A strong desire to tell stories from her own experience is what led Ilene Chaiken to become a showrunner. And, as she tells Julian Newby, it happened quite by chance.
Who says awards don’t mean anything? Ilene Chaiken had just walked off stage holding the Golden Globe for her screenplay for Dirty Pictures — the Showtime movie about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — when she was offered her first TV series.
“The president of the network at that time leaned over to me and said: ‘That lesbian story that you wanted to write? Let’s try it.’ That was the genesis of The L Word.” She had wanted, for some time, to write a story about her experiences as a lesbian in Los Angeles but wasn’t sure how or where to tell it. She was encouraged by her agent to write it as a magazine article. “There was a gay and lesbian baby boom in Los Angeles at the time, and I had two small children. So Los Angeles magazine hired me to write a 5,000-word essay on the city’s gay and lesbian baby boom.” It became the cover story and the experience fueled her enthusiasm to do more.
That was almost 20 years ago. The L Word came into being some four years later, ran for six seasons and Ilene Chaiken had, almost by chance, become an A-list showrunner. Hit after hit followed including, notably, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the first four seasons of the Fox series Empire.“Running The L Word for seven years was a huge learning curve,” she said. “I had never stepped onto a TV show let alone run one. It didn’t occur to me that I was now a showrunner until I started to think about what I would do next. Then I started getting offers, not just to write and create shows, but to run shows — and I realised that I still didn’t know how to run a show, but I pretended that I did.”
A number of long-running hit TV shows have been credited with bringing important social issues to the fore and encouraging greater tolerance of previously marginalised groups. Will And Grace is one; Modern Family is another. And The L Word is one too. So was Ilene Chaiken aware that the series had influence beyond simply entertainment? “Many people told me that and it’s gratifying that it meant that to a lot of people. But I look at it and other shows that are themed around previously unrepresented groups of people and I see them as part of a cultural phenomenon,” she said. “It’s not as if a television show moves the culture. These shows happen in the midst of cultural change sometimes, and they are all a part of a greater movement towards representation and diversity and inclusivity that I think is inherent in culture.”
So is she known as an issues person? Someone whose hopes and beliefs are manifest in her work? “I hope so. It used to be something that one ran from or hid from in the film and television business but I think that it’s now acceptable to say that you want to tell stories that are about something. And I like to tell stories that are about something. So I don’t mind being known as an issues person, if that’s how people like to characterise it.”
As someone who is very much enjoying the fruits of TV drama’s so-called golden age, Chaiken believes that it’s not coming to an end any time soon. “I don’t know why it ever would. I think that now we know it’s possible, we are going to keep on doing it and pushing the boundaries and telling new and untold stories,” she said. “I don’t know why it happened but there came a point when we all discovered the potential of this great medium which for writers and storytellers has this great literary quality in which you can develop characters and go on telling their stories and see their lives change and evolve. And follow ideas and mutate ideas. It’s a really exciting proposition for storytelling and once it became understood, the storytellers gravitated to the medium. The stories that were being told in cinemas are now being told on television and everyone wants to be there.”
Ilene Chaiken’s Game Changers Keynote is on Tuesday, April 9 at 17.00 in the Debussy Theatre
This article originally appeared in the MIPTV 2019 Preview magazine, which you can read in full online, here!