The showrunners who changed the face of television
In the golden age of television, the showrunner is all powerful. First-time director Des Doyle talks about tracking down the visionaries behind Lost, Buffy, Bones and more...
Des Doyle wanted to cry. But he couldn't - seated opposite was Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, and the force behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly: one of the most influential figures in television. So Doyle summoned his best painted-on smile, praying his frustration wouldn't show.
"We had tried and tried to interview Joss - finally, he said he could give us an hour, the day before he went on his first vacation in two and a half years. We called to his house in Los Angeles and, in the middle of the interview, workmen outside started cutting a tree. This huge traffic jam appeared. He was giving me gold and all you could hear were cars honking and a chainsaw. In the corner of my eye, I could see our sound guy shaking his head."
Doyle, a first-time director from Dublin, had tracked down Whedon for a documentary about showrunners, the driven, often obsessive men (and a few women) responsible for the ongoing revolution in American TV, a creative uprising that has given us The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective and more.
Showrunners are responsible for the entirety of a television series. They pitch the initial idea to a network, hire the screenwriters, directors and actors, oversee the filming, editing and marketing. They are masters of everything they survey. "These people are human Duracell bunnies," says Doyle. "The energy crackling through them is incredible."
The showrunner has existed for decades. Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original Star Trek, was a showrunner, as was Rod Serling, behind the 1960s Twilight Zone.
But, over the past 15 years or so - since HBO's Sopranos ushered in an era of dark, intelligent television, the showrunner has come into his (and her) own. If TV is the pre-eminent creative form of our age, showrunners are its auteurs: the visionaries conjuring into existence entertainment that, at its most rarefied, approaches art.
"They are the supreme authority," says Doyle. "They make every decision. They run the budget, deal with head office. In the past, they didn't have the profile or the press attention. The first showrunner to become well known in his own right was Chris Carter, for The X-Files in the 90s. He had this idea that, with The X-Files, he was essentially making a new movie every week. Initially, audiences didn't know what to think. Within three or four years, The X-Files had built a huge worldwide following."
But it was with desert-island mystery Lost that the cult of the showrunner truly arrived, Doyle believes.
"For the first time, showrunners were expected to go out and bat for the programme. They hosted broadcasts on prime-time TV, explaining what was going on with Lost. People were more interested in listening to them than to the actors. It represented a major gear-change."
Showrunners are, today, almost as well known as the actors they hire. As detective romp True Detective transitioned from Gothic curio to inescapable hit earlier this year, the focus was on its writer and producer Nic Pizzolatto, not stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Viewers knew True Detective was 100pc Pizzolatto's vision; as the drama ratcheted up, they flocked to hear what he had to say.
Similarly, while Mad Men has made a star of Jon Hamm, it has also bequeathed fame on its creator, Matthew Weiner. He'd struggled for years to get Mad Men made, having been turned down by HBO, America's premium quality drama network. Now that he'd finally succeeded, our enjoyment of the series was deepened as we became attuned to Weiner's sensibilities, and listened to him ruminate on the inner-tickings of Don Draper's mind.
Though an American institution, showrunners are not confined to the US. In the UK, there are figures such as Steven Moffatt (Dr Who, Sherlock). In Ireland, Love/Hate is essentially the vision of Stuart Carolan while with hit drama, Amber, Paul Duane brought his re-imagining of the missing person genre to our screens.
The transition of showrunner from back-room figure to unlikely celebrity is part of the wider trend of TV overtaking cinema in cultural prominence. The cold, hard cash is in franchises such as Hunger Games and Transformers, while smaller, quieter movies are no longer made in significant numbers. Consequently, talented writers, directors, producers and actors are moving to TV. Look at Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn in season two of True Detective.
"You see a lot of people you would consider film actors crossing into TV," Jason Biggs, star of Orange is the New Black, said in a recent interview. "It's partly out of necessity: you don't get as many opportunities in film. Then, there are a lot more opportunities in TV."
That showrunners are willing to take risks a Hollywood director might not can be seen in their penchant for anti-heroes. On the big-screen, we are encouraged to root for the good guy. In series such as Boardwalk Empire, a tale of gin-runners in prohibition-era Atlantic City, it is the villains that captivate. Buscemi's Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson is slithering and snivelling - and yet, absorbing in a way a cleft-chinned hero never could be.
"If you show any human being in all of their colours, you're going to find moments of, if not relatability, at least empathy or understanding," Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terrence Winter said last month, ahead of its final season. "No one person is any one thing; they're not all good or all bad. So even with a guy like Al Capone, you're going to see moments of humanity there. You're going to see him with his kid or with his brother dying."
The allure of morally flawed individuals is a key factor in television's present flourishing, says Brett Martin in his portrait of showrunners, Difficult Men, Behind the Scenes of A Creative Revolution.
"These were characters whom, conventional wisdom had once insisted, [viewers] would never allow into their living rooms: unhappy, morally compromised, deeply human," he writes. "They played a seductive game with the viewer, daring them to emotionally invest in, even root for, even love, a gamut of criminals."
In the new paradigm, happy endings were not guaranteed - a fact viewers quickly came to relish. "It would not longer be safe to assume that everything on our favourite television show would turn out all right - or even that the worst wouldn't happen. The sudden death of regular characters, once unthinkable, became such a trope that it launched a kind of morbid parlour game, speculating on who would be the next to go."
"In Hollywood, you'll often hear people talk about likeability or sympathetic characters and I don't approach our characters with that set of scales," says House of Cards writer and showrunner, Beau Willimon. "I'm interested in our characters being attractive. I don't mean just physically, I mean what is it in them that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. You might condemn some of their behaviour, and yet, if you find yourself rooting for them or following them despite that, to me, that's far more intriguing than a character that I want to go get a beer with."
JJ Abrams (Lost, Alias, Fringe) - who is, perhaps, the best known showrunner of the age - consented to be in Doyle's movie, though it was a close thing. The Irishman had his work cut out.
"It took sheer bloody mindedness," he says. "I spent a lot of time going to events, trying to build up face-time. I also tried to get into the network of personal assistants who work with these people. If you can get to know the assistants, you have a conduit to the showrunner."
Early on, Doyle met Jane Espenson, showrunner for cult sitcom Husbands. Over lunch, he set out his vision for a documentary that would chronicle the day-to-day work-life of Espenson and her peers, explore how they balanced commercial imperatives with artistic ambition. She thought it was a wonderful idea - one that had not a hope of coming to fruition. You don't just ring up JJ Abrams or Joss Whedon. "She set out all the challenges I would face. And she was absolutely correct - in the end, I had to deal with ALL those challenges."
With seed money from the Irish Film Board, in late 2010, Doyle flew to the US to start knocking on doors. He received some positive noises - and many firm refusals. Despair was setting in when, from the blue, Damon Lindelof, showrunner at Lost, agreed to be interviewed.
"One of our American producers had a connection to Damon we were able to avail of. It still took an awful long time to set up," said Doyle. "It was my last day in the US on our first round of development money. I was on a plane home the next morning. I was cutting it about as close as you could. He was fantastic - he stayed about an hour and a half, talked about ways we might approach people."
Lindelof was close to Abrams and soon the obstacles that had barred Doyle began to fall away. Finally sitting down with Abrams, he was struck by how crucial failure had been to this super successful producer and director (Abrams was recently in Ireland, shooting scenes from his new Star Wars movie at Skellig Michael). The memory of all those stalemates impelled Abrams forward. "He talks about shows being cancelled. He had a series called Undercovers which didn't even make it to Europe.
"Obviously the odds of a show going from pilot to successful series are tiny. And yet, every year networks spend millions in pilot season. That's one reason showrunners have become so important. They have name recognition. Knowing they are involved in something is going to bring extra eyeballs."
Showrunners has attracted a great deal of industry buzz - even that ill-fated Whedon interview turned out better than expected, despite the finest efforts of chainsaw wielding construction workers.
"Despite the noise, we had no choice but to keep going. As it transpired, the guys at post-production in Dublin did a fantastic job cleaning it up. You listen back and you have no inkling anything went wrong."
Doyle now has great insight as to what makes a good showrunner: "You need to be a little obsessive - you have to go into a room full of writers, argue your point, make them believe in your vision for the show. And you have to go to the network and tell them you are right. You do this knowing your actions are going to be held up for the public to see and that they will be very, very vocal about what they like and what they don't."
Showrunners is in cinemas now and released next Friday on iTunes and Volta on demand video.