Reza Aslan is an accomplished religious scholar and author, who’s lent his professional insights as a producer to HBO’s “The Leftovers” as well as ABC’s upcoming biblical drama “Of Kings and Prophets.” Now he’s also taking a turn in front of the camera for a new talk show, “Rough Draft with Reza Aslan” for Ovation, interviewing famous writers about their work — along with a liberal dose of alcohol. The first episode features legendary producer Norman Lear — who was so at ease during the conversation, he even stopped to take a call from his daughter.
How did you come up with the idea for the talk show?
My producer, David Andreone, and I are fans of ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ but we always thought, how cool would it be if you could do that show but with writers and in a nightclub with a live band and everybody was drunk? So we began by first doing it as a live show at the DBA in West Hollywood. First Wednesday of every month, we would have a writer of some note that we would interview along with a live band, and we charged 20 bucks a head. We thought it would be a fun thing that our friends would come to, and it turned out to be enormously popular. I mean — standing room only popular. So many people outside of Los Angeles kept asking how they could watch it that we decided, let’s begin filming this and pitch it as an actual television show.
How many networks did you take it to?
Not that many. We wanted to maintain the hip factor of the show. That was very important to us. So we eschewed the traditional networks. We originally wanted to do something mostly digital. As we were in the process of pitching this show and thinking about where it would fit, David came across Ovation, which to be frank, I had never heard of before, but which is in 50 million households. It’s brand new and it’s a network that is dedicated to the arts in a way that Bravo used to be and also has a very big digital footprint. We thought, this seems perfect. The shows themselves are 27 minutes long, but we have three hours of material and a lot of great backstage stuff so we want to make sure that you can experience all of those things on different platforms as well as the show itself.
How do you approach editing it down?
It’s not easy. My desire, of course, is to make sure that there’s a narrative that can be seen through the whole show. It’s fun and fast-paced and it’s humorous and it’s a little bit raunchy and it’s also light-hearted and really entertaining, but what I always wanted to do was for it to also be instructive in some way. I take advantage of that five-minute monologue that I get at the beginning of the show to teach a little lesson about writing and what writing means. The Norman Lear episode, the lesson was about how writing cannot just reflect, but define the culture. For Jill Soloway, it was a take on the old adage, “write what you know.” Jill had this incredible experience of having a parent transition from male to female and thought, “that’s a good story. I’m going to mine that.”
How do you go about booking guests? Is it through your own relationships?
The first season was all my own relationships. I basically wrote all of my friends, and the majority of them said, “Yes,” but the majority of that majority said, “Once you have a distributor, let me know and I’ll come and do it,” but we were lucky to get Norman Lear and Jill Soloway and Damon Lindelof and Mike White and Gideon Raff and Tim Kring, to say, “Sure. We’ll come and do it.” Every single guest has said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in an interview.” Because there’s something about the environment — the drinking helps. Writers love talking about the creative process and they don’t get the chance to do so that often. You give them an opportunity to talk about what they really want to talk about and it’s hard to get them to shut up.
What was your working relationship with Ovation like?
Because they’re such a brand new channel, it creates this symbiotic relationship where they are really open to taking their cues from us, from their shows. I think that’s what’s really exciting about it. Had this gone to a much more established network, I think the first thing that would have happened is that they would have said, “Let’s re-cut this so that it fits whatever aesthetic we are going for.” With Ovation, they really allowed us to explore the creativity that we wanted. They’ve been very hands-off when it comes to the editing process and even the marketing and the publicity aspect of it, they are very open to our efforts, our ideas. It’s almost like we have entered this relationship at the ground level for both of us and we get to grow together.
What have you learned through this process?
I’ve spent the last 10 years being interviewed well and not so well. I’m surprised at how good I am at interviewing. I never trained for it. No one ever taught me to do this. I just feel like when you’ve been interviewed as often as I have, it’s almost by osmosis. You learn the dos and don’ts and I thought at first, “Well, how hard can this be? I’ll just ask some questions and we’ll have a conversation.” Then I really discovered that I’ve got a knack for this. I really do have a knack for it. That was, I think, the thing that was most surprising.
What are the secrets of being a good interviewer?
I’m going to steal what somebody else told me. The best advice that I got was, “Don’t prepare a lot of questions. Prepare a handful of questions and then don’t be a slave to those questions. Ask the first question and then let that lead you wherever it wants to lead you. The only reason you should ever go back to your other questions is if there’s a lull in the conversation.” That helped. I thought I had to have 30 questions just in case and I have to constantly go back to it. I think that’s also created a really fun aesthetic of the show, which makes it seem like a conversation. What I always tell the guest before we start is, “Pretend we’re at a party, having a conversation and some drinks and people are listening.” That’s what this should feel like. And that’s what it’s always felt like.
Do you think you’ve learned something from this experience that’s helped you as a producer?
I think of myself first and foremost as a storyteller, whether I’m writing books or whether I’m teaching or whether I’m making political commentary or whether I’m producing a show or consulting a show or writing. First and foremost, I think of myself as a storyteller. A story for me is my primary responsibility, which is why, I always think about it as I’m trying to tell a story in the form of an interview for 27 minutes. But the same thing is true when it comes to producing “The Leftovers” or “Of Kings and Prophets.” There’s a story behind who we cast. There’s a story behind how we came up with this narrative and I think that the story that the creators themselves fashion for how they think of themselves and their process absolutely informs the story that they actually create the story that you as a viewer absorb.
How did you come up with the idea for “Of Kings and Prophets”?
This is a project that originated with my film company Boomgen Studios, which we created as a storytelling factory. (The series was created by Adam Cooper and Bill Collage.) The purpose of which was to create, develop, incubate, produce stories about what we refer to as “the greater Middle East.” These can be mythological stories. They can be contemporary stories. They can be Biblical. They can be political. We feel like this is an area of the world that is the cradle of storytelling and that too often, particularly in the entertainment industry, it has become nothing more than a backdrop for a very simplistic and simple minded or Western narrative. In 2010, we had this dream of turning the story of King David, which is by far my favorite story in the Bible, into a television series.
What other projects are you working on?
I have a show on CNN, which is essentially Anthony Bourdain but faith instead of food and go around the world and immerse myself within religious communities as a window to other worldviews, other cultures. We’ve shot 6 of those episodes and we’re in post right now and hopefully that will come out some time in the spring. We are working with Lionsgate and with Heyday on the film adaptation of “Zealot,” my last book. We’ve been working very hard on this slate for a really long time and then it’s one of those “when it rains, it pours situations,” where once one of our projects sold, it seemed like everything started selling. We’re having a good year.
Is your involvement with “The Leftovers” going to continue into next season?
I hope so. I’ve already had conversations with Damon Lindelof and Tom Spezialy. We’ve been talking around what that third season could look like, but we haven’t had the time or place yet to really sit down and map that out. But I am really looking forward to it. I am so proud of that second season with “The Leftovers.” I thought it was nearly flawless as a TV season goes. It’s such an amazing story and I’m so proud of the role that I got to play in it. As brilliant and as perfect as that second season was, we always knew that the story wasn’t over. We always knew that this was this one other aspect of the story, particularly the exploration of Meg, the exploration of Kevin, as he is now, becomes this new person. There is a conclusion that I think needs to be there and I know that Damon’s got something ingenious planned for it. I can’t wait to get started on it.
What were your specific story contributions?
It was mostly to help craft a lot of the foundation of the show. When Damon and I first met, the very first thing I said to him was, “I love this show. I love it because I truly believe it’s the only show on television that takes religion seriously in the way that it’s supposed to be.” And I began to give him my interpretation of what that actually means. This idea that the sudden departure functions as a reset button on all our religious ideas. I really saw Kevin as this shamanistic character. I think before then Damon really thought of him as a prophetic character and what I was trying to say was, “No. He’s not a prophet. He doesn’t have a message. He’s a shaman.” I think that that, as Damon has said himself, transformed everything for him. It was a completely new way of thinking, not just about what the show as trying to say, but what Kevin’s arc should be. Then we had many, many conversations about what is a shaman? What does a shaman do? How does someone become a shaman? We also talked about what Miracle represented and about this notion of “axis mundi,” these places around the world that have for thousands of years, by dozens of different and unconnected religious groups, been considered sacred spots and how Miracle could be that. Of course that led to the very famous opening of the first episode, which I think people were just blown away by.