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ZEN and the Art of Showrunning - Chris Brancato Is a Hot Property Who Knows How To Keep His Cool

Posted By Sarah Sanders, Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Im a little intimidated as I wait to meet Chris Brancato in his Greenpoint office. The room is large and full of sunlight, with a striking view of the New York City skyline visible over warehouse rooftops, and Im not quite sure what to expect from the man best known for co-creating the gritty Netflix crime drama Narcos. His desk is topped with a nameplate that reads DO EPIC SHIT, and his bookshelf is full of books including the World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Gangsters of Harlem.

As soon as Brancato walks in, though, I am put at ease by his warm handshake and eagerness to talk about his work. The books are there for research on his current show, the Epix series Godfather of Harlem, set to premiere this fall. Brancato and his team are hard at work on postproduction, and his passion for the show is palpable and contagious.

“At the very beginning, Godfather of Harlem suggests a tradition of gangster dramas,” he says, but it’s made with an angle that “makes it feel just a little bit different than any mob show you’ve ever seen,” even as it draws inspiration from classics like Goodfellas and The Godfather. The series, which is inspired by true events, revolves around crime boss Bumpy Johnson, played by Forest Whitaker, and his friendship with Malcolm X.

“The initial concept of the show—the vision—was: This is about the collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement in early ’60s Harlem. Those two things, criminal underworld and civil rights, usually don’t go in the same sentence,” he says. This collision, in addition to making for a compelling pitch to network executives, allows Brancato and the team to explore themes that are not only historically significant, but also resonant today.

Brancato and Forest Whitaker on the set of Godfather of Harlem.
Whitaker stars as crime boss Bumpy Johnson.


Brancato with Chazz Palminteri, who portrays the character
known as Bonano.


Brancato with Giancarlo Esposito who plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

“How do we use this friendship to create an examination of civil rights?” he asks, explaining that Godfather of Harlem sets out to look at the tropes of the traditional mob show through the “prism of crime” as a method of social mobility. “That’s what the show really is,” Brancato says. “It’s an examination of how different social groups—Italian, Black, German, Irish—move through an economic ladder to political, social, cultural significance.”

The show also draws many implicit parallels between events of the 1960s and current news. “We’re not trying to be on the nose about it, but we’re just simply depicting stuff that happened then that hasn’t changed all that much,” Brancato explains. He names a few of those issues: “An opioid crisis of immense proportions. A political divide in this country between right and left. Fight for political representation. Police brutality. The beginning of a social movement that’s similar to Black Lives Matter, in terms of not only the civil rights movement, but specific protests against violence against Black kids in Harlem. So what we have is a show that’s making a commentary about a lot of stuff that we’re dealing with today, but has the safe remove of distance.”

When Brancato invites me into one of several editing rooms, I watch as he works with an editor to fine-tune a clip of an interaction between Bumpy Johnson and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (played by Giancarlo Esposito). The few seconds I see are of a conversation about tenant rights and money in politics—topics that are as relevant as ever in New York City.

This kind of analysis comes naturally to Brancato, who studied history at Brown University. “I was a history major in college, so research and using research to support writing has always been part and parcel of my development as a writer,” he says. For Godfather of Harlem, Brancato and his team read a lot and conducted interviews with people in Harlem who knew the real Bumpy Johnson. The writing process for Brancato is “a combination of researched historiography, interviews with some of the players or people who knew the players, and the requirements of dramatic scene construction.” He adds, however, that it took him awhile in his career to come to projects and subjects that let him do this kind of work.

When I ask if being a showrunner was always his ultimate destination in the industry, Brancato laughs. Well my ultimate destination in this business was trying to make a living and put food on the table. When he first came to Hollywood in the 90s, he most wanted to work on feature films, as television wasnt known for the kind of excellence it is today. But in an effort to get whatever work he could, he pursued jobs in both film and television. He gradually learned more about the role of the showrunner, which did not have the kind of visibility it does now, and was drawn to the combination of writing and producing that the job involves. Youre actually really in charge of a massive endeavor, he says. Not just a two-hour movie, but a multiple-hour show, and youre the creative arbiter of the final product as much as the feature film director is arbiter of the final product in feature.

So Brancato decided to focus on showrunning for both artistic and pragmatic reasons. “I was trying to ensure my own longevity in the business,” he says, by pursuing a position where he thought there would be more job opportunities. “And then what happened, somewhat through dumb luck, is that feature films became $200 million tentpoles, and television—because of the technological advances and the streaming services and the multiplicity of channels—television suddenly became the place where you were making interesting, deep, character-exploration stuff.

“And so my decision to focus on showrunning turned out to be a good one creatively,” he says. (Actually, Brancato is no stranger to film. His writing credits include such features as 1997’sHoodlumand the upcomingSherlock Holmes 3, starring Robert Downey Jr.)

At this point in his career, Brancato seems confident in his understanding of showrunning. “When people ask me what it is at its core, I say it’s a benevolent dictatorship. There does have to be a decider, a person who’s weighing choices and trying to have the rhythm and the music of the show in their head … And, well, I created the show, or I co-created it, so I guess I’m the decider. I decide what sounds discordant or what sounds in harmony. And that’s a subjective judgment. I’m not always right.”

Brancato explains that for him, showrunning has four components: script development, preproduction, production and postproduction. In a typical day, he will be involved in all four of those at once—by, for example, giving notes on postproduction editing for one episode, visiting the set as another is shot, and rewriting the script for the one that’s shooting the next day. “You’re besieged at all times by questions and problems from all aspects,” he says. Rather than getting overwhelmed by the multitude of problems, though, Brancato insists that another crucial aspect of showrunning is remaining calm, understanding that problems are foundational to the job. “I realize the job is problems. The job is a never-ending succession of creative questions, problems, challenges to be solved. And if you get yourself emotional about the never-ending avalanche of problems, you’re not gonna be able to do the job well. So you have to try to maintain a zen-like calm most of the time.”

Those managerial responsibilities fall into the producing side of the showrunning, while the artistic decisions are also informed by the writing side. “There’s two different heads you wear as a showrunner. One is a writer head: introspective, interior, quiet, mousy. The other is producer: aggressive, tough, decisive. So you have to balance those.” 

While Brancato acknowledges that wearing both of those hats is a lot of work (and not for everybody), he also stresses the importance of delegating and speaks glowingly of his colleagues. “You’re hiring experts, all of whom are more talented at their respective fields than you are, and you’re trying to convey to them the vision of what the show is, what it looks like, with an allowance for them to add their own expertise, their own ideas, to push the boundaries of how you see your show—and then to accomplish it together, in collaboration.” Brancato believes it is important to trust his own gut instincts, while also allowing for his vision to be expanded by collaborators, whether they’re department heads or other writers. 

“Building a writing staff is always about finding component parts who do things as a writer better than you, so that you are supporting your own weaknesses,” he explains. Nothing makes him happier than reading a draft of a script from a writer and thinking, “Oh my God, they write the show better than I do!” he says with a smile. “That feeling does not inspire fear and jealousy. It inspires, how can I make that writer more comfortable? Can I give them an all-expenses-paid weekend away?” Again, that response comes from practicality as well as artistic generosity: a draft of a script that he thinks is excellent that can also be shot is good for the show as a whole.

Brancato’s balance of creative vision and pragmatism is maybe most apparent in his approach to pitching a series to networks. Here he is adamant that just having a good idea isn’t enough to actually get a show on the air. While the multiplicity of channels and sheer number of interesting shows available could make it seem like it’s easy to sell a good series in today’s “golden age” of television, Brancato insists that notion is false. “It’s actually harder to sell a series and get it on the air perhaps than it’s ever been,” he says. “Every executive—and I’ve grown up with most of these people over the last 30 years—has heard every pitch, in every incarnation. There’s almost no pitch you could ever give them that they haven’t heard in some way, shape or form. So how do you get it to on air, as opposed to in development?” The answer, he maintains, is to create a tsunami: a combination of factors, from the concept to the actors and producers involved, that together create something a network executive will not only be excited about, but also afraid to ignore. “The only way to get you [a network executive] to say yes is to make you terrified to say no—to make you worry that your competitor’s going to get that show. It’s not actually just about creating a good idea. It’s about creating that tsunami.”

And Godfather of Harlem did indeed create that perfect storm, bringing the shows unique premise, Forest Whitakers celebrity, and a full script developed by Brancato and Paul Eckstein together into a pitch that the newly appointed Epix president, Michael Wright, agreed to. Its reminding yourself always that it is a team effort, Brancato says of showrunning. You have to have a lot of humility. Youre very lucky to have been granted the money to do the show. Youre lucky to have all these talented people working on it. And now its off to the editing room. After all, Brancatos day is just getting started.


- Feature photography by Noah Fecks
- Set photos courtesy of David Lee/Epix

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