In his new book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, GQ correspondent Brett Martin gives us a dishy history of the transformation of the TV drama. Martin’s title has two senses. The cover depicts Breaking Bad’s Walter White along with The Sopranos’ eponymous Tony, and it’s clear that the revolution that occurred at HBO, AMC, and other networks starred "difficult men" like these: the gangsters and drug dealers and murderers who were somehow lovable enough for us to follow them through six or seven seasons.
But another kind of "difficult man" emerged in these years—the creators of these shows themselves (who, indeed, are all too often men, and with a bizarre frequency, men named David). As Martin reveals, some of the writers who brought these beloved entertainments to our screens had management styles that made them anything but beloved by some of their coworkers.
What leadership lessons can you learn—or learn to avoid—from the creative minds that have brought us shows like Mad Men and The Wire? We caught up with Martin to hear more.
Co.Create: How would you characterize the leadership style of the cable drama show runner that emerged over the last 15 years?
Brett Martin: Each of them is different. But each is dealing with a somewhat similar problem, which is: How do you adapt? How do writers act in somewhat unwriterly ways to take advantage of this historical moment? One of those unwriterly ways is this necessity for collaboration. Another is the necessity of becoming a manager—becoming a CEO, in a way, of a sprawling operation. They each adapt in slightly different ways. Some are enormously autocratic and ruthless in using the creativity of those around them to their ends. Matt Weiner [of Mad Men] is certainly in that realm, David Chase [of The Sopranos] is certainly in that realm. David Simon [of The Wire] believed in a combative atmosphere, creating an arena of intellectual combat in order to create great work. Alan Ball [Six Feet Under] and Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad] are much more given to a kind of groovy, kinder collaborative atmosphere. And then you’ve got complete outliers like David Milch [Deadwood,] who just creates a magical world to suit his own compulsions. What’s amazing to me is how each of them ends up in the same place—doing this kind of work at such a high level—even though they’re all so different.
You say that show runners are like CEOs, and somewhere in your book you say that greenlighting a series is like opening a new corporate division.
Whenever you start a show that’s going to last six to seven years, that’s a massive commitment. You are committing on faith to an ongoing, unfolding universe that has its own demands, its own life. The notion that we’ve reached a point in history when we’ve trusted that to writers, of all things, is an amazing thing.
The job is hugely demanding. Did you ever come to think it was too much for one person?
I think for the wrong figure it certainly is, and there are a lot of great show runners who fail. It’s common to have a secondary figure who is more of a logistics person. Alan Ball, when he began Six Feet Under, still had Alan Poul to help him as logistical manager. But the evidence seems to be that it’s the way to do it. You need somebody who is the keeper of the vision. It’s crucial to the investment that we as viewers make in these shows to believe we’re in the hands of somebody that has a design, that our time and emotional investment are met in good faith by a purposeful artist.
You describe close relationships in writers’ rooms that go awry. David Chase, for instance, precipitously fired some of the people who were key to The Sopranos’s early seasons. His explanations were vague—that the writers "lost the voice of the show," for instance. It’s not clear how rooted in reality these decisions were.
I think in some ways it’s a mystery. These are intense, emotional, creative relationships. For an outsider, it’s like a marriage, to some extent. There are two sides to the story, in the same way as when a marriage breaks up. It’s impossible to have definitive objective conclusions. I believe something happens in that room that is somewhat magical, that involves the true spark of human interaction in a creative way. Still, you have to wonder at what stage personal issues override the good of the show. It would be ideal to have a dispassionate show runner who can make decisions based on the purely creative plane. However those are the personalities that can do the rest of the job. To ask for total equanimity from these guys might be to ask for something less than brilliance.
Is there a zero-sum game between niceness of the show runner and quality of the work?
Vince Gilligan has managed to balance the autocracy of the show runner with the democracy of a truly collaborative room in a way most others haven’t. I believe it’s a self-serving myth of the difficult to say one has to be a jerk to be brilliant. However, a kind of ruthlessness and selfishness does have to come into play, especially when you’re fighting the odds of getting anything good on the air and keeping it good. That’s the best excuse I could come up with for some people’s bad behavior. The odds are so stacked along the way. But I believe it’s a dangerous myth that says you have to be an asshole. I don’t think that’s true.
Which room would you want to work in?
I wouldn’t want to work in the best of these rooms. The requirement of a writer under a show runner is to subordinate his or her vision to somebody else’s. To really come to the table in full creative mode only to serve someone else’s vision, and to find satisfaction in that, in some ways is as difficult as being the boss.
Checks and balances seem to be key to great work, too. You write that season five of The Wire may have been weakest because David Simon lost his main sounding board, Ed Burns, who was in Africa prepping for the miniseries Generation Kill.
It’s an item of faith that, in the room, there should be other voices. Simon’s primary partner, and really from what I gather his only equal in the room when it came to story, was Ed Burns. Simon had himself installed at the show the idea that argument was to the good. There just sounds like there wasn’t anyone to argue with by the end.
Simon was sometimes puzzled that people thought he was angry at them personally, when in fact he simply saw himself engaged in healthy debate. How do you challenge someone without seeming like a jerk?
A show runner needs to create a safe space. To be a writer in these rooms is to be rejected constantly. It’s brutal. So the ability to inspire people despite rejecting them is really important. A writers room on the one hand is a professional atmosphere, but it’s immensely fraught with all the things you think would happen if you put a bunch of creative, neurotic, striving, competitive, insecure people in a room together and told them to bare their hearts and face rejection or acceptance.