HRTS: Nothing Could Prepare Lee Daniels for Journey of ‘Empire’

Beverly Hills, Calif. — Even after producing Oscar-nominated films, Lee Daniels was not ready for his first foray into television.

“There is nothing that could prepare me for what this journey was about,” said Daniels, the cocreator and executive producer of Empire, Wednesday at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s “Hitmakers” Luncheon. “At first I bucked the system because I'm so used to going it alone ... I think what I walked away with was a sense of camaraderie.”

Daniels was joined on stage at the Beverly Hilton by Sarah Treem, cocreator and executive producer of The Affair; Jill Soloway, creator and executive producer of Transparent; Noah Hawley, executive producer of Fargo; Michelle King, cocreator and executive producer of The Good Wife; and moderator Stacey Wilson of The Hollywood Reporter. The panelists compared notes on writing and striving for authenticity in their shows.

Learning to collaborate was hard for Daniels. “It was a rough experience,” he said, “I don’t know one that I would repeat.”

While Hawley wrote all 10 episodes of Fargo’s first season, he said he is stepping back a bit for season two. “I work with the same writers and let them write this year,” he said. “It’s weird to be writing 40% of the movie if you think of it as a 10-hour movie.”

He added that Joel and Ethan Cohen, who wrote and directed the movie Fargo, never make the same film twice, so the second season of the TV series has to be different. “My goal is to make something timeless if I can,” Hawley said.

Soloway based Transparent on her parents. Three years ago, with “one parent finding a voice and my step father was losing his voice,” Soloway knew she had to turn that into a TV show. “It actually was a life saving thought, this is for art, this is for something, I can save all of these moments,” she said.

As such, Soloway said it was important that the words feel right coming out of the actors’ mouths.

Daniels readily agreed. “I’m not married to the word,” he said, adding that Taraji P. Henson adds lines that make the show “sparkle.”

“It has to be honest, has to come from a place of truth. I trust the actors we cast. Sometimes they're more aware of the truth than I am.”

Treem remarked that the British actors on The Affair stick to the script, while American-born actress Maura Tierney will “come up with something that is more instinctive and natural than what is on the page.”

That is not the case on The Good Wife, according to King. Either because there are 22 episodes a season or the writers and actors are on different coasts, “when people want to change a word we get a phone call,” she said. “And I’m happy to get it.”