Interview: Shonda Rhimes & Betsy Beers on 'Scandal,' 'Grey's Anatomy' and the state of ShondaLand
From TV rookies to seasoned veterans, the duo creates a Washington, D.C. drama with Kerry Washington
Producers Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers have had more public years on the job than this one since "Grey's Anatomy" premiered on ABC seven years ago. There was that debut season, obviously, where "Grey's" went from ABC afterthought (it was only supposed to have the post-"Desperate Housewives" timeslot for four weeks before giving way to "Boston Legal") into pop culture sensation. Or there were the various periods of controversy involving Isaiah Washington and/or Katherine Heigl, or various stories that proved divisive among "Grey's" viewership (ghost sex! George and Izzie!).
I'm not sure the partnership has had a busier year than this one, though. "Grey's" is still chugging along, but original stars Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey aren't under contract for next season, and episodes have to be written not knowing if one or both of Meredith and Derek will be leaving. Spin-off "Private Practice," after years of airing in a protected post-"Grey's" timeslot, will be moved to another night (albeit after the "Dancing with the Stars" results show) starting Tuesday, April 17.
The Thursday at 10 slot, meanwhile, will go this week to "Scandal," the Rhimes-created drama about powerful Washington, D.C. fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), who once was very close to the sitting president before leaving his staff to start up her own crisis management firm. The character's inspired by real-life D.C. crisis expert Judy Smith, who's a producer on the series, which co-stars Henry Ian Cusick and Columbus Short as members of Olivia's large team, Tony Goldwyn as the president and Jeff Perry (Thatcher Grey from "Grey's") as his chief of staff, among others(*).
(*) I believe the forces of Twitter require me to note that while Josh Malina is not a regular castmember, he appears in every episode as a local prosecutor who keeps clashing with Olivia on various cases.
And while they were getting "Scandal" on its feet and maintaining "Grey's" and "Private Practice," Rhimes and Beers also had four different drama scripts in development for next season, though only one (ABC's period drama "The Gilded Lillys") actually went to pilot stage and is still in contention.
Back at press tour in January (when the four pilot scripts were all still in play), I sat down with Rhimes and Beers to talk about "Scandal," "Grey's," "Private Practice," the ways their approach has and hasn't changed since they were a pair of TV rookies in the spring of 2005, and various other bits of ShondaLand-related business.
So how long have you known Judy?
Betsy Beers: We’ve known Judy about two-
Shonda Rhimes: Three years now I would say.
Betsy Beers: It shouldn’t be a difficult question, should it? We should actually know this.
Shonda Rhimes: We made the pilot last year.
Betsy Beers: We made the pilot last year.
Shonda Rhimes: We met the year before that.
Betsy Beers: Yeah, so two and a half years.
Okay, so specifically you met her as an idea for a show, not you met her and then realized, "This is a show."
Betsy Beers: Yes, that is correct. That is correct.
You develop pretty much every year, so how does that process work with something like this?
Shonda Rhimes: Betsy kept coming to me and saying, you really got to meet this woman that I heard about and had you met her prior to that?
Betsy Beers: I had not met prior to that.
Shonda Rhimes: No, but you heard about her and I think you said she’s really interesting and she’s shopping her life, telling her thoughts and I kept saying, "I don’t want to do it" and Betsy was like, "You’re going to want to make this show," and I said, "Well, we’ll meet and we’ll see if it’s for somebody else to produce."
Betsy Beers: Because recently, obviously, we’ve been developing primarily for other writers to create shows because Shonda had her hands full.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, it was like, I'm busy. I'm done. I don’t want to make another show and then I met Judy and it was supposed to be a 20 minute meeting.
Betsy Beers: It was a 20 minute, “Hi, how are you?” meeting.
Shonda Rhimes: And it lasted for two and a half hours.
Betsy Beers: She had to cancel her next meeting and she started telling stories about her life and her job.
Shonda Rhimes: Her life and how it worked and how she got into doing her job and the whole nine yards and by the time she was done I was like, not only can I see like 150 episodes, I want to write this because it’s super interesting.
Now I'm sure it seems like there is a very obvious structure for a good not-quite-legal-procedural, but Kerry’s character deals with all these issues, but on top of that you’ve gotten Olivia into the middle of a personal scandal at the White House. Where did that come from?
Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know. To me it’s what made the story juicy. It was interesting because we met with Judy and then I went away and I thought about the show for literally a year just trying to figure out how I wanted to do it and what it was going to be, and then I hit upon the idea that not only was she the person who deals with people who have these horrible things. She is the person in the middle of something like that herself and what does that mean and that just made it ten times more interesting for me.
Betsy Beers: And also what is the largest crisis a person like this person could go through? Well this pretty much takes the biscuit.
Shonda Rhimes: And she’s in the middle of it herself and that layering made it possible for me to see the character in a whole three dimensional way. She was then not just a superhero. She was incredibly flawed and really interesting to me.
I don’t know exactly what Judy’s career arc was, but was she at this level of influence when she was at the age that Kerry is or is Kerry a bit younger?
Shonda Rhimes: I think Kerry might be a little bit younger. I’m not sure.
Betsy Beers: Actually I think it’s a good question to ask, but I think pretty close because she was working in the Bush Senior administration as a relatively young advisor.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, she was fairly young at that time.
You said originally you wanted to develop for other writers. You were going to do this, so what does that mean for the rest of the empire?
Shonda Rhimes: It’s been actually fairly good. We are developing four this season.
Betsy Beers: Four this season and actually five including another script that we’re having written. But we continue to be active and the good thing about-
Shonda Rhimes: There is something about having done this for this period of time now that this is the first time having a first season show was completely fun. I didn’t have any of the stress that you generally have with a first season show mainly because of experience. I knew what we were doing. I knew what I wanted the show to be. I knew all of my writers really well. I had worked with almost all of them before and we’ve been doing this long enough that we now have a shorthand [for when] I can’t be somewhere. Betsy already knows what I'm going to say and we pretty much have the same opinions about things, so it was very simple and actually a really good experience getting to do a first- season show.
Betsy Beers: And the way also when we develop anyway. We can split the labor so that for the most part-
Shonda Rhimes: I'll take some writers. She takes some writers and then switch.
Betsy Beers: Or I'll be in the trenches in the beginning and then she’ll come and appoint. So we can divide the labor up to a point where it all works pretty well.
And obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen with Patrick and Ellen and all of that, but it does feel like “Grey’s” is at a delicate point in which it could morph into a very different show by next season. Do you have to be more hands on as a result or is that going to wait until those decisions are made?
Shonda Rhimes: No, I'm pretty hands on with “Grey’s Anatomy” anyway. It’s like my first child that’s gone to school, but I think what happened for me was, for a long time, I was saying I have no idea how the season is going to end, which is my way of saying I don’t have a plan. At a certain point I realized that regardless of whatever else was happening, for my sanity and for the story’s sanity and for the writer’s sanity, I was going to need to come with a plan myself and so I did, and once there’s a plan in place I think we’re going to be fine. We’re not at a delicate place anymore because we already are on our road and we’re going down it regardless.
Would you say more often than not you go into a season with a plan? I remember you talked about Katherine Heigl and the prom dress that becomes the wedding dress at the end of season 2, and how you were building to that image for a long time.
Shonda Rhimes: I literally go into every season knowing exactly how it’s going to end. That’s the only way to do it. If you don’t know how it’s going to end—I don’t know how anybody else does it and this was the first season we went into “Grey’s” not knowing how it was going to end just because I didn’t know what was going to happen.
You’ve been doing this quite a while now, but when you both started with “Grey’s” you had no real series experience. Right?
Shonda Rhimes: We had no series experience.
Betsy Beers: Nothing.
So were you leaning on any TV vets for advice, or were you just left to your own devices?
Betsy Beers: I think truthfully we treated it like a movie. We both came from movies.
Shonda Rhimes: We only knew how to make movies and we just treated it like we were making the first season of 13 movies.
Betsy Beers: So I acted like a producer on a movie, which is you’re in everybody’s space all the time and you were writing like the person who created the movie and it was I mean we kind of-
Shonda Rhimes: It was more like creating to write like 13 plays too.
Betsy Beers: Yeah.
Shonda Rhimes: It was really fun.
Shonda Rhimes: I think what happened was because neither one of us came from television we just figured out our own way of doing things and now we do things. I often talk to people who work on other shows or come to us from other shows and they’re like, “Oh wait, you guys do that.” And yeah, we do and it works. It works so we translated it from “Grey’s” into “Private” into “Scandal” into our other shows so that there is s system that just makes sense to us.
So what is something that you do that you found out is not the norm?
Shonda Rhimes: Oh God, now I'm going to be able to think of some specific example… See?
Betsy Beers: You know I think certainly the way we kind of have a repertory company. I think a lot of people are surprised at the fact that we repurpose everybody. It’s like when we find somebody we love them. We won’t let them go.
Shonda Rhimes: It doesn’t matter if it’s a costume designer, a line producer, an actor or writer.
Betsy Beers: So everybody goes from show to show to show to show and it’s a little bit like do you remember Preston Sturges had a whole group of people that he would go from movie to movie to movie. We have used-
Shonda Rhimes: The writers on “Scandal” I just moved them all—well some of them I moved from “Grey’s” over to do "Scandal" and then I just moved everybody including the newer writers back to “Grey’s” because I like them and now they’re part of the world and sort of can’t leave ShondaLand because we love them.
Betsy Beers: And you look at something like we met Kim Raver on “Inside the Box.” We met Sarah (Drew) on “Inside the Box. “ We met Jason George on “Inside the Box.” They are all still in the family.
Shonda Rhimes: Kate Burton is now-
Betsy Beers: The vice president.
Shonda Rhimes: The vice president of the United States and the way Meredith’s father-
Shonda Rhimes: Jeff Perry, thank you, I was going to say Thatcher Grey like that’s his name, but Jeff Perry is now on “Scandal.” We like to repurpose everybody.
Betsy Beers: And somebody like Rob Corn started as line producer. He’s now a director. Sometimes we’ll talk to people and they’ll go how do you A) keep all the people around and B) everybody’s role seems to change and grow, but it’s partially if an organization is growing everybody has to grow with it.
Shonda Rhimes: That’s another thing. I remember saying to somebody I've had most of the same writers since at least season one or two of “Grey’s” on the show and everybody thinks that’s surprising because I guess they cycle through writers and I think once you spend all this time with everybody, once you’ve figured out—you know you’ve all figured out the same language, once you’ve got your little club going it’s kind of great to just stay together, and I've been with these people for a billion years.
One of the things about “Grey’s” it was interesting it struck me early on that it was a very good show that seemed kind of destined to burn hot, burn bright and then burn out and yet you’ve kept it going and reinvented it a few times and now it feels like this very sturdy vehicle that probably can survive if Ellen and Patrick don’t come back and it’s largely involving new people. Was there a point in the evolution where you feel like the show fundamentally changed or does it feel like exactly the same show that you were making in seasons one and two?
Shonda Rhimes: It doesn’t feel like the same show we were making in seasons one or two. I'll be frank. We had our own share of scandals that I think tested-
Betsy Beers: It’s no secret.
Shonda Rhimes: It’s no secret—tested my desire and interest in continuing the show and I think that I reached a point where I could only say to myself, if you’re going to do this you have to throw yourself all in it and it has to be about making it new again.
Betsy Beers: Yeah.
Shonda Rhimes: It has to be new every year. Every year I want to know what’s the new challenge. It’s why we take a lot of chances on the show and fans either love them or hate them, but we take a lot of chances for that reason because if it’s just going to be the same boring show that it was last year or the year before or the year before that my desire to do it is going to go away very quickly.
Betsy Beers: I think one of the things that when I watch it even as a fan I'm proudest of is the fact that every season has its own tone. Every season is absolutely different because every character is in a different place. The interns are in a different stage of growth, but also I think in Shonda’s creative process-
Shonda Rhimes: Because I want to do a show about something else every year.
Betsy Beers: And it always is, so I think you’ll always talk to people who have different favorite seasons and they’ll hate one season passionately, but they’ll love another season as passionately and that’s kind of what makes the horse race really fun is that sometimes you get all the people all the time, but the challenge is your being there all the time and being present all the time, which I think you really are.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, it makes a difficult.
Yeah, some people love Denny. I was not a fan of Denny, but I've been a fan of other things.
Betsy Beers: God bless you. I have to take a photo of you because the people who are so damn rabid about it.
Getting back to the idea of development some of the shows have gone. Some of them have not. Have you seen any sort of consistent through line in terms of what you managed to get on the air and what you haven’t?
Shonda Rhimes: No, I'd say there were some years in which we were developing one show. Some years we were developing like two shows.
Betsy Beers: Yeah.
Shonda Rhimes: This year we’re doing more shows than we’ve ever done before. I don’t think I've seen a thread or through line as to why or what. It’s going to be interesting to see what gets picked up this year.
In terms of “Off the Map,” that got on, but it didn’t really open. Do you think that was just an issue of timeslot or was there something about the show that maybe could have been different?
Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know. I really feel like part of what we want to do as producers and you agree, disagree, whatever, but part of what we really want to do is we really want to be able to find writers and support their voices and their vision, so I always say you don’t want to produce a show with a writer who is working on a show that we’ve come up with and we’ve pushed through that’s our vision because how the hell are they going to-
Betsy Beers: Because it’s going to get super awkward.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, how the hell are they going to run that show and how are they going to love it? So for me it’s about that was the show the Jenna (Bans) wanted to write. That was the show that Jenna loved and we’re fully behind supporting it whether it was timeslot, whether it was medical fatigue, whether it was any number of things that people had a problem with the show. I don’t know, but I really love that show and I was really into it.
Betsy Beers: We were super proud of it.
Shonda Rhimes: And I still get a ton of tweets every day asking why the hell we can’t get “Off the Map” back on the air.
In terms of “Private Practice,” you back-doored it out of “Grey’s,” and then there were some casting changes. A lot of the relationships have shifted pretty fundamentally from what you might have expected they would be at the start of the series. Was it just evolution or do you feel like you were making it up on the fly a little bit ?
Shonda Rhimes: I was making it up on the fly.
Betsy Beers: Totally.
Shonda Rhimes: Absolutely. I feel like I didn’t really figure out what that show really was until sometime in season two and in season two I really started to figure it out and it wasn’t really until the end of season two that I went, okay I crystallized what this all is and what it means.
Betsy Beers: There was a period of time directly after the (writers) strike and we came back and we both sat down and said, okay what is the thing we love most about what we’ve seen so far and that was the first seed of it, which was that I pulled a couple of episodes that we felt like really emblematic of who the character should be and what the actual incident in the show should be and then you kind of took that and ran with it about midseason two.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah and really figured out what we were doing.
Was there an episode or story from that period that you could point to as like, here is where the show became the show?
Shonda Rhimes: Oh God, no and the reason I say no is because there has been 500 episodes of television or something in my head now. I couldn’t point specifically to one thing.
Betsy Beers: There was an episode of “Private Practice” which was mid season two that I remember. I loved all of season two.
Shonda Rhimes: The Joel Grey.
Shonda Rhimes: The Joel Grey. Joel Grey dies.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, that was my favorite I think I've ever written.
Betsy Beers: At the same time Violet has a woman who won’t get out of the closet whose daughter is getting married.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, you’re right.
Betsy Beers: And there were these storylines that intertwined and that was the moment I think—I mean it happened before but it gelled in this episode in this amazing way where I think the cast felt it too because it had sort of started in that direction, but there was a moral and ethical dilemma at the core of the show, but it was still emotional and real and was reflecting the dilemmas of the characters.
Shonda Rhimes: I fully agree with that answer. I would have said that myself if I had been smart enough.
It’s like you share a brain.
Shonda Rhimes: It’s like we share a brain.
Betsy Beers: We do and sometimes it’s literally like we share half a brain, which is even worse.
Getting back to the "Grey’s" evolution. It may just be my imagination or my impression. It does feel like these last couple of seasons there has been a bit more focus on the medicine than there has been in some other times. Would you say that’s fair?
Shonda Rhimes: I don’t think that’s fair. I mean I think we’ve always been really, really focused on the medicine and having strong medical stories. I think that sometimes-
Maybe not so much medicine, but more career things as opposed to relationship things even though there are still lots of relationships.
Shonda Rhimes: That is true. I am much more at this moment in time interested in where they’re going in their careers and what is going on and less interested in all the relationship stuff and it’s time to focus on it.
Because that’s always the pitfall, the false wisdom in TV. You can’t take two characters who are sparking will they, won’t they and put them together. That kills the show. Meredith and Derek have been together for quite awhile now.
Shonda Rhimes: Forever now, yeah.
You tell all kinds of stories out of that.
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, also on top of which, it’s a show with a lot of characters versus, you know, (just them). That was part of the plan is that there is enough characters that you can move from story to story and check it out. If this was a show just about Meredith and Derek and we put them together I don’t know what else we would be able to say at this moment.
Getting back to the idea of on the job training being new out of film, especially early on in that first season of “Grey’s,” what were some of the things that were hardest for you to wrap your heads around in terms of, "Wait we have to do this differently, this is a show, this is going to keep going"?
Betsy Beers: You know what, initially—this is a slightly different answer -- but I remember going from I was shooting a movie in Europe and flying back and forth to be on the set for the first season and sitting onset in this movie while it was being shot and not being able to sit still because it was going so slowly, but then you go back to the show and the show, the pace at which you have to write scripts, the pace at which you have to post—
Shonda Rhimes: At the beginning I felt like the pace was brutal, but I also feel it’s like a muscle that you learn to exercise and you become a sort of a fitter athlete in terms of that as time goes on. Now it doesn’t feel so brutal. It’s so weird. We’re doing 46, 50 some episodes of television in a year.
Betsy Beers: And I’d be annoyed if we weren’t.
Shonda Rhimes: Right, and we get bored.
Betsy Beers: We actually we get bored.
Shonda Rhimes: That’s one of the reasons with “Scandal” I was [felt like] it’s time to do something else now. But that first season, 13 episodes almost killed me because the pace felt unbelievable.
Is there anything you would have done differently story wise had you realized that you would be here eight years later still doing the show?
Shonda Rhimes: No, no, I feel like I can’t try to change something that seems to have worked so well. I don’t think there was anything I would have done differently.
Betsy Beers: And it was always organic. The stuff we came up with was organic enough that there was no real shoulda, coulda, woulda...
Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, I never said we’re going to do something for shock value. It was mostly just about characters and what I thought they would do next.
Is “Scandal” in the can at this point?
Shonda Rhimes: Yes.
Betsy Beers: Yes.
So you’re free to focus on the other two, plus the development for the time being. I know there are two of you and you do share a brain and that’s helpful. How the hell do you get all this done exactly?
Betsy Beers: Well we just do it.
Shonda Rhimes: It’s interesting. I feel like we’re really efficient. We both are very good at delegating for the things that need to be delegated for. We like our jobs. I think that helps because it keeps us from feeling like we’re overworked and I don’t think we’re overworked. It’s weird. I was saying to somebody even when I had “Scandal,” “Grey’s” and “Private” going and we were developing shows, I was still somehow going home earlier every day than I was back in, say, season two of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
A this point how much of the final pass is yours on all these shows? How much rewriting are you doing of things that you didn’t initially write, because it always does seem like there is a consistent voice from show to show and is it yours.
Shonda Rhimes: I was on some panel with Sean Ryan and he said something really interesting. He said something that I knew but the way he said it was really interesting, which is that if he does his job right in the writer’s room you shouldn’t have to take a final pass on everything. This far in the game of both those shows if the writers know what we’re planning and I'm there for the planning stages and I'm quoting dialogue in the room, basically by the time we get to a finished product most of the time I'm just saying, maybe this speech could be different or I’d like to take a pass on this because Meredith is talking about her mother. It’s not me sitting down and having to rewrite anything anymore. All of us have been doing this for so long. Everybody knows my voice at this point in terms of that writer’s room.
Betsy Beers: And that’s what great about the intimacy of that writer’s room and part of the reason we’ve had a couple of people that have joined later who’ve gotten the tone really fast, but people just get the tone and when they get the tone it makes your job a lot simpler.
(Note: I ran into Rhimes and Beers later that night at ABC's press tour party and realized there was one obvious follow-up question I'd neglected to ask earlier.)
When we were talking earlier, you alluded to some of the scandals you had to deal with on "Grey's." Not to rehash those, but did that in any way draw you to this subject matter and what Judy does? Does it give you any affinity to Kerry's character?
Betsy Beers: In a weird way, the thing that initially attracted us to the character, I don't think we put two and two together that way. I think it was just a range of story possibilities, and that was the first penny that dropped. Certainly, as we talked to Judy and went into those situations more, it definitely gives it more resonance, because if you have been through situations that are difficult like we have, you certainly realize why Judy is so great at her job. But it wasn't the instinct to begin with. It was honestly that we'd never seen story motor like that.
Shonda Rhimes: Maybe. I feel like that was a large period of time of our lives, that year, of trying to be our own fixers, and now Judy will tell us something, and I'll go, "Oh, why didn't we do that? That would have been amazing." So there's that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org