10 Things I Learned From Weeds and OITNB Showrunner Jenji Kohan
If you are into “TV Shows”, you know who Jenji Kohan is, you know she became a professional writer at 22, was the only female writer in writers rooms for many years, that she was Weeds‘ Showrunner for seven seasons (the show that put Showtime on the map), and that she is behind the current Netflix hit Orange Is The New Black. For many years, there was no substantial video to be found about Jenji Kohan until The Writers Guild Foundation remembered that they had been sitting on a 2h30 ‘conversation’ with Kohan recorded 4 years ago. Although the conversation got a bit out of hand as moderators Robin Schiff and Winni Holzman had (in my opinion) a tendency to over-share their stories and feelings when the focus should have been much more on Kohan, and more time should have been given to the audience to ask questions, there is still plenty to learn from one of the most exciting and creative Showrunner producing quality TV.
The first thing to say about Jenji Kohan is: forget about PC, this woman is fearless. She is 100% honest, no matter the aspect of the job she is talking about. When you watch or read interviews with people who are in the business, they always are very quiet about what happens in the trenches, unless they want to express gratitude or admiration to so and so. Which is very nice, but doesn’t give a realistic picture of what it is to work as a staff writer or a Showrunner. Kohan tells it as it is, talking -for example- about her rocky relationships with Weeds Star Marie-Louise Parker, and some of Showtime Executives, even though Weeds was still airing when this conversation was taped.
1 – Jenji Kohan Write a LOT of Pilots and Always Pitches Several Ideas at Once
At the time this conversation was recorded, Jenji Kohan confessed she had written 17 pilots: “I learned quickly that if I wanted to have longevity in this business I had to sort of generate my own stuff, where I could have a little more control over it, or work with people who wanted to collaborate and it’s about finding those matches.” She always has several ideas she is playing with when she goes to pitch: “I’ve pitched so much that I learned not to invest too much until they are interested. When I pitch I always come with four or five ideas, it’s never just one thing and then this is what I have to do.”
2 – Jenji Kohan Got Fired Many Times
Kohan got fired many times and explains it is part of the job when you’re on staff: “You can be the most brilliant person in the world, but if you’re personality is not fitting well with that room, you don’t belong there.” Staffing a room is like casting actors, you need to find the right balance between all your writers to serve the show. Each Showrunner expects and wants something different from their staff and at times Kohan was just not the right person for the job: “If you work for a long time you’re going to get fired a lot, and you just have to keep writing.”
3 – The Idea for Weeds Came as a Reaction to Years of Writing Networks Shows
The desire to write about outlaws came as a reaction to the Networks and their need to know who is the hero, who is the bad guy and to make everything black and white. “I wanted to deal with the people in between. I wanted to deal with deeply flawed people who you don’t necessarily know whether or not they are the hero or the villain, as most people are. I had been watching The Shield a lot, and the Sopranos, and I wanted to do my outlaw show.” Kohan also talks about the limitation of the likable character, and why people responded to Weeds: “I think likable blends a character, and I think that what made the show so effective when it landed is that it came at a time when we were living in a sort of very conservative period in this country and there were all these images of what people were supposed to be doing. And I think everyone was failing and there was this pervasive feeling of failure and who feels good about that? And I think it was really relatable and nice to see someone else failing but coming back and rallying. When you have the likable people who always make up for things, it’s not relatable because we’re flawed, we are all fucked up and it’s nice to see that reflected. And we’re still trying, it doesn’t make us bad people you know, we try to recover from the damage we do. I find that so much interesting to write, and so much interesting to watch.”
4 – The Difference Between Network Pilot and Cable Pilot Lies In the Absence of Rigid Format for the Latter
Jenji Kohan talks about the decision to start Weeds pilot in media res instead of a more traditional approach that would have meant a long and clear exposition: “There is definitely a networker version to a premise pilot because what they want in a pilot is a model of what every episode could look like, which we abandoned quickly, but there was sort of a mandate to come in in the middle. I am so happy I was told not to do the premise pilot because it came out much easier this way and you were just in, and you saw her world.”
5 – To Avoid Boredom, Jenji Kohan Tackled Each Season on Weeds as If It Was a New Show
“We view each season as a new show, and we always say that the finally is the pilot of the new season.” To map out a season, Kohan and her staff starts with where they want to end and what subject they want to tackle in the season. Then, they break down the season episode by episode, produce tight outline and the writers go off and write their episode. Kohan does a final pass on every script.
6 – Judas Backstory Was Written from the Start, Even If It Was Never Mentioned in the Show
If you’ve watched Weeds, and always wondered why Judas didn’t have any money on the side for Nancy and the kids, here is the explanation Jenji always knew about, but never needed to share: “The backstory was that he was between jobs. He was about to start that great new job and before he did, he had that week or two to go jogging or organize his records or whatever it was so his insurance wasn’t in place, and it was just a bad time.”
7 – Jenji Kohan Is a Sucker for Details
“I’m a huge believer in details and specificity, even in your tiniest character. I also believe that if you can give someone else someone’s line of dialog, then you’re not doing your job. Because then it’s not specific enough. Every character should have a whole life and a whole existence, i’m not saying we always achieve this but I’m obsessed with details, I think it’s all in the details.”
8 – Jenji Kohan’s Process
Asks about her process when she tries to generate new content (outside the show’s schedule) Kohan answered: “It’s just days and days of cooking stuff in my head and berating myself for not sitting down and writing it. And it goes on and on and there is a lot of snacking, and driving, and books on tape, and thrift shopping, and grumpiness, and staying up to late, and path words on Facebook was horrible and… more and more thoughts and then knowing that I had a great thought and I didn’t write it down, and maybe it’s gone, and just torturing, just like “you’re shit, you’re never gonna write, it’s all over, you’ve lost it, so much could have been done and you wasted it away”. And then, ultimately, there is a deadline, or an incredible moment of kindness to myself where I will actually sit down and just write. Usually with some flower seeds and a beverage.”
9- The First Season of Weeds Had a Rocky Start from All Sides
Watching a show like Weeds, that went on for 7 seasons and was a hit from the get go, you would assume that part of the success came from Kohan and Parker having an awesome and flawless relationship. Well, no. Parker was coming from films, and playing such an edgy character for the small screen at a time where TV shows were still the little cousins of films, made her very nervous and she was unhappy by the direction Kohan’s was taking with the show. (constantly pushing the envelope). Because Parker was unhappy, Showtime along with the about everybody was very stressed out, but Kohan says that even if they had their difference, she knew Parker was a Pro who would always show up and do her very best on set (and she did): “I often talk about it like child custody. We have both given birth to this child and maybe we are not getting along, or we’re divorced now, but we still have to deal with the baby, and we have to pretend to be good parents and protect the child. And the child is Nancy.”
10 – Jenji Kohan Never Reads Spec Scripts to Find New Writers
The only quality Kohan looks for when she tries to find new/young writers is “just raw talent on the page approaching a short story, or a play or a movie that surprises me, that makes me laugh, that is beautifully written, that’s different, that has a voice, a very unique and specific voice. I know a lot of people look for good mimicry, I think that the whole purpose of a spec script: “look how well I can capture your voice.” I won’t read spec scripts of existing shows, I don’t want to. I want to know what their voice is and I want to know what they can bring. I love great writing, it really excites me so when I read something that I don’t want to put down, that I’m engaged in and that I think is dazzling, I want that person, using that power for good.“
There is much more than that, but many anecdotes are simply impossible to convey, and if after this list you are looking for more, then you should definitely watch the videos below. I recommend it, if only for the dominos anecdote and Kohan telling more about her BTS relationship with Showtime.
see The Writers Guild Foundation‘s site
check the archives for a taste of it.