Peter Gould and Sarah Treem have more in common than you might expect. Their freshman dramas — “Better Call Saul,” AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel, and Showtime’s marriage drama “The Affair,” respectively — burst onto screens this season to critical acclaim. And both writer-producers assumed the role of showrunner for the first time. Gould had birthed Saul Goodman back in the “Bad” days along with his fellow “Saul” exec producer Vince Gilligan, while Treem conceived “Affair” alongside Hagai Levi (“In Treatment”). During their hourlong conversation with Variety, Gould and Treem charted lessons learned along the path from script to screen, and discovered even more shared interests: intelligent actors, clever costume designers and the captivating humor of Amy Schumer.
You were both first-time showrunners. What did you learn from the first season?
Sarah Treem: I think I learned more than anything that television really is a team sport, which I knew because I’ve been on other shows. But you don’t have a sense of how many different layers there are all working together until you’re at the top of it and you’re getting all the phone calls. I just have a much greater respect. There’s a creative enterprise for sure, but also being showrunner is a managerial enterprise and that was something that I didn’t know before I did it.
Peter Gould: So much of it is managing other people’s creativity and just hoping that you can get it all into the same direction so that all the visuals and all the sound is all heading up to one thing. So much of it is choosing our collaborators. If you have great people who understand how to work with other people and who like what you’re doing, that’s really what makes it click.
Treem: Now I understand why teams of people move together. It takes a while to even get into that kind of shorthand with somebody and it moves so quickly. You’re so low on sleep and so short on time, but it’s invaluable to have somebody like my costume designer who I actually went to college with.
Gould: That’s fantastic!
Treem: It just so happened that this show worked out for both of us at the same time. She can call me and we can have conversations that last 30 seconds where she knows exactly what I’m trying to say even though I have no language to talk about fashion.
Gould: Much of it is they’re trying to figure how to get into our heads and we’re trying to get into their heads and that’s the art of collaboration. One of the things that we were struggling with at the beginning was Jimmy is not Saul Goodman, so does he look like everybody else or is that the statement that we make? Does he have a suit that’s not a Saul Goodman suit, that doesn’t have the crazy colors, but is still distinctive to this character? (Costume designer) Jennifer (Bryan) had all these ideas about changing the cut and also picking brown, which I think was a good start. She changed the lapels and she added buttons, which we called nipple buttons. Theoretically it seemed almost strange, but then when you see Bob (Odenkirk) wearing it, that’s the character. He’s trying to blend in, but something about him won’t let him fit in with everybody else.
How did your shows evolve from your original concept once you started filming?
Treem: I think a lot of the evolution for us had to do with getting to know our actors, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses and their essences. And then being able to rewrite the scripts and marry the energy that they were bringing with the character. For example, Ruth (Wilson) is very, very strong as a human being. She’s strong and she’s fierce and she’s tough and the character that we started out with was quite weak — very broken, very fragile. So the question for us was how to get that character to the natural strength that Ruth brings because we wanted to utilize it.
Gould: To me that’s the glory of television and especially serialized television, because the key thing is the characters. There are a lot of other elements that are very, very important, but ultimately our show stands and falls on the characters. So it changed once we started seeing the performances. And it wasn’t so much about actors giving us notes or anything that they said to us, but it’s who they are. When we started, our conception of Chuck, as played by Michael McKean, was that he was someone for Jimmy to take care of. The construction of the show was, we wanted to get into Jimmy’s head, we wanted to understand the vulnerability in this character, this character who seemed so invulnerable on “Breaking Bad.” And so we introduced this character, Chuck, who is his older brother and who has this affliction that keeps him inside. What Michael McKean brought to it was not weakness, but strength and also pride.
I remember watching Michael and Bob rehearse their first long barnburner scene, and there was more passion to it, there was more fire in the character than I expected. And when we got back to the writers’ room, we started thinking, “What does Chuck think of Jimmy?” We started seeing Chuck was not completely pro Jimmy, and there was a complexity to the relationship that ended up changing the course of the series.
Sarah, can you point to a specific narrative challenge like that and how you got through it?
Treem: Maura Tierney’s character (in “The Affair”) started off being quite underwritten in the pilot and that was totally my fault. I basically had to beg her to do the part and promise her that it would become more interesting. And she came to me like three or four episodes in and she was like, “Where’s the part?” I was like, “Yeah, I know. We’re getting there.”
We started to realize that this character, who was written to be the classic, good girl, consummate mother/wife, the woman that you should never want to leave, was going to be much more complex. What was really a breakthrough moment for me as a writer is that Maura herself is so likable, as a human being and especially on camera, so that you really can push the character to say some pretty unlikable things and not lose the audience, because that was the fear we really had.
We were adamant in the beginning about not making the spouses be problematic in a way that could justify (the affairs), and this was our learning curve. We thought the spouses had to be these great people because we didn’t want anybody to say, “Oh, they’re getting out of their marriages because their spouses are the problem.” We wanted to tackle this idea that when people have affairs it’s because the marriage itself is so bad.
But the truth is no marriage is perfect, no spouses are perfect and it does have something to do with the spouse. It’s not necessarily the spouse’s fault, but for the Helen character, her life was so curated. It was so important to her that things be a certain way and that they live in a style that her parents lived and that he be a success that he wasn’t. She wasn’t obviously making him miserable, but in a lot of ways she was. Maura got that, actually. She really leaned into it. There was this wonderful moment at the end of the first season where she begs him to come back after he’s ruined everything. It was the kind of scene that we only could have written having known who Maura is and what she can play.
How do you tread the line of keeping the audience on your characters’ side?
Treem: What I figured out was it’s really hard to make a man who leaves his four children likable in any way. I love Noah (Dominic West’s character). I think he is likable, but we got a lot of flak for that character specifically because I don’t think you could point to something that entitled him to behave the way he had. I don’t think we’re trying to make an unlikable character. We were trying to make a character that we felt was somewhat realistic because people do leave their spouses in all sorts of terrible ways, but I think we were surprised by how vehement the response was against that character.
In terms of Alison (Wilson’s character) actually, because she had lost a child, it almost excused for a lot of the audience a lot of her behavior in a way that I also was a little surprised by. It was like it’s almost a blanket, like, “Well she’s just doing it because she’s lost a child,” and I think, “Well, no.” People respond to losing their child in a myriad of ways. That’s definitely part of the pain that she’s trying to escape, but the choice that she’s making is a very specific one.
Gould: This question really goes back to “Breaking Bad,” where our opinion of (Walter White) in the writers’ room never seemed to be the opinion of the audience. Having said that, I think we had a different challenge because we had a character in Saul Goodman who seemed self-contained. He’s comfortable with himself and he’s comfortable with a morality. I think likability is certainly a question, but there’s also empathy. It’s understanding.
Once you get under a character’s skin, if you truly understand what makes someone tick, then you’re more likely to want to watch them even if they’re not necessarily likable per se. But that was one of our challenges from the beginning. For me the answer is always, “I need to know what the character cares about. I need to know what is important to him.” And that was part of the reason why we started with the character of Chuck, but also we have the character of Kim. By understanding that these two people are the people that Jimmy cares about most in life, he’s not self-contained, his heart is open and he can be hurt.
That helped me to understand him. I think we’ve been a little surprised by how likable, I even say lovable, the character of Jimmy McGill turns out to be. It’s changed our view of the show, because we know that at some point in his life he’s going to become Saul Goodman. And that’s starting to feel to us almost like a tragic loss in its own way. Jimmy is human and vulnerable and he’s somebody who I would certainly like to hang out with. I would love to have a drink with Jimmy McGill. Saul Goodman, I would have a drink with, but I’d be very careful of where my wallet was. I wouldn’t want to wear an expensive watch.
Treem: One thing that was interesting about these shows is this idea of trying to create likable characters who would do unlikable things without giving them sort of fatal flaw, like they’re mentally ill or they’re drug addicts. A lot of times in television you see these good guys doing bad things, and it’s because there’s this very specific problem that you can point to. I really wanted to create some female characters who didn’t have a psychosis, who were fully human people who sometimes just behave incredibly selfishly.
Gould: And you succeeded.
I’m not rushing your shows off the air, but the trend lately seems to be showrunners planning an end date. Is that something that you already have in mind?
Gould: I think we have an endpoint. We’ve talked a lot in the writers’ room about where this is going. We have some ideas that I’m very excited about. I think like “Breaking Bad,” our show, I’m sad to say, will not go on forever. We are telling a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Now how long it takes to get to that end is something we all discuss, but on the other hand we also pray and hope and keep our fingers crossed that there’s enough interest that we get the time to finish the story.
Treem: We definitely have an end, too. We think of the show as more of akin to a novel storytelling structure. We think of the episodes as different chapters. We told Showtime where we wanted to end the show. And of course it’s changed and some things have sped up and happened much sooner than we thought they would. The truth is that the end itself has changed.
Gould: You want to give us a hint?
Treem: It’s obvious. I’ve been watching “The Walking Dead,” and I was like, “What we need on the show is zombies! Zombies provide a lot of drama!”
Gould: If you think about the shows that have run for a very, very long time, they tend to be shows with freestanding episodes. I think the audience is very, very smart. They understand in cartoon terms like on “The Flintstones,” you see the same tree going by in the background over and over again. That’s one thing I think we’ve successfully avoided.
Treem: I also wonder in terms of how much content there now is out there if shows are going to get shorter in general. Because I wonder how long that audience has an attention span for, how much time they actually have. My instinct is that the lifespan of a show is going to shrink over the next five or 10 years.
What advice would you offer to upcoming writers and would-be showrunners?
Gould: I think for me the experience of working on “Breaking Bad” was invaluable. I don’t think anything else could have prepared me for running a show as well as working on a show that was as well-run, but also a show in which Vince Gilligan, the showrunner, empowered his writers to act as producers. I know there are situations where writers are kept away from set. The best advice I could give is to try to get a job where you’re going to get to be on set because this is all one thing. It’s filmmaking. There’s no wasted time learning the ropes in any of those areas for a showrunner. I wish like hell I knew more about production design, I wish I knew more about costumes. The most important thing is to have an attitude of being open to learning, of knowing that no matter how much you know, how much experience you have, you are a beginner. The thing that always makes me nervous is when I think I’ve mastered something. It’s so helpful to constantly question the way things are done. It’s really useful to keep a beginner’s mind and to use the talents of the people around you — and to keep the drama in front of the camera, not behind it.
Treem: I’ve talked to some young people who want advice, and they’ll say, “Well, I want to be a showrunner.” I found that really strange because I understand wanting to be a writer, but I think if you go into it thinking you want to be a showrunner, you want to be the boss and you want to have your name on it and you want the credit, then I think you’re skipping over some really essential steps. I think you have to do it for the love of it. You have to just really like to write. Because showrunning, I think, first and foremost is writing. It’s a ton and ton of writing. I think in working on other people’s shows, you learn where your own voice is. When I was on “House of Cards,” there were certain things that I did really well, and there were other things that I never really understood about the tone of the show and the characters of that show that were in Beau (Willimon’s) head. That experience was really valuable for me, because it showed me very clearly where my aesthetic was and sometimes you have to create your own aesthetic in opposition to other people.
Gould: Also, you just have to try to enjoy it. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing for me. That’s something that Bob says to me, “I hope you’re enjoying this. You’re getting pleasure out of this, right?” He sees me wincing and in pain and not able to sleep. It’s a precious experience to get to work with all these people and tell a story.
Treem: When I was shooting the first season, I saw Dominic and Ruth sitting together, so I went over and sat down next to them. I pulled out my iPhone and I was going through emails and sighing. Ruth was like, “You can go sit somewhere else.” It took me a long time to be like, “Hello, this is fun.”
Do you watch any TV shows yourself?
Gould: You really can’t watch a drama after you’ve been working on a drama all day. It’s all comedies. It’s all Amy Schumer, wall-to-wall Amy Schumer in my house.
Treem: I’m a huge “Silicon Valley” fan and “Girls.” Those are my pleasures when I’m shooting because no, definitely you don’t want to watch a drama.
Gould: No. You start taking it apart.
Treem: You start wondering why anybody watches drama.
Gould: Especially if you’re in the editing mode, you start watching things and feeling like you should turn to the editor and suggest a different cut. You start hearing everyone else’s mix and you start to say, “Well, the Foley is a little hot.”
Treem: I didn’t know anything about camera angles, and I suddenly become aware of where the camera was. It ruined television for me for a while actually, because I was like, “Huh, that’s an interesting set up.” You know a show is great when you stop being able to watch for that. Your show is so exquisitely shot I find that I was hyper aware of it. I was like, “Wow, that’s an amazing angle and I can’t believe they pulled back there.” Then after a while the pleasure of watching it took over and I stopped wanting to analyze it.
Gould: Well, that’s the best compliment of all.