‘Empire’ Writers Talk Celebrity No-Shows, Network Diversity at WGAW Panel

A panel of “Empire” writers and producers joined co-creator Danny Strong to discuss penning their record-breaking show Monday at the WGA West. The event was moderated by Cheo Hodari Coker (“Luke Cage,” “Southland” and one of Variety‘s 10 TV Scribes to Watch) and presented by the WGAW’s Committee of Black Writers and LGBT Writers Committee.

Also on the panel were scribes Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez, who talked about the series’ music production, Twitter feedback and working with celebrity guests on the Fox hit drama.

What is “The ‘Empire’ Effect”?

Coker began the event by introducing the “Empire” Effect — a catalyst for diversity becoming network television’s new bread and butter — that followed the groundbreaking success of the series with a predominantly African-American cast.

In addition to seeking more diversity onscreen, Strong revealed that he, along with co-creator Lee Daniels and executive producer Ilene Chaiken, wanted to make diverse hires with as many African-American directors and female directors as possible.

Strong declared with excitement, “There was only one white straight male to direct an episode last season … and it was me!”

Are the writers listening to the Twitter conversation?

Instead of relying on traditional Nielsen ratings to compute the show’s success, Twitter became the writers’ post-digital TV tracking system through which they were able to gauge the climate of opinion.

“The voices coming back were overwhelming,” said Locke.

“If you subject yourself to the comments and the tweets and whatever, you see a spectrum of reaction, which I think is kind of good,” said Haywood. “Seeing the broad spectrum of opinions I personally find kind of interesting and I believe it keeps us on our toes.”

How great is it working with all of those celebrity guest stars?

As great as it was to have celebrities cameo on “Empire,” the panelists revealed some headaches when stars bailed after they had already written storylines for them. “Last season we got passed on a lot, and then people said that they would do the show and not show up the day before, or the day of,” Strong divulged.

Strong said that Cuba Gooding Jr. did a favor for Daniels when he filled in for a famous guest star at the last minute, playing Puma, a songwriter and friend of Cookie’s. But with the show’s success, finding guest stars has been a lot easier.

“Empire” has received more incoming calls than ever, according to Strong. “A lot of people want to be in the show, but it’s a balance of making the show feel real and not let the stunt-casting overwhelm it; at the same time, the stunt-casting is completely organic in the world of musical superstars.”

How do the writers incorporate the show’s musical numbers?

Music has always propelled the story, according to Haywood. “There are concepts of the song that gets very specific,” he said. “In season one we said we want Jamal to do a song where he tells his father to keep his money.”

The writers then send the parameters of the score to producer-songwriter duo Timbaland and Jim Beanz. “We say we’re going to need a song in episode blah blah blah with this specific subject matter and they go off and they create the song.”

“Drip, Drop” was the exception; it was an older song that the musicians had that was needed as a hit single for Lucious Lyon’s rapping protégé-son, Hakeem. 

Are they nervous about the high expectations of season two? 

“When people ask me how we are going to make the show bigger and better for season two, I say that we’re not,” said Strong. “Our goal is just to continue the story.”

The second season of “Empire” is set to premiere Sept. 23 on Fox.

(Pictured: Writers Eric Haywood, Cheo Hodari Coker, Attica Locke, Joshua Allen, Danny Strong and Carlito Rodriguez)

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