When you were in high school, where did you imagine you’d be in ten years? Whom did you imagine you’d be? This fall, writer Noah Hawley brings us nine characters confronting these questions in his new drama My Generation. The documentary-style show is poised to debut in the cushy lead-in spot to Grey’s Anatomy Thursdays on ABC. Hawley took a moment from his hectic schedule as showrunner to share his experience getting the production off the ground.
SCRIPT: You started out as a novelist. How did that help you transfer into screenwriting?
Noah Hawley: When I write a novel, I don’t outline because a lot of the action and the decision-making process of the characters is about exploring how they interact with each other in these moments, and that… reveals their journey. In a screenplay you need to know why you’re writing a scene and what it’s going to lead to. Everything is sort of building to a finale in a way. A novel is not that animal. So what I felt like I was able to bring to screenwriting first with features and then getting into TV is just totally character-centric [writing].
SCRIPT: My Generation is definitely a character-driven show.
NH: It’s certainly the most like novel writing of any screenwriting I’ve ever done. And then we have this documentary device, we have these two time periods… Really for me this series is a lot like jazz – you take this through line, this melody line, and you’re just improvising around it. It’s still recognizable as the song, but there’s a lot of freedom to improvise in there.
SCRIPT: Do the actors do a lot of improvising on set?
NH: I mean more from a structural, writing standpoint. On most dramas you would have these straightforward scenes where your plot is unfolding and your characters are talking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. On our show there’s no real exposition required… My filmmaker character goes out and tracks down the story in a narrated documentary that shows you exactly what happened. There’s a lot more room for just watching people, for studying how they don’t answer a question or how they interact with each other when they have a secret… So it becomes a lot more about writing to that than it is about writing the great monologue for the actor to do.
SCRIPT: You have characters located from Austin to Washington to Afghanistan. How do you plan to keep the show centered when it’s so spread out?
NH: I think one of the really fun parts of the show is that we have characters spread out all over the world. I’m in no hurry to bring them back to where they’re from. But since we’re able to put them in a room together in every episode – even though it was ten years ago – you’re still feeling like all these people are really connected… Most TV shows you basically have to say, “Okay, my show takes place in this town, and all my characters live here and they all either work together or we’ve invented a reason for them to be on these same sets and stages,” and it becomes very insular.
SCRIPT: You tweeted that the network liked the story arcs that you presented to them. Was that a relief?
NH: Yeah, we sort of had nine days in the writers’ room to do a lot of preliminary work, to figure out the character arcs for the twelve episodes that were ordered, and then we pitched them to the network. These were stories I’ve been thinking about for a while, so we weren’t starting from scratch. The show is actually inspired by a Swedish half-hour, On God’s Highway. It was really funny but also really poignant because once you introduce the sense of nostalgia combined with the idea that people don’t always end up where they think they’re going to end up. Then I thought, “What justifies it being an hour?” and I came up with the investigative documentary approach. And so [we have] the filmmaker as a voice, and we say, “We’re gonna solve these character mysteries every week.”
SCRIPT: Can you briefly walk me through the process of what happens when you pitch a pilot? For example, do you go ahead and outline a first season?
NH: Well what happens is you basically go in and say “Here’s the world of the show, here are the characters, here’s my idea of what would happen in the pilot episode, and here are some places I would go with a series.”
SCRIPT: How long did it take you to write the pilot?
NH: Pilot-buying season for the networks runs from July through September. Somewhere around last August I went in with this idea and they commissioned it and I wrote it in October and November, final draft in December. Then they greenlight it and you go into production.
SCRIPT: Can you make changes during production?
NH: You get a lot of ideas for things that you could do – techniques or devices to use. And as you finish [production], the executives want a series document from you, which is basically 5 or 6 pages that say, “Here are some of my ideas for characters in the first season and what I would do with them.” The network uses that as part of their evaluation process. And if they like the pilot and they like what you write then they pick the show up. Then you hire writers and work on your overview of however many episodes are ordered.
SCRIPT: What did you look for when hiring writers?
NH: Most of all, as I was staffing up I was looking for character writers, and honestly I was attracted to writers who had written outside of TV as well as worked on other staffs. I didn’t want the institutional thinking that can come from being a lifer in TV.
SCRIPT: Is there anything you learned from the experience with your last show, The Unusuals, that helped this time around?
NH: I like to say I couldn’t have pulled this off if I hadn’t run my own show before. On this show we’re telling stories from these angles that are unavailable to most straight-ahead dramas. You need to be able to do it straight in order to do it crooked, you know what I mean? And The Unusuals was not a straight show. I had a great cast and I wish that show had run a hundred years, but what’s nice about this is I don’t have to solve crimes every week, and I can really just dive into these intricate character stories.
SCRIPT: We’re interested to see where the stories go! Best of luck with the new show.
NH: Thank you.
Follow Noah Hawley on Twitter.