A stroll through Shondaland

A stroll through Shondaland

DQ
By DQ
February 2, 2017

SHOWRUNNER

Showrunner extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes walks back through her career, from her start in films to launching Grey’s Anatomy and bringing through new writers at her production label Shondaland.

With four series currently on air, it’s no wonder Shonda Rhimes is regarded as one of the most powerful women in television.

The showrunner is most famous for Grey’s Anatomy, the ABC medical drama now in its 13th season, while political thriller Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, recently returned to the same network for its sixth outing.

Through her production company Shondaland, Rhimes (pictured above) is also an executive producer on other ABC dramas such as How to Get Away With Murder, The Catch and the forthcoming series Still Star-Crossed (working title).

Her other credits include Grey’s spin-off Private Practice, which ran for six seasons to 2013, Gilded Lilys, Off the Map, The Princess Diaries 2 and Britney Spears film Crossroads.

Named Mipcom’s Personality of the Year 2016, Rhimes walks DQ back through her career, from her beginning as a film screenwriter to her current home in television, revealing how she works with actors and what she has learned running her own production company.

Halle Berry in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Rhimes’ first produced project

There wasn’t a time when she didn’t consider herself a storyteller…
I was always a storyteller. I don’t think there was a time I thought of myself as anything but. I really was making up stories into a tape recorder and trying to get my mum to type them up before I could write myself. That’s sort of how we spent our time as kids, my sister and I.

She started off with aspirations to work in film…
Back then, I got out of film school and, at that point in time, film really was what was happening. Television wasn’t as big. Sitcoms were big – it was the Seinfeld era – but dramas weren’t, so movies really did feel like where it was at. I thought I would write movies, so I started out doing that. I sold spec scripts and things but my first produced project was Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which starred Halle Berry, for HBO.

But series such as 24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrated the possibilities of television…
I started writing teen girl movies – Crossroads and The Princess Diaries 2. I enjoyed it, it was a living and it was great but there wasn’t a lot of character development going on in those movies. Things were more blockbustery. Then I had a baby – I adopted a baby – and I was at home a lot. What you realise when you’re at home that much is there’s a lot of television to be watched, and I started really watching it. I watched an entire season of 24 in 24 hours and I loved it. I thought, ‘Wow, this is where all the character development is happening, this is really interesting.’ I watched three seasons of Buffy in four days – babies never sleep,so you’re always awake and you’re watching. It was genius to me because that’s where you could really develop characters. I remember calling my agent saying I wanted to do TV. He sent me over to ABC Studios, which was then called Touchstone, and I had a meeting. They said, ‘You want to write TV, that sounds great, let’s try it out’ – and we tried it out.

Medical drama Grey’s Anatomy is now in its 13th season

Her first pilot didn’t get made – but her second was Grey’s Anatomy…
The first year I wrote a pilot about war correspondents. I wrote the script and I was really proud of it, it was a really great experience. It didn’t get made because it was about war correspondents and they were having a lot of fun, drinking and having a lot of sex while covering the war. We were at war so that did not feel very appropriate. The next year I remember asking very clearly what [then Disney president] Bob Iger wanted to see. They said he wanted a medical show – so I wrote a medical show about people who were very competitive and had a lot of sex and really enjoyed doing these things while doing surgery, and that was Grey’s Anatomy.

It was a big change going from movie writer to TV showrunner…
It’s a really interesting job. You go from being a movie writer where you’re at home in your pyjamas by yourself and you type one script a year – literally I would spend 300 days doing nothing, 40 days thinking, 15 days writing and one day celebrating the fact I’d written something – to suddenly you have to churn out a script every eight to nine days, you have 300 people working for you and you have to run a writers room and know what you’re doing. It was zero to 3,000 in an instant. And if you’re a very introverted person, if you’ve never held any other TV job before apart from possibly being an assistant, it’s pretty intense, so I learned a lot. I learned pretty much everything you could possibly learn as fast as possible.

Every season of Grey’s Anatomy is treated as a different show…
I always think of the fact that [lead character] Meredith Grey has been on a journey now for 13 seasons. It’s not the same show every year and even though there’s a procedural element every week, it is a character journey. I feel like I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years and Ellen Pompeo, who plays Meredith, and I have been locked together in this very interesting journey for a long time. I try to look at each season as if it’s a completely different show, not as if we’re going to tell the same story we told last season or we’re going to try to repeat the feeling we got the last season. Instead, we question where Meredith is now, how we make that story feel interesting and how we are going to tell it. On Grey’s, I know how each season is going to end. We start with that last episode in mind and try to get there.

Grey’s spin-off Private Practice

Life and death experiences are at the heart of any hospital drama…
On a bad day [in the medical profession], you actually kill someone. That is the point of the job and, on a good day, you save someone’s life. When you have a creative thought in that job, you are inventing a new medical procedure that’s going to change the way someone lives or dies, or breathes or moves. In our job, when I have a creative thought, it just changes the story. So there’s something really visceral about that job that I love. I also loved, especially in the beginning, the cut-throat nature of it for women. There really were about six women out of 20 for every medical class, which is what they say in the pilot. That was interesting to me, to be in a place where you were so overwhelmed by the men in the programme and thought to be less. That’s no longer true – there are a lot more women surgeons now – but at the time, that felt like a fascinating world to enter.

Private Practice was born when ABC wanted a Grey’s spin-off…
Private Practice came along because the president of the network at the time, Steve McPherson, said he wanted a spin-off – and I am nothing if not obliging. I’m a very straight-A student and I thought, ‘Well, OK, let’s make a spin-off.’ I started thinking about it and I really loved the character of Addison, who had come on to be just a guest star and ended up staying. It was something about that character and who she was and what she could be that felt interesting to me, and I wondered how we could make that into a show. What was great about Private Practice was it was very different to Grey’s. Grey’s was about these surgeons and how they felt about their patients. Private Practice was about the moral and ethical dilemmas of medicine, which is very different.

Rhimes initially didn’t want to take the meeting that led to Scandal…
When Scandal came about, I had two shows going at the time. I was exhausted and [Shondaland exec producer] Betsy Beers kept saying there was this woman I should meet – Washington fixer Judy Smith. I kept saying I’m not writing any more shows but that I would see her for 15 minutes. So Judy came in. She’d done everything from representing Monica Lewinsky to getting [Associate Justice of the Supreme Court] Clarence Thomas through his [confirmation] hearings. We sat down and started to talk. About four hours later, I looked up and thought, ‘I’m hungry.’ That’s the only reason I looked up. And I realised there was a show in there – there were hundreds of episodes in what this woman did for a living. It was fascinating. I was stuck because suddenly I had all these stories in my head and that was a show. It took about a year for me to write it and then I went away for four or five days and wrote the script, came back and turned it in. It’s been a lot of fun.

Scandal emerged from Rhimes’ conversation with Washington fixer Judy Smith

She has a particular role on Shondaland series that aren’t her own…
On How to Get Away With Murder and The Catch, when we’re not in the first season of a show, I haven’t created it and I’m not running it, my job is really just ‘dragon in a cage.’ I’m the dragon that Pete [Nowalk, showrunner] can release on HTGAWM when he feels like he needs some extra power behind him to talk to the studio or the network about something. In the first season of Grey’s, I used to call Mark Gordon, who is our non-writing exec producer, my dragon because he was the most powerful person on our show. So I say to Pete, ‘I’m your dragon.’ It’s the same thing for Allan Heinberg on The Catch, I try to do that for him as well. Creatively I’m there if he needs me but generally these are people who really know what they’re doing.

There’s a contract between Rhimes and her actors…
My contract with all the actors is that they have to say the words as they are written. We’re not going to discuss the text or the words, that’s just the way they are. However, while I’m not going to change the words, I’m also not going to go down to the stage to tell the actors how to say them or interpret them. What I love about that is you then get these performances back that inform whatever’s going to happen next.

The best part about Shondaland is finding new talent…
Stacey McKee, who was an assistant on the Grey’s pilot, is now the head writer. It’s wonderful to have people who you can bring up and give these opportunities to learn how to tell story the way Shondaland tells story, which is really through character and about character. I always say story is best told by determining the worst possible thing that could happen in this moment to the character, then making that happen and getting them out of it. That sort of storytelling you learn really well while working in Shondaland, so we hire our assistants and we know they have the potential to be writers and from there on up. That’s how we promote our writers, that’s how we train them.

Rhimes acts as the ‘dragon in the cage’ for How to Get Away With Murder

Rhimes has trained herself to write anywhere…
I can write anywhere and I trained myself that way, simply because when you have small children and when you travel and when there are so many shows in so many different lots and locations, you really have to figure out a way to write anywhere. So basically my Pavlovian reflex is as long as I have headphones on and music in my ears, I can write wherever I am. I don’t have to be in a specific place, the headphones are what transport me.

But she often acts out her characters as she does so…
There was a time when I didn’t enjoy writing but I really enjoy the process now. I enjoy getting to go sit in the world of the hospital, I enjoy getting to be Meredith Grey for a while. I enjoy getting to be Fitz or Liv or any of those characters. It’s fun. My assistants will tell you I say all the dialogue aloud while I’m writing, very passionately, and I act it all out. I don’t hear it because I’m wearing headphones and there’s music playing, but I do it and Betsy [Beers] makes fun of me. It’s very important to me to make sure it feels alright and acts out well, and I think it’s a little bit of playacting. It’s a lot of fun for me.

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