Shonda Rhimes About Dealing with “Stupid Notes”, Going to Film School & Writing for the Market
3 Successful TV Shows in 10 Years: Meet Shonda Rhimes
I’ve always been amazed at how little content you can find about Shonda Rhimes, the brilliant writer and show runner who has managed to develop three successful network shows (Grey’s Anatomy has been running for over a decade now), introduced what is still to this date the only truly mixed cast on a TV Show, and who is one of the handful actively working women Showrunner in everywhere on Earth.
You would think someone who can achieve so much coming from two minorities would have been invited to a gazillion masterclasses, but either she hasn’t, she has declined them all, or nobody thought about filming and sharing it.
That is until Anatomy of a Script released a ‘masterclass’ of sort they recorded 7 years ago. Just like with Jenji Kohan, the masterclass consists of two videos, one where Rhimes talk with Winnie Holzman and Robin Schiff, the moderators, and a shorter one where she answers (surprisingly good) questions. Both videos are worth your time, Rhimes is straight forward about everything, from her career to her writing process to dealing with the Studio and there is much more to take from them that what I’m sharing below. Still, hopefully, that will give you a taste of it:
About Writing Specs for the Market[pullquote]I think it’s smart to look at what’s out there, and to look at what people are looking for, but I also think that it’s useless to you, if what you’re writing isn’t also interesting to you.[/pullquote]
If you’re not familiar with Rhimes’ story, she started as a film writer. She got representation thanks to a dark drama spec she wrote out of film school, and was advised to change genre and write a romantic comedy to show she had range (which she successfully did). A few years later, she repeated the same process when she decided to move into TV without knowing anything about the playing field. She first wrote a pilot about war time correspondents that got some attention until 9/11 happened, making it impossible to shoot. Wanting to at least get a pilot shot, she then asked what ABC Studio was looking for, and when they said they were looking for a medical show, she decided to write one. Hence Grey’s Anatomy. But here is what she says about writing for the market:
“I think it’s smart to look at what’s out there, and to look at what people are looking for, but I also think that it’s useless to you, if what you’re writing isn’t also interesting to you. You have to find a way to have something that you dream about at night in order to get something out into the marketplace that’s good. It’s fine to try to serve the marketplace, but I think it makes a lot of bad movies. And they buy some of those but then, you feel bad about them.”
About What She Got and Didn’t Get from Film School[pullquote]I think a lot of people go to film school because they think it’s going to teach them how to write. And that’s never going to happen.[/pullquote]
Rhimes went to USC for grad school, and she makes an interesting analysis of what she got from it:
“The things that I learned in Film School was that you pay a lot of money to… and that was a great training ground I have to say, but you pay a lot of money for the contacts. To be able to say that you went to USC, and then to be able to say that you have the contacts afterwards. And going to USC got me my attorney, and then got me my agent, and all those things but, the thing that I felt most strongly about when I was there is that, if you couldn’t write when you got there, you were not going to be able to write when you got out. So either you can write, or you can’t, and they can teach you some skills, they can teach you some things, but nobody can teach you how to write, and I think a lot of people go to film school because they think it’s going to teach them how to write. And that’s never going to happen.”
“To me Film School was about standing in front of a bunch of people and hearing what they thought about what you wrote, which is an amazing training ground for a lot of things because it definitely is the first time where you are put out there sort of naked and have your work commented upon in a way that doesn’t happen in an Ivy League Academic classroom. It’s a real workshop of sorts.”
On Finding Balance With the Network and Dealing with “Stupid Notes”
This part to me was a ha-ha moment. I have never heard anyone being so specific about how they deal with taking notes, especially the one that sounds stupid, and Shonda Rhimes not only does that, but she also goes one step further, giving out the subtext behind a stupid notes:
“At the beginning I was terrified, I was terrified of Steve, and the Network, and I was terrified of the whole process, because it felt they were these people who could shut you down at any moment. And now we have this sort of really great, amazing relationship that is really supportive, but it was about me fighting for what I wanted, and them, sort of fighting back and us respecting each other that made it work.”[pullquote]My response to what I call “stupid notes” from the Network is always silence, because my whole thing is that if you don’t have something nice to say, you don’t say anything at all.[/pullquote]
“I have to say the first year there were times that were really heard because my response, maybe that’s a good response, I don’t know, my response to what I call “stupid notes” from the Network is always silence, because my whole thing is that if you don’t have something nice to say, you don’t say anything at all. So they’d give me a note that I would find horrifying, like really horrifying, ‘Can’t Meredith just be nicer?’, ‘Can’t Meredith and Christina just hug?’ and my response was always, you know you’d be on the phone on this big conference call, and my response would always just be total silence, because there was nothing I could of to say, that wouldn’t be insulting.
[pullquote]And then it enables me in that silence to try to figure out what it is that they are trying to say.[/pullquote]
And in that silence, what would happen for me, and still does, is after a minute or two, when they’re wondering if you’re still on the line, it gets filled with nervous chatter, because they are just as scared as you are, I mean that’s the reality. They are just scared that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and what you have on your side is that you have the vision, at the very least you feel like you know what you were trying to achieve. So it gets filled in with this nervous chatter on their part, that sort of comes around to something, and then it enables me in that silence to try to figure out what it is that they are trying to say.[pullquote]Because I think that even the most stupid note is a note that is coming from something, no matter what the note is.[/pullquote]
Because I think that even the most stupid note is a note that is coming from something, no matter what the note is. And sometimes they are painful, sometimes they are really painful, but every note has a point. There is something underneath it that they are responding to, they may not have a way to express it, they may not have a way to verbalize what they are trying to say, but if you really let them talk long enough, you will figure out what it is that is the problem.”
This is just a glimpse at how articulate and generous Rhimes was for over 2h. If you are considering writing for TV (or writing for Studios in general), I wouldn’t miss it:
One last word: I want to congratulate Anatomy of a Script to have enough vision to film their full sessions, and for finally sharing them. I don’t know why it took so long, but I definitely look forward to discovering both more archives and hopefully follow ups with these great showrunners that Shonda Rhimes and Jenjis Kohan are.
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check the archives for a taste of it.