It’s not every day I have an actual article printed in the actual, papery version of the Guardian, so forgive me if I provide a link to the piece I have written about a new, feature-length documentary with the self-explanatory title Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show, which is available to buy from its website from 31 October. I first crossed paths with its tenacious and very friendly director, Des Doyle, a year ago, when I was writing a shorter piece on the subject of showrunners for the Guardian. He’d contacted me as he was using Kickstarter to fund the final stage of post-production, and – being the target audience for his film ie. a US telly geek – I was more than happy to help promote the initiative. Mainly because I wanted to see the finished film.
He and his producers reached the funding target and finished the film. This summer we crossed paths again, as Des was looking to make contact with the Edinburgh TV Festival with a view to perhaps showing his film to like-minded TV nuts. I was able to make introductions and the next thing I knew, I was down to host the film at the mighty Filmhouse in Edinburgh and chair a Q&A not just with Des himself, but also with Battlestar Galactica supremo Ronald D. Moore (who happened to be filming his latest series Outlander in Scotland in August and whom I felt honoured to “hang out” in the bar with). I wrote about the experience here (although you have to scroll down a bit).
Anyway, the film’s about to become available to buy and download, so it’s almost in the public domain. I highly recommend it if you’re even half-interested in the way TV is made, especially in the States. It’s particularly good on Showtime’s House Of Lies and its journey from pilot to air, and TNT comedy-drama Men Of A Certain Age, which I don’t think we’ve had in the UK, and which – before our very eyes in Showrunners – goes from pilot to air to cancellation. It’s a heartbreaking arc in the documentary, and shows just how cruel US TV can be, even on cable. As a UK-based TV scriptwriter and editor, I am that sucker who mythologises the American model, in transatlantic awe of all those guys – and occasionally women! – who sit around conference tables in Burbank “bullshitting” in the most creative fashion, filling up whiteboards and eating doughnuts on a salary. (I’ve been writing the same pilot script in my house all year.)
Needless to say, when I was able to pin down the great Terence Winter, showrunner of Boardwalk Empire (whose series finale airs on Sky Atlantic this Saturday after five incredible, slow-burning seasons), for a 20-minute phone interview about Des’s film and about showrunning in general, I had to jettison a large chunk of what I’d already written for the Guardian in order to insert Winter’s words of wisdom. So I thought I’d publish some of the material I couldn’t fit into my 1,200-word commission here. You’ll have to be super-interested in the subject to find it as fascinating as I do, but I’m going to guess that one or two of you are.
First, here’s my interview with Des Doyle, the director. (He’s on the left of this illustrious lineup from one of the many convention screenings they’ve done in the States.)
AC: Which was the first writers’ room you gained access to, and how were you received as outsiders?
DD: The first room we got into was Men Of A Certain Age. It was a little pressurised for us because we had just one hour with the guys and we knew Ray Romano had to leave early to fly to NY to do Letterman. The good thing was that it was a very lively room – comedy writers tend to like to crack jokes a lot and that helped ease them into the cameras being on. They were also intrigued why somebody from Ireland would be particularly interested in them or what they did and my “uniqueness” in that regard certainly helped with a number of people we filmed with. And Mike Royce the showrunner for that series was a very gracious host to us and helped make sure we got what we needed. But for me as a first-time director in a room with so many people to try and cover with two cameras it was a big learning experience and the other writers’ rooms we did a little differently.
AC: Can you just confirm the dates of production so I can get an accurate figure for how long Showrunners took to make?
DD: We started in September 2010: first people on camera Dec 2010, principal photography in blocks continued to November 2012. We ran Kickstarter in Dec 2012; editing/post production/clearances and licensing up till April 2014.
AC: Did the experience of making the film and getting under the bonnet in any way spoil your perhaps romantic view of the process of turning out quality TV drama?
DD: I think making the film has increased my respect for what showrunners do tenfold! Even if they’re making a show I may not like I still have huge respect for the amount of work that goes into that. Considering all of the challenges they face in terms of time, money and politics it’s remarkable that a) any show gets made on time and budget and b) that so many great shows are made under this system.
AC: The rise and fall of Men Of A Certain Age is one of the film’s great arcs, if bittersweet. As a filmmaker, it’s gold, but did it break your heart to be with Mike Royce on the set of the show after it had been cancelled?
DD: One of the things that really surprised me in making the film was how candid people were with me – both in words and emotionally. I tried very hard never to “interview” someone but instead to have a conversation with them. When we spoke with Mike about the ratings for MOACA he had literally just gotten the news that morning so it was still very raw for him and certainly my heart went out to him as he told us about it because I could empathise with him greatly. These were really personal stories they were telling and Mike, Ray and the writers really loved making that show. It’s not always like that for a showrunner which is what made that experience even more painful for Mike. I think anyone who watches that story unfold will really feel for Mike because apart from being an extremely talented writer he’s also a really lovely guy and that comes across in the film very much.
AC: What’s next for you?
DD: I’m currently in very early development on another doc also set in a creative field which we have just attached first talent to and will be filming a little with them in LA later this month. There are also one or two other ideas I’m pursuing and some of the showrunners in the film have very kindly agreed to read my pilot script although that needs a major rewrite first!
The big catch for me while writing this piece was Terence Winter. The PR for Showrunners foolishly promised him to me early on in the process and although it happened last-minute, the 20 minutes I spent on the phone to him at his New York office were gold. I am such a fan of Boardwalk Empire, which ended forever this week in the States, but you have to remember, “Terry” – as I discovered everybody calls him – had nothing to gain from helping to promote Des’s film by talking to me, so all credit to him, and to Des for having engendered such a happy, symbiotic relationship with these high-powered execs.
While I waited to be connected to “Terry” (I still think of him as Terence), Ain’t No Mountain High Enough was playing. I applauded him for his “hold” music when we first spoke, and he said, “I like to have that as my theme music going into every interview.”
I confirmed that he’d seen the finished film. He had, and really enjoyed it: “It’s always fascinating to hear people talk about the business and to see the different ways people run shows and get a look behind that curtain. Occasionally we’ll be panels for different things and say hello to each other but for the most part the business of running a show is more than a full-time job.”
Did he have a well-earned holiday once Boardwalk had wrapped? Apparently not. “I’m going pretty much right into preparing for what I hope is my next series, a show set in the world of rock’n’roll in 1973 in New York City with Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot, and Mick Jagger is also one of the producers. We’ve shot the pilot and I’m already starting to look at writers. So no real break but this is the highest class problem I could possibly have.”
It’s for HBO, right? “Right. HBO has been my home for 15 years and I hope it’s my only home.”
I asked if he had time to see his family – something he touches on in Showrunners. “I certainly get home to put my kids to bed, and weekends are really sacred to me. They know Daddy’s at work during the week but I’m always around to go to baseball games and soccer games, and I always make school functions. If you wanted to you could live at the office. The business of running a show is so massive.” They shoot 14-15 hours a day. “If you never wanted to leave there’s always something to do.”
Were you worried the documentary might “let light in upon magic”? “I’m one of those people that buys a DVD and goes right to the DVD extras, the behind-the-scenes interview, the auditions … The same when I go to a museum, I like to know about the paintings, the story of who painted it and when, what was going on in the world around him. I talk to young film students about what a great movie Citizen Kane was, and they see it say and go, It was OK. You have to put it in context of when it was made.”
Especially that it was a flop at the time of release. “Right. The Wire wasn’t really a hit when it was on the air, that found its audience on DVD. It’s A Wonderful Life is another one.”
I asked how he personally ran the Boardwalk writers’ room. “Very similar to The Sopranos in terms of how it was run. I would come in at the beginning of the year with a broad-strokes roadmap of where I thought the season should go. We averaged about five writers at any given time, I think at one point we had as many as eight, and as few as four.” He cites Howard Korder as his “main writer – he wrote more episodes than I did. I truly could not have done the show without him.” Meanwhile his other right-hand man, writer-director Tim Van Patten “ran the set.”
So, the methodology. “We’d sit down and I’d say, What happens in Episode One? It’s a lot of sitting around a table, eating potato chips, ordering lunch, a lot of digression, telling stories about your own life – those are the things that get made into TV shows. To the untrained ear it may sound like a bunch of people sitting around bullshitting.”
A showrunner, for Winter, is “part psychologist, part motivational speaker, cheerleader, you’re almost like a host at a dinner party, you’re trying to get everybody to talk, open up a little bit. I’m glad to have a roomful of funny, smart, interesting people to bat around ideas with and bullshit with. That’s not a bad way to spend your day.”
I bring up the subject of UK drama’s attempts to emulate the American model. But he doesn’t think we should try. “I will say this, whatever you guys are doing over there in England, it’s working pretty damn well. Whether there’s a writers’ room or a showrunner or not, some of the best dramas ever have come out of that system. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” I push him to name names and he cites The Singing Detective (“I re-watch that once every two years”), Luther, The Hour … “I’ve always been a fan of the BBC, I’ve just started re-watching Fawlty Towers.” I tell him that, like Citizen Kane and The Wire, this was not an instant hit either. He did not know that.
On the more vexed subject of the lack of female showrunners in American TV, he admits that a writers’ room “can be” a male environment, “depending on the make up of a room. I always try to get a balance between men and women. Not to say that if there are female characters on the show so therefore you need female writers. A writer should be able to write men, women, children, all different races, religions, backgrounds. With writing, the blank page is the great equaliser. If I read a script and it’s good, I don’t care where it came from.”
For the record, Boardwalk had six female writers: Margaret Nagle, Meg Jackson, Bathsheba Doran, Diane Frolov, Jennifer Ames, Cristine Chambers. “You’re sitting in a room for eight to ten hours a day around a conference table, so there’s gotta be what I call ‘hangability’. These are people you gotta want to hang out with. You can be the greatest writers in the world, but if they drive you insane, it’s pointless, because you can’t stand being around them. You ultimately spend more time with these people than your own family. It’s like putting together a football team.”
Could a great writer who’s not sociable survive? “Yeah, anything’s workable. If there’s a writer you can give an outline to and have them go away and they come back with something you can shoot, I’d work with somebody like that any day of the week. Some people are good at writing and not good at verbally explaining or pitching. Some are great and dialogue, some have great ideas but can’t execute them. But if you can round out your team with those different people you’re in pretty good shape.”
How does he feel about having to get involved with a show’s publicity as a showrunner? “It’s always a little jarring when I get recognised on the street in New York. Once a month it happens, and my initial instinct is that I must have gone to school with this person or we have a mutual friend, but they’ve seen my face on an HBO behind-the-scenes. It’s part of your responsibility to get out there and be the face of the show, to be the ambassador, if you will, of that material.”
Winter watches his shows when they air. As he did with The Sopranos, although he hasn’t seen it since it went off the air. “David [Chase] used to always say: you’re here to entertain people. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It’s very simple advice but it’s the truth, it’s what we’re doing here. All the other stuff comes later.”
Thanks to Des and “Terry” for sparing the time to answer my questions. Now watch the film.