Okay, yeah. My name is Gennifer Hutchison. I'm 39 and I am based in Los Angeles. I'm a television writer and while I also write for features, I'm probably best known for writing on Breaking Bad and I'm currently writing on Better Call Saul.
My experience with videogames is -- it kind of started mostly in college. I never really had a videogame system in high school or as a child growing up because for some reason my parents just wouldn't get one. So, I would try to play at my friends' houses, but it's like having a friend with a pool: You know, they never wanna swim because they swim all the time.
And so, nobody ever wanted to play Mario Bros. 'cause they spent all their time playing it and I was so terrible at it 'cause I never got to play. But in college, I borrowed a friend's N64 and played GoldenEye over spring break and that's literally all I did that spring break. I think that was sort of the first time I remember just getting completely and totally drawn into a game. And I started kind of playing games off and on for years after that but I was never very good at them or I always told myself I was never very good at them until a few years ago. I happened to get a copy of Skyrim and I started playing it and I played it for about 200 hours and that was kind of my gateway game. I've been playing basically nonstop since then, which is great because I had this back catalog of amazing games that I had never played. So, for that first year of intense gaming I was just playing all those classics that everybody really loved. You know, Mass Effect and the BioShock games, all these games, and then I kind of caught up with the industry. [Laughs.]
And so I've been playing newer games since then. And I've slowed down a little bit just because of life and whatnot, but I do play probably everyday or at least five out of seven days a week.
Is this the first interview that kicks off by asking about your experience with videogames? Has it been more common that people are reaching out to you, like, "Oh, what's it like being a woman in the writers’ room?"
[Laughs.] This is my first interview that started specifically about videogames, although I have been asked about it before because people know that I play them.
The secret's out.
The secret's out. I also did a podcast with Neil Druckmann over at Naughty Dog where we talked about games and TV and so I'm getting more into that world.
People do ask me about being a woman in the writers' room as well. So I have talked about that on a couple of occasions.
You mentioned not being very good at games, or being telling yourself you weren't. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Where was that coming from? Why?
Well, initially it was just true. I wasn’t very good at games -- mostly because I never played them enough to get good at them. And I’d never managed to finish a game. I’d hit a point and just not be able to advance. Then I think after I got more into games, because I was actually playing games in between my GoldenEye and Skyrim epiphanies, it was about that narrative we all hear. You know, you’re not a real gamer unless you’re playing on insanity [difficulty]. Or playing online and dominating. Or playing the “right” games. I tended to play on casual or regular. I never played online. I didn’t play a lot of the hardcore games. I internalized that because I didn’t want to be accused of being a fake girl gamer. Then I realized that whole thing is basically bs. I’m very much the “if you play games, you are a gamer” person now. Not into the gatekeeping stuff that a lot of people run into. And I’m much more laid back about my skill level with games now.
You also said in our DMs that you tend to sort of stick to yourself with game stuff, for various reasons. Do you feel like you typically can't bring up games because people won't get it or will judge you? Or is there other components to why you stick to yourself with that stuff?
You know, I don't hide that I play games. I do talk about it. I find that people who don't play games are curious for about 30 seconds, and then when you start to get into more detailed stuff they're so -- it's like they just don't have that vocabulary that you do. But I do have this friend who I used to go running with a couple times a week and she doesn't play videogames. She has almost zero interest in them. But I started telling her what was going on in the games I was playing and she was endlessly fascinated with me summarizing the plot elements of whatever game I was playing. [Laughs.]
So, she and I ended up having a thing where she's the only person I know who would get really into me talking about whatever game I was playing and, you know, what terrible things had recently happened in the game. [Laughs.] But, for the most part, once you start talking about it people -- they'll sort of humor you and then they get very like, "Oh, that's great. All right, let's move on." [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I do want to bridge these two interests of yours, but let's start with your writing expertise. Why did you want to write for TV?
I had kind of always been a -- I had always written growing up. And I was very interested in film. I got really interested in film in high school and college, which was sort of during the kind of mid-'90s film revival. There was just so much going on and I was going to movies all the time and I was like, "Oh, that's what I wanna do! I wanna make movies."
And so after college I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do and I kinda got lucky and ended up being a PA in the production office at Nash Bridges, which filmed up in San Francisco, which was where I was living at the time. And I worked there for a year and I decided to move to LA, and I ended up working in a writers' office and once I got to LA I kind of realized TV was sort of where writers had kind of the most creative power in entertainment. In features, that tends to be a bit more considered to be a directors' medium. And at that point, I wasn't necessarily thinking I wanted to be a director. I hadn't gone to film school. I wasn't necessarily familiar with all the equipment.
But I had always written. I'd always been a writer and I was like, "Well, writing is a great way to be a part of this world and to tell the story. Why don't I just kind of lean in to where my talents already lie?”
And then, observing how TV worked I was like, "This is actually a great place. Writers have a lot of creative control. You get to tell these amazing stories every week. You get to see your work, like, very shortly after you write it and it gets filmed as opposed to in features where they tend to take years and sometimes don't ever come to fruition."
So, I just was like, "You know what? TV, that's where I'm gonna go for now." And then once I got into TV and got established I started branching out more and into the feature world as well. But TV, I think, always feels like home to me because I love the aspect of working in a collaborative environment, sort of the creative aspect of it -- the immediacy of it. All those things.
I think people in general don’t really understand what sort of work goes into being a writer, and especially when you’re a professional writer. In your career so far you’ve made the leap from writer to story editor to executive story editor and also producing. You’ve also worked as an assistant to various producers, on production staff like you mentioned. How do writing and producing complement each other and change your approach to the other? When you started writing for TV, did you have an “ultimate” ambition in mind, as it were?
The way titles work for TV writers is a bit complicated if you’re not familiar with the system. You start as a staff writer, generally, then move up to story editor. Then executive story editor. Then you get into producer titles from there. It’s a pay structure thing. It’s also based on a system where your duties expand as you move up the ranks. Now it really depends on the show you work on as to how that hierarchy actually plays out. It’s how the showrunner decides they want things to work.
So, as you move up as a producer, you generally are doing more work outside of straight up writing duties. You’re more involved with production and post production. You may have greater responsibilities in the writers’ room, such as running the room when the showrunner steps away. There are other producers in TV who do not write. They run production. They run post-production, etc. They’re more of what people think of when they think producer. As far as how producing and writing complement each other -- I think that as you move up the ranks as a writer, you learn more about the realities of actually realizing and delivering a TV show. When you’re a staff writer, things like budgets and schedules are more mysterious. So you may be pitching your best ideas, but they’re not feasible to produce. As you become a producer, it does start to affect how you pitch. You may start with a huge idea, but you come around to how to make it an actual thing you can film much quicker.
When I started in TV, I don’t think I had a real focused goal in mind. I think I had the seeds of “I want my own show someday” in there. But that’s a thing that grew as I got more confident in my career.
As a TV writer, how do you feel about character and story in videogames?
It's interesting. I mean, for me, especially I think in all forms but in TV especially, character is central. You know, no matter how cool your world is or your plot moves are, if you don't care about the characters at the center of it, then you're not really gonna care ultimately about the show or the movie. Videogames, because so much of a videogame is about gameplay and player experience, I feel like a lot of times you can overlook the character aspect and the story aspect because -- you know, if you just wanna shoot a lot of stuff, then you don't really care about your character and where they're going and the story moves. Or, you know, if you're solving puzzles, a lot of times it doesn't necessarily matter what the story is and your character's background. But, the thing I've been noticing and the games I like to play the most are the ones that have the heavy emphasis on character and how that informs the story.
Those tend to be the ones that stick with me longest. I totally value gameplay and sort of a smooth gaming experience, but I'm not really replaying those games just for the gameplay. Like, if I replay a game or keep going back to a game it's usually because of the story and the characters.
And, again, I think that's something I'm seeing more and more of in games. And I'm talking about mostly AAA games, but also, I mean, indie games, they're so -- so many of them are character and story-driven. I like that. I just find it makes the game experience more interesting to me and it also tends to inspire me as a writer in different ways, having a cool interactive story.
This is probably the type of thing that's hard to think of a specific example, but can you elaborate on that?
On the inspiring?
Inspiring, yeah. It's not a "where do you get your ideas?" sort of question.
No, no, no.
But do you have a from A to B to C sort of example?
Yeah. It's not like I look at a game and go, "Oh, I wanna write that story."
Just playing games like -- I'm a big fan of the Bioware games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age and the way those characters interact and sort of the large scale stories with these relatable characters. I find that pretty inspiring. I think the stuff like -- you know, The Last of Us was such a well-written, tightly plotted, character-driven story. And I found that really inspiring, that you could take something that -- you know, is ostensibly just about you kind of killing zombies, but infuse it with this deep emotional weight. And so games like that. They're interesting worlds that you don't always get to explore in TV and movies because of the sort of interactive element, and so trying to kind of take what's appealing about that and apply it in writing. Like, you know, "Why do you respond so much to it?" A lot of those are because there are moral choices to make, the stakes that these characters are up against, and stuff like that, just applying that in my writing.
I spend a lot of time in this project looking at people's opinions about the AAA space's creative conservativeness. What do you think? What's the last big-budget game you played that you feel said something about what it means to be human?
I actually just played -- I just finished Uncharted 4, which I really liked, which is a huge, big budget game.
I had enjoyed the series up 'til then, and I really like the last one because it's kind of about this Nathan Drake character actually growing up. It's a very grown-up game, like the choices that he had to make and the stuff he was going through. And as a person who is married and is negotiating that relationship on a daily basis, as I think everybody who is married does, it was interesting to play a game where a person's marriage was at the center of it in the midst of all this trying to find pirate treasure.
And I thought there was a nice balance of that, and also there's a lot of family relationship in that. And so I think they really did manage to say something about being a grown-up and being in a relationship and also being true to yourself.
Yeah. It's funny. I interviewed Neil a few months ago, actually just before Uncharted 4 came out. So, and I'm still not much further in it now than I was then because, like you said, life and stuff.
I asked him that question. I do think their games and his games, they do a good job of trying to have better stories, trying to have more rounded characters, and I asked Neil about why is it that even in that context of Naughty Dog games, we're still running around with a gun and shooting people.
Because I think it's hard to demonstrate to people who are not into games that -- like, if you just look at a screenshot, it's going to be hard to tell that from any other game where you're running around with a gun. So, I don't know. Do you look to games more for escape, or does that repetition of running around with guns, is that something you notice in games? Do you think about it?
I think it depends on the game for me. I play games as I guess escape and stress management. [Laughs.]
That was just me speculating from the shows you've worked on.
I mean, I just imagined it's possible you may not be looking for the kind of over-stimulating, all-encompassing games that attempt to do amazing stories with nuanced characters. Because, you know, it might remind you of work.
Oh, you know, but I am, actually.
That's the thing. Part of it is I just want cool gameplay. Sometimes I just do plug in because I'm like -- I want to go shoot some things or solve some puzzles with portals.
That's an aspect of it. But even if I'm not intentionally starting a game because I'm like, "Wow, I really wanna learn things about being a person and feel a lot of feelings," when those things do happen, I'm always delighted and it makes the experience more interesting for me. There are times in games where you have to make a moral choice and I've felt -- I've had actual emotional reactions to that, where I felt terrible about a choice I've made. That sticks with me. And it's not necessarily a bad thing. You know, it's not like I go, "Ugh, I was playing this game because I didn't want to think about anything.” It actually still enhanced the experience for me. For me, escaping isn't necessarily, "I just wanna kill things and not make decisions."
Oh, no, I think having that in your life, the ability to take a breather is a good thing.
I don't think that gets enough credit as being a valuable thing. So I don't think it's at all a bad thing.
As you have become a writer for TV and features, how has that shifted or informed your point or view or your opinion about writing in videogames?
Being a writer myself?
It kinda does. I think I'm more critical about storytelling in general since I'm doing it professionally now, it's the nature of it. You have a hard time disconnecting the analytical work side of the brain. I do have different thresholds for anything -- TV, movies, games -- narratively where if I sort of categorize it as, "This is just something that's fun," I'm gonna be less critical of it.
But if it's something that's clearly striving to be something greater, you know, and to be really interesting, I do tend to be a little more critical. So, there are certain times in games where I'm like, "Ugh, I wish they had made a certain choice, because narratively it would go better this way."
The thing that I have noticed that it does -- the worst thing? [Laughs.] The worst thing is I tend to be able to see plot twists really early because I think as a writer you're just always kind of playing all the narrative threads that you're presented.
So, I tend to kinda know -- I have this joke about any time I start a game, the first person who helps me in any way I'm clearly gonna have to kill them at some point by the end of the game.
Like, they're either the bad guy or they're, like, on the way to the bad guy. It's just stuff like that.
You just start to notice narrative patterns. I think that's especially heightened when you work as a writer yourself.
Right. You're seeing the gears turning --
-- rather than whatever's supposed to be in front of the curtain.
What do you wish there was more of in storytelling, both in games and in TV?
I guess I -- and I think TV has especially made great strides in the last few years as far as telling different stories.
You know, different perspectives, different people, as opposed to the same narrative being spit out over and over again. I mean, that's just more what I would look for. A diversity of stories that's reflective of the world and different interesting takes on experiences. You know, people talk in games about the issue that every protagonist is the brooding white guy and I think that definitely has its place. But when you encounter a game where that's not the perspective you're playing from, it's always really interesting to me because it is something kind of new and different. It would just be great to -- we have the space for more story. We should use that space, I think, in TV and in games.
I often feel like when I'm playing games, especially more modern big-budget games it feels like -- I mean, they have to be made by people who appreciate other mediums. Often, to me, it feels like they're trying to emulate them but don't really understand how they work. Do you know what I mean or would you like an example?
Can you give an example?
I can try.
I think you may have mentioned Fallout in your note.
Are you aware of Fallout 4?
Yeah, I played Fallout 4.
Yeah. Did you beat it?
You are so much more dedicated at beating videogames than I am. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You just gotta play an hour a night, every night.
But yeah, like, Fallout 4, for example, playing that, I felt like it's a lot of action movie clichés delivered via a game of telephone where the point of the game is you're supposed to save your kid, right?
But what's the last thing you're probably gonna do?
But it's that, and stuff like very simple stories we've seen tons of times before with loads of hiccups and very few attempts to even do much that is new, yet still screwing up what it's doing when it is basic. Have you noticed things like that in other games, too?
Yeah, I think there's sort of a little bit of dissonance in especially open world games like that. If you're playing something like Uncharted, that's a very straightforward narrative. Like, the story is progressing at a specific pace. That's the way that game was made. With open-world games like that, like Skyrim and Dragon Age, you have this very urgent thing you have to do like find your kid or save the world, but you also have to do stuff like collect 10 elf roots so you that you can make a potion for something.
The fact that you have all these side quests and these little other grinding kind of things that you have to do, it kind of -- I think what you're saying is it saps it of the narrative urgency a lot of the time.
You're just like, "Well, I guess I'll just wander around and kill wolves until I've leveled up enough to do this particular kind of thing."
And that's always a bummer for me at the beginning of the game, is just when you're under-powered and you can't progress the plot until you, like I said, you run around in the woods and kill a bunch of wolves. Or in Fallout, I think it's those radroaches, you know? [Laughs.] You just have to run around and kill roaches until you have enough power or equipment.
You gotta pay your dues.
Yeah. So, I think that's the issue. Because games have the benefit of being able to be interactive and you get to make decisions. Especially in a game like Fallout, where your decisions are meaningful and impact -- what happens, ultimately, in the game. So that's the great thing, but at the same time there's no clock on it, as opposed to other things.
Like, when you're watching a movie, there's a clock on the action. But you're watching it as a passive spectator.
So, I guess, I don't know if that's the price you pay. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I don't know. Because I feel like a lot of this stuff comes from videogames trying to emulate movies and TV. That's some of what I mean with by them not understanding what makes them work or be successful. Does that feel that way to you? Or does it feel like videogames understand exactly what they do and should be doing for proper storytelling?
Yeah, I mean. I get what you're saying.
No, no, no. I think it's the conflict of gameplay versus telling a story. I mean, I really think they're kind of hampered by the demands of playing a game. Because otherwise they would just make a movie, you know? [Laughs.] It's like, if you're doing storytelling, you have to allow for the player to feel like they're actually interacting -- I think that's probably what the limitation is. I mean, it is nice when they're able to get those things working together. But yeah, I don't really know how you solve that issue. You know? [Laughs.] Because I do think they understand what they're doing. I do think they understand the core of narrative, but I do think there is a conflict in the fact that you have writers who are shaping a story and then you have level designers who are trying to make a cool level experience, and a lot of time the writing happens after what the big set piece or level looks like. So, you're kind of trying to retroactively create a story within an already existing structure and I think that's a problem. As opposed to in TV, where you're building this story organically.
What do you think that videogames, writing-wise or story-wise, don't get enough credit for actually doing well?
Like, coordinating a story over a game that's anywhere from 20 to 100 hours.
That's an insane amount of work.
Just managing to keep your narrative thread going, keep your characters interesting, maintain your tone. Just, videogame scripts are so dense and thick and that's just an incredible amount of work and I don't think people necessarily realize. Especially open-world games or games where your decisions -- again, in Fallout, your decisions change things. But they have to write every possible version. And then they have to remember who that character is in that version because if you're playing the survivor as a nice person, that's a totally different character than if you're playing them as someone very ruthless. And they have to write all those characters and make that story work and those characters work within that world, even though you're basically diametrically opposed characters at the center. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I think even just from a logistical angle that has to be a huge headache.
But for people who don't really know the nuances of TV writing and games writing, from what you understand, this logistic eventuality writing, is that different from the sort of mental planning that goes on in any TV show? Like, are all those permutations different thinking somehow from, like, all the way things might break on Breaking Bad?
Yeah, I mean, I would imagine so. We always asked the question, "Where is Walt's head at?" whenever we were trying to figure out where the story went. And, you know, Walt was one guy and he was consistent. [Laughs.] And when you're writing a game and a character that can vary, how do you answer that question? [Laughs.] Like, "Where is the lone survivor's head at? Well, it could be anywhere. It could be any one of these five places right now, so let's go through those." [Laughs.] So, I do think that's a different -- that's gotta be a much different experience than writing for a locked in character.
And the thing about Walt is that he did change.
Right. But he was -- I feel like the evolution of Walt was not that he turned into a different person. It's that he became who he truly was inside. Right. Well, I think, too, it would be a way less dramatic or a really weird show if it was like, "Okay, this season, we're gonna go back to the first season and if he did this instead..."
Yes. I mean, videogames are every season simultaneously.
Yeah! Yeah. And at the same time, there's also this inclination to keep the characters as general as possible at the same time because so many different people are gonna be playing this character. I mean, I believe that the more specific a character is the more relatable they are just because then they feel like a real person. But I understand that inclination of, "Well, you kinda want an empty vessel who has just enough personality to make you care, but not so much that you can't identify with them as yourself because you are that person.”
I think this is starting to change slightly. Do you have any insights into why so few movie and TV writers write videogames? I mean, you wrote on an X-Files game.
[Laughs.] Yes I did. Many many many many moons ago.
You knew that was gonna come up, right?
No! I was just thinking about that the other day, how I actually do have a videogame writing credit. I did. I actually currently write -- work with him. Tom Schnauz, who was a writer on Breaking Bad as well as a writer on Better Call Saul, wrote on The X-Files and he wrote an X-Files game. And I wrote additional material. So, I basically wrote case files that you can access in the game. That's what I did.
I think as far as why TV and feature writers aren't writing as many videogames? I mean, part of it is probably availability, to be completely honest. Videogames are being worked on over two, three years.
And when you're doing TV, it's your full-time for however many months in a room and then you have a brief hiatus and then you're back full-time on another show. With features, you're kind of going from assignment to assignment. So part of it is just it's hard to be available to be a part of a team.
It's not like a TV show where you can kind of drop in in a season and be back out. These are companies with really specific writers. I do know some people who have written on games. Like, TV writers who have written games.
Right. It does happen.
It does. It does. It's a little bit of a different medium. And especially with the big games, kind of the way that they look at the writing as opposed to the demands of the game itself and selling it. [Laughs.] I think that plays a part. It's just a different muscle.
Do you feel like people who make games, are they trying to make them memorable in the way that people who make enduring TV shows or movies do?
I would think so. [Pause.] I'm of the opinion that every TV show, the people who are making the show, no matter how "bad" the show is, they work so hard and they care so much. Like, everybody's trying to tell the best story that they possibly I can. I think there are very few people who are like, "Oh, we're just gonna crap something out. Whatever. It's fine." Like, I think people really care and there is a feeling of really wanting to connect with people and have them love the thing that you made. So, I do think that when people are making videogames -- I think part of it is we want to sell a lot and have a great experience, but I think they also want to make something that's meaningful and memorable that people think about all the time and look back on and go, "Oh, that was so influential to me."
As a writer, that's the greatest thing, when, "The thing that you made is so meaningful to me." Like, that's the reason why I think writers do it, is to make that connection with people.
I wanted to ask you about parallels in TV fandom and videogame fandom. I think I mentioned that when I wrote you before. But as I say that, what comes to mind as far what's similar or what's not similar?
I think fandom in general, as anything, has the same kind of markings. [Laughs.] Like, sports fans and TV fans and videogame fans. They all kinda have the same things. I mean, the big thing is just that devotion and that kind of obsession with the characters. And, again, it always seems to come down to the characters to me.
It's not just the game or the show or the plots. People were into Breaking Bad because they were into Walt and Jesse and Hank and Gus and Skyler and Marie. They weren't into it because they're like, "I'm really into the meth business."
That was the interesting world, but if you didn't give a shit about Walt and Jesse, you're not really gonna care about the show.
It's just a very intense connection to those characters and those stories. It's shared with TV and videogames and there is sort of an element of -- I think this is good and bad, but in fans, feeling that they have ownership over the story because of their connection to it and the feeling of being very excited when the story does something that they agree with or that pleases them and being very disappointed and sometimes angry when it goes in a direction that they're unhappy with. I think that's just a function of really identifying with something. When people are angry about something that happens on a TV show, they can get really vocal about it. And when people are really angry about the direction of a game, they can get really vocal about it. [Laughs.]
And, again, 99 percent of the fan interaction is great. But there is that one percent of, "I'm so angry and I don't know how to contain that, so it's gonna come out in this abusive way.”
I haven't really run into that that much, thankfully. But I think because it is such a vocal minority, it can be a little bit intimidating. And, again, I think that crosses all mediums. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I mean, it should be said: I interviewed a woman last month who wrote her thesis in the late '90s on soap opera fandom.
I think it's tempting to focus on that one percent of conversations and certainly we can hear a lot more of it now. But she was telling me back in the "old days" of the '90s, very passionate fans would be sending care packages to actors who play impoverished characters.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your experiences at Comic-Con. Is there stuff you can tell me that's positive and negative and no where in between or both?
'Cause that's such a different environment than isolated things you hear on the internet.
Yeah. I would say that my experiences at Comic-Con and at other fan events with panels and whatnot for the show have all been pretty much across the board positive. Just people are so enthusiastic and very thankful that you made something that they really enjoyed.
So, yeah, in person I've almost always had great experiences. I can't even really think of a negative experience right now off the top of my head. It's all been really positive and people are usually respectful and sweet. A lot of times, it's just that enthusiasm of, "Oh my God! You made a thing I love and here you are right in front of me and I don't know how to be cool right now, so I’m not gonna be super-cool."
And that's great. I've been that person. [Laughs.] When I met Neil I was that person. I would say that in the actual physical world that I've been in it's been all positive.
I want to go back a little bit: I didn't realize until recently that the term "shipping" originated with the internet and The X-Files.
Yes. Yes. So, the person you interviewed who did her thesis on soap opera fandom? I did my undergraduate thesis on fan fiction.
But specifically The X-Files, which, I ultimately ended up working on The X-Files, which is very strange. I kept that a closely guarded secret while I was working on The X-Files.
Good. I was gonna say.
I mean, that could work in your favor or against you.
I did not actually -- I was not a fanfiction writer. But I did do my thesis on it. And yeah. The term "shipping" did come from -- I remember scrolling through pages of fandom in the mid- to late '90s. [Laughs.]
This is broad and you might not even really remember, but what do you feel you learned in writing that thesis? What did you learn that you didn't expect to learn? What were you hoping to learn?
I don’t remember what I was hoping to learn beyond -- I find fan culture fascinating and wanted to explore it in the context of my favorite show. But I think I learned that people latch onto stories for vastly different reasons, and those reasons are all pretty much valid. Fanfiction is super-diverse in terms of the types of stories people are telling. Some people write what amount to original episodes of the show. Some people write alternate universe variations that would never be able to live on the show. And I think seeing the different ways people interact with story, and really delving into that, did help me as a writer. There’s this tendency in writing to want to be very clear and understood as to what the “right” interpretation is of something. But once you release a story into the world, you have to understand that everyone is going to read it differently. And yes, the majority of people are going to fall mostly in line with what your original intent was, but a lot of people won’t. But they’ll still connect with and enjoy the story. Looking back, that’s been a valuable lesson to me. I want my story to be specific and intentional, and I want people to connect with it. But I realize more and more that it’s important to write for yourself, what you find interesting or exciting, and then be willing to let go when you put it out in the world. People will take what they need from it.
This is interesting, then, because you can talk a bit about perceptions from the "outside" and "inside" The X-Files.
How were external perceptions wrong? I don't really want to paint it in a binary, but I'm just curious to hear about reactions to that intense, passionate creativity and the community it's coming from. What can you tell me about that?
You mean from the people who worked on the show?
Yeah. I mean, I can talk about that too, with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, because we get so much fan art and we have boards all up on the walls in our office where we just put up all this fan art. 'cause people love it. I mean, we love it.
You know, when I was on X-Files, it was mostly appreciation for the fans. I think there's a general feeling of, "You know, I wouldn't necessarily interact with something to that level, but I love that people are."
Well, me personally, but the people I've been around. A lot of showrunners and writers don't really understand fanfiction: "Why would you want to do that?" [Laughs.] But they're like, "But that's cool! If it inspires you, great!" [Laughs.]
I think the only time it ever becomes a problem is when people are trying to send you their ideas, because then you get into legal issues.
Right. You can't look at it.
I can't look at it.
You can't even be accused of being close to stealing any idea.
Yeah. So that's the thing that is sort of the thing for me, being a "creator" and being a writer is I think that's so cool you guys are interacting on that level with the show that I'm working on, but I cannot look at any of it. [Laughs.] Maybe after the show's over I'll go back and read them a bit. [Laughs.]
What was the feeling inside The X-Files over shipping?
I know you said it was generally positive, and I don't know if there was a lot of shipping with Breaking Bad, but with X-Files specifically, what was the feeling inside about that stuff?
What was it? I mean, the thing about -- I think the main ship on The X-Files was Mulder and Scully, which was great 'cause that was a canon relationship. So, you know, you're really only gonna get support of that. As for other shipping, like your slash? Mulder/Skinner, Mulder/Krycek I think were the other two big categories. [Laughs.] There was definitely a Scully/Skinner contingent as well.
I think it was more, "All right, well, whatever floats your boat" feeling of "that's not something we're ever gonna do, but as long as people aren't being aggressive about it or getting threatening, like, 'If you don't do this,'" which I don't think anybody ever did. The only thing we had troubles with were legitimately unbalanced people, and they were not people from the fan community.
The fan community was respectful and enthusiastic. These were people who had actual problems, and most of them were in the conspiracy theory world.
You know, people who believed in aliens and that the government was surveilling them. Anytime there were issues, that was more the world it came from. It wasn't from the fan community.
The other thing is we weren't fully on the internet at that point, either.
So, if it was the Twitter world of today, if Chris Carter and all those guys had been online -- I mean, I don't know with the revival how much of that reopened that world or not for them. But it might've been a slightly different story if everybody had kind of been online in a more present capacity.
I remember seeing a lot of alien emojis with the revival, is what I remember.
This is a similar thing.
Is that a thing that you're comfortable talking about?
How did it get to that level? To take out an editorial in The New York Times to react to?
I mean, she really was under so much attack from people. And I don't think you can talk about what happened with Anna without talking about misogyny. I think it's a huge element of why she was attacked in the way that she was. At the same time, her character was also the -- essentially an antagonist for our hero. Whoever the center of your show is, whoever your hero is, no matter if they're an antihero or not, if there's anyone working against them you're automatically gonna dislike them. [Laughs.] It's just part of it.
But -- like, on Better Call Saul, people really dislike Chuck, who plays Jimmy's brother on the show.
He's always working against Jimmy. But I don't think that Michael McKean has experienced the same kind of gendered attacks.
Yeah. I was trying to reconstruct my memory of -- I mean, it wasn't that long ago, but it feels like a long time ago. But I don't remember Aaron Paul getting lots of shit on social media, either. Although his character was not consistently as strong an obstacle as Anna Gunn's, he did put a gun to his head, he tried to stop him many times.
The lazy question is: Do you think fandom is becoming more misogynistic? I mean, there is this stupid Ghostbusters thing that we just saw.
There was a lot of stuff in videogames. There was stuff even a year or two before Anna Gunn with this thing called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, which I don't know if you've heard of that.
[Sighs.] Just vaguely. [Laughs.]
I remember there being people hating Rita in Dexter. I remember people with Carmela in The Sopranos. But, like, I don't remember people on MySpace wanting to kill Peggy Hill, for example.
Yeah. Well, I don't know if people are necessarily becoming more misogynistic or if it's just that the internet has allowed that signal to get boosted so much.
It used to be that if you didn't like a character on a show, very few people are gonna write a threatening letter to someone and mail it.
But it's really, really easy to go on Twitter and just fire off a tweet at someone and be like, "I hate you. You should die." You know? It's just easy. And it doesn't feel like an effort. It doesn't feel like a real thing that you're doing.
So I think that's probably part of it. Also, you know, there is a bit more representation happening and characters have changed. We have a lot more of these sort of darker anti-heroes, which I think allows for these other characters -- these female characters especially -- to be in these positions of being more in conflict with them and bringing up this. I mean, if you look at shows from the '80s and '90s, there weren't really these things of "there's a bad guy and his wife doesn't want him to be bad." Those shows didn't necessarily exist in that way.
The Sopranos and shows like it, they really brought that out.
So, I think it's just because of the change in narratives, more representation, and the internet allowing us to have that kind of access where it's easy to just say something horrible to somebody and shrug it off.
I think that's where a lot of videogame companies have arrived at. They shrug it off when these things spike and happen. But what is a TV writer's responsibility when you're working on a show and it's directly or indirectly causing this kind of shit to enter this other person's life that you work with? Were there discussions happening in the writers' room or with AMC? I mean, what was the discussion beyond her wanting to speak out about it?
Yeah, I mean, obviously, there was a discussion about it. It doesn't change how we're gonna tell a story.
You're not gonna suddenly tell a story differently because one percent of the people watching are being abusive. We did talk a lot: "Is this gonna make us hate Skyler?"
And then we kinda reached a point where we were like, literally anything we do with her, people are gonna hate her. There's nothing -- there's no way to redeem this character in certain people's eyes. There just isn't. Unless she suddenly was like, "Hey, Walt! I wanna cook meth with you." You know?
Like, "Let's cook meth together! You're the best!"
Which, is totally wrong for the character and then people would be like, "Ugh. Skyler would never do that. You guys suck!" [Laughs.]
You know, Vince [Gilligan, Breaking Bad creator] was very upset. Vince spoke out about it as well and was concerned about her and was reaching out to her. There was definitely discussion about it. But you feel really powerless about the whole thing.
I do think that it is -- there is a responsibility in the powers that be to be supportive of your people who are going through that and it is not tolerated. You can't do this sort of stuff. I mean, there's just very little that they can do about it. Especially because things like cyber threats are still a thing that are really hard to prosecute.
Right. Or often times, the police don't even really understand --
Yeah. They're like, "Oh, just don't be on the internet."
It's like, that's not a good way to live your life in 2016.
No. That's, like, a 1996 solution.
Yeah, exactly. You can't unplug. I mean, some people can. But most people can't.
The other thing is even if you can, you shouldn't have to. You shouldn't be shouted out of the playground just because some people don't like your character on a TV show. Anna Gunn is a person with a life.
She's just very good at her job and she's just trying to make a living and do what she loves. It's just really horrible that she was subjected to that because somebody didn't like her character.
Like, come on. It's a TV show. It's just a TV show. It's so meaningful and important to people, but at the same time how you feel about a TV show should never overwhelm and cause abuse to an actual person. [Laughs.]
So, this is really interesting because I feel like what you said is something no one at any game company would ever say publicly: The story they want to tell will not be shaped by threats or negative reactions.
I’m not saying that all criticism is immediately dismissed. If you’re getting honest, thoughtful critique about your show, then you obviously think about it and decide if you can make adjustments. But criticism that is “I hate this person” doesn’t fall under that same category. Not everyone is going to like every character. That’s okay. And again, threatening and harassing an actor who plays a character you dislike is absolutely the worst way to get someone to take your complaints to heart.
I would agree with you, that a fan of Breaking Bad wouldn’t harass or threaten anyone with the show. It’s like we’re qualifying what a fan is or isn’t -- and obviously a fan wouldn’t try to attack people making the thing they’re a fan of. That seems obvious. But I know with Breaking Bad as well, the fan hassling also extended to the people who lived in the real White house, as it were. It sounds too judgmental to ask what is “wrong” with people, but why do you think passion for a work of fiction is able to blur those lines as well?
I’ve left shows or bitched about shows to my friends, at great length, when the powers that be take a turn I dislike. But to escalate that to personal attacks is completely out of line. I don’t really know why it reaches that point with some people. I guess that’s a conversation about empathy, really. Obviously, one would hope if you’re a fan of a thing, you’d have a level of respect for the people who make that thing -- even if you don’t agree with creative choices they make. And there are definitely people who have a hard time with boundaries for legitimate reasons, and that’s a tricky thing to navigate. But the people who were personally threatening Anna? That’s not about a misunderstanding to me. That’s about intimidation. And again, I do believe it’s deeply tied up in gender, which is something more and more people are realizing and talking about.
As for blurring lines, I think there is a totally innocent thing that happens where people get so enthusiastic, they just don’t see those boundaries. They love a show, so they feel ownership over the aspects of that show. I think people forget the larger context of fandom. They’re not the only fans who thought “let’s visit the White house and toss a pizza on the roof.” But a lot of times, people don’t consider that, I guess. The people who owned the White house contended with a lot of very enthusiastic people who I really think just didn’t understand the consequences of their actions for the people who lived there. And I’m sure some people just didn’t care, but again, my hope is that as a fan, you would understand that the people involved in making what you love are people with lives and boundaries. Anyway, those fans just wanted to be a part of that Breaking Bad world. But you know, cleaning a pizza off a roof is hard work.
[Laughs.] Right. I just find it interesting because game companies were dealing with similar things, but they silently acquiesced. It wasn’t about conviction in their storytelling. It was about profit. They didn’t want to jeopardize that.
I have a friend who used to work at Konami. He told me he wishes he could go back to work there -- I mean, I know you said you follow videogame stuff a little bit but do you know about why that's not really a possibility right now?
No? I mean, I know there's some trouble but --
Well, the nuances of it doesn't really matter, but he was telling me he wishes the company was more stable because he wants to go back and "flip those misogynistic bastards the bird from inside the game."
That course of action in videogames for developers, would that just legitimize -- it's not even a sophisticated position to take, that you don't want to have women in videogames. It's not even a legitimate argument.
It almost sounds like I'm asking you for advice, but do you have any thoughts for people who want to tell different types of stories in games but maybe the culture isn't there yet at their company?
That's really hard because I feel like that's something that, again, the people in charge of the money? They really have to take a lead on those things because they're the ones who ultimately make decisions. The people in charge of money and then the high-level creative people. Those are the people who ultimately get to decide these things, and I think it's especially challenging in something like network television or AAA games because there is so much money involved and there's definitely a feeling of, "We have to do the safe thing. We have to do this thing that we know works because we cannot afford to lose money."
And it's hard to be like, "Well, I'm gonna take a stand."
Even though we're proving that having female protagonists in movies and TV shows is actually a good business model. [Laughs.] You know? These films are making money. These TV shows are successful. I mean, Shonda [Rhimes'] shows are all very successful and they all have female leads. You know? [Laughs.] It's not a bad business model but it's hard to make a change.
So, yeah, I think it really does have to come from the top.
But there's also a thing where the people who are in the lower levels creatively, their voice is important. When you're in a writers' room and something comes up that you feel there is room for more representation or something is going in a direction that doesn't feel quite right, you can always speak up to the extent that you feel you can. And sometimes it's little nudges and little negotiations and sometimes you're gonna have to give up and file it away for when you do move up and you're able to have more power and make a bigger difference.
And I do think a lot of it is in hiring as well. [Laughs.] If you hire more diverse people, you're by extension going to have more diverse voices, which means you're just gonna have people suggesting things that you might not have thought of. If everybody in a room looks the same and has kind of the same background, it's not like they're necessarily trying to not be representative. It might just not occur to them because of inherent bias. So, if you have a more diverse creative staff, then those people? It will occur to them and so they'll be able to promote those ideas. And the people at the top will be like, "Hey, that's a great idea! Let's do that."
It's not even like they would be against it. It just would maybe not have necessarily come up. I don't know. It's a really complex problem and it's something that I think about a lot, but it's also something that's scary because the culture can be kind of toxic about it.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your interest in fanfic.
This is pretty broad, but with the internet taking off in the way it has with so much passion around and pushing of fandom, can you touch on how you've seen that change fanfic?
Oh, gosh. Why did I get interested in fanfiction? I got really interested in fan culture in college. I had a class where we talked about fan culture and I had always been a sci-fi fan. I am a sci-fi fan. So, it's something that I was really interested in and it was like, "Oh my God. People studied fan culture? That's crazy! I understand these people!"
So, I was learning about fanfiction and then I started searching for it online and I just started reading a bunch of it. Because I was a writer, I think that's part of what appealed to me about it. It was people writing. A lot of times when you're starting off as a writer and you're trying to learn how to write, the idea of creating a whole story and new people is really intimidating. So, I think one of the appeals of fanfiction is you know the world, you know the characters, and it allows you to tell a story and kind of exercise those writing muscles.
I know a lot of writers who are writing now -- and I'm sure there are a lot of writers writing now who started in fanfiction. I know there are definitely people in the YA world who used to write fanfiction when they were young and now they're published novelists. [Laughs.] It's a good way to practice. So I think that was part of it. I never really got into writing fanfiction, but I appreciated that world.
As for how the internet has changed it? I think there's just so much more of it and people are able to connect. The thing that I've noticed -- I don't keep up with fanfiction as much but from what I was researching it, my thesis, way back in the day, there were really specific genres. It was like, you had your Mulder and Scully getting together. You had all the sexy stories. [Laughs.] You had the angst stories. You had the slash.
But now you have a lot of really specific things. Like, a lot of very specific stories. There's a whole genre of the characters get together and have a baby and it's just about them having a baby. That's a really specific thing. So now it seems like people are able to find the really specific thing that they like to read or that turns them on or that they're interested in and they can just find tons of stories about that.
And if there isn't a story, they can find a fanfic writer they like and be like, "Hey, would you ever think about writing a story like this?" And people will do it. People will fulfill fanfiction requests. It's not just people screaming into a void. [Laughs.] Now, there's an interactive element of: "I really like this idea of this male character being pregnant." "I like it too! Let's write more stories like that."
Like, that's what's interesting to me, is it's such a rich tapestry at this point. [Laughs.]
So, you had mentioned that you don't really play games online?
Okay, that was a strong no.
I mean, I don't really either. For me, in the early '90s I was playing Doom and I was playing Quake. I feel like I guess I got my fill of that sort of interaction with other people and it seems like that's a much more dominant part of videogame culture now. It zigged and I zagged. So, there's no real specific reason for me. Is there a specific reason that you avoid playing online?
Yeah, it started -- my first reason for not wanting to play online is because again I had this internal narrative that I was really bad at games.
I didn't want to play with other people and have them being like, "You suck!” But as I got better at games I still stayed away from it and honestly it's because I'm a woman and I just don't want to put up with bullshit. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I don't blame you.
I don't want to put up with people being shitty to me because I'm a girl. And again, that might not be every experience but you just read about it so much online. Like, women gamers write so often about the experience of having to be incognito because as soon as they find out you're a woman it's abuse or trying to gain favor or questioning your skills. You know, there's such a barrier to entry for women in the culture that even if it's not necessarily 100 percent true all the time, it's become such a part of the narrative. I have played online, but I do it where I don't go on the headset or anything.
Like, I played a little bit of Destiny and I did a raid with some people and I was like, "Okay, I'm not talking to anybody. I'm just hanging out and doing my thing.”
And I played Journey, which, Journey is my ideal online playing scenario because you --
-- it's so beautiful and it's just you and one other person and you kind of forge a connection and you're intentionally showing each other things. Like, that's great. Like, if it was all like that I would be so down to do that.
In Breaking Bad, there was that debate about Call of Duty. Was that all coming from you or where was that in-depth research coming from?
A debate about Call of Duty? Oh. I had nothing to do with that. [Laughs.]
I did not have anything to do with that. Yeah. No. That was not me at all. I give credit to -- whose episode was that? I can't even remember? I think I was out at that point. Is it the whole zombie thing?
Yeah. It was probably more about the zombies, honestly, than the videogame thing.
I was just like, "Wow. Even I don't know this." Somebody did their homework. But the only other thing I was able to find about videogames and Breaking Bad was Vince and Tom Schnauz playing Bosconian.
Yeah, no. I would say that it was probably just a ton of research that went into that. I was gaming less then than I am now. But yeah, no, that wasn't me. I was responsible partly for the big Star Trek conversation. That was sort of a group effort but, yeah, nothing about videogames.
What have videogames accomplished?
Obviously, I think videogames have pushed technology forward in so many areas -- graphics, digital effects, mocap, programming, hardware, down to the way you interface with your smartphone.
From a storytelling perspective, they’ve found new ways to tell stories over the last several years and make connections with people -- especially in the world of indie games. Interactivity just automatically pulls the audience in. There’s an emotional element unique to gaming that’s really interesting when done right. One of the interesting things videogames have accomplished is in PTSD treatment for combat veterans. That’s super-cool. And something I think we’ll see more of.
It’s funny, because I think videogames are still seen as being very niche, and they aren’t. The money put into advertising for smartphone games is astounding, so that alone tells you how much big they are as a cultural force. Nearly everyone plays games. Even if you’re just playing solitaire on your desktop, you’re playing a videogame. Most people don’t acknowledge that as being part of “gaming culture”. They just load up emoji blitz or whatever while they’re waiting for an appointment, and don’t think about the implications. It’s easy to dismiss videogames, but that kind of ubiquity is hugely significant.