Joining Lee Daniels’ and Danny Strong’s Empire last year after the pilot was shot, Ilene Chaiken brought a wealth of TV series expertise to what became a blockbuster season for all concerned. As showrunner, The L Word creator and Black Box EP watched with everyone as the Fox soap about a hip-hop family dynasty—led by stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard—came to a temporary but glorious end on March 18. An admirable 16.7 million viewers watched the two-hour finale, which was co-written by Chaiken; that’s a 69% surge from the unsurprisingly quickly renewed series’ January 7 debut. Empire’s numbers marked the best any new show on any network has done since 2005.
What brought you onboard with Daniels and Strong on their very first TV series?
Firstly, I adore them and I really admire their work—together and individually. But I also came to do this show because they made an incredible pilot. I wasn’t looking to do somebody else’s show, but then I saw the Empire pilot and I thought, “This is really, really something. It’s something that I could get deeply invested in.”
What form did that investment take once you signed up as showrunner?
What was really important to me and the great process the three of us found was largely about listening to them, listening to their voices and finding an almost kind of metaphysical way to extract from them their vision.
You obviously were successful in that desire as you wrote part of the finale solo and the second hour with Strong, among other episodes.
Well, Danny and I are much more of the same orientation as writers. But with Lee, I wanted to make sure I really extracted his essence, his vision, what he imbued that pilot with, and what he kind of intuitively knows this show can and should be.
How is Empire different than working on The L Word over its six seasons?
Well, The L Word was my first television show. It was a huge learning curve for me, and one of the things that I’ve learned, going forward, is that you never stop learning. So I’m learning as I’m doing this, I feel myself getting better. But I did realize also that I’m better at this now, and I know things that I didn’t know before.
A lot of making television, and especially when you’re designing a serialized drama over the course of many episodes, is so intuitive. There are things that you have to know, things you have to be able to do, but you also just have to kind of feel the show, and where it’s going to live. You just live inside this show and you stay with it—script by script, episode by episode—with this group of writers you’re working with. You just keep pushing.
The show has exploded onto the American cultural landscape. What was that like from your point of view?
To be honest, I was just inside the bubble. I could sort of feel what was happening, a little bit here and there. I saw the numbers, but mainly you’re just hunkered down because that’s how you make a television show.
Does the fact that Empire films in Chicago bring something different to the dynamic of the creation and growth of the series?
I think there’s incredible value when doing an ensemble show in taking your cast out of town, being someplace almost sequestered, where everybody’s focused on the work. I found it to be true of The L Word when we filmed in Vancouver and I found it to be true with Empire. It helps create an environment where the cast works with one another, bonds with one another and has this kind of intense camaraderie as they’re making this work.
Would it have been that different filming in Los Angeles?
When you’re home filming in L.A. you know that everybody’s out at night. They’re going home to their families, their friends, out to restaurants. This is much more like a great laboratory—and I think it shows onscreen.
Were there distinct aims in fostering that Windy City lab?
Well, you have to know where you’re going, which means the architecture has to be in place regardless of where you film. We just did that for the second season. We did it for the first season, but with a little bit less knowledge of how it was going to work. But, even then, Lee and Danny and I talked about those stories that ultimately got resolved the first day we met.
Which leads to the question of what are we going to see in Season 2?
More of the same, because it is the show, these are the characters. Of course there will be new characters and some really interesting people who want to come and be on the show now that might have been harder to get before the whole world knew what we were doing. But ultimately, we’re going to be true to our core characters.
You sound so connected to the characters and to the show even though it wasn’t your baby to begin with.
I’m pretty sure I’m telling you the truth when I say that I am as deeply invested in this show as if it were my own. I just love it. I love doing it, and I have a hard time thinking about anything else.