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‘Orange is the New Black’ Boss Jenji Kohan on Running the Show Her Way

Jenji Kohan shakes off any discussion of the Emmy rule changes that saw her Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” forced to move from comedy to drama this year. “If people want to label us, it’s up to them,” she says. “We’re just doing what we’re doing.” But what suits her rule-breaking personality is that her show is the first to earn nods in both categories. “That part I really like,” she says, with a sly smile. The idiosyncratic showrunner talked to Variety’s Debra Birnbaum about blazing a path to the top.

You didn’t have an easy road to where you sit now.
I saw the writing on the wall early when I knew I wanted to have kids. It was really hard to do when working for other people. You have to accommodate the showrunner’s schedule. If I wanted to have a family, I had to be in charge. Now that I’m in that position, we have a very fecund staff; they can all have babies. I’ve created that kind of environment. But when I was coming up, it wasn’t easy. You were subject to the whims of the king — and it was usually a king. Although there was a queen, too, and she didn’t like kids.

What challenges have you faced?
The same challenges for all showrunners. It’s notes and it’s taste. Seeing your vision through. Fighting the good fight. Getting what you want out there.

How have you done that?
Force of will. I think once you prove you can do it, there’s a level of trust that develops. It’s a luxury, certainly, and it’s gift once you’ve gained that trust. You say, “I will deliver. Until I screw up, please let me do it my way.”

“Orange” launched right on the heels of “Weeds” ending. How did you manage that?

As we were coming into the home stretch with “Weeds,” there were a lot of discussions in the room that I had to get something going before “Weeds” went away because memory is short in this town and they’ll forget you. I didn’t think “Orange” would happen so quickly, because it began while I was still finishing “Weeds.” I had two writers’ rooms going. I don’t know if I got to actually mourn the ending of one era and celebrate the beginning of a new one because I was so crazed at the time. But I didn’t want to be left with nothing. I’m not good idle necessarily and I wanted to get the next thing going.

Miranda Penn Turin for Variety
 

It’s hard to get a show going, but it’s equally hard to sustain a show as well.

“Orange” is a perpetual motion machine because you can keep bringing people in and kicking people out and prison is very fluid, although we fall in love with people and we don’t want to lose them so we’ve got to figure out ways to extend their sentences. But “Orange” is a machine that can keep going, thankfully, and we built it that way.

So you’re not one of those showrunners who has an end date in mind?

Not particularly. It could end tomorrow or it could end ten years from now. I don’t look at it too far ahead, I try to focus on what’s in front of me because who knows what the future holds. Things change very quickly.

How has Netflix compared with other experiences you’ve had?

Toward the end, Showtime was great once all the kinks were worked out, and (“Weeds” was) a hit. I certainly didn’t want to give that up, and thankfully, I didn’t have to when I transitioned to Net­flix. Other experiences have been … other experiences. (Laughs)

What do you think makes for a good showrunner?
Someone who wants to go home certainly helps. Someone who’s willing to change his or her mind and be convinced and swayed. Someone who’s not set with an agenda. In our room, the best idea wins, and it’s not necessarily my idea all the time. Every show has its own culture, but you just hope for a “no asshole” policy across the board. It’s a position of power, and you hope that people don’t abuse the power. I’ve worked for people who’ve abused their power, and I try not to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

What’s the hardest part of the job?
You have decision fatigue sometimes. You’re the final say on everything, so it all comes down to you in the end, and you’re to blame for everything. And there are a lot of people’s egos and jobs and feelings and work on the line, and it’s a delicate balance. It never reaches a point where you can go on autopilot, because there’s always another script to write, and there’s always another show to edit, and there are always production issues that come up.

But do you ever sit back and let yourself enjoy it?
I’m proud of what we do, and I love the people I work with. When it’s going well, it’s sublime. When you feel like you’re moving the cultural needle a little bit, it’s exciting. And when you discover talented people and it shines, it’s really, really gratifying.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a bunch of stuff, because there’s always that fear that I’ll disappear. I have a project with HBO and another project with Netflix and two projects I’m shepherding for some of my writers and then some little secret pet projects… I’m a whore, I’ll work for anyone who’ll pay me and give me freedom and get my stuff out there.

Is that what matters most to you? The creative freedom?

The freedom and the access to the public. And the money. (Laughs.)

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