Talking to the Producers of SHOWRUNNERS: A DOCUMENTARY FILM
By Merrill Barr on May 1, 2014
When it comes to the hardest jobs one can have in Hollywood, many will tell you that showrunning is at the top of the list. The patience, coordination, and creative will it takes to manage even a show with as small an episode count as Game of Thrones is a tremendous accomplishment. No one knew this better than director Des Doyle, who, along with partners Ryan Patrick McGuffey and Jason Rose, set out on a mission to find out just what makes these television elite tick in their new documentary, Showrunners.
NERDIST: How’d you get the answers to questions that television fans were going to want to hear? How’d you know what they were going to want to hear about during those interviews?
RYAN PATRICK MCGUFFEY: Well, it helps being a fan yourself.
DES DOYLE: Yeah, that I would say is the number one thing. I am a fan myself. I asked them everything that I want to know and everything that I thought other people would want to know based on questions I had seen placed around on message boards and forums and stuff, and also very topical events or very important kind of news stories that might have been happening in relation to them at the time, which I’m sure people would have been interested in…
N: Was it right after the writers’ strike that you had them?
DD: No. It’s a good while after the writer’s strike. We started end of 2010, start of 2011…
N: You’re at two, three years….
DD: Yeah. I, in very general terms, spoke to one or two people about that, but that’s not really in the film. It kind of felt like it was too far back in time. I was trying to stay a little bit more current than that with what was going on now, even though what’s happening now, obviously there was an effect that carried over from the writers’ strike in a lot of ways.
RPM: We’ve veraciously watched a fair number of these shows. When Des came over the first time, he had a list of potentials that we wanted to be in the film. We got a fair number of them. But these were shows that we all watched and were fans of. They were good examples of various genres and running across the board, from comedy to drama.
I’d say, first and foremost, being fans ourselves, we knew the questions to ask. That informed Des’s approach…
DD: Yeah. I mean I would always start with: “What is your credit card number?” But that never got an answer, unfortunately.
RPM: I think establishing yourself as a fan, like, “Oh, right. You actually do watch the show.” So it kind of breaks down the barrier and you are not just some schmuck who is interviewing…
N: That leads to my next question—getting them to open up about their process, because some of these guys are very secretive about it…
RPM: But they also have a lot they want to say. Their voice is…they get to tell their stories, but they never get to tell their stories.
Jason Rose: There’s never been a podium before for them to get their side of the story out.
RPM: No. Only recently have they really been able to speak candidly. But the few opportunities that they do get to actually engage with the public, that’s kind of becoming more and more commonplace, prominent now….
DD: Well, yeah, but it’s also a matter of…9 times out of 10 when they talk to the press, they are answering, effectively, the same five or six questions: What’s happening with this character? What’s happening with this character? Where are we going with this storyline? For someone to turn around to them and say, “Hey…”
RPM: “What’s your process?”
DD: Well, yeah, but, like, “Hey, what’s it like for you in the writer’s room and what’s your approach to breaking down story?” They don’t get that kind of thing all that often, or, “What’s your take on what’s happening at the moment? Why do you think the Nielsen rating system is broken? How much attention do you pay to…?”
The kind of stuff that we were asking them is not the kind of stuff that they would normally get. So, as a result, I think, one, they took us a little bit more seriously, and two, they engaged in the conversation a little more, and three, as a result of that, some of them were remarkably candid with us.
N: In one of the clips from the earlier trailers, you were in the writer’s room of Bones?
N: What was that like?
DD: It was interesting because I think they knew we were coming, but I don’t think they quite knew what to expect. So we went to them with a couple of cameras and a couple of sound guys. It’s a big enough room, but with the writing stuff in there and the rest, some of them were a little nervous especially. And, actually, I used the bit from Jonathan Collier, who was one of the executive producers, about actually talking about what was going on because they were very worried about spoiling what was coming up for fans and stuff. But we made it very clear before we went in that the timeline was going to be OK.
But it’s really interesting because after a period of time they do actually forget the cameras, because I’m not interfering with them the whole time. We stand back and just kind of let it go on. Much, much later on will I come in and start asking them some specific questions and stuff. So they do get to a point where they kind of forget that they’re there and it becomes a very natural interaction.
And it’s interesting because every room is different. We were in the Spartacus room, we were in House of Lies, a couple of different shows, and everybody, the dynamics are a little different. Some of those rooms were a bit more raucous than other rooms.
N: That leads into another question, these personality types. These showrunners, they have to be sort of very A personalities. But did you find that there were differences among them? Did any of them share commonalities?
JR: There were differences especially because some of them share responsibility. There could be one that’s more business oriented and one that’s more creative. They actually disperse it amongst two people instead of one. Some of them run it like the captain of a ship and others are more cohesive. But it was fascinating in that way to see how…because every show was different. Literally, every show was different, like from ground up.
DD: The one combining factor, I suppose, is if you are running a show successfully, you are 100% on the vision of it. You must know what your show is. You must be able to explain to a writing staff what your show is. You must know where you want to go, at least roughly, and everybody needs to be on the same page. That’s the one unifying thing. After that, it’s all down to different personality types. Everybody runs a room differently. Everybody deals with it a little bit differently. And everybody brings whatever experience they have or don’t have, and that affects the way that they do it.
I remember Andrew Marlowe saying he found it rather difficult, the first season of Castle, especially because he’d come from a feature writing background, which is a very solitary experience, and suddenly he’s thrown into managing 350 people. Instead of being a completely introverted experience, it becomes a completely extrovert. That takes quite a while to shift the gears and kind of get used to that.
N: You interviewed some network executives. Why did you decide to get them in here as well, as well as with the showrunners?
DD: Because I wanted the other side of the coin, basically. I wanted to know from them what they expect from a showrunner, why there are certain people they prefer to work with over others, the difficulties from their end, because showrunners do a get a lot of press, in some ways, and network executives tend to, a lot of the times, be painted as the villain. They are the guy who canceled my show. They are the guy who didn’t pick up my show, whatever it is. But there are reasons why those things happen and I wanted to try to get that point of view put across on the film a little bit.
The way it’s kind of worked out, we kind of have an ongoing story between one executive and one show and how that kind of finishes out, which I think it’s quite interesting.
Who was your favorite interview?
RPM: I loved the fact at how Joss just happened; it just arrived. Literally, we walked out the Fringe offices one day, with Jeff Pinkner and J. H. Wyman doing an interview that day, and we ran into Joss Whedon. He’s doing post-sound for Avengers. Well, he’s working on The Avengers and he asked us…we literally had two of his writers from [Buffy the Vampire Slayer], Jane Espenson and Steve DeKnight, and several other shows as well.
N: You had a lot from that camp. You had Shawn Ryan on…
RPM: Yep, yep. It worked out remarkably well, and it kind of just led up to this moment, this apogee, and we were faced with him and we were like, “What do we do?” And we didn’t have an introduction, so we just introduced ourselves and just asked him straight up if he’d be interested in doing it. His response was wonderful. He said, “Yeah, I have a few things I’d like to say about showrunning,” very pointedly.
When we did the interview, it was actually the day after Avengers premiered, and it was the first day of the first vacation he had in like two years. So we did it at his house and he was lovely. I think he was really tired of doing the press junkets for Avengers. He was just thrilled to be…
DD: Yeah, just to be on to something else…
RPM: …aside from Avengers, something 10 years prior in his career when he started.
JR: But even exhausted, he was so witty and so eloquent. Everything was a…
RPM: Everything was a sound bite.
JR: …was a quote. Yeah, everything was a quote or a sound bite. It was amazing.
RPM: He’s sharp as a tack.
DD: I don’t know if I can do a favorite.
JR: Lindelof was a great early one, and he had gave us…
DD: Yeah, and talking to Damon really changed things for us and opened doors. He’s been hugely supportive. I’m trying to think of…[pauses] Sorry.
RPM: Ron Moore?
DD: Yeah…I mean it’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, because over the last year and a half I’ve watched, and watched, and watched, and watched all of them as well…
RPM: It’s kind of like having kids, where it’s OK to have a favorite as long as they don’t know who it is.
DD: Yeah, there is a little bit of that in it. But my biggest problem in editing was that everyone was too good. There was too much good material.
JR: That’s a good problem to have.
DD: It is, but it will blow your mind in its own way as well, because if you are trying to get something down to a workable 90 minutes and trying to include building a narrative around it and a flow around it and trying to give everybody enough time to get it across, it’s very difficult.
But, yeah, Ron Moore was a great interview. I suppose the thing about Ron which is a little different, it was quite a poignant interview because you kind of don’t necessarily expect those moments to come up. So when they do, it’s kind of really nice; there’s a very kind of human kind of thing to it.
RPM: Why was it special for you?
DD: Why was it special for me? For the reasons I’ve just laid out. Are you not listening to me? I’m not going into specifics. Specifics? Go watch the film.
N: Favorite show currently on the air?
DD: Again, that’s difficult. It’s really easy to say Game of Thrones because it’s just so many degrees of awesome. I do greatly enjoy The Walking Dead as well. I don’t know if I should say this. Maybe I should say this; I shouldn’t be embarrassed to say this. I’m going to say this. I have a ton of respect for Pretty Little Liars. And I’ll tell you why. It’s a teen show that breaks all the rules of being a teen show. More people die on that show or there are so many weird conspiracies going on. I’m also fascinated by the way they’ve used social media to grow their audience. The way Marlene King runs that show is extremely smart. Yeah, I take my hat off to how they’ve kind of handled that. They are up into millions of people watching that show now. And it’s a worldwide hit. I think it’s in 55 or 56 different countries. But I just like the fact that they have taken the expected kind of teen genre and really kind of played around with that and turned it into something that’s slightly gothic and different. And all the girls are really hot.
RPM: To speak to that, he’s got me watching it as well.
RPM: Our other executive producer, Jimmy Nguyen was not, unfortunately, able to be here. He got me watching Veronica Mars. Des has got me watching Pretty Little Liars, so shouldn’t be terribly surprised that I love of them at arm’s length.
At the moment, none of the shows I watch….
DD: Silicon Valley.
RPM: You took it out of my mouth. That or Orphan Black.
N: I am with you on Orphan Black.
RPM: Orphan Black, hands down. I would give anything to have been able to incorporate…
N: John Fawcett and Graeme Manson?
RPM: Yeah, into this.
JR: The obvious one is Game of Thrones. Right now, playing I think is the best show on TV. If you go on what kind of we just went through, probably True Detective.
DD: Yeah, True Detective is awesome.
JR: I have issues, but I think it’s the Michael Jordan of cop shows. It’s the most amazing show I’ve seen in a long time.
RPM: I literally was at South by Southwest and I had a film premiere that I was meant to go to, but I skipped out to go to a bar and watch True Detective on my laptop with a group of people, and we just drank…
DD: I will be very curious to see what they do for season 2 of True Detective and how they cast that, because I think it’s done so remarkably well for them that they certainly have a shot at getting A-list movie actors for it. I’m just wondering if the audience will…Even in American Horror Story, this carryover with some of the cast, this isn’t going to happen with True Detective. So I’m very curious to see what the reaction would be to the next show. But I wish them the best because Season 1 was fantastic.
The release date of Showunners is currently TBD.