Over the weekend, “Rectify” creator Ray McKinnon and “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris took the stage at the Directors Guild of America for a panel on serial content, as programmed by Film Independent for its annual FIND Forum. McKinnon and Barris only made up half of the panel — which also featured “The Killing” Executive Producer Nicole Yorkin and Indigenous Media COO Jake Avnet — but what they both had to say seemed to carry the most weight with the audience.
Although their shows stand at opposite ends of the television spectrum, both McKinnon and Barris share a distinct sense of humor about themselves and the work that they do. So we decided to not only compile some of their most memorable anecdotes shared over the course of the panel, but also the lesson we learned from each piece of advice (or crazy story).
Lesson 1: When you’re a writer, your personal life and work are not mutually exclusive. And that’s okay.
McKinnon: “After my fourth DUI, I was at a crossroads. I’m not kidding. Everything in my life has been…you talk about your work and the path that you’ve been on, but it’s all been concurrent with trying to live my life and try to make sense of my life and the world.”
Lesson 2: You may think you know your path, but you really don’t.
McKinnon (on transitioning from acting to writing): “I thought I would be a writer, but I didn’t have the discipline or the humility to fail over and over and over before I learned how to do it. And so I went away from that and decided I would try acting. Again, it proved very difficult, but for some reason, I learned how, in between life’s ebbs and flows, how to continue to work at it and get better at it, and I think that was a part of me growing up that you can’t be good at something usually, until you put, as Mr. Gladwell says, your 10,000 hours. So while I was putting in my 10,000 hours as an actor, I continued to write. I’ve always been intrigued about issues in the world and also story, so I think one of the accidental benefits of the path that I stumbled across was that I got to practice the craft of writing without the glaring light of criticism.”
Lesson 3: Hard isn’t just good — it’s great.
McKinnon (on being a showrunner): “It’s the hardest job I’ve
ever done [and] it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had.”
Lesson 4: The only way other people will understand your point-of-view is if you understand it yourself, inside out.
Barris (on choosing how to make “Black-ish): “My wife is a doctor and [both of us] came up [because] we got some opportunities. So my kids have no idea of the life that I had. I looked at them and I thought, ‘Who are these kids?’ And I kind of felt that my mom felt that about me. I started talking to my friends that are Asian or White or Latino and they felt the same way about their kids, so I started to feel like it was a much more universal story. The specificity really spoke to the universality of the show. So we went in there and I’d done a ton of pilots before, but this time, I was going to be honest. I’m not going to do a story about a family that happens to be black, I’m going to do a story about a family that is absolutely black, but do it in an honest way, [so] hopefully the honesty is what appeals to people because it speaks to something I think everyone understands: that we’re taught to give our kids more than we had, but in doing that what do they lose with the gain, and how do we deal with the consequences of our circumstance.”
Lesson 5: Trust others because they are there to make you look good.
Barris (on how to choose a writing staff): “Really, you’re the only one who can get certain things done, but I do think that a great staff, and trusting that staff — you have to really trust
the delegation of great people around you — because if you don’t it will all crash
around you. As much as you want to, you just can’t do it all.”
Lesson 6: It’s okay to look dumb sometimes.
Barris: “It’s not a bad thing to
be the dumbest person in the room and have smart people around you to execute.”
Lesson 7: Good writing always triumph.
McKinnon (on how writers are discovered): “There is not a conspiracy
to prevent really good writing from coming into Hollywood.”
Lesson 8: Your point-of-view is the light at the end of the tunnel, so keep moving towards it, no matter what.
Barris (on working with a broadcast network): “The title of my show was
almost the death of me. I made the mistake, after they launched it, of reading what people were saying [online]. I think I stayed up seven hours one night. The sun was just coming up and I was crying. [I thought,] ‘oh my god people hate me.’ Totally out of context, people hated the show before it had ever been seen. [They were saying that] the title was the worst thing, and it was this and it was that. [Some people called it] coonery and it was bothering me so
much. Ultimately, I look now, because I can’t stop from looking at comments, and so many people are saying, okay my bad. [Now I realize] I could have very easily been
derailed if I took what I thought was the audience’s perception. I feel like people really don’t know what they want until you sort of give them something. If you can be honest and clear with your vision, people will see it. It doesn’t matter what color or race they are; what ethnicity or how old. I think people enjoy good storytelling that comes from an honest place.”