Talking Writing, Drugs, and Comfortable Bedding With TV’s Top Hitmakers

Show creators Lee Daniels, Sarah Treem, Jill Soloway, Noah Hawley, and Michelle King discuss what it takes to make it in TV at The Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon

An amazing panel of show creators gathered at The Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s “Hitmaker” luncheon series this week. Gathered onstage at the Beverly Hilton were Lee Daniels (the co-creator/exec producer of Empire), Sarah Treem (the co-creator/exec producer of The Affair), Jill Soloway (the creator/exec producer of Transparent), Noah Hawley (the creator-TV executive producer of Fargo), and Michelle King (the co-creator/exec producer of The Good Wife). The Hollywood Reporter‘s Stacey Wilson moderated. Do you like any of these shows? Then this discussion is for you. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits we picked up:

When did you first fall in love with writing?
I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when I was nine. Then I wrote my own very twisted version of it when I was 10 or 11.

Treem: I started writing really young. My parents said I used to write them hate mail and leave it on their pillows at night listing everything they did wrong. And they were great; they were like, “Keep writing, you have a gift.”

Soloway: I remember writing stories really young and cutting people out of the Montgomery Ward catalog to play characters, so I was casting very early—putting people together as couples. I know it sounds cheesy, but a really huge influence on me was Judy Blume—reading all her books as a young, kind of neurotic Jewish girl and seeing her kind of neurotic Jewish girls as protagonists allowed me to see myself as a protagonist.

Hawley: I started as a musician and songwriter. I realized very quickly that your target audience is 14-year-old girls, and that I’m not a night person. [So] I started writing fiction.

King: I remember being obsessed with George S. Kaufman when I was in grammar school and reading biographies six or eight times. He always had a collaborator, and even then I thought, oh yes, this sounds like an excellent plan.

What was your big break?
Hawley: For me it was with fiction. I sold my first novel when I was like 27. It’s easy to get a job and it’s hard to have a career, so it’s always what happens next that is the big deal. I wrote a screenplay, and that opened a lot of doors and started this other career very quickly.

Soloway: I remember when I was writing on Six Feet Under, when I turned in my first draft of my first episode and it was my first really good job on a really good show. I turned it in, and I think a few hours later, Alan Ball sent me a two word email that said, ‘Fucking great.’ And I was so excited.

Treem: I was at Yale Drama School, and I had a play that somehow got to HBO. They were looking for somebody to write the Mia Wasikowska character in the first season of In Treatment. They were looking for somebody to write a fucked up teenager, and the play was about fucked up teenagers, so Rodrigo Garcia hired me sight unseen. Just on the phone.

Daniels: I go back and forth about whether I want to share this story, but I guess I’ll have to because you’re saying to me when did I know I could write. It was in the ‘80s, and I’d taken a screenwriting course. I think it was in New York. And I was on crack cocaine, and I wrote a scene about a guy trying to stop crack, and I didn’t know that everybody sort of figured ‘Oh my God! This is real. This guy is really on drugs.’ The teacher said it was a masterpiece, and that was when I sort of knew I could write.

What did you learn the first year on your show?
I took away a sense of camaraderie at the end of it. At first I bucked the system because I’m so used to doing it alone, and then you learn that you have a partner, Danny Strong, who is an incredible writer. And so we always looked at it as a team. And then it wasn’t us and Harvey fighting over a cut. This was a group of people with many opinions, so I learned to collaborate. And I’ve never done that before. It was hard.

Jill, you’ve talked in the past how real events in your life have become Transparent…
I sort of did a lot of backwards talking to my family. I think I was talking to my MaPa and I said, ‘I’m doing a show about a family, kind of our family.’ But I really didn’t talk about the name of the show or the titular character. It was all happening in my life. One parent was finding their voice and my stepfather was losing his voice. That was about three years ago, and my sister and I were going to Chicago to meet my MaPa and meet this new member of our family while my mother was losing her husband. We were just saying this has to be a TV show. We call my parent MaPa because of the show.

How did you settle of the dual narrative structure of The Affair?
Treem: The dual narrative storytelling—it was the first thing that was come up with. Before we had the characters, before we had any situation, we knew that we wanted to tell the story of an affair from two perspectives. Everything is perspective. The idea of the affair was the second part of the journey for us. People will go to the mat on infidelity in a way that they won’t on climate change, or child abuse, or racism. I mean, it is crazy how invested people are in their own opinions of fidelity and monogamy.

What do you need to write?
Daniels: I need my comforter. I need my assistant, Andy. I need the phones off. I need a pillow. I need comfort to write. I write at home in the bed.

Treem: I used to think I needed a bunch of things, and then I had a child. And now all I need is a room with a door—higher than he is.

Soloway: I maybe would have said marijuana, but that’s not true anymore. It gave me confidence at one point—‘This is amazing!’

Daniels: People say you write good stuff on pot. But I’ve found that’s not the case.

Soloway: I actually came to the conclusion that pot doesn’t make it any better, it just makes you think it’s better. Either way, you have to go back and fix it and rewrite it. Now I’ve noticed that I need time. To write a draft and left some time pass. I still haven’t watched Transparent. I can’t watch it because I’m afraid I’m going to want to change a little something here and there.

Hawley: It’s a job. Then you throw in the show running to boot. They tell you you have between four and six to rewrite the episode, so that’s when you rewrite the episode. Wherever you are, you just have to do it. There’s no muse in the Elizabethan sense.

King: The only thing we need is deadlines.