Exclusive:Maureen Ryan on Burn It Down, the hero worship of TV showrunners, the problem with reboot culture, and more
Maureen Ryan discusses her new book Burn It Down, the hero worship myths surrounding television showrunners, and the problem with reboot culture
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“I'm going to stand in the middle of the road waving a sign saying, ‘We didn't fix it. Please let's not all pat ourselves on the back’,” says critic and journalist Maureen Ryan, explaining her hopes behind her new book Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood.
Ryan, currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has covered the film and television industry as both a critic and a reporter for three decades. In Burn It Down, Ryan draws on extensive research and interviews with individuals at every level of the industry to paint a picture of Hollywood’s toxic culture, demonstrating the depth and scale of harassment, abuse, and exploitation that pervades behind the scenes – and, hopefully, point to a way to start to fix it.
To coincide with the UK publication of Burn It Down, Ryan joined NationalWorld’s Alex Moreland to discuss the book and some of the ideas it raises. Ryan explains how her own experiences developing a television series shaped her outlook on the industry, details how she balances the demands and responsibilities of both television criticism and investigative reporting, and considers how reboot culture can entrench some of the myths tackled in the Burn It Down.
So, just to begin and set the scene a little bit: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your starting point for the book? Where did work begin on this?
There's a really specific starting point that I can remember distinctly. It was in March of 2021. I was texting with someone in the industry I've known for a long time – it was the usual “burn it down” talk, because I was working on some difficult stories at the time. A tough thing for me in that moment was hearing, almost word for word, things that people had told me right at the start of #MeToo, and this was happening again. It was like people were repeating – about a different work situation, two people who did not know each other at all – were repeating the same incidents and the same dynamics.
The sense that I had in 2020, and going into 2021, was two things: people were tired of the topic of Hollywood abuse and misconduct, which I can understand to some extent, because it can be a lot to process all of these stories, and then also, a sense that, “well, we've kind of tackled this and it's handled and it's better now”. To me, the comparison would be if you go in to see a doctor and he says, "I'm very sorry, but you have cancer. Here's a couple of breath mints and I guess I'll see you sometime." We identified the problem, but it's a very serious, deep-seated problem – we need to have a plan of attack and actually carry out that plan. I was very frustrated, and I looked at those texts, they were long ones and I actually took screenshots of them, because I thought, "I think this is a book proposal. What I'm saying is a book."
That also grew from the sense that – as a journalist, you know this – that you put things out in the world, even something we've worked on for a long time, and it just becomes part of the churn. A story can have long-lasting effects, but essentially, it just exists in the magazine – maybe in print, but probably just online – and then 48 hours later we're all talking about something else. I wanted something that would be more lasting, and I wanted something that would be more illuminating about the fact that these are ongoing, long-standing traditions. If we're saying, "Well, I think we nailed it within the four years since #MeToo, we figured it out and we fixed it," I'm like, "Well, I don't think you've fixed something that's been going on for a hundred years with a couple of band aid solutions."
A system becomes toxic very quickly when people feel they can't speak out. If you're an A-list star and you feel like you can't speak out because the consequences would be so severe – and this is years after these abuses are being explored – then I felt like, I don't know if it will do any good, but I'm going to stand in the middle of the road waving a sign saying, "We didn't fix it. Please let's not all pat ourselves on the back." I'm still undoing ways of thinking that I think the industry put into my brain. I think we all are. Let's acknowledge that we're still barely at the early stages of rooting out the systems that have not just allowed mistreatment, but encouraged it.
You touch on it a little in the opening chapters, but I was curious about your experience selling a television show to FX in 2018, and how much that shaped your perspective on Hollywood as an industry and its work practices?
I realised that if you want to tell a good story, you have to put something of yourself in it. I was used to that: being a critic, you're often drawing upon your own experiences. I realised even more deeply, though, if you are going to write a good script, or direct something that is worth watching, or act in something that's worth watching, or do all these artisan roles, there's some part of your humanity that is in that. You care about it. If you want to do a good job, you care about it, and if you care about it, then you care about how it is received.
What that taught me was, it's terrifying to be a creative person. It's terrifying on a soul level, because you're trying your very best and the people who are going to read your stuff are going to pass judgement on it. If they're going to pass judgement on it, it should be about the work and that judgement should be transmitted in a way that is not incredibly harmful to you as a human being. It really gave me an insight into... I mean, there were many times halfway through that process of writing a script where I was doing revisions and taking on board their notes, there were so many times where I thought, "I can't do this. I can't do it." It's very hard.
That was partly me being new to that style of writing, but it was such an insight [into the process]. Honestly, they had an enormous potential to humiliate me and denigrate me, or make me feel worthless, or make me question my worth as a human being. They didn't take them – I should be very clear, no one did that – but I could see all the opportunities where people could get ground down. I mean, it's really hard to write something that's good enough to where someone will want to write a check for millions of dollars to see it on a screen. It's really hard, so they're going to put you through your paces. That's as it should be. Every writer I know, or every creative person I know, wants to get better, but I had this enormous insight into the fact that the potential for ruinous interactions was just kind of endless.
I was lucky that I didn't have that experience, but I was like, "Wow." If I was trying to craft – because it is like a craft, as well, it's not just that this sprang from my soul and is my unfiltered ID or whatever, this is a craft. As you're learning a craft, you want to feel encouraged to do better, but not crushed by the feedback that you get. I can see now why people get driven out of the industry. Again, if having power in Hollywood means you get to use and abuse that power, however you'd like in many cases, then I can see how some people make the very rational decision, "I'm not going to do this. It's too much. It's not okay for me to put this much of myself into it and then face this kind of unprofessional, demeaning behaviour."
I’d say I know you and your work primarily in terms of your television criticism, though I was trying to work out what the first piece of yours I would’ve read was and I think it was your coverage of Andrew Kreisberg [a writer/producer on The Flash and Supergirl, suspended after a series of allegations of sexual harassment] in 2017. How do the two disciplines, the critic hat and the journalist hat, shape one another? How do you balance those?
Around the time #MeToo broke, again, I really was happy and lucky to have the job that I had. But once #MeToo broke open, I knew a lot of people in the industry. Those people seemed to trust me as a reporter, or trust me as someone to be a sounding board in case they wanted to go to the press. They could talk to me off the record about what that would look like and how it would work. Once #MeToo came along – I still occasionally do criticism – but I think I pivoted more into reporting and opinion pieces. I think they were more urgent to me at that time. I actually ended up leaving my last full-time staff job as a critic in 2018. It was partly because I continued to do longer, bigger reporting, partly because I really wanted to take the time to do it right.
I think that was actually a hard thing about the critic role, as well. During my time as a TV critic in America, the amount of TV being made tripled. English-language, scripted television, aimed at adults, it tripled. It was very hard to keep up with it all, to have something intelligent or interesting to say about a lot of it. Well, I personally, I don't know if you agree, I don't know that there are ever enough reporters doing the kind of rigorous reporting that needs to be done. Our industry is in a bit of a perilous state these days.
Layoffs, cutbacks and companies going under, this is the constant refrain that we hear. I thought, "Well, it's not like too many reporters are doing rigorous reporting on the industry." It's not as though there's too many of them, that I would be joining a group that was just overloaded, there's too many people doing this.
You quote some of your contemporary reviews through the book, particularly so in the chapter on Lost. Did you revisit much of your writing from the time through your writing of the book? You’ve spoken a lot about how television criticism buys into a lot of the myths that allow this Hollywood culture to take root, so I was curious how you looked back on those reviews of your own.
I think, quite rightly, many of us [TV critics] are grappling with how we approached our work fifteen years ago as opposed to now. It's interesting. Just yesterday, speaking to someone from the industry, I said something about “my own complicity”. This person stopped me and said, "I wouldn't use that word about how you covered the industry for a long time," because to this person, the word complicity brings along the meaning that someone knew about something and didn't do anything to change it. I took that onboard. It was a nice thing to say, but I do think whatever word you want to use, I could have been more curious and searching and maybe a little bit more wary of certain dynamics.
I don't necessarily know that I have the answer to, well, what would I have done differently, because I didn't know what I didn't know. But I do think what happened among my generation of American TV critics – and I'm not saying this came from anything negative, I think this actually came from a very heartening, enthusiastic place – but when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, the people on the cover of a magazine was the actor. Actors were it – and they still are, obviously, actors are still famous – but my generation of critics, while we still talk to actors and composers and directors of photography and all these different people that do these incredible roles, we transferred our attention to the people who knew the architecture of the story.
I was around when “showrunner” wasn't even a term that was commonly used. That's how old I am. For good intentions, for understandable reasons, we migrated to that tier and we gave people the benefit of the doubt, that as they tried to construct an interesting and good story, they were running a good workplace. This is something I struggle with still. You can't live life without giving anyone the benefit of the doubt ever. That's a dark head space to live in. I have lived there for a few moments sometimes. It's just that kind of completely negative cynicism, it's not fun, so you have to give people to some extent the benefit of the doubt.
But I think a lot of hero worship went into the building up of showrunners, and that benefit of the doubt morphed into a solid assumption that the workplaces probably were fine. I don't know why I assumed that, but I did. If I could boil it down – my wish for how I covered the industry ten, fifteen years ago – my wish would be that I had talked to a wider range of people at a larger array of power levels. But even so, honestly, don't you think it wouldn't have been in their interest to tell me the bad stuff that was going on? I don't know.
All I can do now is go forward being quite wary of our systems. Because now, having covered the industry... I did a lot of very rigorous reporting, particularly around inclusion and the lack of people of colour, the lack of women, the lack of representation on a number of levels, and that's still a problem in Hollywood, for sure, so it's not as if I wasn't questioning these things. I did a tonne of pieces about how sexual violence is used on television in cliched, in very harmful ways often. It's not as if I sat there and said, "well, they're all telling good stories." I did try to, as a critic and as a reporter, call out and draw attention to systemic problems that I could see.
I know I’ve certainly been very conscious, just generally previously and again reading the book, that there’s a UK showrunner I’ve written about very positively before, but over the past few years have started to hear things about the working conditions on their shows at one point…
Yeah, it's hard to know things. I'll be honest with you – I haven't talked about this, I don't think, with anyone else – part of the reason I don't do as much criticism is because, sometimes, I have information in my head about people that's not been published yet, for various reasons. Just sometimes, as you know, there isn't the infrastructure and the amount of reporting that you would need to write something for publication – it can be difficult to look down a roster of creative personnel, and at this point I know a lot of information about certain people that makes me not necessarily want to write about their work output that way.
Something I was struck by, reading the chapter about child actors – and this is a bit of a half-formed thought still, but I’m curious what you’d think – is that a lot of those shows you referenced are undergoing revivals at the moment. There’s a new iCarly, a new Zoey 101, all of that. How much do you think this kind of nostalgia culture runs the risk of re-entrenching the myths about television that you write about, or maybe obscuring the conditions of the original version of the show?
No, I think you're right. I'm certainly aware of people who had success with older shows, those shows or films are revived, and – in some cases it hasn't come out yet – essentially, they make a pile of money off of something that was harmful to at least one person, if not multiple people. I think we certainly run the risk of enriching once again some of the more questionable people in the industry.
But I think the bigger problem with these revivals is that, if you're reviving things from the '90s or whatnot, as I talk about in the book, if things are based on existing IP, the studio is very nervous about who gets put in charge of that. Even if it's a new creative team, they want people who have experience. Who has experience? It's the same usual suspects.
I was really glad that I got into that in the intellectual property chapter, because there have been pushes toward greater inclusion, but what's pushing back against that is the idea that “well, if we're going to revive this well-known film or TV show from 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago, even 40 years ago, we don't want to just hand it over to anyone. We've got to give it to someone with experience.” If you're giving it to someone who you trust because they've done a lot of high-level stuff or well-known stuff, the industry as it is presently constructed, that generally means you're going to give it to the same old crew of usual suspects, and those usual suspects are usually male and white.
Again, the industry was never inclusive to start with, and some dents have been made in that, but before that was completely corrected, the IP trend is now not just reimbursing people who were part of the original sometimes – and some of those people are maybe not so great – it's propping up this system by which it was very hard for anyone who was not one of the usual suspects to get a gig. Now, it's even harder. I think often the industry is again like, “oh, well, we had these reckonings on not just harassment and sexism, but on race.” I'm like, “Yeah, I mean putting a black square on the studio's Instagram page did not fix it.”
You did an interview with Episodic Medium the other week – another site I read very often – and you mentioned that the response to that Lost excerpt was different to what you anticipated. Was that true of the book too?
Oh, absolutely. I got to tell you, I was nervous because I'm quite tough on the industry. I have spent two years wondering, "Are people going to think I'm too mean? Are people going to think I was too rough on the industry?" But I think in the industry that sometimes you really need the verbal equivalent of the rolled-up newspaper. You need to get people's attention. What's been really heartening is that – well, I thought different super fans of different entities, or shows or film worlds or whatever, would come after me for saying certain things. Maybe those super fans just haven't read it and don't plan on purchasing it, so maybe that's to come down the road.
Maybe when it’s out in paperback.
Down the road I'll get the swarms from the stan armies! But yeah, it's been much, much more positive than I thought. That to me is heartening: when the book hit the bestseller list in the US I said, "To me, this is not just about this moment." I mean, it was a great moment, but it was also the people in the industry, and the audience for what the industry makes, neither of those groups want these bad systems or institutional failings to continue. Nobody wants it, so we have to come together. I do think that that's what I've seen, people coming together. Whether they just love TV and film, or they're making TV and film, they all want really similar things: everyone to be fairly compensated and fairly treated. It's not really that hard to understand.
I really feel, compared to the last writer's strike, there's much more understanding of why people are striking and what the issues are. I think on a lot of fronts, I'm just incredibly heartened that consumers are more educated about how Hollywood works, and that people within Hollywood are much more likely to come together through a story, or come together through a job action, to make real change.
Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood is currently available in hardcover from all good bookstores.