the “rube nun who evolved into evil.” Paulson “could be the evil one” in season three. The showrunner said he “…likes writing incredibly flawed people. Actors like Rabe, Paulson and Lange want flaws…to play people with a lot of different layers like an onion. The Sopranos ushered in the Golden Age of television. He (Tony Soprano) was the biggest antihero of them all, and I think that really did change television for a lot of people of our generation.”
27. Rash: What’s the process; how does it start? Murphy has a big research library and “bizarre, weird obsessions”—he goes with the obsession that’s risen to the top. Then all work on it together and nothing belongs to any one person. Each writes what’s important to him/her. (Murphy says the one subject he won’t do is vampires.)
28. On the anthology aspect. Minear: “That’s how they figured out how to do horror on television…TV requires that you sustain the the thing over a couple of seasons. No one’s going to be afraid when you know it’s television…When I met with these guys, I said, ‘I think it’s very interesting, but I don’t know how do you sustain this’. Ryan was like, ‘Oh here’s how; by the end of episode 13, everyone’s dead.’”
29. Murphy and Falchuk wrote a pilot about a transgender gynecologist called Pretty/Handsome.
30. Murphy has his own limit/meter of what’s crazy—“Like today, incest was cool, but killing a cat was crazy.”
31. Before Season 2, cult 60s movie Shock Corridor (about a journalist who has himself committed in order to uncover the facts behind a murder—and win himself a Pulitzer) was required watching for the writers.
32. Murphy is always surprised he doesn’t hear from actors, “You want me to do what?” The only note he ever got from an actor was from Jessica Lange—”…on a day she was looking at bare asses for like,12 hours, she said, ‘I can’t cane any more people.’”
33. Murphy feels horror explodes during economic downturns and social unrest; “It reflects the time we’re in in many ways.” Falchuk: “We need boogeymen to put the anxiety on.”
34. Murphy on pushing boundaries: We’ve never had single argument with a studio executive over content. When there is an issue, it’s “…never, ever about violence; always about sex. You can chop someone’s head off as long as there’s no nipples. Everyone is nervous about the FCC—they don’t care about violence, they care about puritanical sexual content.” Rabe: We had to switch from a dildo to a cucumber.” Murphy: “It’s very frustrating and kind of sad to me…You can do whatever you want usually, in a violent capacity, but god help you if you try and tell a truthful sexual story, particularly if your female characters aren’t sort of Barbie dolls. It’s very, very hard for me to take those notes and I fight them. It’s all financial. A complaint by the FCC could lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines…if you’re trying to monitor your children’s television, turn off your television. American Horror Story is a pastiche of sexuality and violence—every season is about the oppression of, or the acting out of…” Minear: The tradition of American horror is sex and violence.”
35. Speculating on a point where they might jump the shark—“Go to crazyland,” Jim Rash urges, “What would you do?” Murphy: “Maybe season ten should be called Mime. Jessica Lange, when she was younger, went to mime school. “That’s it, Season 10 is just called Mime. Murphy sees no end to the series; he loves the idea of it and likes renewing it every year.
Writers hosted: Scott Buck, Sara Colleton, Wendy West, Manny Coto; actor Michael C. Hall
36. Dexter’s genesis: In 2004, Colleton was reading The New Yorker review of Darkly Dreaming Dexter; she got Michael on board and “Boom.”
37. Hall had just finished Six Feet Under. “I didn’t want to do another series—surrounded by dead bodies again—right away…I recognized it was a singularly unique character. I feel like David Fisher was Dexter’s first victim.”
38. Buck was working in Italy on Rome, was told about the show and thought it was “…the dumbest idea I ever heard,” but then heard about Hall joining and became intrigued.
39. Coto (24, Star Trek: Enterprise) saw Dexter as a sort of superhero. “People love seeing bad people get their just desserts.”
40. Buck feels Dexter’s innocence makes him relatable. “He’s not truly evil, he has humanity and a code.” Hall: “Dexter is completely compartmentalized; once the Ice Truck Killer appears, his appetite is whetted. He wants to be a real boy and have a connection with other people…It’s not his darkness that gets Dexter in trouble, it’s his humanity.”
41. Rash: “What’s the best, really interesting, maybe bad idea you’ve had?” Coto: “The twist at the end of the last season is: Harry walks out of the shadows, alive. The last season is Dexter against his father.”
42. There was a lot of debate about killing Trinity. They thought about keeping him alive; Rita would die, but Trinity might come back. “It was very hard to kill him.” Hall: “John Lithgow is amazing, he has such a sense of playfulness…he’s so kind and joyous and nice.” John and Michael would burst into laughter in the middle of scenes because their relationship was so delicious.
43. Hall is an executive producer, but Colleton notes “He hasn’t ever shut anyone’s ideas down. He writes beautiful three page emails to the writers.” Hall is “…the guardian of his sense of Dexter’s truth.”
44. Rash: “Horror in general is difficult; the violence, sex and stuff—what’s it like to be in a show in that category?” Buck: “Sometimes people say they won’t watch because it’s too violent.” He finds that disappointing because show is not, to him, a violent show. It’s about a serial killer, but not a serial killer show. “It’s about a person who happens to be a serial killer.” Colleton: “The real world is so unreliable and unstable; we have a sense of loss of control and of our government. In the world of Dexter, he has a code and does what he promises to do.” Hall: “People who aren’t American look at Dexter as an artifact of American psyche; I find that interesting.”
45. The Tooth Fairy story was inspired by the story of a comedian who was excited to meet an idol of his; the guy turned out to be a jerk—“What if the person Dexter idolized, what if when they finally met, the guy was just an asshole?”
46. Rash: “The final hour—how much pressure is there on writers? Is too much emphasis placed on the finale?” Buck: “We want to do it right, but the only pressure is what we put on ourselves.” Colleton: “We’ve known for a long time how we want to end it; we feel it’s right for the show. Dexter and the show has evolved over the years, so our ending fits his evolution.” Hall doesn’t get too preoccupied with what others’ expectations and hopes are. In a way, Dexter is already caught. What does that mean for the finale?” He won’t miss putting on the kill suit—“it’s quite an operation.”
The Writers’ Room airs on Sundance Channel Mondays at 10 pm EST; episodes (including Parks and Recreation and New Girl) are available On Demand (some online).