David E. Kelley and Dan Fogelman on Actor Collaborations, Twisty Plots and Network Notes

David E Kelley and Dan Fogelman in Conversation
kelley: Maarten de Boer/Contour by Getty Images; fogelman: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

It was a bit of a mutual admiration fest when Variety invited showrunners David E. Kelley (“Big Little Lies”) and Dan Fogelman (“This Is Us”) for a conversation about their creative process. After gushing over each other’s shows, the two producers bonded over dealing with network notes, juggling plot twists and ensemble casts, and why they avoid going to set. And it all ended with them making a date to grab a beer. (We’ll be crashing that party!)

David E. Kelley: Congratulations on your show. It’s awesome.

Dan Fogelman: You as well. Congratulations on all your shows ever.

Kelley: You’re single-handedly returning people’s attention to broadcast. Proof of concept that great stuff and emotional material can be done in that landscape. Good for you.

Fogelman: Oh, God. Oh, that’s very nice. Thank you. You’ve been doing that for a very long time. I’m such an admirer.

Kelley: I didn’t have to compete with cable and all of the other platforms back in the days I was doing it. It was just Walter Cronkite and ABC.

Fogelman: I spec’ed this one, and I honestly think I just wrote it and I had the script and it kept the process from invading a little bit. The people have been very cool that we’ve been working with genuinely.

Kelley: That’s the great thing about doing it that way is then you can show the buyer what it is, and either they get it or they don’t. There’s nothing worse than being on a network that doesn’t quite get it. They’re making it just because, but they’re not necessarily as invested as you want them to be. I’m sure I can imagine Bob Greenblatt reading that and getting it immediately.

Fogelman: Him and Jen [Salke] have been really great, and really smart with how they handled it and positioned it. I honestly think it’s because they were really smart about every decision they made.

Kelley: I don’t envy the fact that you have to do so many of them a year.

Fogelman: Are you enjoying it on the other side of it?

Kelley: Especially the limited series nature of it. Maybe something can exist eight episodes and out. If it goes on beyond that, fine, but in the old days you had to create a franchise to run 100 episodes. So you were almost punished for your success and now being older and more susceptible to getting tired faster, I love these short ones.

David, could you ever see yourself going back into broadcast?

Kelley: Sure. It’s all project-driven for me now so if there was a project that played better on broadcast, yes. I would say that doing 22 is a bit daunting for me. The other thing is the commercial breaks are tough. I know, even the way people watch and the way we watch your show is we just tape it and scroll forward quickly. There is still a little bit of a break even when you have to pick up that remote and fast forward that you’re just not allowed to surrender to it. It becomes a little more interactive and, for me, in writing the last show that I worked on we were down to seven and a half minute acts. I don’t know what you guys are doing there with “This Is Us.” They don’;t seem to be that short, but you were writing in these brief little sprints and it became more difficult with the slower, emotionally building stories to take hold. Having said that, people are doing it. You guys are doing it on “This Is Us,” so I guess that’s a long answer for me saying maybe, but I’m having a good time right now in the HBO world and the like, so who knows.

Dan, what’s your secret for keeping the momentum going over more episodes?

Fogelman: When we started, I had said I really didn’t want to do more than 16 because it really does add up and it is exhausting. Every day, you have either a new script coming in, a new edit coming in, a new cut. It’s an unending stream that never ends. I added two, not for any financial reason — it was more because of the way the storytelling was laying out and you didn’t want to be off the air during certain periods. That kind of added two more in permanence because I’m not going to be able to step back from that now. The act breaks, for us, they’re really hard in finding the commercial breaks. We try to use them to our advantage because we have to shift our storyline so much between stories and sometimes our time periods, and it can be a little jarring to be going from present day to past if the stories aren’t connected, if you’re not going from one character to another, so it’s a nice time to make the switch after you’ve had that even two second DVR fast-forwarding break. So we try to use them to our advantage a little bit. It’s like a palate cleanser before you jump back into the past.

Do you spend time on set?

Kelley: Almost never. I don’t really have anything to add there. If it’s necessary, I will go, although this was a location shoot so I wasn’t even really in the same zip code for most of it. No, I kind of make a good deal with the directors; I’ll write it and you direct it. As long as we’re on the same wavelength and page that seems to work well. We spend a great deal of time before shooting in tone meetings and the like and even in the casting sessions, being meticulous about understanding what the material is and how we plan to interpret it. By the time we get to shooting it, my job is pretty much done, until then I start weighing in on the editorial side.

Fogelman: I rarely go to set either. On set, I like hanging with the crew. I don’t really do anything when there, and I just found that, like David said, I prefer to let good directors and actors interpret the thing and send it back to me in editorial. I just really don’t have the
time to get to set.

Kelley: It feels like playing hooky, kind of.

Fogelman: Yeah, it does. It feels like you’re literally there to eat and be annoying. I’ve directed, and it’s not fun to have somebody in your ear going, “I think you need to get this,” and ultimately it all comes out in the wash because the actors are great, and the directors are strong, and the crew knows what they’re doing. The goal is hopefully getting things as fully functioning as possible without you. The goal of the job I think sometimes is make yourself very dispensable, but that takes a while.

What about your actors? How much do you bring them into your creative process?

Kelley: That depends on the show. Again, when you’re in broadcast and doing that many episodes you just don’t have time to take that many meetings so certainly the door is open if actors have questions or don’t understand the material. The only hard rule that we had in place is “If you have questions and there are adjustments you’d like to see made, let us know early. Don’t bring it up on the day of shooting because you can get behind and turn everything into a big mess if you start doing that.” Most actors on all my shows have been very respectful of that.

Also, there’s great currency in talking to them. James Spader would call me on “Boston Legal” before every single show, and it would be maybe an hour discussion on the phone and they were all good. Every call he made, sometimes it could be, “Oh, not now,” because when you’re up to your a– in alligators, you don’t really feel like redesigning the swamp, but he’s a smart actor and his notes were strong. He knew his character and invariably when I’d hang up the phone I was grateful for the call.

On “Big Little Lies,” the actors, two of them were producers so we very much were in the room and again that went back into pre-production so they were very instrumental in the development of the project, forming their characters and then ultimately bringing them to life. On “Ally McBeal,” Calista Flockhart, I don’t think she had five questions in five years. She was just ferocious about “OK, point me in the direction and I’ll go for it.” She was very brave and she would just charge ahead. The experience is different with each show, but I find it’s almost always the case, actors are very smart, intuitive. They have a tremendous behavioral compass and it would be folly not to listen to them and get their input and reactions to the material and their take on it.

Fogelman: On our show, the actors are pretty easy. Not that actors who have questions are hard, but they’ll ask them occasionally and just drop me a text, and like David said, it’s always really smart, and we make the adjustment happily. We have a pretty loose shooting style and a pretty loose handle on our script supervisor on this particular show so oftentimes I think if a word sits funny in a mouth, the actors have the flexibility to change it. Directors kind of know when it’s an important thing, when they’;re missing a joke or changing a context, but the verbiage, there’s so much dialogue here and we’re shooting it kind of very organically with handheld cameras.

There’s quite a bit of flex just improvisationally on set as well. Even if that improvisation leads us right back to the script and the edit, I think it’s good for us, for this particular group of actors. Then some of our comedic guys especially can really go, guys like Chris Sullivan
or Justin Hartley, and then actors like Sterling [K. Brown] or Milo [Ventimiglia], they’re real text actors, and Mandy [Moore] really kind of hit every word and syllable exactly sometimes. Then I let them improvise the comedy stuff. It’s a pretty low process group here. I’m sure that could change with time.

Both of your shows involve lots of intricate plot twists. How do you tease those out over the course of the season? How do you strike that balance to keep viewers engaged over the course of the show?

Kelley: That was pretty easy because going back to the book, a lot of those twists and turns were there and laid out in an architecture that was easy to adapt. There were a few extra surprises that we added, but it has played out in writing, it’s evident, so it conveniently and
neatly worked out that there was a twist or unexpected zig in each episode. Usually it accomplished two things: it fueled the plot and the suspense of the story line, but also was a mechanism for exploring characters. I give great credit to Liane Moriarty who wrote the book because she gave me a pretty good blueprint.

Fogelman: Just because we’re going so fast — we’re going, I think, 13 episodes without a production break right now so we’re literally just shooting and writing as we go — it requires a real plan made ahead of time I think. We’ll have a line of dialogue in episode two that’s going to play in episode 15 that we’ll be shooting four months from now and we’re not able to get ahead of the script, so it requires at least a really big roadmap. The writers in our writers room are incredibly smart and the big part of their job is figuring out that roadmap in a really interesting way because we can’t figure it out on the page. We have to kind of know where we’re going. We start big picture, and I come in with what the shape is going to be, and then we hone that, and then we start writing and try to hold to our plan. It’s a bit of “If something adjusts in episode three and you love it, it means you might have to adjust those things in episodes nine, 12, and 16.” Time is just not your friend in network television sometimes and it should be.

Dan, what did you learn from the first season that you’re bringing to the second season?

Fogelman: I’m in a foxhole. I’ve got my guys here, two young showrunners with me who have been with me for a long time, and we’ve got an experienced group of writers who I trust. More than anything, you just kind of trust your gut and trust the people you’re doing this with. At a certain point —David certainly has experienced this — the show has become bigger than we imagined it was going to become so now it’s like there’s more talk about it, there’s more things, and you can read more things about it, like what people like or what people don’t like or are worried about or not. We’re trying to just avoid all that and keep our head down and just keep trusting ourselves. Whenever we’ve tried to do something, even if it’s just trying to break a story to serve a different master, that’s when we fail. That’s where we wind up scrapping a scene or scrapping an episode. We’re just trying to kind of just keeping doing our thing. We had a five-season plan when we started and we’re just trying to do that. I think more than anything it’s not letting all the outside influences take over or make you start chasing something else.

David, obviously there’s been lots of conversation about a potential season two of “Big Little Lies.” Have you given any thoughts to what that might look like?

Kelley: Not yet. That’s still in the early stages. No decision has been made whether there will be a year two or not, but the one thing we’re all in agreement of is if we don’t have the storylines and material to justify it, we’re not going to do it. It won’t be a function of commerce. These actors have jobs and projects to work on. If we feel we can measure up to the success or standards that we set for ourselves in year one, we’ll tackle it, but we’re just getting around to addressing that now.

We hear a lot about peak TV, with nearly 500 scripted series on the air. What do you think it takes for a show to stand out?

Kelley: I’m not sure any of us will really be able to answer that question. If you could reduce it to some kind of science, then every show would be a hit. My best guess is that we are guessing and taking our best guess every time we launch a show. For me, I try to gravitate towards material that excites me and just hope there’s a constituency out there to support it. But there’s no question the universe of television has expanded so much that it’s a greater burden. Twenty years ago, if you made a good television show, you had a good chance at success and you’d find it. Today, there are so many good television shows. There’s such great product out there and some of them don’t get discovered because there is so much product. It’s tougher. On the one hand, it’s great for the storyteller because there’s a need for product and with all these different networks and outlets and now streaming devices, there’s a need for good storytelling. As a writer you get excited by that. There’s different avenues to go down. But the daunting or the challenging part of it is, is it is a sea and it’s easy to get lost at sea. When you’re creating your monster or your beast you do have to be mindful that it’s got to be one that attracts attention to itself because you might not get noticed.

Fogelman: I think that’s exactly it. I’ve been getting asked a lot why is the show succeeding because it’s on network right now and how the metrics are measured. Honestly, I have no clue. I remember finishing the pilot and saying, “I think this might be really good. I think this might be one I’m incredibly proud of, and I think people might really like it,” but if you had asked me is the show going to become this thing that it’s become, who the hell knows? I’ve done ones that I thought were going to be ones like that and then they’re critically massacred and fail. I wish we always knew. I’m in the midst of finishing out a film right now that I think might be really special but I’m always prepared for the universe where the reaction is not at all what I expect or hope it’s going to be. I think at this point, there’s so much stuff out there — as David was saying — that you better have a really specific kind of vision for whatever it is you’re trying to say. That’s to even start with a fighting chance with all the material that’s out there. I think something that’s attempting to be a lot of things but doesn’t have a really specific voice or vision. There’s just too many things out there, so it’s just going to get lost. Who knows what’s going to work? But what’s not going to work probably is something that doesn’t have that specific thing to it — whatever that thing might be.

Was there a note you got from the network that was particularly helpful or, on the other side of it, not so helpful?

Fogelman: For me, honestly, their notes were sometimes the ones that weren’t given that you would expect. We had done the pilot for the show, and it tested very well, and they were going to be spending God knows how much money to launch the show in the big way that they did, and I came to them and said, “The second episode is going to jump forward eight years. All the babies that you’ve just met are going to be eight-year-olds. The parents, he’s going to have a mustache and no more facial hair, and their marriage is going to have a rock bottom point for this couple that we’ve kind of fallen in love with in the pilot.” Any other time, I would have expected the network to say, “Don’t, you can’t do that yet. We just got everybody on board here.” They never did the note. They never tried to stop any of that stuff when I’d say, “We’re going to do individualized episodes where six of our eight main characters are not going to be in the episode, and we’re just going to focus on these two characters for one episode.” We did that three times in the first 18 episodes. These were things that aren’t normally done on network TV, certainly not in the first season of a show that’s becoming a priority for them. For NBC and Jen Salke, who I deal with most directly, they always give very smart notes. But sometimes the notes not given are the notes you’d expect are the most helpful to us because they gave us the creative freedom that I think sometimes is normally reserved for cable.

Kelley: Yeah. I would say the note that I most remember is the one that never came, that we expected. HBO, I think, is famous for letting producers make their shows and trying to stay out of filmmakers’ ways if they can. Obviously, there’s a lot of money involved, and sometimes it’s not always the case, but the process was pretty free and liberating for us. I was worried going in because the invitation to the series is, “Come here and have fun,” and of course we get into some very dark and disturbing subject matter. I think we were all braced for the note, “Wait a second here. We didn’t know you were going to go there,” but that never came. HBO was very supportive of the turns we took and the material we endeavored to mine, and it was a pretty great experience from start to finish.