‘How to Get Away with Murder’ Creator Peter Nowalk on Working with Shonda Rhimes, Diversity on TV

Pete Nowalk ABC Studios overall deal
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On paper, “How to Get Away with Murder” certainly has the auspices to be a “Scandal”-sized hit for ABC when it premieres on Sept. 25 — a charismatic lead in Oscar nominee Viola Davis, a “fast-paced and frothy” serialized story at its center, and the creative acumen of super-producer Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland shingle at its back. Time will tell if the buzzed-about thriller can reach the dizzying heights of pop culture dominance achieved by the Kerry Washington-fronted political drama, but the stars seem to be aligning in its favor, despite some unexpected controversy courtesy of the New York Times.

Earlier this week, Times critic Alessandra Stanley drew the Internet’s ire in a piece erroneously attributing the creation of “Murder” and Davis’ character, criminal law professor Annalise Keating, to Rhimes (among numerous inaccuracies). The show is actually created by Peter Nowalk, who has inhabited the twisted streets of Shondaland since 2008, starting out as a story editor and writer on “Grey’s Anatomy” and ascending the ranks to become a co-executive producer on “Scandal,” before finally creating “How to Get Away with Murder.” While Rhimes undoubtedly has a guiding hand in the series as an executive producer and mentor to the first-time creator, “Murder” is most assuredly Nowalk’s show. Variety sat down with him at ABC’s Television Critics Assn. press day in July to talk about his inspiration for the project, his experiences working with Rhimes and the importance of diversity in both casting and writing characters.

How did you first come up with the concept for the show?
I’m always coming up with ideas — maybe it’s because I’m unoriginal — where it’s a normal person caught in an extreme circumstance. There’s so much good TV on right now, I just wanted it to be loud and extreme and relatable. I was like, “What [would happen] if I murdered someone?” It started there and then I wanted to do something with a procedural element. The criminal defense lawyers and students committing the murder felt like the perfect little concept in order to launch the show. I also like playing with time — that felt fresh to me. I hope it doesn’t confuse people but I think it’s up to us to make sure that the story is told in a clear way. So many other shows have been doing that and I find it cool, and hopefully we’re doing it in our own way.

Basically, through the future episodes we’ll see more moments from [the night of the murder], so we’re going to keep doing that story and we’re going to focus on different characters’ perspectives through that night until we put the whole puzzle together and the final piece is who killed [this character] and why. To me, that feels fun; I would love it if we could eventually show all those scenes together in an episode and it just plays as its own little thing. Anything that feels new and fresh, I think, is what you as a writer craves, like, “oh, I can figure that out.” If it feels challenging then I can hook my fingers into it.

What was your research process like after the initial idea? Who did you talk to and where did you go from there?
I talked to Betsy [Beers] and Shonda about the idea from the beginning. It came together really quickly. I didn’t know anything about law school so I read the books that the actors have now been reading just to learn the basic things about the Socratic method; I would read criminal law outlines; I would just Google and get facts from different universities, and that’s how I came up with the actus reus and mens rea [scene] that’s in the pilot. The good thing is, it was only the first day of school so I didn’t have to get too deep. [Laughs.]

And Betsy’s husband, Bruce [who is a lawyer], is a great resource… there’s so much interesting technique that goes into being a lawyer and also the performative, theatrical aspect of a court room. One of the things he does sometimes is create chaos in the court room because it’s a game… yes, there’s a system and we think it should be more moral and normal than that, but a defense attorney’s job is — it’s in the constitution — to do anything in their power to defend their client. Sometimes that can seem immoral, but I think Annalise thinks you never really know about your clients; you never know what happened in their life that drove them to this point. She sees this system as much more of a complicated web than just that there are “good” people and “bad” people. I like that, because it shows that someone can be good their whole life until they’re pushed to one moment and now they’re “bad,” so I think that’s going to be fun.

What’s the division of labor like between you and Shonda and Betsy?
I’m the showrunner, and there’s Bill D’Elia too. I’m every day working with the writers, who are all back there working their butts off — they’re awesome and they’re the real geniuses. We are every day breaking the stories and writing the scripts and what’s great about Shonda and Betsy is they’ll read every outline, they’ll read every script, or if I’m stuck on a storyline I can go to them. Shonda has such good instincts and ideas, it’s just awesome. She’s another resource to have, so she’s my mentor but also has been very good about being like, “it’s yours — do what you want.” We’ve disagreed about things and scenes that we cut out of the pilot and such, and she’s always like, “good, do your version.” I think that’s been very empowering and unique.

What’s great about working for her is how decisive she always is and how clear, and I was like, “Okay, if I’m ever in her shoes, you have to do that for your [staff].” Like any boss, you want someone who’s confident and clear, “yes, no, yes.” That’s the type of boss you want, so she’s been very good about encouraging me to take that role, because we’re all going to have different opinions. Every critic, I’m sure, has a different opinion of every pilot, and so you just can’t listen to it. You’ve got to be like, “what do I like?”

You’ve worked with Shonda for years — what are some of the best lessons she’s taught you?
To listen to myself above all else. Sometimes you have a lot of noise in your head, but you have to really take time and think “what do I want to do, what do I see as the most interesting thing for this character to say here?” And how to be articulate about that to people. To fight — you have to dig in and I think that’s what makes her a real teacher, is that she doesn’t let people sway her unless she thinks they’re right, and that’s not an easy thing to do in life, so she taught me that. She’s also taught me how to be good to writers; how to delegate to people and really empower and encourage people, because you can’t do it all on your own. I learn from her every day — I’m lucky.

It’s depressing that it’s still noteworthy in today’s pop culture landscape, but Shondaland shows are still some of the most diverse in terms of casting, and in making sure that a series has female leads — especially female leads who are women of color.
Yeah. I’ve grown up in the Shondaland world where you don’t write anything into your scripts and [casting director] Linda Lowy brings you actors of all shapes and sizes and you say “yes, yes, no.” There’s no other way to do it, to me. It’s a law school at an elite university; it’s going to be freaking diverse, it’s just a vast world and it makes it more fun to tell stories. Themes I want to play with — and Viola is also very articulate and passionate about them — are race and class, especially in an elite university. We’re not colorblind to who these people are; their identities and their sexuality and everything about them will become potential story and so why would want everyone to be the same? To me, it just opens up your story well and God knows you need it.

On “Murder’s” TCA panel, you talked a little about the show’s gay character, Connor (Jack Falahee), and said you “feel really lucky that I get to write someone who is a young man who is very sexually active and very confident, has no issues about his sexuality, and just feels like a very modern, free, inspirational character.” Can you expand on why Connor is so important to you as a writer?
The students are all so different and they’re not friends. I’m a gay man, so I wanted to write a gay man character who is sort of a wish fulfillment for me. I am in my 30s but he’s in his mid-twenties and I think that generation of gay men and women… they just have a different history and I wanted to show someone who is just refreshingly confident and doesn’t have an issue with it and probably came from a background where people didn’t have an issue with it and it just feels more modern. I just want to show someone who’s awesomely gay. And I think he’s more complex than you’ve seen — all of the characters are. You might think, “oh he’s an oversexed operator,” and that’s how he comes across in the pilot, but I think that’s part of who he is and I think there’s other parts that I want to show too.

I love that a number of characters — including Annalise — own their sexuality and are confident about pursuing their desires.
Some of the characters are very driven by sex and I think that’s cool. I think Annalise — and Viola and I talk about it — she’s definitely driven by sex; Connor especially is. Different people do different things. It makes them more interesting and Connor’s a special character in my heart, so I’m just excited… we’re going to play a gay romance story line for him right away.

Annalise is a particularly inscrutable character in the pilot — how much of what she presents to her students is a facade or a way of manipulating them, and how much should we take at face-value?
I think we’ll tell that story slowly. You’ll get to know more when she’s manipulating and when she’s being genuine. I think a lot of people assume she’s never genuine in the pilot and I love that people can interpret [the scenes] in different ways. I want her to be a character people debate about because I think that’s how we are in life. Two people can sit across from the same person and have completely different takeaways. Viola said this thing to me about masks, and she was very interested in the masks that Annalise wears — but every character is wearing one. We all wear them, all the time. It depends what situation we are in, which mask we’re wearing. She’s in the theater of a classroom, she’s in the theater of the courtroom, she’s in the theater of her office, she’s in the theater of her marriage. We’re all performing all the time. What’s cool is then when you get to see the mask off and you’re like “oh, the ugly, softer [side].” We’re going to be doling those out, slowly but surely, for all the characters, and it makes it fun.

Talk about working with Viola and what she brings to the role, because she’s a force of nature in this show.
Yeah. She’s a really awesome person. I was obviously intimidated the first time I met her; I’ve adored her and watched that “Doubt” scene probably 50 times, but she’s not who you expect when you meet her. She’s very sweet; she’s very hardworking; she is humble. She doesn’t realize what a genius she is, which is utterly charming, and she just brings it. She’s a Julliard trained theater person who’s like, “okay these things are meant to challenge me, I’m going to figure out how to make them work.” She does a lot of homework and she also does things where I’m like, “I didn’t see that coming… I’m writing to that.” You write a character on the page and you think its complex and three dimensional but it’s not, until she turns it on. It’s the luckiest thing that ever happened to me.

It sounds like it’s a fairly collaborative process between you and the cast members in terms of creating the characters.
Oh yeah, I always want them to come to me with their questions and ideas, sitting down and talking over breakfast with them. [Viola] can speak to things about being a woman that I don’t know, and I’m like “oh, that’s awesome, we can do this,” The whole idea that it’s one person’s vision [is wrong]… it’s collaborations; it’s the director, it’s the producers, it’s every frigging person on the crew. So much of what was in my head got better through the people we cast and what the director did.

The show has an ongoing serialized aspect through the murder mystery, but you also mentioned that you want the show to be a procedural. How are you striking that balance between the mythology and the procedural elements?
I’d say the case of the week is probably 50 percent, it’s never just plot-driven. I think Shonda likes shows where you’re letting the characters drive those cases, so there’s always character dynamic and emotion driving the procedural aspects. [Annalise] defends really weird clients. The second episode, it’s this charming but creepy billionaire, and you’re like, “he’s kind of gross but he’s also intriguing,” and then she’ll also defend really sympathetic characters, like a teenage boy accused of murder who we just feel terrible for. And also an insider trader. They’ll all be different types of crimes and different personalities. I think that’s fun, I think I want to keep the case of the week going. I don’t want the serialized element to take it over, except for an episode or two, because I think she’s about her work; she loves her job, so we’ve got to see her do it.

“How to Get Away with Murder” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.