“Everybody has their tragedies, everybody has their funny stories, and you have to listen to what people have to say, and they become the things that you write about.”
John Wells, chairman of John Wells Productions and a creative force behind ER, The West Wing, and Third Watch, and currently the TNT drama series Animal Kingdom; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, December 14, 2016.
“From a very early age I was exposed to a lot of culture”
I was born in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C., and grew up in West Virginia and Colorado. My mother was a schoolteacher. My father, who is no longer alive, was an Episcopalian minister who loved the arts and the theater, and so from a very early age I was exposed to a lot of culture. My formative years were in Denver. I had some carpentry skills early on, and some friends of mine asked me if I would come in and help with some sets on a play that they were doing in junior high school. And that’s how I got involved in the theater. I started with a hammer and ended up doing a lot of stage managing. I was a really terrible actor and knew it, but I very much enjoyed it and wanted to pursue some kind of life in the theater. Someone told me that there was a good theater arts program that specialized in the physical side of it at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh but that I was very unlikely to get into it. So I applied and did not get into it. And then my parents were supportive of me taking a year off to actually be in the theater to see if it was what I really wanted to do. It was what I wanted to do. I did dinner theater and toured with some rock ’n’ roll bands and then applied again and got into Carnegie Mellon the second time.
“At age 30, I started to actually make a living”
I went into Carnegie Mellon as a production design student, which was the program where you learned how to build sets, design sets, stage manage, all behind-the-scenes things. The professors encouraged me to take directing classes, and that moved me toward the creative end of it. I was accepted in the USC graduate program in film producing called the Peter Stark Producing Program; it still exists. I was in the second class, where we learned a lot of the same skills but how it works in feature film. As part of the program at USC, we had a writing class — we referred to it as “Writing for Dummies” — which was mostly meant for people who wanted to be producers to get a sense of how hard it is to write and how to talk to writers. I had a professor there who taught that course and he was encouraging, not wildly encouraging, but sort of like, “You don’t suck at this. Maybe you could try it a little bit more.” So I worked for and produced some low-budget films, produced a few more plays and wrote, but mostly made my living as a carpenter. And then I was really fortunate that a few of the things that I had written, people responded to. So that at age 30, I started to actually make a living.
“I had to listen and try to understand how to walk in other people’s shoes”
Being a writer, director, and actor requires that you observe and listen, and so my being exposed to a lot of different things as a child basically made a huge difference. My father had a small church in Charleston, West Virginia, that was right on the edge of the city, and every weekend we gathered food and then, after the church service, we took the food to some very, very impoverished areas. In the middle of winter, kids came out of those houses without shoes on, and then we would go back and listen to symphonies with my father. I was exposed to a lot of different things, and what I discovered was, in order to move between these worlds, I had to listen and try to understand how to walk in other people’s shoes. I got very interested in reading and stories.
“My mother would tell you that made me a bit of a storyteller”
My father’s family are all from West Virginia, and they have that Southern storytelling tradition. So a dinner at our house was an hour and a half or two hours long and it was sort of a requirement. I learned very early on in my family how to synthesize something that you hear into a good story. Now my mother would tell you that made me a bit of a storyteller. And particularly as a young kid they had to spend a lot of time trying to tell people that I wasn’t all that clear on the difference between what actually had happened and what I thought was a good story. This culminated in my telling a story to my fourth grade class, when we first moved to Denver, about a big flood that I’d been in. It was absolutely not true, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I have no recollection of doing it, but my mother, who is now 90, still likes to tell the story about how she had to go to the school and listen to all the sympathy that she was receiving from all the other parents for this horrible event that we had not actually experienced.
“I learned to synthesize things and then listen”
I learned to synthesize things and then listen, and that was really the focus for me on the first really good show that I was able to work on at Warner Bros., which was China Beach. Bill Broyles created the show with John Sacret Young. They felt very strongly that what we needed to do to write that show was to listen. And so the show was built around our bringing in a number of vets and just listening to their stories and hearing what they had to say and then trying to find some kind of a truth that we could turn into a drama. And that was very influential to me as a writer. So we took the exact same techniques to ER and then later did it on The West Wing. We would bring in a number of doctors and nurses who worked in emergency rooms, and we’d say we’re going to bring in some pizza, have some beer; come over to the office, and they would come in and tell us their stories. I would say 90 percent of our stories came out of those. But once the show hit the air we were inundated with people who wanted to tell us their stories because they felt that while we were within the context of entertainment, we were actually telling their stories and what had happened to them. In fact, I got a call from a woman once about one of the episodes of China Beach. My assistant came in and said, “There’s a woman who’s crying on the line and wants to talk to you about the last episode.” I took the call, and she had been a nurse in China Beach in Da Nang and said, “That was the first time my children understood. I couldn’t quite get them to understand, and then they just looked at me and said, ‘Oh boy. We get it.’”
“The intention was to make it entertaining and, in that entertainment, to express opinions”
I never want to make a generalization about everything in the world, because there are so many different countries that have so many different types of political systems and go through different stages of it. But I think that the principles of the free press and free expression in the United States and the fact that it is so ingrained into our notions of who we are as a nation and who we are as a people allow artists a tremendous amount of freedom that isn’t allowed everywhere in the world. Our joke on The West Wing was we don’t want to make you feel like you get your vegetables. We don’t want you to feel like you have to get your civics lessons this week. The intention was to make it entertaining and, in that entertainment, to express opinions, different opinions, arguments, and civics lessons. I think that we have uniquely been able to tell the stories that interest artists and can be part of the larger national conversation.
I was raised in a house in which my mother was a schoolteacher, my father was a minister, and there was an expectation that whatever you were going to choose to do, it had to have some civic value. There was a responsibility for all of us as citizens to participate in some way in the broader conversation about who we are. I work with a lot of people who are very much like that, who come from worlds in which there is an expectation that if you’re going to do something as frivolous as entertainment, instead of going to law or medicine, you better make sure that it also has some kind of larger participation in our grand American experiment.
“All of those technological innovations are really wonderful”
The technological part of the business is that we use a lot of tools. And those tools change and the tools get better or they get faster or they get easier or whatever. They allow you to do more things, and that has a profound effect creatively on what you’re able to do to create certain emotions or feelings. When we got to ER, it was the early use and advent of the Steadicam, which was a certain kind of way of taking the camera, putting it onto a rig that goes onto a human being, which allows it to move as if you’re a human being. That really established the style for the show, because you felt as if you were with the doctor. You’re in their point of view, because the camera was just another person in the scene, right? So there’s all this technology that we have that makes things easier and faster.
Everything’s gotten smaller, just like your computer. It went from being the size of an entire floor of a building to being something you carry around on your phone. So that’s allowed any number of kinds of things to happen, including younger people to have an entry point into storytelling by making movies with an iPhone. That’s exciting because you get younger ideas from people who don’t have to raise millions of dollars to put their idea out there. Then there are outlets where you can see it; it goes up on YouTube, somebody sends it to somebody else on social media, so all of those technological innovations are really wonderful for a lot of different reasons.
How it is or is not affecting storytelling is a whole other issue, right? The stories that we’re trying to tell remain the same; you change it in ways that the technology allows you to change it to make it seem relevant to your current audience, but the themes that we talk about are exactly the same. They haven’t changed in thousands of years, because we have basic human needs and desires and concerns. You put all different other kind of stuff around it, which makes it contemporary because it’s part of whatever that contemporary experience is.
“It’s essential that you read and immerse yourself in the world”
It’s essential that you read and immerse yourself in the world. There’s a reason why, when we refer to young writers in the entertainment business, we are referring to people in their 30s. We’re not referring to people in their teens. Because you have to have a certain amount of experience to be able to successfully have some perspective on the experience you want to write about, right? It’s just part of the deal. So get experiences, read a lot, watch a lot, but then also go out and be in the world. What I used to do to try and gather stories was — they used to have a very specific thing on Amtrak, and it was for a week of riding anywhere you wanted to in coach. But the great thing about it was that the meals were all served in a dining car. If you’re by yourself, you get seated with other groups for every meal. And those meals were like my dinner conversations at home when I was growing up. You start to talk to other people who you would never come in contact with and hear all of these stories, these extraordinary stories that you would have never experienced otherwise.
I was on a train coming back to Los Angeles from Chicago. I ended up sitting next to a guy who I sort of recognized from my childhood in Colorado, not literally but as a type. He was a big strapping guy, a rancher guy with a big old straw hat and a tool belt and jeans and boots, which meant he was actually on a ranch somewhere. I asked him where he’d been. And he said, “I’ve been in Chicago for a year and a half. I’m going home back to New Mexico.” And I said, “A year and a half? What were you doing up there?” I figured he was in the cattle business doing something for one of the feedlots or whatever. He said, “Well, when my son was 15 years old, he came out to me as gay, and I beat the shit out of him and threw him out of the house. And I didn’t see him for like 12, 13 years, and then I got a call out of the blue from this man in Chicago who said ‘I’m your son’s lover and we’ve been living together and he’s dying of AIDS and he wants you to know that.’” He said, “So I got on the train, and I went up there to see him and I ended up living in the house with my son and his lover and took care of him, until the day he died. He just died last week and I’m headed home.” So where are you going to hear that story unless you’re out there listening to people and what they have to say? Those are the stories that you go out and you gather and people tell you, everybody has their stories. Everybody has their tragedies, everybody has their funny stories, and you have to listen to what people have to say, and they become the things that you write about.
On the All in the Family set
I remember both chairs. All in the Family is the perfect example of something that was impossible to get made, finally got made, and then was very culturally important. People tend to remember it as the way in which it skewered and called into question Archie’s statements and sort of ridiculed him for the silliness of the statements. But people don’t pay enough attention to what it was also saying about the absurdity of the liberal culture. If you go back and listen to how much fun was made of the absurdity in the liberal politics — and I consider myself to be a liberal and progressive, and it makes me laugh and it hurts.