Sublime Primetime 2019: Celebrating Emmy®-Nominated Writers
September 5, 2019
|Photo credit: Michael Lynn Jones|
The Writers Guild of America, West along with Writers Guild Foundation, Variety and Final Draft brought together many of this year’s Emmy® Award writing nominees for an evening to honor their hard work.
With discussions ranging from the responsibility of getting stories and representation right to how writers handle family reactions to embarrassing, real-life moments that make it onscreen, moderator Kelvin Yu (Bob’s Burgers) led conversations with comedy and drama writers into the creation, development and reactions to their nominated episodes.
Featured during the evening were comedy writers Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (PEN15), Bill Hader (Barry), David Mandel (Veep), Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan (The Good Place), Allison Silverman (Russian Doll) and drama scribes Ava DuVernay and Michael Starrbury (When They See Us), Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin (Escape at Dannemora), Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), Bruce Miller and Kira Snyder (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Thomas Schnauz (Better Call Saul).
Beginnings and endings were a big topic when it came to comedies with PEN15’s Maya Erskine sharing the struggles they had coming to a consensus in finding the heart of their new show.
“It wasn’t that I knew we had something, but I think when we took away the convoluted ideas that were not getting us anywhere and just came to the simple idea that all three of us could agree on and loved, that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, let’s stick with that.’”
Fellow PEN15 writer Anna Konkle further mentioned that having three creators did benefit them and the show.
“It took a while for all of us to love it and that’s one of the difficulties of having three creators, but it’s also one of the good things because it weeds out the things you don’t love.”
On a whole different perspective, Veep showrunner David Mandel reflected on how it was the characters themselves who helped him find the ending for the series.
“You just sometimes start to think to yourself what would be a funny end for this person and things just sort of, I hate to say, they reveal themselves to you … it was there for the taking.”
While these nominated comedies are often shining a light on profound issues, The Good Place writer Josh Siegal found that no matter what topic they’re dealing with, whether it’s big hopes, big ideas or wrestling with the bigger questions of life, the number one thought during the creative process is always, ‘Is it funny?’”
Inspiration for these episodes can come from so many places. For Bill Hader (Barry), it was his desire to do a big fight scene that brought about a valuable tip.
“Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator while we were doing season one said, ‘Hey, there’s this little girl who can do anything and her parents are stunt performers.’ He showed me this video of her running along a roof and jumping onto a truck that’s going 40 miles per hour. Her presence added another moral obstacle and a different sort of conflict for Barry to face.”
It was a movie connection that really helped Russian Doll writer Allison Silverman understand the tone of the show after Natasha Lyonne shared the original script with her.
“She said, ‘Watch Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye.’ It was unbelievable and I hooked into that tone very quickly and the idea of making her like this muttering gumshoe was just delightful.”
As drama writers took to the stage, the focus of the night shifted to getting to the truth of their characters and worlds. With multiple nominated shows based around real-life events, writers of these episodes not only faced the challenge of sifting through volumes of information and interviews, but also a strong responsibility in telling these stories.
According to Ava DuVernay (When They See Us), “It really was about getting to know Korey and as you got to know him, he’d tell you about his dreams; about a daydream he once had. Really, in constructing the story, it became not the facts of what he did during the day, but starting to imbed his hopes and dreams and regrets for himself within the structure of the day. We had to do a dance of what was really happening in the physical reality and what was happening in his heart and his mind.”
When it comes to getting the powerful messages of these stories to impact audiences, When They See Us writer Michael Starrbury added, “What Ava has afforded me as a writer is the opportunity to write nuance. When you can do that, you’re going to speak universally. The reason the show resonated is because someone can understand the experience of it, what it might feel like to go through something like that.”
There’s a balancing act between accuracy and telling a good story. While recognizing his show’s accuracy and the amount of research he and Michael Tolkin did, Escape at Dannemora’s Brett Johnson commented, “I think what’s most important is getting underneath the truth of who these people are and the truth of the story. You have to give yourself that leeway to be writers and to be creators and to add artistic stuff to breathe life in.”
Truth doesn’t just mean sticking to the facts and history. On Better Call Saul, the writing team has the past of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad to resolve with the whole new creation of Jimmy McGill on Saul. Thomas Schnauz explained, “We really tried to figure out who was this guy, Saul Goodman, before all the events of Breaking Bad. It was an eye opening experience.”
The evening also brought up current issues and how the news and societal behaviors and attitudes have shifted.
While Craig Mazin wrote the first two scripts for Chernobyl, the United States was in the midst of the election. As a result, he found himself reacting to the unfolding world around him. He was “looking at this story and thinking to myself, ‘There was a time in the United States where we used to look at the Soviet Union and rightfully mock them for their outrageous flights of lying fancy. When terrible things would happen, they would lie through their teeth. Maybe there’s a lesson here for us now.’ That was upsetting,” he said.
Moderator Yu asked writers from The Handmaid’s Tale about how daily news and unfolding events have shaped their show.
“It’s not really a ripped-from-the-headlines show, although at the time the show’s been airing, we’ve had these eerie coincidences. It just so happens that lots of the points of view and policies we’re depicting are a little too current right now,” said writer Kira Snyder.
Showrunner Bruce Miller views their show’s significance this way: “We don’t shoot to be current because we’re writing a year and a bit before anything comes out. It’s just unfortunate that our job is to think of the worst thing we can possibly think of and then we’re relevant. It’s awful.”
You can watch the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept. 22.
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a television and documentary writer and producer. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary The Jewel In The Woods. A Sundance Fellow and winner of Scriptapalooza TV, Kelly Jo has been a panelist at the Austin Film Festival, Wisconsin Writers’ Institute and for Stage 32. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.