Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Caroline Waxler

Poster for CITY ON A HILLCaroline sat down with the one and only Tom Fontana (for his very first podcast!) to discuss his writing process, running less-than-traditional writers’ rooms, mentoring writers, his latest series – CITY ON A HILL, and much more.

Tom Fontana’s extensive résumé includes writer, producer, showrunner, and (co-)creator credits on several groundbreaking television series, including OZ, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, THE PHILANTHROPIST, COPPER, and Netflix’s BORGIA.

He has received international recognition for his writing, including five Writers Guild Awards (three for Episodic Drama and three of the East’s honorary awards), three Emmy Awards, four Peabody Awards, and four Television Critics Association Awards.

He is currently the showrunner for CITY ON A HILL, the crime drama series created by Chuck MacLean which recently premiered on Showtime.

CITY ON A HILL—a fictional account of the 1996 “Boston Miracle” that changed the city’s reputation for violent criminals, racism, and corrupt law enforcement—follows Brooklyn-raised Assistant District Attorney Decourcy Ward as he and forms an unlikely alliance with corrupt yet venerated FBI veteran, Jackie Rohr. Together, they take on a family of armored car robbers in a case that grows to involve, and ultimately subvert, the entire criminal justice system of Boston.

Listen here:

OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. Season Two of the podcast is hosted by Caroline Waxler. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

If you like OnWriting, please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts, and be sure to rate us on iTunes.

Thanks for listening. Write on.


Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler, and you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between.

Caroline Waxler: Today, we’re speaking with Tom Fontana, known for Oz, Homicide, and Borgia, among many others. He’s currently the showrunner on Showtime’s City on a Hill. Thank you so much for coming in today.

Tom Fontana: Well, it’s great to be here.

Caroline Waxler: And you are in a great-

Tom Fontana: This is, by the way, my first podcast.

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: Yes, this is my virginal podcast.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, my goodness. Oh my goodness. So much to live up to. Can only go up from here. That’s a reflection of me, not on the Guild.

Caroline Waxler: So, you are in a good mood. You just finished shooting.

Tom Fontana: Yes. We finished Monday.

Caroline Waxler: Oh my God.

Tom Fontana: Had the wrap party last night.

Caroline Waxler: Tell us about the wrap party.

Tom Fontana: It was at the Roxy, down in Tribeca, the old Tribeca Grand. It was packed. I did what I always do, which is I get there early, I sit down at a table, I get a double bourbon and I wait and I stay for an hour. If I see people, I see people, and if I don’t see them, I don’t see them. My attitude is, I’ve spent the whole year with them, I’m not going to spend the whole night weeping and saying goodbye, because we’ll work together again.

Caroline Waxler: Exactly. There’ll be many more seasons.

Tom Fontana: I hope so.

Caroline Waxler: And plus, I hear that you get up every day at 5:00 in the morning.

Tom Fontana: Yes, yes. That’s the other side of it. I can’t … I have to be in bed mid-Rachel Maddow.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, that is a definite marker.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: So, I hope the news on Rachel Maddow doesn’t keep you up, though?

Tom Fontana: No, no. Because I think like most Americans now, I’m just numb to everything that’s being said.

Caroline Waxler: So sad, but true. But you make many references to things on City on a Hill.

Tom Fontana: Yes. Well, the fun of City on a Hill is, because it’s set in 1992, we can say a lot of things that are relevant to today without actually uttering certain names that we wouldn’t want to utter.

Caroline Waxler: Yes. But I did catch the Roy Cohn reference, so that was very clever. Was that the part where he said, “If you say a lie enough times, people will believe it,” or something like that?

Tom Fontana: Basically. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Caroline Waxler: So, tell our audience, what is City on a Hill about?

Tom Fontana: Well, on its sort of maximum level, it is about family. It’s about three families specifically, and each of them are from different social stratas, and each of them are struggling in their own ways with their own issues. It’s also a show that deals with corruption in government, and racism and misogyny. It’s a show about those of us who talk and those of us who listen, which I’m beginning in my dotage now, beginning to understand that the world really is divided into talkers and listeners.

Caroline Waxler: And which is Kevin Bacon in the show?

Tom Fontana: He’s the talker.

Caroline Waxler: He’s a good talker.

Tom Fontana: He’s a great talker. Kevin is splendid in the part. He approaches it with such relish and such joy. Even the worst possible things that this character says, he says with such enthusiasm that it is … He captivates you in a way that’s terrifying, in one way, and wonderful in another way. The thing about Kevin’s character, Jackie Rohr, is he is the ultimate con man. The things he says, what happens is he’ll say … The way we’ve constructed the character is that the first thing he says is so outrageously terrible, and then he starts to justify it. So you go like, “Oh, well, yeah, now that you’ve said it, explained it, I begin to understand it.”

Caroline Waxler: That’s interesting.

Tom Fontana: On the other hand, you really are still pissed off about what he said.

Caroline Waxler: I mean, the things are just outrageous that he says.

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: Was he based on anybody?

Tom Fontana: He’s based on three different FBI agents during that period, only in the sense of their corruption and in their bold, bold lying.

Caroline Waxler: I mean, he must have been a fascinating character to write and create.

Tom Fontana: Yes. Well, Chuck MacLean is the guy who created the show. He’s from Boston, and he’s from the same streets as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, so he knows these people. His own family is the basis for a lot of the characters on the show.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, yeah.

Caroline Waxler: And how did you get involved in the show?

Tom Fontana: I got involved, they shot a pilot, and when they decided they were going to pick it up, they didn’t have a showrunner. Gary Levine, who I’ve actually known for, like, 40 years, because he worked at Williamstown Theatre Festival when I did, he called me and he said, “I know you’ve never done this before, work on a show you didn’t create, but I just have a sense that you will really love this pilot.”

Tom Fontana: He sent it to me and I watched it, and I was pretty engrossed by it. We did do some re-shoots, some new scenes. We shuffled around some scenes. So I feel like I was involved in it. The major cast members were already there when I came on board, and I think they’re all tremendous. It’s the cast I would have picked, had I been there at the beginning.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, and some of the cast members are folks you’ve worked with before.

Tom Fontana: Yes. Well, the Fontana Repertory Company, yes. Dean Winters, Scott Winters-

Caroline Waxler: Dean Winters.

Tom Fontana: Lee Tergesen, Tom Mardirosian, Mark Ryder, who was on my show Borgia, played Cesare Borgia. Yeah, when you find an actor who you really connect with, you go, “Oh, write a part for her.” Because you know how far you can take that character because you know how good the actor is.

Caroline Waxler: So, are there any other folks in the Repertory Company that we should expect to see? Like, will we see John Doman have a part?

Tom Fontana: You know, I wanted desperately for John to be on the show, but he was finishing up The Affair, and he was doing another series, which I’ve completely forgotten the name, and a film. So we never had, the timing never worked out, but he called me the other day and he said, he goes, “So, don’t you think Rodrigo Borgia would be showing up in Boston?”

Tom Fontana: I said, “No, I don’t think so. But we’ll try to work it out.”

Caroline Waxler: Great. Well, I look forward to seeing him in season three, maybe.

Tom Fontana: Yes. I’m ready to put him in any time. The one other thing, I’ll give you a little spoiler.

Caroline Waxler: Great, please.

Tom Fontana: The show is set in Boston, as you know.

Caroline Waxler: Yes.

Tom Fontana: And the first show I ever did, St. Elsewhere, was set in Boston. It was in the ’80s, and it was based in a hospital called St. Elegius. Well, St. Elegius returns in City on a Hill.

Caroline Waxler: It does?

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: Aww. I love that. That’s also part of the Repertory.

Tom Fontana: Yes, exactly, exactly. Yeah, and when Gary Levine read the script where it referenced St. Elsewhere, or St. Elegius, I should say, he called me and he was just laughing, just going, “I love this.”

Caroline Waxler: That’s so cool. I look forward to seeing that.

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: So, now you’re not credited as a writer on the first few episodes, but clearly your touch is there.

Tom Fontana: I purposely didn’t take any writing credit for a couple of reasons. My job as the showrunner is to do the final pass on every episode, which is what I do. I also, given the way of the world right now, I wanted to give as many writers an opportunity … I’ve had my day, I’ve gotten all the awards. I thought, I really wanted to help a couple of young writers out, and a couple of older writers. Jorge Zamacona is one of the writer/producers, and he and I worked together first on … Well, he was a PA on St. Elsewhere, but he worked with me on Homicide and Oz. And then, Emily Ragsdale, who is one of the writers, she was my assistant for a long time working on Mr. Robot, but out in California, and she just had a baby. It’s all about what’s going on in people’s families.

Caroline Waxler: Yes, yes. Oh, I love that.

Tom Fontana: So, she called me and she said, “I hear you’re starting the show, and I’d really love to come home.” She’s doing it. Anyway, the other ones are all new, Chuck MacLean and Jorge are the only elder statesmen. Everybody else is starting out. JM Holmes is a wonderful novelist who’s never written for TV before. Michele McPhee, who was a newspaper woman up in Boston, this is her first TV script.

Caroline Waxler: Great hire.

Tom Fontana: So yeah, you know …

Caroline Waxler: She sounds like an unusual hire and a terrific hire.

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: How did you connect with her?

Tom Fontana: Through Chuck. Chuck knew her in Boston. She’s been an incredible source of … I mean, she was basically reporting in the ’90s.

Caroline Waxler: Perfect.

Tom Fontana: So she knows where all the bodies, literally, the bodies are buried. Yeah, she’s been great. And she has connections with the governor and the mayor and the head of the sausage factory. Whatever we needed, she goes, “Oh, I can call him.”

Caroline Waxler: Oh, so the fixer as well. That’s good double duty.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: And where exactly is the writers room?

Tom Fontana: Well, as you may know, I don’t do a traditional writers room.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, tell us about that.

Tom Fontana: But I have a building on West 13th Street that everyone has an office in. My attitude is, and I know every time I say this in front of a bunch of other writers, showrunners, they all look at me like I have four heads. To me, each writer brings their own unique voice and vision to a script. And for us to be sitting in a room dissecting each other’s work, it just feels like there’s too many other people giving opinions, the networks and studios and the actors and the director and blah blah blah blah blah, that what the writer needs is to be protected as opposed to bombarded by other writers trying to prove to the showrunner how brilliant they are. So, what happens is, once we … Chuck and Jorge and I worked out the broad strokes for the season, and then I assigned individual scripts to different writers. Then it became a relationship between the writer and I to develop the script over the two drafts.

Tom Fontana: The reason we’re all in the same building is that people can run up and down stairs and go, “Can you read this scene? What do you think of this? Tell me if I missed,” so it’s like a commune more than it’s like a writers room.

Caroline Waxler: And it’s a very historically interesting commune.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. No, but we’ve produced a lot of good [inaudible 00:11:50].

Caroline Waxler: Yeah. What else has been produced in [crosstalk 00:11:54]?

Tom Fontana: In terms of everybody, Julie Martin, who started with us, is now running Law & Order: SVU. Kyle Bradstreet is the number two on Mr. Robot. Shawn Jablonski and Sunil Nayar are both out there creating their own shows.

Caroline Waxler: And as you mentioned earlier, you’ve been a mentor to people. I know at the Guild, a very smart person told me you’ve mentored about half the Guild.

Tom Fontana: Well, I don’t know if I’d say that, but I’ll tell you, the story is that I was a starving playwright in New York. I mean, truly starving. Didn’t have enough money for an apartment, so I was sleeping on people’s couches and watering plants when they went out of town. And Bruce Paltrow, actually Blythe Danner, Bruce Paltrow’s wife, the wonderful, talented Blythe Danner, met me in Williamstown and she said to Bruce, “You have to hire him for your new show, St. Elsewhere.”

Tom Fontana: And Bruce was like … Anyway. He did, because she made him do that, and after about the first year, I went to him and I was like, “Bruce, how can I ever, ever pay you back for this? You’ve changed my life. You’ve completely changed my life. How can I pay you back?”

Tom Fontana: And he goes, “You can’t.”

Tom Fontana: And I said, “Really?”

Tom Fontana: And he goes, “But you can do it for other people.”

Caroline Waxler: Oh, I love that.

Tom Fontana: And that’s why I do it. I’m still paying Bruce Paltrow back for taking pity on this poor schlubby playwright.

Caroline Waxler: Well, that is some good payback.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, yeah. Well, I hope. Bruce, I hope you’re okay with this.

Caroline Waxler: So, playwright. Tell us about some of the plays that have meant the most to you.

Tom Fontana: That I’ve written?

Caroline Waxler: Yes.

Tom Fontana: Oh, none of them.

Caroline Waxler: None?

Tom Fontana: No, they’re all garbage. They’re all total garbage. The ones that I wrote when I was very young are really garbage. I started writing plays again the last couple of years. I’m writing one with John Marcus, who’s another member of our Guild. And then I wrote one by myself, which is being done up in the Berkshires this summer.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, what’s it called?

Tom Fontana: It was done last year at Williamstown as a workshop, and now it’s being done up at the Berkshire Playwrights Work Lab in August.

Caroline Waxler: Congratulations. What’s it about?

Tom Fontana: It’s called Screenplay by Stalin.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, it sounds upbeat.

Tom Fontana: It’s based on a true story, which is, after World War II, Stalin wanted to do a movie about how the Russians conquered Berlin. And so he hired these writers to write this movie, and the play starts with him waiting to get word of what Stalin thought of it. This is all true.

Caroline Waxler: Fascinating.

Tom Fontana: He sent down the script and he not only had notes, but he did rewrites.

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: Amazing.

Tom Fontana: Yes. And then he said to them, again, true story.

Caroline Waxler: Crazy.

Tom Fontana: “There’s one thing wrong with this movie,” and the were like, “What could it be?”

Tom Fontana: “I’m not in it.”

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: Now, he never went to Berlin.

Caroline Waxler: Not relevant.

Tom Fontana: But they now had to write a scene where Joseph Stalin goes to Berlin, right?

Caroline Waxler: It had better have been a good scene.

Tom Fontana: Well, that’s the thing. So, the play is about these two writers trying to deal with it, but also in the course of the play, they both discover things about each other and deal with the idea that they’re being asked to create this fantasy that is going to feed this guy’s ego and has nothing to do with the truth. So it’s these two writers dealing with, how much are we willing to give up of our own self-respect-

Caroline Waxler: Yes, integrity.

Tom Fontana: Because we’re also facing potentially getting killed for … You know, it’s almost as bad as working in television.

Caroline Waxler: Close. Close. So, how did you find that story?

Tom Fontana: I was going through a catalog of films and there was this film, the actual film, you can buy this film. And then the little story underneath it, and then I did some more and more research and found out what I could.

Caroline Waxler: Wow. And so what made you decide to put out this work as a play instead of a TV show or a movie?

Tom Fontana: Well, it felt like a play.

Caroline Waxler: Or a musical.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. Singing Stalins to the right, dancing Stalins to the left.

Caroline Waxler: Of course, everyone.

Tom Fontana: It just felt like a play. I mean, it’s basically four characters in one set.

Caroline Waxler: And have you been up to the Berkshires as they’re mounting, or were they in the process?

Tom Fontana: It’s in August that I’m going to, going up.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, so okay. When do they start rehearsals?

Tom Fontana: In August. It’ll all happen in August.

Caroline Waxler: In August, all contained. Summer stock.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. It’s a workshop, so it’s a short-term commitment. You know, I keep saying to the poor artistic director, “This isn’t my day job.”

Caroline Waxler: Exactly.

Tom Fontana: I actually have this television job that, you know …

Caroline Waxler: So yeah, speaking of the television job, you’re going to be in post now for how long?

Tom Fontana: For another month.

Caroline Waxler: And then what are you working on, or what are you going to jump to?

Tom Fontana: Well, there’s a couple things I hesitate to talk about, because it always ends up being like, “Well, that makes no sense at all.” But there’s a couple of things. One is an independent film, which I’ve never written an independent film before.

Caroline Waxler: And where are you in the process of writing it?

Tom Fontana: I did a draft and then I got busy again with the show. And then I’m going to do a rewrite on a pilot script that I did. I finished it before we started and I said, “I can’t do it until we’re done,” so now that I’m done, I have to [crosstalk 00:17:40].

Caroline Waxler: You’re going to focus on, before you get busy on something else or before they ask you to come back and shoot season two.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. That’s right. If they do.

Caroline Waxler: Come on. The show is incredible. I’ve seen the first three episodes, I cannot wait for the rest of the season.

Tom Fontana: Oh, good, good, good.

Caroline Waxler: And hoping for more spoilers, besides the name of the hospital.

Caroline Waxler: So you’ve had a very, very long and distinguished career. Of your-

Tom Fontana: Some might say too long.

Caroline Waxler: Not long enough. Of your many, many projects, what stands out for you in what way? I mean, which projects kind of put their stamp on what you do today in your career?

Tom Fontana: Well, let me say first, I have no favorite show I’ve ever done. The ones I feel the most emotional about, if that’s the right word, which it probably isn’t, are the ones that didn’t go forward.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, interesting.

Tom Fontana: You know, we made a pilot and it didn’t get picked up, or we made six episodes or ten episodes and it didn’t get renewed. Somehow because they’re like the child that never got to really fly, you know. Well, actually, the truth of it is, in terms of the shows that I’ve done, St. Elsewhere, we pretty much knew it was going to be over, so we ended it with the famous snow globe moment.

Caroline Waxler: Yes. And what was your involvement in that?

Tom Fontana: Well, it’s funny. We were always going to be canceled, because we were so low rated. The first season we were on, there were only 100 shows on television. This is how long ago it was. Yes. There were only three networks. Fox didn’t exist. And out of 100 series, St. Elsewhere was ranked 99.

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: The lowest rated show that season was another new show called Cheers.

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: Okay, in good company.

Tom Fontana: Yes. And thank God, Grant Tinker was running NBC, because he was like, “You know what? These are two good shows. I’m not canceling them.” And Cheers, of course, went right to the top. We always remained sort of pathetically in the middle.

Caroline Waxler: Yes, pretty close.

Tom Fontana: So what we would do, because we thought we were always going to be canceled, we would … In the kitchen, we had a clipboard and when you had the stupid idea for the last episode, you’d write it on the clipboard.

Caroline Waxler: Yes. I love that.

Tom Fontana: So, the list just kept getting longer and longer every year that we were on. When it came to the point where we knew it was going to be over, John Masius, who I wrote the show with, went into Bruce’s office and said, “Okay, here’s our list of how we’re going to end the show.” And we went through it. He was like, “No, no, no, no,” and we got to the snow globe and he went, “That’s not the worst one.”

Caroline Waxler: I like his reaction.

Tom Fontana: We took that as a sign and we went off and wrote it.

Caroline Waxler: One of the most iconic episodes of any TV show.

Tom Fontana: Well, it was, some people hated it.

Caroline Waxler: Yes.

Tom Fontana: And this is back when you got mail.

Caroline Waxler: You got some nasty letters?

Tom Fontana: Oh, man. We got so many pissed off people who were pissed off at us.

Caroline Waxler: Wow.

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: I wonder what that would be like today. There would be so many trolls.

Tom Fontana: I guess. Yeah. Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: So, that was St. Elsewhere. Tell me-

Tom Fontana: St. Elsewhere, and then Homicide, we were canceled, but NBC allowed us to do a two hour sort of movie that concluded the story in our minds.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s great, yeah.

Tom Fontana: Oz was funny because I was in a conversation with Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht, who were running HBO at the time, and they said, “Could you do two more years?”

Tom Fontana: And I said, “You know, I just don’t know if I can.” I said, “I don’t want the show to turn into a parody of itself,” which most shows that run too long do turn into.

Caroline Waxler: Yup.

Tom Fontana: So, I said, “I can do one more year. I know I can. So let me just do one more year.” And of course, the minute I finished that year, I was like, “No, I could do another year.” But it was too late.

Caroline Waxler: More to say.

Tom Fontana: I had already killed off half the cast.

Caroline Waxler: So it was decided for you.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, it was decided. And Borgia, same thing. We had to end Borgia because the main characters all, in history they died. You couldn’t, you know …

Caroline Waxler: Yes. You couldn’t have next gen.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, yeah.

Caroline Waxler: How did you decide to do the show Borgia?

Tom Fontana: Well, being a half-ass Catholic, I’ve always had a fascination with the popes. Because it’s the kind of thing, it’s a position you go, like, “That’s so crazy that that would exist,” you know?

Caroline Waxler: Absolutely.

Tom Fontana: And you grow up with it as a Catholic. It’s the pope, it’s the pope, it’s the pope.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, revering the pope.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, revering the pope. So, I started doing a lot of reading about the papacy, the history of the papacy, and there were so many bad popes. There were a lot of good popes, but there were so many bad popes that I started-

Caroline Waxler: Like, comically so.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. I started to say to people, “You know, I want to do a show, a TV series called The Bad Popes.” That’s what I wanted to call it.

Caroline Waxler: Very [crosstalk 00:22:43], yes.

Tom Fontana: And people were like, “Oh yeah, Tom, sure. Somebody’s going to buy that.”

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, The Bad-

Tom Fontana: And Anne Thomopoulos, who I met at HBO when I was doing Oz, she was in a meeting with [inaudible 00:23:00] and they were saying, “You know, we’d like to do a series about the Borgia family. Is there an American writer who you think would want to write it?”

Tom Fontana: And Anne literally went, like, “There’s only one guy who wants to write about this.” Because I knew it all, I heard all in my head. So that’s how it came about.

Caroline Waxler: Well, how great that you were telling people that you had this idea for The Bad Popes.

Tom Fontana: I know, I know. And they were all … Annie among them would go, like, “Yeah, no.”

Tom Fontana: So the fact that she happened to be in the room and was like, “Oh my God, somebody stupid enough to buy this.”

Caroline Waxler: It’s a great idea and a great show.

Tom Fontana: We had so much fun. The best thing about it, I mean, I was basically in Europe for four years, which was very rough.

Caroline Waxler: Rough.

Tom Fontana: But I would wake up, we’d be shooting in these perfect little medieval towns, and I’d wake up and I’d go, “Oh my God, look at where I am, and they’re going to pay me for this.” I mean, it was-

Caroline Waxler: What a nice feeling.

Tom Fontana: It was such a great feeling.

Caroline Waxler: And so, would you have the writers rooms in those towns?

Tom Fontana: Well, again, I never had a writers room.

Caroline Waxler: Writers room, the non-writers room [crosstalk 00:24:12].

Tom Fontana: The non-writers room. No, the writers room was still here in New York, or the writers were still here in New York.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, the writers.

Tom Fontana: We had a much smaller staff of writers, and then I had a lot of freelancers, like Frank Pugliese and people like that.

Caroline Waxler: How was the research done for that show? And all your shows, how do you go about doing research?

Tom Fontana: A lot of it is me, because I love history and I’m obsessive about doing the research. I’ll tell you one quick story about Borgia, I was looking for some fact that … And I have, like, 300 books. I’m not like a Wikipedia guy, like, “Well, I’ll just go to Wikipedia and I’ll believe anything they tell me.”

Caroline Waxler: You’re actually a reference library.

Tom Fontana: I’m a reference, yeah, and I have, like, 300 books. I’m trying to find this fact about Cesare Borgia, and I don’t remember what that fact was, but I came across this reference to the fact that he used to go hunting with panthers.

Caroline Waxler: Whoa.

Tom Fontana: And I read this and I went, “God, Cesare is the coolest guy [inaudible 00:25:17].”

Caroline Waxler: Incredible.

Tom Fontana: So I now go to our line producer and I go, “Can I have a panther?”

Tom Fontana: And he went, “I don’t know.” And he found this panther in Italy.

Caroline Waxler: No.

Tom Fontana: And we shot this scene with Cesare and his panther.

Caroline Waxler: My gosh.

Tom Fontana: It’s not my favorite scene we did, but it just makes me laugh every time I think about it because I think, “If it wasn’t for the research … ” I could not have made that up. If i had said to you, “Yeah, no, no, I want a panther. I’m thinking it’d be funny to have a …”

Tom Fontana: No, the fact it’s historically correct.

Caroline Waxler: And it’s such an obscure fact. The fact that you remember that-

Tom Fontana: It’s such an obscure, yeah. Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: How did that work with the budgets? Are panthers expensive?

Tom Fontana: You know, I just said to him, “If we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.” And he said, “I’ll get you a panther.”

Caroline Waxler: This is a good person.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, yeah. He was great. He’s a great line producer, Rick McCallum.

Caroline Waxler: I hope you work with him often. He sounds like a very resourceful-

Tom Fontana: Well, he’s an American who lives in Europe. He actually lives in Prague, in Beethoven’s old apartment.

Caroline Waxler: No. What a great life he has.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. It’s pretty gorgeous.

Caroline Waxler: That’s very cool. So now, Europe, you’re doing another show coming up about Rome in the ’50s.

Tom Fontana: Yes, yes.

Caroline Waxler: Tell us about that show.

Tom Fontana: It’s called Dolce Vita. It’s complicated. Rome in that period, right after the war, they had gone from the repression of the fascists to this explosion of passion. I mean, if you see any of the Fellini movies, it gives you a sense of how unleashed they were as a people. So the show centers on a young American woman who comes to Rome, her mother was Italian, her father’s an American diplomat. She comes to Rome to sort of reclaim her heritage and is exposed to this combustion that’s going on in Rome at the time.

Caroline Waxler: Great. So where is that show in the process? And when do you get to go to Rome?

Tom Fontana: Well, I’m waiting, I’m waiting, I’m waiting. You know, I just had a conversation with Martha DeLaurentiis, who’s one of the producers, one of the other producers, and she said it’s moving along. But it’s been moving along for a long time, so, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, but hopefully the next podcast we do will be from Rome.

Caroline Waxler: Of course, that would be great. I would not mind that. I lived in Rome for a couple months.

Tom Fontana: Ah, God, I love it there. I now have dual citizenship, so I’m very-

Caroline Waxler: You do?

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: Is this breaking news? I mean, this is a big deal.

Tom Fontana: Well, I got it through my mother’s father, that’s how I became eligible. But I figured I should just have another passport just in case I need to get out of country really-

Caroline Waxler: You are very smart. So now, places where you spend time aside from New York, I know you are involved in your hometown of Buffalo.

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: Tell us about the boathouse that you’re doing there. This is one of the ways that you give back.

Tom Fontana: Well, my father was, his job was to be a beer salesman.

Caroline Waxler: That’s a good job.

Tom Fontana: But his passion … Yeah, especially for a teenage boy.

Caroline Waxler: Oh my gosh, he must have been very popular.

Tom Fontana: Yes. But his real passion was rowing. He’s been gone a long time now, probably 30 years, and about 10 years ago, a bunch of the guys who used to row for him, who are now judges and doctors and, you know … Came to me and said that they wanted to build this boathouse in honor of my parents.

Caroline Waxler: How nice.

Tom Fontana: They wanted to do it in honor of both my mother and my father because they said, “Your mother put up with, your mother allowed your father to go to the West Side Rowing Club.” So they got the designs of an old Frank Lloyd Wright boathouse which had never been built, and one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students, who was now an old man, was the supervising architect of the whole thing.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s so cool.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. And we raised the money, I have to say a lot of Hollywood people stepped up for me, which I was very touched by.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s great.

Tom Fontana: A lot of the networks and the studios as well. So we were able to raise the money, and I have to say, the day that it was christened, I got very emotional, which I don’t tend to get. But it was such a beautiful thing to see these young athletes carrying the rowing shelves from the old boathouse into the new boathouse. I was standing on this balcony watching this and I was like, just got overwhelmed how awesome this was that my father’s legacy was continuing.

Caroline Waxler: That’s amazing. How would have felt about this?

Tom Fontana: He would have been outwardly embarrassed and inwardly thrilled.

Caroline Waxler: Yes.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. Which, I think is the way I felt when I got the Writers Guild award.

Caroline Waxler: All the things. That was terrific, and I mean, that was some introduction by Julianna Margulies.

Tom Fontana: Oh, she’s the best. She’s just the best. Yeah, no, I’m glad she was the one to do it. And she worked on it.

Caroline Waxler: That was some great speech.

Tom Fontana: I mean, but she really worked on it. She called my brothers, she called my sister. I mean, I started to get like, “What the hell is she going to say?” But it was fantastic. It was such a great night. I had such a wonderful time, and had so many people there that I love to share in it.

Caroline Waxler: And your speech was fantastic.

Tom Fontana: Oh, thanks. Thanks. It was … Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: And so, you’ve been so involved with the Guild.

Tom Fontana: I have. I was vice president, I was on the council for … I was on the council longer than I was vice president. The council appointed me as president of the Writers Guild Foundation, as it was then called. Now it’s called the Writers Guild Initiative. And so I sort of shepherded that to a place where, now it’s an extraordinary organization. You know, it’s important, I think, when you’re involved with something like that for it not to just be happening because of you, that you have to create a situation in which it will live past its initial impulse.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah.

Tom Fontana: I’m so thrilled to see, the work that we do with the Initiative, it’s not huge, but it’s, individual lives are being changed as a result of the stuff we do. We don’t have volume, but we have quality of the lives that we’re touching.

Caroline Waxler: Describe some of the work that the Initiative does.

Tom Fontana: Well, the main thing we do are writing workshops. Some with, originally it was with Wounded Warriors, but then we expanded to the caretakers, because … Well, first of all, with the Wounded Warriors, what we realized was that the federal government only has programs for them up to the year they get out.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, wow.

Tom Fontana: They will supply them with drugs, but there’s no programs for them. And then, there are none for the caretakers. Now these are mostly, they’re either the mothers of these young people or they’re the wives of these young people. And some of these women, they got married and the guy went off, and he’s come back and he’s missing two legs and he’s post-traumatic stress, and they’re just people living in a small town. They don’t, they’re not prepared for any of this.

Tom Fontana: And then we also did, the third piece of the sort of, military, I don’t know how you’d phrase it, part of the workshops was that we went to Germany, where the trauma victims come in and where American personnel, doctors and nurses, put them back together and then ship them back to America. What, again, we found this out just in conversation with people in the military, that they have post-traumatic stress. The doctors and the nurses-

Caroline Waxler: Oh, wow. Of course.

Tom Fontana: Because all they’re seeing are these bodies coming in, they work to save these lives and then they ship them off, and then another body comes in and they work.

Caroline Waxler: It’s like a MASH unit.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, a MASH unit. Exactly. And we’ve done other ones. We did Hurricane Sandy victims, we’ve done people with chronic illnesses. Anyway.

Caroline Waxler: But anyway, [crosstalk 00:34:06].

Tom Fontana: But we help a lot of people.

Caroline Waxler: A lot of people.

Tom Fontana: And then we also have the book club, where we go into high schools with an actor and they do a reading from a book that the kids are … We started that because we were reading that, there was a study that said that if a high school kid stops reading senior year, they don’t read after that.

Caroline Waxler: Oh, wow.

Tom Fontana: So we thought if we could get a famous actor in there, that they’d seen on TV or in a movie, to read and talk about the book, that it might make them go, “Oh, it’s cool, because so-and-so thought it was cool.”

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, of course.

Tom Fontana: And we have stuff like that.

Caroline Waxler: That’s great, that’s helping a lot of people.

Tom Fontana: Like I said, it isn’t a massive amount of people, and when we try to get these grants, part of what they always ask is, how many people, and you have to say, “Well, you know … ”

Tom Fontana: One last story about the writing workshops is, there was one of the soldiers, this young woman who was, she said to us … We do it in two parts and she came back the second time and she said, “You know, up to now, whenever I went on the elevator to go to my psychiatrist on the army base, I would always get off, if I was on the elevator with another person I would wait and go up an extra floor and walk down, because I was too embarrassed to admit that I needed psychiatric help.”

Caroline Waxler: Yes.

Tom Fontana: She said, “After these workshops, I now get off on the floor I’m supposed to get off on.”

Caroline Waxler: I love that. That little moment.

Tom Fontana: I mean, we were just all sobbing. It was so beautiful.

Caroline Waxler: That little moment is so powerful.

Tom Fontana: Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: Looking for that confidence. So, speaking of writing, what is your writing process.

Tom Fontana: Hmm. Well, as you said, I get up at 5:00 am.

Caroline Waxler: 5:00 am.

Tom Fontana: Every day, I’ve been doing it for, I don’t know, 45 years.

Caroline Waxler: But not the day you were supposed to meet Julianna Margulies.

Tom Fontana: No. I was bad that morning.

Caroline Waxler: You were hung over that morning.

Tom Fontana: Yeah. Though I have written when I was hung over. Some of Oz-

Caroline Waxler: Is it good?

Tom Fontana: Some of Oz was written completely hung over.

Caroline Waxler: It’s good stuff.

Tom Fontana: I should back up. Just before I go to bed, I look at the first scene I have to write in the morning. I don’t do much thinking about it, I just go, “Oh yeah, I have to write that scene with the parakeet.”

Caroline Waxler: Sure, yeah.

Tom Fontana: You know what I mean? Just … And then, as I’m waking up, nine times out of ten, the last dream I have is the scene, or at least the beginning of the scene with the parakeet.

Caroline Waxler: So interesting.

Tom Fontana: So the reason that I get up and run to the desk … You know, a lot of writers, they make coffee and they read the New York Times, [crosstalk 00:37:01], yeah. I have to run to the desk because I can’t remember anything. So, you know, you’re coming out of a dream, how long do you remember a dream? So I have to run to the desk in order to start writing.

Caroline Waxler: And do you write longhand?

Tom Fontana: Right, I write longhand, yeah. And then I have an assistant who types it up. And what’s hilarious is, I write pretty clearly, I think. But sometimes I’m writing very, very fast, and one of my assistants looked at a word and thought it was one word and I actually meant another word, but her word was so much better than my word that I just pretended.

Caroline Waxler: It’s a great benefit of the process.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, exactly.

Caroline Waxler: So, now, for revisions, do you do it longhand on paper too?

Tom Fontana: Well, what they do is they print it out and then I do them, yeah, I do them longhand on the printed page.

Caroline Waxler: That’s great. And that works for you, and that’s your process.

Tom Fontana: Yeah, yeah.

Caroline Waxler: Yet, you are a prolific Instagrammer.

Tom Fontana: I guess I am. It’s all so, all of it is new to me. I’m so bad with technology, but it’s the one thing that I can actually figure out.

Caroline Waxler: You’re great at it, yeah.

Tom Fontana: I tried to do, I never Tweeted, because that seems like sending telegrams. I don’t know. But I was on Facebook and I just found it so horrifying that I stopped. But Instagram seems kind of benign, in a sweet kind of way. People send the pictures of their dog or their, the ones of the food, I’m a little less thrilled with.

Caroline Waxler: Yeah, and they’re all such bad photography.

Tom Fontana: But, you know, it is a happier place than Facebook is.

Caroline Waxler: Absolutely. And everyone should follow you on Instagram, what do, @SonsOfSicilia?

Tom Fontana: Oh my goodness. @SonOfSicilia, yeah. Yeah.

Caroline Waxler: It’s very happy content. So, anything-

Tom Fontana: I don’t know, I put one in two days, three days ago about Sudan, because I thought the massacres there were so horrifying. And nobody liked it. And all I kept thinking was, like …

Caroline Waxler: Those massacres are bad for your social media, come on.

Tom Fontana: I know, that’s bad for my social media.

Caroline Waxler: Forget spreading the news of what’s happening. No likes.

Caroline Waxler: 9:00 pm, Showtime, every Sunday. City on a Hill, for the next six weeks?

Tom Fontana: Nine, well, it’s ten episodes, so nine weeks.

Caroline Waxler: For the next nine … For ten episodes, and we just had our first one on, what, June 16th?

Tom Fontana: June 16th.

Caroline Waxler: And everyone should watch. 9:00 pm, City on a Hill. It’s a great show. I’ve been telling all, anyone who will listen. I will tell them, I am obsessed with this.

Tom Fontana: Oh, that’s so nice of you.

Caroline Waxler: It’s great. So, thank you so much to the great Tom Fontana for coming in today. This was your first podcast?

Tom Fontana: Yes. I feel so 21st century all of a sudden.

Caroline Waxler: Oh my gosh. Now you’re going to have to Instagram an image promoting the podcast, just bring it all together.

Tom Fontana: All right. All right.

Caroline Waxler: You’ll get a lot of likes.

Tom Fontana: Yes.

Caroline Waxler: So, thank you so much.

Tom Fontana: Well, thank you. I’ve had a great time.

Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at and follow the Guild on social media at @WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.

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