“You Have to Feel Sick in Order to Feel Good”: Barry Jenkins, Ethan Hawke and the THR Drama Showrunner Roundtable
BY THR MAGAZINE | HollywoodReporter.Com
Troy Warren #picks-all
Misha Green, Katori Hall and Peter Morgan join the discussion on why the job can be like “jumping without a parachute” and telling stories that make executives nervous.
In the past, a question posed to a table of creatives about the projects that each would love to tackle if only Hollywood were ready for them would be met with a laundry list of wistful responses. But Barry Jenkins, the showrunner and director behind Amazon’s celebrated Underground Railroad adaptation, took one look around The Hollywood Reporter‘s Drama Showrunner (virtual) Roundtable — where he was joined in late April by Lovecraft Country‘s Misha Green and P-Valley’s Katori Hall, along with The Crown‘s Peter Morgan and The Good Lord Bird‘s Ethan Hawke — and said, matter-of-fact, “We’re telling those stories now.”
And then he continued, using the opportunity to praise the audacious work of his peers. “The shit that Misha has done over the last few years is batshit crazy — like, in the best way — and Katori has a show on the air about strippers in the South. I mean, it’s batshit crazy,” said Jenkins, acknowledging that the projects that he’s referenced had, at times, terrified the executives who oversaw them. “But if someone is not afraid of what you’re doing, then are you doing the right thing? Are you moving in the right direction?” With that, the hourlong conversation took off, meandering often into deeply personal and powerful terrain.
I want to start by acknowledging this past year. How has this period impacted the stories that you want to tell, or with whom you want to tell them?
MISHA GREEN My storytelling hasn’t changed. It’s always nice to have something that’s in conversation with what’s going on in the world at the time, but I feel like we’ve kind of been in this moment for a very long time and it’s nice to see other people — more people — acknowledging it.
KATORI HALL My second season started, in terms of the writers room, earlier in 2021, and for me it was like, “I have to reflect the time.” And I must say, it was hard to get some people on board with telling a story about a strip club that was actually dealing with the pandemic. It was like, “Oh my God, people are gonna have masks on?” I was like, “Does it matter? They ain’t got no clothes on.” So it’s been interesting, that kind of worry of people not wanting to actually have artists deal with what is going on because there is this feeling of, “Oh, you don’t want to be a Debbie Downer.” But we’ve got to be the mirror.
How about the rest of you?
ETHAN HAWKE Whenever anything hard is happening, I feel a little bit like Jonah getting swallowed by the whale. I don’t really know how this time period is affecting me, and I won’t really know until we’re through it. This year has been different than any other in my life. I’ve been a professional actor since I was 13, and all of a sudden I’m realizing that that’s where I draw my self-esteem from because it’s being taken away from me, and I haven’t had it taken away from me in a long time. So I know it’s impacting something inside me, but I don’t think I’ll know what to say about it until I’m out of it.
PETER MORGAN And I have a habit of writing about things that happen, real-life events, historical events, so I’ve got a 10-year rule — I need to wait 10 years before I have a clue what I think about it. That’s not to say I don’t have my own thoughts, it’s just that it feels like if I were writing about it now, it would feel like a journalistic response and it doesn’t allow for metaphor in any way.
BARRY JENKINS I think that especially with the people gathered here, the work is already in conversation with what’s happening out in the world. And for Underground Railroad, in particular, we got through 112 of our production days and had to stop in March, and then we just went into the edit. And at first, because the world shut down and then the world, or at least this country, exploded [in racial justice protests], we thought, “Oh I wish I could go back and rewrite the show.” But then as it began to take shape, to co-sign what Misha said, it was very clear that the show was already in dialogue with what was happening because it has been happening for so damn long — too damn long. So, it was a reinforcement to keep going and just keep approaching the work in the same way. It’s why I also love what Peter said. I often think that we look at things with too microscopic a lens, and if you look at a period, you can see all these consistencies, all these patterns, and I think it allows you to create something that much more richly speaks to the time that you are being affected by. And yet, some of this shit has been happening for so damn long that no matter when you do it, it’s going to be in conversation with what’s happening.
I’m curious, when was the last time you or perhaps your network or studio partners felt genuinely scared to tell a story?
GREEN I feel like every time I’ve tried to tell a story, everyone has been afraid of that story.
So, what was the fear this time?
GREEN With Lovecraft Country, we were being very ambitious. We were doing a lot. And it was this idea of reclaiming the genre space for people of color — that was the mandate that I set out with. And I think that you say that and the network goes, “Cool!” And then you get in it, and they’re like, “Ooookay, um, what are we doing here? This is a lot of money, too, and, uhh …” So, I think that, to me, if the network isn’t a little afraid, are you doing something? Are you doing anything worth doing if we’re not a little afraid of what we’re doing?
Is that how all of you operate?
HALL Man, I feel like that’s just the story of my life. (Laughs.) It’s definitely been the story of P-Valley, unfortunately. It was even hard to get someone to say yes to developing it. The whole enterprise kind of makes people clutch their pearls a little, to this day. I had an interesting journey, just being fully transparent, where the show was embraced by Starz, but then the entire team that I started with, who were really championing the show, all left for a variety of reasons, and so there was this whole new guard coming in. It felt like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to pitch my show over again to the people who are now currently my partners.” And even the most well-intentioned execs can sometimes make rash decisions, so they were like, “We don’t know if we really want to step on this cultural land mine of having a show that centers the Black female experience but from a stripper’s perspective. We don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, so we’re just afraid, Katori.” To the point where the show was kind of canceled before it aired.
HALL The whole show was in a position of having to prove itself [again]. There was this one moment I like to label “titty-gate.” Titty-gate was very interesting in that there’s an episode where [our execs] realized, “Oh my God, we bought a show that is about strippers, there are titties here.” It’s like, OK, yes, they’re here, but it’s a truthful deep dive into a very valid way of working. A lot of women have been able to take care of families, put themselves through school, survived, doing exotic dancing work. A cut came in and it was all this kerfuffle of, “Oh my God, we have to cut it all out, it’s just too much.” And it made me realize that oftentimes a woman, particularly a Black woman standing so firmly in her sexuality and in her body and not being afraid of a white gaze or a Black gaze, that can be very threatening, even if people who are looking at that image don’t necessarily clock it as such. And so we went through the process where an executive had to fly down [to our set] and was like, “Can she do the lap dance but not in his lap?” And I’m like, “That ain’t a lap dance. And the story is going to shift if she’s not doing a lap dance, because she has to be close enough to hear what these two men are talking about, therefore she’s got to be in their laps.” I have always said, we go through this lens of the female gaze and it is really much more about what these women’s bodies can do versus how these women’s bodies look. And so I do think I was able to get them to a place where they trusted me to the point that the actors went, “I felt empowered.” They are the subject of the show and not an object of the show.
Were there things that made the rest of you or your partners nervous? Barry, this idea of “getting it right” is something I’ve heard you say. What did that mean to you?
JENKINS [The Underground Railroad is] a very sensitive subject. It’s the kind of imagery that people don’t trust to be done right, and so there is a lot of responsibility taking it on. And I’ve been fortunate that even though I think some of the work I’ve done has dealt with “touchy or difficult subject matter,” I have always had very supportive partners, partly because I put myself out front. If this shit doesn’t work, it’s because I didn’t make it work. I don’t think anyone else should be blamed for the failure of these images arriving whole or arriving with tact and taste and something illuminating about the experience they are trying to excavate. I did want to ask Katori, because I had the same damn experience, where I set this show up with one group of people, and then that whole group of people got the ax, and I had to re-pitch the show to an entirely new group of people. And in doing that, trying to make sure I was presenting it whole, as my vision, not as the vision that would fit this new group of people. It was a very strange process, because you do want to move in communion with the folks who are helping you create these things, and yet you realize very quickly, “Oh, there’s an image in my head and there’s an image in your head, and unfortunately, you’ve got to be able to see the image in my head, because otherwise this isn’t going to work.” Is that common? I’m new to TV.
HAWKE That’s happened to me in cinema, too. To have the administration that produced the movie gone by the time you’re in editorial and [the new execs] don’t like the movie, or they want it to be a different movie — that has been a continuing narrative in my 30 years of experience. It has happened more than I would have liked. It’s very difficult. I feel for you guys.
So, what do you do?
JENKINS For me, it’s strange because there’s so much damn story, and as showrunners, it lives and breathes and dies with us. And it’s a lot of energy and emotion to then take that story and realize, “Oh shit, I have to share this again and yet still keep this kernel, this energy, whatever the core nucleus of it is, intact and not betray myself in explaining this thing to you.” Because I do feel like when we verbalize some of these things, people can grab onto it and it’s like, “Well, shit, I said it this way today, but I’m going to say it this way tomorrow,” and I’ve got to make sure that this thing is still funded and when we get to set, this is still what we’re doing.
Do you feel like you sold the show that you ultimately made?
JENKINS Oh, undoubtedly. What [is the expression]: Take me out on my shield? On this one, you’re going to have to take me out on my shield. Yes, it wasn’t easy, but the show I sold was the show I made.
Ethan, you have used that same phrase, “I wanted to get this right.” What did it mean to you?
HAWKE Well, in my situation, it had to do with honoring a contract I made with [The Good Lord Birdauthor] James McBride. I’ve very rarely in my life loved a book as much as I loved this book, and I just wanted to give it to everybody I knew for Christmas. And then I started realizing that the way to do that is to make it a show and really put it in everybody’s home. And I learned a lot on this. You can’t talk about John Brown and not piss a lot of people off. A lot of white people hate John Brown, and some Black folks hate John Brown. He is a religious person who was violent — there’s a reason why he is not taught in grade school. I think some executives would get excited, like, “Oh, it’s got a gunfight at the end,” and then they realize what the gunfight is about and then they get really confused and then they get really nervous. (Laughs.)
HAWKE I was liberated, though, because The Good Lord Bird is primarily a comic novel and it’s told by an unreliable narrator, so I didn’t have the [same pressure of having to get] it historically right. I had the job of trying to tell Onion’s story the way Onion told it, and there’s a weird tone thing that McBride is going for that is just his own. And trying to put that onscreen felt very dangerous, because if it was not comic enough, then we should be doing something else, and if it was too comic, it had no emotion to it. And then if the acting is too farcical, you’ve lost the plot; and if you don’t have some elements of caricature you’re going to … It was its own mysterious beast, and it made a lot of people nervous around me.
What did that look like for you?
HAWKE The truth is, it’s a very strange thing. You have to be bullish, put on your blinders and, as Barry said, just go for it every day. And the more I got criticized, the more I’d just laugh and say, “You’re totally right,” and keep doing what I was doing. Because you really need their support. It’s too much money, there’s too much at play, you need allies, but you also need to believe in yourself. And it is so easy to chop anyone off at their ankles and make people insecure about where their heart is, or what they are trying to do. Also I fail sometimes and make mistakes, and you need the support of strong collaborators to help you stay on target. And at the same time, I just kept doubling down. I had faith in what McBride was trying to do, and I felt that if I hung that around my neck like a talisman, I would survive any storm. You know, I had a funny meeting, before I started this endeavor, with Chris Rock, who said to me, and I’m paraphrasing, “You’re lucky that it’s an option for you to talk about race. It’s never an option for me. Whatever I do, I’m talking about race, even if I’m not talking about race.” And then he said, “Talking about race in America is a little bit like getting in the ring with Mike Tyson. Most people get knocked out in the first round. You just [have to] keep standing there, trust your heart, take the punches, learn your lessons and keep moving forward.” And that was good advice for me.
Peter, in another person’s hands, The Crown could very easily fall into soapy territory, particularly this last season as you explored Prince Charles’ love triangle. Why has it been so important for you to avoid that, and does that ever come with pushback from or discussion with your collaborators?
MORGAN Netflix have been really dreamy partners. I don’t find showrunning easy. It’s a lot of work and it’s pretty relentless, and the idea that I could do what I do up against constant institutional pressure from the network or, in this case, from Netflix, I wouldn’t know where to take the energy from. I don’t have any energy left for a fight. And thank God I don’t need to. I do have plenty of fights, though, and they come from British cultural life. Unfortunately, people don’t respond to this family in a rational way here [in the U.K.]. It is something of a national religion, and so there are fundamentalists on either side, and I am either too aggressive or [too soft], and it’s very hard to just follow my own path. I used to go out a lot more, I used to have more of a life, to be honest, and I’ve really bunkered up. It’s quite intense in the media storm here, sometimes, in the aftermath of the show. And to go back to your original question, I’ve found that I spent a lot of my career pitching ideas that nobody wanted to make and staring at unbelievably disinterested faces. And I completely agree with that idea of feeling like you’ve got to somehow be jumping without a parachute before you do it. I have a couple of ideas that I want to do next, and I don’t think anyone will touch them. But I love that feeling of going against the grain and just [putting] your head down and doing it. And of course it can backfire, but no one wants to repeat what they have already seen, and I certainly don’t want to repeat what I’ve already written. So, yeah, you have to feel sick, don’t you, in order to feel good?
Peter, you reference an obsession with the royal family in the U.K., but a good swath of the U.S. seems to have devoured the interview that Oprah did with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. You had to have watched, too, so my first question is …
MORGAN I haven’t watched it.
You really haven’t?
MORGAN It’s not my time period. I can’t make sense of it at the moment, and there was a lot of heat around it and a lot of discourse. I didn’t watch the funeral [for Prince Philip], either. I don’t know why. I think about these people enough in my professional life, and that fell into my private life. So, at some point, maybe I will watch it, but I haven’t watched it yet.
Misha, you are adapting a book by a white man. How do you think the story was changed by your perspective as a Black woman?
GREEN I don’t hold anything sacred when I’m adapting something. So I just do whatever I want, and I feel like Matt [Ruff, the author] did this amazing job of platforming this show. He had written the novel because he wanted to make it a TV show, so it was ripe for that adaptation. And I just took all the great stuff that I loved in it and put that onscreen, and then tried to add some great stuff that I love, and then some great stuff that the writers and everybody on the crew loved. For me, there was no, “What am I bringing to this as a Black woman?” because I am a Black woman, and so whatever I’m bringing is what a Black woman is bringing to it. So, it never even crossed my mind to think about it in terms of, “Oh, a white guy wrote this and what needs to change because of that.”
Ethan and Barry, you both worked with source material. What were the things that you and the authors said that got both sides comfortable with moving forward?
JENKINS For me, it was that Colson [Whitehead] said he was going to go off and write another novel, so if I needed him I could ping him, but otherwise it was, “Go with God.” It was interesting, because I adapted this book coming off of adapting James Baldwin [with If Beale Street Could Talk] and I couldn’t speak to Mr. Baldwin about that adaptation, so I tried wherever I could to not make changes. But I could talk to Colson. And I would text or call him when I had an idea, and he’d get back to me eventually, and usually he said yes. But for the most part, he didn’t want to be involved unless I felt compelled to bring him in, and I think that was great because going into production, being both the director and the showrunner, it allowed a lot of freedom to really find things on the day and allow the story to keep evolving away from the book.
Ethan, you’re a white man working with another white man to tell this Black man’s story. What were the things that got McBride comfortable with you adapting it?
HAWKE Well, he would really have to speak to what I said that made him feel comfortable because, gosh, I don’t know. He needed somebody to play John Brown. That guy was going to have to be white, you know? And [McBride] and I really got along. There are a couple of funny stories that bounce to mind. One is that I did a rough sketch of what the whole show would look like, I wrote it all out — no money had changed hands, and I wanted to show him before anything got real. He runs the choir at a church near my house and he said to come on over after choir practice, so I rode my bike over there to deliver this draft to him. I knock on the door after church is over, and the woman who runs the church came out and said, “The air conditioning is up over there, go fix it.” I said, “No, I’m here to see James McBride, he’s the choir director.” And she’s like, “Don’t worry about him, the air conditioning is over there.” Then McBride walks out and he says to her, “That’s Ethan Hawke.” And she’s like, “Who’s that?” He said, “Did you ever see Training Day?” She said, “Oh my God! Well, the last time a white guy was here, it was to fix the air conditioning.” McBride and I had a huge laugh about that and we decided that if in 2018 this is happening in Brooklyn, then we’ve got to start working together and telling these stories.
I love that.
HAWKE But it’s hard to say when the trust happened. Like your experience, Barry, [McBride] understands human creativity, and that you can’t really do it if you’re worried you’re being policed. So, he gave me a tremendous amount of freedom, and he was there for us when we needed him. I called him up once, I was trying to find John Brown’s voice, and in the book he talks about how he [speaks in] a high timbre, and so I said, “I keep working on this high voice and I just can’t figure it out. What does a high timbre sound like?” And he’s like, “I just liked the way that word sounded, but it would be terrible if you talked in a high timbre.” (Laughs.) And then he said, “How do you think he should talk?”
Katori, I’ve heard you say that Black folks have said, “Katori, you’re Ivy League-educated, why not do something about lawyers and doctors? Why do something that plays into the pathology of the Black community?” How do you process and respond to such comments?
HALL Well, you don’t respond to them in the Twitter way because ohhh there’d be some Twitter fights, I’ll tell you! (Laughter.) You have to respond through the work. And for me, as a young Black woman who grew up in the South, centering the Southern experience, I feel this great responsibility, to be honest. And my entire career I’ve struggled with this. I’ll take a saint like Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.] and make him into a man [in her 2009 play The Mountaintop] and then all of the sudden I’m being punched at. I turn to strippers down in the Delta and it’s like, “Oh my God, why you puttin’ that Jezebel image out there?” It’s like, these women exist. And I feel as though you deny Black people their humanity if you do not allow them to be all the different shades of themselves, from the wretched to the aspirational. And so you have a moment to yourself, where you’re like, “Oh my God, am I bringing my people down? Am I bringing the whole movement back?” But no, you are bringing the whole movement forward when you reflect people’s truth, especially if it’s a group of people who are consistently marginalized, like sex workers and queer Black folk. And to be able to constantly subvert expectations, assumptions and stereotypes is the power of art. To be able to put characters in peoples’ living rooms that they never would invite into their house, that they think they don’t know or care about, to me, that is a tool for social change. If I can make you believe that this life, this fiction, is a human being, then you can’t go outside and look at homeboy who is bagging your groceries and think less of him. That’s why I have often said “F you” to all of those pressures, and this idea that you are responsible for making us look good. It’s like, “No, baby, I’m responsible for telling the truth,” and that has always been my guiding light.
Hollywood likes to pigeonhole people. Peter, you’ve been in the royals lane for a while now. Do you ever just want to pitch, like, a zombie drama just to show that you can?
MORGAN Yeah, I would, very much. (Laughs.) I definitely have a couple of ideas that I probably could only take to the theater. We are all realistic here, and this is ultimately a commercial medium, isn’t it? And sometimes if there are things you want to say and you can’t find partners to go with you in a commercial landscape, then thank God there’s the theater, where you can really express yourself and more dangerous or politically controversial ideas. There’s definitely an idea I want to do and I can’t see anybody giving me the money to do it.
GREEN After The Crown? After The Crown, I feel like you could literally [do anything].
Peter just touched on this idea of expectations, which brings me back to you, Barry. From now on, everything you do says, “From Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins.” What kind of weight comes with that, and has it impacted your choices at all?
JENKINS No, it hasn’t. That film [Moonlight] is 5 years old and that film won an Academy Award, but the other shit has got to come into the world brand-new, so it’s best to leave that award at home.
Marketing doesn’t leave it at home. It is on every billboard, every ad.
JENKINS And that’s good for marketing. (Laughs.) It’s embarrassing to me. And also it has nothing to do with the content of the piece that it’s attached to. And even the awards themselves, they don’t fundamentally change the piece that they’re attached to. And there have been so many folks who have made things that were worthy of any or many of these awards. … So no, it doesn’t affect me, especially because no matter what I’m doing, somebody ain’t gonna be happy. It’s like, I’m doing Underground Railroad. “What? Why you doing that shit with slaves?” Then I’m doing Lion King. “Why you doing this shit with lions?” It’s like, what the hell? What can I do? And when is that Academy Award going to protect me from this Twitter clap-back? So, just put it out of sight, out of mind.
HAWKE You know, Barry, if I may, it might be interesting to you to know, and I hope he doesn’t mind, but I was friends with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and one of the things he said was that the only thing that competed with abject failure in his psyche was winning the Academy Award. It was one of the only things that played around with his self-esteem and motivation. He felt embarrassed when people would say it. But then also it would attack him inside his own brain. He’d sit in a cab and go, “Wait, I’m an Academy Award winner, why am I in this piece-of-shit cab?” Like, he’d feel his own psyche at war with this label, and that the label created this baggage that was in his way because it’s not real. And sometimes you’re failing [but] you’re doing the best work of your life and you’re learning the most and you’re enriched; and sometimes you’re winning out the wazoo and you’re doing really mediocre work. So if that self-esteem doesn’t really come from in here, then it is in your way. And I only tell you that to say that you’re not alone. It can be an albatross around your neck.
JENKINS Yeah. But because of the way it happened and because of where I’m from, it kind of demystified it in the moment of it happening. So, it just kind of is what it is.
HAWKE Oh, good.
JENKINS But if it helps sell shit, A-OK. (Laughs.)
I want to end on a lighter note. If you could join another writers room for a few weeks, which would you join?
HALL Misha, come through, girl.
JENKINS I imagine Peter doesn’t have a writers room, but I’m very curious hearing him talk about it now, not watching any news and it’s always at least 10 years ago. I’m trying to figure out what the fuck happened 15 years ago that Peter is trying to pitch but he’s afraid to. (Laughs.)
MORGAN Mmm, well, I can’t tell you about what I’m frightened to pitch, but I do have researchers. I have 12 people and we speak every morning at 10 a.m. We do a Zoom for about an hour. They are the people who help me with the writing — I write every day and I send them the stuff and they annotate it. The bits that I wish were true turn out not to be true, so they limit my path, but then they open up new avenues for me to go down. So I have a lot of company, they just tend not to be other writers — they are historians, academics, researchers, and they’re great company.
JENKINS I think I’d have a lot to learn by watching someone else do it. I’ve only been staffed in one writers room, on The Leftovers season two, and I didn’t get to do much. But I don’t know how someone else does this, and I have also only ever seen one other director direct, and it’s a very lonely process. It would be interesting to see how someone else goes about it, because it is very mystifying for me. And I did it at such a breakneck pace, I don’t know even what I did.
Did you learn anything from the Leftovers experience?
JENKINS Oh, Damon [Lindelof] was relentless. No idea, even the best idea, is good enough, and so you just keep pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing. Something is brilliant for, like, three days and then you put it on the floor and you smash it. I took that with me as a director-showrunner out in the field. It was like, “Oh yeah, this was great on the page, but now can we smash it? We might as well. I mean, shit, we’ve got nothing but time.” So, that’s what I learned from that room, even though I didn’t get to do much. Damon is brilliant, and he just smashed everything, smashed it all, and he would build it back up, and it was really beautiful to witness.
How about the rest of you, what room are you joining?
HAWKE I would join the writers room of some new Star Wars TV show. I’d love to geek out and channel my inner 14-year-old and write the Boba Fett series or the Obi-Wan series and do my Buddhist research and put it into Yoda’s mouth and have some fun. I’d love to do that.
MORGAN And I’d just like to go in a completely different direction. I’d like to either go to the zombie movie that you were suggesting I do earlier, or go to one of those 1950s network comedies where they had to get the script done by 6 p.m. every day, and the pressure was really on, and it was a group of people, and you were all hammering it out together, and it was against the clock, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, because that’s desperately stressful and awful, but it would excite me just because it is such a different [thing than] I’m doing at the moment.