If you had asked the average American, 25 years ago, what a television showrunner was, odds are the answer would be something like “the person who takes messages to the people on each show.” Television was just something that appeared on television and the people who made it — if you weren’t an actor — were invisible. Just names on a screen, making you wait a few seconds longer for the show you wanted to watch.
Then came the internet, which was first the domain of people who watched all those names in the credits for shows like Star Trek, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and TV executive producers like Gene Roddenberry, Chris Carter, and Joss Whedon became household names. Viewers began to understand the concept of the showrunner: the writer whose vision is what drives any television show, the person who vets all the scripts, makes all the decisions (in conjunction with the corporations who cut the checks) and accepts the Emmy.
Today, we live in a landscape where not only do TV fans know who runs their favorite shows, but those executive producers have become their own brands. J.J. Abrams will give you one kind of show, Shonda Rhimes will give you another, Vince Gilligan will give you another still.
But what those executive producers do on a daily basis is still somewhat mysterious, which is why Irish filmmakers Des Doyle and Ryan Patrick McGuffey set out to make the documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, currently in select theaters and on VOD. And they got people like Whedon, Abrams, Hart Hanson (Bones), Damon Lindelof (Lost), Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Robert and Michelle King (The Good Wife) and others to pull back the veil.
Of all the disciplines in show business, why did you guys decide to make a documentary on television showrunners?
Des Doyle, writer-director: I’ve been fascinated with American television my whole life. I’ve grown up watching reruns of all the classic shows from Star Trek to Galactica to Knight Rider to The A-Team and those shows for me were always inherently more interesting. Production values, budget, imagination, beautiful people, sunlight — which we don’t get a lot of in Ireland — all those things were great to see. I’ve always had an interest in making stuff myself and in the people who make stuff. Ron Moore, when we interviewed him, he said to me when he was a kid watching classic Star Trek, he used to write letters to Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, not the actors. Because he wanted to know what the guys who were writing the show were really thinking.
I was always interested in the people making the shows. But there wasn’t a lot of information. The rise of the internet has been very much tied to the rise of the showrunner, in that there’s more access and stuff, but still there are a lot of people who seem very confused about the job. I was looking around for the doc to explain to me exactly what the showrunner really does and I couldn’t find it. So we had to make one.
When was the first time that you realized that someone made television?
Ryan Patrick McGuffey, co-producer: I was 12. The X-Files. Chris Carter’s name came up on the screen. Then the next season the names changed in the opening title sequence and I was like, wait, something’s… Where is this person? Okay James Wong’s there, right, okay, we’re good. But that was the show that really, like, drove it home to me that someone made this. Somebody sat down and painstakingly crafted these characters and created a story over many many years and had a cohesive vision. I started writing around that time and I realized how difficult it was.
Des: I think for me it was like those classic production logo stings that used to come up, Stephen J. Cannell with the typewriter, Bellisarius, and even David Kelley. Even now, thinking of the Stephen J. Cannell thing, it’s evocative of a certain era of television. It’s beautiful to look back on.
In talking to all the showrunners, was there one unifying theme that bubbled up?
Des: The main thing they all had is trying to drive their own vision for a show. I think to really succeed at being a showrunner you need to have a singular vision and you need to communicate it really, really well. The harder part for a lot of people I think comes in, and especially if you’re a writer who has come to be a showrunner for the first time, is everything else that is thrown at you. The chaos can be very difficult to manage. You are suddenly dealing with a ton of stuff you’ve never had to deal with before. Budget meetings, editing, casting. Before, all you had to worry about was the particular script or story session you were working on or whatever. So that drive, and the ability to do the job, and some people do it better than others.
Who was the hardest showrunner to land?
Ryan: J.J. Abrams, simply for the time it took for him to be available and to clear it with all of the powers that be. He’s a very busy guy and it turns out he was worth it. He was one of the nicest, kindest, most genial and candid interviews we’ve ever had. We’ve seen him since a couple of times, most recently in London, and he asked how things were going with the documentary. Amidst shooting Star Wars. He remembered your name and this thing you did about a year and a half ago and ask you how it’s going and offer his support.
Des: We did have a nice bonding moment with JJ over H.R. Puffnstuff. I was over at Bad Robot once for a meeting. You know the foyer where they have all the props and memorabilia and stuff? They have an H.R. Puffnstuff board game in there that is signed by the two guys that created the show. Just because that happened to be the one thing that I pulled out to have a look at and suddenly his head was over my shoulder and he was like, “H.R. Puffnstuff, cool!”
And who was your white whale? Who was the showrunner you weren’t able to land that you desperately wanted?
Des: Shonda Rhimes, for me. I would have loved. Ryan: Vince Gilligan for me. Vince agreed to do it but we just couldn’t make the days work. Shonda’s notoriously camera shy. She doesn’t enjoy it. I think she prefers just, you know, to do the job and not be out in front of it, which I really respect immensely. But we wanted her to take part.
Des: Yeah, she’s the most successful female showrunner of all time. She is singlehandedly keeping ABC afloat at the moment. So that is a loss.
Playboy’s Lucky 7 Questions
What was your first exposure to Playboy? Ryan: My first exposure? Dad’s bottom drawer. Yeah. Des: I think it was a copy being passed around in school. It was like a hidden treasure that everybody tried to get a peek at somewhere along the way, passed around at school.
Do you remember your first Playmate?
Des: I remember, Lynda Carter, the Wonder Woman from the 70s — was she in it? Ryan: I remember being very excited about someone named Miss September. But I couldn’t tell you what year. I remember when Denise Crosby did it, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. That is a really bizarre memory. A strange intersection of television and Playboy.
What movie scared you the most as a kid? Des: The Exorcist. The first time I saw that, I think I was about nine or 10. I was terrified. Couldn’t sleep for days after watching that film. Horrible. Especially being raised in a very Roman Catholic country, that whole concept of the devil and possession and stuff was just freaky. Ryan: I would watch, it through a hole in my blanket, the television show called Tales From the Dark Side. There was one episode where there was a diet that came in a box in the post and you put on glasses. You put the glasses on and you can’t take them off, they become stuck to your face, and then the glasses make you see food and the food starts talking to you so you can’t eat. So by the end of it the woman who was doing the diet had sewed her mouth shut. It was freaky. I was eight years old. It was terrifying.
Des: Do you remember the television adaptation of Salem’s Lot where the kid floats up to the window and starts scratching at the window? That freaked the hell out of me.
Ryan: Was that the one with the giant rat in the basement?
Des: No, it’s the one where James Mason brings the coffin to the town.
What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
Des: I haven’t read any of the Hunger Games books.
Ryan: Harry Potter. I haven’t read it or seen any of the films. And I have a four-year-old. I take that back. I saw half, I saw part of Deathly Hallows. I saw half of one film.
If, heaven forbid, you’re on death row, what’s your last meal?
Des: Chili cheese fries. I’m addicted to chili cheese fries. Ryan: Breakfast. I want breakfast. I love breakfast. Waffles and eggs and toast and jam and tea, eggs benedict, eggs florentine, fruit. Breakfast is my favorite. That is what I would have. Unlimited breakfast so I would never die, I would just eat slowly enough… I have a fondness for mimosas. Brunch.
What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
Ryan: “Where the Streets have no Name.”
Des: “Crime in the Name of Love.”
Ryan: Yeah. U2 Songs. Irish nerds. Sorry. I’ll change my answer to Guns ‘n Roses.
What was your first car?
Ryan: Jaguar XJ-6 hard top convertible sedan. 1977. I was born in ‘75. It was beat up to shit and I restored it. I bought it when I was 16 years old with all the money I’d saved working at a hardware store and it was my baby. Her name was Maryanne. It went for a thousand bucks, didn’t even run when I bought it. I was just obsessed with the thing when I saw it and I bought it. I spent loads of money trying to get it on the road.
How much did you sell it for?
Ryan: I didn’t. The engine blew up. I was on the freeway and the engine overheated. Apparently you’ve got to put water in these things.
What’s the biggest lie you ever told?
Des: I think I did pretend to like the music of a certain female pop star because we were looking for an opportunity to film with her on an occasion, when in fact I just couldn’t stand it. That ended up being a horrible experience because she actually did think we really loved it so she was playing it all the time while we were filming. It drove me insane.
Would I know the pop star?
Des: Yes, you would. She’s particularly well known as a diva.
Ryan: I do remember in secondary school there was a homework assignment, it was like an essay or short answers. And instead of doing the work I just wrote a bunch of dirty stuff with like a purple pen and turned it in. I blamed it on this other kid. It was so painfully obvious: Not only do I own this pen, it is in my handwriting and all the teacher has to do is compare it to my other work. I’m sitting in the principal’s office like, “I don’t know anything about this.” I didn’t run track that year. I was taken off the team. Not for what I did, but for lying about it. That was probably the most blatantly brazen lie.