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“You’re Not Gonna F***in’ Tell Me What My Story Is”: Sam Esmail, Nic Pizzolatto and The Hollywood Reporter Drama Showrunner Roundtable

Steven Canals, Sera Gamble, Marti Noxon and the late John Singleton also sound off on the scenes that make them nervous (“Part of the excitement is rattling some cages”), the most dangerous question in any writers room (“What are we going to do this episode?”) and why “it’s important sometimes to ruin the narrative.”

John Singleton may have been an unorthodox choice to have at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Drama Showrunner Roundtable, as he isn’t technically running his FX co-creation, Snowfall. But rather than shy away from a discussion about his craft, the pioneering storyteller — who at 24 became the first black director to be nominated for an Academy Award, for Boyz n the Hood — offered a master class of sorts on the importance of sticking to your vision, particularly when it’s your own story that’s being told. “It was a dicey thing for a guy like me to go to film school and say, ‘I’m going to be a filmmaker,’ ” he said. “But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to rely on someone else to tell the stories I wanted to tell.”

His advice to the group gathered on an early April afternoon, which included True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto, 43; Homecoming’s Sam Esmail, 41; and Sharp Objects’ Marti Noxon, 54: “There [will be] other people who don’t see it the way you see it, but you have to retain your passion.”

Mere weeks after sharing his wisdom, Singleton suffered a stroke. On April 28, he was pronounced dead at 51. No one present for THR’s Roundtable will forget his generous and thoughtful contributions to this wide-ranging conversation, which, with the addition of You’s Sera Gamble, 43, and Pose’s Steven Canals, 38, touched on everything from managing fan expectations to managing your own reputation.

You’ve tackled a lot of heavy subjects in your shows. What was the moment or scene that made you or your collaborators nervous?

SERA GAMBLE You has a lot of Penn Badgley [who plays the obsessive Joe] braining people with hammers or convenient rocks … The scene that actually made me nervous, though, was in the pilot. Very early in the first episode, a character masturbates on the street in shadow. I was watching it at a screening and I was like, “Oh, we’re going to lose them and they’re never coming back.” Then the next scene came and everyone was on board, and that was the moment I knew the show would work. I was really doing it on faith until that point. (Laughter.)

JOHN SINGLETON I’m a performance artist in the room. I try to act out what I think the characters should do and I’m pitching stuff to all of our guys. We’re all in kind of a competition for eyes. I’m trying to find the most shocking, organic, natural thing that the characters would go through and I pitch that. And if people bump against it, if they’re like, “No, we can’t do that,” I say, “That’s why we’re going to do it.”

Any examples come to mind?

SINGLETON In the first season, we had a situation where this guy gets frustrated interrogating another guy, so he’s violently kicking his ass and he can’t get through to him. He gets so frustrated, he takes him in the back and he rapes him. I said it in the room and they were like, “Oh my God.” I know I’m affecting them when they’re visibly aghast. And that’s it, I was like, “We’ve got to do this.” For the audience, you put people in a place that they don’t want to necessarily be in, but they can’t close their eyes. That “I don’t want to watch this, but I have to.”

SAM ESMAIL People thought just the idea of adapting a podcast, like Homecoming, to a TV show was a little nutty. It’s two people talking in a room. And on top of that, I was like, “Yeah, and we’re still doing the two people talking in a room.” (Laughter.) “Oh, and it’s still going to be 30 minutes, even though it’s a drama.”

Did that give you or your partners pause?

ESMAIL There’s this weird expectation when you adapt a podcast, because it is a lot of conversation, that we’re going to put in car crashes and fireballs and crazy action set pieces. And I said, “No, we’re going to do what they did in the podcast because I thought it worked so well.” A lot of people felt like that wasn’t going to feel cinematic enough. It never gave me pause, but it definitely made everybody around me nervous. But to John’s point, whenever people got nervous, it just made me more excited. Part of the excitement is you want to feel like it’s rattling some cages.

When was the last time you guys were completely wrong about a viewer’s reaction to what you put onscreen, for better or for worse?

MARTI NOXON I thought people would be angry about Dietland.

Why?

NOXON We threw guys off buildings for being sexual predators, we had a fat woman in the lead of that show — there were just so many things. But the past few years, the real world has been so insane that the show ended up matching the world instead of feeling outrageous. So when we were making it, we were like, “We’re going to piss people off.” And then it came out and people were like, “Well, this is a nice little show.” (Laughter.)

STEVEN CANALS The entirety of Pose made me nervous, and I got it all wrong right at the start.

How so?

CANALS I spent two years pitching this pilot, in and out of rooms, being told no. The show was “too queer” or it was “too trans,” there were “too many black people,” “too many Latin people,” it’s a period piece. So to finally have the show be produced and to have collaborators in Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, I won the lotto. And I was confident in what they had to say, which was, “This is going to work,” but you never really know. I was dealing with a little PTSD from all of the no’s. And my fear the entirety of filming was, “This is going to be the thing that tanks Ryan Murphy’s career.” (Laughter.) And then it goes out into the world and people embrace it and they understand exactly what our intention was.

NIC PIZZOLATTO I don’t know if “wrong” is necessarily the word, but “flummoxed” might be.

Because?

PIZZOLATTO Because with this season [of True Detective] I tried to be as transparent as possible with the narrative. With the two later timelines and the way that they all interact, it’s telling you what’s going to happen before it happens. And so, in that way, I was trying to be like, “No tricks up my sleeves. This is what’s going to happen.” And you always hope [your show] stirs passion and devotion and investment — but to see from some viewers the sorts of theories that, to me, were coming out of left field, it was like, “No, we just told you that’s not going to happen; we said this is going to happen.” Like Carmen Ejogo’s character, Amelia, there was a contingent of viewers throughout that were certain that somehow she did it, which I really didn’t understand. And that would make Mahershala Ali’s character, Wayne, the worst detective in history — to be married to someone for years and you never realized they were [the murderer]? But there are viewers who’ve been programmed by the sorts of storytelling we’ve had over the past few decades who are simply intent on looking for what would be the most outre twist, never mind if it makes sense.

SINGLETON They try to get ahead of what you’re doing instead of watching it play out. And then they stick to what they’ve written in their mind instead of what you have laid out.

NOXON I think we benefited from that on Sharp Objects because one of the things about the story is, the people who seem the most like the killers are the killers. When we took the book, one of the things I said to [author] Gillian Flynn was, “We need to build the world out and offer some other viable suspects, because the minute you meet these people in this creepy house, you’re like, ‘They seem like really creepy people in a creepy house.’ ” (Laughter.) And we benefited from the fact that people just went, “That seems kind of obvious.” And of course we tried to make them look in other directions, but the audience is so ready not to look at the thing that’s right in front of them. Even when you’re saying, “No, this is going to be a story about this.”

Sera, you have this character at the center, Joe, who is really doing some awful things — and yet the audience, or at least a very vocal portion of the audience, rooted for him. Did that surprise you?

GAMBLE It didn’t. There’s a very vocal contingent of fans of Caroline Kepnes’ book [on which You is based] who were like, “I heart Joe.” Essentially what she’s done is taken the classic romantic hero and just peeled back the gloss and sheen and John Cusack with the boom box and she followed it to its logical conclusion. I mean, if you turn off the sappy music and turn on a David Fincher score, romantic comedies are stalker movies.

SINGLETON I love that.

GAMBLE The plot of pretty much every one I can think of — and we have watched all of them many times in the writers room — is contingent on the guy … well, first of all, he has to do a certain amount of fucking up so she can forgive him. And he has to get over some of her shortcomings. I mean, that’s love, right? (Laughter.) But also, he’s chasing her through a fucking airport, chasing her on a freeway, watching her sleep because he feels protective. Romantic comedy behavior in real life is criminal! And that was basically the starting place for the show.

Penn seemed to clap back on social media at those who rooted for his character. What kind of conversations came first? And did you ever feel tempted to engage with viewers in the same way?

GAMBLE I’m happy to interact with people online to talk about, like, “How do you outline a script?” But when they’re like, “Why did you do that thing?” I’m like, “You watch it the way you want to watch it.” For Penn, when Greg Berlanti and I were talking about the casting, we talked about how we needed an actor who really felt like Joe Goldberg was on paper. And Penn is all of that great stuff: He’s thoughtful, he’s a reader, he’s a humanitarian, he’s a feminist, he’s extremely disturbed by Joe’s behavior. A lot of our conversations throughout [making] season one were largely about his level of discomfort with each thing I was sending him. Penn’s never like, “That feels weird, I’m not going to do it.” He’s like, “We’re going to do it, let’s just talk it through, and by the way, I have never been more uncomfortable in my life.” I also think he’s got a good sense of humor and there’s something funny and glib about the way that he’s doing that that’s actually very sweet to the fans.

What about the rest of you? Nic, I’ve noticed on Instagram, you chime in and shoot down theories.

PIZZOLATTO I guess it was my experience from the other two seasons where I didn’t want to control an interpretation so much as temper expectations, because if you’re saying something wildly out of left field, I had the urge to protect the expectations of the story and just say, “No.” Like, “Spoiler alert, it’s not Amelia.” And then you find out that that doesn’t really work because people are like, “He’s messing with you. It’s Amelia.” (Laughter.)

GAMBLE That’s actually so kind of you. I’m like, “Tune in, find out.”

PIZZOLATTO There’s a fine line between wanting people to be invested and passionate about something but also wanting to protect it from getting hijacked by what John was saying, people writing their own story. So there were a few times where I wanted to help out and say, “If you’re waiting seven weeks for this to happen, it’s not going to happen.”

CANALS On Pose, it was important sometimes to ruin the narrative, if you will.

How so?

CANALS Our show centers on the narratives of five trans women of color, and the life expectancy for trans women of color is 35. In the pilot, we have a character, Angel, played by Indya Moore, who meets Evan Peters’ character, Stan, and that’s the beginning of a love story. But the audience who’s tuning in, specifically the trans community, was watching that narrative afraid that he was going to be violent against her because more often than not in the real world that’s what is happening. By the time we got to the fourth episode, all of us in the room had to tweet out, “Angel is going to be fine, she will not die, there will be no violence enacted toward her this season.” It was critically important for us to let the audience know that because they were coming in week after week holding their breath, just waiting for that moment.

Having an audience so engaged that it’s holding its breath is typically key to successful storytelling, no?

CANALS I think the trans community is one that’s been victimized historically and so we certainly didn’t want to retraumatize the community in any way. It was important for us to let the audience know that that’s not the intention with the story that we’re telling.

With Pose, you strike this balance between both celebrating the exuberance of the period but also depicting its bleakness. What has that navigation entailed?

Marti, you’ve called your last three projects, To the Bone, Dietland and Sharp Objects, your self-harm trilogy. Has it been cathartic to put these projects out there?

NOXON So much of what motivates me as a writer is to connect with people who feel unseen. For me, it’s issues of addiction, whether it’s disordered eating or feeling othered because you don’t have the right body type. All these things feel like parts of myself that I always felt were super shameful, and the more I contribute to putting those things onscreen, the more I not so much normalize them — because nobody wants these things to be emulated — but [make people] feel less alone. It certainly makes me feel less alone to write them and then have people say, “Oh, me too,” and there’s so much of that with those last three projects. But I do feel like I excised it or wrote my way out and am in a different place. Next, it’s just going to be jokes, jokes, jokes. (Laughter.)

Nic, initially Mahershala Ali came to you and said he’d like to play the lead, Wayne, who’d been written white. I believe you’ve said your hesitation was that you didn’t want to have to make the show about race, but ultimately realized — to Mahershala’s relief — that you could cast him and not make it about race. Can you walk us through that decision?

PIZZOLATTO It was a short conversation because I knew I’d be really lucky to have an artist of that caliber playing this role. I told him I love the idea, my only concern was that in the times we live in, this is a story about time and memory and love, and I wouldn’t want those themes to be subsumed because suddenly we’re telling a story that is messaging about race. And I don’t think I’m the right person to be doing that, anyway. He said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” What he told me was that what he liked about the role was that this was a fully formed human being whose story is not defined by race — and that often for actors of color, the role they’re up for is defined by race. “If I’m playing a detective, I’m playing the black detective.”

SINGLETON Exactly.

PIZZOLATTO At the same time, I didn’t want to ignore race and pretend that it didn’t exist — it was just more in the fabric of the world. So again, it was a brief conversation and I just said, “Let me go rewrite the first three episodes and let’s see.” And then I realized, “Oh, it works just fine.” [In fact], it was such a force multiplier to have an actor of color in that role. I could imagine him having to be much more controlled than his partner in his reactions to people. His partner can be emotive and hot-tempered — he cannot. And he’s always on the periphery, a bit looked over, but that also gives him the opportunity to be a much closer observer. So, I was grateful that he wanted the role, and it helped me open up my work in ways I would’ve been shy about doing, given the general discourse that exists on social platforms.

I assume you’re referring to the larger conversation about who’s allowed to tell what story?

PIZZOLATTO Yeah, and wondering, “Is that my story to tell?” Where I landed was, I’m actually the only writer on earth qualified to write about Wayne Hays because he’s a figment of my imagination.

CANALS I grew up in the Bronx, in housing projects in the ’80s, a childhood directly impacted by both crack and HIV epidemics, but I wasn’t part of the ballroom community [that Pose depicts]. I never walked the ball. So we have nine consultants on our show who all were part of the ballroom community, and they’re critically important in aiding us in the process of crafting our story.

For at least a few of you, these shows have catapulted you to different places in your careers. How much pressure do you feel to strike while the iron is hot and set up other projects?

GAMBLE I’d reached a point in my career where I was working on exactly the projects I wanted to. Frequently those are in the fantasy and science fiction space. So I’d carry a little water at Comic-Con sometimes, but that’s about it. It was Greg Berlanti coming to me and saying, “I have this unusual book that I think you and I should write the pilot together,” and we just saw eye to eye on it. That show was bought by Showtime, and we had different visions for the show. Then Lifetime picked it up to series. Lifetime was a fabulous partner in season one. This was a departure for them and the executives were excited. They were sending me these beautiful emails with great ideas. But it didn’t work for their business model and we got canceled. This is how I thought my career would be. And now for the first time I’m working on a show [for Netflix] where I go on Instagram and there’s a meme and I’m like, “Wait a minute, that’s Penn on our show!” So yes, there are people saying, “Oh, your iron is hot now,” and I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism, but I just don’t believe any of that is real. I mean, I’m happy. I was happy doing the show at Lifetime. I was happy writing the script for Showtime. The rest of it? I have to build a little bit of a wall between myself and anything that’s about money. Listen, I don’t hate money. (Laughter.) I’m not, like, against being paid for your work, but I also don’t believe that this is a moment and then the moment is going to go away. Beyond that, I’m in denial about all of it.

CANALS I have to say I’m in the exact opposite place, where I have a lot of anxiety. (Laughter.) Specifically around, how do I make this career sustainable? There are so many incredible storytellers who’ve worked on wonderful shows and they just disappear. Where have they gone? What are they doing? I recognize that I have an incredible opportunity working with one of my idols, but there’s a part of me that is hyperaware that at a certain point we’ll be done telling this story, and then what’s next? I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there’s still anxiety around “How do you continue to navigate this career?” And there aren’t a lot of people in this industry who look like me that I can then use as models. So that’s one of the other anxieties. Who do I then point to and say, “Oh, that’s the kind of career I want to have”?

ESMAIL For me, I’d always had an endgame for Mr. Robot. When we went into the writers room for the fourth season, I put the last two episodes on the board because I always knew what the last two were, and I said, “Here’s where we are from the end of season three, how many more episodes are there without treading water?” Everyone had thought, “Oh, we definitely have two more seasons left.” But there weren’t. It was basically one last season [worth of material]. So, I went to the network [USA] and everybody was like, “No, this can’t be the last season.” And we kept talking about it and talking about it and there was a lot of anxiety because nobody wants it to end right now — the cast didn’t want it to end, the network didn’t want it to end. But then you start asking yourself, “Is this is the only story I can tell?” I’ve got five million other ideas. And on top of it, when you start playing the game of career and thinking about a five-year plan, what does that have to do with the story you’re telling?

SINGLETON Nothing.

ESMAIL Right. And of course there’s the money and you’re looking at that — a whole other season means 10 more episodes and more residuals and all this other stuff. And you can understand why shows go on and on. I mean, what season did Law & Order: SVU just hit? Twenty?

NOXON But that show is designed to just keep going. You see the same basic plot told over and over again for the comfort of millions. We had a similar thing [to you] with Buffy [the Vampire Slayer] where Joss [Whedon] and I looked at each other and were like, “We’re vampired out.” And nobody wanted it to be over. But he always had confidence in the storyteller inside of him — that there were other stories. I didn’t have any of that, I was a nervous wreck. (Laughter.) But I knew we had told the story and anything after that was going to feel like we were doing a disservice to the characters who we loved so much.

ESMAIL The most dangerous question in any writers room is, “All right, so what are we going to do this episode?”

ALL (Groans.)

ESMAIL When you start saying that …

SINGLETON It’s over, man.

ESMAIL That’s why the anthology format is exciting for me because you finish the story and then you wait until you get inspired [again]. It’s not, “I’ve got to come out with another one next year, so let me just [rush something].” You wait until you have something.

Assuming a network allows you to.

PIZZOLATTO Yeah, and I’ve had both experiences. [The other is], “OK, you have to do something yesterday and it needs to be done by this date and start shooting this date.” But having done the anthology, I find now I’d like to not do that because I make these characters and come to have great affection for them and investment in them and I’d like to stay with them for more than a season. [As for] the anxiety question, I’ve already seen so much up and down that I got very Zen about “Well, it’s all over.” And if it’s not, great. But the way I found to remove the fear and anxiety was to imagine a worst-case scenario, and it’s not that bad. You could do something else, maybe you’ll make plays, maybe write novels, something.

With our final question, I’d like to get a little more personal: In what ways are you all like or not like your reputations?

NOXON I used to think that my reputation was being really nice and now I’m like, “Maybe my reputation is that every other show I do, I either quit or get fired and then the other show is a nice show.” (Laughter.) I guess I don’t have just one reputation. To me, the number one job of a showrunner is to know what the show is and no matter what happens, get up every day and remind everybody what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So, where I used to think I had a reputation of being a really pleasant person to work with, now I hope it’s: “She fuckin’ makes the show. Sometimes it’s not pleasant and sometimes she’s super good to be around, but she makes the show.” With certain shows, I’ve quit because I’m like, “That’s not the show we were making and I’m willing to [walk away].” And as long as I stay true to that, there always seems to be another job. It’s when I start worrying [that I run into trouble]. One of my first shows out of Buffy was a hot mess because I was trying to make everybody happy.

SINGLETON Oh, you can’t do that.

NOXON No. But I wanted to show everybody that I had a show in me after Buffy. And when it crashed and burned rather spectacularly one of the executives said to me: “Wow, you were so great to work with. I mean, you took every note.” I was like, “Oh God, they don’t pay me to be nice. They pay me to tell them what the show is.”

What about the rest of you? Certainly a few of you are known for your desire for control.

ESMAIL We have to be controlling. That’s what we’re hired to do.

SINGLETON And they want to at least feel comfortable with you knowing that you’re responsible and that you’re telling the story that should be told. It’s funny because this is such a public forum [for this answer] but part of my reputation comes back to when I started in features, which is that I’m some, like, black militant guy — really serious and I don’t like white people. And it’s like, dude, I’m a goofball, I’m funny, I’m self-effacing, but I’m also very serious about storytelling and telling the narrative that hasn’t been told before. What I don’t like is when an executive feels like they know better than you the story that you’re telling. I’m like, “You’re not gonna fuckin’ tell me what my story is.” I don’t feel there are a lot of people of color in the business who feel comfortable saying, “It’s going to be like this, I don’t care what the hell you say.” And I’ve gone through that throughout my career. I started when I was 22, so it’s like, “What the hell can you tell me?” (Laughter.) “You said that this wasn’t going to work and it worked; then you said this stuff wouldn’t work and it worked.”

PIZZOLATTO But if you didn’t fight and you just capitulated, you’re not doing your job. I’ve actually used that line before: “If I let you do this, I’m not doing the job you hired me for.”

ESMAIL I don’t even say no. I just say, “But I don’t want to do that.” And then there’s this weird “OK … so …” (Laughter.) You just have to commit.

NOXON It’s also such a subjective medium. That’s one of the reasons I love baking so much. [It’s the antidote to all this. Unlike a good show], everybody knows what a cake is. And generally, if you say it’s chocolate and you cut it and taste it, it’s chocolate cake.

SINGLETON Mmm, my ears perked up. I love chocolate cake.

NOXON I do, too. (Laughter.)

THR Emmy Roundtables will roll out through June in print and online. Watch new episodes of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 23 on SundanceTV — and look for video highlights at THR.com/Roundtables and extended episodes on THR.com after broadcast.

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