By CLAYTON GUTZMORE
Sure, you watch “Empire.” If ratings for the hit Fox Network show about a record company and the dysfunctional family that runs it are any indication, everyone does.
And if the antics of the Lyon family kept you on the edge of your seat this season, chances are you that you’ve gotten on Twitter and asked a group of your “closest” friends “Where did they come up with that?” more than once.
At a Talk Back with the writers of “Empire” at the American Black Film Festival, a room filled with aspiring television writers got a chance to learn what goes on in the writers room of the popular show.
Writers Janeika James, JaSheika James, Joshua Allen and Eric Haywood shared the group’s process, how social media has helped the show’s success and how the group settles creative disputes.
The writers credited social media as a big part of the show’s success. They try to remain as engaged with the show’s audience as possible, so while they may work on the West coast, they live Tweet with the show’s East coast audience.
The tweets that the writers get demonstrate that connection.
“I got a tweet that said I’m gay and that “Empire” mirrored the relationship I have with my father” Allen said.
The downside for the team being so active on social media is that they are also bombarded with story suggestions. Haywood’s Twitter handle, @Empirewriters, is filled with fans’ suggestions for Cookie and Lucious, the show’s two main characters.
“It’s a tightrope,” Haywood said. “We want to respect the audience’s opinion, but not be led by it.”
Being able to negotiate that tightrope is important because the writing process for “Empire” is fairly intensive, the writers say.
“It takes a lot to make an episode,” Haywood said. “People want us to have 22 to 24 episodes.”
“Lee Daniels looks for the audacity of the moment when we are writing scenes,” said Janeika James.
Because a record company is at the center of the story of “Empire,” music plays as big a part in the show’s scripts, Haywood said. When the scenes are written, they’re then sent to director/showrunner Lee Daniels, who then edits, makes suggestions, and sends the script back to the writers.
Once the updated scenes are ready, they contact the show’s musical director Timbaland, and he gives the writers a choice of three to four songs that the writers then listen to in order to determine which one fits, Haywood said.
Because there is a group of diverse voices in the writer’s room at “Empire,” conflicts sometimes arise between the writers over scenes, Allen said. But just like in other aspects of life, you have to pick your battles when you’re a writer on a successful series.
“You’re invested in a scene emotionally if you’re ready to die for it,” Allen said. But, adds Hayman, “We don’t want our writers to get to a point to not care about the show when they fight for scenes they wrote.”
The talk back ended with a small preview of what viewers can expect to see next season, aptly themed as “warring kingdoms.” While season one was about who inherited Empire Records, season two will focus on taking sides.
Season two of “Empire” premieres September 23rd.