Geri Cole: Can we talk a little bit also about how that room functioned in terms of structuring and breaking the season? I’m curious how this differed from your experience in the room for Succession, both of which are so incredible dramas and it’s like how is this the experience in this room different from the experience in that room?
Cord Jefferson: So the first difference is, is that I was only in the Succession room for like six weeks. I was more like a consultant than a full-time writer. I didn’t write a script or anything. So I was there for six weeks, but during that six weeks, we basically broke the season and had very, very loose… So the way that Jesse liked to do it was we got in that room and we just talked every day about what the season would look like and then a very loose break of the season. And then a little bit more detailed break of the episodes. And Jesse very much likes each episode to feel like you’ll be able to say this is the event around which this episode is. So if you look at a Succession episode, it’s like the bachelor party episode, the wedding episode, the boars on the floor episode, right?
Cord Jefferson: The boar hunting episode. He very much likes to structure his episodes around events and what is the event that’s going on in that episode? And so we came up with a loose collection of what the events could be that would structure the season around. And then once we had done that, I left and there was a break. We basically worked for July and then a little bit into August. And then I left in August to go back to Watchmen and the people who stayed, they took off for the month of August. And then Jesse assigned an episode to each writer who was left to go off and do more research on things that could be included in that episode. So it was basically like here’s some books to read for over the month of August. Here’s some articles to read over the month of August to help you flush out what your episode is going to look like ultimately.
Cord Jefferson: Whereas the Watchmen room, the first five months of that room are basically breaking the pilot and world-building. Just like, what are the new rules of this universe going to be? What does the world look like under a Robert Redford presidency for decades? What does Tulsa look like after reparations? What is going on in this world? What does the 7th Cavalry look like? So we spent 20 weeks basically just going over those details and breaking the pilot and some of episode two. And then we broke. They went off and shot the pilot and after they shot the pilot, got it cut together. Then we came back to Watchmen and then really started breaking the season in earnest and really started getting down into the nitty gritty of everything. And Damon really, really likes to do really thorough breaks on episodes, so much so that sometimes he’ll throw in lines of dialogue onto the break.
Cord Jefferson: We’ll just break the episode on the whiteboard in the room and we’ll go scene by scene and just plan out exactly what should happen in that scene, the motivations of the characters in that scene. And then once we have that broken pretty thoroughly, then the writer will go and write his or her first draft. So I wasn’t in the Succession room long enough to tell you exactly how the episode brakes went, but from what I saw, it seemed like the episode breaks were much less detailed than we did in Watchmen. But Succession, I think, to talking to the writers, since the process for Succession, they do a lot of writing onset. It functions more like a comedy show in that way where writers will be onset pitching out jokes and lines in the moment.
Cord Jefferson: People will be like every night, writers will read the sides for the next day and pitch lines and alternative jokes and stuff for the sides for the next day. And then Jesse will go through all of those pitches and punch up the script as he sees fit, if there’s something better. And then he’ll actually bring writers onto set to pitch stuff in the moment.
Geri Cole: Wow.
Cord Jefferson: Whereas Damon never sends writers to set. And he himself is rarely onset because Damon likes the idea of it, what is in the script is what we want to be shot. And so there’s, I think, hardly ever actual line changes on set when it comes to Damon’s shows because he wants the document to be as is.
Geri Cole: Wow. So two very different approaches for both.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. I think so. It makes sense because I think the comedic sensibility of Succession is such that you need to have that comedy mindset going into it. And so you need to have the way that comedy shows have all the writers onset pitching stuff a lot is, I think, helpful for the style of show that the Jesse’s making.
Geri Cole: Those are two very different approaches. Both brilliant dramas. Do you feel like there is any common thread of magic that goes into creating these two brilliant dramas that you want to take with you in your upcoming room?
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. I think that what I love about writing television is that television allows you to be discursive and weird, and it allows you to really dig down into characters and what kinds of people they are and why they do the things that they do. You get to spend these quiet moments with them and see people’s eccentricities and weirdness and oddity that a lot of films don’t let you do, for instance, because films, you have 90 minutes or two hours to wrap this up. So you can’t really spend an hour getting really weird with a character, you know?
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cord Jefferson: And I think that for me, what I loved about both those shows and what I love about a lot of the TV that I watch is that character study element of it. So the way that Succession really gets deep into the psyches of this family and really gets into why they do the things that they do and the struggles in a row season and anxieties that they have that guide them through their familial relationships, I think, is one of the greatest things about that show is just you really get to know these people that you love to hate. I think the same goes for Watchmen, an entire episode looking into the squid trauma of Looking Glass, right? That is just being able to let the story breathe for a little bit and say like, “We’re going to just get into like the 7th Cavalry, what is their plot stuff.”
Cord Jefferson: We’re not leaving that totally to the wayside, but at the same time, a lot of this episode is going to be sped, digging into this really traumatic incident and how it affected this one man’s life very deeply and it has for decades now. So I think that for me, that’s the TV that I love to watch is it gets away from we need to only be focused on the plot and the narrative engine that’s thrusting this forward. And we can take our time and actually have fun with these characters and really dig deep into their brains for a little bit. That’s the stuff that I love.
Geri Cole: Hmm. And actually, I feel like when you dive deep in with those characters, it actually does help to color in the world. Getting into Looking Glass’s trauma, to me, really helped give a more detailed look at this world and how people have survived in it and what it looks like and feels like for them. I feel like it’s still helped the overall arch of the season and the building of the world. I want to ask more questions about Succession. It felt like watching that show is like this is a world of people I will never meet and how interesting it is to get to see them dissected in a way. How did you guys get there?
Cord Jefferson: There’s a lot of reading in those rooms. So there’s a ton of reading of business books and biographies about business magnates. And there’s also consultants that come in to talk about. So I’m blanking on the name of this wonderful woman who came in who is a famous veteran business reporter. She did a lot of work for the Wall Street Journal, this British woman who… I really wish I could remember her name and she’s wonderful. She came in and discussed the sort of proclivities of the billionaire class and sort of like how they handle their business and what mergers look like and what hostile takeovers look like and all the ins and outs of that world.
Cord Jefferson: And then Frank Rich is HBO’s show whisperer. I think he’s an EP on a Succession and he came in and talked to us. He’s got a lot of relationships with very powerful, very rich people. He came in and gave us some stories. So there are consultants who come in and yet, there’s no like… From my understanding, none of the writers on the staff are billionaires-
Geri Cole: Classic billionaires.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we didn’t really get into all that necessarily, but that seemingly none of them were of the billionaire class, so it’s just a lot of research. I think that for me, though, what makes a show like that great and then gets back to what I was saying earlier about the character study stuff is I do not know what it’s like to be a white billionaire, but there’s a lot of that show because the characters are so well drawn that I do understand. I understand Roman’s sexual anxiety, right? We’ve all had anxiety around sex and relationships. And I understand Kendall’s desire to please his dad and the feeling that you failed your parents and now you need to do everything in your power to make it up to them, right?
Cord Jefferson: I understand Tom’s feeling of loneliness via his relationship and feeling like he’s not getting the love that he deserves. These kinds of things, I think, are very, very, just universal, human feelings, right? People understand fear and loneliness and pain and suffering, like all human beings go through those things. So even though I do not understand what it’s like to be a Murdoch, I do understand what it’s like to be a human being and I think that that is one of the reasons why that show works so well, because even though there is a distance between most viewers’ life and the lives of those characters when it comes to class and when it comes to a profession, there’s not a lot of distance when it comes to what those characters are feeling, right? Which is a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear and a lot of jealousy, so we all understand that stuff.
Geri Cole: Yeah. I feel like when you root a character in an emotion that is universal, then it is a very easy thing to… Even if you have no personal knowledge of what that type of person might be like, you can certainly understand where they’re coming from.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah.
Geri Cole: So I’m… Would like to also ask about your upcoming project, which is a series about Gawker, which you previously worked at.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah.
Geri Cole: I’m told that the writers’ room is completely women.
Cord Jefferson: It was. It was, yeah.
Geri Cole: It was? Yeah.
Cord Jefferson: It was, yeah. So the writers’ room, we were going to hire five writers and my co-writer and I, Max Reed, who’s a journalist and used to work with me at Gawker was the former editor in chief of Gawker. We knew going into it that Gawker was notoriously a misogynist work environment. One of our former colleagues, Dana Evans, wrote a whole article called Gawker’s Women Problem. I think that that’s what it’s called and she published it on Medium and interviewed a lot of the women who were, I think, presently employed at Gawker when she published it. And former Gawker employees. I mean, this was maybe 2015 at this point. 2014? But it was just all about how difficult it had been to work at Gawker for her and for other women.
Cord Jefferson: And so we didn’t want to have that blind spot going into the room and sort of just filling the room with more dudes who didn’t really understand what was going on there. And we knew that we wanted to be precise and be accurate, so it was very important to us to get as many women as possible in the room. We set out with the goal of hiring as many women as possible, and it just turned out that we ended up hiring all women. There’s five spots and they went to five women.
Geri Cole: Wow. When you’re looking for writers for a series like that, what kind of background are you looking for in writers?
Cord Jefferson: Some background in journalism helps. So people who actually understood the internet and writing for the internet and publishing journalism on the internet was helpful. So three of the five that we ended up hiring were former journalists themselves, two of whom worked at Gawker before. So two worked at Gawker and then another woman, Allison P. Davis was still a journalist, but was a long time reporter at New York Magazine. And then the other two were playwrights that we really liked. 95% of a TV writer’s job is not writing a script. Now, obviously, we want somebody who can come in and write a good draft, but I think that something that I’m willing to look past a draft that is imperfect if somebody has a really interesting brain and is going to come up with great pitches in the room because that’s 95% of the job.
Cord Jefferson: And so people would come in with really good, weird, interesting, off the wall ideas, that’s attractive to me moreso than necessarily like a very, very clean draft from somebody who will take everybody else’s ideas and synthesize them into a clean draft. Now, somebody who can come in and do both, that’s great, but I just want a lot of stuff to come out in the room. That’s where most of the work is done. One of the women that we hired had never written for narrative television before. She had written one script that was her spec, but had never written an actual draft for a show. I was okay with that because I really liked her brain and I really liked the way that she thought and I thought that she would bring an interesting perspective to the room that was going to be additive.
Cord Jefferson: So that’s really important to me. I think that when people do write their drafts and when I do read people’s scripts though, in order to hire, I think that also, I’m really interested in voice. I think that anybody who reads a lot of scripts will tell you that there’s a lot of scripts out there that are competently written, that you’re like, “This is clearly a competent writer. This is somebody who can come into a room and understand the voice of the show and write you a good first draft of this show and that is great.” But there are far fewer scripts, I think, that the voice leaps off the page where you’re just like, “Oh, this is a really interesting writer with something to say who’s got her own ideas about the world and then wants to share those ideas and writes really compelling characters.”
Cord Jefferson: Or it feels just like it’s cliche to say, but it just feels like a breath of fresh air when you’re plowing through scripts. I think that for me, that was also important was when I was reading scripts that it just felt like, “Oh, this person feels like they have something to say. This person feels like they have their own unique voice and they’re trying to get something out.” That is really compelling to me and moreso than somebody who can just write a really competent spec script draft, for instance, you know?
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I want to talk a little bit about your background in journalism and how you made this jump into writing for television, how if that was always a part of the plan, or if you miss journalism, especially in this day and age where it’s like there’s so much to report on, how it changed your aspirations?
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. When I was growing up, I didn’t know people who made money by making art. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and my parents were professionals. My parents both had been going to grad school and a bunch of their friends had gone to grad school and they’re professionals. Or my friend’s parents were police officers or firefighters, like people who just had jobs and maybe they played the guitar in their free time on the side or something. But for the most part, they had just had normal, day-to-day jobs. I didn’t really grow up with the understanding that art was the thing that people made money from, you know?
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Cord Jefferson: So I went to college with the understanding that I would probably graduate and go to grad school of some kind at some point. My mother used to say that she knew that I was going to be a writer when I was in third grade and yeah, it just took me forever to believe her. But it was something that I always loved to do. I wrote short books when I was a kid. I was in the school paper and in high school I founded a literary magazine with some of my friends when I was in college. So I always had these kinds of projects going on in the wings, but it was never my central focus because I thought that that’s a hobby, that I can’t actually make money doing that.
Cord Jefferson: And so when I moved to L.A. right after college to take a job as a communications coordinator for this nonprofit organization, and I really hated my day job and was miserable. At night I would write. I would do a lot of freelancing for our music magazines or small, independent, weekly magazines. There used to be another weekly competitor in L.A. called the L.A. Alternative Press, and so I wrote for the L.A. Alternative Press for a while, and eventually my journalism was earning me about the same amount of money as my day job, which I hated as I said. So I got to a point when I was like, “If I’m going to make such a small amount of money, why don’t I make this small amount of money doing something that I actually enjoy rather than this job that I hate?”
Cord Jefferson: And so I quit my day job and just started freelance journalism full-time. Journalism, to me, it wasn’t like I set out to be a journalist. It was more like I wanted to be a writer and journalism was sort of like the easiest path to enter the field of writing, freelance journalism was because I didn’t think I had the wherewithal back then to write a novel. I didn’t know anybody working in entertainment and that felt like an impossible world to break into. So I was like, “Okay, but I can do this. It seems like I have some skill here.”
Cord Jefferson: And so I just started out as a journalist with ambition to do a lot of different writing. My sort of writing heroes have always been James Baldwin and Joan Didion, not just because they’re both incredible writers, but also because what it meant to be a writer to them was very broad based on their careers. They would read screenplays. A lot of people don’t know that James Baldwin wrote the first screenplay for Malcolm X for that Spike Lee movie.
Geri Cole: What? I didn’t know that.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. People don’t know that. Yeah. So he wrote the first draft of that. I’m sure that there was like punch up. I’ve never seen the original draft, but he wrote that.
Geri Cole: [Kenway 00:28:45], yeah.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. He wrote the original draft for that. So they would write screenplays and then they would write novels and then they would write a book of essays and then they would write an article about a politician for a newspaper. They just did a lot of different things. It wasn’t one central thing. They weren’t like, “Okay, I’m a journalist and this is what I do.” I feel like a lot of writers sometimes become myopic and think that like, “This is my lane. I’m going to stay in my lane.” And it’s like, “No, writing’s a toolbox. You can do a lot of different things with a toolbox. You can build a shelf or you can build chairs. You can build a desk. You can do a bunch.” And so I think that, for me, that was always my goal, was that I didn’t want to just be one kind of writer. I just wanted to be a writer who did a lot of different things. So-
Geri Cole: You’re actually already answering my next question.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Oh yeah. Please.
Geri Cole: Was that you’ve jumped back and forth between drama and comedy.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah.
Geri Cole: Which is, yeah, feel like a unique thing or it feels like… I remember it getting drilled into my head. It’s like, “You have to pick a lane so that you can build up your career and/or reputation in this lane. If you keep changing too much, then people aren’t going to know what you do, and then that’s going to hurt your career in a way.” But yeah, I prefer the thought that it’s like, “No, I’m a writer. What you’re asking for me to… The project to just get filtered through my lens.”
Cord Jefferson: Exactly. I feel like that stuff just feels so arbitrary, particularly nowadays. A show like Barry, for instance, where, to me, there’s as much tension in Barry as there ever was in Breaking Bad. That episode where he shoots his friend in the face was one of the more intense episodes of television I saw that year. And is that a comedy? Is Succession, which makes me laugh so hard? Is that a drama just because it’s an hour long? Is I May Destroy You a comedy just because it’s a half hour long? I just think that all of these distinctions that used to make sense to people, the half hours and the hours and the comedy versus drama is…
Cord Jefferson: I think that that’s increasingly just arbitrary and irrelevant. I think that nowadays people just want something that’s good and that moves them and makes them feel something in a certain way. I just want to work on stuff that does that and just feels like it’s additive to the world and feels like you’re making something that is going to cause people to think about things rather than just tune out and look at their phones. So, yeah. I just try not even to think in those terms anymore because I don’t think audiences think in those terms anymore.
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s a question that I like to ask all of my guests, which is, I feel like success never looks like what you think it’s going to look like. How has your idea of success changed over the years? And what do you consider success now? Because I feel like you can argue you’re very successful right now, but it’s like it’s always one of those things you’re like, “Is it? Am I in it?” You know?
Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. I think the thing that haunts me, right, is that I really, really am grateful for my career. I love the shows that I’ve had a chance to work on. I love the people that I’ve worked with, many of whom are incredibly close friends of mine at this point and important mentors in my life. But a thing that still makes me anxious about my career is that I’ve never made my own show. And so I feel like for the successes that I’ve had, there’s still a lingering idea that like, “Well, maybe you’re riding on people’s coattails. Maybe if you were out on your own, you wouldn’t be as successful and maybe you’d be a huge failure if you made your own show.” And so I’m a person who has a lot of anxiety.
Cord Jefferson: I mean, I talk about therapy all the time, so you could probably tell I’m a person who has a lot of anxiety and neuroses. So there’s always something gnawing at me. And so I think that I certainly do not want to diminish my accomplishments and I don’t want to have some false humility. I am very proud of the stuff that I’ve done so far, but at the same time, I am the kind of person who is never satisfied, which I think is a bad thing. I think that you get this kind of like alpha male, chest-thumping thing that like, “I’m never satisfied.” It’s always onto the next thing. I don’t think that’s a good quality.
Cord Jefferson: I think that the thing that I try to work on in my life and the thing that I’m trying to get better at is finding joy in the moment and finding peace where I am and not constantly focusing on the future or the past and what the next thing is. I think success for me, ultimately, real success will just feel like just peace and a sort of internal quietude that I do not have at this moment. I think that I ultimately just want to get to a place where I just feel happy and content and I don’t need to achieve more in order to feel happy. I think that that is my ultimate goal. I think that is just trying to find that contentment, that peace. Does that makes sense?
Geri Cole: It does.
Cord Jefferson: It’s a little bit kind of Buddhist or something. I didn’t intend to go that route.
Geri Cole: Well, no. I think that is exactly right. I’m curious, though, about how much of this, you never feeling satisfied, and/or trying to just find peace in the moment is cultural of where we live and where we were raised and where we were born and/or how much of it is inherent and just who you are as a person.
Cord Jefferson: Yeah, absolutely. I think you just learn a lot of it by osmosis, right? Especially nowadays, we’ve always lived in a society that’s… Commodifies everything and selling you stuff all the time. And you’re surrounded by commercials and you’re surrounded by ads with beautiful people in them and models and physically fit people. They’re selling you products a million times a day. That used to be just a lot of the corporations, but now you have Instagram profiles where everybody’s just showing the best of their lives and showing you the greatest things that they have and all the fancy places that they’re going and the fancy people that they’re hanging out with. People’s lives have become advertisements also. Just the real people that you know are selling you ads sometimes too.
Cord Jefferson: And so I think that it becomes difficult to just find peace and contentment in your own mind. Hopefully, I never become like an old man shaking my fist at society and saying like, “You did this. When I was around, it wasn’t… ”
Geri Cole: Young kids.
Cord Jefferson: Because like I said, keeping up with the Joneses has always been a thing, right? Everybody’s always been trying to outdo the next person. So it’s not just modern day that is like, I’m not that guy who’s like, “Social media is killing the kids,” but I think it is adding to the anxiety that a lot of people already felt. And so, yeah. And I think that this industry, I think, is also difficult because you see people making money and winning awards. And make not even just like a little bit of money, like massive amounts of money and huge, huge millions of dollars and there’s winning awards and they’re getting statutes that you’re not getting and they’re getting deals that you’re not getting and their shows are getting greenlit and your show’s not getting greenlit.
Cord Jefferson: There’s press releases and whose name is on deadline today? My name’s not on deadline today. I think it’s very easy to fall into those traps. It’s very easy to start forgetting why you do this thing in the first place. I don’t think that anybody should not think of themselves as a real writer because your name’s not on deadline or think of yourself as a failure because you haven’t won an award yet. I think that once you start doing that, I think your work suffers. I think that you start to write for reasons that are not internal to you. You’re starting to write for external validation, which is dangerous.
Cord Jefferson: I think that it’s bad for your mental health. I think that it’s probably bad for your relationships with other writers and other creatives because then it turns into a competition when I think we should all be working to lift each other up. So for me, just finding contentment in the craft and finding contentment in the work that you’re doing and being proud, writing to make yourself happy and writing so that you feel proud about your work should be the pursuit moreso than than writing to achieve some external praise or to make a lot of money. Does that make sense?
Geri Cole: It does. It makes perfect sense. I feel like it’s a perfect place to end because we unfortunately have run out of time.
Cord Jefferson: Okay.
Geri Cole: Even though I have so many more questions I would love to ask, but-
Cord Jefferson: Well, it’s very nice talking to you.
Geri Cole: It was nice to talk with you as well. Thank you so much for your time and your perspective.
Cord Jefferson: Oh, yeah.
Geri Cole: It was truly, really lovely.
Cord Jefferson: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America east. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at WGAEast.org. And you can follow the Guild on social media at WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.