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Interview with Danny Strong, writer,
Executive Producer, and Co-creator of "Empire" on
I was supposed to be on this call, but they sent me the
wrong dial-in number, and by the time I got the correct one,
it was too late. I was very disappointed because I really
love Danny Strong from when he was an actor on "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer" and "Mad Men", as well as his writing wrong.
He's amazing! I hope someday I get another chance to speak
with him. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did!
FBC PUBLICITY: The Empire Conference Call
March 12, 2015/10:00 a.m. PDT
Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by,
and welcome to the Empire Conference Call. At this time, all
participants are in a listen-only mode. Later, we will
conduct a question and answer session; instructions will be
given at that time. (Operator instructions). And, as a
reminder, your conference is being recorded.
I would now like to turn the conference over to your host,
Ms. Alex Gillespie, please go ahead.
Alex: Good morning, everyone, and thank you so much for
joining us, and welcome to the Empire conference call with
Co-Creator and Executive Producer, Danny Strong. Just a
reminder, that Empire season finale is Wednesday night from
8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Fox. Without further ado, Iíd like to
turn it over to Danny.
Danny: Hey, everybody, thank you so much for wanting to do
these interviews and for your interest in the show. Letís do
Alex: Great, Louis, can we open the line for questions,
Moderator: (Operator instructions). And please limit yourself
to one question and one follow-up question. Weíll go to
Karen Moul from Scifivision.com. Please go ahead.
Karen: Hi. Thanks so much, Danny, for doing this call with us
today, weíre all really excited.
Danny: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Karen: Your body of work as a writer is pretty impressive.
Youíve done some pretty serious, you did Recount, Game
Change, The Butler, they are kind of more heavy and serious
things, what inspired you to write, what is, basically a
1980s soap-opera; which I love, by the way?
Danny: It was really just driven by the idea. When I came up
with the idea, it was as a movie, and I thought it could be
this really cool hip-hop movie musical that I pitched to Lee
Daniels. Then he called me the next day and said, ďI canít
stop thinking about it, but I think itís a TV show.Ē And, I
instantly knew he was right, because it was about a family,
and great TV shows are about families.
And then we instantly started talking about Dallas and
Dynasty. So it was this, it just kind of, organically come
from the concept; as opposed to me setting out wanting to do
ďsomething different,Ē I, kind of really donít work that
way. I donít thing aboutóIím just idea driven. So, whatever
the idea is, so whatís the best genre for that idea, whatís
the best place to do it, etc., kind of how I work.
Moderator: Thank you, and we have a question from Dominic
Patten from Deadline Hollywood. Please go ahead.
Dominic: Hi, Danny.
Dominic: Danny, today we yet again, saw record viewership for
Empire. You guys had a slight dip in the 18-49, but again,
very strong and weíll probably see some adjustment. Danny,
you guys have broken all the rules in terms of ratings and
viewership with this show. Why do you think that is,
especially in todayís TV landscape?
Danny: Well, first off, let me say that if Deadline Hollywood
did not exist, I would get a lot more work done because Iím
on that thing like every 15 minutes. So, I donít know if I
should thank you or be mad at you about that?
Dominic: I take it either way, my friend.
Danny: Thank you. Secondly, I think itís hard to say. I think
people justóI think there are a few factors. I think at the
end of the day itís good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, and if
people seem to really like the show and they tell other
people, and they like the show, and it just keeps moving
And then the third element is also serving an audience that
has been grossly underrepresented in TV for several years,
which is an African-American audience. And I remember when
we premiered, and I saw our ratings, and we premiered and
the ratings were terrific, and our numbers in
African-American households were huge, and our numbers in
white households [inaudible] were good, I mean, they were
what is now considered very respectable, opening premiere
And I just remember reading those numbers thinking, ďWe
could actually grow because we could really grow in white
households,Ē and I believed that to be the case because I
believe the show could have a real crossover appeal. What I
didnít realize is not only would we grow in white
households, but we would grow more than 60% in
African-American households too. So, combining those two,
itís just, the show just kept growing and growing, and itís
still growing. Itís quite exciting.
Dominic: Thanks, Danny.
Danny: Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, and our next question is from the line
of Sarah Curtis from GiveMeMyRemote.com. Please go ahead.
Sarah: Thank you very much. Hi, Danny.
Danny: Hi, how are you doing?
Sarah: Pretty good. So, can you give us any scoop on Cookie
and Malcolm? Is that a love match or are they just kind of
fooling around? And, what will happen when other people find
out about it?
Danny: I feel bad, and you can ask me another question if you
want, because Iím a very no-spoiler kind of person.
Sarah: Oh. Okay
Danny: So I donít, I donít got anything for you on that
front. My attitude is always youíll just have to watch and
Sarah: Okay, well then, maybe this will not be a spoiler.
What was it like working with, Debbie Allen, directing part
of the finale?
Danny: Debbie was so cool. I grew up watching Fame, and I
co-wrote with Ilene Chaiken that episode that Debbie
directed, so I was on set for a bit, and sheís sort of
everything youíd imagine her to be. Sheís just super cool,
super hip, really smart, really talented, and I remember
there was this cat fight that she was directing, and at one
point she yelled out this direction, ďNow toss the b***,Ē
and I just remember thinking ďThat is, I think, the greatest
piece of direction Iíve ever heard in my career.Ē
Sarah: Well, yes, sheís great. Alright, follow-up then. Any
talk of bringing Jennifer Hudson on as more than a guest
star? She had really good chemistry with Andre, or Trai, and
there are some other family members who could also use some
therapy, I think.
Danny: They could use a lot of therapy on this show, and I
think we can use some of the therapy behind the scenes, too,
I know I could use it. I think that Jennifer, I canít say
whatís going to happen with her character because, to be
honest with you, I donít know, weíre just starting to talk
about Season 2 now. I know we loved her and think she did a
fantastic job, and she has this song in the finale that I
just love, I think itís one of the coolest of the season.
So, you know, itís certainly a possibility and she was
lovely on set, so it could definitely happen, but I have no
clue yet what weíre doing as of right now.
Sarah: Alright, great, well thanks so much and best of luck
with the finale and Season 2.
Danny: Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is from Araceli
Aviles from TVOvermind. Please go ahead.
Araceli: Hi, Danny, thanks for talking to me today. Iím a
little nervous talking to you; Iíve followed your work for a
really long time and youíre just such a great writer. Iím so
honored that youíre just talking to me right now.
Danny: Ahh, youíre so cool. Well believe me, if you knew me
you wouldnít be nervous at all, Iím very unimpressive.
Araceli: Well, just talking to you and then the people youíve
worked with, especially on this show, itís got such a
plethora of superstars Ė Terrence Howard and Taraji P.
Henson, and I canít imagine what the dynamic is like working
with them and, Lee Daniels, and then you have next week
coming up, all these amazing super musical stars. I imagine
that was like an even bigger jump, in terms of the energy on
the stage. What was that like filming that?
Danny: Yes, it was crazy cool. Because when the show first
premiered, I mean, before the first show premiered, we had
shot, I think, nine or ten episodes, and getting guest stars
was not so easy, I mean, we were getting passed on all over
the place, all of the time, and we ended up with some really
cool guest stars during that period. Courtney Love, is a
perfect example of someone who just kind of stepped up, leap
of faith for having not seen the show, who joined us, right;
but there were many people that wouldnít.
So, after the show premiered is when we started casting the
season finale, and it was a very different, very exciting
situation, where, when it was just tons of ďnoís,Ē it turned
into not only lots of yesís, but incoming calls of people
who wanted to be on the show. So, thatís when we ended up
with the season finale with all of these amazing performers,
and itís really cool. I mean itís really, really cool;
thereís just going to be a ton of great musical numbers in
Araceli: Yes, itís really a testament to what you have done
with this show, and I have one more follow-up question, if
you donít mind.
Danny: Of course.
Araceli: I know you canít give any spoilers in terms of the
season finale next week, and I wouldnít want you to because
we all want to be surprised. But in the span of a few months
it seems like everyone in this show has been burned and then
had salt poured on the wounds, and then rose up again, and
then itís a cycle. Can you say, maybe committing at the end
of the finale, but what can you say about, maybe which
character is in a position at the season finale, do you
think, people will be most surprised at in terms of where
they end up?
Danny: Do you want me to tell you who gets the empire? What
the he**, Iíll just tell you. No, Iím not going to tell you.
What should I say about it; itís a very explosive finale,
not surprising, right, given the nature of our story
telling, and many things go down, many things will be
resolved, alliances will shift, and yet, it may or may not,
be completely resolved by the time itís over.
Araceli: Well, of course, I mean I have Season 2 to look
Danny: Thatís right, thatís right, but a lot, a lot will be
resolved. So like, weíre not going to award Palmer [ph] the
Araceli: Okay, good to know. Thank you so much.
Danny: Of course.
Moderator: Thank you, our next question is from Desmond
[indiscernible] from [indiscernible]. Please go ahead.
Desmond: Hey, Danny, thanks so much for speaking with us
Danny: Thanks, thanks for being here.
Desmond: No problem. My question for you is, if any
supporting character of the show were to get a spinoff
series, which one would you pick, and why?
Danny: Wow, that is a great question. Which character, I
mean, donít you think Porsha? Maybe Porsha?
Desmond: Thatís who I would pick, definitely.
Danny: [indiscernible] spinoff, because she is a comic
genius, sheís hilarious, and I believe itís her first acting
Desmond: Thatís awesome.
Danny: So, I think that could be an absolutely hilarious,
maybe itíll be like a buddy-cop show and Iíll play her
Desmond: That would be awesome. And as kind of a quick
follow-up, I saw that you live tweeted with a lot of the
cast last night, how was that experience for you?
Danny: Oh, it was a blast. Iíve been live tweeting every
episode. You know, I didnít start Twitter until a week
before Empire premiered, and I just realized that Iím
tragically unhip and I need to catch up to world society; so
I just started doing it and now Iím completely addicted to
it. I really love it and Iíve been live tweeting every
episode, but it was really fun having everyone in the room
together like that. We had a big celebration last night and
Fox took us all out to dinner to Nobu, and it was one of
those very special nights, so to start it off with the
entire company live tweeting the show together was a blast.
And, Taraji is just hilarious and just watching the show,
with Taraji, is a priceless memory on its own.
Desmond: Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is from Rebecca
Martin from Wetpaint Entertainment. Please go ahead.
Rebecca: Hi, thank you for taking the time to talk to us, as
everyone has said.
Danny: Yes, thank you.
Rebecca: Iím a big fan, Iíve been a big fan since Buffy, so
Iím very excited to talk to you.
Danny: Going way back.
Rebecca: Yeah, all the way back. So, something Iíve been so
impressed by with this show is that, yeah, itís like soapy
and crazy and fun, but youíve also addressed a lot of very
serious issues Ė homophobia, and the mental health hotline
we had with Andre. So how as a writer and executive
producer, do you approach, kind of balancing those two
elements; the fact thatís is soapy and over the top, and
thereís cat fights, but also treating these issues
seriously, which you do?
Danny: Well, it was very much in the DNA of the show from the
very get-go that we knew we were going to be doing a
nighttime soap, that that was going to be the genre we were
going to be working in, but that we would be subverting the
genre by tackling serious social issues head-on. And, I
think it was just a key element of what we thought would
make the show interesting and dynamic, and itís also very
representation of just who, Lee Daniels and I are as writers
and directors, and storytellers in general, which is we both
always work on material that has some sort of social
justice, social commentary component to it.
I mean for me, and itís one of the reasons why we are now
doing a second project together, because we both share that
spirit. I mean, for me, I find that itís also time consuming
and so much work to do any kind of project, and so if Iím
going to invest that amount of time in something, I want to
be able to work on material that I can talk about issues
that are important to me, where for me, part of writing is
to write about things that matter, I want to talk about, and
I want to say things that I think matter and explore subject
matter that is beyond just entertainment.
But, I think simultaneously what that does is I think it
makes the entertainment even richer. I donít think itís
medicine, being like, ďokay, so weíre going to entertain
you, but then also we have to teach you a lesson, too.Ē I
think it elevates everything and I think it makes drama and
comedy more powerful, more layered, and just more
interesting overall. Itís what I value as an audience
member, and itís what I love to do as a writer.
So, even working on the Hunger Games, was, thereís
Mockingjay was all about propaganda and war and
totalitarianism, and there were all these themes that made
me want to do that project when it came up.
Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, thank you so much for doing it because
I think itís awesome. Do you have a, just a quick follow-up,
do you have, from Empire, a favorite storyline, or one that
youíre particularly proud of how itís played out this
Danny: Yeah, I mean the Jamal Lucius storyline. The
homophobic father and his gay son and that relationship, to
me, that was one, and it was in my original pitch to Lee,
when I pitched it to him as a movie. I said the heart of
this movie is going to be about this father who wonít accept
his son whoís gay. When we decided to turn it into a TV
show, I thought it was even more exciting to me, to explore
homophobia in a way that was so brutal and so non-flinching,
just right in your face, and to do that on network
television, I thought it could be incredibly cool and maybe
I never know if things are going to be impactful or not, I
just kind of go for it, and Fox has been, they just got it
right away, they never tried to pull that back from us or
hold it back. They knew it was a really important storyline,
and it was extremely important to Lee because it very much
reflects his own relationship with his father.
Rebecca: Thank you so much.
Danny: Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, and we have a question from the line of
Rodney Ho, please state your media outlet.
Rodney: Iím here with the Atlanta Journal Constitution;
Atlanta, is one of your biggest markets, they love you down
Rodney: With so much social media now, I know you were still
in production when the show began and it became a big hit,
has the audience feedback influenced the way you approach
the show or give the characters a plotline in anyway, or do
try to sort of block that out?
Danny: I, personally, try and block it out. Iím not the only
person here writing the show, I mean we have, Ilene Chaiken,
whoís our showrunner, who is just fantastic, I mean so lucky
to have her, and we have a killer writing staff. Everyone
just brings their ďAĒ game every day because they are so
passionate about the show. And so, Iím not sure if theyíre
ever influenced or not, I donít think so, but I mean, you
just never know. People are pitching ideas, and you just
never know if theyíve just seen something.
I remember with the bib exploding to the way it did in the
second episode, and everyone going nuts over the bib, there
was some talk of, ďLetís find another bib moment,Ē whatís a
bib moment? I actually cringed when that came up of, ďLetís
find a bib moment,Ē because itís just not how I work. And
then someone came up with a great bib moment, and I was
like, ďThatís brilliant, we have to do it.Ē So sometimes,
these things can be, you just never know whatís going to
inspire an idea or not.
I have to say, on the whole, itís not choose your own
adventure, the show got to this point by me and Lee and
Ilene and our writers, and our executives at Fox, and 20th,
because they have a lot of influence, too. Everyone just
kind of rolling up their sleeves and everyone just trying to
do the best job that we all can, and so thatís going to be
the mindset going into Season 2. Weíll stick to our guns of
what made these stories great, that we tried to make them
great. Iíll let other people decide if they think they were,
and weíll just keep trying to do the best we can.
Rodney: As a follow-up, how do you feel about doing 22 next
Danny: I donít think we are.
Rodney: Oh, okay, you arenít, okay.
Danny: Yes. I donít know what we are doing at this point, it
hasnít been decided, but I donít think 22 is a discussion.
Rodney: Okay, fair enough. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, and we do have time for one final
question from Craig Byrne, from KSiteTV.com. Please go
Danny: How ya doing?
Craig: Iím doing alright; of course, the episode order number
was the question I was going to ask, so Iím going to have to
ask something different.
Danny: No prob.
Craig: When you were putting together the season finale, was
there an added pressure to outdo everything you had done the
first twelve episodes, and how long did it take for it to
Danny: Yes, season finale, I mean, we kept re-breaking it. I
wouldnít say, I donít know, I bet some people felt that
pressure, I didnít because I never think that coming up with
stories to try and outdo something is a way that youíre
going to come up with a good story. That it just needs to
come from the characters and the conflict and just the
fundamentals of what makes a good story, and if youíre
trying to outdo something or be specifically explosive, just
for the sake of just outdoing it, I think thatís when things
can get hacky.
So, it was really just a matter of how can we conclude the
season that weíve set up and have been playing out in a way
that was exciting and powerful and fun, but then also kept
the door open to go into Season 2. And it was tough, I mean,
Ilene and I wrote the final episode together, and man, there
were a lot of re-writes you know, it was pretty tense, and I
think that, you know who felt the pressure was, I think the
network and the studio because the show had already hit, and
so they were pounding us with notes. But I have to say that
the notes made it better, the notes were really good.
Hereís the crazy thing about television, itís just how fast
it goes, and how it just moves so fast, and by the time we
got to the season finale, by the time we got to writing it,
we just ran out of time because of just everything else,
finishing production and writing all the previous episodes.
So, it was one of the faster written episodes of the season,
but at the end of the day, I think we really pulled it off,
I think people are going to dig it.
Craig: Thank you, Iím looking forward to seeing it.
Danny: Yeah, me too, Iím looking forward to you seeing it.
Moderator: Thank you, and that was our final question for
Danny: Thanks, everybody that was fun.
Moderator: Thank you, and ladies and gentleman, this
conference will be made available for replay after 11:30
today through March 19th.
And that does conclude our conference for today. Thank you
for your participation and for using AT&T Executive
Teleconference. You may now disconnect.
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