Pete Nowalk, the creator of the soapy ABC drama How to Get Away with Murder, knows a thing or two about working for Shonda Rhimes, the über producer behind some of the biggest shows on television. His started out as a writer on Private Practice, spent six years on Grey’s Anatomy, and then co-executive produced Scandal. Then, in 2014, he wrote his own show (which Rhimes produces), How to Get Away with Murder, about Annalise Keating, a cunning professor and criminal defense attorney who becomes embroiled in a murder case involving her husband. The show recently made history when its star–Viola Davis, who plays Keating–became the first African-American actress to win a best acting Emmy in the drama category.
Nowalk was a rookie when he showed up at ShondaLand, Rhimes’s production company, which she runs with Betsy Beers. He knew he wanted to be a writer, but his only real job had been working as an assistant for a development executive at Columbia Pictures. But in between rolling calls at Columbia and co-writing The Hollywood Assistants Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players–“a snarky but practical guidebook,” according to Nowalk–he was always writing scripts. One of which made it into the hands of Beers, who called Nowalk in for a meeting. She didn’t hire him, but she was encouraging about his writing.
“Betsy really got into my head in a good way,” Nowalk said. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’m gonna keep going with this. I’m gonna write another script.’ And based on my next pilot, when they were doing the spin-off of Grey’s, Private Practice, they called me in for another meeting.”
This time, Rhimes–whom Nowalk regarded as a “creative guru”–was also in the room, as was Marti Noxon, the Private Practice show runner. Although Nowalk had never set foot in a TV writers room, he was hired.
As a newbie, Nowalk said the learning curve was tough–he likens getting the hang of TV writing to “learning a language. Of course, you’re not going to be fluent right away.” But he persevered, learning the tricks of the trade from Rhimes, who has greatly diversified network television with shows based on (and written and produced by) powerful women and other minorities, and who is a master of creating richly interwoven plots and the kind of final-scene drama that inevitably blows up on Twitter. So distinct is her touch that she has even inspired an adjective–Rhimesian–a term that extends to shows that she has nothing to do with–as James Poniewozik recently pointed out in the New York Times.
Nowalk talked to Co.Create about how Rhimes taught him the importance of not being too precious with his words; collaborating with actors in order to create richer characters; and extending diversity to the writers room–all lessons that he’s applied to How to Get Away with Murder.
Television writers rooms are notorious for their lack of diversity. But Nowalk says that when he was staffing How To Get Away with Murder, he purposefully sought out a varied mix of scribes. Not because he was trying to be politically correct, but because he felt that different genders and points of view would best serve his show.
“My first impression of TV was sitting in a room with three successful women,” Nowalk said. “I didn’t notice that at the time, but when people tell me that the industry is skewed toward men–white men, especially, and it is–I’ve been living in a bubble. I’ve always had women show runner bosses, and I just thought that was how every show worked.
“The How to Get Away with Murder room is very diverse. It’s equally weighted in terms of gender–there are five men and five women–and I wanted it to reflect our show. I learned that from Shonda. I always knew (the show) would have many different types of people, not just ethnically, but in terms of their personalities, and be equally weighted toward men and women, and I needed writers who reflected that. I came up with these characters, butI need other people who are not me to tell me how these characters would react to situations. Like how a straight Republican, Asher, would act. That’s probably the character who’s the furthest from me.
“I think Shonda would say this is just normal for us. I get a little nervous sometimes talking about it, because it makes it seem like it’s special. Or that we’re doing something that’s exceptional. No. This is just normal. It’s normal to the show. And it’s not hard to do–to hire female writers. It’s not hard to hire writers who have diverse voices. It’s just how it’s done.”
Another lesson Nowalk picked up working for Rhimes is working quickly and going with your gut. It’s something that’s necessitated by the fast-pace of television production, but can be hard in an environment with so many writers sitting around a table throwing out ideas. It can also go against a writer’s instinct to perfect and massage his or her work. Nowalk said that he quickly learned to overcome this instinct.
“Shonda is extremely decisive. She has an extremely strong instinct for story. So being a writer with no experience, it was incredible to watch–at the same time it was very intimidating, because she’s making how many episodes of TV every year? And you’ve got to be fast. There’s no dilly-dallying. There’s no nitpicking over your words. There’s no taking your time to break a story. It’s all about, network TV especially, trusting your first instinct and knowing what you want. I worked on Private Practice for a year, then on Grey’s for six. I learned how to be fast. I had to keep up. Another awesome show runner I had was Krista Vernoff, she was the head of Grey’s Anatomy at the time. And she, like Shonda, works really fast. They can monologue a scene. And they were nice enough to take the time with me. Because it does take time to learn.
“I feel like I went to grad school there. It’s like learning a language. I always like to tell that to younger writers. It’s like learning a language and of course you’re not going to be fluent right away. But to sit in that room–I might spend a whole day breaking a Grey’s Anatomy story. And Shonda, within two minutes, turns it on its head and takes it for a spin and it’s so much better. So you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m never going to be able to do this.’
“When I was going to make How to Get Away With Murder, I knew I had to be decisive. I did not know whether I would be lying, whether I’d be faking it. But I’m so glad I had the eight years of working with Shonda, because I got to grow as a writer. I got to see how other really successful people do it, and it got in my blood, I guess.”
Nowalk said that Rhimes helped him understand how to write character-driven stories and how to constantly interweave a character’s own story within sequences that move the drama forward. In ShondaLand, character always comes first. Part of how Nowalk gets to the heart of his show’s characters is by talking not just to writers, but to the actors playing those characters. He says this collaboration has been key on How to Get Away with Murder, particularly when thinking about Annalise Keating.
“With Annalise, I’m very lucky to have Viola to bounce ideas off of. Because I’m not a woman of her age, I never have been. And so part of my job is to listen. I think we’re all very good listeners. I’m lucky with Viola because I have this amazing collaboration that I never expected, where I can bounce ideas off of her and also she pitches me ideas. I’ve never had that before, and I feel very lucky to have that with her, because Annalise is such a complicated character. There’s a fine line between what feels real. What Viola has brought to the role is that she’s humanized a character that could have been arch or not believable. She’s made her human and compelling.
“The first conversation I ever had with Viola on the phone was when she was considering doing the pilot. And it was her desire to do a scene where Annalise takes off her wig. So that moment, which is probably the most talked-about moment of the show, came from her. Again, it’s my job to listen and not just write myself. Her argument was that she wanted to see Annalise in a private moment. She understood that Annalise was a very different person in public–in the lecture hall and in court. Around people she presents a real character, she wears a mask. And Viola felt that in order to really understand Annalise, you needed to see her unmasked. She said, ‘This is something that women do every night. They get ready for bed, and they do something with their hair. Annalise wears a wig, so she should take off that wig.’ I think that says everything about how smart Viola is as a storyteller.”
ShondaLand TV shows are known for their dizzying plots and moments that delicately walk the line between real and surreal. Nowalk said this is no accident, and that he learned from Rhimes how to push the limits of your imagination without worrying what anyone else thinks about it.
“Shonda takes big swings. She’d always do things that would seem terrifying. It’d be like, ‘Well, if you do that, then what we do the next season?’ But she’d be like, ‘But I like it.’ I did learn a lot about, ‘Because I like it this way.’ I’m not going to worry if the audience likes it. I’m not gonna worry if the network likes it. I like it this way. And that’s all you have to listen to.
How to Get Away with Murder is an insane show. The plot is twisty and turny and implausible, I think, in the best way. In a fun way. I think what scared me was, we had these flash forwards, and knowing that we’d catch up to them in episode 9. But I had no idea what the show was going to be after that. That’s all anybody asked me at the first TCA was, ‘Is this a show that can sustain itself?’ It’s still what they ask me. ‘I hope so,’ is my answer. I took that leap of, we’re going to catch up to them in episode in 9, and then we’ll figure something out then. it served me well. I think if we kept going longer, it might have gotten tedious. There’s something about the speed of our show, and what makes it satisfying is, we give answers and then we move on. I think being able to take those risks, and have faith in yourself that, you know what, I figured it out somewhere else before, I’ll be able to figure out the next step.”