As with REVOLUTION, this was one pilot script I hadn’t included in my must-reads. I figured, hip hop? Lee Daniels? I’m never getting this call.
I got the call.
Ilene Chaiken, the showrunner, and I had met several times in past staffing seasons and had long wanted to work together. She is brilliant, exacting, respectful and fearless. At our meeting she explained that it wasn’t hip hop culture I was being asked to create; this would be serialized family drama, which Ilene knew I was eager and well suited to write.
Before we had a writers room assembled, I was able to meet with co-creator Danny Strong in New York. His vision for the series made me even more anxious to dig in. When we started our room in Beverly Hills a few weeks later, Danny was with us much of those first couple of weeks to set the template. Lee Daniels was also with us much of that time, which was always, shall we say, a vibrant experience as he broke story with us between calls from Oprah, Denzel, De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Terrence Howard, and more. The man has a fabulous life.
Our EMPIRE room was hands-down the best ever. The writers had varied but critically relevant backgrounds, all with blazing talent and generous hearts. Building from the ground up is a bonding experience. We became a family very quickly.
Danny had drawn from KING LEAR and THE LION IN WINTER when creating the show with Lee. I was in Heaven being in a room with those templates as points of discussion. Ilene and Danny led us in creating tent-pole events, going character by character, that by the end of the first week formed a rough outline of the first season. We also had visits from our actors and celebrated figures from the music business such as Gladys Knight (we share a birthday!), Rick Rubin, Larry Jackson (who had worked closely with Whitney Houston), and our executive producer Brian Grazer who knows everybody — including President Obama, who was rather dramatically dissed in the second episode (Lee worried that the Obamas would drop him from their Christmas card list; they didn’t).
The music! Timbaland, people! It was exhilarating to be the first listeners of some of the tracks he and Jim Beanz created for the show. We got goosebumps hearing Jussie Smollett and Yaz the Greatest perform (by the way, two of the most genuine, really lovely, phenomenally talented people in the world). We could feel that this was lightning in a bottle. I never doubted the show would be a monster hit. With this writing talent, the cast, the music, and all the talent involved, EMPIRE was bound to take off. And it did, gaining in viewers every week throughout the season, making TV history. The rollout that FOX gave the show was unprecedented, with screenings and events in key markets for a month before the broadcast premiere, culminating in a star-studded screening at the Arclight Cinerama Dome and rooftop gala at W Hollywood. I’d been part of a successful series before, but this was like nothing else. Nothing.
As is often the case after a successful first season, there was a shakeup in the writing staff, ostensibly to bring new voices in to bring authenticity to new storylines. I was one of the writers who was thanked profusely, but would not be coming back. Of course, the news hit hard. But change is inevitable, and I moved on, proud of what I brought to the table, the set and the cutting room to help make the show a hit.