A journey through ShondaLand
The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is something of a surprise package. While it’s aimed primarily at executives in the advertising business, its conference programme attracts some of the biggest names in film, TV and music.
This year, for example, it managed to reel in the likes of Pharrell Williams, David Guetta, Marilyn Manson, Richard Curtis, Kenneth Branagh, Freida Pinto, Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name just a few.
From a Writers Room perspective, one of the most interesting conference sessions was hosted by McCann Worldgroup and the Paley Centre for Media. Under the heading ‘Is creativity the only way to survive and thrive today?’ they brought together three top talents closely associated with ShondaLand, the Shonda Rhimes-led production company that makes hit shows Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) – all for US network ABC.
It was also behind Private Practice, a Grey’s spin-off that ran for six years.
One of the three contributors was producer Betsy Beers, who has been on board the ShondaLand express train since its early days. Beers, who has exec produced all of the above shows, recalled how, back in the middle of the last decade, both she and Rhimes were in the movie business.
“When we met, we had never made TV,” she said. “Shonda was a successful movie writer but I sucked at making movies. Everything I did bombed. So when we started talking about making TV, I was really excited. I’d always been a closet TV fan, which was not something you could admit around movie people.”
Finding they shared a similar sensibility, Rhimes and Beers decided to make a show about female war correspondents. “We created a pilot, but were thinking in movie budget terms,” said Beers. “So we came up with something that would have had a US$30m budget. Of course, that didn’t work out. But we still wanted to work together so we hit on the idea of a medical drama.”
‘Medical drama’ hardly sounds like the most original of premises, but in the hands of creative powerhouse Rhimes it became Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most travelled shows in the world.
Beers continued: “Back then, a lot of the female characters on TV didn’t look or sound like us. So what we set out to do was make a show about messy, confused, twisty women. In its first year it was the last show to get picked up as a pilot. And then it was the last show to go to series. But the audience liked the show so we survived.”
Beers said ABC became increasingly supportive of the show, which has now run for 11 seasons (with a 12th on the way). She admitted there were some people in the business that found it sexually aggressive and, therefore, offensive “but our response was ‘this is what the show is, so live with it.’”
ShondaLand’s shows all have the ballsy quality displayed by Grey’s Anatomy. Pete Nowalk, the creator of HTGAWM, came into the company as a writer on Grey’s Anatomy. Also at the Cannes Lions session with Beers, he said: “You can’t be generic anymore. There are so many TV shows out there that you have to really raise your game. With my work, I’m always looking at how to put ordinary people in extreme situations.”
While this approach has built a big fanbase, it inevitably exposes ShondaLand shows to the risk of criticism. Nowalk, who has grown up in ShondaLand, working on Grey’s, Scandal and HTGAWM, said his way of dealing with this is to write “in a bubble. Constructive criticism makes you better and smarter, I think. But when I’m writing new episodes I keep it small — just me and my computer.”
Beers said her ability to cope with adverse criticism is helped by the fact “that I border on being a luddite. But we’ve also created a safe environment at work, where we can express our fears and passions. I also think you need to really love what you are doing (to deal with criticism). We really love the shows we make.”
One of the big successes of HTGAWM (which debuted in 2014 to strong audiences and positive reviews) was the casting of actress Viola Davis in the lead role as Annalise Keating. Nowalk recalled applauding Davis at the first read-through of his script “because Viola really brought my words to life.”
Davis, who was the third participant in the Cannes Lions session, talked about the importance of authenticity in the way she handles the part. She said: “The role called for a messy, mysterious, sexy woman. I said ‘yes,’ then thought to myself, ‘I don’t look like that.’ But I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. So what if I didn’t fit the mould? I just dared to be a woman who fit those adjectives and in doing so was able to release my creativity. Typecasting is kryptonite to actors, so all I want to do is offer my interpretation of a real woman.”
Davis’s approach has helped make HTGAWM stand out. There was one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode of season one where it was revealed that her character Annalise was wearing a wig and eyelash extensions.
By removing them on screen, Davis made a statement about how women are represented on TV. She said: “I’ve never seen a woman like me on TV. It’s important to bring that up. You have to give yourself permission to have a voice.”
Beers said this gradual revelation of the vulnerabilitiesand contradictions of character is one of the beauties of working in serialised TV: “You have time to roll a character out.”
To take advantage, however, you need to keep pushing at the uncomfortable boundaries of the character, added Davis. “For actors, TV’s trap is that you can create a personality, not a person. The pursuit of likeability can be dangerous because you end up looking for gimmicks. You need to keep characters complex.”
Nowalk said this is what he tries to do from a writing perspective, by making sure characters don’t always follow the expected path, because it is the contradictions that come closest to truth.
All three panellists were asked what they feared most. Davis admitted to being “terrified not to have the courage to be authentic,” while Nowalk said: “I’m always terrified by the next episode – right now, the debut episode of season two.”
As for Beers, it was “the fear that I will stop growing, that I will start repeating myself. You have to learn, listen and be curious if you want to keep growing.”
Right now, it seems the ShondaLand team is doing a good job of staying curious.