If you're a small business owner you may think you have nothing in common with the people who create and produce TV shows.
In either case everything starts with an idea, but that's just the beginning. Entrepreneurs use their ideas to create a new reality -- just like the people who create hit TV shows.
Here's another in my series of interviews where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to Michael Hirst, the creator, writer, and executive producer of Vikings, the History Channel ratings juggernaut that starts its fourth season on February 18th. (If you missed it you can check out Season 3 here.) He also created and wrote every episode of Showtime's The Tudors and wrote the screenplays for the Cate Blanchett Elizabeth movies.
So clearly he knows something about bringing ideas to life.
Give me a quick "origin story" for Vikings: did you pitch the idea, was it offered to you, and how did you go about creating this world?
I've learned from experience never to pitch my own ideas. I wait for ideas to come around, which they always eventually do. I already loved the Viking Age and Viking society (having done some research about them for a previous project) when MGM approached me to ask if I was interested in writing a television drama about them.
I began to create the world by diving into a lot of historical books, talking to my historical advisor, finding a lead character, and finding his nemesis and place in history.
Clearly a set-piece battle between hordes of Vikings and Wessex soldiers is expensive to stage. Do you write scenes with budgets in mind, thinking, "I'll need to write xx number of scenes in Kattegat since that set is already built..."?
I do write scenes with budgets in mind. I'm what's called "producer friendly" -- and I'll cut scenes if we simply can't afford them.
However, I always insist that the show must have a sense of scale. It must deliver at the visceral level; it must deliver at least what the audience expects. But our show is different from other shows. It's based on the real: real events, real people. And our actors do real fighting and rowing and riding. We use visual effects but only to enhance what's really there.
Unlike Game of Thrones, for example, we don't spend millions of dollars on CGI generated images of thousands of look-alike warriors and some dragons.
Do you trust the casting directors to find actors to play the characters you envisioned, or possibly take you in a different or better direction?
As the show runner I'm supposed to be across every department, but I like delegating. It's amazing what results you can get if you trust people-and liberate them to do the best they can.
Our casting directors are knowledgeable and intuitive. They will usually give me alternatives for each role. Sometimes -- like our leads -- I had specific ideas and I did pull rank. I had such deep convictions, not about the actors but about the characters.
Travis Fimmel (Ragnar) turned up at the last moment, unexpectedly, and from Australia. But I knew at once he was my idea of a lead. I didn't know that the audience would agree. But thankfully they have.
Travis is a big star now -- and deserves to be.
Say I create the show "Middle-Aged Men with Bad Haircuts" (a subject I know a lot about.) In general terms how does the financial side work?
Um -- financial affairs! Like most things in life, what you can expect in terms of rewards depends very much on market forces. What is your past history? Have you delivered success/audiences? Do we need you to write and sell this project? Will you just be one among many writers/executive producers -- or do you have a specific role that no one else can do?
This last part is obviously the important part. You can't go into this world expecting a big payday. It just doesn't work like that. In any case, what should drive you is the simple ambition to create a great show. Create something that people connect with and want to watch and then maybe you will get other rewards. But the first reward is that the network commissions a second season... and the second reward is that they commission a third season.
Because, you can never, ever take anything in this world for granted.
Once you've written the scripts, what are your responsibilities during filming?
As the show runner I have continuous responsibilities. I re-write scenes continuously, have endless meetings with production, actors, directors... all in all it's a sixteen-hour, seven days a week job when we're in production -- which is most of the year. I have to give up my private life.
Then what percentage of what your original script winds up on the screen?
Lines and dialogue change all the time: day-to-day and hour-to-hour as a result of conversations with production, directors, and actors. The scripts are put under constant pressure... but they almost always improve as a result.
Frankly, as a screenwriter you shouldn't have too much vanity. Everything you write will probably change.
I read that Larry David (Seinfeld) said he would get excited when the show got renewed for a new season... and then get depressed because that meant he had to come up with ideas for all those episodes. How did you feel both times Vikings got renewed?
I'm always excited by the thought of going back into the world and continuing my story. With Vikings I regard it as telling my "saga." Writing is what I was born to do.
Larry David is a spoiled brat.
Do you pay attention to fan feedback? Say Rollo became a runaway fan favorite, like Darryl on Walking Dead. Has the reception of a character or storyline ever caused you to change direction?
I'm not on social media so I don't really know what people say about the show. Although I do know that Lagertha is a feminist icon around the world, and I'm very proud of that.
So, no, feedback would never change anything I wrote. You believe in a vision or you don't. End of story.