The Fox drama series Empire is one of the biggest network success stories in recent memory, continually surprising audiences with its storytelling and growing in its viewership every week. On top of that, it has incredibly strong acting, amazingly memorable characters, and catchy music that you’ll keep signing to yourself, long after the episodes are over.
During this interview with press to discuss how the show has evolved and where it’s headed next, co-creator/executive producer/writer Danny Strong talked about what inspired him to come up with this idea, which he originally saw as a film until meeting with Lee Daniels who saw it as a TV series, why this show is succeeding in a way that so many other haven’t, how “crazy cool” it was to shoot the “very explosive” season finale, the challenge of balancing the soapy elements with serious issues, the storyline he’s most proud of, and how hard they worked on coming up with a great last episode of the season, that opens the door for Season 2.
Question: Your body of work as a writer is impressive. You’ve done some pretty serious projects, like Recount, Game Change and The Butler. What inspired you to write what is, basically, a 1980s soap-opera, with Empire?
DANNY STRONG: It was really just driven by the idea. When I came up with the idea, it was as a movie. I thought it could be this really cool hip-hop movie musical that I pitched to Lee Daniels. Then, he called me the next day and said, “I can’t stop thinking about it, but I think it’s a TV show.” And I instantly knew he was right because it was about a family, and great TV shows are about families. So, we instantly started talking about Dallas and Dynasty. It just organically came from the concept, as opposed to me setting out, wanting to do “something different.” I don’t work that way. I’m just idea-driven.
This show has broken all of the rules, in terms of ratings and viewership. Why do you think that is, especially in today’s TV landscape?
STRONG: I think it’s hard to say. I think there are a few factors. At the end of the day, it’s good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. If people seem to really like a show, and they tell other people and they like the show, and it just keeps moving forward. We’re also serving an audience that has been grossly under-represented in TV, for several years, which is an African-American audience. When we premiered and I saw our ratings, the ratings were terrific. Our numbers in African-American households were huge, and our numbers in white households were good. They were what is now considered very respectable, opening premiere ratings. And I just remember reading those numbers thinking, “We could actually grow because we could really grow in white households.” I believed that to be the case because I believe the show could have a real cross-over appeal. What I didn’t realize is not only would we grow in white households, but we would grow more than 60% in African-American households, too. And combining those two, the show has just kept growing and growing, and it’s still growing. It’s quite exciting.
Has there been any talk of bringing Jennifer Hudson on, as more than a guest star?
STRONG: They could use a lot of therapy on this show, and I think we can use some therapy behind the scenes, too. I know I could use it. I can’t say what’s going to happen with her character because, to be honest with you, I don’t know. We’re just starting to talk about Season 2 now. I know we loved her and think she did a fantastic job. She has this song in the finale that I just love. I think it’s one of the coolest of the season. So, it’s certainly a possibility. She was lovely on set, so it could definitely happen, but I have no clue yet what we’re doing, as of right now.
What was it like working with Debbie Allen, directing part of the finale?
STRONG: Debbie was so cool. I grew up watching Fame. I co-wrote, with Ilene Chaiken, that episode that Debbie directed, so I was on set for a bit. She’s everything you’d imagine her to be. She’s just super cool, super hip, really smart and really talented. There was this cat fight that she was directing, and at one point she yelled out this direction, “Now toss the bitch!,” and I just remember thinking “That is the greatest piece of direction I’ve ever heard, in my career.”
What was it like to shoot this season finale?
STRONG: It was crazy cool. Before the first show premiered, we had shot nine or ten episodes, and getting guest stars was not so easy. We were getting passed on, all over the place, all of the time. Courtney Love is a perfect example of someone who just stepped up and took a leap of faith, having not seen the show, but there were many people that wouldn’t. After the show premiered is when we started casting the season finale, and it was a very different, very exciting situation, where tons of nos turned into not only lots of yeses, but incoming calls from people who wanted to be on the show. That’s when we ended up with a season finale with all of these amazing performers, and it’s really cool. There’s just going to be a ton of great musical numbers in the finale.
Which character is in a position, by the end of the season finale, that people will be most surprised about, in terms of where they end up?
STRONG: It’s a very explosive finale, which is not surprising, given the nature of our storytelling. Many things go down, many things will be resolved, alliances will shift, and it may or may not be completely resolved, by the time it’s over. But, a lot will be resolved. We’re not going to Laura Palmer the finale.
If you could pick any supporting character on the show to get a spin-off series, who would it be?
STRONG: Wow, that is a great question. Don’t you think Porsha? Maybe Porsha? She is a comic genius. She’s hilarious. And I believe it’s her first acting job. I think that could be an absolutely hilarious buddy-cop show, and I’ll play her sidekick.
How challenging is it to find the balance between the soapy, over-the-top elements of the storytelling with presenting serious issues?
STRONG: It was very much in the DNA of the show, from the very get-go. We knewwe were going to be doing a nighttime soap, and that that was going to be the genre we were going to be working in, but that we would be subverting the genre by tackling serious social issues, head-on. And, I think it was just a key element of what we thought would make the show interesting and dynamic, and it’s also very representation of just who, Lee Daniels and I are, as writers and directors and storytellers, in general. We both always work on material that has some sort of social justice and social commentary component to it. It’s one of the reasons why we are now doing a second project together. We both share that spirit. It’s time-consuming and so much work to do any project, so if I’m going to invest that amount of time in something, I want to be able to work on material where I can talk about issues that are important to me. I want to say things that I think matter, and explore subject matter that is beyond just entertainment. I think simultaneously what that does is make the entertainment even richer. I think it elevates everything, and it makes drama and comedy more powerful, more layered and just more interesting, overall. It’s what I value, as an audience member, and it’s what I love to do, as a writer. Even working on The Hunger Games, Mockingjay was all about propaganda, war and totalitarianism. All of those themes made me want to do that project when it came up.
Is there a storyline that you’re particularly proud of, this season?
STRONG: Yeah, the Jamal-Lucius storyline of the homophobic father and his gay son, and that relationship. It was in my original pitch to Lee, when I pitched this to him, as a movie. I said, “The heart of this movie is going to be about this father who won’t accept his son who’s gay.” When we decided to turn it into a TV show, I thought it was even more exciting to explore homophobia in a way that was so brutal and so non-flinching, just right in your face. And to do that on network television, I thought it could be incredibly cool and maybe impactful. I never know if things are going to be impactful or not, but I just go for it. Fox got it, right away. They never tried to pull that back from us, or hold it back. They knew it was a really important storyline, and it was extremely important to Lee because it very much reflects his own relationship with his father.
Has the audience feedback influenced the way you approach the show, at all?
STRONG: Personally, I try to block it out. I’m not the only person writing the show. We have Ilene Chaiken, who’s our showrunner and who is just fantastic. We’re so lucky to have her. And we have a killer writing staff. Everyone just brings their A-game, every day, because they are so passionate about the show. I’m not sure if they’re ever influenced or not. I don’t think so, but you never know. People are pitching ideas, and you never know if they’ve just seen something. You never know what’s going to inspire an idea. On the whole, it’s not choose your own adventure. The show got to this point, by me, Lee, Ilene, our writers and our executives at Fox and 20th. Everyone just rolls up their sleeves and tries to do the best job that we all can. That’s going to be the mind-set, going into Season 2. We’ll stick to our guns of what made these stories great.
When you were putting together the season finale, was there an added pressure to outdo everything you had done the first 12 episodes?
STRONG: We kept re-breaking it. I bet some people felt that pressure, but I didn’t because I never think that coming up with stories to try to outdo something is a way that you’re going to come up with a good story. It just needs to come from the characters and the conflict and the fundamentals of what makes a good story. If you’re trying to outdo something or be specifically explosive, just for the sake of outdoing it, that’s when things can get hacky. So, it was really just a matter of, “How can we conclude the season that we’ve set up and play it out in a way that’s exciting and powerful and fun, but then also opens the door to go into Season 2?” It was tough. Ilene and I wrote the final episode together, and there were a lot of re-writes. It was pretty tense. I think the network and the studio felt pressure because the show had already hit, so they were pounding us with notes. But I have to say that the notes made it better. The notes were really good. The crazy thing about television is just how fast it goes. By the time we got to writing the season finale, we had run out of time because of finishing production and writing all the previous episodes. It was one of the faster-written episodes of the season. But at the end of the day, I think we really pulled it off, and I think people are going to dig it.
How many episodes will you be doing for Season 2?
STRONG: I don’t know what we are doing, at this point. It hasn’t been decided, but I don’t think 22 episodes is a discussion.
The season finale of Empire airs on Fox on Wednesday, March 18th.