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With 'Poker Face,' Rian Johnson cracked the secret of writers' rooms
The big screen mystery master started from scratch learning how to craft the Poker Face series.
Rian Johnson has worn many hats in his career. He's been a screenwriter, music video director, TV director, movie director, and even a cameo actor. But, up until Peacock's new mystery series, Poker Face, Johnson had never created a television series before. The show, which stars Natasha Lyonne as a woman with an uncanny knack for spotting lies, is now streaming its first four episodes and has received broad critical acclaim. However, although he created the series, Johnson didn't do it alone. Television is a group pursuit with a curated group of writers assembled in a room to break down the stories of multiple one-hour episodes that make up a season of TV.
As Johnson put it himself at the recent TCA press day for Poker Face, actually setting up a writers' room for Poker Face once it was picked up by Peacock was "very much my first rodeo" and he jumped into it not knowing what to expect.
"I'd been lucky enough to work as a director on a few great shows, like my friend Ted Griffin's show Terriers and also Breaking Bad," he explained. "So I had kind of gotten to see the process through the eyes of an episodic director and see an incredibly well‑honed machine working. But it's, obviously, a very different thing when you're stepping into it to create it."
Johnson said he jumped into the process like it was the "deep end of the pool," and hired veteran television showrunners Nora and Lilla Zuckerman (Haven, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) to set up the creative base of the show. "They taught me the ropes in terms of a writers' room and how to write with a group of people, which I had never done before."
For the Zuckermans — who admitted to SYFY WIRE they were big fans of Johnson's work when he hired them — they shared they were most worried that he just wouldn't like writing for TV. "My biggest fear was that Rian would hate being in the writers' room," Nora shared, candidly. Prior interviews with Johnson had given her the impression that he's the quintessential writer/director; the kind who literally goes to a cabin in the woods by himself and writes alone to figure his story out from top to bottom. "Going from that to being surrounded by a gaggle of people being like, 'Hey, Rian, how about this? How about that?' is a big change."
Instead, Nora said he really took to the room dynamic. "He had probably that same instinct that a lot of us have when you're feeling isolated and you're writing, you want somebody to chirp in your ear the right answer, or the solution, or even the comment that leads you to figure out the solution," she observed. "And it turned out, he really responded well to the environment and had a lot of fun."
Johnson said as much at TCAs, when he offered enthusiastically that he loved the pace of the room.
"I loved that with each episode, we're in a different environment. It's a whole new cast," he said of crafting each standalone episode in Charlie Cale's (Lyonne) road trip. "It's like making 10 little movies. The fact that every three weeks, we were starting work on a new movie...whereas usually I'm used to doing the same one for several years. So I'm a little worried that I've now been amped up to the point where I'm going to need this pace of storytelling in my life.
"I think my producer is worried as well," he added with a laugh.
Adding some insight into their Poker Face creative process, Lilla Zuckerman said the crafting of every single episode had to be fastidious to make sure each mystery paid off.
"A show like this — where all of the devil is literally in the details with these complex murder mysteries — we broke these episodes, so intricately," she said. "I think he was amazed at the level of detail that we got to just as a group collaborating, so by the time that one of the writers would go off and write the script, there were really no surprises. We were all on the same page of what that episode was going to be.
"Rian says that he likes to meticulously plan everything out," she continued. "But his planning is like a series of parabolas with like hash marks on it instead of whiteboards going around the room. I think that was very eye-opening for him. As well as the speed of how these stories come together. We wrote this entire season in 20 weeks. It was because we were just so focused and so detailed about how we did things that we were able to get it done."
"The best rooms we've been in have been really organized, so we've tried to stay true to that," Nora added. "I think a chaotic room where you're always desperate to beat a deadline, a lot of fear comes into that. If you're organized and thoughtful, then it actually frees up your brain to think more creatively; at least that's how we see it," she said. "We tried to move forward in a really organized and methodical way. It worked well for us. I don't know how we could have made the schedule."
In the end, Johnson seems to be a convert. He praised his room and the Zuckerman's as he said, "It was just a really fun process, because it also felt no less personal. I still felt like I was driving the stories and really shaping them, but it felt like having a staff of incredibly talented people there to bring their voices to it and to support that. I really loved it."
The first four episodes of Poker Face are now streaming on Peacock. The remaining six episodes will air weekly.