“I have to relate to these people… I can’t direct it, I can’t write it if I don’t know it, if I haven’t lived it, if I haven’t eaten it, if I haven’t smelt it,” creator Lee Daniels said in response to the question of the daring choice to include a homophobic storyline on Fox’s smash hit Empire. Daniels wanted to depict the real issues of homophobia in the African American community. He said, “Jussie [Smollett] and I get death threats because of the statements we are trying to make.” Regardless, Daniels plans to forge on “until homophobia is done.”
In the final panel session of the Produced By Conference, the Empire producers came together to divulge the various elements that birthed the TV phenomenon. Panelist included Daniels, co-creator/writer Danny Strong, executive producer Brian Grazer, showrunner Ilene Chaiken and producer Francie Calfo. The discussion was led by Deadline’s Pete Hammond.
When it comes to social issues like homophobia, the creators were not afraid to challenge the rules. “We are not following anybody, we are trend-setters,” Daniels said. Added Strong, “It was always a part of our original pitch… we try to infuse social issue social justice in everything we do.” Daniels stressed the importance using the platform to “give voices that don’t have a voice.”
While breaking barriers seems more of a challenge in network television, the crew found Fox to be supportive of their vision. “Fox has come to the table with me,” says Daniels. “These guys have come and embraced us… not only did they let me do my thing, me and Danny do our thing, but they also put the money behind it.” Grazer added that while other networks “aggressively” passed on the project, Fox “seemed to get it right away” and “mounted a campaign that gave it importance.”
Another attribute to the hugely successful series was social media, according to Chaiken. “Social media is key to success especially on TV,” she said. With all the social media records Empire broke during its run, Chaiken believes it is a reflection of “the vast audience of the show.” Grazer also noted how people love to talk about the show, and much of that is through social media outlets.
With all the labels Hollywood likes to pin on shows featuring predominantly minority cast members, Daniels reminded the audience that Empire is not a black show. “It’s the human condition. It’s a cultural thing. It’s really about introducing cultures to other cultures.”
Season 2 of the fierce family filled drama is slated to premiere September 23 with 18 episodes — and Daniels helming the first episode. When the subject of expansion came up, Hammond posed the question “would you do spinoffs down the line,” which Strong responded with an emphatic “YES!”