Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: T Cooper

Promotional poster for FELLOW TRAVELERS

Host T Cooper is joined by Ron Nyswaner to discuss having the confidence to push Hollywood’s boundaries, staying flexible during the unpredictable reality of being on a TV set, telling authentic LGBTQ+ stories without always centering suffering, and more.

Ron Nyswaner is the 2024 recipient of the WGA East’s Walter Bernstein Award, and creator of the Showtime series Fellow Travelers. He is known for his feature screenplays, including Smithereens, Philadelphia, and My Policeman. He is also known as a writer and producer of the Showtime series Ray Donovan and Homeland. Over the course of his career, Ron has been nominated for numerous awards including an Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and a Primetime Emmy Award.

His most recent project is the Showtime series Fellow Travelers. Based on the 2007 fictional novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, the historical drama follows the paths of political staffers Hawkins Fuller and Tim Laughlin, whose paths converge at the height of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. Despite the constant threat of getting caught, their searing love for each other only intensifies in the tumultuous decades that follow. Their volatile romance spans the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, the drug-fueled disco hedonism of the 1970s and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, as they face obstacles in the world and in themselves.

This episode is hosted by T Cooper, a Writers Guild of America East member with credits including The Get Down and The Blacklist. T. also serves as co-chair of the Guild’s LGBTQ+ Writers Salon.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America East. The series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producers are Molly Beer and Tiana Timmerberg. OnWriting’s Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Taylor Bradshaw.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


T Cooper: Hi, you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the union members who create the film, TV series, podcasts, and news stories that define our culture. We’ll discuss everything from inspirations and creative process to what it takes to build a successful career in media and entertainment. I’m T Cooper, a Writers Guild member and co-chair of the Guild’s LGBTQ+ Writer Salon.

I’m thrilled to talk with Ron Nyswaner, the 2024 recipient of the WGA East Walter Bernstein Award and creator of the Showtime Series Fellow Travelers. In our interview, we discuss having the confidence to push Hollywood’s boundaries, staying flexible during the unpredictable reality of being on a TV set, and telling authentic LGBTQ+ stories without always centering suffering.

Thank you so much for joining us. It’s lovely to meet you. I’ve been hearing about and seeing your work for years. And again, congratulations on the award at the ceremony last night. Well deserved. And I also actually just basically binged Fellow Travelers, and I was so happy to get to do that. And I’m familiar with Thomas Mallon’s work, and I started from being a novelist myself.

Yeah, I love just because that’s the reason for the season right now. I’d love to just dive into this new project and hear a little bit about the process of getting a project like this, and especially one at this particular cultural moment. Also at this particular moment in our business, which is a really tricky time. It’s a really tricky time for a limited piece. It’s a really tricky time and about a limited period piece, much less a limited period piece about civil rights inflection points, which I again, probably should just mention from the audience, from the Lavender Scare and the Red Scare in the fifties, to the government’s handling or not handling of the AIDS crisis in the eighties. And just to add on top of all that, it’s based on a book that while a beautiful important moving book, was not the book that an executive, lands on their desk and goes, “Wow, a bestseller that everyone knows about. Let’s make a series based on this.”

So I’d love to just, yeah, I think our listeners would love to hear how you got this off the ground.

Ron Nyswaner: Well, I read Mr. Mallon’s book probably 12 years ago and had just moved to LA, was looking for something to develop. I was encouraged by Steve Golin and my managers at Anonymous Content to do it.

As you know, when you’re developing and about to create a pitch, et cetera, no one is paying you to do that. Especially if it’s on your own and no one’s brought it to you, you’re just doing it. And I needed to make a living, so I was pleased. I went to Ray Donovan, to that writer’s room for the first two seasons of that show, really loved that. Then I went on to three seasons of Homeland. And it’s very consuming. Those shows really occupied a lot of my mind and my time, So Fellow Travelers just went a little quiet.

And you know T, I don’t know about you, but I lose confidence sometimes a little bit too easily. And somebody had said to me at some point, “Ron, it’s period, it’s political, it’s gay, it’s not going to get made. That’s a really tough one.” I had circled back around to it when I was leaving Homeland and I was developing things. And I asked Robbie Rogers, who’s a friend of mine. He produced with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, My Policeman, a movie that I wrote.

And I asked Robbie to read the book, and I gave him a little bit of my pitch on the book. As you know, the show expands beyond, especially the timeframe. And Robbie read it in a weekend and called me on a Monday and said… So Greg Berlanti his husband. He said, “I pitched it to Greg, he’ll set it up at Warner Brothers tomorrow.” And I said, “Well, I have a contract somewhere else, so I can’t do that, so why don’t you come on and be my producer?”.

And so Robbie basically reignited my love for this story. We brought Matt Bomer into it. And I think we spent a couple of… I think we spent at least three years developing it, but obviously there was the period where we immediately developed a pitch. Matt Bomer was part of the pitch. Robbie and I were part of the pitch. And we went out with the support of the studio that I worked with at that point, which was Fremantle. You had Dante Di Loreto, the president of Fremantle, had made the Normal Heart and many other things.

And so we went out with his support. And I have to say, we got multiple bids on the show. So this would be still in Covid, I believe. So at least three years ago, maybe four years ago at this point, we had a lot of interest. The project had been brewing in my mind. I had written several takes on it. I had done lots of research on it. So the pitch wasn’t something that was four months old. It wasn’t the product of a few months work, it was the product of years of thinking about something. So I think that the pitch was really well developed and that helped us get all that interest.

T Cooper: Wow. And so you’re a unicorn, so it’s nice to look at you. The fact that you had multiple offers and multiple interests is really… Well, obviously the project speaks for itself. That makes sense why. But sometimes companies need to be shown why. They don’t get it right immediately.

So I’d love to hear a little bit about, if you could take us a little bit into that room, because we all sit across those tables from executives and are trying to push that boulder across, or up and over the mountain. So in that pitch, you had an actor there, which is like candy sometimes to have. So how did that pitch unfold? What was your tactical approach?

Ron Nyswaner: Well, first though, let me just say that we ended up going with Showtime where I had worked for 20 years. So I made a movie with them in 2003 called Soldier’s Girl, that I’m also very proud of. And so Gary Levine, who was the president, had become the president, but I knew Gary before he was the president. Basically, as Gary said once, he’s been giving me notes for 20 years of my life. And so that was a friendly audience. But as you said, we did get multiple offers.

The pitch was very, it was scripted. I really believe in a scripted pitch, at least at that time in my head. There was a director attached at the time. He had a section to deliver. Matt had a section to deliver. Robbie had a section to deliver it. They were all coordinated. We had all these visuals going.

And I started the pitch with a very personal thing, which is I referred to in my remarks Sunday night when I received the Walter Bernstein Award. I started the pitch by saying, “When I was a kid growing up in coal mine in Pennsylvania in the sixties and seventies, I never heard the word homosexual spoken aloud. There were no movies, or television, or books about what I was inside. And I believed I was the unspeakable thing. I was so bad, I was unspeakable.” That’s how I started the pitch. And then I went through the story that I had developed, and I had taken it, even at the pitch level, and knew that it was going to go through a few decades, and just saw the parallel of the AIDS crisis with McCarthy.

But I really think T what sold the show is that it is a love story with the feeling and momentum of a thriller. And that was really important to me. It is high stakes love story. So if they are caught going in and out of each other’s apartment, their lives could be ruined. And I think that people really responded to those stakes. And then you go to the eighties, and it’s again, we’re life and death with the AIDS crisis. So there was a genre feeling to what I was telling, and I think that really surprised the executives I was pitching to, that it’s this love story.

I don’t know how much they knew about it, but when I was able to tell the story in a way that felt reminiscent of Homeland in some ways. I really learned a lot on Homeland. And one of the rules that we had on Homeland was no scene exists in the show that doesn’t move the story forward. If there was a card on the wall that didn’t move the story forward… One of my colleagues, Chip Johannessen, was the master of the wall where he kept all the index cards. And Chip would get up and walk up, and he would pull that card off the wall and he would throw it on the floor, because that scene didn’t belong in our show in Homeland. And I had the same approach to Fellow Travelers.

And by the end when I told, I went through, I knew what the ending was going to be even then, that we would find Hawk at the AIDS quilt declaring his love for Tim. And people choked up in the pit. So I have to say, it was a really good good pitch. They were up for it.

And one offer did come back saying, “We would like to do it as an ongoing series.” And that tempted me for a moment because I have to say, you do all that work. You build all those sets and all those relationships, and then you close down for good. It was really, it was heartbreaking actually when we did that in Toronto when our show was over. But Matt, I think it was Matt Bomer who said, when we were discussing that option, Matt said, “There’s something so powerful about Hawk’s journey in eight weeks that would be diluted if we stretch it out.” And I thought he was right.

T Cooper: But you thought about it for a minute?

Ron Nyswaner: Well, sure. I’d love to have know what my paycheck was going to be for the next year or so.

T Cooper: But even creatively, was it a stretching or was it anthologized of a what next, a second season, third season? What were you…

Ron Nyswaner: No, it was a stretching of those characters. And it didn’t take long for us to say, “No, this story is very contained.” Because one, I think again, what gives us its momentum and it’s high stakes is that in the first four minutes of the show you know that there’s somebody in San Francisco who has AIDS and is dying. And for some reason, this guy played by Matt Bomer is really interested in that guy and wants to be forgiven. And he’s been told that guy doesn’t want to see you. So immediately the stakes are high. And if we didn’t have that, I just think it would’ve lost its momentum.

T Cooper: Yeah. And likewise, about your decision to… I’m wondering when you read the book, your decision to make AIDS, I would say equally, if not, it really, it is the heartbeat underneath even what’s happening in the past. Obviously it’s a direct line from that era to there, especially as far as this country’s government’s concerned. So I’m wondering, was that always twinkling somewhere in the back of your brain, like that’s what this story needs to be on screen? Is it to push it forward into the future more?

Ron Nyswaner: I think in the very early days, so I’m talking about 12 years ago when I first started thinking about it, no, that wasn’t part of it. But at some point, I can’t remember, I read in the book, there’s a preface. It’s about five or six pages. It’s not very long. And we see Hawk as Fuller in 1991. And he gets a letter saying that Tim has died. He doesn’t die of AIDS in the book, but he had… But I thought, well, gee, there’s some point where I thought I’d like to see Hawk in his sixties. I’d like to see he’s got a wife, he’s got kids, grandkids. What’s that like? And then I started thinking, where’s Tim?

And then just because the AIDS crisis has such a formative thing in my life, not in my personal life obviously, but also in my professional life because of Philadelphia, it just was right there. It was like, oh, well, of course, Tim is going to end up… He’s going to go from McCarthyite to a super liberal guy. I knew that was going to happen. And he’s going to be in San Francisco. Where else would he be? And AIDS is going to be part of his life.

T Cooper: Quick technical question. When they ordered this… So Showtime, obviously those are like your heart guys. That’s why you went with them. You felt like that was its home. And now, did they green light all episodes? Was it eight episodes from the beginning? Or were they like, “Hey, let’s shoot a pilot,” or, “Let’s look at a pilot,”? Or was there a Bible? Was there a treatment? What did it look like before they gave you the full green light?

Ron Nyswaner: There was almost all of those things. So it was a long journey to a green light. So there was a pilot script ordered first. They loved it. From the pilot script they asked for a Bible. I had a three week room to write that Bible. It was turned out… I’m obsessive compulsive in many ways, so it was a 50 page Bible for eight episodes. And they loved it. And I can’t remember if we handed in… No, we handed in that. That’s right. We handed that in as one thing. Obviously when I say they loved it, they have thoughts and ideas. I am not somebody who thinks that every note is going to be a bad note and I have to fight every note. Sometimes I’m quite happy to take a good idea from anybody. Then we had a regular room, a non room, I think we had 17 weeks, so they were adding the three weeks to the 17 to get 20 for everybody.

And we started writing, handing in outlines and episodes. And I was really happy to be able to bring in some people into that writer’s room, like Anya Leta and Jack Solomon, who each of them had once been my assistant. And they had done research on Fellow Travelers for me over the years. So we would see documents that would have Anya’s initials on the header or Jack’s initials, and they were writers, and Anya’s also producer on the show.

T Cooper: That’s great. At a certain point, they said, “We’ve seen enough. Let’s shoot the pilot.”? Or, “Let’s shoot all of them.”?

Ron Nyswaner: No, we didn’t shoot a pilot. At a certain point, I think we had most of the scripts. And Dan Minahan had come on as a director, and they were very excited about Dan. We hadn’t officially started casting, but we knew that Jonathan Bailey was interested, which actually had come from him. He had gotten hold of a couple of scripts and he was pursuing us, which of course we were thrilled that that was happening. So we were all moving toward it. Somebody from Fremantle went up to Toronto, and are there stages? So we were getting really, really close.

And then at some point we got the call. And it’s just a great call to get. It’s one of those calls to you where the assistants, I know that I’m either going to have really bad news or really good news when they say, “Ron, I have,” and they named about six people. I have, “Blah, blah, blah and blah, all these people on the call for you.” Well, it’s going to be really good or really bad because they call to tell you that they’re not doing your show or they call to tell you they’re doing your show.

T Cooper: Yeah. God, that’s so great. I will say that… So I was on a network show in the room on the Blacklist for five seasons. The last two seasons were as EP. And obviously the more active you get as you move on and up. And that was the last five seasons of a 10 season series. And I was just reflecting on what you said about what I learned in that room about every scene, literally doing 20 things. I did think a lot about that while watching your series. And I also can’t help just because I’ve developed and sold, and not yet made, but a lot of the original series that I… Actually, my wife and I, who co-write, and our partners, would be running.

But one thing that I couldn’t stop thinking about was budgets, like every single time, every new scene, every new setup. I was trying to do the math for your show in my head. And I’m really, I think even just for some of our listeners too, it’s really interesting to hear and think about that process, and if there were any tussles of scenes or sets, or even runners that you had to give up to get something else. I just thinking about, there were some scenes that just felt like, obviously that big fundraiser scene at the end was important, but it was literally one scene. But there was, I don’t know what a hundred folks in that era garb and a fricking cover band, and that was real and expensive.

Ron Nyswaner: Well, the opening is also, after little prelude, when we get to the fifties, we’re in this big rally with Joe McCarthy with 200 extras. We had a generous budget. We had a generous budget, [inaudible 00:16:45] have to get involved very much.

I had a great line producer, this guy from Toronto. It’s Sean Ryerson. And obviously things do get negotiated. And one time Sean came to me and said, “The set that you’re intending to build for episode five, it means I have to rent another stage, so that’s going to be a 700 or $800,000 set for episode five. One set. Your production designer wants to do it. What do you think Ron?”. And Sean said, “I can fight for it, but you should decide.”

And it didn’t take me long to decide, no, there’s already a hearing room. We already have a set. We can do things to make it look different. I asked the production designer. She said, “Sure, I can make it look big or I can do all this stuff.” And I thought, that’s where you have to be the smart person to say, think about, well, that’s a lot of money that could buy a lot of music.

T Cooper: Well, I was just going to say, can you share a little bit more in detail like how you creatively solve that problem, reusing this set, or writing a scene differently? Or like we were just saying, putting more on that card as far as what that scene was doing, it now has to inherit what wasn’t going to be in that other set?

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah, I think what it is that when you’ve been on… I’ve been on a lot of sets and you start to learn the reality of what matters to an audience versus what sometimes seems very important in the room. So specifically McCarthy and Cohn hold these hearings, the Senate committee hearings in a beautiful hearing room, that beautiful set that we built. But the Army McCarthy hearings took place in an even bigger hearing room. Actually, literally the one where we watched the January 6th committee where they were working a couple of years ago, that hearing room was where-

T Cooper: Oh, wow.

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah. So we were thinking. And all those TV cameras that had to be filled. And so it was always scripted as the Army McCarthy hearing room in episode five. So it just seemed natural. And I think at a certain point, if I would’ve fought and said, “No, it’s a different room. It’s bigger, it’s all this stuff.” But just being in the thick of it and knowing that I’m responsible. You have a generous budget, so don’t ask for more.

And things are coming up where Matt Bomer’s first day, we shut down because he has Covid that night. And we shot the first week without him because he was with his family the first week. So knowing that there was Covid, knowing that we were bringing Jonathan back and forth from London, to Toronto back and forth, and then sometimes have to rejigger the schedule, I cooperate with my studio executives. It doesn’t have to be this battle. And every now and then you do sometimes have to say, “Guys, I disagree with you. I really need this,” and see if you can get it. That’s all.

So it is about the reality of just realizing, if we fill the regular hearing room with cameras… And first of all, the audience doesn’t care-

T Cooper: Don’t care.

Ron Nyswaner: … Cares that it’s not the same hearing room. Nobody cares. That was just an abstract idea that in its practical implication, it’s not, silly in a way.


T Cooper: Yeah. I love to hear that you had this budget. You did so much with it. It does not look cheap as they say. There are moments both just texturally. And even what you were just saying about the almost life or death thriller aspect of it, I think even the wardrobe and setting had something. Set dressing had something to do with that. Like Matt Bower’s, I don’t know, his hat. There were certain ways that certain scenes were shot that actually amped that up and made it feel rich and old fashioned in a way that it’s hard to make stuff look on present day budgets.

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah, again, it has a lot to do though with, it is the budget, but also with Dan Minahan also being an EP and setting the tone and look. He did the first two episodes and then he went on to do a movie that’s going to be coming out.

But with Simon Dennis setting the look and the tone, and also just everyone thinking the same way. The Joseph La Corte, who did Fosse/Verdon. Anastasia Masaro, who was our genius production designer and thoroughly researched and all this stuff. So it’s in selecting those people that you’re all trying to do the same thing. And no one is trying to show off with their department. And they’re beautiful, but it was all about, if you asked any of them, “Why did you make this choice?”. They would give you a story reason not a, “Because I want people to see what a great designer I am.”

T Cooper: [inaudible 00:21:14].

Ron Nyswaner: So we’re all on board, and that’s key. And we all know that sometimes not everybody is thinking the same way. And then there’s extra strife where you have to wrestle it out now.

And I might just say that one thing I think. I only had another writer with me for a short time because the scripts were basically set. What that means, and I think the strike has tried to, we tried to address this, is that, so the younger writers in my room where they don’t have the experience of being on a set. So I find sometimes when you’re working with writers who haven’t been on sets or haven’t been in cutting rooms, is that is like you have to explain in a writer’s room, “Well actually, the audience isn’t going to care about that. You’re being too detailed about something that,” because you’re on the set. Or, “Well, we can’t really do that set piece for a three minute scene where nothing important happens. We can’t travel to a football field for something unimportant.” When you know that, but they haven’t seen, they haven’t seen all the trucks and all the extras that have to go, so they don’t have that weight on them of the reality of shooting.

I mean, I was so afraid. One of the things when we went to Toronto, there were two things that just drove me crazy with fear and anxiety, which is how in the world in Toronto am I going to shoot Fire Island? A half of episode seven takes place… Or San Francisco, which is the other half of episode [inaudible 00:22:46]. And then how are we going to do the AIDS quilt? We’re not going to take over Washington Mall, the National Mall. And both those things worked out with people, with ingenuity. And that’s again, the location department being so on board.

And T, I thought it was really important to go to every department and explain the stunts. In episode seven when the police invade the Elephant Walk bar, I had everybody quiet on the set. I said, “So let me tell everybody here what this is.” And I described The Night of Gay Rage, The White Night Riots, while the police chose this bar to get revenge on these people. And the stunt people are so moved by it and everything. So it’s just bringing everybody into the storytelling, I think is really effective.

T Cooper: Yeah, I love hearing that. That’s one of my favorite parts. Just going back to the nuts and bolts of it is that that’s what I love being on sets so much, and as exhausting as it is, but that moment of rewriting to a situation that just pops up that is out of everyone’s control, while trusting that every department is just doing what they do. And that’s the best part of it is that are these incredibly talented people at these little things that I know dick shit about. And good, empower you to make the best decision to figure out to solve this problem in this moment.

And to be honest, I look at often a studio like that or a network like that too, because it’s not my damn network. It’s not my money. If they’re like, “Hey, this needs to be this way.” You have to work with that. And to your point, the audience doesn’t care where that hearing was. They cared that… I’m sorry, I can’t remember the name of the character, but the one that Roy Cohn was protecting.

Ron Nyswaner: David.

T Cooper: Yeah, him rattling his drink for Tim to fill it. That’s what matters. That little character moment. That’s all that matters, not how many cameras there are or how grand the room looks. So it’s something you can’t teach, and that you learn being on set, and then posting what you shot each day, or at the end, and really seeing, “Oh, look at all that time we spent on that one thing, and we literally used two seconds of that shot,” or whatever it is. From whoever’s lips to whoever’s ears, there will be experiences for all of us, but especially younger writers, to get on set and be able to be empowered to be successful.

And again, I hope that it’s more folks who are not the usual suspects, because unfortunately, those folks just, even if they get room at the table to contribute a little of their experience to a script, or a story, or whatever, if they don’t get to take it on set and then take it across the finish line, it’s not as valuable. And again, obviously that’s partially what we went on strike over. But.

Ron Nyswaner: Definitely, definitely. And also I think you learn about acting, watching the great directors that I had and watching them, and having to be there. I was there for almost every scene. In many ways, because we went through four decades. You don’t shoot in order obviously. We moved up episode seven because we wanted to get the good weather. So there were days, weeks where we were in three different decades. And then maybe the director after Dan was somebody coming. It was really [inaudible 00:25:56] there to say, “No, no, no, wait, wait. This is 1969, ’68,” that sort of thing.

But to watch, to know when we write some things that we want actors to do, just know that you can’t ask the actors to do that. Not that it’s like too provocative or anything because obviously I didn’t hesitate to ask my actors to [inaudible 00:26:16]-

T Cooper: No, you did not.

Ron Nyswaner: [inaudible 00:26:18]. And those sex scenes were written. I’d love to talk about that too, but that’s-

T Cooper: Yeah, I have a couple of questions about that myself.

Ron Nyswaner: But sometimes I think what scenes get, people are trying to write scenes. They’re too complicated. That the actors and the scene is supposed to do these five things, and they’re this and they’re this. And I have this belief at this point in my career, that character is not a set of characteristics. Character is like one thing, one essential thing, and one thing that opposes that essential thing. That’s all you need to know. I don’t need to know, does he like to walk on the beach at sunset, and eat pizza, and he’s allergic to nuts. That doesn’t matter. The audience cares about the essential thing. Who are they, essentially? And I think the actor cares about who am I essentially.

And I also have learned to trust actors. These great actors that I had, I didn’t get involved in their… I didn’t need to sit and explain who their characters were. They knew. At some point they could explain to me. And that was a joy.

T Cooper: Speaking of this cast of yours, I’m wondering about the process of, did it happen in the writer’s room…? Well, generally, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you were in these other two rooms and then boom, you’re running your own room. So I’d love to hear a little bit about how you run your writer’s room, but then a little bit more specifically to the story. Did that process of widening the storytelling as far as character, even just straight up demographically, and different experiences that were obviously concurrent but not, say a part of the book, or not part of the common story, that the received history that we have of these eras, how did you all come up with these… Who pitched which characters, and how many did you end up with that… How many did you cut and leave on the chopping block? And I’m just wondering about how that process came about. And was it intentional, let’s hit this demographic, let’s hit this experience, et cetera?

Ron Nyswaner: Well, I think by the time we got to the main writer’s room, the characters had been established. Throughout the process of writing the Bible they had been established. I added Marcus and Frankie very, very early in the process because the novel, for whatever reasons, I don’t think this is intentional, there weren’t black characters just in that particular story that Thomas Mallon was telling. And in 2023, I just morally was not going to have an all white show. And also, when we did start doing research about the black community in Washington in the fifties, it was so vibrant, and exciting, and facing, allegedly desegregated, but not at all. And that was a really interesting thing.

And so it was useful. So the characters were there. I think maybe it was a diverse writers room. I had one of, D. Johnson, who has run shows, and has been around almost as long as I have. She was the other veteran writer in the room. And then everyone were younger writers. Two of my staff writers had not been staffed on a show before. I knew them. Well, I knew Jack really well. And Brandon Hines, I got to know in the interview, I got to know by reading his scripts. Robbie Rogers, my producer was a writer in the room.

So the room was run… I think maybe I said this, I hope I say these things with a sense of humor when I say them, but I think I declared right away that this isn’t a democracy, sorry, because we don’t have time for that, actually. And I’ll hear everybody. And that a certain point, I will take the liberty of saying, “I’ve heard you. I’m making the other decision, and now we don’t need to discuss any further. Let’s move on.” And I think that’s what works. It’s just what you have to do because we could discuss things forever.

Writers, I don’t know about you, but I’m tortured, and like, oh, I don’t want to wrestle. Maybe it could be… So I needed them actually to remind me, “Ron, we should move on,” sometimes. We didn’t assign characters to certain people. We didn’t do that at all. Everybody, we broke each episode as a group, and then I started knowing fairly on who was going to write, I was going to assign pretty in early the process, and then I let them know. So then when we were breaking those episodes, I would encourage them to speak more, to be more part of that process. But everybody was welcome to join in on every episode.

T Cooper: And did everybody get a script at in the end?

Ron Nyswaner: Oh yeah. Everybody, yes, co-wrote a script or got their own script. Yes. D, the veteran, assigned two scripts on her own and boom, boom, banged it out, and was brilliant, and all that stuff. When you’re doing something for 30 years, you know how to do it, actually. But those scripts were wrestled with as well. Everybody’s script was treated as… Nobody’s script was treated as perfect or a religious object. And we didn’t have really any arguments. It was a pretty pleasant writer’s room. And I think, again, I came into this, we weren’t with years of thinking about it. I had a authority that comes from just having thought about something a lot.

Also, we were blessed by, because our show is, much of it is historical. So research was really important. My researcher, Lewis Grotman, was the researcher, was other than myself, was the longest employee on the show. He stopped working a week before I stopped working all the way to post. Because the rules on our show were that everything that the historical characters like McCarthy and Cohen say in public, they actually have to have said it. We’re not going to put words in their mouth. And so everything was really, really deeply researched in that sense. And the research then provides a lot of great material. So I think research is an essential part. Now, even a fictional show that isn’t based on specifically on historical people, I think research could really, I think it is really helpful.

T Cooper: Yeah. Did you say you were neurotic or OCD?

Ron Nyswaner: Well, is there a difference?

T Cooper: I think so. I have a OCD question, which is I hope that you can speak to, even if it comes from your neuroticism or your OCDism, or whatever, wherever they intertwine. But the checkerboarding storytelling, also while I was watching this, was exploding my brain. I just can’t imagine, first of all, how you all made the decision. And I’m sure this is something you had thought about for years, but the percentage of storytelling in this era versus this era as they start braiding and intertwining and then colliding. But also just the checkerboarding process, I can’t even imagine the board and what it looked like, and how each little thing from the past pushes ahead something from the present.

And I just did a Netflix mini room on a show like that. And a lot of shows are built like that, especially shows with multiple seasons, not necessarily miniseries. But I think a lot of us writers are trying to do that kind of storytelling that propels you to the present, or whatever the present of the story is. But it is so hard to do that on screen, making every scene, do what it needs to do in the present, but do something else in the next, future mostly timeline. So I’m curious about that. Did that just drive you crazy?

Ron Nyswaner: No, it was really fun. It was [inaudible 00:33:55].

T Cooper: Well, lucky for you.

Ron Nyswaner: Sorry. Really, really, really fun. The eighties sequence… Let me back up. We knew early on. I knew early on, I think maybe even in a pitch. Early on, we knew that the fifties story would be A story for five episodes. Then we go to the sixties, then we go to the seventies, and then we would go… The finale, we would go back to the fifties, but it would be the B story, the fifties and the finale would be the B story. Whereas the 1986 story would be the A story.

So the first five episodes we knew going in, we said, our A story is the fifties, our B story, our framing device, but I didn’t want it to just be a framing device, although in some episodes it turns out to be that. And then so we would break the A story and then say, “Okay, what’s happening in San Francisco? What’s our B story?”. “Okay, so what if they have a big fight and Hawke goes to a sex club and gets beat up?”. So we would just pitched, so let’s do four beats in the eighties, knowing what the beginning point was, Hawke shows up, the end point, he’s at the AIDS quilt by himself.

We would nail the A story. And then you just find those moments where you felt, like if it was network TV, that’d be a great place for a commercial break. Something happens in the A story was like, that can rest for a minute. Now you go. So actually it was really fun and it changed in post of course.

T Cooper: Oh yeah. Yeah, and editors can do magic to make even pop that stuff out even more. But yeah, I was just thinking even just choosing that as your little four beat runner of him going to the club and this guy trying to top him. But then that choice of that thing happening then is resonant to what you then see later when he allows Tim to take that role. That’s all so resonant and has to be, it can’t just be, he goes and looks at the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. Is that where those fucking sea lions are? Whatever that… Know what I mean? It has to be, whatever, the resonance of it. It’s just where are those seals?

Ron Nyswaner: But actually I have to give credit where the credit was due. That very thing that you mentioned, that was Gary Levine, the President Showtime’s note, suggestion.

T Cooper: What?

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah. He said, “The eighties story is a little dull.” Now, he didn’t say sex club. That was me. That was me and my co-writer, or Anya who wrote the episode, but made probably the room. He said, “What if he goes out and gets rolled? He gets mugged.”. It was just like it was too-

T Cooper: Yeah, it’s a good note.

Ron Nyswaner: It’s Showtime, they like, we, sex, violence, let’s go for it.

T Cooper: Yeah. Well, speaking of sex, since you just said the word sex. Yeah. Was there any limit that they were like, “Yo, this is real explicit. We’re trying to get straight ladies to watch this shit. If we’re lucky, a couple straight guys will watch this shit.” Were there any times where were like, “What are you doing?”.

Ron Nyswaner: So Dante Di Loreto, the president of Fremantle, his advice on the sex was, “Ron, let’s make the sex so hot that straight men will want to have gay sex.” So there’s the first note. And Showtime, you do have to… I’m sure you know. There’s the call from, I don’t know what department it is, the legal department.

T Cooper: Yeah, whatever [inaudible 00:37:08].

Ron Nyswaner: They say, “So these are the Showtime rules. You don’t see bodily fluids, but these are the rules.” I’m just going to say, I’m not going to mention any names. I got a call from an executive after that call who said, “Ron, those are the official rules, but if you push it a bit, we can always change, fix it in the cutting room.” So I was encouraged.

T Cooper: That’s great.

Ron Nyswaner: So we did that thing. Speaking of in episode four, again, there’s a sexual act. And Hawkins services Tim. It’s what I call a dirty kiss, meaning Hawkins has something in his mouth when he kisses. And we weren’t allowed to, but I just said in post, Steve, I said, “Make his lips really glist… Look wet.” I wanted people to know what was going on.

T Cooper: Yeah, that was good. You got your fluid in.

Ron Nyswaner: Do you know what, again, it goes back to that thing, a writer’s conversation, which is that the actors loved it too. Every scene in the show really comes down to power. And Dan Minahan and I decided this on the set actually, that every scene is going to be about power. And so the sex scenes that, and Matt, and Johnny, and Jelani, and Noah, they love that because that gives an actor something to act. They’re not just showing their body so that the fans can go crazy. I have power over you and you have power over me.

T Cooper: Well, speaking a little bit, this is something I think about the time. You probably don’t know. I don’t know why you’d know, but my wife and I, she’s a journalist. I was novelist. I published 10 books. That’s what I did. But when a bunch of us were migrating into TV, we were like, “Oh my God, look, you can make a money. Amazing.”

Ron Nyswaner: Writers can make a living.

T Cooper: I was like, “Wow, that’s so great. You can get paid to write. Cool.”

Anyway, we came up with a show, and this was in, I want to say 2009. I can’t remember. But we came up with a show that was about, it was a love story between a man and woman, and the guy just happened to be trans. It was loosely based on our love story in our life. It was a New York neurotic Jew coming down south and meeting a woman down there.

We sold it in the room to Showtime. Not only was I like, “Oh my God, TV writing is so easy. I’m always doing this.” The last time I’ve ever felt that. At any rate, we sold it in the room.

Ron Nyswaner: That wears off really quickly.

T Cooper: Oh, one meeting down in the agents in the garage that I already lost, I was disabused of that.

Anyway, no. So we sold it. We had a couple offers. This was well before Transparent. This is well before any trans shows were on or even being made. I think there was a Ryan Murphy one.

Ron Nyswaner: It was after Soldiers Girl, I’ll just say.

T Cooper: Yes, yes. I’m sorry. I meant in the premium TV space [inaudible 00:39:57]. But it was Bob Greenblatt who bought it, and obviously he left. But we did get to continue developing it. We had sold it as a comedy, like a Dramedy. And Showtime at the time, our execs were great. And they were like, “You know what? We feel like this is an hour. Let’s make it a little more involved and whatever.” And we did that. And it didn’t get made obviously. I don’t think it was of the post Greenblatt era.

But will say, and this is something I would love to talk to you about and have us have this conversation, because I do think that, especially for trans stories, I feel like the trauma-based stories… And this can be related to a lot of other communities, gay, black, whatever. The first, as far as our underrepresented stories go in mainstream storytelling really feels to be about stories about us and our loved ones suffering as a result of us.

And thinking about Boys Don’t Cry, and Crying Game, and even Soldier’s Girl to an extent, obviously, I think folks are interested, like, “Oh my God, the collateral damage of relationships like this.” And even Transparent, which was obviously the first mainstream trans character was everything was a mess as a result of this trans character coming out. She was a mess. Her family was a mess. It was a result of the transness.

At any rate, I think that, I feel like for our show, I just don’t think folks were ready for a… I don’t don’t even think we are now, but I don’t think that we are ready for just someone who happens to be trans and is not the source of the conflict or drama in the show, and that they can have, say Larry David moments or whatever, that have nothing to do with being trans. And there can be conflict, and drama, and mistakes, and fuck ups, and falling, and falling in love and out of love, and all that stuff, but it doesn’t have to be about being trans.

And so yeah, it’s in a way, we just started having steps forward of getting to be real people who aren’t constantly suffering because of our transness. Maybe we can, I don’t know, put out a fire and save a cat from a tree or whatever all that stuff is. But then now, look what’s happening now. It’s an era that is akin to what you portrayed the end of Fellow Travelers, which is a government that is literally trying to squash us out of existence in a lot of states, as in the eighties with AIDS, is just perfectly happy to watch a whole community just die. And a lot of these laws and a lot of these states, the backlash to the visibility about trans people, many people think, “Oh, oh my God, all these trans people, suddenly now they’re allowed to be trans, and there’s so many of them. It’s spreading like a disease.” And so now the squashing backlash is happening.

And I just find myself just constantly, because I’ve been telling trans stories since the nineties in various forms, whether on stage, or in books, or journalism, scripted stuff. But I just find myself really struggling with the need for, I think people who have the money and the resources, and the green lighting power to see some trauma unfold for these characters. And I don’t think they know in their heads, oh, I got to see this person suffer as a result of their quote “choices” or whatever. But I do feel like there is still this prevailing thought that if we are suffering, that is how we get straight or whatever mainstream folks, or cis folks, or whatever it is, white folks, to care.

So I just wonder, there’s just a lot as far as educating an audience versus allowing us to just be cool, interesting, flawed characters. And yeah, I struggle with this stuff all the time, and have a new project that is a film that was funded and wasn’t funded because it’s about a real trans person. It’s a biopic. And I think people are really scared of it because this character’s not suffering. There is a problem with it, that I’d love to tell you about the project in a minute, but I’m just saying-

Ron Nyswaner: Yes sir.

T Cooper: … Talk about this space that I just [inaudible 00:43:52] this [inaudible 00:43:52].

Ron Nyswaner: Sure. A few things come to my mind. One that I said on the set of Fellow Travelers, we’re not, no noble victims folks, no noble victims. And Dan Minahan, who’s close to my age, we would talk to the younger LGBTQ people on the show. We actually, people, even though I wasn’t going around out in the fifties, but throughout the sixties and seventies, whatever, gay people found a way to make music, have sex, have fun. They had lives even with McCarthy and Cohen, even with AIDS, there was culture. There was dancing. In this eighties, there was punk, and there was post-punk, and there’s great performance art. There was a lot of stuff going on. It wasn’t just the suffering. So that’s one thing.

The other hand is that you need stakes. All shows, even comedies especially, you have to have stakes. You think about Nurse Jackie, a nurse who’s a drug addict. I mean, there has to be that thing. You think about the serial killer [inaudible 00:44:55]-

T Cooper: Dexter.

Ron Nyswaner: … It goes, like he’s a cop, but he’s a murderer. There’s that thing. So you have to have that [inaudible 00:45:02]. Because people, I have had people say, “Why can’t you just make a happy show about being gay?”. I’m like, “Right. Why didn’t Shakespeare just write, ‘Hamlet goes home and goes to the wedding of his mother and his uncle, and they all get along.'” Now there’s a great play. Yeah, I’ll buy that ticket. Of course, you need drama. You need conflict. So I think that we have to walk two lines, but maybe the conflict doesn’t have to be, I am gay.

One of the things I love about Hawkins Fuller as people, he’s a controversial character in some ways because some people think he’s really not nice. There’s a handle on there. Instagram, I think, that says, “Skippy must be saved.” And people would write to me say, “Oh, why couldn’t he ever just ever end Tim, end up with a nice [inaudible 00:45:53] who treated him right?”. No, you don’t understand. He loved one guy. And he got to have love. But Hawkins Fuller loves being a homosexual. He loves being a man who has sex with men. He doesn’t hate himself for it, he [inaudible 00:46:06] himself, but he doesn’t hate himself. Tip doesn’t hate himself because he turns to God. His belief in God doesn’t make him hate himself. His belief in God actually elevates him.

But we have to have drama. Even in comedy, you have to have drama. So you have to walk that line. But I do think to what you’re talking about, I spoke about on Sunday, is that you still get nudged into you’re one of the queer shows. It is that challenge. If you’re making a show with a gay character, then people are assuming, or a trans character, it’s going to be about their transness or their gayness. And you just sort say, “Well, actually no, he’s a cop and he’s really interested in law and order.” We have to educate, but we have to educate the people that we’re pitching to. And it is just going with something undeniable. That that’s what you have to find, the thing that’s undeniable.

T Cooper: It is true. And obviously this moment culturally and politically, mostly politically, it’s just a real scary time that is obviously resonant to your series and especially the fifties stuff that you spend so much time with. But it is hard not to feel, struggle with that visibility angle of it as far as our responsibility to educate, and be responsible, and faithful, and portray characters that are like, they have to be perfect, because we don’t get a lot of chances to tell stories about these folks.

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah. But perfect people are boring.

T Cooper: Exactly.

Ron Nyswaner: They’re boring. They’re boring to be around, and they’re boring… Well, of course they don’t exist, really. So depictions of perfect people are boring. So I have no interest in those. So I think that we should, in some ways, we should, you and I and other LGBTQ storytellers, you have to let go of being responsible for the message, and say, “What would be a lot of fun to watch? And I’m going to put me in it, or I’m going to put people like me in it. But it is going to be really compelling. It’s going to be really scary, or it’s going to be really funny.” It’s just make, Lily, Thomas says, “They don’t call it show art. They call it show business.” And we have to appeal to the audience. Go for it.

T Cooper: Listen, I hear you. It’s something I think about all the time. I also, again, we have to be mindful about whose bank accounts those are in that business, and what they want to see, and what they think people want to see. And so, yeah, I just think that we were at a place where the door swung open a little bit, and I do, especially someone who’s out on that line, or at least before the strike, talking to buyers and potential buyers about this stuff nonstop, and projects coming our way, it’s just been real interesting to hear how many times we have been told, “Oh my God, that’s the most moving story thing ever.” Like you said, crying in the pitch.

We took something out with Laverne Cox playing… It was with JJ. Abrams company. We took… Laverne was going to be playing this character. It was a historical person from the sixties. It was the first black trans model who was on the cover of Italian Vogue and Essence Magazine. And her whole life was destroyed when she was outed because no one knew she was trans. Her name’s Tracy Norman. We took that everywhere, and folks were literally crying in the pitch, but every single one was like, “Holy shit, we already have our gay show. We already have our trans show. No one wants to watch a black trans woman suffering in the sixties and hear about civil rights and this, that, and the other thing.”

So all I’m trying to say is it’s just been quite an education as far as that little slice of the pie. And the film industry did not invent that. When I was primarily writing novels, every time I had a book come out, I’d look. I had a few reviewed in the New York Times, but it was very interesting to see each week, okay, we have room… In the nineties, it was like, okay, here’s the Asian book, reviewed by the Asian writer. And here’s the, “Oh, we have room for one gay book, no lesbian books this week, but maybe next month.”

It’s just, listen, it is the art/business question that you evoked as far as Lily Tomlin’s little observation about that because it is, yeah, it’s the real deal because then our livelihoods are on the line as well. And it’s a battle as far as being the educator and in addition to just being someone who’s talented and wants to tell some good stories.

Ron Nyswaner: You just have to keep doing it.

T Cooper: Yes, agreed. That’s what I was going to ask, if you had any advice to LGBTQ in our salon, writers who are out there trying to tell these stories. Do you have anything that you tell these writers that come to you with, I don’t know.

Ron Nyswaner: I think you just said it. I think that you, in our conversation the last couple minutes of our conversation, which is that it’s maybe presenting our victimhood upfront, even though it’s true, that might not service… First of all, that’s going to make it harder to sell and it might not service us as well. It trying to a way to fold that story into something that actually has that thing. People love genre. They love horror, they love action, all that stuff, that you’re not just the menu on the streamer, you don’t just fit in the LGBTQ menu. You also fit in the thriller menu, or you also fit in the comedy menu. And that, I think, to have that awareness of is just telling the story of our suffering is not enough. It’s you pair it with something that takes it to the next level.

T Cooper: Okay, I’m going to shake off my genre, or sorry, non-mainstream storytelling questions that I have for you, or underrepresented storytelling, and ask just a couple quick questions just about TV stuff, like you obviously love TV. Can you think of an episode of TV that you saw as a younger person that just has always stuck with you and that just is buried in your heart for whatever reason?

Ron Nyswaner: Wow, that’s a tough one. That I saw as a kid. As a kid?

T Cooper: Or no, as a younger writer, it could have been last week.

Ron Nyswaner: Well, yeah, you’re giving me too many choices. I’m just trying to think about the things that really inspired me and moved me. They tended to be very gay things in a way that young gay boy would appeal to. This is embarrassing. I loved the show, the Big Valley with Barbara Stanwyck when I was a kid. I loved it. I loved the drama of it, and I loved this really strong woman. Barbara Stanwyck is just such a great actress. And she was in charge of this family. And every now and then she’d get to deliver this great speech where she would put someone in their place, or she would elevate them in a way. And I thought, wow, that… I felt that that was real drama. And also, her sons were all really, really sexy hunks. There was Lee Majors, and the guy like Nick, the guy who played Nick. So that show fulfilled, that hit every button for me.

T Cooper: Love it. Mine is Mash the episode where Hawkeye’s in the back of the bus and he thinks that the girl is, the woman is strangling, I guess it’s a goose or an animal, but it’s really an infant, because they’re trying to be quiet when the enemy is attacking. The whole series, I have literally all episodes behind me in DVD, which are these little round things that you put in machines and then they… I don’t know if you’ve heard of those, a lot of the [inaudible 00:53:33]-

Ron Nyswaner: I think I used to have a machine that could do that, but I don’t know where it went.

T Cooper: It’s really weird. And they send things at the end of each year, and you’re supposed to put those in machines too, and I [inaudible 00:53:39]-

Ron Nyswaner: Not anymore.

T Cooper: … Do that. At any rate. And then one last question too that’s a fun one. Is there any movie that you just can watch a million times and why? Like, if it’s on and you see it flipping through, and you’re going to watch it, what is it?

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah, I have funny taste that way. One of the movies that really has an influence on the Fellow Travelers is The Way We Were. Matt Bomer refers to it as The Gay We Were. He says, “Our show is the Gay We Were.”

T Cooper: It is.

Ron Nyswaner: The guy I’m dating right now. He and I recently did about two or three minutes of a conversation with dialogue from the Way We Were. He started, and we kept trying to one up each other saying, “Do you know the next line?”. And we literally had a two minute long conversation. So that movie really, really is important for me. Again, gay kid in 1973, feeling just that, first of all, the passion that Katie played by Barbra Streisand has in that movie for politics and for what’s right. And that’s who I was in high school, which means I had to sit in the back of the home room a lot. I was the editor of the underground newspaper. We had to sit down against the war. I was in trouble all the time because of my politics and all this stuff. And I was Katie Murawski. And I’ve waited my whole life to fall in love with Hubbell Gardner. So that movie, really, I could watch it just over and over and over again.

T Cooper: That’s great.

Ron Nyswaner: What do you put on?

T Cooper: Oh God, The Wiz. I wore that shit out. I would come back from school. No one would be home. I would get my Sara Lee pound cake. I’d eat the middle out of it, not the outside. And I would fucking put on that VHS of The Wiz. I cried every time. And when I was a kid, apparently, I grew up in LA, my parents took me to see it live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Ron Nyswaner: Oh, wow.

T Cooper: I was little. And my mom said, I was sitting on the seat at the end and just like I wanted them to do it again. I was so happy. I don’t know why. And then when I saw the Wizard of Oz after that, I thought that they had copied The Wiz. So I don’t know, man, that story is just so resonant. It’s on Broadway right now. I’m trying to get tickets.

Ron Nyswaner: That’s amazing. So when do you cry? Do you cry at the end when Lena Horne is singing home?

T Cooper: I cry throughout. There’s just so many… When the crows are… The crows giving Michael the business up on the whatever he is hanging on, the taxi cabs, just when the world starts shaking around them in the subways. I don’t know what it is, but it just feels so resonant on so many levels. And I don’t know. As a kid, I don’t think I got that. But when I watched it as I was older, those levels, the civil rights stuff for whatever reason, just resonated on levels I couldn’t understand. So I would just cry about it.

Ron Nyswaner: Wow. I’m going to make you jealous.

T Cooper: You have tickets?

Ron Nyswaner: No, but 20 years ago or more, I had lunch with Diana Ross, just the two of us.

T Cooper: Oh my God.

Ron Nyswaner: She wanted me to write something for her. This was longer than 25 years ago. It was soon after Philadelphia. We had lunch. It was really beautiful, in her condo building, and there was a dining room, but it was like between meals so it was just us. And at one moment, she’s so nice, and she’s saying, “Where do you live? Oh, you have a house upstate,” and all that small talk. And I said, “I have to stop you.” And she got scared. I said, “I just have to say something. You have given me so much joy in my life. I just have to say thank you.” She welled up with tears, that I’m trying, I’ve been told that I need to learn to just say things like thank you when people say nice things to me. So I’m just going to say thank you. So now T I have to say, as I go through my life, every now and then someone compliments me. I’ll say like, “Not to name drop her anything. Diana Ross once said to me, ‘Just say, thank you.'”

T Cooper: I love it.

Ron Nyswaner: I would’ve invited you. You could have met her.

T Cooper: I love it. That is truly, you are lucky, man. That’s a moment.

Ron Nyswaner: It was a moment. It was just, you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I’m talking to Diana Ross, so-”

T Cooper: “She wanted to talk to me.”

Ron Nyswaner: Yeah. You just feel like, okay, I’m living a very gifted life.

T Cooper: Love it. Listen, this has been a pleasure. You’re a gem. I’m really-

Ron Nyswaner: Let’s hang out sometime.

T Cooper: For real.

Ron Nyswaner: Obviously you’re New York based, right?

T Cooper: Yes, yes.

Ron Nyswaner: Doing this career from New York. But I’m LA, so come out to LA. I’m sure you come to LA?

T Cooper: I am. I do. My family’s still there, so I would love, yeah, let’s grab lunch and I will tell you how much your work has meant to me. I’ll start crying and then you can start crying.

Ron Nyswaner: Well, as Diana Ross once said to me, I’ll just say thank you.

T Cooper: Thank you. Perfect. Let’s end it with, thank you.

Ron Nyswaner: This has really been one of the most fun conversations I’ve had.

T Cooper: Awesome. Same. Congrats again on the award and we’ll connect soon.

Ron Nyswaner: Thanks. Bye everybody

T Cooper: OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. The series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producers are Molly Beer and Tiana Timmerberg. Our designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Taylor Bradshaw.

To learn more about the Writers Guild of America East, visit us online at, or follow the guild on all social media platforms @WGAEast. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for listening. Until next time, write on.

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