Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer, Big Love

Courtesy Ron Batzdorff/HBO

As the creators and show runners of HBO’s Big Love, one of the most innovative—and oddly traditional—family dramas on television today, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer have brought the world of polygamy into America’s living rooms.

The characters they’ve concocted are so three-dimensional and their lifestyle is so intricately crafted, the show actually manages to make the polygamist lifestyle seem almost normal. As a viewer, you find yourself feeling sympathetic to Bill Henrickson and his wives. But after learning a bit about the painstaking work that goes into creating the Big Love universe, you might just feel more sympathy for Mark and Will. Take a listen...

How did you get your big break in the business?
Will Scheffer:  Well, we both started as playwrights in New York. We pursued that for quite some time, and eventually, we both received recognition for our work. One way to crack the Hollywood business is to start as a good playwright. You can get discovered that way.

Mark Olsen:  Yeah, I think both of us would say we got our big breaks at HBO because of our playwriting. HBO recognized Will’s talent and [in 1997], he [was hired to write] the [tele]film In the Gloaming. That was his first commissioned television film work. And it was a real big deal for us. It was his big springboard and mine, too. HBO then read one of my plays and enjoyed it very much, and [they] commissioned me to do a six-part miniseries that’s still in development.

Did you begin writing plays when you were still in school?
M.O.:  I wrote my first play when I was seven years old. But then I was distracted by a 20-year dream to be the Democratic senator from the state of Oregon. Once I gave up on that, I returned to writing more seriously in my midthirties.

W.S.:  I started late too. I went to conservatory to study acting, and I started writing when I was about 27.

Was it always your intention to jump from playwriting to TV or is it something that just came along?
M.O.:  I was pretty much a snob. TV was the last place I thought I’d land. Will was there much faster than I was. And I have to say, through his experience, I realized that, in fact, television is the best place for a playwright. You can tell better stories, deeper, and have more control over the authorial voice.

W.S.:  Television is the greatest place for a writer to work, especially if you’re the show runner, because it’s your baby. You have complete control, maybe even more than any director on a film. It feels more complete, because you are writing the words, casting the actors, working with the actors, directing the actors, cutting the footage, postproducing, promoting and then doing it all again the next year. It’s pretty much the best job a writer could possibly dream of.

Is there anything you wish you'd known before you took the job on?
M.O.:  The less you know before, the better. I’m being quite sincere. It’s such a horrendously hard job that the first year is much easier than the second, because the first year, you walk into it with stars in your eyes. You don’t know what you are in for.

W.S.:  We came into it somewhat [blind]. We were used to [the process of] creating pilots. I’d done quite a few before this happened, and I’d had a staff job at a television show once, just before it got canceled. So, I remember starting that and saying, Wow, this is a really hard job. But in a way, I remained blissfully ignorant until we came to run Big Love. We were woefully unprepared, and that turned out to be an “ignorance is bliss” situation. I think if we had known how much work it was going to be, we probably wouldn’t have been so starry-eyed about it.

MO:  If you know how painful a root canal is going to be, you’re probably not going to the dentist.

What specifically were you most unprepared for? Was it the amount of work or specifically the ins and outs of television ?
WS:  Really, it is the amount of work. But if you think about it, there are more than a few different jobs where you have to put in 100 hours a week and constantly use your brain power. I think the hardest thing about running a show, especially if you’re a writer, is that you have to have every single possible skill set that you can imagine. You have to be a good manager, you have to be incredibly organized, incredibly creative, incredibly collaborative. You have to be able to hire and fire people. You have to be able to cast. You have to have taste and talent. You’re always doing about 10 things at once when you’re running a show, and you have to do it quickly. I think that’s what’s so stressful about it. You’re using so many different parts of your brain.

MO:  It’s four or five full-time jobs rolled in to one. There’s a reason show runners look pallid and weak and on their last leg.

WS:  I wouldn’t say it’s as important a job as being president of the United States, but you’ll notice that show runners go gray about as often as presidents do.

Big Love

Lacey Terrell / HBO

In any given week of Big Love, or however long it takes to go from blank script to a product that's ready for air, how does your day break down?
M.O.:  Let’s say we’re in production. You get to the set at 6 a.m. for the first blocking rehearsal. Then after the blocking rehearsal, you have 45 minutes before the shooting rehearsal, so you run back up to the writer’s room to finish off the notes that HBO sent the night before.

W.S.:  Yes, and the notes you’re running back to the room for are on script number six, which you’re currently writing, though you’re shooting script number one right now.

M.O.:  But meanwhile, you have to be back downstairs in 10 minutes for a casting call for the parts on script number two.

W.S.:  And you have to get that done before the table read for script number five that’s happening at lunch. But a lot of it happens before [we’re in production] as well. We’ll be going back into the writer’s room for about three months before we start shooting season three. So, in those three months, we’ll be working with the writers, breaking the stories on the third season, trying to get a sense of the whole arc of the year and beginning to outline and assign episodes for the [other] writers to write. And we’ll be writing the first two episodes, so once you’re done doing all the talking and breaking the story, you’re going and drafting your scripts.

Of course, you’re also [going over] the work of fellow writers, addressing notes from the network, notes from your production team on how to get the script into shape, so it doesn’t cost more than you have to shoot it. And then you get into the actual mechanics of production, like Mark said before, there’s the shooting, working with the actors.

And then, at a certain point in the season, you get into editing. The directors give you a first cut, and as producers/show runners, you’re working for another week or two, refining it in the editing room before you give it to the network, so they can give you notes on your cut. So, as you can see, by the time you get into midseason, you’re doing five jobs at once. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Sounds more like 10 jobs at once. But you also have, as you said, writers working under you and directors and line producers. Do you have a specific process for hiring those people?
W.S.:  Absolutely. We look for talent. And we look for people who are smarter than we are.

M.O.:  And we look for nice people who are collaborative and park their ego at the door.

W.S.:  Yeah, Mark and I are both big proponents of the No Asshole rule. We’re looking for people who have integrity, a great sense of humor, like working with other people and enjoy creating something beautiful. We have a really sweet set. Our crew is very important to us, and we really like going to work.

So, amid all the craziness, you still enjoy the process?
M.O.:  I don’t know I would say I enjoy the process. But I would say I find the process and the product to be deeply satisfying.

W.S.:  I agree. It’s too hard to enjoy. It’s like a marathon, I guess. Does the marathon runner enjoy running? You get into the zone sometimes where you’re like, Oh my God, I really enjoyed writing that scene...I really enjoyed working with that actor...Mark and I enjoyed having that fight that created that piece of work.

M.O.:  And Mark enjoyed winning that fight.

W.S.:  [Laughs.] Mark is absolutely driven to create the best product he can possibly create, and sometimes he almost kills me with his need to make a better, more perfect show. But in the end it’s so satisfying to be driven like that.

M.O.:  The joke we had last year was that we didn’t take vacations—we went to the emergency room. And it was a joke, but there was a certain amount of truth to it. There was one moment in the editing room about four or five months ago when Will wrote on a legal pad and slid it over to me and it said, "I need to go to the ER now." And I picked up my pen and wrote on the pad, "It’s not your turn," and shoved it back to him.

Best and worst part of the job?
M.O.:  By far, the best part is that dreams come true. It’s that old Hollywood saying, it really is the best job in the world, because you get to imagine things and then make them real. And sometimes at the end of the day, when you’re walking through the sets and the trailers and all the crew paraphernalia, you still feel astonished that you’re all there to concoct these stories. There’s just something magical about that.

W.S.:  And the worst part of the job?

M.O.:  The food is pretty crummy in Santa Clarita.

W.S.:  The [on-set] caterer is great, but when we’re just working in the writers’ room, we have to [fend for ourselves], and that’s pretty bad. No, I don’t know what the worst part is. It’s like they say, Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. I couldn’t think of a more apt statement than that for this kind of work.

M.O.:  For me, the worst part would be that it is all consuming. And it would be impossible for me to sufficiently footnote the word all. It takes up every part of one's life. That’s the only way I know how to do the job in order to pull it off. And you tend to sometimes feel like a very one-dimensional, lopsided human being after being in the fires of production for a year. I’m not crazy about that.

Do you ever get sick of thinking about the characters and that world, even though it’s sort of rich and wonderful?
M.O.:  Mercifully, the answer to that is no. It’s funny, one of the things that we both learned as we were heading out into television was that if you’re going to pitch something, make sure that it has enough to keep you interested for the long haul. Because the long haul may be many, many years. And we find the canvas that we’re writing, the characters that we’re populating that canvas with, give us that. There’s enough that we can personally connect to and politically connect to, that you can go deeper and deeper each year, and it keeps us engaged. So, I guess the short answer for if you ever get tired of characters or ever get resentful of them crowding out your life is not seriously so.

W.S.:  At least not yet.

What advice would you give someone who wants to be you in 10 years?
M.O.:  Keep at it, just keep at it. Perseverance makes luck. Perseverance is the key.

W.S.:  When you think about how many pilots don’t get made, how hard is it to come up with a good idea, how hard is it to then pitch it to a network and get it bought, then write it, the [slim] chances that it’s gonna get that order to be made into a pilot and then made into an actual series and then actually be successful, the odds are really stunning. So, you really have to say, Okay I’m going to do this. Every day I’m going to get better; I’m going to put one foot in front of the other, and I’m going to persevere. I have the talent, but I can’t make mountains out of molehills. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep on going.

M.O.:  And don’t dumb yourself down for the sake of a job. Hold true to your original vision no matter what and create your own opportunities.

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