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Shonda Rhimes Shares Her Showrunner Knowledge With Online Master Class

Variety logo Variety 4/19/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

Shonda Rhimes is looking forward to having some competition.

The showrunner and executive producer who heads the impressive array of Shondaland shows on ABC debuted an online class for television writing April 4. For $90, the Masterclass tutorial features 30 lessons, including scripts and show bibles from her two most successful series,  “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” In the tutorials, which are usually about 10-15 minutes long, Rhimes talks to the camera about her experiences writing shows that center on women and people of color. It’s not just her writing that emphasizes inclusion and diversity; it’s her management style.

In addition to breaking down the fundamentals of scriptwriting, Rhimes’ master class covers the nuts and bolts of the TV business, such as how to pitch a show, how to navigate a writers’ room, and the finer points of maintaining creative vision while dealing with network notes. The class is notable for being immensely practical, but, of course, so is Rhimes herself, who covers everything, from work-life balance to writing sex scenes, with the same matter-of-fact, no-nonsense attitude.

Rhimes tells Variety that because she had to learn all of this information the hard way — on the job — she wanted to offer it to aspiring writers in an accessible format.

“A lot of people don’t have the money to go to a great film school or a great college,” she says. “And a lot of people don’t have the money to take very, very expensive courses. But they have $90, and they can get a bunch of information, and hear everything that I know. I wanted to share that.” She adds, “It felt valuable to be able to give that information to a lot of people who don’t necessarily have that kind of access. There’s something very equalizing about that.”

Because Rhimes is so clear about her methods, she imparts concrete techniques for empowerment to the viewer. This is especially apparent in the back half of her video lessons, where she begins to discuss her management style. Rhimes outlines methods she uses with her writer’s rooms and on set to ensure that women, in particular, get the care and representation that the industry can otherwise deny them.

Consider, for example, her approach to sex scenes. Rhimes typically writes lovemaking with a note that the level of nudity or eroticism will be left up to the female performers. “In a lot of shows, it’s really about displaying pieces of the woman’s body,” she points out in one of her lesson videos. “In Shondaland, I say to every single woman, ‘You can do a sex scene in a snowsuit if you tell me that’s what you want to do. I really don’t care. Your body needs to be covered from neck to ankles? Fine. We’ll figure out a way to make it work.’ I want everybody to feel comfortable.”

Another example is swapping characters. Rhimes shares the advice she got from Geena Davis: Take half of a script’s characters and switch out their gender or race, if only to get a sense of how that changes the story. “It helps me all the time,” she says. She’ll sometimes do that exercise in her writer’s rooms.

When she talks about becoming a leader in the industry, she speaks about empowering people around her and underneath her — good advice, she says, if only because it has served her well in the long term.

“Leadership is really about making sure people who work with you and for you feel valued, and feel like they’re also getting opportunities,” she says. “Everybody is valuable and everybody is necessary for Shondaland to succeed. If they’re not feeling that, there’s something wrong with the way I’m doing things.”

Her worldview comes out in surprising details, too. In one segment, Rhimes discusses why she uses alcohol, an easy on-screen prop, in scenes with Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Cristina (Sandra Oh), who toss back tequila shots with such abandon on “Grey’s Anatomy”: Rhimes says she never saw women drinking hard on television — though she’d seen plenty of men do it —and the inequality inspired her.

Her goal is to demystify the ins and outs of the industry for aspiring TV writers — especially those who might struggle to see themselves reflected in Hollywood. As Rhimes puts it, “I don’t think it’s a cause to be a women of color who wants women and people of color to be portrayed correctly. That’s just normal.”

“I would love to see more television out there that was representative of the way I like to see television, so I think it’s fantastic,” she continues. “I’m a very more is more person. Yeah, I’m a perfectionist, and, yeah, I’m competitive. But I always think that there’s more than enough room on this playing field [for everyone].”

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