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IFH 563: Writing Blockbuster Movies & Television with Danny Strong

Today on the show we have writer, producer, actor, director and Emmy® winning show runner Danny Strong.

Danny started his career as an actor in numerous classic films and TV shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, then transitioned into screenwriting, exploding onto the scene with his 2007 script Recount which was #1 on the Hollywood Blacklist and became an award winning HBO Film.

Since then he has become a prolific film and TV writer, director and producer, garnering numerous awards for various projects, including two Emmys, a Golden Globe, two WGA awards, a PGA Award, and the Peabody Award.

Through out his career he has shown a wide range and versatility moving between mediums and genres with films like the political docudramas Recount and Game Change, the civil rights epic The Butler and the big budget action blockbusters Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I and II).

He co-created the smash hit TV show Empire which won him the NAACP Image Award and he produced the civil rights drama The Best of Enemies starring Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell. He has also written numerous theater projects having made his theatrical debut with a new book to the musical Chess that premiered at the Kennedy Center.

Strong transitioned into directing with several episodes of Empire. He made his feature directorial debut with Rebel in the Rye that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was distributed by IFC Films.

Over the years he has continued his acting career with recurring roles in many highly acclaimed TV shows including Mad Men, Girls, Justified, Billions and The Right Stuff. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California and attended the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

Enjoy my enlightening conversation with Danny Strong.

Right-click here to download the MP3

Alex Ferrari 0:17
I like to welcome the show Danny Strong how're you doing Danny?

Danny Strong 3:36
Good, Alex, how you doing?

Alex Ferrari 3:37
I'm doing well, my friend. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I've I've been following your career for quite some time. And, and of course, a fan of many of the shows that you've worked on and things that you've written. So I'm excited to kind of jump into your process and what we do. So before we get started, how did you get started in this insanity that is the film industry?

Danny Strong 3:59
Wow. That's a very good question. So I was a theater major in college. And I did plays in high school. And I was able to get an agent while I was in high school. But I never booked anything. So I was it was wasn't exactly a successful time. So I never booked anything. But I kept you know doing theater non stop and then majored in college and then I booked a couple jobs in college. You know, I booked a couple commercials and then a roll on Saved by the Bell, the new class probably the favorite show of your audience. I think that's all they want, I think their audiences and not even the original set by about the new class that they're particularly. So I did that and then and then I didn't really start booking jobs as an actor until I graduated college. And it was a few months after I graduated that I booked an episode of Third Rock from the Sun which was a huge cinema And then a month later, I booked an episode of Seinfeld. And so now I kind of went from no resume to two biggest sitcoms on television, which was incredibly exciting. And then in the next six months, I booked Buffy the Vampire Slayer and did that for several years as a recurring. So so things started happening pretty, pretty fast out of college, although it seems like endless at the time. And then by that by the time I was 24, I was working full time as an actor, in that I was supporting myself. And I didn't need a day job. So that was very exciting. And it was, by the way, I wasn't even working all that much. But I was making enough money with sort of a combination of small guest stars on TV commercials, voiceover an occasional movie. It was real scrappy, of just anything, I can land, voiceover radio, jobs, you know, anything I could get I did and, and then I started writing when I was about 25. And that's when I wrote my first script, and didn't sell my first script until I was 32. So it took seven years of writing before I was able to get my first paycheck as a writer. That's kind of the faster the fast version

Alex Ferrari 6:19
Of the beginning of your career. And that's, that's fascinating, because, you know, as so many filmmakers think that it takes in screenwriters think it's overnight? Like oh, yeah, Danny Strong, he must have just jumped in like, Hollywood loves to put you in a box and you're the you are in the acting box. So when you try to break out of that box to do something else, it's even that much harder than if you try to go in at the beginning. Is that correct?

Danny Strong 6:43
Well, to be honest with you, that wasn't my experience at all. Okay, it was it was the second I started writing scripts. A couple people were a bit I Rowley about it, but but the scripts speak for themselves. Okay, so I, you know, once I was able to get some people to read that first script, I wrote what people really liked it. And then it didn't matter that I was an actor. And most people in the development world, which are the people who read scripts for a living, they know that actors that can write, make can make really good writers. So it's sort of understood that that's not an unnatural progression from actor to writer, they've got a real good grasp of dialogue, usually a good grasp of character. And it's in its many are many a writer, and many writers I've worked with either on staff on one of my TV shows, or just screenwriters that I know, started off as actors. So it's, it's a natural progression. So now I find that Hollywood can follow your lead times when you say what you want to do. So I want to do this. It's like, okay, well, are you doing it? Are you trying to do it? And if you are, then then people respond to that. It's usually not a situation where no, you're an actor, and you will never write you will never write. It's, it's really not as close minded is the perception is

Alex Ferrari 8:10
Very, very cool. So then, as an actor, what did you bring it from being an actor to writing? Like, what were the skill sets that you brought in? From just those two years of work and I'm assuming being on sets and watching everybody and all that stuff over the years.

Danny Strong 8:23
Yeah, I think that my background is an actor is sort of my biggest weapon as a writer, director, producer, everything it is, as a writer, it's I spent years and years reading and working on the best plays ever written in the history of humanity. Right, working on the plays of Shakespeare and check off and Ibsen and Edward Albion, Arthur Miller, and, and I spent years working on that material, and you're reading it, you're analyzing it, you're inside of it. And I think it's the inside of it. That is one of the biggest tools for me as a writer, because I write is someone who, you know, when I when I, when I start writing the dialogue, I write as if I'm inside the scene, playing the scene as the characters and and that comes from my background as an actor from spending endless numbers of years just doing that for a living or doing it for free. And, you know, doing all the plays that I did, and all the auditions I did, it didn't go anywhere. You're constantly just working on material. And and that's a different stage of the writing process than the early stages, which is the outlining stage for me. That's what I do. You know, it's sort of the the beginning stages. So, so less my acting background comes into play there. But then when it comes to actually writing the scenes, the acting background is a huge part of it.

Alex Ferrari 9:53
Do you recommend screenwriters take an acting class or two just to kind of get inside?

Danny Strong 9:57
Oh, yeah, I mean, why why were you how that'd be a bad thing. And I've been in acting classes. So I stayed in acting classes. Like I said, I was a theater major at USC, graduated. And then I stayed in acting classes the whole time until my first movie went into production when I was 33. So I spent 11 years in acting classes. And in my attitude was I treated it like I was a professional tennis player. And I just need to be hitting balls as much as possible. So I was constantly in class. And there would be writers and directors that would, from time to time come in, and they would, you know, be there for three months, two months, that sort of thing. And they go, yeah, their director and the writer and, and I couldn't think of a more valuable thing for either one of them to do than to do that.

Alex Ferrari 10:48
Now. Is it true I read somewhere that you used to rent videos from video archives, and there was a young store clerk they used to talk to quite often about movies is that true?

Danny Strong 10:59
Yeah. So I grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, very different now than it was then it's like it now it's very wealthy. When I was a kid there, it was lower middle to lower middle class, sleepy beach town, right. And there was this avant garde video store where they would have foreign films, and the films would be categorized by director. And, and my mom knew I loved adult movies as a kid. So she would, she would take me there. And the clerk was this really eccentric young guy. And I was 11. But I looked like I was seven. And, and I would just spend all this time with him, getting advice on certain movies, and I spent so much time talking to him that it made my mom feel uncomfortable. She's like, why are you spending so much time talking to him while I'm like talking to him? And it was Quentin Tarantino. And it was and so I and because I was in there so much. They called me little Quinton. And that was my nickname. Wow. Yeah, it was little Quentin. And then many years later, Quentin got this huge award from the home video Association. And he asked if I would come to the ceremony. So and we live in stay tight is a you know, in my adult age, but but perfectly friendly, you know, and he loves that I became a writer. And he and he, he, in his in his big speech to the big to the audience, he had me stand up and introduced me as a little Quinton from the video store and told the whole story about how I used to read videos from him. And he had the funniest and that was literally he ended his speech. It was so funny, he said, he said, So now when I look back upon my career, and I see that little Quinton is so successful. Oh, I just think God that I was successful too. Because of little Quinton was successful. And I wasn't, I would blow my fucking brain.

Alex Ferrari 12:54
One of the amazing that it does it oh my god, that's an amazing story. Because it's on brand for Mr. Tarantino.

Danny Strong 13:03
It is very, very much on brand. Yeah. And then he finally cast me in a movie, which was so exciting. I was in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Alex Ferrari 13:10
Oh, right. That's right.

Danny Strong 13:11
My scene was cut, although it is in the DVD. And it was, it was an amazing experience getting to watch them direct for a day.

Alex Ferrari 13:23
That must have been awesome. Now, you know, with all you know, being an actor, you deal with a tremendous amount of rejection. And I'm assuming as a writer, you do as well, how do you deal with rejection? Because we get mostly, if I may say we get mostly no's then rather than yes's in this business, correct?

Danny Strong 13:40
Yeah. Yeah. It's all no all the time. I mean, now, that was why I started writing was that I was working as an actor. Like I said, I was supporting myself, but yet all year long, I would hear no. And the no would be no, they don't want to see you for the part. No, you didn't get the callback, or no, you didn't get the part. And that's literally, you know, three, four times a week. That's what you're getting. And it's maybe once every three or four months, you're finally getting a yes. And a great song you. So for me, I actually started writing to deal with the sort of subconscious trauma being rejected all year long. And then I remember there was a period of about 18 months, when I couldn't get arrested as an actor. I just went into this. I don't know what happened. I just couldn't get hired. And then that was part of the seven years where no one was buying my scripts. So it was like a brutal 18 months of, of things not working out. Now, what's great about writing versus acting, is that as a writer, you can go do it. So you can just you can just go write a script, it doesn't matter if someone has bought it. If someone's interested in it. You can literally just sit down and write whenever you want or whenever you have availability based on if you have a job etc. Right but you can Go do it. And so for my attitude is particularly on the writing, when you write a script, and then you're ready to show it to people or to take it out to market, whatever that means. You should be working on your next scripts. So that when the nose do start coming in, and the noes come to people at the highest levels of the industry there have the biggest screenwriters and biggest directors, you know, they're well this only get made if I can get one order to Caprio or Tom Cruise, and then they send it to an art gallery or Tom Cruise and they go, No, we don't want to do the movie. You know, so everyone deals with that. But as a writer, what you can do is you can just go start working on your next script, and it really does help get your mind off the rejection because you're creatively grooving on something new.

Alex Ferrari 15:48
No, do you? What is your writing process? Do you start with character? Do you start with plot? Do you outline?

Danny Strong 15:54
Yeah, it's a combination of things. It's sort of hard to say, because it differs for every project. But I will say the one place that is pretty kind of a standard starting point for me is research, right? So if I'm writing a true story, like in dope sick, it's the opioid crisis, well, I just start reading books. And then I'll usually read two books on something, just read it without even taking notes. So I get a sense of the global macro of the story, I get a sense of characters that have kind of popped for me, you know, hopefully, these books are good. Hope you pick the right ones. Yeah, yeah. Well, and by the way, I go to a certain amount of research to figure out what are the right books, you know, sometimes there's only one book, depending on what it is, but, but um, or even if it's a fictional piece, I'll start with research. You know, when I started, when I wrote Empire, the pilot, I started just watching documentaries on hip hop, right? Just let me just watch some Hip Hop documentaries. So so so that's phase one, which is just get information coming in, and then maybe notetaking, maybe not, then once I kind of feel like I've got a sense of the global. So let's say there's two books on something that I've read, and I'm like, Oh, I really get this now. Then I go reread those books. But now I'm taking careful notes. And I'm writing notes, I'm writing characters, I'm writing scenes, I'm writing all this information. Because things can inspire other things. Right? So I can get I can get it will be like, Oh, this Oh, look at it, there's a whole sequence that I'm coming up with based upon a sentence. You know, when I adapted the book, Game Change into the movie game change. There was one paragraph that was the gave me the inspiration for the entire film. And I was like, oh, that's the whole movie right there. That one paragraph, we're talking about Steve Schmidt did this and then he did this. And then he had to do this. And I'm like, oh, that sounds like my entire movie. It was and it outlined it for you. But film, yeah, was was essentially inspired from that paragraph. But so. So that's what it is, then it's like taking notes, writing scene ideas, character ideas. Sometimes it's stuff from the books or the documentaries, sometimes all it does is it starts inspiring ideas, and then I go off on my own tangent entirely. And then once I've finished the that stage of the research, and this is important, don't get bogged down in definitely in the research, because you can, you can do that for three years if you want, right. So what I do is literally, I try to do enough of it, where I feel like, Oh, I've got a sense of what this is and how I could pull this off. Um, then I'll start actually outlining from those set of notes and kind of freeform thinking that I've done. And then once I have an outline, before I go write the script, sometimes what I'll do is I'll go read another book, or I'll go read two more books. You know, sometimes there's like 20 books on something, right? And then there's a new set of ideas that come in. And then from there, then I go, actually, write.

Alex Ferrari 19:15
Now, I always love asking creators this, there's I always say that there's this kind of, well of inspiration that is ours, that we can tap into. It's kind of like almost being in the flow or in that state of mind, the flow state of mind. What is it in your actual writing process that allows you to tap into your creativity, that inspiration, the muse for better or worse, because sometimes the Muse shows sometimes she does it, you know, how do you tap into that?

Danny Strong 19:42
So I don't I just show up every day.

Alex Ferrari 19:45
And she shows and you let her know, hey, I'm gonna be here. If you're ready.

Danny Strong 19:48
I'm just there. I'm there every day and I'm going to do something. Some days. There'll be today I had all these great plans. Those plans did not succeed, but I did get something done. Yes. Clearly it happened today.

Alex Ferrari 20:04
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Danny Strong 20:13
And but something was achieved today, right? So so it's really a matter of just showing up every day. And you know, I say that inspiration is for amateurs. And I don't mean that in in a hostile way. You know, if you're, say, a lawyer, and you want to write a book, and you've always had this novel, you want to dry it, or you wanted to write a memoir of a case you had, right, but you're not a professional writer. But you're gonna try it by the way, you may be great at it, it's very possible that you are, but that's the kind of person who's like I need to be inspired. And maybe I need to rent a house by a lake, you know, and go away, because that's what writers do. And it's very romantic write, for me, I'm a professional writer, I've been writing now for 22 years, and and of those 22 years, I've been getting paid 15 of those years, which has its own set of, I mean, it sounds incredible. But there's a whole lot of stress that comes from taking people's money, and then delivering a script to them, right? So so it's literally a matter of, no, I just have to go do it. Now I'm at a point where I'm trying to take days off, where I'm like, just you shouldn't write on Sunday, you need to take Sunday off. You know, my fiance does not appreciate it, she would like me to take Sunday off. Yeah. And so it's it's um, but that act of doing it consistently, what it does is that you do it, then for the rest of the day, your mind is processing things that you don't even know it's processing. You may have hit some walls that day, then you come back the next day, and you have solutions to those walls that your mind has just figured out on its own throughout the course of the day. I've had so many solutions to problems company when I wake up in the morning. And it's sometimes it's it's that period where you're not fully awake, but you're kind of starting to get away. Oh, this is the best part. Yeah. Yeah. You know, and then I'd be like, but that solution would have showed up that next morning, had I not had the session the day before. So it's it's the consistency of the back the back of it is is what I think is is what I do. And I think it's incredibly important.

Alex Ferrari 22:27
Now your one of your scripts got to the top of the blacklist, which is recount was that the was that the you know, was? Was the town or was Hollywood taking you like taking notice of your writing? You know, heavily? I mean, because when you get to the top of the blacklist, everybody in town knows who you are. Was that like a career defining moment for you as a writer?

Danny Strong 22:50
You know, it actually wasn't because the script had already exploded. Okay, gripped, had blown up and become a huge deal. And then had already gone into production. And I actually found out about the blacklist on the plane ride home after we wrapped production. Oh, Jesus, isn't that crazy? Like I was sitting on the plane going through my phone and someone congrats, and I didn't really know what it was. And what was great was, that was the year the blacklist kind of became famous. And there were all these newspaper articles on the blacklist. And so to be number one on the blacklist the year was on payment. That's a very cool year. So, so it didn't add that disrupted already sort of changed everything for me before that, that was just a really neat kind of cherry on top.

Alex Ferrari 23:37
Now, how did you approach adapting the Hunger Games? Mockingjay? Because I mean, at the point that you came in on it, it already is a pretty well established franchise, and there has to be slight pressure on you.

Danny Strong 23:52
Yeah, the pressures enormous. That was a very strange job, because there was this enormous, you know, it was one of the biggest jobs in the business at the time, everyone. Yeah, I mean, it was just like, the first one was the biggest movie of the year. The second one was in production. Um, and so you had to go pictures. The franchise was particularly strong, in that that first movie was really terrific. Everyone really respected it. The book, The books were really beloved amongst a huge swath of age range. So it was a it was just I was really flattered when I got asked to pitch on it. I was told they'd gone out to 10 writers and I'm one of the 10. And to me, that was the when I'm like, Oh my God, how cool was that? And I'm like, one of the 10 that they've asked to, to pitch on this. And then lo and behold, I get the job right. Now, I hadn't even read the books before. They come to me to pitch and they asked me in that in that meeting, they said have you read the books? I said, No, I haven't. So I saw the first movie, and I loved it. And they said, Well, okay, read the next two books as fast as you can, and then come up with a pitch. So that's what I did. And then the job itself, it was very unusual because it was they wanted it to be really close to the book. There wasn't a lot of room for veering away from the book, which I totally understood and didn't disagree with. Then at the same time, they wanted some new ideas, of course, but they didn't like my new ideas. Right? Well, I thought I'd pick shag new ideas. And I always get like, Now now, you know, and so I, you know, and it was just this weird tightrope where I was like, Wow, I'm a really, really high paid plagiarist. You know, they just want me to stick to the book. So then I wrote the first, you know, part one of Mockingjay. And they really liked it. And they hired me to write part two. And I was, I was like, okay, it was, by the way, wasn't, I didn't love doing the job to be honest with you. Because of everything I just explained. Just weird. I mean, it was like, it was like, we want this really close to the book. Okay, but but then we want other things, okay, but we don't like what you're pitching. Okay, but we do like you now, you know, um, and it was I didn't, I just didn't enjoy working on it. But then they hired me to do the next one. Which was, I mean, it was like, Well, I can't say no, right. So so then I did, I did the next one. And then they brought in another writer, which was the first time that had happened to me, you know, they had me do rewrites? No, no, they had them do rewrites on three. And then I finished four, and I turned in four. And then by that point, they really liked the writer who did rewrites on three, and they had them do rewrites on four and they sent me on my merry way. They said by It was a pleasure. Not really. And and I was actually quite happy to move on from the job to be honest with you. Very honest answer.

Alex Ferrari 27:11
They're very, that's a,

Danny Strong 27:13
But that's what but yeah, that's how it went. It was it was like I wrote three they liked it. They hired me to write for while they simultaneously hired someone to do rewrites on three, they did that because they were shooting them at the same time. So there was they in their minds, there wasn't enough time. And and then so then I wrote four, then that same writer came on here, Craig, lovely guy. And then they had him do rewrites on four. And that that was the end of my journey on the Hunger Games.

Alex Ferrari 27:40
And that's the thing that a lot of writers don't think that there's a glow. Well, you know, Danny Strong is not going to get, you know, rewritten or that it happens to everybody. I talked to Eric Roth, and it happened to Eric Roth.

Danny Strong 27:51
Oh, yeah, it's not so not in movies at that budget. It's extremely common. And in this case, there were two movies before, in which these huge writers of high Academy Award nominated or winning writers were rewritten. So I kind of knew going into it that that's kind of the deal. And it was it was pretty common for big budget. tentpole movies to have multiple writers on them. So it's not like you I go in, I don't go into that job, thinking, Oh, this is my artistic vision. I sort of go into the job hoping that I can get through it without having people upset with me. Which, by the way, is not, you know, and I haven't done a job like that sense. Because of it, though.

Alex Ferrari 28:37
And you I'm sure you've been offered a pitch or you've been offered.

Danny Strong 28:40
Yeah, I get offered all the time, you know, different things. And, and I'm and I have done a few in that time period since then. But for the most part. It's a it was a very good life learning experience of situations I'd prefer not to be in.

Alex Ferrari 28:58
Right. And that's kind of where you've made your bones heavily in television where the writer is more keen, especially.

Danny Strong 29:04
Yeah, well, it's a combination of a few things, which is, right if it's time that the medium started changing, right where movie dramas started becoming smaller and smaller are not being made at all. And then there's massive tentpole movies, you know, like what I was working on, but I didn't enjoy working on it. So I didn't want to do that again. So literally for the next year and a half after Hunger Games. I was getting offered a sort of big tentpole things and I didn't want to do them. So then the drama that I want to be working on, they're not really making anymore, so I but I go and I make an independent film. And then simultaneously, television is now starting to take off dramatically, creatively, in many ways to a number of writers feeling like that's actually a much more interesting space to work in. On a multiple different levels, so it was like the business starts changing. I was very fortunate that right when that happens, I created the show empire that was a massive hit. So now I've gotten cachet. And some, you know, a lot of interest in me in a space that is simultaneously kind of becoming the booming space. So the timing was was really great. And I feel very fortunate.

Alex Ferrari 30:27
Now I have to ask you, because I mean, I'm a huge empire fan. I watched every episode and loved empire. I think I caught up to it on seas. I think you guys were in season three. And someone said, You got to watch empire. So I binged the first seat and I was just like, the writing was so tight. The characters were so outlandish. They were beautiful. How did you? What made you jump into this world? I mean, I'm assuming you haven't been hardcore hip hop your entire life. So how did you jump in?

Danny Strong 30:54
What was great was the only person who knew less about hip hop than me was Lee Daniels. Literally would joke about how we know nothing about hip hop, right. But when it happened was I wrote the movie, the butler that leaving directed, and then we'd become pretty close and post production on that project, where he really valued my feedback and notes. And it was the kind of thing where he started, you know, just saying, like, what are we doing next? What are we doing next? We're magic together, we're magic together. And that was before the film came out and succeeded. Right. So then I came up with this idea to do King Lear and a hip hop empire, you know, which is what Empire was. And, and I pitched the idea to lead annuals as a movie, he loved it. He just said that I love this idea. And then it was his idea, which was good as a TV show instead of a movie. And I thought, that's perfect. You're absolutely right. It's about a family fighting, which is what TV shows are about is about families fighting with each other. So that's how it all came together was, was an idea I had that I brought to Lee, based on the fact that we had just done the belt were together. And then the butler comes out and it was a huge hit. You're not remember it was one of the sleeper hits of the year, particularly for a movie that no one wanted to make. Yeah, not a tentpole by any step by any stretch, the opposite of a temple, right? It's kind of like, sort of in the category of one of the last dramas of that era when they would make these kinds of dramas, right, that have this kind of sweep and a motion to it. And so, uh, so we took this pitch out with with having just had this big hit drama, and then we had multiple bidders. And then and then that was that. So that's how it began, it was a random idea. I had one day listening to a radio news piece. On a deal, Sean Combs it just closed. And I just thought hip hop. So so cool, and dynamic and exciting. And I got to do a musical and hip hop, that's back that I knew nothing about hip hop did not determine, whatsoever. And then it's funny, because when I did Pixley, thinking, Well, I don't know much about this world, but I'll dive into it, but we will know a lot about it. And then literally, he's like, I don't know anything about hip hop. I'm like, really? He's like, No. And I'm like Me neither. So it's so that's where that's where Empire began.

Alex Ferrari 33:18
That's amazing that neither of you had a hip hop knowledge that you could bring to the table.

Danny Strong 33:23
No, he was really into Marvin Gaye. And like, like, it was like, loved Marvin Gaye and kind of that era of Motown. Sure. And, and I loved that era of Motown. Now, even though I feel like some of my tastes even went further back to the 50s. And pretty funny how these things can happen. But I think I think the lesson in that is, you don't have to live a life to write about it, or to direct it. And that is a that is not a popular opinion right now. And there's very much discussion right now of who gets to tell what story and if you haven't lived it, you don't have the right to tell it. And I fundamentally disagree with that. And I just think, well, if you had to live, everything you wrote, then just let's go set fire to most of Shakespeare's plays, you know, all the Shakespeare plays that don't take place in England, you know, even Macbeth, that doesn't count. Is that Scotland? Who the hell is he think he is? Right? Someone in Scotland, you know, I mean, let's just take let's take ship set that on fire right? So I just I just fundamentally disagree with it. It goes against sort of my entire background as an actor, stage actor lover of cetera so so an empire is as a prime example of literally two guys that didn't know anything about hip hop. And then we draw upon different things and what we don't know we weren't. And then you know, and then when it goes to series, in that writers room, we've got multiple writers in there that know a lot about hip hop. And they some real huge assets to it and in keeping the show alive,

Alex Ferrari 34:59
You know, It's funny because, you know, I had Taylor Hackford on the show. And we were talking about Ray, which is one of the one of the best, you know, musical movies. credible, incredible film. And he was telling me, he's like, Ray wanted me to do it. And but in today's world, I would have never been allowed to do Ray. And I'm like, Wow, what a devastating blow to cinema that you wouldn't have been able to make. Ray. It's I agree with you. 100%.

Danny Strong 35:23
Yeah, yeah. And by the way, there's there's like, I don't know, that doesn't mean to not be cognizant of certain sensitivity course. It's like, yeah, I don't know. I think everything has its own sort of has its own path. And we're doing a pilot right now that I'm producing. And it's it's basically eight women are the leads of this pilot, right. And this, the network wants a woman director, and I could not agree more. I'm like, Yeah, of course. Of course. It should be a woman director. It's about eight women. Right? It's like in the creator is a woman. But I just seems to me like I you know that that's a perfect example of as us out looking to hire a director. My partner on it on the producing side is a famous male director. And he completely agrees he's like, Yeah, we need to find a woman. So it sounds like every every kind of project has its own path or life. But as a writer, if you're not getting, you know, this is not an open writing assignment, and you want to write something that has nothing to do with your life experience. Go write it.

Alex Ferrari 36:30
That's your absolutely, you're absolutely right.

Danny Strong 36:33
I know what you're passionate about.

Alex Ferrari 36:35
One of my favorite characters of empire, and arguably one of the best characters written for television. That's 15 years. Cookie. How the hell did you come up with cookie? And how much did the Hajah I can never pronounce your dad? Yeah. How did she influence that character?

Danny Strong 36:52
So cookie lion, which I think is hilarious that it could be on my tombstone, he co created cookie lion is a is a it came from. So the show is King Lear and a hip hop empire. But it's also the line in winter and a hip hop empire, sort of both of those classical pieces. And Eleanor of Aquitaine is Henry, the second wife that he would put into a dungeon, you know, this, he put her an exile all year long. And then every year at Christmas time, he would let her outs of exile to see the family. And in the play the line and winter, the play takes place during Christmas time when he lets Eleanor of Aquitaine out of prison, and she just fucks his shit up, right? Like, literally, she just shows up and tries to derail all of his legacy plans. And that was one of like, the early ideas I had for Empire, which was that it would be sort of a fake. You know, like, like a fictional Jay Z, who was a older, you know, a, like an he had an empire like Jay Z, but he was older with these three older sons. And that and that his wife went to prison, selling drugs. And that drug money is what created is what is the origin story of his empire. Alright, so that the pilot would begin with, what's the inciting incident? She gets out of prison, and he doesn't know it. And she's coming back to get what she wants, what she deserves, what's hers, right? And she wants half the company and she wants her beloved Son, the only one that would visit her in prison, and the most talented to be take over the family company. And he shouldn't take over the family company, except for the simple fact that he's gay and his father fucking hates him for being gay is a template homophobic, right? So that was that was like the genesis of cookie wine that she was very much inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine. It comes from that and then we Daniels had a sister that kind of had this vibe that he would talk to me about. And I remember when I pitched Lee, the movie when it was still a movie. And I talked about Eleanor aqua and everything I just said to you, I said to him in a shorter version. And I said, so this role, she's going to be like an expert in music, and she's going to become the music manager to her gay son. And I said she's gonna be like, Mama Rose on crack, and lead and you'll start screaming. Yes, darling. Yes. Darling. I love it. You know? It was, like I said, the perfect thing to get really excited about about this idea. And that was, that was that was the genesis of it.

Alex Ferrari 39:55
We'll be right back after a word from our sponsor. And now back to the show.

Danny Strong 40:04
Then, once we got to shooting it, it went from the writers role to terace his role. And terace is a genius a to Well, I don't know, day two into shooting, Lee and I were an offer the pilot, we knew this can be if this show was successful, we felt this would be a breakout character that she was just just like she blew us out of the water, you know, on just everything he did. And the part very much I think it was an amalgamation of the writers but of her two, as far as she would, she would sometimes improvise, sometimes just tweak dialogue just a little bit. Sometimes she would pair dialogue down. And and I actually really learned how to write cookie by following terace Li and seeing kind of the stuff that she would reject or the stuff that she would, she would improvise really inspired a lot. And I remember in shooting the pilot, she had a Nika shows up and it's it's her her ex husband's new girlfriend, right? And it's literally it's the first time I think the audience sees and Nika and it's certainly the first time cookie season Mika and I had written some, you know, calm some just like dig that she does. And drazi took me aside we got along like gangbusters mean to Rosie? And she said, she's like, I don't know about this. And I remember what I'd written. And I said, oh, we'll just say whatever you want. And she went really I go Yeah, I say whatever you want. Right? At this point I had I've come to understood that this woman's a genius. And and so those, she starts to exit she stops. She looks at her and she goes, Huh, booboo kitty, and then walks out a herd of booboo kitty, I had no idea what she was talking about. I was laughing so fucking, that I almost ruined the take, except Lee Daniels was laughing as hard as I was. It was just like, oh my god, like, Oh, you're genius. Just you do it, and it will follow your lead.

Alex Ferrari 42:14
That's amazing. That's a great cookie story. It's a great story that you have obviously run a lot of writers rooms, what is it that you look for as a showrunner in writers for your writers room.

Danny Strong 42:25
I look for writers that. And I look for writers that are bold, that aren't afraid, that have a sense of originality. You know, one of the first things I say on day one day one of school is I say I don't want you to think about what you think the network wants, what you think the studio wants, or what you think the audience wants, or what you think what I want, I don't want you to think about any of that, I want you to think about what you think is great, right, we're gonna follow our own instincts, because of many writers that have been stamped on a lot of shows, you know, they're very, they seem very kind of programmed to clean about the network because of network notes. And then and then they write to the network's AST. Um, I don't do that ever, um, I write to my taste, and then I use the network to help me make it better, right. So I don't do what they want, I do what I want. And then I listened to their notes, though, on how I can improve it. And it's very collaborative. And it goes very well. You know, I don't have big blowout fights with my studio in my network. In fact, most of the time, we have a very fun positive relationship and experience and I'm very open to notes, but I'm not open to dictation. And I think it's a bad idea. Because if, if they could, if they're in charge of something, well, they should be writing it. Right, like I'm the one that has to execute it. And that philosophy which is highly respectful of them as essentially editors, has served me very well politically, but more importantly served me very well creatively, where I get a lot of great feedback from from from my my producers in my studio executives in my network executives, and I think people that come into that relationship a thinking that they're idiots and they're adversaries, I think it's a way to fail and then be people that go into that relationship just wanting to please them or wanting to write to what they think their taste is, is they're not following their artistic self and their artistic soul. And and I think the writer you know, particularly on a TV show needs to be there and on a movie that's what I meant to until until I'm you know, let go until the director has said thank you for your the script now go fuck yourself. happen in film, although most of my experiences on film has been that the director and I have gotten along very well, and I've stayed part of the process all the way through. But there is a power dynamic where once they're there, they're in charge. So then I have to maneuver, you know, kind of my way to either stay in their good graces or if you shouldn't have to then becomes like a different thing. But but a game worth playing, I think, for long term success on multiple fronts. Now, TV is different. You know, I'm in charge if I'm the showrunner creator, by the way, I supervise showrunner creators, and I don't boss them around, I don't tell them what to do. I'm like, they're to like, have, like, hey, what do you think of it? You know, I'll have a note. And then sometimes I'll pitch three or four solutions, only to help demonstrate what the note is, and then be maybe one of these ideas will work for them? Maybe not, but maybe it'll inspire something else. So so it's really, it's really going back to your question, you know, day one, it's like, let's not write for the network. And let's not write for what we think the audience wants. Because that's such a audience. I mean, the four people in a room and they'll all want different things out of story. Right? Right, we need to lead the audience. And and sometimes there are things that don't work in the story. Right, that it's not clear, or there's not enough depth, or it's or it's kind of lame, or, like there that can be improved. And that's what I'm open to, of like, how can I make this better? How can I make it deeper, funnier? If it's a if it's a thriller? More suspenseful, right? Depending on what genre you're working in? And then how can you find some things to subvert the genre so that it's rich and doesn't feel expected or, or it can be multi dimensional, and tone and style? You know, there's all sorts of things I'm trying to achieve. And worrying about what the network thinks is not one of them. I'm more worried, I'm more of like, looking forward to hopefully trusting them, so that it'll be like, Okay, so here it is. So help me like, give me some thoughts like, how can I make it better.

Alex Ferrari 47:11
Great, great answer. I love the answer. No, no, that was a great answer. Now, I'm gonna ask you a few questions to ask all of my guests. What advice would you give a screenwriter trying to break into the business today?

Danny Strong 47:24
Follow your bliss, like write, don't write what you think the market wants, right? What you think, is going to be great. You know, and sometimes the weirdest scripts and ideas make people's careers because they just loved it, by the way in the movie never got made, but it wants their career, I got them an agent and manager got them up. I know for jobs, right? So it's really about, it's really about writing every day, or five days a week is good, you know, like you can take the weekends off this week is four days a weekend, borderline three days a week, you're an amateur writer now, you know, it's so so you know, getting a lot of writing done, because you improve as you write, I'm constantly working on projects, and then don't write what you think the marketplace wants. Right? What you think is great, right, what you want to see, I've got friends that are professional, that were professional writers that had a lot of success. And for whatever reason, you know, things have have gone different ways for them. And sometimes they're still chasing the market. And I don't understand like, the market changes weekly. By the way, the markets are different now than it was five years ago, three years ago, years ago. I don't even really completely understand the whole market anymore, to a certain extent. And I think it's different for almost every buyer. I mean, I get you know, if you I know they all want to make spider man like that I get, you know, I just want to write Spider Man on every script, I write and turn it in and see if I can any motherfuckers exactly like that. It just becomes a whole intricate sort of dance. And I think the thing that I do is if I have an idea I'm really excited about I then we'll figure out okay, so how can this get done? What's the pathway to production to get this made, you know, oh, this is actually something you know, HBO Max could be really into or something that a 20 is a perfect age 24 movie, right? That doesn't mean you have a 24 passes, you're dead. But but you're like, it kind of gives you a sense of okay, this is a 24 this is more like a universal, like, I'll think about what makes these kinds of things. And then what budget does it need to be you know, if it's something that's a period piece that you know that that's like a period drama that's really small. While obviously I can't write a script, that's going to cost $60 million to make, right because it's most likely not going To get made unless David Fincher or Martin Scorsese,

Alex Ferrari 50:03
Ridley Scott Ridley Scott,

Danny Strong 50:05
By the way you made you couldn't end up landing one of them. Right. But but but for the most part, it's sort of like, okay, so So how can I make this for 5 million? 10 million, 1 million, 2 million? You know, is there a path to that? So there's, there's a number of things you can think about on the business side. But first and foremost, start with the creative side, and start with like, oh my god, I would love to see this movie. Oh, my God, I could write the hell out of this movie. I could crush this movie. Because that's how things get made. That's how writing careers flourish. Okay, is that that's my advice.

Alex Ferrari 50:43
That's great advice. What is the lesson that took you the longest to learn whether in the film industry or in life?

Danny Strong 50:49
What I just told you?

Alex Ferrari 50:51
Fair enough.

Danny Strong 50:53
100% true. took me six years, something like that to figure out? Oh, because I was writing high concept comedies all through my 20s. Okay, because Jim Carrey comedies were those those like real high like liar liar man, Bruce Almighty, those were the biggest hits, and I was trying to write comedies. So obviously, I got to write these because that's what the market wants. And, and they were pretty good. You know, I did a pretty good job. I got some attention from them. And, but none of them sold. And then all of a sudden, seven years later, I'm like, wow, I've just spent seven years writing movies. That is not really my thing. Good. Right.

Alex Ferrari 51:29
Good advice. And last question, three of your favorite films of all time, or three screen pilots that anyone should the screenwriter should read either one.

Danny Strong 51:41
Well, I would say my three favorite films are Apocalypse Now. The Sweet Smell of Success. Why don't we say number three, we'll say Chinatown.

Alex Ferrari 51:57
All good choices. And three pilots.

Danny Strong 52:00
Those are all three of my favorites. Three pilots have a madman pilot? Yeah. Wowza. Yeah, that's something to behold. I'm trying to because pilots are hard because you're setting so much stuff up. They're really hard. I, you know, I don't know if it's one of my favorites of all time, but a great pilot, and a great show from this last year was hacks. Yeah. That's a great pilot. And in the show is fantastic. It's probably one of my favorite things of the year was hacks and, you know, really set up these two characters and these two different places. And I remember there was a scene towards the end, because one's a comic and one's a comedy writer, and they just start shit talking each other in comedy. And it was like, you know, it just was like, like Star Wars with two lightsabers battling each other, except in their case, their lightsabers. What were their comedy skills. And so it was hilarious in character driven and tense all at once, which made it pretty effing genius. So big big hacks fan. I don't know I it's tough. Get you know, it's a I maybe I'm biased. I have a limited series this year with dope sick, but I think the limited series space is pretty incredible. Shows out this year. They're so well done, you know, Mayor of Eastwood, per Mary's town, here. He's calling it Murphy's book, or is that correct?

Alex Ferrari 53:37
It might be No, I'm not sure if it's East. I

Danny Strong 53:40
Whatever it is fucking great. White Lotus is great. And underground railroads

Alex Ferrari 53:47
Queen's Gambit. Yeah.

Danny Strong 53:48
Queen's Gambit is unbelievable. So there's these pieces that there are I don't know to me there's in some ways more exciting the movies. I get more excited about these these kind of prestigious limited series right now. And in that there, I just get more caught up in them. There it is. And they seem to break out in a bigger way than movies have for a little while. I mean, I don't know what movie was as big as the Queen's gambit was that year, right?

Alex Ferrari 54:16
Look at Squid Games. I mean, look at Squid Games for god sakes.

Danny Strong 54:18
Yeah, yeah, Squid Games is an ongoing but it's it's a it's just there's some really explosive rich stuff happening in that space right now.

Alex Ferrari 54:28
Dan, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you, my friend. I thank you so much for taking out the time and please continue to make great television. Great work out there. We really appreciate you man.

Danny Strong 54:37
Oh, Alex, thanks so much, man. It was so much fun chatting with you and and thank you to everyone listening to this. I really appreciate it.

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