“There Are No Rules Or Guidelines.” Showrunner Ilene Chaiken On ‘Empire’

[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]

Being known for changing television twice is no small feat, but one that writer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken has successfully managed. As the creator of The L Word and the showrunner behind Empire, Chaiken has mastered the role as a trailblazer for marginalized communities.

Empire centers around hip-hop mogul Lucious (Terrence Howard), ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and their three sons as they battle for control of Lucious’s business empire.

In this interview, Chaiken discusses her time with the Fresh Prince, a love for genre films, how to recognize ideas in the room that are better than your own, and the recipe for creating an iconic cliffhanger.

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire Season 3, “What We May Be” 
 ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

What originally attracted you to get into the entertainment business?

That’s a hard one. I was a writer and I really wanted to tell stories. But for some stupid reason, I went to art school instead of pursuing my literary ambitions. There, I discovered that the only way to combine visual arts with storytelling was to become a filmmaker. It was almost an accident. I needed to tell stories and I decided that I would take film classes, and lo and behold, I was a filmmaker.

Among your earliest credits is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. How did you get involved with that series?

Before I started making my living as a writer, I was an executive for ten years. I came out to Hollywood after I finished school with my film degree, and with all of my dreams and ambitions of being a writer and a filmmaker, but I had to get a job. I started at Creative Artists Agency, where I became a Creative Executive and wound up running several film and television companies.

My last job as an executive was running Quincy Jones’ company. As an executive, I helped put together The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was a producer on the first season of it. But it wasn’t the same job that I have now as a creative producer. It was a producer title earned by being an executive.

Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

What original scripts were you writing? Were they personal or genre films?

My first film as a writer that was produced, was an adaptation of a comic book called Barb Wire. You mentioned “genre”, and I was a genre writer. It was what I was drawn to, and I liked action and science fiction.

I had written a spec script that was an angry little girl action movie, which was kind of an homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Off of that, I got the Barb Wire opportunity and that got made, so those were the kinds of movies that I started writing.

Then I took a surprising and extreme turn, because I got offered a project at Showtime that was much more serious and scholarly, which was a movie called Dirty Pictures. It was a true story about the NEA fight back in the 1990s, in which the conservative wing of the government was trying to defund the arts. It was about Robert Mapplethorpe’s work.

I was really excited to get to write that, because it was about everything that I had cared about as a student and as an artist. So those two very different sides of my writing personality — very different creative drawls — defined the scope of my writing style.

Pamela Anderson Lee as Barb Wire in Barb Wire

Did Dirty Pictures then lead you to The L Word?

It did. It almost led me directly to The L Word in a certain way, which was through my relationship with Showtime.

Dirty Pictures actually won a Golden Globe, which I think was very pleasing to Showtime, so I was working on more projects with them. That’s when I came up with the idea for The L Word, which was completely whimsical. I never thought that I would create a television series, I just had a story I wanted to tell.

What if we were to do a TV show about a bunch of lesbians in Hollywood? The response was equally whimsical because I thought no one would ever do that.

You were the showrunner on The L Word as well?

Not only was I the showrunner, but I had never worked in television before. But because I had been an executive all those years, and because the executive at Showtime was Gary Levine, who is now the President of Showtime and a long time friend, when Showtime decided to pick up The L Word, Gary looked at me and said, “Well, you can run this…” I said well sure, of course I can, not really knowing even remotely what that meant.

In an interview you did with the Advocate, I read you also hired a writing staff of gay and lesbian writers for the series. Was this a Hollywood first?

I hate to attribute first to myself because I don’t know, but a lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten was that it contributed to a chance within the culture of Hollywood and television. There was Queer as Folk, which did come before The L Word, so I don’t know if it was a first, but it was among the few.

It certainly seems like that would make a series more authentic for viewers to know they’re watching real stories told as fiction.

There’s no question that when you’re telling stories about culture and experience, that there’s a lot to be said for having writers who represent and come from that culture and experience. Who better to tell the stories than the people who lived those stories in a real and tangible way?

Rosanna Arquette as Cherie Jaffe and Katherine Moennig as Shane McCutcheon in The L Word

And now you’re on Season 3 of Empire, where you’re working as the showrunner and a writer. This is another show with historically marginalized communities. How did you get involved with this project?

Empire was created by Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and Danny Strong (The Butler, Hunger Games: Mockingjay). Neither of them had ever run a television show, so when Fox was considering putting the show on their schedule, they told Lee and Danny that they needed to find a showrunner.

I was one of several people they met with who had run shows before. They were looking for someone they felt would understand their vision, who would be respectful of it, and be able to executive it.

They wound up choosing me, which brings us back to the point we were discussing a minute ago about culture and life experience. This is a show that’s about a culture that isn’t mine, that I have no experience of. But I identified that my job would be to staff the show with writers who had something to say.

Similar as to how The L Word writers wrote about being a lesbian in Hollywood, we needed primarily African American writers who knew things that I didn’t.

You found these writers by reading scripts?

We read hundreds of scripts, submitted by agents and managers, and chose from among a group of very talented writers. We chose the ones we ultimately thought had the best connection to the show, who could collectively create the universe that became Empire.

Bryshere Gray as Hakeem Lyon and Serayah as Tiana Brown in Empire Season 3, “Strange Bedfellows” 
 © 2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

I’ve read that you describe yourself as an “inclusive showrunner,” which I interpreted as simply meaning you welcome the input of others. How do you nurture a welcoming environment as a showrunner?

One of the things that I discovered on The L Word was how dynamic the group process actually is, and how exciting and rewarding.

I came in as a solitary screenwriter who had spent most of her time locked in a room with her own thoughts, and I couldn’t imagine that working with other writers would ever become something that I enjoyed doing, especially on my own show. I thought that no one else would be able to know how to tell my own story.

But very quickly, I learned that the ideas developed in the collective environment were far more enriching than my own ideas. I realized my job as a showrunner was to listen and hear ideas, and hope to both hear and recognize ideas that were better than mine.

That’s what I meant by being an inclusive showrunner. I really love the group process, and I come at it assuming the best things will happen when we work together.

The world of Empire exists within the African American community, and the show touches on major issues like incarceration and Black Lives Matter. Are there any rules or guidelines when sharing these issues in a fiction manner?

There are no rules or guidelines. We talk about and write about the things we believe would touch the lives of these characters. We include stories that feel authentic and organic to the character’s lives.

We’re never explicitly trying to rip from the headlines. We’re trying to imagine the lives of these people and then tell provocative, truthful stories about them. We don’t feel like we can only go this far. No one is telling us that we can’t do this or that. We take our own measure.

Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon in Empire Season 3, “The Unkindest Cut” 
 © 2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Is there a way to better encourage individuals within these marginalized communities to write or create their own stories, and projects that are specifically real for them?

Is there a way to encourage this? I hope by doing it. All of the writers that I know and have worked with take every opportunity to encourage by doing outreach and education, such as speaking or just making yourself available.

I think the most important thing we can do is to just put those stories out there, so others can see that there’s no limit to what can and should be created as entertainment and culture.

What are some of the cinematic or cultural influences on Empire?

The biggest and most often cited influence is Shakespeare. Danny Strong based Empire on King Lear, and we continue to throw Shakespeare in scenes, and we’re constantly checking ourselves for references.

Then, of course, there’s hip-hop culture and history. We’re constantly citing our hip-hop references, and doing research to make sure we’re doing our best to reflect the truth about the history of the music and the culture as we possibly can.

Derek Jacobi as Lear in King Lear

It looks like there are some special guest stars in Season 3, such as Demi Moore and Eva Longoria. What else might fans expect to see in this new season?

The season ends spectacularly, and we’ve actually done something that we haven’t done before: the last two episodes are conceived as a two-part heist movie.

We’re telling a story that takes us to Las Vegas, as the Lyon Family makes business moves there, to expand their empire. We did this great two-part heist episode that we’ve been calling “Cookie’s Eleven.” It’s not listed that way literally, but that’s what we’ve joked about it.

As we always try to do at the end of a season, there are several classic cliffhangers that really set up the fourth season. These are stories that are poised to take the series to new places.

If you’re a fan of the show, hopefully at the end of the season you will come away on the edge of your seat, wanting to know where could they possible go with that, with Demi Moore, with Eva Longoria, with all of these pregnant moments that we leave the audience with.

Eva Longoria as Charlotte Frost in Empire Season 3, “Toil and Trouble” 
 ©2017 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Finally, IMDb lists you as a writer on The Handmaid’s Tale, which is now on Hulu. Are you also writing for this new series as well?

I’m an executive producer on the show. It was originally a project that I was the writer for, which I set up and developed at Showtime. But they didn’t go forward with it, so I moved on to Empire.

The show got picked up by Hulu based on the script that I had written, but I was then unavailable to do it, so they found a new showrunner who did his own version of the show.

I’m an executive producer on it and I’m really thrilled that the show got made, and that it’s been made so beautifully. The showrunner is Bruce Miller (The 100, ER) and I think he’s done a great job with it, but I’m not a writer on it.

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