This is my idea of a good time: a smart TV series about my fave TV shows and the writers who write them. So far I’ve seen three half-hour episodes (presented by The Sundance Channel and Entertainment Weekly). Each show features Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash (“The Descendants”)– who also acts on “Community” and wrote, directed and stars in summer hit “The Way, Way Back”– gently interviewing the showrunner and various writers and usually one star of a hit show. They talk shop, and luckily Rash–who is sharp, funny and curious–has a good sense of how to get entertaining intel out of these gifted people. (See video preview below.)
“That comes from my improv background,” he says. “The core of it is listening, giving and taking, hear what they have to say and add to that. It’s also a product of being a writer with a desire to know all things about writing these shows. Any holy grail piece of advice is welcome.” Each show, which is edited down from an hour and a half, took on a different tone, he says, “following the different dynamic of that group.” They’re not talking down to the audience, assuming that they either know the shows or may be writers interested in the process.
EW editor-in-chief Jess Cagle, who leapt at this opportunity for co-branding as well as cross-pollinating material in EW and its website, pops in at the end of each show for one last question.
The debut episode for July 29 at 10 PM is about “Breaking Bad,” with 62 episodes in the can, which just happens to be returning to the air for its ultimate season. Creators Vince Gilligan and Tom Schnauz went to NYU Film School together, worked on “X-Files,” and cooked up the plot about turning a mild Mr. Chips into a meth-cooking Scarface. At the time, Gilligan was working his way out of “the world’s worst midlife crisis,” he says. Everyone turned them down, saying things like, “we love this story but if we buy it we will be fired.”
AMC, though, which was prepping “Mad Men,” went for it. Bryan Cranston, who has won three Emmys so far for playing Walter White, was so taken with the pilot script that he arranged for his interview to be moved up in the schedule. “I wanted to get in there and lift my leg on the material,” he said. “Mark it with my scent.”
One of the big rules broken in this series is the very idea of changing a character so radically. Apparently it just isn’t done. Nor do most actors tattoo the show on their body, but Cranston got the iconic BrBa tattoo in a discreet place that wouldn’t show. “It’s the greatest role I’ll ever have in my life,” he says. “It’s my own little talisman.” (He shows us.)
The ongoing question the writers ask on the show: “Where’s Walt’s head at?” Also, not going too far too fast. There’s a line they have to be sensitive about not crossing.
And no, they never know where it’s going exactly. Gilligan does, a bit. And he didn’t initially set the series in New Mexico–they went to Albuquerque because of tax rebates. Now they feel that the landscape is a crucial character in the story. And yes, they’re working on a new series. Maybe a spin-off.
The “Parks and Recreation” episode is hilarious because Rash and Amy Poehler play well off each other–Leslie Knope was initially coming off as ditzy and they nipped that in the bud. “She has a sense of play but we do know who’s in charge,” says Poehler, who knows where her bread is buttered. “When we read our scripts every week it’s like Christmas.” I had never heard the term the “goldilocks” version of a story–the super-simple no details take. And the “candy bag” holds pitches for side jokes, or treats.
Jake Johnson is also fun to watch on the “New Girl” episode, which is fascinating partly because Elizabeth Meriwether, television’s youngest showrunner at age 29, had written the screenplay for “No Strings Attached,” starring Johnson, but had never done a writers’ room. She was so young and untried that she had to learn how to collaborate with the pros–as well as fight for her own voice, which comes through loud and clear. She’s part of The Fempire, the Diablo Cody screenwriting posse.
Sundance Channel approached EW, while Cagle’s TV editorial team booked all the shows and negotiated the access. “The print product is not going to go away,” he says. “It will never make the money it used to. Circulation figures are the same, 1.7 million, but we have to find a home for these advertising dollars. The website is successful. We’re expanding it, looking for other streams of revenue, not to replace the magazine, which is still what readers want. It’s the backbone of the brand.”
Also still to come on The Writers’ Room are “Dexter,” “American Horror Story,” and the one I can’t wait to see, “Game of Thrones.”
As for Rash, he and partner Nat Faxon just did a promo tour with “The Way, Way Back” to 30 cities around the world, and are back at writing, finishing an action comedy for Kristen Wiig with a “darker tone, more like ‘Raising Arizona,’ a farcical thing,” Rash says. And they’re writing another original for Fox Searchlight more like “The Way, Way Back,” mining another complicated family. (My “Way, Way Back” interview is here.)