Ron Nyswaner first made his name as a screenwriter of powerful, issue-driven films with 1993’s PHILADELPHIA, which earned him Writers Guild Award, Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. He is also the writer of acclaimed films THE PAINTED VEIL, which garnered two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations, and last year’s FREEHELD, which starred Julianne Moore, Ellen Page and Michael Shannon.
His first foray into a television writing room was with the brilliant RAY DONOVAN. Ron is currently a writer and co-executive producer on HOMELAND (Showtime), which perfectly fits his research-based writing style and his knack for crafting drama with depth.
OnWriting spoke with Ron about the intense HOMELAND writers’ room, writing about marginalized people and how Jonathan Demme gave him his career break while he was still in film school.
Tell me about current season of HOMELAND and what makes this one so electrifying to you?
What’s exciting about this season is that we created a parallel between our show and real life. That parallel is exciting and frightening. There’s luck involved with that, but a lot of preparation happens before we start writing the season. We do a research trip to Washington, D.C. before every season begins.
We aim to be part of the national conversation about what’s happening in our country and the struggle between the intelligence community and the new government, a new president. For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about this season.
How much prep do you do before you get into the writing room and then what is it like in the writing room?
I came on HOMELAND in Season Five. The brilliant creators Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon and the veteran writers have established a process which has been thrilling to be a part of.
The research trip comes first before the beginning of every season. The whole writers’ room goes to Washington. We sit in a pleasant room with a consultant named John MacGaffin. He used to be in the CIA. John brings in people from the CIA and other parts of the government, like law enforcement agencies. He brings in Pulitzer Prize winning journalists. We get lots of perspectives.
The main question my boss, Alex Gansa, asks these people is, “What’s on your mind now as you’re looking ahead to the next year? What are you worried about? What keeps you up at night?” We take those answers, go back into the writer’s room for a few weeks and talk about the answers. We think about which of those issues could be shaped into good, entertaining drama.
That conversation takes a few weeks. We’re figuring out the basic story that we want to tell, where we want to set it and one, two or three plot strands that we want to try to weave together. What are the issues that we feel we can make a story out of? We don’t say, “This is how it’s going to end.” We leave that open as we begin to break the first couple of episodes. Then we go episode by episode.
The fifth and the current season are set in the present, real world.
I’ve been on staff for those two seasons. They did a time break between seasons four and five. The show jumped ahead a couple of years and that was really because of Carrie’s child.
Some of the things people write about and talk about are actually very simple. Other writers get it when we say, “We couldn’t keep fussing with a baby.” We didn’t want to go from season four into real time with season five, because having babies on the set is very challenging. They can be wonderful, but in a way, it’s not all that interesting. We wanted Franny to be a couple of years older. That way we could begin to develop a relationship between Carrie and her daughter. In both seasons five and six, we have drama play out between them and about that relationship. That’s been Carrie’s dilemma in season five and six. This issue of, “Can I be a good mother and a loving mother without being pulled back into the life that is dangerous?” She manages motherhood with some success and some failures.
Can we talk about how the show has explored Muslim characters and the sensitivities that go into it? This season, Carrie worked for an organization for mistreated Muslims.
Season six is a very specific response to the overused plot device. It’s not just in our show, but in a lot of our culture–the threat of Muslim terrorism. We knew at the end of season five, even before we did our research trip, that we know that plot device has played itself out. We believe it’s time to put that aside. All drama, especially ours, is an action-based drama. There has to be a threat of some kind. There has to be a danger to our main characters and other people. We decided at the beginning of this season that we were not going to rely on a threat from Muslim terrorists as the danger that would be a catalyst for our show.
Having written the brilliant PHILADELPHIA, I feel you have a gift for writing empathetically about people who have not always been shown as sympathetic characters in television, film, or the culture at large—whether that’s Muslims or HIV-positive gay men.
There’s always a tension when you’re attempting to do everything you’re describing. To write about people who have been marginalized, or who are the underdogs, or people who have been stereotyped in various ways, or been oppressed. There’s always a tension between giving those people a voice, treating them with dignity and respect, and wanting to be entertaining and wanting to create compelling drama. Really, good drama is always based on complicated characters. Characters who are often flawed.
I can go back to PHILADELPHIA and something that was controversial at the time. It was in the script, but people don’t talk about it or they don’t remember it. In PHILADELPHIA, Tom Hanks, America’s favorite person, America’s sweetheart, his character visits a gay porn theater. He goes into a booth in the back of the gay porn theater and has anonymous sex. Later in the film, in the courtroom, he is asked, “Is it possible that you got HIV during that sexual encounter? You might have passed that on to your lover.” Tom Hanks has to admit that was all a possibility.
Now that I look back on it, that’s a rather bold thing to do. Have you seen very many movies where the main character—played by someone as likable as Tom Hanks—has anonymous sex in a porn theater? Probably not.
We did that for a very specific reason. At that time, there were a lot of people talking about who with AIDS was innocent and who wasn’t. Some people were categorized as innocent victims of AIDS. Sometimes, even within the gay community, there was a perception of good gay people and not good gay people. The not good gay people were the ones who were sexually promiscuous.
Tom’s a great actor and very likable. Our main character was pretty righteous. He was a good lawyer, and he’s just a good guy. We wanted to say, “Yeah, but he’s not perfect. He’s not a stereotype of what you think is a good person. He’s mixed up. He’s got other characteristics.”
That is something we always have to try to do when we are writing about people we feel we are trying to send a message about or we’re trying to fight their cause for them. There’s nothing really more boring than watching good people do good things. I can’t imagine somehow creating good drama out of that.
I am thrilled I get to work on HOMELAND. I love Carrie Mathison. I think what Claire Danes brings to Carrie Mathison is this incredible humanity. What my colleagues had created, long before I showed up, was one of the most complicated characters in American popular culture. Is she right or is she wrong? Is she a terrorist, or is she not? Is she seeing the world as is, or is she delusional? That, to me, is what makes good drama. I have fights sometimes when I work on other projects, because I believe my first obligation is to be a good dramatist, before I’m a message bearer for a cause.
What’s a scene that you’ve written for HOMELAND that you felt really translated from the page to the screen?
I am going to talk about a scene that was done before I was even on the show. It’s one of the most famous scenes from HOMELAND. Carrie is giving her baby a bath and her daughter starts to sink under water. Carrie pauses for a moment and thinks, “Well, my life could just be very simple from now on.” That is a horrifying moment. I was watching the show then as a fan and screamed out loud while sitting in my living room. Some people hate that moment. I’ve met people who despise us for doing that moment. I think they’re wrong. To me, that moment is one of the most thrilling moments on HOMELAND.
As for a scene I wrote, in the third episode of this season, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) makes a trip to the West Bank to meet his sister who is a settler. That was originally pitched in the room. I was thrilled and intimidated because the issues of settlements and the West Bank is very controversial. In order to wade into it, I had to research what passionate, intelligent people on both sides of the issue felt. We were very lucky that Mandy is very active in this issue and has a cousin who is a settler. Mandy and his cousin started an email exchange, which he very generously shared with me. What that allowed me to do was write the conversation that gave both those characters, Saul and his sister, their due.
I was able to connect with his sister, as I am opposed to the nature of the settlements, both politically and personally, but I do respond to people who have found a religious faith that guides their life. I found that key into the sister, even if I disagree with her political position. Saul was able to vocalize the more passionate argument against the settlements.
The scene ends up being about the history of a brother and sister who used to be best friends, but now are strangers in many ways, even though standing next to each other.
You wrote the season finale, an episode titled “America First,” which seems to clearly speak to Trump.
In “America First,” we present a new president who has been challenged over and over again by what’s called the permanent government. The permanent government is the people that don’t necessarily get fired when a new president comes in, but she can replace them. Certainly, she’s challenged in very dramatic ways by her intelligence community.
She’s also under pressure from the people who create news in very creative ways—the masters of alternative facts. We have a character that’s like an Alex Jones, a radio and television broadcaster who is creating a whole lie about the president’s son. That’s in episodes nine, 10, 11, and 12.
In episode 12, we wanted to speak more clearly, more specifically, to our current political situation.
We had conceived a show about a new president way back in February of 2016. We chose a woman simply because we wanted a woman, not because we were betting for Hillary. In many of our president’s policies, played brilliantly by Elizabeth Marvel, her policies are far to the left of Hillary’s policies. In our show, her war with the intelligence community comes from being anti-military, anti-militarization of CIA policies, anti-drone, pulling back our troops, getting out of the Middle East. That’s the cause of her war with the CIA. Our real president is doubling down on the military. In his world, the CIA is very different.
The election, by the way, happened when we were halfway through shooting our season. We were shooting episode seven when the election happened. I have to give credit to Alex Gansa. We all scrambled to think about how to retrofit our show? We thought we could go back and adjust some of the episodes that have been shot to make more of a connection to what was actually happening in our country. We did that. That’s when O’Keefe’s character, the Alex Jones-like character, the Steve Bannon-like character, was invented. We went back and added some of those things to the earlier episodes.
When you watch episode 12, our new president, having gone through some very traumatic experiences with the intelligence community, sort of changes. She changes in a way we think reflects our present and future real-life situation in America.
This is the miracle of a writer’s room. We were all talking about it, what could it be or how to make sure our season remains relevant to the election of the president we elected. Alex Gansa came in to the writer’s room one day. He had been talking to Chip Johannessen. They walked in and said, “Guys, we have this crazy idea.” He said what the crazy idea is. The change isn’t very complicated, in a way. It’s kind of simple, and it comes from the psychological point of view on the character. It definitely is making a political statement about the danger that we think our country is in. But it comes from the president Elizabeth Keane’s psychology first. We made that decision based on the psychology of a human who happens to be the new President of the United States., but it does reflect our current and potentially future situation in America.
What’s your process for putting together an episode?
I’m very research driven. I’ll say that about everything I write, not only episodes. That could be research on something that’s fictional, researching the characters. Before I write “interior office day,” I have created tons of pages of other material—outlines and beat sheets and notes and places. I have all this stuff that goes into that script.
I do like writing from outlines. My outlines on HOMELAND tend to be among the longer outlines. I sometimes write a 13 or 14-page outline for a 50-page episode. I’m sure that exposes me to more criticism along the way, because you get notes on your outline then you get notes on your script. But I prefer that. I’d rather hear it now, than struggle and write a scene and have people say, “That was a dumb scene.”
On HOMELAND, before you even write an outline, a lot of the episode has been broken. Most scenes have gone up on cards on the wall. We have a certain number. It’s 25. When there are 25 cards on the wall for an episode—those 25 cards have been vetted and beaten up and debated and been taken off the wall and thrown away, and new ones have replaced them. We’ll go through that process many, many times, then Alex says, to the author of the episode, “Okay, I want you to start working on the outline.” All those notes from all those conversations are there, and they go into the outline.
For me, the outline gets vetted and debated and discussed and noted. I redo the outline and that outline goes into the script. I think the script should be a place where you’re indenting what happens in the scene, so that the scene is the best scene possible. You’re in trouble if the script is where you’re inventing the story. I know some people in features write that way. They just start typing. That doesn’t work for me. I need to start typing a script based on a ton of research material.
Where do you like to write?
Anywhere. Sometimes on airplanes, because the phone isn’t going to ring. No one’s going to bother me. But I don’t have those requirements.
I really can’t afford to have a regimen. I get up at 4:45 AM every day. But I like to stay in the room as much as possible, because I feel I’m not going to leave the room for three weeks to go write an episode. I also like to be part of the conversation about all the other episodes. I dash down the hall at lunch and start writing. I stay in my office late and write. I come home. I write when I can. To me, it’s as important to be part of the conversation of the episodes as it is to be writing my episode.
With that in mind, you’re still writing features. Do you feel writing for TV changed how you write for feature, or vice versa?
Yeah. I think my writing has really gotten sharpened. I’ve had two jobs in television. My first one was on the first two years of RAY DONOVAN, with the brilliant Ann Biderman. The last two years I’ve been on HOMELAND. Ann Biderman is a genius. She is the bravest writer I know. Anne writes from the gut, and her characters go places that are crazy and large and operatic and extremely passionate. I aspire to her level of writing.
All that research I’ve been talking about, I love structure. I think so much about story structure. Sometimes my writing is a little too controlled and a little too obvious. I’m more about the structure of the story than I am about writing one crazy, wild, hilarious, scary scene. Ann really gave me this aspiration to occasionally write as bravely as she does.
Every scene on HOMELAND does one thing. We have a couple of rules. One is every scene does one thing. As soon as you start pitching a scene and start saying, “Well, Carrie is trying to get her kid back, but she’s also.” As soon as you say the word “also” someone says, “No. There is no ‘also.’ This scene is about her trying to get her kid back. That’s what it’s about.” That’s what the writing’s like. Every scene in HOMELAND has to move the story forward. My first few months, I’d be like, “This is a scene where we get to know, get to figure out.” “There are no ‘getting to know you’ scenes in HOMELAND. There’s no getting to observe a character scene in HOMELAND. Every scene pushes the story forward. I have to say we’re really ruthless about that. I think the show shows it. The shows are full because it leaves out scenes where we see a character doing something interesting. We don’t do those scenes. That card gets thrown right in the trash. Getting to those 25 cards, where every scene moves the story forward, and every scene does one thing, that’s a real accomplishment. That takes a lot of time and energy in our room.
That is something I’ve learned. What’s the point of this scene? How does it move the story forward? How is the story different now, because we got to the end of the scene? If I can’t answer that question, then that scene doesn’t work.
Would you say you’re, as a writer, influenced more by past writers or really current writers?
I think it’s always the people I work with. My great friend Jonathan Demme changed my life, because he bought my first script when I was in school. Jonathan just has such humanity, and brings that to everything he does. He has this great empathy for every character that you work on. Jonathan had a lot of influence. Ann Biderman and Alex Gansa, I’ve already mentioned.
For me, it’s more that good writing makes me feel a little inadequate and jealous, so then I’m motivated to try to be better. We’re on a hiatus now and I went back and read every James Elroy novel. To me, he is one of America’s greatest writers. I enter the brutality and the honesty of his writing. It’s inspiring me. It’s inspiring me to be a little bit more honest about characters, and not worry about whether people will like this, or they’ll like this character. Is that going to make the character unsympathetic? To give up all that stuff and be truthful about characters. Elroy’s, at the moment, having a big influence on me.
Let’s talk about how you got your foot in the door. You said your first script was picked up while you were in film school?
I was in film school a long time ago. I started at Columbia in 1978. This was a time when people didn’t understand that you could actually get a degree in film. Other people would say, “Yeah, but what’s your degree in?” I’d say, “Film.” They’d say, “No, what’s it going to say on the …” “You know, film.” It’s different now, because everybody is going to film school. It was a much more unusual thing, to fall in love with screenwriting. I had a great teacher there, a guy named Frank Daniel, who was from Czechoslovakia.
Frank kind of brought 3X structure to America. He brought it to AFI, he brought it to Sundance and he brought it to Columbia University when I was there. I wrote a script with Frank as my teacher and mentor, which was a little comedy. I have since learned not to write comedies, because I don’t do them very well at all. But the script did have some charm. There wasn’t a BlackList then, but the American Film Magazine every year published the ten best unproduced scripts. It made that list. Before that happened, just by luck, my roommate put it into Jonathan Demme’s hands. I literally was a film student and no one else had even heard of this script. Jonathan optioned the script. He brought me out to LA and I had a parking space. There was a little studio then called the Lab Company and it changed my life.
We didn’t make that movie together. I worked on a movie called SWING SHIFT. I rewrote a script and that movie did not turn out very well. Then, eventually, in 1988 Jonathan called me. Jonathan and I loved each other so much, but we had this frustrating thing of not getting our projects turned into movies. We never gave up the idea of working together. In 1988, he called me and asked me if I wanted to write a movie about AIDS. We spent many years finding the right story and writing the right script. Jonathan Demme gave me a career.
How do you feel that you can return the favor to other writers? What kind of advice would you give them that maybe Jonathan gave you?
It’s really hard to give people advice about how to break into the business. I find that things are so different from when I did. My advice about writing is to be ruthless in your own writing. The ruthlessness that we employ in the HOMELAND writer’s room to everybody’s ideas including my own. You must be willing to put an idea out there and have five really brilliant people rip it apart, and then put out another idea and do it again and again and again.
That’s the kind of ruthlessness one needs to apply to oneself. I find, too often, young writers are very satisfied with their first draft. My experience has shown me that the shooting script will not resemble the first draft very much at all really. That kind of ruthlessness and eagerness to be better, I don’t know if you can teach people to be that. There’s something in your personality. You either have it or you don’t. Some people have that defensiveness. I find that the defensive writers, I haven’t got much hope for them. You have to know that you’re not good enough yet. I’ve been doing this for 37 years. I’m still not good enough yet. I still need to have my scripts pulled apart and put back together. The difference now is that I do most of the pulling apart and putting back together.
I was developing a pilot for FX and Lionsgate a couple days ago. On the phone, I would say, “I’ll tell you what the problem is with my script.” I diagnosed it completely, and they said, “Yeah, that’s right. Why don’t you just give yourself notes and save us all the trouble?”
I think a lot of people get on the phone, sit in silence and wait for them to get notes that they can bounce them back. I knew the script that I had handed in, because I had been asked to do certain things that I didn’t want to do, I knew it was not good enough. They couldn’t articulate why it wasn’t good enough. I said, “I’ll tell you why it’s not good enough, because I did this and this and this. I can fix it by doing this, this, and this.” That takes a really long time.
The other advice I give to young writers is please don’t write about yourself. Really, I don’t care about the crush that you had on the lifeguard on vacation, or the drama you had when your parents weren’t nice to you. I don’t care.
We’re caught up in the trap of self-obsession. I have always found that research liberates me from my self-obsession. The best things I’ve done have been the research. Years of researching PHILADELPHIA. My film SOLDIER’S GIRL was all about research and getting to know the amazing Calpernia Adams and the other people involved in that story. I say research. Go out there and find stories and people that aren’t you and aren’t like you. Write about them.
One last question, will Carrie die?
I think you know the answer to that question. I don’t know where we’ll be shooting next season, but I’m pretty sure that I’ll be hanging out with the fabulous Claire Danes for at least a couple of more years. I can’t say that for anyone else. That’s not guaranteed for anyone else. But I kind of think that Claire is pretty secure.
Follow Ron Nyswaner on twitter at @ronnyswaner