They both just happen to have landed shows at Showtime, but as it turns out, Ann Biderman, the executive producer of “Ray Donovan,” and Michelle Ashford, the executive producer of “Masters of Sex,” are friends as well — having heard of each other for years from a mutual friend “who we both adored,” and then finally meeting at a screening. “I started to think that Ann was a phantom, a holograph that had been conjured in people’s imaginations,” jokes Ashford. Settling in the casting room on the Sony lot, where both shows film, the two friends shared with Variety what they’ve learned about what it takes to create compelling drama on TV.
Variety: Congratulations on such successful freshman seasons. How has the experience been for you?
Michelle Ashford: Cable television is the happiest place on earth in terms of the best writers, the best actors — everyone is flooding to it. In fact, too many people. It’s become an embarrassment of talent. And so we’re in a very lovely spot. We get to do the work we want to do.
Ann Biderman: It would be vulgar to complain. Having said all that, it’s extraordinarily challenging.
Ashford: It is an un-doable task. You can’t actually do it all. And yet you have to. When you look at this much good television you think, this many good people are actually doing this? Once you’re in it, you realize, it’s impossible to get this much work done.
Biderman: I ran into Matt Weiner on the street, about halfway through the year. He took one look at me, put his arms around me and hugged me. He said, “You’re going to get through this.” At one point early on, I’d said something to him on the phone like, “Can we have lunch someday?” and he said: “You don’t understand, you will never have lunch again. Ever. I’m not being rude. Wait a month, and you’ll get it.”
Ashford: It’s actually very comforting to find out that it’s not just you.
Variety: What’s the hardest part?
Biderman: Getting it all done.
Ashford: The ideal situation would be that you would get everything written and then you would go into production. But in reality, that would take 18 months. But you don’t get to do it in 18 months.
Biderman: You’re doing it in nine months.
Ashford: So that’s what makes the job so strange. You’re actually doing everything that should take much longer than you’re allowed. And you’re cramming it in there.
Biderman: We mixed episode one today. We’re mixing episode two tomorrow. We’re formulating 10, 11, 12 as we’re mixing one and two. We’re spotting music on three and four next week. We’re editing six and seven. You literally have 10 episodes in your head at the same time. That’s what’s so challenging. But having said all of this, it’s the greatest job in the world. It really is.
Ashford: There’s no ceiling on what you can write. You just have to write to the best of your ability. No one’s giving you notes. There are places where you can go where you’re like, this is making it stupider. Here, you’re allowed to just go and do it. That’s pretty amazing. I actually don’t think there’s any other place in the entertainment industry right now where you can just go like this.
Variety: What did you learn from the first season?
Biderman: How to manage the budget. How to prioritize. How to know what to fight for. That you have to pick your battles. Do I need to spend $30,000 for this song? Will it absolutely change this episode? To run the room better.
Ashford: I would say the same thing. Because you’re always trying to put 10 pounds of whatever into a 5-pound bag, the idea is to get better at that sleight of hand. It’s always about trying to do all those things in a better way. It doesn’t always work out.
Biderman: And to know when to delegate and when not to. That’s a big one. It’s such a paradox. The best shows are really about a singular vision, but at the same time, it’s a true and deep collaboration with your writers, with the production designers, directors, the actors. So it’s really figuring out at what moments to let it go and let other people do it.
Ashford: Yes, you can fall into that terrible trap because cable television has become this auteur venue that you think, I must do everything and if I haven’t done everything, I haven’t shepherded this properly. But it’s impossible to do everything.
Variety: What challenges did you face as a female showrunner?
Ashford: This is my favorite question. Because I find that I’ve not from the beginning ever felt any kind of bone to pick in terms of being a woman. There is unquestionably discrimination against women in our business. Yet it’s funny because where we are in this business, it is all about, can you deliver the material? If you can deliver the material, they would hire a monkey. They would hire Jack the Ripper. It doesn’t matter. That’s the truth.
Biderman: And yet the politics are real. You recognize that.
Ashford: It’s true. If you’re dealing with big corporations, sometimes there are very entrenched systems that are more comfortable dealing with men than women, and yet the truth of the matter is, if you’re the person that’s putting out this material regularly, they have no choice but to say, you’re doing the job.
Biderman: They just let you do it.
Ashford: So it’s really curious when you talk about that subject because we both want to say there’s not enough women directors. You want to champion that.
Biderman: Yes, and be a good feminist. At the same time, I haven’t felt any kind of discrimination.
Variety: What about in the past, when you were coming up the ranks?
Ashford: Not discrimination, but when I started, I would be the only woman on a staff. And I would get nicknamed. And it would be, let’s say, Booty. Now you would be dragged into court. Yet at the time, it didn’t hamper any of my development as a writer. But even then, I was not held back because I was a woman. They wanted my pages. They didn’t care. That’s what they needed.
Biderman: I remember when I was quite young and I had gotten a job on a film, I was fired because the producer said I was distracting the men on the set and it broke my heart. That threw me. But I just forged ahead. I ignored it. This is what I was meant to be doing, so I was going to do it. If you’re any good at it, you find your way.
Variety: Did the casting process play out the way you wanted?
Biderman: Very much so. Liev (Schreiber) was at the top of the list. The timing was right. He was ready to do television and responded to the material. There was a moment where he panicked when he realized it was going to be in L.A. and he was very much a New Yorker. I was in India making a film with Mira Nair, and I was in the bathtub when he called to basically drop out. By the time I got off the phone, I was shivering and the water was cold. I had to talk him off the ledge: “He’s not just a thug,” “There are themes we can explore.” By the time we got off the phone, he was back in. But there was a moment of panic.
Ashford: I think that’s true of any actor. Michael Sheen was coming from theater and movies. All of a sudden they’re looking at the commitment, and what it means. It’s an unknowable animal to them.
Variety: Why do you think movie actors are moving to TV?
Biderman: The material.
Ashford: The movie business has collapsed. The actors, the people who care about the work — this is what Michael Sheen entirely based his decision on, he cares about the material deeply. Really, if you look at television, they’re just doing the coolest stuff.
Biderman: Jon Voight, Eddie Marsan — role for role.
Ashford: They just look at this and go, I’m not going to find this in movies. Eddie came up to me and said, Mike Leigh works a certain way, do you want this? And my jaw just dropped. I thought yes, that’s exactly how I work.
Variety: What makes for a good drama?
Ashford: You have two different worlds — you have cable and network, and they are two very different animals. There’s no limit to the appetite for the complexity, the ambiguity, the challenge — you can write anything. You just have to look at “Breaking Bad” and go seriously, if that show can be that successful given where that show was going, you just realize, people are dying for complicated, interesting stories. Characters they can just dig into. This is what you can do on television. You cannot do this anywhere else except a novel. Which is to dig in in this way and let people go on this wild ride that goes over week after week and year after year.
Biderman: Grab them by the throat and don’t let go.
Ashford: Your character can be really, really ugly for a long stretch…
Biderman: And not likable. You don’t get that note anymore. You don’t get it in cable, ever. I’ve never been asked on this show once to make a character likable. It is so thrilling.
Variety: You would get that note in the past.
Biderman: Of course. You would get that note from a network, certainly.
Ashford: They’re a different business. I’m not diminishing what they do. But what cable has made really clear is that you can appeal to the niche kind of audience and it doesn’t turn out to be so niche. Look at “Breaking Bad.” Ten million people watched that finale.
Biderman: And didn’t care that he was a murderer. A monster.
Variety: Look at “The Sopranos.”
Ashford: That was what pushed me in this direction. I was toiling away in network television and “The Sopranos” came on and I went, holy crap! This is what you can do in television.
Biderman: I had that experience with “Southland,” which was initially a network show. They thought they wanted to push the envelope, and quite frankly they didn’t. I remember John (Wells) calling me and saying they’re going to cancel the show and thinking, OK, that’s not a bad thing. I don’t want to do what they want to do, and that’s OK.
Variety: Ann, do you worry about too much violence?
Biderman: I don’t, actually. I worry that I don’t worry. I wrestled with that early on with my shrink. Why am I drawn to such dark material? There is in pure Jungian terms a shadow in this culture and that’s what I’m interested in. That includes violence. It’s been a legitimate interest of mine for a long time. You try not be prurient and gratuitous.
Variety: Michelle, same question for you about sex.
Ashford: That’s the stuff that we’re grappling with as well. They were legitimate researchers so we have all that. I have a barometer of what I want to see and what I don’t want to see on any kind of screen. And the problem with sex is that there’s a vocabulary that’s been developed over the last 25 years where there are tropes in sex. There are many sex scenes that have become incredibly boring. The sex that’s there to be sexy is dead. I know it’s dead for me as a watcher. I don’t ever want to see a sex scene that’s just trying to be sexy. Our challenge has always been, how do you make sex story? That’s what we’re trying to do. As long as I feel we’re trying to make sex story, we’ll try anything. Then I don’t feel creeped out by it. If I felt like we were just throwing it in there so we could see whoever’s hot ass, then who cares? That’s deeply boring. I actually think we found a way through it.
Variety: What moments in your shows are you proudest of?
Biderman: There are moments on the set, late at night, when you’ll see something and you’ll think, yes, that’s what I intended. They’re doing it so beautifully. Moments like that when I think of my mother. It’s very personal. The other night I was watching a scene, and we have a new actor on this year. He was acting with Jon Voight, and I was very moved by it. And I just thought, together they make my mother. I felt this overwhelming sense of, she would be proud of me. It’s not about the ratings. It’s not about showrunning. It’s these weird, private moments when you feel like you’re a writer again.
Ashford: The last moment of our season was this moment with Michael Sheen’s character, and he had to stand in the doorway and declare himself, essentially. I’d been thinking about that moment for two and a half years. I knew that if we got to a season one, that’s where it would end, and I remember sitting on the set, and he was really quite overcome. But I was also quite overcome. I remember thinking, how interesting. The two of us have so invested in this thing. He’s having his experience there; I’m having my experience here. But what a weird animal this is that at the same moment, we both care as much about this as any other. It’s a lovely testament to this weird beast that we have here in television.