Friday, November 13, 2009


People have asked me many times, what is a “showrunner”?  What does that mean?  What do you do exactly?  When I’m in the middle of a season, the last thing I wanna do is talk about the job description, but I thought I’d take a minute while I had some down time and try to explain the process.  Although the name implies the basic truth -- the showrunner runs the show -- “running” can cover a vast array of duties.  Let me qualify by saying that my only experiencing running a show is on Sons of Anarchy.  I was an executive producer on The Shield and would often run the writer’s room, but Shawn Ryan was the only showrunner on that show. 
More often than not, the person who created the show -- came up with the specific idea and wrote the original pilot -- is the person put in charge of the show.  To me, that is the only concept that makes sense.  Especially if it is an original idea and not based on another property -- book, life rights, etc.  I can’t imagine hiring a writer to develop and write a pilot and then bringing on someone else to carry forth that vision.  Sometimes a network will develop a project from a writer and then for one reason or another, hire a more seasoned showrunner to take over the show -- the television landscape is littered with those failures.  Sometimes a creator will be high-profile and will not want the daily duties of running the show.  On Lost Damon Lindelof, who co-created with JJ Abrams, brought on Carlton Cuse to help with the running of that show because JJ was pursuing feature work.  Carlton is a great showrunner and Damon still carries forth the original vision -- clearly that combination is working. 
For me, and it’s my fear of overall deals (where a studio can attach you to any project), I couldn’t imagine running someone else’s show.  First of all, my personality is such -- let’s just say I’m not a people person -- my idea of diplomacy is a cold stare and a door slam.  I’m not an ingredient you can just mix into any recipe.  Not unless you wanna die a violent gastrointestinal death.  The showrunning gig is so demanding and the pressure is so great, if it wasn’t something I was completely proprietary over, I just couldn’t show up.
The big arcs for the following season usually materialize for me at some point in the previous season.  Midway through season one, I knew Gemma was going to be raped in the premier of season 2 and she would reveal it in episode 210.  This year, I knew what season 3 was by episode 206 (it’s the joy/pain of this art form - my brain never shuts off).  I then spend a chunk of the hiatus flushing out those ideas and then pitch the season to my writers the first week back.  That’s when the heavy-lifting begins. My writers and I will hang the meat on the bones.   
At the beginning of the season, before production begins, I only have one job -- story.  It’s a magical time.  Just me and my writers spinning love, blood, Harleys, revenge, guns, tits/ass, and dark (usually genitalia-related) humor (and yes half my writers are women).  We’ll spend a few weeks on the big arcs, then begin with the first episode. 
After an individual episode is flushed out, the writer/s assigned to it, will generate an outline.  I’ll give notes and send them to script.  This fluctuates depending on the time of the season, but the writer/s will usually get 7-9 days for a first draft.  If time allows, I’ll give notes and send them off for a second pass.  Usually 3-4 days.  Then I’ll take over the script.  This is where I’m not such a skilled showrunner.  The truth is, it’s very difficult for me to see/hear the episode from the outside.  Basically, I give shitty notes.  Shawn Ryan had great skill at seeing the episode from afar.  His notes were always very specific and guided the writer to a closer draft.  Me, not so much.  I can’t see the episode until I’m inside it as a writer.  I have to hear the voices in my head.  Quite often, I end up re-breaking and significantly altering the story.  My rewrites tend to be extensive, more often than not, from page one.  It consumes most of my time on the show.  It’s not a reflection of my writers, they are all incredibly talented, and I will always give them the writing credit.  Hopefully I’ll get better at guiding them as time passes, but for now, I’m just so fucking anal about the voice and tone of the show.  It’s a bit obsessive, but it’s the only way I know how to do it. 
I then turn in a draft to the network/studio and get notes.  I take the notes that make the script better and disregard the ones that don’t.  And truly, some of their notes do make the script better.  John Landgraf, Jane Francis, Nick Grad and Danielle Woodrow (my exec), are story-savvy folks.  Our relationship is solid enough that if I get the occasional ridiculous note, I can respond with, “Really?  That’s your fucking note?”, and illicit a laugh rather than an awkward silence. 
From there, we generate a production draft, which gets distributed to the director and all departments.  That’s when the producing begins.  
I try to bring my writers back as early as possible so we can get a jump on production.  I like to generate as many scripts as possible before we start shooting, because when we do, my job triples.
One of the cool things on The Shield was that Shawn would let the writer of an episode produce it as well.  I’ve followed that trend and try to let each writer guide her/his script through production.  That means helping each department understand the needs of the story.  Casting, Art, Locations, Costume, Props, Transportation, Make-up, Stunts, VFX…
At this phase I usually weigh in on final decisions unless there is something very specific in an episode (Ironically most of my conversations are with the prop department.  I’m so anal about the small details). I will sign off on locations, costumes, sets and the director will submit the top three casting choices.  Most of the time I defer to the director because she/he was the one in the room during the session. 
Before the episode shoots I will sit down with the director, line producer, editor, writer/producer, post producer and TONE the episode.  This is usually a 2-4 hour meeting where I walk the director through each scene, pointing out specific story points and character arcs.  Basically making sure the director understands the episode and that everyone is on the same page creatively.
Once principal photography begins, the writer is my eyes and ears on the set.  If a question or issue comes up that they cannot answer I get a phone call.  That’s why my office is on the home set.  That means that 4 out of the 7 days, I’m within 100 yards of any crisis.  Call me a control freak, but I couldn’t run this show if it shot in a different state.  Hats off to folks who can. 
If half my time is spent writing, the other half is spent in editing.  I love post production almost as much as writing.  It’s the final rewrite, the last phase of the narrative.  It’s a long, complicated process, but I’ll try to give you a quick glimpse at what actually happens.
After an episode finishes shooting, the editor usually takes 3 or 4 days to finish assembling her/his cut, and then hands it over to the director.  The director has a week to finish the director’s cut, then I take over.  I usually have 3 to 5 days to turn in the first studio/network cut.  I get notes the same way I do on scripts.  We usually do one more s/n cut, then I lock picture. 
After picture is locked, I sit down with the editor of the episode, my post producer, Craig Yahata, my music supervisor/composer Bob Thiele and my music editor Charles Sydnor and we “spot” music.  That means we go through the episode and decide where music goes and what that music should be.  Bob has assembled a strong eclectic library for the incidental music (music playing in the clubhouse, in cars, in the garage, etc.).  I usually have a pretty good sense of what I want for the bigger music cues -- montages and key scene songs -- at the script level.  It’s in post where we see if those choices work against picture.  If it does, we decide if we want to use the original master or if we want to do an SOA cover.  Most times we opt for the cover.  It’s cheaper and has become a signature of the show.  Bob is also an amazing musician, so he taps into his music contacts and assembles the key players.  The result is always badass and brilliant. 
Beyond music, Craig, my post producer will coordinate any special effects, ADR (addition dialogue recording), sound spotting, looping (additional background dialog and sounds), color correction, etc.  When all that’s pulled together and I’ve signed off on all the elements, we go to the Final Mix.  That’s where all the final sound elements are mixed with all the final picture elements.   Craig and his team will spend more than a day doing a preliminary mix -- finding the right levels for dialog, music, background sound, etc.  I usually come in on the last day, listen to it, give notes and hand it back to Craig. 
That final mix is then sent to layback and locked into a master.  That master is delivered and beamed out to your television.
So that’s sort of a crash course in the running of this show.  Early on, it’s a 40 hour gig, but once production and post duties begin, I’m looking at 70-80 hour weeks.  It beats me up a bit, but the truth is, I’ve got the best gig on the planet and wouldn’t trade a minute of it. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I was interviewed by James Poniewozik of Time a few weeks ago.  Article below.  He's got a great, really smart TV blog at 

by James Poniewozik 

"Balm" was not just the biggest Sons of Anarchy yet; it was the best. Having built all season on last year's violent shocker turn—the accidental shooting death of Donna—the show has stepped up the stakes, threats and conflicts further, all the while going deeper into its characters.

And my God, what a closing performance last night by Katey Sagal, an absolutely riveting revelation of her rape that should put her in Emmy consideration next year. Nothing in Segal's sitcom-performance career could have prepared us for what she's done in the role of Gemma this season. Nor, for that matter, did the initial character of Gemma; she was introduced in the series as a tough biker mama, but this year she (and her husband, series creator Kurt Sutter) have made her a complex, empathetic but still challenging character.

Meanwhile the show has managed to make the rivalry between Jax and Clay more intense while at the same time shading it with moments of connection. And the aftermath of Gemma's revelation, which has thrown the two men together just as Jax was preparing to go nomad, promises to complicate things further. They both have an interest in kicking some white-supremacist ass now, but I wouldn't expect that to fix anything between them.

This series has never been better, but given its acceleration this season, I wouldn't be surprised if Sons of Anarchy got even better soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009


Wanted to share this article from one of the smarter critics out there.  I love the way Alan Sepinwall critiques and challenges TV.  His reviews aren't just snarky opinions, they're brainstorming sessions where he asks as many questions as he does give answers.  This is a guy who fucking loves television and desperately wants it to be/get/stay good.  Anyway, he's digging SOA right now, so I know it's easy for me to pat him on the back.  Just remember I said all this in case he's trashing me next season.  (And yes, there will be a next season.  Season three is a big renegotiating year.  A lot of two-year contracts are up.  FX is getting their financial ducks in a row.  I have faith that they will announce the pick up before the end of this season.)

"Sons of Anarchy Finds Another Gear" -- Alan Sepinwall - NJ Star Ledger

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how setting an end date can be a shot in the arm to a drama series. “Lost,” “The Shield” and “Battlestar Galactica” all took major upswings in quality after their creators were allowed to start planning toward a specific finish. When you don’t have to worry about being on the air past a certain date, you can take greater risks, not worry about maintaining the status quo — or, in some cases, about keeping characters alive — and the stakes feel higher, the drama richer. 

FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” has somehow reached that higher gear without having the finish line anywhere in sight. It’s in only its second season, one of the most successful scripted shows on cable (it made headlines a few weeks ago for finishing ahead of Jay Leno in the 18-to-49 demographic), and FX no doubt wants to keep it on the air for a long, long time. (The cable channel, which tends to be conservative about renewals, has yet to formally order a third season.)

But “Sons” creator Kurt Sutter (a Jersey guy and former “Shield” writer) doesn’t seem to be worrying about the long-term right now. Conflicts are brewing in the show’s world of bikers and cops and meth dealers that many dramas would be afraid to get to for years, if ever. Each episode feels as if it could end with the characters all drawing their guns and shooting each other (including the ones who are allegedly friends and/or family), and the tension and sense of dread somehow builds week after week after week. It’s one of the best dramas on television (neck and neck with “Mad Men” in many weeks) and seems to get better and better.

I would call tomorrow night’s extra-long episode (it’ll run in a 90-minute time slot, albeit with only 55 minutes of content, so brace yourself for some long commercial breaks) a new creative peak, except that I’ve seen the episode the week after, and in many ways, it’s even more intense.

We’ve reached a point in the season where Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), crown prince of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club, has gotten fed up with the Sons and all the drama around them. He knows that the club’s president (and Jax’s stepfather) Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) tried to have Jax’s best friend, Opie (Ryan Hurst), killed and accidentally murdered Opie’s wife instead, and he has to swallow that information because it would only lead to more violence and heartbreak. So Clay goes unpunished, and Jax’s attempts to wrest control of the club from him have only made things worse — and, to Jax’s disbelief, turned an ignorant Opie into Clay’s closest ally. And this civil war has come at a time when the club is under siege from a group of white separatists (whose leader is played by an ironically cast but quietly effective Adam Arkin) who want to take over the Sons’ gun-running operation. 

So as tomorrow’s episode has begun, Jax has decided to cut the cord with the club and “go nomad.” Only matters get even more complicated with the arrival of the club’s former gun supplier from True IRA, Jimmy O (Titus Welliver from “Deadwood”), a vicious man who wants back in with the club and will use a personal hold over club member Chibs (Tommy Flanagan) to get his way. 

There’s an epic feel to the proceedings, and that’s even before Jax’s indomitable mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal, who’s been doing Emmy-worthy work all season), hears what her son is planning and tries to stop him. 

Now, there’s a reason most TV show-runners don’t go all-in on their storytelling this soon. Sutter is steering all the characters to places from which he might not be able to bring them back, and assuming FX does plan on many more seasons, that could be a big problem. 

But right here, right now, “Sons of Anarchy” is 100 percent riveting. Enjoy it now, and worry about later seasons if and when we get there.