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WARREN LITTLEFIELD - 20 Years After 'Must See TV', His Series Remain Essential

Posted By Chris Green, Monday, April 16, 2018

Honestly, it would have been enough to have given us “Must See TV.”

Twenty years ago, if you’d asked anyone to summarize Warren Littlefield’s legacy within the television business, their answer would have rested on those three words. The shorthand slogan for NBC’s dominant TV lineup in the 1990s, anchored by Friends, Seinfeld and ER, the phrase today is a nostalgic grace note from the pre-digital era … the time when any series worth watching was on one of four networks and when NBC Entertainment—under president Warren Littlefield—ruled the TV airwaves.

Today, those airwaves are barely an afterthought, first thanks to coaxial cable and later, wireless data streams. Those four networks have lost the battle for prestige programming to once-upstart channels like HBO, AMC and FX, and streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. And Warren Littlefield is no longer the leading TV executive of his time. Instead he’s the only former network president who can, today, call himself an Emmy Award-winning producer.

Littlefield, despite his modesty, has become something of a promiscuous award winner; between his two series, FX’s Fargo (created by Noah Hawley) and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (created by Bruce Miller), he’s been honored with multiple Emmys, multiple Golden Globes, a Peabody Award and a trio of Producers Guild Awards (“the three I’m most proud of,” he quips graciously). At this year’s Golden Globes, no less an eminence than FX chief John Landgraf pronounced, “I think it’s fair to finally say that, as a producer, you have now surpassed your great career at NBC.”

If you’re wondering why, listen to Littlefield’s long-standing collaborator and MGM President of Television Production Steve Stark: “I’ve been out there in subzero weather with him. I’ve been on calls with him well past midnight. Warren has earned the right not to do that stuff. But he does, because he just loves the job. He loves making television.” Lucky for us, Littlefield is making a bunch more of it—Handmaid’s Tale season two premieres April 25, Fargo year four is in the works, and there’s plenty more incubating in the development hopper of the producer’s first-look deal with Bert Salke and Andy Bourne of Fox 21.

So, WHAT’s  the Reader’s Digest version of how you found your way into the business and to NBC?

I guess it started when I was a young kid, like elementary school age. I spent a lot of time home from school, just watching television. It seemed to be OK with my mom. One day Stanley Campbell, who I went to school with, came by my house and said, “Hey, there’s a rumor you’re dead.” And at that point I thought, “Well, maybe I should show back up at school.” So, very early on I was captivated with the medium. Even though I graduated with a degree in psychology from Hobart and William Smith, I first began working for a small independent production company called Westfall Productions.

My first big break there came when I produced a television movie of the week for CBS called The Last Giraffe. My boss at that company, Charlie Mortimer, and another colleague named Jonathan Bernstein, basically taught me what it was to be a producer. Someone gave me a million and a half dollars to go to East Africa and make a MOW. That went on the air in 1974 and for some strange reason, The Hollywood Reporter picked it as one of the top 10 movies of the week that year. Of course that was an age when there were hundreds of movies of the week made every year.

They ran wild across the plains in incredible numbers.

Yeah. I’m not sure why The Hollywood Reporter singled us out, maybe because the title wasn’t Policewoman Centerfold, but I knew that was an opportunity to put me into a different playground. So, I used that credit and that little article in The Hollywood Reporter to get a job at Warner Bros. TV, where I was made a Director of Development. I was there for six months and then a job came up at NBC. I applied for it and I was offered a job as Manager of Comedy Development, working for Brandon Tartikoff.

Then a whole other level of education kicked in for me, and it was a wonderfully exciting time. I got to be a part of the Fred Silverman years, the Brandon Tartikoff years and then the Grant Tinker years … an amazing, amazing time to get to grow up and understand the broadcast business at NBC.

After about a decade in the trenches, once Brandon left, I was given the opportunity to be President of NBC Entertainment. I did that until late ’98, when they told me I would no longer be doing that. I had a 20-year run at NBC and of course, the highlight of that was the “Must See TV” years.

Obviously, more goes into creating a storied television lineup than we can get into here, but I’m curious about the lessons you drew from Brandon and Grant and Fred and how that may have informed your work with producers and ultimately your own work as a producer.

Fred infused us with a kind of “anything is possible” and “do it now” spirit. And believe me, based upon the shape that NBC was in at the time, someone had to think that way. Brandon was thrilled each and every moment of the day to be in a sandbox where he was engaging with creative people and knowing that he could be a spark that would bring content to life.

I think Grant’s greatest lesson for us was: respect the audience. Stop looking at the audience as alien beings. He would look at a group of us and say, “You’re young. You’re well educated. You love this medium. Why don’t you start doing programming that would make you race home across the freeways at night to get to your television sets because you had to see it? Start thinking about the audience as you. What do you want to see?”

Well, we’d just launched Cheers and Hill Street Blues. These were sophisticated, adult forms of comedy and drama. And while they didn’t start strong, they ultimately became foundational building blocks for what NBC would become. Those were incredible lessons.

You mention how those shows didn’t start strong. When you start that sentence about a contemporary show, usually it doesn’t end with, “…but it became a legendary TV series.” These days the stuff that doesn’t start strong tends not to get a chance.

I once had a memorable conversation with Brandon, because Cheers was the lowest rated program in all of network television. Like, it’s not that it wasn’t in the top 10; it’s literally the last rated program on any network. It’s the bottom. “So, what do we do? Cancel or renew?” And Grant happened in on the conversation and he asked, “Well do you have anything better?” We said, “No.” And he says, “Well I think you answered your question.” So we picked it up. It was an incredible lesson. We believed in it. We believed in the auspices in front of the camera and behind the camera. And it took time for America to realize that this is what you might get from NBC.

The same was very much true for the slow start of Hill Street Blues. Then we had an incredible Emmy night in 1981, where the entire night felt like a tribute to Hill Street Blues. We moved the show to Thursday night and never looked back. We had T-shirts made for our affiliate meetings that said, “Patience Rewarded.”

Well that’s got to be very gratifying. as an executive, what was the nature of your working relationship with producers? And how did that shape your initial forays as a full-time television producer?

Even as President of NBC Entertainment, even through all the “Must See TV” success, I don’t think I ever thought that I was the most important person in the room. I think I always knew it was the creators, the showrunners and producers who made exceptional content. They were the most important people in the room. Our job was to broadcast it. I had a very respectful and appropriately elevated sense of their magnificent talent.

So after 20 memorable and award-winning years at NBC, I figured that my great network education and what I think is a pretty intense work ethic would propel me to instant producing success. It didn’t. It turns out, I had a lot to learn as a producer. One of the reasons that I’m still doing it is I feel like I’m still learning every day. 

That’s something I hear from lots of producers. It may be the thing they relish most about the job.

Exactly. I think that, as a group, that intellectual curiosity drives us all. 

Given that you didn’t enjoy the initial success you may have expected, what was the nature of the lessons that you learned over that time? how do you keep going as a producer when you’ve been the architect of “Must See TV” and suddenly it’s difficult to get a show on the air for more than half a season?

I finished up at NBC and I was under a producing deal there for a short time, but it became pretty clear that they weren’t all that interested in anything I had to offer. So, I went to Paramount and I had my first development season there. I did a drama call Keen Eddie, that starred Mark Valley and Sienna Miller, and a half-hour called Do Over, that starred Penn Badgley. Two pilots, both picked up to series.

And then I watched each one slowly die. With Keen Eddie, we finally got on the air at Fox. I’m really proud of what we produced. We were a favorite of everyone except for the head of the network. And so we withered and died there. Do Over landed at the WB network and ultimately, they kind of pulled out of half-hours altogether. It was a tough realization. I spent a lot of time and energy. I was proud of what I did. But nothing really stuck.

Then there was a long, long drought. I was playing entirely in the network development game. Of course that was my background. I knew network television pretty well. When I was under a deal at ABC-Disney, we found a half-hour Swedish serialized documentary. Andy Bourne, who worked with me at the time, brought it to me. I thought it was really interesting. Maybe we could turn it into a one-hour character documentary.

That propelled me to Noah Hawley, who was also at ABC-Disney at the time. We made a pilot for ABC called My Generation. It was, I was told, Bob Iger’s favorite show. Then they had a management change at the network. Steve McPherson was out. Paul Lee was in. We went on the network for two episodes, Thursday night at 8:00, and then we were gone. But the most important part—this was in 2010—was that I creatively bonded with Noah Hawley. I had developed a script for Fargo when I was at NBC in ’97, a year after the movie had come out. I didn’t go forward with it as a pilot because my fear, despite it being a good script—Bruce Paltrow was the executive producer—was that network television would unfortunately do a network television version of Fargo. Already, it was an iconic film. But I knew we would wind up getting some television actress to play the role of Marge, and it certainly wasn’t going to be Frances McDormand. And so I let it go.

But here we were, many years later, and I said to Noah, “You know what? I think we can get Fargo from MGM. Television is ready for an adaptation of that movie.” To his credit, Noah wasn’t afraid of that notion. We engaged with MGM. They really were primarily booted up for movies at the time. Ultimately Roma Khanna, who was running MGM TV, said, “I can’t let you do it for network.” And I said, “Yeah, I get it. That’s absolutely correct.” I waited until my deal and Noah’s were over at Disney-ABC and I said, “OK. Now we can go do Fargo.”

We went in to see Steve Stark and Max Kisbye at MGM and Noah gave them his take on how to do Fargo. And they said, “We love it.” We reminded them, “It’s an anthology.” They said, “Doesn’t matter. This is a great way to go.” Then we called John Landgraf at FX, because FX already had indicated interest in developing Fargo. And that changed my world. That took me out of the network game. It reinvented me as a producer. I’ve never done network development since.

I want to backtrack a bit, to your guys’ conception of the show as an anthology series, which after all was a format that had gone out of vogue decades ago. It’s not hard to imagine the more traditional Fargo that might have been, where Marge has a case every week and it’s a procedural with some quirky accents. What led you to tack away from that  approach, toward this outside-the-box conception of the show?

It really helped when I got a call from Nick Grad at FX and he told us that in some discussions with Steve Stark at MGM, they were asking themselves, “Do we actually need Marge to do Fargo?” A really bold question! Noah wasn’t intimidated at all. He loved the film, was a student of the Coens’ work. Yet Noah was smart enough to see that if we tossed out the network procedural format, it was wide open. Nothing was more liberating than to be freed from those brilliant, iconic characters, not having to “do justice” to Marge. Because what Noah fully understood is that Marge was never a cynic. And so how could Marge deal with crime after crime, season after season and not lose that? She’d have to be a robot.

Executive producer Warren Littlefield (left) confers on set with showrunner Bruce Miller
during production of season two of Hulu's
The Handmaid's Tale. 

Yeah, as a character, she’s not built for serialization.

What we described is that Fargo is a state of mind. We would not be locked into any of the characters from the movie. We would not be locked to a time period. We would be locked to a sensibility where, as Noah articulated, it’s the best of America versus the worst of America. We wanted the audience to fully invest in these characters for 10 hours and then walk away. And that would be a satisfying television experience, bringing Fargo to life.

When we started to break down the show and pitch it, we got a big old Rand McNally road atlas and put it on a poster board. When we first walked into MGM, we took out felt-tip pens and we said, “So here’s where this story starts and then here’s where it goes.” And we just started drawing it out on the map as Noah wonderfully talked about these characters, what those characters’ journeys might be, all against a theme and aesthetic that we knew.

Max and Steve jumped off the couch. No one sat there and nodded their head with approval. They jumped off the couch. They said, “This is a reinvention of this movie. This is a reason to make it as a television series as opposed to a half-hearted retread of a the movie.” Meanwhile friends and colleagues would ask, “What are you up to? What are you working on?” And I would say, “Well I’m doing Fargo as a TV series. We’re developing that with FX.” And they’re like, “Dude, this is the worst idea you have ever had.”

Yeah. [laughs] I admit, I remember scratching my head the first time I heard about it.

Television critics who are also friends, they were telling me, “Big mistake.” I just said, “Hey, you know what? It is possible that we could have made a mistake. I’ve made them before. But watch the first hour and you’ll decide. You’ll see and you’ll weigh in.” And that all turned out pretty well. Our partners at MGM and FX have been wonderfully patient. They just say, “A season of Fargo … it’s an event. Whenever Noah is ready, we’ll do more.” And that propelled us into Year Two and then to Year Three. Four is now being hatched.

I think in this platinum age of television, we’re highly aware that the level of quality just keeps going up every single year. And so each year, we try and scare ourselves more with what we attempt to do, and how much we put up on the screen, and how ambitious we are as producers. Each year we scare ourselves to death and somehow it all manages to work.

So having done what’s a pretty remarkable feat of adaptation from one medium to another with Fargo, you have another kind of exemplary adaptation in Handmaid’s Tale. How did your experience with Fargo lead you toward what you were able to do with Bruce Miller and The Handmaid’s Tale?

Well I never would have had the opportunity to be a part of The Handmaid’s Tale without Fargo. MGM and Bruce Miller had developed two scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale with Hulu. They were excited and interested in moving forward, and they focused on Elisabeth Moss. Elisabeth Moss’ representation was very clear: “She’s not lining up to do another series right now. We don’t see a reason for Elisabeth Moss to do that.”

I had recently joined WME and Ari Greenburg asked me, “Hey, do you know anything about The Handmaid’s Tale that your friends at MGM are doing?” I think you ought to look at this material. They’re interested in Elisabeth Moss.”

At the time, I was gearing up for Fargo year three, on top of my development slate. But I said, “OK.” So I read the scripts and I was quite frankly blown away by the power of the dystopian world that Bruce Miller had created in his adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. I read it. I sat down and read Margaret’s book. I read Bruce’s scripts again. And then I told Ari, “It’s incredible. I’m very interested.”

Ari called up Elisabeth Moss’ reps and said, “What’s your favorite television series?” And they asked, “Is this a trick question?” He said, “Just answer the question.” They said, “Fargo.” He goes, “Well, what if I have the producer of Fargo ready to do The Handmaid’s Tale?” And they said, “Well that might get Elisabeth Moss’ attention.”

So, what WME told me was, “OK. Here’s what you do. You need to get on the phone with Elisabeth Moss. You need to get her to agree to do the series. You need to get her to approve you. And you need to see if you can get her to give director approval to you, because that seems to be a hang-up in making a deal.”

Now, I’d never met Elisabeth, and she’s in Australia shooting and these are the three things that I’m supposed to accomplish in this one phone call?

No one ever said producing was an easy job.

True enough! I had a multi-hour phone call with Lizzie. I said, “Look, you have an outstanding career where you have excelled so that you have options in your life. I’m in a moment where I also have options. I just think this material is so strong and so compelling that I can’t imagine walking away from this opportunity. If you did it, I would do it. And I promise I will be there for you.” And Lizzie said, “I think we have to do this ... I think I would die if I didn’t. I just can’t imagine leaving this opportunity behind.” It was in that phone call that we solidified our relationship and we moved forward. And yes, I promised her that even if it wasn’t in the contract, Bruce and I would never hire a director she didn’t embrace.

So, on the other end, what were your early conversations with Bruce like?

They were wonderful. Bruce and I met at a waffle shop in Hollywood. I had never met Bruce, never worked with him. But I knew of his work and I knew of his great reputation. After a lot of pleasantries, Bruce looked at me and said, “So, I really have just one question: how does this work, between us? Who’s the boss?” I said, “Well it’s kind of an easy question, because in the world of television the creator and showrunner is the boss. I think that I can be enormously helpful in achieving the ambitions of this series and I think I can be a very good partner to you. We have a dystopian thriller set in a world that doesn’t exist and that will not be easy to mount, but together I think we could do something that lives up to the material that you wrote.”

That became an unbelievable bond, and we’ve never once had a question about power or how anything works. Bruce defers to me in many production and directing issues. But yes, the creator/showrunner is always the ultimate visionary, and I serve that vision. That’s an exciting job for me. I love that.

I want to dig a little deeper, into the nature of your role on these series as a non-writing executive producer. Not every series has someone in that position. what does it mean for you? What is your day-to-day like as a producer who’s not in the writers’ room?

Well first of all, I have to say that while I don’t live in the writers’ room, that’s not a foreign world. I’m in and out of it and commenting and engaging, but that’s not at all my full-time job. I would say I’m “writers’ room adjacent.” I take great pride in the selection of directors. I’ve been at the head of that spear for all three years of Fargo. Very early on, it became clear that most feature directors were afraid of walking in the Coens’ shoes. So I said to Noah, “I don’t feel like being rejected by feature directors who are afraid of this. Let’s just find someone who can bring Fargo to life for television and who’s excited to do it.” And that’s what we did.

I spend many, many hours watching hundreds and hundreds of directors’ work from all over the world. The same is true for The Handmaid’s Tale. I guess that the most dramatic story is Reed Morano’s. Reed had been a distinguished DP but had directed maybe one hour of television, and she’d done a small, independent movie called Meadowlands. Bruce, Lizzie and I looked at a number of far more experienced and credentialed directors to help us launch The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet we really loved the sensibility, the attitude, the look, the vision that Reed Morano brought to it. She did a 60-page look-book. She gave us a soundtrack of what was in her head. The more we engaged with her, the more we came to feel that just because she didn’t have the resume didn’t mean she wasn’t the one.

We had a lot of people to convince that we didn’t need an Oscar winner—because today, of course, Oscar-winning directors do television. To their credit, our MGM and Hulu execs embraced that idea and helped me manage up to the highest levels of those companies to get that approval. Bruce, Lizzie and I were in sync. It didn’t seem crazy to us. Today, maybe it looks a little crazier … but I guess today it looks as much like we were brilliant.

Warren Littlefield (right) with fellow executive producer Noah Hawley on location in Calgary for Year One of FX's Fargo.

You can be both, it’s ok.

[laughs] Yeah. We just thought we had the right artist for the right task. I waited a week after we got Reed approved for the first hour and then I said to everybody, “Gee, I’m looking at the schedule and I think I’m just going to hire her for the first three hours.” And everyone went, “OK … you realize that if you’re wrong, then it’s over for the show? You’ll have destroyed the show.” I said, “You’re absolutely correct. But if I’m right, we will have locked ourselves in for the series and it will make up for other potential mistakes we may make later on, because we will be in a very solid place and know exactly who we are. Not to mention, we’re already a little bit pregnant because you already approved her to do the first hour. So, if we’re wrong, then I think I’ve already screwed up the series.”

Again, I have to say, our partners at Hulu and MGM supported that decision. They deserve a lot of credit for that. It was a very unexpected move and the rest, I guess is history. For year one of The Handmaid’s Tale, four out of our five directors were women. Most of our department heads are women. I remember them saying to me, “You know it’s OK, right? It’s OK if you hire a man.” Bruce and I are keenly aware that we are not women and this must be a very strong feminist piece. So, we’ve surrounded ourselves with many talented women who are writers, producers and department heads, not the least of whom is Elisabeth Moss, who is an active producer, and for year two, a brilliant executive producer.

But I really relish the kind of strategizing and mapping of the battle plan, because both of these series are quite ambitious in their own ways, and we’re not in a world of unlimited funds. We’re able to compete with series that run budgets that are two and three times greater than what we’re working with. I enjoy working on the battle plan with the line producers, the showrunners, all of the department heads, the ADs of how we’re going to pull this off. That’s fun to me. That kind of planning and prep with directors is what I really relish. When I look at what we shoot and what we put together, I know there’s a reason why we were in that specific grocery store and what that location brings to that scene. And I was a part of looking at the seven that we rejected in order to get to that one where the scene works as brilliantly as it should.

It must be very gratifying to be able to see yourself in all of these secret, invisible ways in every frame.

Yeah. I mean, fortunately the scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale as well as Fargo, they’re works of art. But then they need to be produced. So many changes have to be made in order to bring those shows to life in their respective worlds.

You mentioned earlier how you haven’t done network development since you started work on Fargo. Over those years, the quality of network programming has clearly fallen behind that of cable and streaming platforms. That said, you of all people can recognize that a healthy network television ecosystem is good for everybody. As someone who’s played both games, why have the networks had such a hard time catching up to the other platforms?

Well look, I won’t say “never” as far as going back to do broadcast network programming. But the process is awful. That’s just not the case in cable and in streaming. That’s why I have a first-look deal with Bert and Andy at Fox 21.They embrace a creative process where there’s much more “gray” to explore. I remember we had one year during my deal when I was over on the ABC-Disney lot, and we had a particularly frustrating development season.

We made up shirts, and what we put on the front of the shirt was the one note that you always got in network television no matter what the project was: “CLARITY.” Our shirt read “CLARITY” but with the international “no” through it. Because it may just be that the lack of clarity and the mystery as to where you are going is more interesting than having everything spelled out—because the audience can’t and doesn’t anticipate it. As a developer and as a producer, that’s what I’ve chased.

We’re given enormous freedom. Encouraged to take risks. On The Handmaid’s Tale, I often look at what’s in the script, at the day’s work, and I think, “I wonder if someone is going to tell us we can’t do this.” And neither from MGM nor from Hulu, have they ever said, “Don’t do it.” What Craig Erwich from Hulu did say is, “Look, our greatest fear is that this world is hopeless, that it’s such a dark, relentless, dystopian tale that the audience won’t be able to stomach it.” That’s a legitimate fear. It’s our job to give the audience a reason to continue that journey, to not give up. There must be some sense of hope. And that of course is all wrapped up in Elisabeth Moss, in what she brings to the character—or maybe more accurately the characters, Offred and June—that she is playing.

But that note is on target. Because that kind of grey that you play in, with that danger and risk, is embraced in cable and streaming. That’s why they have lapped broadcast in all award-winning categories. I’ll go back to Grant Tinker: respect the audience. The audience has matured. They have an incredible number of choices. You need to respect what they can handle and where they’ll go. That means more sophisticated character development and a story journey that we navigate that’s far more complex than anything that is being presented on network television. That’s what they’ve embraced and it’s served them well.

It’s served all of us well, honestly. But in terms of your role as a producer, it seems in many ways, not so very far from your executive roots, playing the essential support/champion role.

Well, I think that’s true. The difference is, as a producer when you support a vision, it means you also have to execute it. As a network executive you can support a vision and there’s a lot you can throw at it. You can throw money, you can throw promotion, you can throw lots of things, but it’s not your job to execute it. Maybe this has a little to do with my age, but today I have this enormous appreciation for a day well lived. That keeps growing because I’m involved in the detail of actually executing and making something. And that’s wildly satisfying in a career where I’m happy to say I’ve had more than my share of highs, and I’ve gotten to be a part of the best of the best. This is more satisfying than any other time in my life. 

That’s terrific to hear, just on a human level as much as on a professional one.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be able to say it. I really am.


* Photographed by George Kraychyk

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