Writer and executive producer Ilene Chaiken sat down for a keynote interview at MIPTV with World Screen’s Anna Carugati, discussing her journey in Hollywood and her commitment to championing diversity in front of and behind the camera.
Chaiken has a long list of credits, including The L Word, Empire and The Handmaid’s Tale. After going to art school, Chaiken realized she wanted to be a filmmaker and moved to Hollywood, where she served as an entertainment executive for a decade before she “finally busted out and wrote a screenplay.”
The move to television “was an accident,” she said. “After being an executive, I had been a movie writer for ten years. I had written a movie for Showtime, my first foray into television. I wasn’t looking to be in television per se. I wasn’t looking to work on a series. I had literally never been in a writers’ room. But I had an idea to write a show about lesbians in Hollywood. I whimsically and not seriously pitched it to Showtime, in a very half-assed way! They received it the way I pitched it. ‘That will never happen!’”
The film she wrote for Showtime, Dirty Pictures, won a Golden Globe in 2000. At the awards show, before the film won, “the president of the network, who had recently programmed Queer as Folk, walked up to me and said, ‘I heard about that lesbian idea, I think we’re going to try it.’”
Chaiken had no experience in setting up a writers’ room. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like working with other writers. I was horrified at the prospect. I was advised, you don’t need to hire lesbians to write this show, you just need to hire good writers. So I should hire some straight guys and some gay guys, a little of everything. So I did because I wanted to be a good team player. And what I found out in the first season was that the only ones who could really write this show were lesbians. It became less true as time when on, but it became a lesson I would carry with me forever: When you’re telling stories about a marginalized group of people whose lives have never been portrayed, the people who should tell those stories are people who have lived that experience.”
Chaiken said that initially, she was reluctant to have other writers tell her story. “I very quickly learned what a great thing a writer’s room is. That collective creative effort yields something greater than the sum of its parts. I loved working with other writers. I wasn’t telling just one story. It wasn’t just my story. I was representing a community of people. Those other writers, my collaborators, had so much to offer and knew things that I didn’t know.”
On the role of the showrunner, Chaiken said, “It’s a mysterious job. Even outside of the American television industry, most people don’t know what it is. It’s changed a bit in the last couple of years. There are star showrunners now who have become so famous that people actually know the job exists. It’s a job that still starts with the writing. There’s no showrunner that isn’t first and foremost a writer. The biggest responsibility is telling those stories, breaking the stories, writing the stories, staffing the room, plotting the course of a season of television. But beyond that, the showrunner is responsible for overseeing a vast organization, for hiring or signing off on every department head, for choosing the directors, for casting, and that’s just the making of the show. Then she—or sometimes he!—also interfaces with the studio, publicity, marketing. It has a lot of executive functions that tie into the creative functions.”
When Chaiken was asked to be Empire’s showrunner, she declined, more than once—until she saw the pilot of the Lee Daniels and Danny Strong creation for FOX. “Not only was I telling Lee Daniels’ stories but I was telling the stories of a community of people who were not me and whose experience I didn’t know. Empire was telling the story of an African American family and it was clearly not my story. It was my responsibility to understand the stories that Lee and Danny wanted to tell and to assemble a staff of writers whose stories they were and help them tell those stories. That’s not to say I didn’t play a role in deciding what the stories were and writing the stories, but it was a role that started with me listening and deferring to people whose stories these were.”
The learnings from The L Word were key to her work on Empire. “I wouldn’t have known as early as I knew that this was not going to be my story to tell, that largely my responsibility was going to be to staff the room with a diverse, talented group of African American writers and to listen and take their lead as they told me what the stories were.”
On writing stories that incorporate pressing social issues, Chaiken said, “When your shows are about something that you care passionately about, that provides the energy, the drive, for telling those stories. I choose my projects based on them being about something that I care deeply about. I’m unabashedly about telling stories that reflect those themes. I don’t think that precludes them from being entertaining. My sensitivity happens to bend towards the loud and flamboyant from time to time!”
Chaiken went on to discuss the “sophomore slump, especially when you have a hit show. Everybody is waiting for you to fail after you’ve had such a big success! The shows are the hardest to keep going are the ones that I love doing the most. It’s serialized drama—you have to continue to invent and find something new to talk about.”
She then discussed The Handmaid’s Tale, which she had developed for Showtime, which ultimately passed on the project. By the time MGM had landed a straight-to-series order from Hulu, Chaiken had clinched an exclusive deal at Twentieth Century Fox.
On getting shows with LGBTQ characters front and center greenlit today, Chaiken said, “It’s easier, but it’s sure not easy. There’s still an uphill battle and a long way to go. A lot of stories haven’t been told.”
On the broader issue of diversity in Hollywood, both on screen and behind the scenes, Chaiken noted, “The statistics are still grim for women and people of color behind the cameras, in front of the cameras and getting stories told. It’s still a predominantly white male world, and there’s still a scarcity of stories of marginalized populations being told.”
The L Word is returning to Showtime this year with the original cast members as well as new characters. In her pitch to Showtime about the reboot, Chaiken said, “I don’t think I should do it. I think some young lesbian who also happens to be a gifted television writer should do it. Somebody who has new stories to tell, who knows how the world has changed in ten years and is going to bring it back for a new generation of viewers.” Marja-Lewis Ryan has been tapped as showrunner.
In this on-demand, streaming world, Chaiken said it has become “much harder to sustain the excitement. It’s the world of short attention spans; people move on. We’ve got to keep striving to be relevant, to say something that people need to hear and see. It challenges us to set the bar higher for ourselves.”
Chaiken went on to discuss the importance of storytelling that pushes boundaries. These shows “do have an impact on the world. Telling stories changes culture. Telling stories changes lives, changes the way one individual feels about herself or himself and changes the way the rest of the world understands an individual’s experience. I also think that the audience has changed in significant ways. They are much more sophisticated and hungrier for new stories. In some ways, the audiences have changed faster than the programmers. What television does best and what is needed and wanted is to see something we haven’t seen before but makes us feel connected to one another.”
On her advice to aspiring writers, in addition to honing their craft and learning from others, Chaiken said, “Write with a passionate agenda. Write about things you care about and let the things you care about seep into your writing. I call it writing with an agenda. I don’t want to be neutral and just entertain. That’s nonsense.”