‘High Fidelity’ Showrunner Sarah Kucserka Wasn’t Finding the Right Kind of Work—So She Made Her Own

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Photo Source: Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Welcome to Running the Show, our deep dive on the top creators in television today. The showrunner signs off on every aspect of a television show, from the opening credits sequence to the shirt a character wears in a pivotal scene. If they aren’t making a direct decision, they hired the person who is. It’s a role that’s not quite director or writer and not quite producer—there is no showrunner major so how does someone become one? In Running the Show, Backstage explores how people land in TV’s top job and what you can expect when you get there.

It’s a story unique to today’s TV landscape: A writing team felt lost in projects that didn’t quite line up with what they had set out to create, so they took it upon themselves to make something new—well, sort of. “High Fidelity” showrunner Sarah Kucserka and her writing partner Veronica West were fans of the 1995 Nick Hornby novel and 2000 film of the same name, but thought it was time to adapt it with a female lead (and for a smaller screen). Following prolific periods of writing on network shows like “Ugly Betty,” “Brothers and Sisters,” and “Chicago Fire,” the team pitched the series as a wishful idea and got a “yes” to rebuilding the world of heartbreak and vinyl culture in Brooklyn for a streaming audience on Hulu. Ahead of the series’ Feb. 14 premiere date, Kucserka shared how Season 1 came together with a combination of luck, good timing, a lot of hard work—and Zoë Kravitz.

“We took a moment and asked [ourselves], If we could do any one project, what would it be? It was literally the first thing that came out of our mouths: “High Fidelity” with a woman.”

How did you come to make “High Fidelity,” and how did you end up as the showrunner?
My writing partner and I, a few years back, had a “come to Jesus” moment where we realized that we weren’t writing the kinds of shows that excited us, and we weren’t telling the stories that we wanted to be telling. We took a moment and asked [ourselves], If we could do any one project, what would it be? It was literally the first thing that came out of our mouths: “High Fidelity” with a woman. We wrote it on a small neon pink note card and stuck it up in [West’s] office. It was a very cool series of events where, a few weeks later, we happened to have a meeting for an entirely different project, and we were just like, we have to bring this up. It was with Scott Rosenberg’s development person. We told them we loved the movie, we knew Scott had been involved with it, and we asked, “Would you ever consider doing a TV show?” They were very excited about it. ABC Signature had literally just secured the television rights for it. It was equal parts hard work and just good luck and good timing. When that happens—because it doesn’t happen often enough in this town—you’re just like, “Yes!”

READ: How to become a showrunner.

Once they approved your pitch, what happened?
We wrote the script, and I think the very first meeting we had, the only person that we met with for the role was Zoë, and she wanted to do it. We weren’t sure if she’d want to do it, because her mother was in the movie. She could have said, “No, I want something that is my own.” Luckily, she and her mom have this amazing relationship and she has an amazing relationship to the movies and the book because of her mother.

As showrunner, what are you actually doing throughout the process of production?
We were really lucky to have the ability to write the majority of the episodes and work with our writers’ room and get all of the story pretty much nailed down before we even started production. That all took place in Los Angeles. A day of that would basically be: come in in the morning, see if there are calls that we missed or need to put in to the studio or the network; do we need to hire somebody in production? Maybe we’ll have meetings with a production designer or a costume designer and then jump into the writers’ room, where we have an amazing group of writers. We work with them for ideally a few hours if not longer, breaking an episode or hearing a pitch of an episode they’ve been working on and giving notes there. Then, more than likely, I’m going in and reading an outline or a script and giving the writer that was working on that episode notes. This is all in the midst of taking calls from whoever needs us on the production end as they’re gearing up for production.

Veronica had a baby right before we started production, so I was the one in New York for those months of shooting. You get to set and, if it’s a day you’re shooting, you’re there for that first rehearsal, which is right on the dot at 6 a.m. when call time happens, and then you give any notes you have on that. From there, I would walk over [to production] and just check in with our line producer and our UPM and see what’s going on. A lot of times you’re shooting and you’re prepping the next episodes so you have a production meeting or casting that you have to pay attention to. You’re meeting a new director who is guest directing an episode and walking them through what the show is, the really important things you want to make sure get nailed in the episodes they’re directing. Then you walk back to set and spend a little more time there. Any actors who might not have been in the first couple of scenes have come in, and you make sure they’re all good. You see if there’s anything they need, see if there’s anything a director needs, check in with truly everybody on set. Talk to your director of photography, make sure she feels like she’s getting what she needs. Make sure your production designer is getting what she needs. Then you go home and it is 8 p.m., but it’s 5 p.m. in L.A. so you’re getting calls from L.A. to go over everything.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell, and why now?
The reason this was the first thing we jumped to as what we would want to do was really because we were both massive fans of the book. I think people very much identify it with this male take on relationships and commitment, but it was a book that totally spoke to me and Veronica. I think there are a lot of women who are constantly finding themselves not quite able to commit to relationships, to careers, to growing up, and realizing it isn’t giving up. We really felt like it was such a great story and such a role for a woman and, frankly, especially a woman of color. We were also really drawn to the idea of, in 1995, cell phones were barely a thing. The internet was barely a thing. Using apps to date was absolutely not a thing. The changes that have taken place in these years can make it kind of easier and harder to find somebody perfect for you. It felt like something that needed to be brought to the fore, to have a take on this property where there’s definitely a nostalgic feel to it, but it is also what an analog person is doing in a digital world.

“You can take the time to play with what you want to do and the story you want to tell.”

How was this experience different from your past network television work?
We’ve done a lot of 22-episode shows, where you’re kind of, every five or six days moving to another episode and trying to stay inspired that whole time. This is so nice [because] it allows for a lot of that cinematic feel that so many limited series and streaming series with smaller orders tend to have. You can take the time to play with what you want to do and the story you want to tell. We had all these episodes broken and almost entirely written by the time we started production, but we were also realizing we had the real benefit of getting to know those characters and then having the luxury and the ability to retrofit any story to people’s strengths or to relationships or friendships that we were seeing. Getting to do that is such a huge part of what this game is versus the network game. Both are great and I love both, but there are pluses and minuses to each one. I think if somebody tried to tell 22 episodes of “High Fidelity” a year, it would be a travesty, because you’re coming up with that long, slow walk of following these characters over the course of 10 episodes. We feel like, OK, this is the exact length and amount [of story] I want to tell without it starting to feel thin.

How did you get your start in television?
I worked for Kevin Williamson for about six years. I was both in development with him and on a show as the writer’s assistant. Working for a writer and working for Kevin was absolutely my best education, and it was 100% being there and seeing how decisions are made creatively, artistically, and financially, when you’re writing and knowing when to push yourself and when to say, “No, this is good.” I worked for him in so many different capacities. Kevin had this show and I was a writer’s assistant on it and he said, “If it comes back for Season 2, I’d love to hire you as a staff writer, but write me a sample.” I was terrified, as all people are when they’re asked to write for the first time and have somebody read it and perhaps judge you for the rest of your life. Veronica and I were friends, and at the time she also wanted to be a writer and I said, “Hey, the entire staff of the show that I’m working on is all writing teams, we should do this.” And we did.

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We kind of jumped in and wrote some terrible stuff and some great stuff to start. We’re very lucky; for three years, we kept going on meetings where it was like, I think you guys are a little too green and it was all procedurals and shows like that. There just weren’t a lot of the kind of stories we were telling, which were much more character-driven stories. Then, finally, we decided, forget it. We’re going to stop meeting on shows that aren’t right for us and we’re going to write a show that is right for us. And we ended up writing and selling a pilot for what was then the WB that never got made. Then, maybe 10 days later, in a general meeting, we were pitching another idea to ABC and [they said,] “We love that, we want to buy it.” So we wrote those two pilots, neither of which ended up going. But that really gave us this whole window into how to work with studios and networks and understand notes and create drives and characters that actually worked on screen and not just in our head. From there, immediately after we finished that pilot, ABC had a show that was going, that they were looking for young women to write on because the lead was a young woman—and it was “Ugly Betty.” That was the true beginning of the train. We’ve been on so many different kinds of shows. We’ve done procedurals and cop shows and CIA shows and law shows and medical shows and all of them have taught us different things.

“I think a great showrunner is somebody who listens to everybody. You never know where the next great idea is coming from.”

To you, what makes a great showrunner?
I think a great showrunner is somebody who listens to everybody. You never know where the next great idea is coming from. But at the same time, when it’s time to make a call, you have to make that call and you have to stick by what you just said. Don’t be afraid, don’t go back.

What, to you, makes great television?
It’s always the characters; this person could be nothing that I ever imagined myself, they could be a sorceress in a realm that never existed, but do I feel like there’s a little bit of me in them? Do I feel like their world has something similar enough to my world that I identify with it? And I think that, to me, when you can do that, when you can create an amazing new story or take on something but still be able to speak to a little part of a broad swath of humanity, you’ve won.

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What advice do you have for aspiring showrunners?
Don’t give up. I feel like you can only fail in this town by leaving, because there are so many doors to knock on. Eventually, somebody will answer and let you in. Once you’re in, trust yourself, but be willing to listen because you always have something to learn, and just continue to fight hard and work hard. Whenever you get that opportunity to tell somebody, “I have this amazing story that I want to tell and nobody else is telling it,” do it. If the meeting is supposed to be about something else, don’t worry about it. Take that time. Tell those people. You never know what could happen. You could end up working on “High Fidelity.”

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