Showrunning, Sera Gamble and the Australian model

The US creator of TV's 'The Magicians', 'You' and 'Supernatural' talked power and intensity, while in another session local players Leigh McGrath, Stephen M. Irwin and Jeffrey Walker added their Australian experience.

The term is still a bit fresh here, but showrunners are not exactly new in Australian television production. But we look to the US as leaders of the world’s most popular and distinctly authored drama and so some of the biggest drawcards at Screen Forever this year are the creators and showrunners of popular American television, like William Horburg (The Queen’s Gambit), Bruce Miller (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Sera Gamble (The Magicians, You).

Gamble appeared yesterday via video link, in conversation with Vanessa Gazy, the Australian creator and head writer of upcoming 8-part Stan/Balloon/Every Cloud series Eden. This is Gazy’s first TV series, so she was keen to get intel and advice from a more experienced player, and no doubt many of those watching were in the same boat.

Gamble is an aspirational model for any ambitious writer turned showrunner. She started out in the writers’ room on the cult CW series Supernatural and worked her way up to being showrunner for two seasons. She co-created the sci-fi series The Magicians, now in its fifth and final season (Amazon Prime), and most recently co-created the cult Netflix series You, about a charming serial killer (played by Penn Badgley), which was recently renewed for its third season. 

The key takeways from Gamble’s session revolved around the intensity of the showrunning role (don’t expect to have much of a personal life was the subtext); the importance of making multiple snap decisions and combining your most creative writer’s self with your most organised bureaucrat; and the advice to never to apologise for loving the kind of stories you want to tell.

Read: What exactly does a showrunner do?

These insights were repeated with Australian accents in another panel later in the day entitled ‘What is a Showrunner?’ This was moderated by writer and showrunner Leigh McGrath (Harrow, Secrets & Lies) in conversation with writer/showrunner Stephen M. Irwin (Harrow, Tidelands) and the prolific and consistently excellent director/exec producer Jeffrey Walker (Young Rock, Modern Family, Lambs of God). Walker  gave the perspective of working closely with showrunners both in the US system and at home. Also advertised on this panel was Tasmanian showrunner Vicki Madden (The Gloaming, The Kettering Incident) but she was missing due to illness, which was a pity because we’d have loved her apple isle slant.

As for what a showrunner is, exactly, think of them as a little God with many headaches. They are there at the beginning of the story’s world, its middle and its end, hopefully taking it into multiple seasons. As Stephen M. Irwin defined it: ‘A showrunner is a key creative who comes up with a project, is often the head writer and is there from the inception all the way to the end of the show when production completes. They are there with hands on the reins all the way to help steer the vision from inception to completion, including discussions with networks at initial stages, with key heads of department, cast and of course having a really strong bead on the writing, and sometimes even doing all the writing.’

Sera Gamble and the nature of the job

Gamble began as an aspiring screenplay writer with a writing partner and when they were finalists in a competition, they got an agent who advised them to try working for TV for a steady income. She loved being in a writers’ room and has never looked back. She still says making up the story, and being the writers’ room is her favourite place to be – that it’s like having ‘seven brains all connected together’.

She said being a showrunner was the best job you could have in TV.  ‘I think it’s the coolest because you get to do the most stuff, you have the most creative control, you’re really holding the vision for the TV show… at the same time, that means it’s not the job with the most days off, it’s not the lowest pressure, it’s not the job where you never have to say “no” to people.’

‘It’s kind of an even split between being your most creative writer-self at warp speed, and then also being a manager and a leader for hundreds of people. And that’s all day, every day, both of them.’

‘It’s kind of an even split between being your most creative writer-self at warp speed, and then also being a manager and a leader for hundreds of people. And that’s all day, every day…’

Not for the faint of heart then, or writers who need a lot of peace and quiet to focus. Gamble says she’s kind of person who likes being busy, doing a million things at once and juggling multiple projects. ‘That’s not for everybody, but I get a real charge out of just when I feel like my energy, it’s flagging, here’s a whole new set of things to look at. I mean, obviously, every day looks different, but the kind of the brain trust of a show, is the writer’s room. So nowadays, because of Covid, that’s on Zoom… We’re in the room many hours a day figuring out the season and then each episode, individual writers going off to write those episodes. And so, part of my job every day is to oversee the room, to push it in a direction, to give notes on the scripts, to assign them.

And then the rest of my time is aimed at all  the different aspects of production. Casting, talking to the directors about they want to shoot at this location, they have that idea for a stunt, all of those sort of things. There’s a million prep meetings that take place all throughout production. And then the final piece, once it’s through, is post. And so, you know, if I’m in the writers room in the morning and I’m getting pulled out to go to all of the production meetings, the end of my day for a couple of hours might be in post where I’m giving notes on the cuts as they’re coming in.’

At once point, she likened the process of being a showrunner in production to the pain of giving birth. ‘I feel like people are watching this and are going to be like, “Don’t. I’m not going to TV, it sounds terrible”. [But] It’s fun-hard. This isn’t “oh my God, he’s bleeding out on the operating table hard”. It’s people are playing “let’s pretend” hard. The stakes are, you know, it’s just money, it’s not human life.’

How do you learn to do it? By doing it of course.

‘It really is kind of like an apprenticeship [and] you learn by doing, there is no Major you can have in college to become a showrunner. The reason [the showrunner is] the writer is because TV is a medium that’s about telling a story over a long period of time. And so the person that the buck stops with, the person who makes the final decision, should be the person who most intimately holds… the secrets and the truth of where the story is going and can kind of juggle all of that. And that should be the person who created it, or who adapted it, or a writer who stepped in really early.’

Gamble described the process of learning to be a showrunner as being thrown into the deep end of the pool. ‘I had been on staff for a few seasons. I had done some producing, meaning I had followed episodes into production and post and worked with directors, all of that stuff. But nothing can really prepare you… you wake up as a showrunner and your job is to say “no”. Your job is to say yes or no about a thousand times a day. It was like waking up into a completely new career. So yeah, there was a bit of a learning curve for me. I would say 10 years in, I’m able to admit it was quite a learning curve for me.’

Getting a start and making the move from Writers’ Room to Showrunner

Asked about her first big opportunity to take responsibility, Gamble said it was on Supernatural, the longest-running show of its kind now, which went for 15 seasons, ‘but it was just a little show in the United States that had like a little cult following. Every season we were on the verge of cancellation, but I worked really well on that staff with the creator, Eric Kripke. I was able to write scripts the way he wanted them, I was able to kind of predict things that he would like in the writers’ room.

Really, my job was to help him. I mean, that’s every writer on staff. Your job really is to help the creator get closer to their vision and get more things done. And because I was like a responsible-to-a-fault kind of person, like for a few years, the executive producers of the show had been sort of quietly watching that I would be the first one in, the last one out, or if there was something that needed to be done, I would tend to volunteer to do it. They decided I was the right one to sort of groom to take the show over when it was time for Eric to leave after Season Five.’

‘So Eric sat me down on his couch and gave me the invitation, and I know the system is different in other parts of the world where TV isn’t so much about the showrunner, necessarily all over the world. But in the United States, this is pretty much how shows are run. It’s not 100 percent of the time that it’s the writer, but usually, that writer gets the boss job. And it’s a hard job to get, it’s a hard job to be trusted with, it’s hard to get the opportunity to fail at a job like that, because you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars that you’re responsible for in a very short period of time.

‘And I knew that my real dream was to create my own TV shows. And I saw the possibility that I would write something that people got excited about, but they wouldn’t trust me to run it myself, because why would they? At the time I was a very young woman in the business and why would they hand me $50 million if I had never done it before? So when Eric gave me this opportunity to be a showrunner on a show that existed, that was successful, and that ran like a well-oiled machine. It was like, I mean, I still thank him and send him bottles of really nice wine sometimes, because he changed the course of my career when he gave me the opportunity to do that.’

Women in showrunning, why aren’t there more?

‘It’s still a lot more men than women. I feel like it used to be about 80 percent male, and now it’s maybe like 75 percent male, but I mean, I haven’t seen exact numbers for this year, but, you know, whenever our guild has a big meeting for some reason, and they call all the showrunners to go sit in a room somewhere to hear what the leadership has to say, I like to count. And usually, when I just, this is a random sample, it’s like one out of every seven people who at the back of the heads I’ve been counting, are female.’

What’s going on? asked Gazy.

‘Should we talk about the patriarchy?’ Gamble laughed. ‘It’s a good job, it pays well. You have a lot of power within the system that you’re working inside. You have the power to hire people. You have the power to say where a lot of money goes, you have the ear of important people in the industry, and any job like that is going to be incredibly competitive. Being a showrunner on the TV side is not entirely dissimilar from being a director on the feature side, just in terms of that level of making a lot of quick decisions and being comfortable, you know, being in a place where you’re kind of deciding moment by moment what the direction of the entire ship is going to be.

And I think traditionally, maybe in our culture, we have had the misguided image in our head that this would be, I don’t know, a tall, straight, white man, probably, usually? And I mean, like take the image of a politician and then switch out the suit for a baseball cap and a messenger bag with your laptop computer in it. And that’s what people envision for a showrunner. But you know, so that was bullshit. We’re slowly moving away from it.’

The joy of stories about paradoxical people

Gamble said picking stories to adapt was instinctual, a ‘fluttery, excited feeling’ similar to falling in love. The recurrent stories she comes back to are ‘the stuff about being a person that doesn’t make sense… there’s so much about what’s inside of us as human beings that is irreconcilable.’

‘Every person is like a walking paradox. So a story gives you a beginning, and middle and an end, and a chance for resolution in your plot. And there’s something so comfortable and beautiful about handing yourself a structure like that. “OK, we’re going to resolve some kind of plot”, because then that’s my excuse to be like, “but this is never going to be resolved” and “that will always be terribly problematic”. And, you know, this is a dark thing that’s true, but I’ll never understand about people. So, you know, I throw a lot of werewolves and serial killers and vampires and ghosts at these questions, but it’s always because I’m sort of scratching at the human psyche.’

Advice for young writers wanting to be showrunners

Gamble said that talking to an established showrunner about the technicalities of their day was like asking a professional athlete about their workout routine: you shouldn’t freak out if you’re not there yet, but you need to train.

‘Most people who get into the business, who want to be creators, the way they start doing that is just by writing scripts. And you just sit down at your computer with your sandwich in the middle of the night or whenever your day job is over, after the kids go to bed, whatever that is. And you write all your best thoughts and ideas into scripts, and you hope that somebody will want to make it.’

‘Honestly, usually not. Usually, if a script is really great, what it does is it gets you interviews for other jobs. “I have a different thing with ghosts in it that maybe you’d like to develop”. Or there’s a writers’ room that was looking for a writer with your voice and your script really sold the showrunner on it. I think it’s a really smart idea to become a staff writer if you can. If you can start, I mean, we call it “at the bottom”, but it’s hard to get into a writer’s room at all. So that’s a pretty lofty bottom, right? If you can get in there and serve another person’s vision, you’re being paid to write, and at the same time, you’re being paid to get a graduate school education in how to be a showrunner, how to be that creator who can also manage people and money, which is what helps you retain creative control.’

‘…First and foremost my advice is always just write, write a lot. Don’t be precious about it. Don’t save your ideas for later. Just get in there and write. If you’re ready to have to write forever, just write and then just take the next step and see where it leads you.’

‘First and foremost my advice is always just write, write a lot. Don’t be precious about it. Don’t save your ideas for later.’

Gazy asked Gamble a question from her own experience, having written and created a show, then being given a showrunner to work with because she’s still learning. How should that dynamic operate? The answer was that ‘..being paired with a showrunner is inherently a little bit of a challenging dynamic, because writers are protective of their babies.’ Gamble advocated the tenets of ‘good clear communication and setting expectations early, and asking questions if something seems weird. And all those things that are hard with your mum, and they’re hard with your girlfriend, and they’re also hard with your showrunner.’

She also advocated relaxing a bit because you couldn’t really survive if you thought every decision was a make or break one. ‘…it takes like a million of these bricks to build the thing we’re building. And so I refuse to lose sleep over this one brick I think is wrong.’

Some insights from the Australian panel

  • Showrunning is not necessarily new here, we just haven’t called them that in the past. [We think of people like Andrew Knight and Deb Cox (Seachange) and Kris Wyld (G.PPaper Man)].
  • The panel welcomed the term ‘showrunner’, a person who is the head writer and there all the way. Like the composer of a piece of music, whereas the director is more like the conductor of the performance.
  • The rise of the showrunner is hopefully bringing back more respect to the role of the writer. But it’s still an evolving model here.
  • Someone has to take responsibility and that’s the showrunner. Nothing creative ever works if it’s done by committee.
  • Jeffrey Wright talked about the level of detail showrunners are across and made it sound like they never sleep. He said that particularly in the US, the showrunner is ‘the creative font from which we all drink, as the director, the crew, everybody in the studio or network will turn to the showrunner as the main driver of the whole piece.’ Here it is more diffuse.
  • Your relationships are your currency. Your integrity is everything. Good people won’t work with those who have bad reputations.
  • To be a good showrunner you need to be someone who can really read scripts and ‘have a lot of gas in the tank storywise’ – Irwin.
  • Finding the money internationally. As we move to a model where people have to pitch directly to networks, often the showrunner is the person with the faith, charisma and persistence to sell that story.
  • Hats off to the ‘non creative’ non writing producers who actually put their money on the line for the story. Showrunners aren’t actually god without them.

Read: This is your new world says Minister Fletcher to producers

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram