Onscreen, TV producer Glen Mazzara shines a light on our darker natures. Offscreen, he’s trying to improve them.
Mazzara, creator of A&E’s Damien, inspired by the 1976 horror film The Omen, and former showrunner of The Walking Dead, is among the leading advocates to increase diversity among TV writing staffs, crews, and casts.
In 2002, Mazzara began speaking to minority and young writers on how to break into the system. Since 2012, he has co-chaired the Writers Guild of America, West's Diversity Advisory Group with Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Their mission: to educate the WGA, studios, networks, agencies, and showrunners about diversity problems and develop methods to fix them.
Mazzara's efforts have become especially pertinent, when accusations of Hollywood racism, sexism, and age discrimination have crescendoed, from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign decrying the absence of African American actor nominees, to disclosures of gender pay disparity, to "whitewashing" roles by casting white actors to play non-white characters. The 2016 WGAW Hollywood Writers Report revealed a mixture of glacial progress, stagnation and reversals in women, minority, and older writer employment and earnings.
"People think, because I’m a white guy, I don’t have an ax to grind," Mazzara tells Co.Create. "Friends and people I mentor are not getting access to jobs they deserve, because of a systemic racism and sexism in Hollywood. It’s my community. I don’t want my sons growing up in a world that raises them above all others, because of their gender or race. While it’s also good business to get different stories and voices onscreen, I have responsibility, as a producer in a leadership position on my show, an employer, and an artist, to level the playing field."
Mazzara became attuned to diversity and bridge-building after growing up in New York’s melting pot and a previous career in hospital administration, which often had him liaising between departments, managing staffs, and reporting to women. But he noticed the dearth of that integration as he climbed the ranks in Hollywood.
"When I was a producer on The Shield [during 2002-2007], I realized we didn’t have enough writers of color and women contributing scripts," he says. "Agencies told me they didn’t have any. The studios and networks had a stable of writers—usually white, male, straight, middle aged, experienced—and were not open to taking risks with new ones, so agencies really had no reason to represent those writers. It’s not that those writers weren’t there; they just weren’t gaining access to high-level producers and showrunners."
Even now, when minority writers are requested, it’s often to fill a slot. "Diversity has historically been seen as a utilitarian effort," Mazzara continues. "Many times, I’m called by fellow showrunners, who say, 'I just need a black woman or an Asian American writer on staff.’ They’re not looking at writers, but at race and gender. They’re considered to be tools to write particular characters, and often not given the opportunity to write for every character."
"Very often the default is, white male writers get to write all the characters, and black writers can only write the black characters, or Asian American writers or writers with disabilities can only write those characters," he adds. "Then diversity becomes pigeonholing a character, instead of recognizing different voices and unique experiences.
The overarching solution, says Mazzara, is an industry-wide effort to find and mentor traditionally disenfranchised new talent. "People need opportunities to learn how to do this job and make mistakes, but women and people of color are not given the opportunity to fail like most white guys. Very often studios and networks don’t want to take a risk—particularly on a new show, which has the greatest amount—and default to an experienced white male, the same guys they’ve worked with over and over, and the system perpetuates itself."
Broaching this topic with TV packaging groups at talent agencies, networks, and studios was another matter. Mazzara was greeted by a lack of introspection, arguments that political correctness encroached upon artistic freedom, and colleagues afraid to call one another on their prejudices.
"It’s people acting with unconscious bias while making hiring decisions," says Mazzara. "They’ll say things like, 'I don’t want to have black writer on staff. I had one and they didn’t work out,’ without understanding how incredibly racist that is. There are a lot of arguments to justify racist and sexist positions that sound reasonable to people acting with the same unconscious biases."
Mazzara recalled one meeting where an executive, citing one writers' room particularly hostile to women, asked, 'Are we doing women a disservice by putting them on that staff?’
"My thinking was, 'You’re willing to have a misogynistic environment on one of your shows, and you’re not addressing that?’ " says Mazzara. "What I did point out was, 'If that woman ends up leaving that show, then she’s blackballed from other shows funded by that studio, because everyone buys into the cover story from the misogynistic show that she was unable to cut it.’ That’s how the system perpetuates itself. Everyone realized they were complicit."
He adds: "When we first started this work, people were very defensive. But those conversations have become more civil and understanding, as people realize that everybody can be part of the problem and needs to be part of the solution."
As the first show Mazzara created, Damien enabled him to implement many of his solutions at earlier stages in the production. The result is a multiracial/ethnic cast and crew; director slate that includes an African American, Indian, Mexican, and two women; and writing staff that’s half female, and includes a gay man and woman of Bangladeshi descent. Here he outlines how he went about it:
Get parent company support: "The Oscars made diversity such a ubiquitous topic in Hollywood this year. That, and my work on this front for the past few years have enabled me to work closely with the parent company of my studio, 20th Century Fox, to look for patterns of resistance and find solutions, not just on my show, but on other shows," says Mazzara.
Staff with true diversity: "Diversity often comes down to one person representing all diverse perspectives," he says. "Gender parity is extremely important, for male writers to understand this is not the traditional male perspective, and for women writers to have other women around so they feel comfortable speaking out. Sometimes a woman may not want to challenge a roomful of men. This way, I find the conversations are a lot more lively and creative."
Clarify intentions upfront: "It’s important for any organization or department head to set the tone for how it’s supposed to work. I explain the rules of engagement I expect people to follow for the season," he says. "My core values are about teamwork and challenging each other, thinking creatively, and pushing to do your best work. If you want a top-down organization in which people are only doing what they’re asked, with no feedback loop, then you need to be honest about that. But for a creative environment, I need people to feel safe, ask questions, and examine the material."
No "Manterrupting": "Most senior writers are men who are going to feel obliged to step on a woman’s pitch," he says. "If someone is presenting material, let them finish before critiquing them, a courtesy usually accorded to men."
Write diverse characters in the script: "On Damien, I changed my practice and wrote gender and ethnic backgrounds directly into the script," he says. "Damien’s best friend is Lebanese; I wrote that character as Lebanese. When someone is African American, I specified that. I didn’t write the character and do colorblind casting. That’s just bullshit. I can’t create a character without thinking of race, gender, age, class, where they grew up—a complete person. Colorblind casting implies the default is a white person, but you’re willing to cast a person of color. But every character needs to have specific voice, so I wrote those character descriptions directly into the show."
The character diversity is then presented without fanfare. "In the second episode, we introduce a police detective who starts investigating the deaths around Damien," he says. "In the fourth episode, we go home with this character, and he’s gay, married, with an adopted son. We don’t say anything about it. It just becomes apparent in the middle of the scene. The audience loved that this was not a particular story point and was done effortlessly. One person on social media posted, 'Why wasn’t this set up?’ And another viewer challenged him, "If he went home and was talking to his wife, there would be no issue. Why would there be one if he was talking to his husband?’
"On Damien, I was better able to diversify my cast than on other shows I had done, because I raised the question upfront, instead of answering it late in the game."
Ideas from anywhere: Keeping an open door policy for suggestions cements staff investment. "I want everyone to feel invested and on the same team," he says. "We were talking about our finale [on May 9] and two guys from post-production came up with an idea that made a scene work—and one of the guys was an assistant. These guys then felt ownership in that episode.
"Too often, I see shows in which certain people are allowed to challenge, but others are not," he says. "On sets, I’ve seen male actors ask questions, which the showrunner spends a lot of time answering. If an actress asks the same question, people will often say, 'Why can’t she just hit the mark and say the line? Why are we wasting time answering these questions?’ So the woman is not afforded the same process as the man. Those actresses are then afraid to ask questions, the material suffers, and it affects the crew, because they see it as well. So now you have the women on your crew afraid to speak up, bring forward issues, make positive suggestions. So you shut down voices by not allowing everybody the same opportunity to ask questions."
Mazzara still teaches WGA classes for newer writers on how to interview with showrunners, work in a writer’s room, and what to expect in their first job, and for emerging showrunners on being inclusive in the staffing process. "Because of the systemic problems, people need to be mindful of them as soon as they start a new project," he says. "This business moves so fast, people leave it to the last minute and it doesn’t get done at all.
"These issues are complex and won’t get solved in broad sweeping programs," he adds. "It’s a lot of little programs and conversations, and it’ll take a long time to bring us where we need to be."