Dahvi Waller says she felt like she was rolling a massive boulder up a hill when she started her research for the FX on Hulu limited series “Mrs. America.”
She had to figure out how she was going to tell the politically, racially and socially complex story of the Equal Rights Amendment and the women who fought both for and against it — over almost a decade.
And Waller was far from the only writer who had to contend with this problem, as a large chunk of the season’s biggest limited series and TV movies, including Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice,” Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” and Lifetime’s “Patsy & Loretta,” set their stories over lengthy time frames and involved many real-life figures.
Waller says she sat in a room with a research assistant for two whole years before she felt even remotely comfortable tackling “Mrs. America.” However, when she opened up her writers’ room, she found the task of parsing through the dates, characters and themes became easier.
“It was such a challenge to not only compress nine years down to nine episodes,” Waller says. “Ultimately you can’t be comprehensive, you can’t cover it all. We had to choose specific stories we wanted to tell which spoke to the larger issue through personal narrative. We discovered that telling one-hour personal stories from one character’s point of view was the way to tackle a topic of such immense breadth.”
The showrunner says she used the historical timeline of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment as the spine of the series, and then cherry-picked “the most dramatic event” that happened in each year and wove them into the character’s personal stories.
This proved easier for some characters than others. For instance, for 1973, Waller and her team of creatives chose the first debate between a major leader of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and staunch ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), which paired perfectly with Friedan’s personal struggles. Connecting the dots for Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) was a little harder.
“Weaving Shirley’s story into Phyllis’ story was a difficult task because those worlds never intersected: she never spoke about or met Phyllis Schlafly,” Waller says. “So we had to think, if their stories aren’t concretely intersecting in history, how can we thematically have these stories speak to each other so that the episode feels like a thematic whole?”
To bring the lives of iconic country singers Patsy Cline (Megan Hilty) and Loretta Lynn (Jessie Mueller) to the small screen for the “Patsy & Loretta,” Angelina Burnett had to deal with the fact that so much happened in the duo’s lives before they met, let alone became firm friends.
Cline was already a star when the two first encountered each other, and the film begins in 1957 by showing their separate lives with their families, before bringing them together in 1961. Although they only knew each other for a couple years before Cline died in a plane crash, the film used that shorter time-frame to settle on a brisk tempo for the narrative.
Whereas Waller had a nine-year period to contend with for nine episodes and Burnett a four-year time frame for a two-hour movie, Alex Metcalf had to decide which parts of Roger Ailes’ 77-year life to focus on for the seven-episode “The Loudest Voice.”
Metcalf says he always had the end point of Ailes’ downfall and Gretchen Carlson’s part of the story in his mind as the climax, but selecting where to begin took “a lot of back and forth.”
“There were a lot of conversations about flashbacks, a lot of conversations about young Roger, and he had so many interesting pieces of his life, from being a political consultant, to being a Broadway producer, to his early marriages, all of it. Even his youth with his father and mother and the psychological ramifications of all of that were super interesting,” Metcalf says. “Ultimately the decision, which made perfect sense once we got to it, was to mirror the growth of Fox News with Roger, to tell those two stories at the same time.”
The decision to begin with the launch of Fox News led smoothly into the second episode that explored how Ailes’ ideology “took a darker turn” after 9/11, Metcalf notes, and then another jump into the Obama administration felt like a logical next step for Metcalf. “It was obvious to move to the reaction against [President] Obama and Ailes’ movement into, ‘F— Obama, I’m going to get my own president in the White House,’ which ultimately worked with Trump,” he says.
Despite the challenge of condensing tales of such larger-than-life personalities and tales, it also allows writers’ creativity to really shine. Elle Johnson and Janine Sherman Barrois only had four episodes to bring the “epic life” of Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) to the screen for “Self Made,” so they had to laser-in on the themes.
“We had to think about not going all over the place physically. Madam C.J. lived in many different parts of the country, but we had to confine it to one area where we could go back to the same location, while also telling the most dramatic story,” Johnson says. “You realize that if the audience is going to go on the journey, they’re going to forgive you condensing things.”
Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.