When John Wirth, the showrunner for “Hell on Wheels,” recently sold a pilot, he reached out to his friend Carlton Cuse for advice on how to juggle multiple shows. Cuse, who’s now running four dramas (among other projects), told Wirth, “You can’t have your way all the time.”
But there’s more to the secret of Cuse’s success than simply letting go. Over the course of several days earlier this winter, Variety shadowed Cuse as he maneuvered seamlessly from a notes session on A&E’s “Bates Motel” to editing “The Returned” to interviewing job candidates for FX’s “The Strain” to filming the pilot for USA’s “Colony.”
“He’s got that brain where he can be working on episode 19 of ‘The Strain’ and then drive across town, have several conversations about who knows what, walk into the writers’ room of ‘Bates’ where they’re talking about episode 3, and just pick it right up,” marvels Wirth.
Simply put, says “The Walking Dead’s” Gale Anne Hurd, “He’s smarter than the rest of us.”
That steel-trap mind — credit his Harvard education — may be the single most-important weapon in his arsenal as he deals with his crowded slate. Overseeing so many shows wasn’t exactly his intention, he concedes. “But in Hollywood, it’s impossible to get the temperature of the porridge just right. No matter what your intentions are, Hollywood has a 90% failure rate. I had to put a few different irons in the fire because I didn’t think everything was going to work.”
Nearly everything did.
Damon Lindelof, his co-showrunner on “Lost,” saw him recently at a charity event. “I was like, ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you have nine shows to run?’ ” he laughs. “Unlike a lot of other people who have their name attached to five things, he’s actually running them. He’s not a guy who puts his name on stuff he’s not putting the hours in on.”
After “Lost” ended its much-celebrated run on ABC in 2010, Cuse says he needed to think about anything but television. He read, he watched movies, he went hiking in Switzerland. “I’d worked monastically on the show for six years with virtually no time off,” he says. “I took six months off to recharge my batteries emotionally and creatively.”
With the luxury of being selective about his subsequent project, he set the bar high. It had to be something he felt passionate about.
A panoply of options soon lined up: A&E approached him with “Bates” and “The Returned”; his agent, WME’s Ari Greenburg, presented him with Guillermo del Toro’s trilogy “The Strain,” which he’d already read and loved. Cuse had majored in history in college, so he pitched a Civil War drama with Randall Wallace, which became “Point of Honor,” a pilot for Amazon. And he’d been working on a pilot with Ryan Condal that didn’t go forward, but that led them to tossing around another concept, which became the sci-fi thriller “Colony.”
“They’re all my children,” he says of the projects, “and I didn’t feel like I could abandon any of them.”
But can he devote the time needed to raise all of these shows? The volume of work he’s amassed has led to some questions from his studio partners, though so far there have been no complaints.
“We were concerned about that initially when we knew how many shows he had in production,” says Jackie de Crinis, USA’s executive vice president of original programming. “Every time we’d open the paper, we’d be like, ‘Carlton’s on another pilot?’ But he has been a man of his word. He’s always on top of it.”
A&E’s president of brand strategy Bob DeBitetto echoes that sentiment, noting, “You never feel like your show is getting less than 110% of his creativity and attention.” (Cuse jokes that every show thinks he’s working on the other at any given time — and yet he’s really out playing the slots.)
FX Networks CEO John Landgraf also marvels at Cuse’s bandwidth. “I’ve worked with many executive producers who have multiple shows, but I’ve never worked with one who has as many as Carlton currently has, and I don’t know how he does it,” he says. “I suspect the answer lies in the quality of partner that he has.”
That’s a point Cuse readily concedes: He couldn’t have moved forward with his current overstocked slate if he didn’t have talented producers and fellow showrunners at his side: Kerry Ehrin on “Bates Motel,” Raelle Tucker on “The Returned,” del Toro and Chuck Hogan on “The Strain,” and Condal on “Colony.”
“The thing that excites me when I get out of bed in the morning is that collaboration,” he says. “There’s so much to do on any given TV show that if you don’t collaborate effectively, I don’t believe you can succeed.”
“Lost” is a case in point. Lindelof, realizing after the pilot that the fantasy-drama was too unwieldy for one person to steer, enlisted Cuse to join him as co-showrunner. It was an instance of student reaching out to teacher, as Cuse had helped Lindelof learn the ropes of producing on the 1990s CBS drama “Nash Bridges,” which Cuse had created.
“Carlton has this preternatural talent for staffing, for both finding talented writers and making these machines run smoothly,” Lindelof says. “And then he gets out of the way and trusts them to do their jobs. That’s the absolute opposite of ego.”
“Lost” alums Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, now the showrunners of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” joke there should be a Carlton Cuse Graduate School of Showrunning. Other alumni include Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend (“House”), Pam Veasey (“CSI: NY”) and Janet Tamaro (“Rizzoli & Isles”). “For someone who has as much success as he does, he really is a mentoring person,” Kitsis says.
Ehrin says she hit it off with Cuse immediately. Over the course of producing “Bates” with him for the past three years, she’s found he has a surprising softness to him. “People think of him as a tough showrunner-businessman, but he has an incredibly sweet, funny, childlike side that is really joyful,” she says.
Tucker admits she was scared of Cuse when she first met him — in part because of his 6’ 3” frame and his deep, gravelly voice. “Your knees get weak,” she says. “But what struck me in our first meeting is just how much he listened and how much he cared about what I was saying.”
Back in November, part of his crammed calendar was given to filming the pilot of “Colony.” He spent 13 days with the crew in and around the streets of Los Angeles; shooting the show in L.A. was key to landing former “Lost” hunk Josh Holloway to star.
“If you have great actors, they can sell almost anything,” Cuse contends. “If you think about some of the things we did on ‘Lost,’ they were patently ridiculous. But if you have a good actor delivering your narrative with craft and intelligence and commitment, they can sell it.”
The thriller imagines a world in the near future where aliens occupy the city. To achieve the needed effect, the production shut down a section of Downtown Los Angeles. Buzzing with adrenaline, Cuse couldn’t wait to show off the footage. “It’s that creepy feeling of being able to get from Downtown to Westwood in seven minutes,” he says. There were no cars on the street; just bikers and pedestrians. “We shot very cinema verite-style.”
Once a pilot is shot, Cuse prefers to spend his time in the writers’ room as opposed to being on the set — he learned long ago to focus on the script above all else. “I try to be really rigorous about the story process,” he says. “Shows don’t fail because you chose a blue car instead of a red car. They fail because the storytelling isn’t compelling or the characters aren’t well-drawn.”
The three keys to being a successful showrunner, he believes, are writing, casting and editing: “You tell the story three times: when you write it, when you shoot it, and when you edit it.”
In notes meeting with his writers, he asks tough, pointed questions: What’s the intention of this scene? What’s the conflict? Have we provided enough context? He’ll throw out references to shows he’s been watching — a compelling scene from “Homeland” or “House of Cards” — as inspiration. And like a sharp-nosed detective, he’ll find any narrative holes.
Reviewing an early draft of a script for “Bates Motel,” it doesn’t pass his rigorous sniff test. “I know everything we do is pulpy,” he tells the young writer, “but the challenge of this show is finding the balance.” Though as he gives the writer page after pages of probing notes, he’s full of encouragement.
Cuse and “Bates” exec producer Ehrin share a light, easy banter; they all but finish each other’s thoughts. A discussion about organ transplants somehow ends with a promise to leave his organs to her. Her riposte: “I’m going to put them in a container.”
As his day winds on, he effortlessly segues from the complicated narratives of troubled teens to sentient vampires to are-they-or-aren’t-they-zombies. “I’m used to juggling multiple storylines in my head,” he explains, referencing his six seasons on “Lost.”
He originally wanted to be a film director — like everyone else who comes to Los Angeles, laughs Cuse, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Boston. “But once I learned enough about the business to see what it was all about, showrunning seemed like the absolute perfect application of my skills,” he says. “I have a good combination of creative brain and business brain.”
Now he’s enjoying the freedom of not being locked into a deal with any one studio, though he inked a three-year, first-look development deal with A&E in October 2014. Being a free agent has given him more opportunity to pick and choose his projects.
“I’ve had a really great relationship with A&E,” he notes, “but the thing that I love is the ability to go anywhere and do anything. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to have your shows in all different configurations in different places. But it’s actually been about what are the best creative auspices for each project.”
He notes, for example, working with Amazon on “Point of Honor.” “They’re very engaged and very much want to be a significant producer of premium cable-quality content,” he says. Though the pilot didn’t get picked up, he’s glad he had the experience working with the digital company. “Launching a successful series requires a massive amount of successful creative decision-making and, unfortunately, we didn’t get enough of the creative problem-solving done by the pilot stage on this one.”
Though Cuse’s stock couldn’t be higher now in TV, he’s seen enough throughout his time in the business to know things can turn around very quickly.
“There’s so little gratitude in Hollywood. So much of everyone’s efforts are rejected in this cruel and merciless system,” he says. “There are moments when no one else is going to believe in you. That’s the nature of a career here.” Such crises of confidence, he says, are an “occupational hazard, the same way coal dust is for a miner.”
But ultimately, he reveals the secret that allows him to steer that schedule full of shows.
“You have to dig down and find ways to believe in yourself,” he maintains. “I have huge reservoirs of perseverance and optimism and tenacity.”