Tag Archives: Chris Brancato

Anatomy of a showrunner

Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato (pictured above) has spent 20 years as a showrunner, overseeing season one of the Netflix series plus shows including NBC’s Hannibal and ABC’s Of Kings and Prophets. Here he discusses the role that has attained iconic status in television drama.

‘Showrunner’ is a word that’s come into vogue in the past 10 years, greatly helped by JJ Abrams – a phenomenally brilliant television writer-producer who became very successful with Lost before moving on to an enormous career as a feature film director. And that’s not a big surprise to me, because the job of a showrunner is nearly the exact equivalent of being a feature-film director.

The DNA of a showrunner begins with being a writer, but it is also about having the ability to do one of a bunch of different things, not necessarily all with equal skill.

The first is to write good, producible scripts – ‘shooting drafts.’ What separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls is the ability to deliver drafts that are actually shootable, meaning they are coherent and producible to the show’s budget. You would be amazed at how many writers in Hollywood deliver drafts that are not shooting drafts; that if produced would either be wildly over budget or, even worse, somewhat incoherent or flat.

So, you’re a writer, but there’s an additional aspect to being a showrunner that is desirable: you are also potentially a show creator. It’s one thing to mimic a show that’s already been created – producing good drafts using characters that have been brought to life by actors and being able to study footage of the show in order to replicate it – but it’s another skill set entirely to be able to pitch and sell a brand new show.

Brancato co-created the hit Netflix Pablo Escobar drama Narcos

In my experience with outstanding scriptwriters, when it comes to coming up with a fresh idea that turns people’s heads, they can’t do it. There’s a common gripe at the agencies that their writers have no ideas – which has given birth to an entire class of non-writing producers who develop ideas or get story rights and then pair with a writer to sell a project.

So, you’re a writer, you’re a creator – and then you must be a re-writer. You need to be able to read scripts and, rather than just offer a general assessment, make a specific assessment – for example, ‘The dialogue is stilted, real people don’t talk this way,’ ‘I expected it; I knew that was going to happen,’ or ‘It’s trying to be funny but it isn’t.’

Not only do you need to make that assessment as a writer, you need to know how to fix it. There’s nothing more irritating than solely hearing what’s wrong with a script. I don’t want to hear what’s wrong with it, I want to hear what’s wrong with it and how to fix it.

So, you’re writing shooting drafts, one after another, you’re coming up with whole shows on your own and you’re an analyser, a re-writer. That’s a tall order for any human being. And it’s only one-third of the job.

The second third is your role as director. Out of any position in the entertainment business, I have the highest respect for television directors. Feature directors have 60 days to shoot two hours; TV directors have eight days to shoot one. The shows you see as a result of those relatively short schedules are remarkably coherent and you’ll often see incredible artistry from that very short period of time. Yet in the US system, TV directors get treated like writers, which is to say they get very little respect because they’re interchangeable.

What a director has in the feature system is a vision for the movie – they know what it should look like. Well, that’s part of the role of the showrunner too. The showrunner must have a vision for the show, a vision they communicate not only through their writing but also verbally to every single person who works on it.

Hannibal ran for three seasons on NBC

Finally, a showrunner must also be a producer – and a therapist, a priest, a doctor, a lawyer… But the producer part has to do with management. You must manage a crew of up to 400 people. If you’re doing the job well, you are giving everybody on the show a sense of dignity and purpose in what they’re doing. You all want the same thing – a great show – and as far as I’m concerned, whether you’re delivering coffee on set or you’re the showrunner, there are two ways to do the job: well and badly. And I have respect for anybody who does the job well and irritation with anyone who does it badly.

Part of being a producer-showrunner is being able to communicate, to make the entire group of people who are engaged in this singular effort to make a great TV show understand your vision, to properly translate what you’ve written on the page onto the screen as best you can.

It involves not shutting yourself behind closed doors all day long, even though that’s often the refuge you seek. It’s being open to suggestion. It’s managing extremely different and often difficult personalities. It’s settling disputes. I’ve had fights between writers in my writers rooms, I’ve had actors who refuse to go on set for one reason or another, or haven’t shown up because they’re out partying and you need to go to those actors, most of whom are frightened individuals, and convey to them that you respect what they do, that you understand how hard it is and that this is what you meant when you wrote a scene in a particular way.

If an actor can smell any fear you may have over getting something done, they will rip you to shreds. So I do my best to never show fear. Never let anybody see you sweat.

I remember speaking to a network executive over the phone once and being asked how a job was going. I said: “Shit, man, it’s really hard. We had the hurricane that blew down the set, and that actor’s not getting along with that other actor and then the script…” and I realised as I was talking that they didn’t want to hear it. I was hired to solve every single one of the problems I had just whiningly listed. My job is not to complain about how hard the job is; my job is to say, ‘It’s all good. Everything’s going to be fine.’ That is what they want; they don’t want to be burdened with your problems.

So if you do not sweat or do not let them see you sweat, you will become known as a problem solver and as someone who can be parachuted into a US$50m-70m project to handle it, to wrangle it, to fix it.

Never get angry, either – anger is fear. I’ve been in this business for almost 30 years, as a showrunner for more than 20, and I’ve never failed to make a programme I was working on. It always gets made – never once was there just a blank spot on your TV set for an hour. So if you keep that in mind, you will be able to conquer the fear and not get angry.

The other thing to remember is that small decisions are the refuge of the terrified showrunner. ‘The curtain is supposed to be turquoise, this is navy. What’s going on?’ – I’ve heard that kind of thing from showrunners many times. Focusing on the most minute, unimportant detail means they’re afraid to tackle the important details, such as the quality of the scripts and the acting. With good scripts, you’ve got a chance for a good show; but if they’re bad, you’ve got no chance. The acting, meanwhile, has to be superior at all levels. You cannot afford a bad actor in your show – nothing ruins a programme more than a bad actor or a bad script. So don’t seek refuge in the unimportant decisions – prioritise.

The showrunner system evolved in the US because of those 22-episode orders that fitted the network system. If there hadn’t been such long seasons, writers never would have been able to assume that level of power. It was only because we had the networks by the balls with those 22 episodes that we were able to demand that power and grasp it – and it became institutionalised. Now the job of a showrunner has been popularised and even cultised by people like Abrams, Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield).

Ultimately, a show is four things – script development, pre-production, production and post-production – and they are all going on at exactly the same time when you’re making your show. Any one of those four separate categories could take every hour of your day, seven days a week, but they’re all going on at once, and that’s why you need to prioritise. That’s the task of the showrunner – manage those four different things at once, don’t get a cocaine problem and try to stay married!

Chris Brancato was speaking at the 2016 European TV Drama Series Lab, organised by the Erich Pommer Institut and MediaXchange.

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Sense8-tional success

Sense8's writers believe the show deals with subjects previously untouched by sci-fi
Sense8’s writers believe the show deals with subjects previously untouched by sci-fi

Netflix has been in the news a lot this week. There has, for example, been furious speculation about the future of Sense8, a 12-part sci-fi drama that quickly established itself as a hit series for the subscription VoD platform.

Launched on June 5, it has attracted audiences and acclaim in key markets such as the US, France and Germany. With positive reviews on both Netflix itself and IMDb, it has also quickly become a target for the non-Netflix pirate audience.

The story of eight strangers from different parts of the world who suddenly become emotionally and mentally linked, Sense8 was created and written by Andy and Lana Wachowski and J Michael Straczynski. It attempts to deal with subjects that the writers believe sci-fi shows avoid or don’t do justice to, such as politics, identity, sexuality, gender and religion.

Straczynski had an opportunity to discuss the show at this week’s meeting of the Television Critics Association in California. Speaking on a panel, Straczynski made it clear the Sense8 team will continue the show if they get the greenlight from Netflix.

“We’re still awaiting word,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but it’s Netflix’s call. The way the Wachowskis and I tend to work, we are long-thinking people. We look down the road and say to ourselves, ‘Where is this going to go?’

“Season one is like an origin story, while season two has some particular arc and we figure it out from there. But to spoil that here would not be best for the surprise at the end.”

One thing that stands out in the show is its graphic content. Explaining its inclusion, Straczynski said: “We wanted to do a show for adults and grown-ups. There’s a tendency for science fiction to be seen as something other than for adults. It tends to be about the device, the gadget, the mission and not about the journey.”

Straczynski has a long and varied track record in TV writing, which goes all the way back to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, of which he wrote nine episodes. After stints on The New Twilight Zone, Murder She Wrote and Walker Texas Ranger, his big breakthrough project was sci-fi series Babylon 5, which ran for five seasons. Straczynski wrote 92 episodes out of a total 110 for the 23rd century-set space opera, before going on to create a spin-off called Crusade and another series called Jeremiah.

The trajectory for the Wachowskis has been quite different. After the success of their Matrix movie franchise, the brother/sister team has had a couple of feature film disappointments in the shape of Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. So the success of Sense8 has led some observers to ask whether their offbeat approach might be better suited to longform TV series. The answer to that seems to be that they’ll work across both formats.

Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the focus of forthcoming Netflix show Narcos
Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the focus of forthcoming Netflix show Narcos

One interesting theme that emerges from Sense8 is the issue of transgender identity. Lana Wachowski is a transgender woman and there is also a central transgender character in the show, Nomi – played by trans actress Jamie Clayton.

Clayton, who was on the TCA panel, praised the way the Wachowskis and Straczynski devised her character. She said: “There has never been a trans character in a movie or on a show before that didn’t revolve around his or her transition. Nomi is the first… no one cares because, at the end of the day, we shouldn’t care that she’s trans.”

Alongside all the Sense8 speculation, the pre-launch publicity for Narcos, another Netflix series, also kicked off at the TCA event. Produced for Netflix by Gaumont International Television, Narcos is a 10-part series that explores the 1980s drug war between the US administration and Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. It will begin streaming on Netflix on Friday August 28.

Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Eric Newman, Carlo Bernard and Jose Padilha, who initially intended it to be a film but found that the wealth of material favoured a TV series.

Explaining the project, Padilha said: “The series follows how (Escobar) became powerful, his political ambitions and bigger-than-life stories. Cocaine was cheap to produce, highly addictive and had incredible profit margins. No one knew what they had until it hit America.”

Newman’s involvement in the project is another good indication of the huge film-to-TV swing the industry is witnessing. After making his name as a producer of films such as Children of Men, The Thing, In Time and Robocop, his last two projects have been the TV series Hemlock Grove and Narcos. Padilha, who is from Brazil originally, counts Elite Squad among his recent credits.

Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing
Comedy-drama Lilyhammer led the way in binge viewing

Also this week, Netflix confirmed that the third season of Norwegian-American series Lilyhammer will be its last. The show, which centres on a US gangster trying to start a new life in Norway, was a landmark moment in scripted business.

It was one of the first shows that really put Netflix on the map and also kick-started a trend towards shows that are comfortable hopping between different languages. The star and co-writer of the show is Steven Van Zandt, who seemed disappointed by the cancellation.

He wrote on Twitter: “#Lilyhammer RIP. Not my decision. Let’s just say for now the business got too complicated. Very proud of our 24 shows. New ideas on the way.”

While Lilyhammer (which was also a breakout hit for Norwegian broadcaster NRK) is often thought of as being Van Zandt’s creation, the original idea was actually conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, who pitched it to Van Zandt while he was in Bergen producing a rock band. After a further meeting in New York a deal was done.

Among other Netflix announcements this week was the news that the streamer has greenlit a Spanish-language series that will air in 2016.

“Netflix is committed to the creation of high-quality, Spanish-language original series for Mexico, US, Latin America and the world,” said chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We are thrilled to be working with one of Latin America’s biggest and most talented stars Kate del Castillo on Ingobernable.”

Kate del Castillo will star in Ingobernable
Kate del Castillo will star in Ingobernable

In Ingobernable, del Castillo will play Irene Urzua, the wife of Mexico’s president. A woman with a strong personality, conviction and clear ideas, Urzua is capable of “creating a president, leaving a president and killing a president,” said Netflix in a press statement.

The 20-part series will be produced in Mexico by Argos and directed by Jose Luis Garcia Agraz and Pedro Pablo Ibarra. No details were provided on who is writing the show.

Netflix is also due to premiere Gaz Alazraki and Mike Lam’s Spanish-language series Club de Cuervos on August 7.

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