Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, writers and executive producers for “Empire,” marched to their own beat while creating the show.
The two discussed how the Fox hit came to be and what has made “Empire” such a phenomenon at the 7th annual Produced By L.A. conference at Paramount Studios on Sunday.
While on the panel, which also included producer Brian Grazer, producer Ilene Chaiken and Francie Calfo, the two said part of what attracted them to the show was how cool hip-hop is.
“I was driving in my car here in L.A. and there was a news story on the radio about Puffy,” Strong said. “And I heard the news story and I just thought, ‘Hip-hop is so cool.’ There’s something in hip-hop.”
Strong initially pitched the project to Daniels as a movie about a hip-hop empire. However, Daniels told Strong, “I want to make money.” He also thought they could tell the story easier on cable.
Grazer said he was initially sold on the idea when Strong pitched it as a story of hip-hop meets Shakespeare.
“Danny (Strong) just gave me the headline of, ‘King Lear in the world of hip-hop,’ and I knew very little about King Lear, but I did know all about hip-hop.”
But, Daniels said the road to making “Empire” a reality wasn’t always easy.
“Everybody was shocked,” Daniels said about his switch from movies to TV. “All my director friends said I’d never be able to last a month and I didn’t think I would, either.”
The show isn’t always easy for viewers, either. A large focus is on homophobia in the black community, something Daniels has seen himself.
“This is real. Homophobia is real in the African-American community … and we will continue to do our thing until homophobia is done,” Daniels said as the audience applauded.
He told his own story, of how he was bullied at the age of 5 and continues to receive threats to this day.
Daniels said the show’s focus on showing African-American stories highlights a more realistic version of how black people interact. He said he’s comfortable around both Oprah Winfrey and his aunt, who lives in the Bronx. He said that’s a reality for many black people.
“I wanted to show both sides of the coin,” Daniels said.
Chaiken, the showrunner for “Empire,” said at first, she wasn’t sure if she was the best fit for the job. But then, she saw the pilot.
“I watched this pilot that these incredible filmmakers made and as I was walking out of the room I was on the phone with my agent saying ‘Tell me what I’ve got to do. I want this job more than anything. This show is a total game-changer,'” she said.
Season two premieres on Fox on Sept. 23.