Mipcom’s Personality of the Year, Shonda Rhimes, sat down for a walk through her career inside a packed Cannes Palais this afternoon, telling the audience how she became a storyteller; describing her role as “dragon” on some Shondaland shows; and why she doesn’t think Scandal’s Machiavellian Rowan Pope is a terrible person.
Rhimes, whose TV credits famously include Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder and The Catch, said, “I don’t think there was a time I ever thought of myself as anything but a writer.” But she became a screenwriter out of necessity. “I thought I was going to be the next Toni Morrison. She already had that job so you can’t get that job.” Telling her skeptical parents that getting into USC Film School was harder than getting into Harvard Law School, she set off on the path to Hollywood. But, she offered today, “I was mostly trying to find a way to stop working and go back to school.”
Toiling in film for a time, she realized there “wasn’t a lot of character development” and after spending countless hours in front of a TV with her newly-adopted baby, she thought, “That’s genius. That’s where you can really develop characters.”
Grey’s Anatomy came about after she wrote a pilot for the then-Touchstone (now ABC Studios) about war correspondents who were very competitive and having a lot of fun and sex. But, the country at the time was actually at war, “so it wasn’t really appropriate.” Asking “What does Bob Iger want?” she was told the Disney chief was after a medical show and essentially shifted the action to a hospital in Seattle.
The shift from being a movie writer was a frying-pan-to-fire experience. “You’re in your pajamas by yourself and type one script a year and suddenly you have to run a writers’ room. It was like going from 0 to 3000. I learned everything you could learn, as fast as possible.”
Rhimes considers that the long-running show is “not a procedural, it’s a character journey. I think I’ve been writing a novel for 13 years.”
With regard to the medical knowledge she’s picked up, Rhimes noted that she could probably now perform a C-section and an appendectomy, but should stay away from brain procedures. “I’m probably very dangerous. I know just enough to be scary but not enough to save anybody’s life.”
Turning to Scandal, she noted that many times things the writers come up with end up being real which can be eerie. In a clear reference to Donald Trump, she mentioned Hollis Doyle — the “outspoken, crazy Republican” character who’s “done some appalling things” — and just shook her head. “I really don’t know what happened,” she said.
The cast and crew on Scandal is a “close knit group” as evidenced by their weekly live tweets of the show. “They’re very bonded and creative things happen because everyone hangs out together in their free time.”
That doesn’t mean there’s not occasional discord. “We have big arguments,” she said, when the writers express their feelings towards the Rowan Pope and Cyrus Bean characters, calling them “terrible people.” Rhimes said, “I’m really offended. Cyrus is a patriot. He may go about it the wrong way but to him he’s doing (what he believes). Rowan is just a dad trying to take care of his kid. There may be a lot of murder going on, but he’s trying to take care of his kid the best way he knows how.”
For the popular series in the Shondaland stable which she does not showrun — How To Get Away With Murder and The Catch — her job is “really just to be a dragon in a cage” that can be released when HTGAWM’s Peter Nowalk or The Catch’s Allan Heinberg “need extra power to talk to the network or the studio.” She said she learned that role from Mark Gordon who acted as her dragon on Grey’s.
She works differently, however, from Nowalk on HTGAWM. That show’s star, Viola Davis, often pitches storylines – notably the one from Season 1 where her character, Annalise Keating, removes her wig and make-up to show the real woman behind the tough-as-steel lawyer. While she has great admiration for Davis, that kind of collaboration wouldn’t work for Rhimes. “It would make my hair stand on end because of the way my brain takes story in.”
Next up is Still Star-Crossed, created by Heather Mitchell — but according to Rhimes still untitled – a sequel to Romeo & Juliet which will explore the Montagues and Capulets after the two young lovers die. “It’s about what happens to the families left behind and how they cope” as well as the politics of Verona, she said. Based on the book by Melinda Taub, it’s currently filming for ABC.
Asked about any lessons her daughter has taken from Shondaland series, Rhimes closed out the chat saying, to great laughter, “My daughter thinks my shows suck.”