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Ilene Chaiken

Posted By Chris Green, Thursday, October 22, 2015

Forgive us: we went to Ilene Chaiken, showrunner of FOX’s music biz mega-hit series Empire (and before that, the creator and showrunner of Showtime’s groundbreaking The L Word) with the idea that she would unravel the mysteries of running a hit TV series … lay the whole thing out, step by step. Instead, we found a producer and writer whose unique career trajectory all but forced her to invent the job as she went along, one who’s still far more inclined to be asking questions than handing out answers.

"I have never worked with another showrunner,” she confesses. "It’s still a mystery to me, and I still find myself wondering, is there something they do that I don’t know about?”

Thanks to a lengthy industry apprenticeship that included jobs with (among others) CAA, Aaron Spelling, Quincy Jones, Alan Greisman and Armyan Bernstein, Chaiken found herself installed as the showrunner on her very first series, The L Word. Since then, she’s run every series she’s worked on …

the rare instance of a writer/producer starting out running the room, rather than working her way up through the staff ranks.

Sitting face-to-face with Chaiken, it’s easy to sense the reasons for networks’ confidence. Serious-minded and empathetic, sensitive to the necessity of getting not only the broader story arcs but the characters’ individually specific flourishes of language, costume and design exactly right, Chaiken’s facility for running a show starts with her commitment to listening closely to her colleagues, and guiding the storytelling enterprise from there.

We don’t often get to talk to people who learned TV at the feet of Aaron Spelling. working today, how often do you flash on something you learned from Aaron?

All the time. And especially working on Empire, which has gotten a rep as the Black Dynasty. My principal memories are of Aaron Spelling kind of lording over everything, of his unbelievably, unthinkably vast office, and his liveried butler, who came in every day at 5 p.m. with cut crystal goblets on a silver tray and poured him a tequila. But just as much, I remember listening to him spin story. Whatever you might think of Aaron Spelling or the product he created, it all came from him, came through him. His sensibility infused everything.

Maybe the most important thing I learned from him—and something that I didn’t appreciate fully until many years later—was how essential the editing process is in television. He was brilliant. I had never been in an editing room other than as a student in film school and I sat in there and watched him review cuts and saw how he remade the story in editing.

Ilene Chaiken (center) on the set of "The L Word" with cast member Jennifer Beals

What a cool thing to feel that Aaron’s creative DNA is a part of Empire. So how long did you spend with Aaron, developing shows?

Five years. And it was probably the five worst years of his entire television career. Not because of me [laughs] but because the moment when I went to work for Aaron was the dawn of the Steven Bochco era. Bochco’s approach was antithetical to Aaron Spelling and what he did. Aaron railed against it and didn’t understand it, and tried to slouch in that direction, but it wasn’t what he loved at all. We did a number of television shows that started out trying to be more in the new style, but always wound up being 100% Aaron Spelling. All of the new shows I developed for Aaron failed except one. And the one show that didn’t fail, nobody today recalls as an Aaron Spelling show. But I put Twin Peaks together.

Really? Wow, you’re right. I do not have Twin Peaks in my mental database under "Aaron Spelling shows.”

I think it’s probably just a production company title on the show; I don’t think that he took a producing credit. CAA definitely helped put the package together. But I pursued it avidly, almost desperately.

Chaiken chats with "The L Word" co-star Katherine Moennig

It must have been exciting to watch the Twin Peaks phenomenon play out.

It was. I was working really hard, and enjoying it, but also frustrated because I was an executive and not a creative.

So how did you ultimately get to the point where you made the great leap into the creative unknown?

I had one more big job after Spelling. I went on to Quincy Jones Entertainment and worked for Quincy for close to three years. Working as an executive for Quincy Jones was fabulous and exhilarating, and it was also my crash-and-burn executive job. I just hit that moment at which I said, "I want to be making my own things, and if I don’t do it now I’m never gonna do it.” During Christmas vacation of that year, I went with a bunch of friends to Telluride and while they all went out and skied, I locked myself in the house and wrote a script in 10 days. I came back and I gave the script to an agent at ICM that I had worked closely with and said, "I’m a writer. Now get me a job.” And lo and behold, within two or three weeks I had a job writing a movie.

What was it like to be on the other side of that divide, after years of being the development person?

It was more gratifying, because it was what I always thought that I was put on this earth to do. Also, I had a great, great advantage over other fledgling screenwriters because of all of my years as an executive. I really understood how the businesses worked, what notes were about and what the executives and producers I was working with were trying to elicit from me.

And so how did that lead back to television and to The L Word?

Although I spent a number of years just writing feature films, my first TV show was The L Word. Gary Levine, who is still EVP of original programming at Showtime, was my executive. I had worked with Gary on a number of projects when I was at Spelling and he was at ABC. And when they ordered The L Word, Gary looked at me and said, "You know how to do this. You can run the show.” I’d never even written on staff before, and Gary made me a showrunner because he had worked with me as an executive.

Chaiken discusses an upcoming shot with actress Mia Kirshner on the "L Word" set

Wow. I didn’t realize that you just stepped into that role, cold.

My television showrunning apprenticeship is atypical. Most television showrunners come up through the ranks, starting as staff writers, working for years and years on other television shows, learning from other showrunners. My apprenticeship was my years as an executive, and then I was a showrunner. I’ve never been anything other than the showrunner on every show I’ve done.

Not a lot of people can say that.

That’s true. I have never worked with another showrunner. It’s still a mystery to me, and I still find myself wondering, is there something I don’t know that they do? I’ve mostly learned from the people I’ve staffed on shows that I’m running. I’m pretty open about it. I say, "Talk to me about how other showrunners have done this and tell me if there’s something I’m not doing that you think might be valuable in this process.”

So in terms of the collaboration that made The L Word what it was, who helped keep you on track as a rookie showrunner?

Gary told me, "We’ll get you a senior-level person who’s worked on other shows, who gets your sensibility. You’ll get to choose her. But she’ll be the person who shows you how it’s done.” I met a handful of people—I’d never even done the whole staffing rigmarole before—and chose Ellie Herman. She really taught me the ropes, sat with me and talked me through what’s involved in breaking 13 episodes of television.

The L Word also had the burden of expectations on it, as the first show to spotlight the lesbian community. I mean, it kind of declares its intentions right in the title.

Looking back on it, it was the right moment in time, though when we started, that moment hadn’t quite arrived yet. The great thing about Showtime was, and still is, I think, that they’re willing to go out on those limbs, independent of looking at the numbers. Jerry Offsay was running Showtime at the time, and I remember him saying, "You won’t get any stars.” They had just done Queer as Folk, and they couldn’t get any name actors to do it. And I kind of sensed that in terms of our show, he was wrong. Because women are different from men. Actresses are different from actors. The public perception of male sexuality is different from the perception of female sexuality. That continues to be true to some extent. But Jerry said, "We’re not making it casting-contingent. Just cast the best actresses. Because you won’t get any stars.” And lo and behold, leading the cast is Jennifer Beals. So that was the first thing that suggested The L Word was a little different. The show continued to kind of defy the conventional wisdom in that way. We did the series for six years. It was all I did. Even though it was initially 13 and ultimately 12 episodes a year, I spent my whole year working on it, promoting it, preparing for the next season. I did one or two projects in between, but I didn’t really have much time. What I had been wanting to do was a women-in-prison show. Tonally it was quite different from Orange Is the New Black. I likened it more to Oz, although it wasn’t quite that dark. I directed the pilot. And then that year, Showtime didn’t buy any new shows. I remember that vividly because it was 2009. What have we all decided to call it, "the financial crisis”? Everybody was cutting back. Showtime made five pilots and didn’t program a single show. So I started developing and I figured that I would see what it was like working in broadcast television.

Chaiken (right) joins cast members Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard for a Q&A session
at Carnegie Hall about hit series Empire

So Having been in the middle of The L Word, what’s it like to step in as the showrunner of a show that you haven’t created, like Empire? you’re basically becoming the captain of somebody else’s ship.

The very first job that I did like that was coming on as the showrunner for a pilot for Warners and the CW. It was written by Amy Holden Jones. We remained friends, and some years later, another script that she had written got picked up in an unusual deal at ABC. She asked me to come and work with her as her showrunner, so we did Black Box for a year, 12 episodes. That was the first show that I ran that I didn’t create. But when Black Box was finishing, I said to my agents, "I’m going to take some time now to go back and do my own work. I’m not interested in taking another gig writing somebody else’s show.”

Yeah, famous last words.

Yeah. [laughs] "Leave me alone for a little while, please.” But of course, they never do. So my agent and my manager both sent me some scripts, because it was that time of year, pickup season. I read a few and was not interested. They also sent me the script for Empire which was from Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. I said to myself, "Well, I’m not interested, but I will read this,” because Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are not people that you just bury at the bottom of the pile. I read the script, and thought it was pretty cool. But I said to my team, "It’s really good. It’s really interesting. But I still don’t want to do it.” And they asked, "Well, would you go and watch the pilot? It’s just finished and it’s starting to get some buzz.” I said, "Fine. But I don’t want to do the show.”

I went over to Fox. When you go and see an unaired pilot, it’s like everything is top secret, on lockdown. You go into the studio and some assistant meets you and walks you into a dark little room and they pop a DVD in and they close the door and you’re sitting in a little conference room all by yourself. So I watched the pilot for Empire sitting alone in a dark little room, having said, literally, on the phone on my way in, "I’m not going to do this.” And as I was walking out of the tiny room I was on the phone to my agent, saying, "I want to do this.”

I don’t often have that feeling about projects that aren’t mine, but I watched that pilot and felt something I hadn’t felt since The L Word. There was something very special about it; it’s a game-changer. So I told my agent I would love to be involved. "What’s the drill? Who do I have to make fall in love with me now?”

Chaiken (left) on location for "Empire" with fellow producer Lee Daniels

So you had to audition for this job, effectively?

I had to meet with Francie Calfo at Imagine, and then with Lee and Danny, who were meeting other potential showrunners. I have the utmost respect for Francie. She’s a really good producer and executive. I’m pretty sure that in our first meeting she wasn’t sure that I was the right person to do this show, for some obvious reasons. But she also knew that the most important thing was how Lee and Danny felt. My first meeting was with Lee here in LA, with Danny Skyping in from New York. It was the typical meeting of that sort. I told them what I thought of their show, mostly how much I loved it and how I responded to it so viscerally. Then I talked to them about my approach to producing television, because neither of them had ever done series television from this side. I saw it as my chance to talk about what’s involved, the kinds of choices they would have to make, how I would collaborate with them. And in a general, cautious way, I talked about the story, where I thought the show might go, without wishing to presume on any plans they may already have had for the characters. We had two meetings like that and then I had one more meeting with Lee at the Chateau Marmont, so he could double-check to make sure that I was a lesbian. [laughs] Because he thought that I was, but wasn’t sure.

Well, good thing he locked that down.

Yeah. It was important to him. I mean, obviously he would’ve liked to find someone who he felt could deliver his show, who also shared his particular background and sensibility. I think that that’s a given. It would’ve been obvious and natural had that person come to him. But what was important to him about the fact that I’m gay is that I come at the world as an outsider. And Empire is largely about coming at the world as an outsider. For me, the parallel between The L Word and Empire is the understanding that although you’re telling stories that want to connect with everybody, you’re writing about a cultural experience and you have to honor and capture the cultural specificity. You’re not really telling the story, you’re not serving it unless you really grasp for that cultural specificity in every facet of the show. I came at Empire in that way, and I think understood it intuitively from having done The L Word.

Right. So obviously on The L Word, you could serve as a source of that cultural specificity and shared vocabulary. As the showrunner of Empire, where do you go for that depth of material?

It starts with Lee, and he infuses Empire with that sensibility in every possible way. But I also have staffed the show predominantly with African-American writers. I think we have 12 or 13 writers, plus Danny is working on the show full time this year. Of those writers, three are not African-American. Even among the African American writers, it’s a very diverse room. I looked first and foremost for great and talented writers but also for an array of voices and experiences that speak to that cultural specificity. Running this show, I really need to listen. I know what I think the stories should be and I play a large role in choosing and directing them. But they’re Lee’s and Danny’s stories. Especially in the first season, I started out listening, channeling, trying to get from Lee and Danny what I’m then going to put into each of these scripts and stories. I’m the one who knows how to do that, who knows what the process is and when it’s working.

At the start, I was less sure of what the show would be. I wasn’t sure how fast it would move, what kind of tone of it would have, what the mix would be between the grounded and socially relevant, and the wild and flamboyant. I had to find all of that, and it was a very distinct, almost palpable target in the first season … I can taste this, it’s working now, this where it lives. Once I figured it out, with the help of a lot of colleagues, both my writing staff and at the studio and the network, then it clicked. What Danny and I have done for both seasons of Empire is gather the room a couple of weeks before the heavy lifting starts, and we figure out what the season is about, overall. Season 1 of Empire was: Who will inherit the throne? Season 2 is focused on warring kingdoms. That’s going to be our big creative template, and a couple of stories that we think we might want to tell will come out of that.

But then how I run the room is to put these ideas out there and not be attached to any of them. I encourage the writers I’m working with to to explore them, blow them up, to come up with better ideas. We’ll spend a couple of weeks just talking about those ideas that we started with, figuring out where to go with them. And at a certain point we start breaking a season. But as I said, the way that I run the room is largely by listening. I’ll try to listen for the best ideas and let those ideas run away with the story for awhile. But I won’t start the outline process until I’ve heard all of those things that I know make an episode of Empire.

One challenge of the showrunner’s job is that you can’t stay inside the "story bubble” all the time. How do you juggle that responsibility with the needs of the network, the producing team, and so on?

They’re not such different worlds, really. I almost always invite the writer of an episode to join me on the network and studio notes call. So that writer will hear how I interact with the network, how we respond to notes, how we implement them. The other piece of it is the interface with production. We always deliver scripts that are ambitious; very rarely are they producible on the first draft. On The L Word, I utilized a process that I kind of devised for myself—I have no idea whether other show-runners do it this way—where I ask for three scheduling meetings during the course of prep for each episode. I always ask the writer of that episode to join me on those meetings. We used to call them board meetings because we’d literally map out the shoot on a white board. The AD and our producing director, Sanaa Hamri, estimate the shooting times for each scene. I know that we can shoot 14 hours at most, but that we prefer to shoot a 12-hour day. So I look for a board that probably has one or two 14-hour days, but not more than that. Not infrequently, that first board will come to me and it’ll have an 18-hour day or a 22-hour day on it.

So early on we have a board meeting, and then in the middle of prep we have another one, and maybe two days before we start shooting we have another one. And we all figure out how to make the episode shootable in eight days at roughly 12-and-a-half hours each day. So you start to realize, "This scene could go. Let’s reset this. Let’s combine these two.” That’s a big part of showrunning and producing, and something that I’m trying to get all of the writers to understand.

So what are your hopes going forward? Sitting here this time next year, what would you like to be able to say?

At this point all I can do is just stay hunkered down and keep trying to tell stories that deliver on the promise of the show. I just hope the show is still beloved and that we continue to be a cultural touchstone and make people scream and gasp and everything else that Empire has done so far.

- Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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