How do hit shows get made? What’s the creative process like for writers, directors, and network execs? Those are some of the questions we explore in our new anthology, Hacking Hollywood: The Creative Geniuses Behind Homeland, Girls, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and More.
We’ve collected some of our favorite entertainment stories, stories that reveal the industry’s inner workings: Homeland director Lesli Linka Glatter watching other shows and movies in preparation for shooting a big episode. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner struggling to get the show made and then struggling to get a movie off the ground. HBO executives deciding to bet big on original programming, a decision that continues to reverberate now that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are pursuing a similar strategy.
Today, three of the anthology’s contributors, Jessica Grose, Ari Karpel, and Polly LaBarre, share their insights.
Salter: Jessica, you interviewed director Lesli Linka Glatter, who gives a good sense of the preparation that goes into shooting an episode. The episode of Homeland that she talks about directing sounds simple on the surface: It’s an interrogation. But in the end, it’s almost as complicated as an action sequence. What was your biggest takeaway from hearing about her creative process?
Grose: My biggest takeaway from Lesli’s creative process was the way she immerses herself in the world of each show she directs. She was very clear that she is entering a different culture each time–almost like entering a different country, Madmenland, Homelandville, Westwingistan–and that part of her job is to adapt to the customs and environment of each set, and the desires of each creator. I had never thought about it that way, and it was fascinating to me.
I do find myself looking at the way shots are framed more when I am watching TV than I used to–the placement of characters on the screen, and how they related to the set.
Salter: She’s a fascinating example of a director who didn’t start out with TV in her sights.
Grose: My favorite thing was hearing about her career trajectory. She started off as a modern dancer and choreographer–she didn’t set out to be a director, but she found a story she couldn’t resist and thought that film was the best way to tell it. Her nothing-to-lose attitude about creative endeavors was so inspiring to me.
Salter: Ari, you write about Weiner, the creator, writer, director, and producer of Mad Men. He’s as successful as it gets right now, and yet even he struggled to get a movie made. Were you surprised?
Karpel: Yes and no. It’s harder and harder for everyone to get movies made, which is why so many of the great filmmakers of our time–from David Fincher and Neil Jordan to the really big guys, Spielberg and Scorsese–are working in television. But the reverse is a tough one. The transition from TV to movies is often arduous and does not follow an obvious path.
Hollywood is surprisingly siloed: Movie agents know movie executives and movie writers, while TV agents schmooze with TV executives and TV writers, but rarely have they intersected. That collapse has been happening, but change is slow in Hollywood and everyone is set in their ways of thinking. There’s a lot of conventional thinking to buck. For instance, film is seen as a director’s medium, while TV is a writer’s.
Matthew Weiner has proven himself a brilliant writer but, in the eyes of movie people, he’s perhaps still unproven as a director, having only directed a handful of Mad Men episodes (and what does a TV director do anyway, goes the thinking). I’m sure many studios would have leapt at the opportunity to produce a film written by Matthew Weiner, but directed by someone with a proven track record in movies.
Salter: Weiner also spoke with you at length—and openly–about failure. How he deals with it. How his success is inextricably tied to his failures. What do you think we can learn from him about perseverance and handling rejection?
Karpel: Weiner’s perspective is essential. Mad Men is so obviously brilliant, how could it not have made it to TV? And yet, it nearly didn’t. HBO famously passed on it, and Weiner was carrying that pilot script around for a long time. Just as it’s easy for us to imagine that a successful television writer will have no problem getting a movie made, it’s all too easy for us to imagine that someone so successful hasn’t faced failure.
It’s amazing how incremental a career can be. From the outside, no doubt, Matthew Weiner was perceived as a success when he landed a job as a staff writer on Becker, but he knew that he had yet to get close to what he hoped to achieve. It’s intriguing to be able to look outside ourselves and see how others might perceive us and then use that to shore up for the next level of success. Weiner’s wife is a steadfast supporter and, as he says, we all need them to “keep us afloat.” Having supporters helps us weather moments of rejection, keep our perspective steady, never lose hope.
Salter: Polly, HBO has a trio of popular shows: Game of Thrones, Girls and True Blood (and The Newsroom could break through and join them). It’s easy to take that success for granted, but you wrote about how the cable channel became a creative juggernaut in the first place, with shows like The Sopranos. How did HBO decide to pursue what had traditionally been the major networks’ turf?
LaBarre: You have to go back to 1995 when TV was a vast wasteland. At that time, HBO reran movies and aired boxing and maybe one hour of original programming, The Larry Sanders Show. At an offsite, the heads of HBO asked a seminal question: “Are we who we say we are?” They had this rebel yell: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” But it didn’t mean anything. They had a group of leaders who were willing to be honest about that, and they decided to stake their future on original programming. Jeff Bewkes, now chairman and CEO of Time Warner, called it the “Let’s jump off the cliff” moment. And it was. They decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in an enterprise with a 90% failure rate.
Salter: Why were they able to succeed against those odds?
LaBarre: They worked hard to develop this capability for doing original work and to develop this amazing magnetism for the creative talent out there who hadn’t thought about working in TV before. HBO became a haven. There’s no formula for a hit, but they were asking—and I think are still asking–these core questions: “Is it different? Is it distinctive? Is it good—truly good?”
They’re incredibly thoughtful about the human experience and what that has to do with TV. What they mean is, is there something deeply relevant and sharply defined here about the human experience? That’s how it’s become an amazing place to work if you’re creative talent. The attitude is, “We want the best expression of your best and boldest idea. Once we agree on that, we won’t want to mess with you.”
That sort of freedom is an elusive thing. It’s what makes Pixar or a company like W.L. Gore endlessly resilient, this ability to unleash the creative capabilities inside the people you work with. That’s what an organization can learn from HBO. It’s not creating one hit show or hit product. It’s developing the capability to do it again and again and again. If you’re built for organizational innovation, you have a better chance of creating great original work.
Salter: The entertainment landscape has transformed in the last decade–and it’s still evolving. AMC of all channels borrowed HBO’s strategy and scored big with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Now we’re seeing distributors such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu try their hand at original programming, with mixed results. What’s the hard part about emulating HBO?
LaBarre: Just because HBO has proven that original content is a solid-gold strategy doesn’t take any of the risk away. Even HBO went through a dark period a few years ago. People were asking, “Have they lost their way? They haven’t had a hit in five years.” But it has shown it has the intestinal fortitude to stick with original programming. Don’t forget, these shows cost millions, if not hundreds of millions—think of Game of Thrones. When you see [Showtime’s] Homeland or [AMC’s] Mad Men, it’s clear the creators of those worlds are being given a platform to express their vision week after week. But will that continue when these companies don’t have hits?