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.
Marja-Lewis Ryan might seem like a surprising choice of showrunner for Showtime’s “The L Word” revival “The L Word: Generation Q.” Her career has been spent almost entirely working in indie theater and film, but “The L Word” original run got her started in writing scripts in the first place, so it’s really full circle. The original series, which debuted on the premium cabler in 2004 was groundbreaking at the time, and the new iteration is doing something similar in 2019. It’s the same city and some of the same characters, but new conflicts, new identities, and a new landscape for queer Los Angeles, one that reflects the changes in the community, culture, and in identity since the original series went off the air 10 years ago.
At the top of the new venture is Ryan, an actor turned writer-director-producer who was inspired by “The L Word” to create her own work that spoke to her life experiences, not just the ones that tended to dominate culture at the time. Ten years after moving to Los Angeles, she had the chance to breathe new life into the show that was the catalyst for her own career in entertainment. Co-creator Ilene Chaiken handed over the reins to Ryan, who took her first stab at the showrunner role and found that her hands-on experience prepared her for the all-encompassing job.
“I learned I can just write stories about me and my friends. That was brand new information to me.”
How did you become a showrunner?
I was 19 when “The L Word” first came out. I was a theater major at NYU and I used to rent the DVDs from Blockbuster on Third Avenue and watch them in my dorm with my best friends. I really struggled to find myself on screen or on stage so I started writing my own material. That’s how I became a writer, through trying to find my own voice in a role. I couldn’t so I just made it myself. I moved out to Los Angeles in 2007 and the show was still on the air. That show gave me permission to make lesbian content. That’s really what it felt like. I thought that I had to fit my voice into a straight white male character’s voice until I saw this show. Then I learned I can just write stories about me and my friends. That was brand new information to me. So when I came out here, I made a play with three of my best friends that we turned into a movie. My film “The Four-Faced Liar,” an adaptation of that play, came out really soon after the show went off the air so I was right on the heels of “The L Word.” That release opened a lot of doors for me in the industry and got me into meetings with influential people. I spent the next 10 years making movies like “6 Balloons” and writing plays like “One in the Chamber” and “Dysnomia,” mostly about queer women in various circumstances. Then a few years ago, I met original series co-creator Ilene Chaiken in a writers’ room I was in and a few months later she emailed me to ask if I wanted to pitch on the new “The L Word.” I sat down with her in a restaurant and she told me that they were looking for a new showrunner. She was looking for someone to come in with a new take and new characters and she wanted to know if I was interested.
What happened once you got the job?
The meeting that I took before I pitched was with returning cast members Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Kate Moennig. I got to hear about where they thought their characters might be in 10 years, what they were interested in doing, and what they were never wanting to do again. I took those nuggets of information and started to build out where I thought they would be. Then I got to build out characters from there and I went in and I pitched the network. I think that the last line of my pitch was something like, “I’ve been a lesbian in L.A. for 11 years, which translates to 11 seasons of television.” They took a big chance on me because I don’t come from a television background. The only TV I had really done before the show was another pilot I had sold to Amazon. It was about a year and a half to two years of development and then I got to hire my writers’ room and shoot eight episodes.
What does your day look like when the show is in production?
I’m on set. I’m sitting at the producers’ monitor, but I have headphones in listening to music cues. And I have my computer in front of me because I’m writing two scripts ahead. It’s like this chronic multitasking. Then somebody will say, “Can you write this ADR (additional dialogue replacement) for episode five?” And I’m like, “What happens in episode five? Like no problem. Just tell me what that was about.” Everybody wants something from me that they need to do their job. Not in a needy way, they actually need information to accomplish their job. So then it’s like, art department asking, “This chair, or this chair? This sofa, or that sofa?” And there’s costumes being like, “This shirt, that shirt, or that shirt?” It’s kind of that all day. And I’m still writing, and I’m still listening to that music cue, and I’m still watching the monitor of what’s being shot. It’s constant decisions, but that’s what I’m really good at; that comes with a lot of experience of having all of those three hats on.
“It’s constant decisions, but that’s what I’m really good at; that comes with a lot of experience of having all of those three hats on.”
Of those people who are coming to you, who are you responsible for hiring and working with the most?
I’m responsible for hiring all department heads, all the writers, all the producers. So I hire the directors of photography (DPs), the production designer, the set director, the costume designer, the makeup artists, the hair and they hire their whole departments. The people I work with most of the day are my executive producers (EPs), so Elise Ozarky and Kristen Campo, who are non-writing executive producers. Kristen does a lot of post-production, Elise does all current production, and I am usually two episodes ahead. Then the next three people I spend my most time with are Regina Hicks, Melody Deroshan, and Allie Romano, who are my three writers on staff. So Regina and Melody alternate episodes. They are writers on set, any questions go to them if I’m not there. Allie Romano used to be my assistant, but now she’s our staff writer. She makes changes to the script in real time. If there’s anything that needs to be adjusted, she’s there to actually do it. It is like working on an assembly line—there’s something ahead of you, there’s something behind you, and you can’t stop doing what you’re doing.
How did your film and theater experience prepare you for being a showrunner?
I come from a place where we have like blocks and a few lights, and you have to put up a play. So, I know how to make things from nothing. And I know how to make pretty good things from nothing. I have written, directed, and produced pretty much everything I’ve ever done, with very few exceptions. Those are the three skills that you need to be a showrunner. You need to be a writer, director, and producer. The fact that I also had been an actor I think is also really useful. Especially when working with a lesser experienced cast because I can see things and I know really easy tricks to push them to the next level. In those ways I was very prepared. I come with a real sense of story, a real sense of past, and a real sense of aesthetic. I knew what I wanted the show to look like.
What was new for you in this job?
It’s just a marathon in a way that like everything I’ve ever done before has really been a sprint. The last movie I made, “6 Balloons” had a budget of like $2 million and shot in 19 days. This was like 85 production days. It’s exhausting. And you have to write under those circumstances or rewrite under the circumstances. Or, I directed the finale under those circumstances. Figuring out a way to survive that kind of stress was not in my wheelhouse before I took on this job.
What don’t you think people realize that this job requires?
So me, Elise, Kristen, Regina, and Melody all went out to dinner the other night and I said, “I wish that people knew that it’s just us.” When you watch a television show you think, I mean I did anyway, “Who makes a television show?” It feels like you can’t touch it. But it’s really just us. It’s just me. It’s really me. It’s crazy. Every single person that gets hired is because I respond to their voice and they are doing something that I liked. There’s no secret. It’s just us working really hard to make this show. The dream is that somebody can hear their voice so clearly through mine, or so clearly through one of these actors, that they’re like, “I can do it too.” That’s the whole goal is to keep that dream alive and to broaden who is welcome at this party.
What was casting like to fill the new roles?
I have learned from Shonda Rhimes, I don’t know her personally. I just know this is something she preaches: you have to name the thing you want. You have to name the ethnicity, name the gender, or else you will get a straight white man. If it says, “All ethnicities, all genders,” you’re going to get Daves. You just are. I held onto that and was super specific. We really looked for a second generation Afro-Latina. I also learned that stuff from the writers in my room, the nuance of that demographic versus just saying, “A Latinx actress,” and being open to whatever that might be. We were really specific because we had scripts ready and we wanted to tell stories about colorism inside of a lesbian experience. We knew we wanted to tell stories about Asian moms and their sons. We held really firm to those descriptions.
I have a casting director, John McAlary, who I’ve worked with for the last five years and he is the best at finding people. He goes to schools, he’ll make calls to Juilliard and NYU and the top performance schools, and just ask, “Does anybody match this description that’s coming out of your school?” You can’t just say, “Hey agents” when it’s so specific. But, in my experience, the more specific you are, the more specific people are that are coming at you. And then you have this ownership of character. It was the same thing for Rosanny Zayas, who came in for Sophie. She is a Dominican, born and raised in Brooklyn, second generation. She’s like reading the description, she was almost in tears. You start to get actors who are that excited to be here. A lot of underrepresented actors are not represented at those huge agencies. And we are a huge show, so we are only going to those huge agencies, you know? It takes time and patience.
How involved was original series creator Ilene Chaiken once you took the reins?
She took me really seriously from the beginning. She really wanted to know what was going on on the East side of Los Angeles. I’m not guessing what it’s like to be a lesbian on the East Side of L.A. in 2019, I’m telling you what it’s like. It’s a fun place to write from. And she knows that. She has been there for me the entire way. When I ask questions, when I have structure problems or character problems, she will always answer my phone calls. She will always show up. But mostly, I’ve been on my own.
“There’s no secret. It’s just us working really hard to make this show. The dream is that somebody can hear their voice so clearly through mine, or so clearly through one of these actors, that they’re like, “I can do it too.””
What draws you to a project?
I’m a pretty good salesperson, but I cannot sell anything unless I understand, why me and why now? Why do I have to tell this story? I ask young writers that all the time when they give me their samples, I’m like, “Why you and why now? What is this?” I watch lights go on for young writers who are really in it. If I ask them that, they usually have an answer. And if they’re like, “Because it’s my story,” that’s useful. It changes things when you can say that.
In your experience, what makes a great showrunner?
I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I think that my greatest assets are the people that work for me. The best thing I can do is hire well and shut up and listen.
In your opinion, what makes great television?
The thing that came to my mind first when you asked that was I had a teacher in college who told me that you can reach a universal audience if you’re willing to be deeply personal. I think that an audience can tell when you’re tapped into your own experience. I think an audience can tell when you’re telling the truth about your own experience. I think that you’ll be able to tell that most of the experiences that are on that screen are mine or one of my writers’.
What advice would you give an aspiring showrunner?
Make your own work from start to finish. Write it, produce it, direct it. Do everything you can, and make sure you finish it. And it can be anything. It can be a play, it can be a short film, it can be a web series, it can be a feature. And then keep making them.
Ready to find an agent? Browse Backstage’s Call Sheet talent agency listings!