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By Suzanne

Danny Strong

Interview with Danny Strong, writer, Executive Producer, and Co-creator of "Empire" on FOX 3/12/15

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!

Final Transcript

FBC PUBLICITY: The Empire Conference Call
March 12, 2015/10:00 a.m. PDT

SPEAKERS

Alex Gillespie
Danny Strong

PRESENTATION

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 it.

Alex: Great, Louis, can we open the line for questions, please?

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.

Danny: Hello.

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 forward.
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 ratings.

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 find out.

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 the finale.

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 forward to.

Danny: Thatís right, thatís right, but a lot, a lot will be resolved. So like, weíre not going to award Palmer [ph] the finale.

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 today.

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 job.

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 sidekick.

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 season?

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 impactful.

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 here.

Danny: Absolutely.

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 year?

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.

Danny: Sure.

Moderator: Thank you, and we do have time for one final question from Craig Byrne, from KSiteTV.com. Please go ahead.

Craig: Hello.

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 come together?

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.

Craig: Thanks.

Moderator: Thank you, and that was our final question for today.

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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