Running the show
Showrunners from some of the biggest dramas in the US come together to discuss their approach to the demanding role, how the industry is changing and how they seek to reflect current events and culture in their work.
While the role of the showrunner in television drama is spreading around the world as writers become more involved in the production side of making series, it is a title that still remains synonymous with the US industry.
Writers, creators, directors, producers, problem solvers – showrunners take the lead on all aspects of the series they are working on, making decisions on both the creative and business sides.
During the recent digital edition of Canada’s BANFF World Media Festival, six showrunners came together to share their experiences of working on series including Pose, Unorthodox, The Morning Show, Vida, Dead to Me and Little Fires Everywhere.
Showrunning means wearing a lot of hats…
Kerry Ehrin, showrunner and executive producer of AppleTV+’s The Morning Show: When I started showrunning, I remember texting Jason Katims, who I had worked with previously as a producer on Friday Night Lights, and he said, ‘Showrunning is basically like you live on an island by yourself. But no one comes to visit you except to complain.’
That’s my emotional definition of showrunning. It’s a creative management job. You have to wear two hats: you have to be able to access these incredibly vulnerable parts of yourself on cue, because there’s a schedule to keep up with; and you also have to be able to step away from that and be incredibly analytical and managerial. But essentially it’s a management job that also requires you to be incredibly creative.
Tanya Saracho, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Starz series Vida: I directed half of this [third] season and it just supported the showrunner job. I got told in the first year by an executive that I was responsible for every frame that I delivered. I took that really seriously. I never left set. It just stayed in my mind, so the directing part was just natural. And there was no middle woman to have to convince and pitch to.
It was faster, but it also allowed me to be in control and deliver every frame and just be responsible for that. Basically, you’re responsible for everything as a showrunner.
Steven Canals, co-creator and executive producer of FX’s Pose: When I think of showrunning or the showrunner, the first word that comes to mind is ‘visionary.’ What’s so important is that, as a showrunner, you’ve convinced a network and a studio that you have the goods to take this project across the finish line.
At every point, you always have to have that vision at the forefront [of your mind] and be able to clearly articulate that to all the individuals who are collaborating with you to help you get that project across the finish line.
The first season, I made a very concerted effort to be focused on the success of the series because we’ve never seen black and brown queer and trans people on television in this way before. Like most individuals from historically marginalised communities, whether you’re a person of colour or LGBTQ or a woman, you think if this show isn’t successful then you are somehow closing the door, at least in the eyes of all the gatekeepers in our industry, from all the other queer people of colour who have stories to tell as well.
Showrunners learn on the job…
Liz Feldman, creator, showrunner and executive producer of Netflix show Dead to Me (pictured top): Nobody just has the skills and the knowledge to be a showrunner. It’s 11 jobs in one – you learn as you go. First I gained the confidence to be the head writer, to be the person in the room who is being the arbiter of the tone. Then you learn how to be that shepherd on set. It is your vision and you have to keep to that steadfast.
I’ve made mistakes; I learned as I went. But for the most part, I don’t think, ‘I’m a woman in this job’ or ‘I’m a gay woman in this job.’ Somebody thought I could do this, and that somebody was me first. As long as I fake it until I make it, I’m going to keep trying. And it’s OK if sometimes I fail, as long as I get back up and lead with kindness and do my best.
Liz Tigelaar, showrunner, Little Fires Everywhere: I’ve had a lot of mentors. Sometimes a mentor was someone pulling me aside and being like, ‘You have to stop pitching the same thing three times.’ Sometimes it was in the form of tough love, sometimes it was in the form of a lot of compassion and support. Sometimes it was just in the form of hiring me again and again and having faith in me.
The first time I was a showrunner was on a show called Life Unexpected. I remember standing in the room, looking at the writers, staring at the board and being like, ‘Who’s gonna figure this out?’ I always think, ‘You invited everyone to this party – you better have a lot of food and drinks to serve.’ You’ve got to be ready to host.
Make your show with people who come from the community you’re representing…
Anna Winger, creator and executive producer of Netflix’s Unorthodox: It takes a village to make a TV show, and [as showrunner] you’re the mayor of the village. That’s how it feels to me. There are all these incredibly talented people working with me but, in the end, I’m in charge of delivering the show.
I make another show [trilogy Deutschland 83, 86 and 89] and I’ve never showrun a show that I wasn’t the creator of. In both cases, they are about very specific things, and most of the actors were from the community [the show is about]. I was working really intensely with people and really listening to people who knew more than I did about all kinds of details. I’m driven by a lot of curiosity, so part of the pleasure was to work with this amazing village of people.
Saracho: I’d only been here [in Hollywood] for three years and then I got this show, so I didn’t know you didn’t do a lot of stuff, like hire all Latinx writers. That made sense to me. But the first person we hired was my Latina casting director.
I need truth in everything, in every aspect of the story. The most important aspect is the cast, and that’s where you start. None of my actors are very experienced. We cast the net wide, especially for the queer characters in my show. You have to cast a net to the communities and really engage with the community you’re trying to represent.
The DNA of who made this was so important – the writers were all queer Latinas, especially in the last two years. The directors were Latina. It matters not just because you have skin in the game but because we keep each other honest. That was the key – stories about us, by us. That made the difference.
Series should reflect the times in which they are made…
Ehrin: Nina Simone famously said, ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?’ That’s a given. People who do what we do, who are creative, we’re like a vessel that just takes stuff in, repurposes it and puts it back out as something creative.
There’s no doubt all of this [Covid-19, the death of George Floyd] is going to impact everything we all do. I’ve never lived in a year like this . It’s a huge year and important, scary, emotionally moving things are happening. Of course that’s going to enter all of our work.
Canals: The best art, the best work always reflects our humanity and is culturally relevant. Shows that specifically address issues around race, class, gender, sexual orientation and religion are important. I certainly always hope to accomplish this in my own work. There’s a way for us to find that intersection between education and entertainment.
I hope all the other showrunners out there, and certainly anyone who’s up and coming, will continue to keep their finger on the pulse of what the conversations are that need to be happening right now and allow that to fuel the work.
That said, I don’t know if all the work we create has to directly address what’s happening. My hope is that we don’t come out of this and then suddenly find that networks are flooded with shows about global pandemics. That’s not necessarily what we’re saying. But what are the ways within your work that you can address issues in a way that isn’t necessarily thumping your audience over the head with that message? We try to accomplish that, for example, in Pose, where we’re telling a very honest story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Personal stories are universal stories…
Feldman: I created Dead to Me from a very personal place. It’s not an autobiographical story, but I honed in on very specific feelings that I was working through, and the way I do that as an artist is through writing.
Sometimes when we hone in on the most personal feelings, they tend to be incredibly universal. I intentionally keep the show slightly evergreen in terms of it not being a ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of show – you’re not going to see Covid on the show. I don’t think anybody watches Dead to Me to see exactly what’s going on in that cultural or socio-political moment.
However, in this second season, I was really affected, as were all of the women in the writers room – and my writers room is all women except for one token guy – by the [cases of] child separation at the [US/Mexico] border. We wanted to tell a story about motherhood and what happens when you separate a child from their mother. Those are the kind of stories we’re going to continue to tell. In time, we probably will want to see specific stories about this moment of reckoning, upheaval and uprising for black and racial justice in this country. I think it’s our responsibility to hone into how we feel.
Winger: One of the pleasures of the way we work and of writers rooms is the collective conversation. I got into this late in life and I’m in it for the writers room. I love the conversation, I love the collaboration with other people – to have the privilege of being able to discuss what’s happening in the world through the filter of your work. How lucky are we to be able to make those projects and for them to reach the world?
Tigelaar: Little Fires Everywhere is the longest eight episodes of television I’ve ever made. It’s taken four-and-a-half years, so these conversations, societally and culturally, we’re having right now, I was fortunate enough to be having two years ago.
It’s not like you’re necessarily trying to be relevant. You can’t help but infuse everything that you personally are grappling with and seeing and trying to digest and process. That is going to come into the story. Then when you sit in a room with seven other people, you get what they’re grappling with, what they’re digesting and processing, and that’s where this beautiful work gets to intersect and happen.
Leadership positions in television are becoming more inclusive and diverse…
Winger: Any of us who has the position to choose who’s hired, you’d better believe we’re thinking about inclusion. It’s not just about us being the leaders, it’s also about the next generation of people coming up working with us.
At the beginning, I was the only woman in the room. Now, it’s not just a question of women, it’s a question of everything, including people of colour and people of different sexual orientation and different identity. It’s changing in great ways.
Feldman: In my first job 25 years ago in a writers room, I was the only woman, and they had to hire a woman – it was a mandate. That was the only reason I was hired in the first place. Now I’m the woman who hires all the people in the room.
I’ve experienced the evolution and the progression of what happens when a woman is in charge, especially dealing with men and CIS men – you can pick up a vibe pretty quickly if they’re going to be able to handle having a female showrunner and boss. You just end up hiring people you feel that mutual respect for.
Canals: From a male perspective, what’s really important for men to acknowledge is that we all participate in a system that obviously privileges men and disadvantages women. So it is essential to think about the ways you work within the system and continue to benefit from it. Hopefully then, as a result, you’ll start to make certain choices on the projects that you’re working on, whether it’s hiring women – not because you feel like you need a token woman voice in your room, but because it’s important to have lots of different types of opinions and perspectives in a writers room – or, in the case of Pose, having a show that has a black trans woman as the centre of that narrative, or thinking about hiring practices and having female heads of departments.
The expectation is that women are going to be the ones to solve the problem, as if men are somehow removed from the conversation. It’s important that we participate, are absolutely part of creating this culture and are part of the solution as well.