The Human Touch – The Hitmakers 2015 HRTS Luncheon Recap
On April 8th 2015, a group of our industry’s best and brightest gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the annual Hitmakers luncheon. Stacey Wilson of The Hollywood Reporter served as moderator for a enjoyably intimate panel and joining her were multi-hyphenates Lee Daniels of EMPIRE, Jill Soloway of Transparent, Michelle King of The Good Wife, Sarah Treem of The Affair, and Noah Hawley of FARGO.
Wilson began at the beginning, asking the panelists who or what first inspired them to start writing.
Daniels said “I read ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf when I was nine”, Wilson drawing a huge laugh when she quipped “that says a lot about you, this is all making a lot of sense”. Daniels agreed and added “I then wrote my own version of that when I was 10 or 11, a very twisted version”. Treem followed a similar muse, saying “I also wrote a play when I was 11 or 12”. Soloway said that she was highly visual from the start since “I remember writing stories when I was really young and cutting people out of the Montgomery Ward catalog to play the characters, so I was casting very early”. Hawley noted that “I started as a musician and songwriter and I realized that your target audience is 14-year-old girls mostly and that I’m not a night person, so that whole lifestyle was not really gonna work out for me and I started writing fiction”. For King it was all about the teamwork, since “I remember being obsessed with George S. Kaufman when I was in grammar school and he always had a collaborator and I thought ‘oh yes, this sounds like an excellent plan’”.
So what was your first big break as a writer? King said “it was the first pilot we went out and pitched, we had three companies bidding on it and it was the most exciting thing ever”. Hawley said “for me it was with fiction, I sold my first novel when I was 27 and it’s easy to get job, it’s hard to have a career so it’s always what happens next”. For Soloway it was short but oh so sweet, since “I remember when I was writing on SIX FEET UNDER and I turned in my first draft of my first episode and late that night, Alan Ball sent me a two-word email that said “fucking great””. Treem’s path came through the theater, she related how “I was at Yale Drama School and I had a play that somehow got to HBO and they were looking for somebody to write a fucked-up teenager and my play was about fucked-up teenagers”. Daniels channeled an Eric Clapton song, noting that “it was in the 80s and I’d taken a screenwriting course in New York and I was on crack cocaine and I wrote a scene about a guy trying to stop using crack and the teacher said it was a masterpiece”.
Wilson asked Daniels about his first year in television, wondering about the challenges of his transition from film and he replied that “there’s nothing that could prepare me for what this journey was about”. He noted that “at first, I bucked the system because I’m so used to doing it alone” but then ultimately “it was a group of people with many opinions and so I learned to collaborate”. Daniels drew a huge laugh when he quipped that “I lost my virginity, I don’t know that I want to lose it again”.
As for THE GOOD WIFE, Wilson noted that many of the stories relate to current news, going on to ask King in what ways she works to integrate reality and fiction. King said that “we tend to read a lot, which frankly is procrastination as much as it is anything else. It’s a very smart writers’ room and we tend to look at issues that are interesting to us”.
So is it difficult to make a show about your own family? Soloway said that “basing a show on my family, I kind of had to do a lot of backwards talking to them – ‘I’m doing a show about a family, kind of our family’ - but I didn’t really talk about the name of the show or the titular character”. Through many trials and tribulations, Soloway told herself that “this has to be a TV show, I don’t know what else to do other than to assume that I’m going to be able to turn this into something, so it was actually a life-saving thought that this is all for art, this is for something”. And the show has been hit with her real-life family, with Soloway announcing that “my mom moved to Los Angeles and she’s a TV writer now and she’s written a script”.
THE AFFAIR utilizes a dual-narrative storytelling style and so Wilson asked Treem how she settled on that particular frame. Treem noted that duality is inherent to the DNA of the show and so “the dual-narrative storytelling was the first thing that we came up with, before we had the characters, before we had anything we knew that we wanted to tell the story of an affair from two perspectives”.
Wilson asked Hawley if his writing process has changed since the first season of his show and he said that “my ability to focus entirely on that story in the first year [came] from the fact that it was the only thing that I was doing” and then with the show becoming a huge hit and all of the attendant awards shows and other time commitments, “once we launched the writers’ room for the second year it became harder to be in that room all day every day”. Further, “Joel and Ethan never made the same movie twice, so we can’t do that - it has to be a different movie this time around, which is really exciting and fun”.
When it comes to creating characters, what’s the balance between writers and actors? Hawley said “it’s a two-way street, actors have to feel like what they’re doing is real and it’s an interesting line that we walk”. Daniels concurred, adding “I trust the actors, I can never really go by the word, the word has been written but the nuance is something that [they bring], it’s why we’ve cast them and so I’m not married to the word”, because at the end of the day “it has to be honest, it has to come from a place of truth and sometimes the actors are more aware of the truth than I am”. Treem suggested that “I think your job as the writer is to figure out how your actors work and then write towards them”, going on to note that there’s a difference between American actors who like to improv “and the British actors who are incredibly committed to the text, they practice the text and they are perfect on the text”. Soloway was inspired by Woody Allen’s process and so she “started telling people that they could say whatever they wanted”, laughing as she added “and nothing makes an actor say what’s on the page more”. Taking a different tack, King said that “we tend to sit down with the actors twice a season and talk about the arcs and where the story is going as much as we can” but in terms of words on the page, “when people want to change a word we get a phone call at 5 in the morning, and I’m happy to get it”.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten on writing and/or running a show? King said “Christina Davis of CBS told me “don’t hold back plot, you can always invent more plot, you cannot invent more audience””. Hawley said that his colleague Bob De Laurentiis told him “when you’re a showrunner just imagine that there’s a line outside your door that stretches on forever - you learn to go out the window”. Soloway referenced her theater background and the value of “playable action, as a writer I used to ask ‘what do they want?’ and then when I became a director I began to ask ‘what are they doing to get what they want?’, what’s the playable action in this beat, in this scene?” Treem said that “in my first season, I called everybody I could think of to ask for advice”, and Ed Zwick told her that “”writers on set are a little bit like tits on a bull”, which I thought was good advice about letting the show do its thing, letting everybody do their job”. Daniels noted the importance of having a clear vision, saying that “Norman Lear gave me some great advice, which is to always fight for what you believe in even if you feel that you’re the odd ball out”.
Photos by Chyna Photography
HRTS and JHRTS members can watch the video of this luncheon in addition to the large archive of past HRTS Newsmaker Luncheons. Log in here with your HRTS username and password.