The Emmy award–winning creator of Justified and The Americans tells us how he runs two different TV shows at once, the importance of delegating and how he keeps all his stories straight.
You’re the showrunner and head writer on FX’s Justified, as well as executive producer on The Americans. Got any tips on effective time management?
My tip for time management is work with the best people. Norman Lear had five shows in the Top 10 in the 1970s. When asked, he said, “There is no trick. You just run around like crazy.” There are times when I have looked at my assistant and just said, “This is as much as I can handle.” But you just get through it.
Are you a good delegator?
Yes, and I think I’m pretty good at hiring. There comes a point where my urge to be a control freak is weighed against my desire to have a life. I don’t live in L.A.—I just go there to work. I try to be home in Monterey, California as much as possible. Sometimes you just have to let it go because you want a life. If you’ve hired the right people, then you can do that.
It feels like over the past several years, showrunners have become the rock stars of the TV landscape. How did that happen?
Well, I don’t have flocks of fans waiting at the airport when I arrive, but certainly, it really has proliferated over the last 10 years or so, with David Chase [The Sopranos], Matt Weiner [Mad Men], Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad]. With these shows, the TV landscape expanded beyond the networks, and the result was shows with a more singular vision.
I was incredibly disappointed not to make it in. Justified was new when the book came out. I have tried to be as difficult as possible. I’m hoping there will a part two.
Do you think there’s a false correlation between jerky behavior and creating great art?
There is that notion that the artist must be tormented and therefore torment those around him. I always think—to what end? I had this moment on the set when I was directing an episode of From the Earth to the Moon, and I remember thinking, This is all going to be just a dusty relic someday…. How has the day been? And the day had been great. When I look back, it’s the people I’ve worked with, the funny stories, those great moments that matter. Yeah, you can point to this great scene or season or episode, but what you really carry with you are the experiences.
To what extent is being a showrunner like being a CEO?
I tend to think of it more like being the head coach of an NFL team. There’s that element of managing and being the director of things. The plays are the writing, but at the same time, it’s about the team—who did you hire? The pool is only so deep and so wide. Everyone’s going over those top picks, but you know, Tom Brady wasn’t a top pick.
You have said that if you want to follow your vision and your vision alone, become a painter.
I think it’s easier to say that as a showrunner. I get to encourage people to be collaborative, but at the end of the day, I get to cut the scene how I want it. Everything’s wonderful when you’re king. I do think there is great truth to it, though. I want everyone [in my writers’ room] to feel they can contribute and be eager to do so.
How do you tell someone their idea kind of stinks without hurting feelings or killing morale?
I try to do it in good cheer. The one joke everyone makes about me in the writers’ room is that I never say no, I just say maybe. To a degree that means no, although time and again we come back to those ideas.
You have an on-set nickname.
It’s Weepy McWeepster.
How did that come about?
I got it from my father. Not the nickname, the weeping. We’re a pretty emotional family. It can be a liability at times. I got the nickname when I was doing Boomtown. The joke in that writers’ room was that if they could pitch me on a story and get me to cry, they knew they had sold it.
Were there tears over the Justified series finale script?
How many drops of water are in the ocean? How many stars are in the sky? There was one moment where I found myself actually physically sobbing.
I read that you quit working on the 1990s TV phenomenon Full House. Why?
I was hired for my edge, and it quickly became clear that Full House didn’t need edge. It just wasn’t a room I was comfortable in. That said, I’ve got a lot of fun memories. I remember one day it was the Olsen twins’ birthday, and they were turning five—that’s how long ago this was. We were supposed to get on stage and sing them “Happy Birthday,” and one of the showrunners told us we were not to make eye contact with them. Years later I ran into him, and I said, Dennis, I have to ask, were you just screwing with us that day? He said, “Absolutely!”
Should an aspiring writer worry about fit when looking for work?
Sometimes you take work for the sake of work if you’re lucky enough to get it. To a degree, I just took Justified because I needed a job, and that worked out really, really well. Sometimes when we overthink, we don’t get anything done. I quit Full House because it wasn’t a good fit, but I was also at the end of a 10-week probationary period, and I was pretty certain I was going to get fired. It was a matter of pride. The next week Speed sold, and it changed my life.
Did you do anything to celebrate Speed’s 20th anniversary last year?
We tried. I talked to producer Mark Gordon about it. We reached out to Keanu and Sandy. By the way, I’ve met her twice in my life, so for me to call her Sandy is kind of ridiculous. We just didn’t get to it in time. Maybe we’ll try for something for the 25th.
You may have only met her twice, but few people have been so instrumental in where she landed.
My joke is, yeah, I did that for her, and I don’t get so much as a Christmas card.
The sixth and final season of Justified airs Tuesday nights on FX. The series finale is on April 14. The Americans broadcasts Wednesday nights on FX; the award-winning Cold War thriller’s third season finale airs on April 22.
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