For Carlton Cuse, Collaboration Is the Key to Creativity

Legendary showrunner takes pride in the way he has mentored colleagues

Carlton Cuse Variety Creative Leadership Award
Terence Patrick for Variety

When Carlton Cuse was starting out in the business, his office on the Warner Bros. lot was next to that of John Sacret Young, creator of “China Beach.” He spent hours at Young’s side, not only learning the craft of writing for television and features, but also about the process of showrunning. “He was very generous with me,” recalls Cuse. “And I appreciated that.”

That experience — as well as his later partnership with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) — taught him the value of creative collaboration. As he worked his way up through the industry — from “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” and “Nash Bridges” to the groundbreaking “Lost” — he’s been paying it forward, again and again. The ranks of television’s top producers include many graduates of what Damon Lindelof jokingly calls the Carlton Cuse School of Showrunning: Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. Shawn Ryan. Pam Veasey. Glen Mazzara. And more.

“I don’t think there’s anything that makes me happier or prouder than to see writers I have worked with go on and have their own shows and have success,” Cuse says. “It’s hard to explain how much joy I take in that. It’s the fulfillment of everything I aspire to do in my relationship with other writers.”

For Cuse, mentoring others — whether producers, actors, editors or anyone else who crosses his path professionally — is a natural part of the creative process. It’s simply the way he’s always worked, and he can’t imagine doing otherwise.

“We live in a society where the dominant idea is the singular accomplishment, when in fact the evidence really points in the other direction,” he says. “You could argue that the best directors working in movies today is a duo: the Coen brothers. The Emmy-winning TV show for 2015 was won by two guys (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, for “Game of Thrones”). To me, collaboration is the essence of what makes TV successful.”

Producing a complex TV series in this competitive climate can be particularly challenging: showrunners face an overwhelming workload on a limited timeline. Television isn’t a medium where you’re in control of all of the elements — unlike, say, novel writing, where you’re sitting at your desk at home, and “you have absolute control over everything that’s happening in your artistic world,” he says.

So the one lesson Cuse tries to impart: Be malleable. “You need to have a vision, but you need to also adjust and modify your vision to the circumstances you face,” he says. “You need to both hold an artistic vision in your head and be adaptive. To do both of those things at the same time is the core of the job.”

If there’s indeed “too much TV,” as has been famously argued of late, Cuse himself might be partially to blame: The mega-producer now has a slate of shows spread across multiple networks, from FX’s vampire hit “The Strain” to A&E’s family psycho-drama “Bates Motel” to USA’s upcoming futuristic “Colony,” starring “Lost” alum Josh Holloway. His Jack Ryan thriller — based on the Tom Clancy novels — just landed at Amazon, after a fierce bidding war.

All of those series have something in common: Cuse works closely with other creative partners. There’s Kerry Ehrin on “Bates Motel,” Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro on “The Strain,” Ryan Condal on “Colony.” With each, he says, he plays a different role, adapting to his colleague’s relative strengths to ensure the show’s success.

“I love the process of being able to take an idea and work with someone who’s really creative and passionate,” he says, “and try to figure out in what ways we can make the most out of something.”

Of course, not everything succeeds. He admits he’s faced challenges along the way — “nobody goes into this business who doesn’t have a healthy ego,” he says. “It’s a business with a tremendous amount of disappointment and failure. The goal is try to not to take those experiences personally, but to try to apply them as learning experiences.”

And even after all his years in the business, he says he’s still learning.

“It’s always weird when I see words like ‘old guard’ and ‘veteran’ next to my name,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like I’m still figuring it out.”