Straight Outta Shakespeare

Power creator Courtney Kemp on why she sees no separation between Shakespeare and episodic TV and how she shocked 50 Cent when she gave him what he wanted.

©2017 Starz
Joseph Sikora and Omari Hardwick in Power.
August 18, 2017 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Starz Entertainment Courtney Kemp

I don't really think there’s a separation between high and low. I always prefer people who can do both things.

Power is a television show that proves for thug life what iconic movies like Goodfellas have proven for the Italian mob—sex, money and violence are not just titillating, they’re the core of great drama. Power showrunner Courtney Kemp has long understood that some of the lowest human impulses make for the highest drama, and she knows the lofty stuff. An Ivy League grad with a masters in English literature from Columbia, she was reading Shakespeare plays when she was 10.

Did she understand them? Enough, she says in her characteristically straight-up deadpan, to know Iago was lying.

Power was born when Kemp’s academic command of drama merged with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s ambition, street history, and surprising gift for story. The show, which is currently in its fourth season, inked for a fifth and likely more, is the saga of James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), owner of an elite New York City nightclub who leads a double life as a drug kingpin. Jackson plays antagonist as the mercilessly brutal crime boss Kanan Starks.

Cue the violence.

Kemp spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about why she doesn’t see a separation between Shakespeare and TV writing, how she learned to rely on a direct, unadorned writing style, and the time when she gave 50 Cent what he wanted, even he was shocked.

This show is a hit, the second highest rated show on premium cable and first on Starz for prime time. From a writing standpoint, what has this narrative done that you did not anticipate?

I would say that, in a broad strokes way, it’s where I always thought we would be in terms of the story. What has presented itself as a big challenge is the double-edged sword of success. I had intended this series to only be five seasons—that was the original plan. As a result of being told by my network that we would probably have more seasons, I had to slightly adjust my plan for what's going to happen and when, and that’s been a little bit more challenging. Then, of course, there are things you cannot predict, such as actors that really pop, and you want that character to live longer than you expected. Or storylines that come to a head, [with] only one way to go, but it breaks your heart because you have really fallen in love with the actor. Those are little things that I didn’t anticipate before I took this job.

How tight was your original five-season arc when you started?

It wasn’t super tight. It always had room, but when I first started it, I didn’t know how to do things—this is my first showrunning job. So I didn’t know what I was doing, I just was like, okay, I know how to tell long-form story. I knew the last scene of the series and I still know that scene. I made sure that scene is still relevant no matter how long we go. Now, we haven’t been picked up for six seasons, I wanna be clear about that. But it just appears from all conversations that we will probably keep going.

You always had that light of knowing the ending shining through everything you’re doing?

With a show that has heavy methodology like ours does, you have to. Without it, you’re stuck just fumbling through the dark. I won’t name any names, but there have been some shows that I have watched in the past where I [said], “They have no idea what they’re doing. They’re making it up as they go along.” You can tell because it doubles back on itself, and they’re leading in one direction and then they go in another. I don't think that's fair to the audience. So for sure I try to stay on a path.

You’re Ivy League educated, you got a master’s degree in English literature. And I read you were reading Shakespeare plays at 10. Is that true?

That is true because my brother brought home his college books, and I just read everything he brought home. So some of it was super inappropriate for me, but I was getting my hands on things. Let’s be clear now, that was not showing that I had a lot of friends or that I went outside ever as a child.

Who cares? You trade that for being a genius. You’re reading Shakespeare at 10 and comprehending it pretty well?

Comprehending the broad strokes. I could get that Iago was lying, yeah.

You’ve got this fairly lofty pedigree, a master’s in English literature, Ivy League, but you write sex, money, and violence so well. In a lot of ways that’s what Shakespeare was doing, he was kind of the first great TV writer. Do you separate those worlds, or do you feel that’s why you’re good at this?

I love what you said about Shakespeare being the first great TV writer. That’s awesome. I would say no, there’s no separation, because what I’m doing is melodrama—and that’s what Shakespeare was doing. The highest possible stakes are all the things you just talked about—sex, money, and violence. I have said publicly that with Ghost—we have definitely read Richard III as a group and have talked about Richard III when we have plotted some things, because that’s Ghost—he’s ruthless! He does whatever he wants and then he has remorse about it. Like, “Oops, I probably shouldn’t have killed that person.” For real, son? Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have. I do understand what you’re saying. I wrote my master’s thesis on Jane Austen, but my master’s thesis was Jane Austen’s Emma, the novel, the movie Emma, and Clueless. I wrote my master’s on all three of those things. I don't really think there’s a separation between high and low. I always prefer people who can do both things. The sexiest thing to me in a man is a man who can really get down with the hardest gangster rap, and we can still have an elevated conversation about Dangerous Liaisons. It’s like a high-low thing.

So you don’t see any separation there between high and low…?

No. What’s the difference between Kanan killing Shawn—a father killing his son in the context of my show, and that happening in another great piece of art or literature? I don't know what the difference is. It’s just the outside, it’s just how you paint it...It’s the same stuff, but different packaging. It’s all the same kind of storytelling—people fall in love. and then people break up. That’s what we do.

On paper, you and your master’s degree and your Shakespeare make an interesting collaborator with a gangsta rapper like 50 Cent. Was it an immediate click with you guys, or was it hard at first?

I didn’t know who I was meeting [at first], because when you meet someone famous, you know already that they’re not what you know—the perception. But when I met him, he was so great at story and character—rappers and country music writers, those people are telling stories all the time. When you write a great rap song, you spit poetry that’s creating a world. Part of the reason that rap has been so successful with non-urban audiences is that it creates a world and transports the person to those feelings and to that sense.

50 is one of the best rappers ever, he’s one of the best storytellers ever. I didn’t know that before I met him. How could I know? And the depth to which his specific life experiences resonated—not with mine in a literal sense, but I certainly had a complicated childhood of my own. It just happened to come with a certain zip code and a certain economic status. But in terms of feeling neglected or abandoned by your parents, or feeling isolated, feeling lonely, feeling different, yeah we had that in common. I wasn’t literally abandoned by my parents. I would say I certainly spent a lot of time alone as a kid, and so did he. So we kind of clicked. He wasn’t abandoned by his parents either—his mom was murdered because she was a drug dealer. We had a lot in common in terms of our taste and in terms of the storytelling we gravitated towards and in terms of the movies we liked. But I don’t know why we clicked and became friends. We certainly didn’t have to in order for us to work [together], and it has been beautiful. I do think that had I been male going into this situation, it would have been different, not because he has a different relationship with men, but because for the showrunner, it would have been more [trouble] trying to figure out who’s the boss. But it turned out we can be mom and dad in a really easy way—we can adopt those roles really easily and not have to worry about that.

So it was actually easier, you being a woman?

It was, but I’ve never been a man before, so I haven’t done it both ways. I do believe me being female made it easier for me to do this job and write about this world that I hadn’t been in without feeling like I was a pretender or I was a fraud. Because I would be able to say, “Okay 50, tell me what’s in your head, I’ll put this on the pages, and in the scene.” It didn’t have to be about my ego, it didn't have to be about my version. It didn’t have to be about which one of us is the boss, because there’s a way for us both to have ownership in a really clean way.

Give me the anatomy if you can of how you work together on the writing? What's your system?

In the very beginning, I would sit on the phone with him, and he would talk, and I would listen, and I would write stuff down. I come from a journalism background, so I would do a profile. I would literally just interview him, and he would talk, and I would transcribe. I would take handwritten notes, and I would find little gems and would say, “Okay, say that over again.” I would take those little pieces and make them story, or make them dialogue, or put them into character. We would just be on the phone for hours talking about everything. And over time, the time we had to talk became less, because we started to understand each other and the characters started to live on their own.

Because you ingested the life, the world?

Yes. Also one thing that definitely did take place was that he asked me to make Kanan the worst, most evil character on television. I said, “Are you sure?” And he was like, “Yep.” And then when I went ahead and did it, at one point he was like, “Damn, this too?” I was like, “Yes, this is what you asked for.”

That’s the ultimate honor—you got 50 Cent to blanch.

I did.

In general, when, where, and how do you write? Do you have any idiosyncratic rituals?

The only thing that’s idiosyncratic is that I hand write a lot. I do a lot of handwriting to get into the emotion of the scene, and then I get to the computer. I think of the drafts and typing and all that, that’s really the math or the construction, but that’s not the design. The best way to put it is that I would draw an idea for a building if I was an architect, but that’s not the building plan. The building plan, the blueprint, is something different from the design. So when I write by hand, my head connects to my heart and goes through my hand and then the real emotion of the scene comes out on paper. But then when I get to rhythm, the algebra of the scene, that, I type.

So when you’re writing out on a notepad, are you writing in prose style, or in dialogue? What’s the format of your freehand writing?

The first writing on any page, if you open any of my notebooks from all the years of Power, they all say, “What the fuck am I trying to say?” I’ve written that about 100 times. What is the point of this scene? What am I trying to communicate? I’ll write that over and over again. I literally have to get myself to drop down into it and ask myself the question, “What is the point of the scene?”

The other thing that’s crucial for my writing is that I try not to say things in a flowery way. For example I have this scene in season one where Angela is saying to Ghost, “I love you, but I don’t want to break up your marriage. I didn’t get into this to break up your marriage.” And I wrote that down, how does she say that? Not trying to make it cool or cute or sexy, but what is the emotion? What is the feeling? And just go at it.

So you don’t want it to feel written or contrived, you want it to be, whomp, there it is?

It’s actually easier. It’s easier to get out of your own way, past your ego, if you just write it. If I were to say to you in this conversation, “Dylan, I want you to think I’m smart.” That’s way more honest and more interesting than if I said, “You know I went to two Ivy League schools?” Yeah, I could say that, but that’s not as interesting as me saying, “I want you to think I’m smart,” because now your response is more interesting. If you go right at it, you get more interesting stuff. You can always go back and make things more complicated if you want. But you don’t have to—you can just have people say what they mean.

And it’s more arresting, it has more power and immediacy.

Yes. See how well you said that? You must be a professional writer.

But back to the high and low, certainly one of the things about Shakespeare and Austin is a love for beautiful language…With your English lit background, was this direct, un-flowery approach always easy for you or something you had to learn?

That was probably an adjustment I made back as a story editor. When I worked for [Dawson’s Creek, Everwood showrunner] Greg [Berlanti], he was the one who shocked me out of it. And I was writing broadcast TV too at the time. He was like, “Just write it. Don’t get into your head about how it has to sound, just write it.” You can go back if you need to and make it more writerly if you want to, but get the real stuff out on the page.

The other thing is, when you read prose as a English literature major, all that flowery stuff gets you closer to the emotion because it’s prose, and you’re reading it, and you can see it, and it’s going inside you, and you’re digesting it in that way. When you watch two people talk on screen, part of where you’re getting the emotion is the performance—what their eyes look like, their gestures, the sound of their voice. So the dialogue should only communicate that which cannot be communicated by the rest of the visual image, and the sound if you put in music.

Literature is just on the page, so the prose has to supply the sound and the smell and the taste, and all of that for you. With dialogue in television, you got a lot of stuff right there that you’re looking at and listening to, so the dialogue shouldn’t be big and flowery. In fact it should simple. “Love is never having to say you’re sorry”—it should be that. It shouldn’t be more complicated than that, because you got Ali MacGraw crying as she says it.

© 2017 Writers Guild of America West

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