Ilene Chaiken began her profession as a movie screenwriter and TV government earlier than writing the Showtime TV film Soiled Footage, which gained a Golden Globe in 2001. She had by no means written a collection, however had an concept for a present about lesbians in Hollywood and pitched it to Showtime. The L Phrase, a cultural trailblazer, depicted the lives and loves of homosexual ladies. Chaiken has continued to champion underrepresented and marginalized communities in her work. She was showrunner on the primary few seasons of Empire, she wrote the primary script for The Handmaid’s Story and was instrumental to the return of The L Phrase. Whereas crafting entertaining exhibits, Chaiken all the time weaves into storylines causes that she believes in passionately, similar to gender equality and variety.
WS: What did you study staffing the writers’ room for The L Phrase?
CHAIKEN: I discovered a lot. I knew nothing once we started. I didn’t know what it was going to be wish to work with different writers. I used to be horrified by the prospect. There’s a lot to say about this, however I used to be suggested [that I didn’t] want to rent lesbians to put in writing this present, I simply wanted skilled writers—some straight guys, some homosexual guys and a bit of every thing. I did [that] as a result of I needed to be an excellent group participant. What I came upon from the primary season of the present was that the one ones who might actually write this present have been lesbians. It turned much less true as time went on, however it turned a lesson that I might carry with me ceaselessly, which is that if you’re telling tales a few marginalized group of individuals, whose lives have by no means been portrayed, the individuals who ought to inform their tales are individuals who have lived that have.
WS: In The L Phrase, you have been telling tales based mostly in your experiences. What was it like having different writers inform your tales?
CHAIKEN: At first I assumed, I’m not going to have the ability to do that; I don’t need anyone else writing my present. However I in a short time discovered what an incredible expertise a writers’ room is and the way that collective artistic effort yields one thing higher than the sum of its elements. I beloved working with different writers. I wasn’t telling only one story, notably on The L Phrase. I used to be representing a group of individuals. And people different writers who have been my collaborators had a lot to supply, they usually knew issues that I didn’t know.
WS: I perceive you initially turned down engaged on Empire. What lastly satisfied you to be its showrunner?
CHAIKEN: I turned down the chance or the proposition of engaged on Empire. As soon as I noticed the pilot, there was no query in my thoughts. However I turned it down as a result of I had labored on a few different individuals’s exhibits [as a showrunner]which was gratifying and flattering, however I needed to return to doing my very own work. I needed to create my very own present. I had simply written The Handmaid’s Story, and I used to be nonetheless ready to listen to if Showtime was going to agree to purchase it. I had stated to my brokers, I don’t need to take a job, I need to hold working alone stuff. They usually stated, Nice, however would you simply take a look at this? There have been a few different exhibits that I had to take a look at too. I dismissed them, they usually weren’t of curiosity to me, however the Empire script was written by Danny Robust and Lee Daniels—very fascinating filmmakers—and I stated, OK, I’ll learn it, however I’m not going to do it. I learn it, and I stated, That is good, however I’m nonetheless not going to do it. After which they stated, OK, however they only shot the pilot, they usually need you to see it. I stated, Positive I’ll see it, however I’m not going to do it. [Laughs] I went over to Fox, and since the whole lot is prime secret at that time and no one’s allowed to see something, they lock you in a bit darkish room all by your self, which is the worst approach to take a look at something. Someone is available in and presses the button after which goes out of the room and also you’re in there watching it by your self. I watched the pilot of Empire and because the lights got here up, I used to be on the telephone to my agent saying, I’ve received to do that.
WS: In The L Phrase, you have been telling tales based mostly on firsthand experiences. In Empire, you have been initially telling Lee Daniels’ tales. How did you adapt to that?
CHAIKEN: Not solely was I telling Lee Daniels’ tales however I used to be telling the tales of a group of people that weren’t me and whose expertise I didn’t know. Empire was telling the story of an African-American household and it was clearly not my story. It was my duty to know the tales that Lee and Danny Robust needed to inform and to assemble a employees of writers whose tales they have been and assist them to inform these tales. Which isn’t to say I didn’t play a task in deciding what these tales have been and writing the tales, nevertheless it was a task that began with my listening and deferring to individuals whose tales these have been.
WS: Your exhibits are entertaining but in addition tackle critical social points. How do you stroll that line—entertaining and informing or elevating consciousness?
CHAIKEN: I don’t assume they’re antithetical to at least one one other. The latter feeds the previous. When your exhibits are about one thing that you simply care passionately about, that’s what supplies the power, the drive for telling these tales. I select my tasks, firstly, based mostly on their being about one thing I care deeply about. So, it’s a provided that these themes are going to be interwoven in my tales. I’m unabashed about telling tales that mirror these themes. I don’t assume that it precludes their being entertaining. My sensibility occurs to be to bend towards the loud and the flamboyant every so often.
WS: You developed and wrote a script for The Handmaid’s Story for Showtime. How did it then discover its strategy to Hulu?
CHAIKEN: I used to be ready for Showtime to determine whether or not or not they have been going to go ahead with it. There have been all types of promising indications. They liked it; they stated, We’re in all probability going to make it. However they work on their very own schedule. I couldn’t simply sit round doing nothing, so Empire got here alongside and I took it. I used to be in the midst of the primary season of Empire when Showtime determined that they weren’t going to go ahead with The Handmaid’s Story for no matter purpose. I signed an unique general cope with Fox whereas I used to be doing Empire and a few months after that, the studio, MGM, for whom I had finished The Handmaid’s Story, took it out to the marketplace. The president of MGM referred to as me and stated, Hey, nice information, we simply introduced your script to Hulu they usually ordered it straight to collection, ten episodes. I stated, Wow, that’s nice information, however I can’t do it. [Laughs] It’s that double-line, it’s a blessing and a curse. However I used to be thrilled nonetheless and I stated, Discover a new showrunner. It’ll all the time be mine; it’s near my coronary heart. I had tried for ten years to make that present.
WS: For lots of girls, The L Phrase was the primary time they noticed ladies like themselves portrayed on tv. What response did you get on the time?
CHAIKEN: The primary response was [one] of people that have by no means seen themselves represented and eventually are seeing characters who appear and feel and behave like them on tv. It’s simply pleasure. It’s affirming, and we see that in numerous contexts over the course of the evolution of leisure tradition. Up till that second, I watched exhibits about straight individuals and pretended that they have been homosexual or pretended that I used to be straight or tried to transpose expertise. I do know what that’s like and I perceive what it was like for all homosexual individuals who have been lastly seeing different homosexual individuals on tv. There was additionally the opposite response which was, nicely that’s not me; I don’t see myself. I’m a special lesbian or the place’s my character. There’s lots of that, and it’s actually fascinating. And nonetheless, I take pleasure in it; I welcome it. It’s fascinating and difficult. It additionally goes to the purpose that we’re not a monolithic group.
WS: The L Phrase is coming again. Inform us about that.
CHAIKEN: After Showtime made the horrible mistake of passing on The Handmaid’s Story [laughs]I remained very shut with a few of my colleagues from The L Phrase, notably three of the actors: Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig and Leisha Hailey, who’re my pricey associates and we get collectively typically. They began lobbying me about 5 years in the past, saying we actually ought to deliver the present again, however I used to be sort of busy on the time. I didn’t assume it was the correct time and I didn’t need to say no to them—I by no means might—and I stated, Positive, yeah, let’s do this, I’ll speak to Showtime about it. I stored placing it off and placing it off, they usually by no means let up. They have been relentless, to their credit score. Then there got here this second once I thought it was time and I referred to as my pal at Showtime, Gary Levine. He had been the chief on the unique L Phrase. He’s now [co-president of entertainment at Showtime Networks]. I referred to as him up at some point, and he stated, You’re calling me to inform me we should always’ve purchased The Handmaid’s Story! [Laughs] I stated, You need to have, clearly, however no, I’m calling to ask you what you consider the thought of rebooting The L Phrase. And he stated, However you possibly can’t do this, you’re in an unique general cope with Fox. I stated, Yeah, I do know, however I don’t assume I must be the one to do it. I feel some younger lesbian who additionally occurs to be a gifted tv author ought to do it—any person who has some new tales to inform, who is aware of how the world has modified in ten years, who’s going to deliver The L Phrase again for a brand new era of viewers. I feel we should always proceed telling the tales of a few of the unique characters, however they’re older too, so create some younger characters, put all of them collectively, and let’s see if that’s fascinating. About three days later, I used to be in Chicago producing an episode of Empire, and he referred to as me and stated, I feel we’re going to do that. It by no means occurs on this enterprise that anyone comes to a decision like that [quickly]. We discovered that hypothetical person who we had talked about, a brand new younger author, Marja-Lewis Ryan. She’s extremely gifted. She wrote a wonderful script, and Showtime goes ahead with the present and once more they ordered it straight to collection.
WS: With Empire and with The L Phrase, you advised tales about teams of people who find themselves marginalized and underrepresented on tv. Why is it essential to supply these exhibits to audiences?
CHAIKEN: They’re essential to place on the market to audiences as a result of they actually do have an effect on the earth. Telling tales modifications tradition, modifications lives, modifications the best way one particular person feels about her or himself, modifications the best way that the remainder of the world understands particular person experiences. I additionally assume that the viewers is altering in actually vital methods. It’s rather more refined and far hungrier for brand spanking new tales. In some methods, the audiences have modified quicker and turn out to be extra refined than the programmers. We don’t want to inform a narrative that’s been informed earlier than in the identical method that it’s been advised earlier than. We don’t need to repeat the identical formulation. For years, tv did that, and did it very efficiently; this labored, now we’ll do one other model of this. You have been both doing comedy or a [medical] present, a cop present or a criminal offense present. Each present needed to fall into a type of classes. Now, when you fall into an previous class, you don’t have anything particular to supply, no one’s coming. I sincerely consider that what tv does greatest and what’s wanted and needed from us is to see one thing we haven’t seen earlier than, however that makes us really feel related to at least one one other.
WS: What recommendation do you might have for an aspiring younger author who needs to get into the enterprise immediately?
CHAIKEN: I’ve two items of recommendation. There’s in all probability far more to say, however the first is to put in writing, to review craft, and by no means cease writing and by no means cease getting higher. Craft is vital. It’s every little thing to study from those that’ve finished it and from learning. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours concept is one thing that I actually consider in as a result of I’ve skilled it personally. Twenty years in the past, I assumed I used to be nice! [Laughs] And I now understand how a lot I didn’t know and it’s tangible, it’s palpable how a lot better I discover myself turning into as a author from doing it and doing it and doing it. The opposite factor that I feel is much more necessary and perhaps much less recognized is to put in writing with a passionate agenda. Write concerning the belongings you care about and let the issues that you simply care about seep into your writing. I name it writing with an agenda. I do know that individuals are informed to not have an agenda, to not be political, to not advocate for something in your writing, be impartial. I don’t consider that. I feel that’s nonsense.