How Shonda Rhimes’ Assistant Became the Showrunner for Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’

Article Image
Photo Source: Netflix

Chris van Dusen couldn’t have known when he took a suggestion from Shonda Rhimes to adapt Julia Quinn’s “Bridgerton” book series that audiences would be in desperate need of escape when it was finally ready to hit Netflix. Yet, that’s exactly where the world is. During a year when streaming a series is one of the few universally safe activities (and one of the only activities), “Bridgerton” hit the streamer just in time this Christmas. Described as “Jane Austen meets ‘Gossip Girl,’ ” Bridgerton follows noble and society families in Regency London and the gossip pamphlet that threatens to unearth secrets and scandals within them. Behind the visually stunning and dramatically compelling story is showrunner van Dusen in his first outing in the top spot in TV. He started his television career as Shonda Rhimes’ assistant and worked his way up through several Shondaland series, most recently, “Scandal,” to create the first show under her Netflix deal, and to much—and much deserved—anticipation.

How the books became fit for television:
I knew the books had this beloved fan following, and it’s an international following. That provided a little bit of a healthy pressure because I wanted to get this right for them. What I was really struck by was this chance to marry history and fantasy in a really interesting, exciting way. I wanted to be able to show this beautiful world of escape, but where you look just beneath the surface and there’s this really modern running commentary about how, in the last 200 years, everything has changed, but nothing has changed for both women and men.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding, watching everything come together. There’s really nothing like it. ”

Chris van Dusen

Showrunner, “Bridgerton”

I also knew I loved a period show—I love the sets and the costumes and this amazingly strict set of rules that the people of this time had to follow. It was a world that was rife with conflict that I think made it really, really interesting. It was really exploring that world and how I was going to basically reimagine the Regency time period. While I love a period show, I feel like they’re also sometimes considered a little traditional and a little conservative. I wanted to make the period show that I’ve always wanted to see and one that I hadn’t necessarily seen before. It was figuring out how to do that and how to infuse this world and tell it in a very modern way.

What a day on set was like:
I spent a lot of time on set with the actors and directors. Once we were in production, it’s about making sure that the essence of your script is being translated to the screen, and working closely with the director and the cast. I would go to set, but when we have one episode in production, we’re in prep on another episode. There’s usually a lot of prep meetings that also happen with different departments: our production designer, Will Hughes-Jones, our costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, our hair and makeup, making sure everything was just right for the show.

Sometimes we would have these ball meetings. The show is obviously a world full of balls and big society functions. All of our balls had a very specific theme and a very specific look to them. It was myself sitting down with our director and our production designer, hair, makeup, and costume departments, and really figuring out a cohesive way to tell the story and also a cohesive look to those ball scenes. No day was ever the same. It depends on what scenes we’re shooting, what’s happening for the next episode, and then there’s also post-production at the same time. That was a lot of working closely with our editors, watching footage and cuts come in, tweaking scenes, and going through takes and working with the editor really closely. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding, watching everything come together. There’s really nothing like it.

What people should know about making a period project:
It adds an entirely new element to everything. We had an amazing onset historian, our etiquette advisor, who was there on set every day. I was able to talk with her about things like how Daphne Bridgerton would enter a room, how she would have to curtsy to the queen, how she would have to hold herself. Dinner scenes were an entirely different thing. There are so many rules about how you would eat in this time period, how you would take your meals, how the footman around the room, the servants, would be acting and what they would be doing. It’s a lot of making sure that the communication is open between all these departments and making sure everyone is on the same page as far as the vision and what we were trying to accomplish. History was a big part of it, but the show is not a history lesson and it’s not a documentary. We took some creative liberties. It’s for a modern audience, and it’s that whole thing of marrying history and fantasy in interesting ways.

How making a show for a network is different than for a streaming service:
It’s very different. I think there was some adjustment period going from the world of network television to the world of streaming on Netflix. There’s a lot of creative freedom that Netflix afforded us, which made my job really fun, and the fact that this show, when it launches on Dec. 25, will go to, I think, 190 countries at one time. Season 1 is done and now, I think, what happens in the Netflix world is it gets sent out and the show’s being dubbed in I don’t know how many different languages. The fact that this show is going out on a global scale is fascinating. It’s so incredible to be a part of.

His advice for aspiring showrunners:
If you want to be a writer, you have to write. First of all, you have to make that time to work on your scripts, and get them in front of the right people. You have to be sure that this is the job you want to do. If there was any part of me that was on the fence about being a showrunner or writer, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s such an all-encompassing job. It really commands all of you and you have to pour yourself into this job. You have to really want to be able to do it and you have to be sure that this is what you want. There were many times on set where I would look around, and I would be just so taken by the fact that these people are actually saying my words, and this set piece was in my head last month, and now it’s coming together, live and in color right in front of me. Those moments, they were really special. You hire this incredible cast, and you find this incredible crew, but you never really know how it’s going to turn out. “Bridgerton” really has surpassed any expectation I had. It’s come together in such an amazing way. I couldn’t be prouder of it.

“There were many times on set where I would look around, and I would be just so taken by the fact that these people are actually saying my words, and this set piece was in my head last month, and now it’s coming together, live and in color right in front of me.”

Chris van Dusen

Showrunner, “Bridgerton”

What he thinks makes a great showrunner:
I think that as the showrunner you have to be able to multitask. First of all, it’s so many things that land on your plate at any one moment of any day that you have to use all parts of your brain at all hours of the day and night sometimes. I would say that having the ability to multitask, but also at the same time, not lose sight of what really matters, and that’s your creative vision. You have to be able to handle all different kinds of personalities and any problem that arises from any department. For me, it was keeping track of the fact that this is a show about escapism. I wanted people to relate to these characters and see themselves in these characters and laugh and cry and love right along with them. So just making sure that that creative vision was still there while all this other stuff was happening was probably the most challenging part of the job, but also the most important.

Want to hear more from the best creators in film, TV, and theater? Get it right here!