From ‘Empire’ To ‘The L Word,’ How A Creative Boss Gets It Done
Ilene Chaiken has been a showrunner for TV hits like Fox’s Empire, an executive producer for Hulu’s The Handmaid's Tale, and a writer, producer, and director for Showtime’s The L Word in the mid-2000s.
In other words, she’s a boss.
“I don’t like the word that much,” Chaiken said on Nerdette. “I mean, I like it as in, ‘Oh, she’s a boss.’ You know, ‘She’s a badass. She’s a boss.’ But I don’t like the kind of hierarchical aspect of it.”
Chaiken talked with Nerdette co-hosts Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen about the upcoming reboot of The L Word, her recently greenlit pilot project with Fox, and about how she became a boss. Below are highlights from the boss part of the conversation.
Trust your gut and listen to others
Tricia Bobeda: How much of being good at running a business, or running a show, do you think is about listening to others versus listening to your gut?
Ilene Chaiken: I don’t think that those two things are distinct from one another. I think that they’re both essential, and listening to my gut is what tells me to listen to others.
Know the difference between diversity and inclusion
Chaiken: Diversity is a word that’s been probably misused because you can have diversity in a room of only women or of only African-Americans. People are diverse. People are different from one another. I think this is a point that Shonda Rhimes makes all the time: that the word diversity is misleading and it’s the wrong word.
Inclusivity or inclusion is probably a more accurate word for what we mean to say, which is a conversation among creative people that includes a lot of different worldviews and experiences and cultures and ethnicities and religions and everything else that we want to represent in our storytelling.
Hang on to all the skills you pick up
Chaiken: I didn’t set out to be a boss. I wasn’t raised or reared to be a boss. I set out to be a filmmaker — to be an artist really — but somewhere along the way I acquired these executive skills and I seem to be a boss in some way or another.
Greta Johnsen: Was it something that came naturally to you?
Chaiken: It did come naturally to me. What I mean specifically — when I talk about getting executive skills over time — is that I came out to Hollywood and got that job at Creative Artists Agency and spent the first 10 years of my career being an executive. I wanted to write, I wanted to make films, but I was terrified. I needed to make a living. And I went from CAA to a development job, to a slightly bigger development job, to a VP at a TV company job. I worked with writers. I worked with people that were doing what I wanted to do.
But I was an executive. I learned how to manage other executives. I had subordinates, and I learned executive skills by being an executive. When I became a writer, I understood the way the business worked. And I understood — I think better than a lot of baby writers — how to talk to the executives. And then when I became a TV showrunner, I had a bunch of skills that a lot of TV writers don’t initially have that had to deal with organizing a room, how to delegate, how to work with other people.
Johnsen: It’s like you snuck in the side door at the movie theater.
Chaiken: I think that’s exactly what it is.
Homework from Ilene
Chaiken: I want to know who hasn’t seen herself — and I’ll just make it gendered — who hasn’t seen herself represented on television, and what would she like to see?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.