The Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond to the Backlash and Explain Why They Wanted to Tell This Story

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Clockwise from top left: Nichelle Tramble Spellman, D.B. Weiss, Malcolm Spellman, David Benioff Photo: Getty Images

Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are no strangers to controversy, be it serious (questions about the show’s handling of sexual violence) or trivial (Ed Sheeran cameos). Whatever experience they’ve mustered over the years dealing with backlash probably came in handy Wednesday when online outrage erupted over the announcement of their first big post-Thrones project. A sci-fi tinged, alternative-history drama called Confederate, the mere idea of the GoT braintrust tackling such a sensitive subject provoked a negative response from a number of critics. “Give me the confidence of white showrunners telling HBO they wanna write slavery fanfic,” tweeted journalist Pilot Viruet. Author Roxane Gay was similarly scornful (“It is exhausting to think of how many people at HBO said yes to letting two white men envision modern day slavery. And offensive”), while actor David Harewood was quick to predict a boycott of the show among fellow thespians.

One thing left out — or minimized — in many of the critiques is the fact that while Benioff and Weiss will be the official showrunners and creators of the new show, HBO’s announcement also prominently noted the presence of two other writers/executive producers on Confederate, husband and wife Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire). The GoT duo noted in the press release that the Spellmans, who are black, would be their partners, not just part of the writing team. As the backlash to Confederate began to build on Twitter, Malcolm Spellman — a frequent and vocal presence on Twitter for years, often commenting on political and social-justice issues — quietly began responding to some concerned commenters, assuring them the show would not be about “whips and plantations.” But Vulture was still curious about how and why the Spellmans became involved in Confederate, and what Benioff and Weiss thought about the reaction. So we emailed HBO publicity Wednesday afternoon to ask if the four producers would be willing to get on the phone with us to talk about the project. Late Thursday, with a half-hour’s advance notice, HBO called and connected us with the four scribes. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

So, before we get into the reaction to the announcement, let me start by asking something more basic. What was the genesis of Confederate?
David Benioff: We’ve been talking about this as a feature because we had an idea for a two-hour story. The more we talked, the more it evolved. And with the success we’ve had on Thrones, and how happy we’ve been with HBO, it’s really opened up storytelling possibilities and world-building possibilities, especially in a story like this, which we imagined being an ensemble with dozens of characters and multiple story lines, which frankly I think TV has done better with over the last ten-to-15 years. And once we realized it was going to be a bigger story, we knew we didn’t wanna do it by ourselves because we’re … lazy. [Laughs.] And they’re two great writers. We’ve known Malcolm and Nichelle a long time, socially, and always talked about doing something together at some point. And this felt like a good thing. Now we’re bonding under fire.

Tell me more, though, about exactly how you came to do this idea. Did you do a whole bunch of research? Maybe go out one day and smoke peyote like Jim Morrison?
David Benioff: In a dorky way, I guess it goes back to — we’re both history nerds. I remember reading a history of the Civil War, I think it might have been the Shelby Foote one. And there’s a famous story, which I’m going to mash up, because my memory’s not what it used to be — but there’s a famous story of when Robert E. Lee was invading the North. Not the Gettysburg invasion, but an earlier one. And the set of orders got misplaced and were found by a Northern soldier. And it ended up ruining Lee’s invasion. A lot of people think if the orders hadn’t been lost, things might have been different: The Confederates might’ve sacked Washington, D.C., it’s possible the South could’ve won the war. So that notion of, what would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked D.C., if the South had won — that just always fascinated me. And history as a genre has always been interesting to me. That was really the initial thing. I wish I had a more specific trigger moment for you, but I don’t.

D.B. Weiss: Yeah, on top of what David said about history and how we’ve both been heavily invested in it since kids — it goes without saying slavery is the worst thing that ever happened in American history. It’s our original sin as a nation. And history doesn’t disappear. That sin is still with us in many ways. Confederate, in all of our minds, will be an alternative-history show. It’s a science-fiction show. One of the strengths of science fiction is that it can show us how this history is still with us in a way no strictly realistic drama ever could, whether it were a historical drama or a contemporary drama. It’s an ugly and a painful history, but we all think this is a reason to talk about it, not a reason to run from it. And this feels like a potentially valuable way to talk about it.

Did you anticipate any of the reaction that came yesterday?
DB: Oh, yeah. We all knew it was coming in one form or another. I remember the very first time we talked about this, one of the first things that came up was …

DW: Malcolm said, what was it?

Malcolm Spellman: “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here.”

So Malcolm and Nichelle, take me back to how David and D.B. first came to you with this. How did you decide to get involved?
MS: They first called me and said they wanted to take us to lunch and talk about a project they had. They took me and Nichelle out to a restaurant and told us the history of it: They had this script, the movie version, but they felt taking it to TV would be better. And they knew they needed black voices on it. There was already a comfort level between all of us. I feel like me and Nichelle, both separately, have a great pedigree — her particularly — and so it made sense.

For me and Nichelle, it’s deeply personal because we are the offspring of this history. We deal with it directly and have for our entire lives. We deal with it in Hollywood, we deal with it in the real world when we’re dealing with friends and family members. And I think Nichelle and I both felt a sense of urgency in trying to find a way to support a discussion that is percolating but isn’t happening enough. As people of color and minorities in general are starting to get a voice, I think there’s a duty to force this discussion.

Nichelle Tramble Spellman: When we initially sat down, we made the joke, “Oh, this is going to be a black Game of Thrones spin-off! This is gonna be awesome.” And then [Benioff and Weiss] got into what the story was about, and I just remember being so excited — and absolutely terrified at the same time. I can’t remember the last time I approached any story like that. So Malcolm and I left the lunch and couldn’t stop talking about it the entire way home. And immediately that night, this chain of emails just started. Like, “Have you read this? Have you read that? What about this piece of history? How can we bring this all into a present-day story line.”

And immediately what the conversation turned into is how we could draw parallels between what has been described as America’s original sin to a present-day conversation. In this futuristic world, you could have this conversation in a straightforward manner without it being steeped in history: “What does this look like now.” I think what was interesting to all of us was that we were going to handle this show, and handle the content of the show, without using typical antebellum imagery. There is not going to be, you know, the big Gone With the Wind mansion. This is present day, or close to present day, and how the world would have evolved if the South had been successful seceding from the Union. And what was also exciting to me was the idea that in order to build this, we would have to rebuild world history … Okay, if this had happened here, how did the rest of the world change? That was another huge bonus factor for me — the idea of rewriting some of the history of, like, the French Revolution. What happened in the entire world if that one event had ended differently?

I know you’re not prepared to get too deep into the specifics of the show, since you haven’t written any of it yet. But in the release, it mentions this being set after the third Civil War. That confused me, and a lot of people. Can you explain that a bit more?
DB: Right. When I read it over, I did realize that line is a little bit confusing. So the idea, and yes, we won’t go too much into it because we haven’t even written up all the fictional history yet. But the idea that we’ve talked about for a while is that if the first Civil War happened at the same time as the Civil War in our time happened, it just seemed unlikely to us that these two countries, these two hostile countries that share a massive border, would not have fought again in the time between the 1860s and the present day. So in our mind, there was also a 20th-century civil war.

But this points out — we haven’t written any scripts yet. We don’t have an outline yet. We don’t even have character names. So, everything is brand-new and nothing’s been written. I guess that’s what was a little bit surprising about some of the outrage. It’s just a little premature. You know, we might fuck it up. But we haven’t yet.

MS: This is not a world in which the entire country is enslaved. Slavery is in one half of the country. And the North is the North. As Nichelle was saying, the imagery should be no whips and no plantations.

I saw you saying that on Twitter yesterday, Malcolm. So maybe this is a good time to ask about the Twitter response Wednesday. There are a lot of people I respect, like Roxane Gay and Joy Reid, who had some very strong and very negative reactions to the press release. Do you understand their concerns? Do you think they misread your intentions?
NS: I do understand their concern. I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere, on HBO, on a Sunday night, when they watched and then they made a decision after they watched an hour of television as to whether or not we succeeded in what we set out to do. The concern is real. But I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way. What I’ve done in the past, what Malcolm has done in the past, what the D.B.’s have done in the past, proves that. So, I would have loved an opportunity for the conversation to start once the show was on the air.

MS: You cannot litigate this on Twitter. It’s not possible. There’s a new emerging group of black filmmakers, right? And we have a good standing there with our peers. But there’s no connective tissue between us and what’s coming out in the media. I don’t know that we can change anyone’s mind … but what people have to understand is, and what we are obligated to repeat in every interview is: We’ve got black aunties. We’ve got black nephews, uncles. Black parents and black grandparents. We deal with them every single day. We deal with the struggle every single day. And people don’t have to get onboard with what we’re doing based on a press release. But when they’re writing about us, and commenting about us, they should be mindful of the fact that there are no sellouts involved in this show. Me and Nichelle are not props being used to protect someone else. We are people who feel a need to address issues the same way they do, and they should at least humanize the other end of those tweets and articles. You know what I’m saying?

I guess that brings us back to David and D.B. We don’t have a lot of time, and this probably isn’t the interview to get into a deep dive about Game of Thrones and how it’s dealt with race. But it clearly is an issue that has come up. I mean, there’s a joke about your show in the first episode of Dear White People that riffs on how Thrones handles race. Do you think that’s part of why Twitter reacted the way it did? That it wasn’t just the idea of this show, but this show from you?
DW: We were very hyper-aware of the difference between a show with a fictional history and a fictional world, and a show that’s an alternate history of this world. We know that the elements in play in a show like Confederate are much more raw, much more real, and people come into them much more sensitive and more invested, than they do with a story about a place called Westeros, which none of them had ever heard of before they read the books or watched the show. We know they are different things, and they need to be dealt with in very, very different ways. And we plan, all of us I think, to approach Confederate in a much different spirit, by necessity, than we would approach a show named Game of Thrones.

I want to ask about how the creative process will be overseen on Confederate. David and D.B. are the showrunners, but all four of you will be executive producers and writers. All four of your names were part of the release Wednesday, and your relationship was described as a partnership. So does that mean you’ll all get mostly equal say in the direction of the show, even if D.B. and David are sort of the bigger name producers and creators? That it is a true collaboration, as opposed to just the vision of the Game of Thrones guys?
DB: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. And I think there’s — talking about the rush to judgment. There are all these assumptions about what happens when the four of us are talking, as if Dan and I are running the room and bossing them around. And I’d say anyone who thinks that Malcolm and Nichelle are props have never met Malcolm and Nichelle. The idea that we would tell them anything — neither one of them is afraid to call us an asshole. Believe me. That’s happened many times before. [Laughter.] And it’ll happen again. It’s a partnership.

Look, the honest answer to the question, the reality is, Game of Thrones has been a successful show for HBO, which has put us in a position to come and pitch another show and get them excited about it. And that’s what helped get us here. But when we sit down and map out this show, and the season, and the characters, it’ll be the four of us arguing about everything. There is no precedent who gets to rule by decree. And people can believe that or not, but it’s the truth, and they’re not in the room, so they don’t know.

How long have the four of you known each other?
NS: About ten years.

DW: Since the last writers’ strike.

Some online critics have also wondered why you chose to do this idea when, quite frankly, your leverage at HBO probably meant you could do any idea you wanted and get it on the air. So, why a show about an alternative history of the Civil War? Did you have any other ideas?
DW: We threw a bunch of things around, but, look, we’re fortunate to be in the position that we’re in currently with the show, knock wood. And we knew there was the opportunity to do another show with HBO, which we were very, very happy about because they’ve been great people to work with. And we knew that we could do something easy, and that there are many, many easy things that we could’ve done. But we also knew that we could use the fact that the show is successful and the fact that this gives us a certain amount of leverage to attempt something difficult, that wouldn’t be easy, that would be challenging, that would cause us all sorts of problems that something easy wouldn’t. And we think the difficult idea was much, much more valuable to us, and much more worthwhile to us than any of the easier ideas would be. So we thought that using the current show as a springboard to do something that couldn’t happen any other way seemed like a worthwhile way to spend that capital. Whether or not it turns out to be that, we’ll have to wait and see.

DB: I want to harken back to something Nichelle said earlier. This is scary, for all of us. It’s scary for different reasons. But it is a pretty terrifying prospect getting into it. We knew it would be, and now it’s come true. It’s obviously creating a lot of controversy before anything’s happened just on the basis of a press release, and that will only continue as we get closer. But even aside from that outside part of it, there’s just the frightening part of — we’re all gonna put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it right. And that’s scary, but it’s also exciting. It’s what gets the adrenaline pumping and what gets you excited to sit down at your computer and start typing up themes and running them off the other three. And there hasn’t been anything since we started on Thrones that’s gotten me so excited to get back to writing new characters. So, I’m scared and also excited.

Another concern some have raised is that a show like this could end up as almost pornography or wish-fulfillment for white supremacists and the alt-right. What’s your reaction to that worry about a show where the South won the Civil War.
MS: I think that [using the word] “winning” creates the wrong image. [In the world of Confederate], it was a standstill. They maintain their position, the North maintains theirs. What people need to recognize is, and it makes me really want to get into the show: The shit is alive and real today. I think people have got to stop pretending that slavery was something that happened and went away. The shit is affecting people in the present day. And it’s easy for folks to hide from it, because sometimes you’re not able to map it out, especially with how insidious racism has become. But everyone knows that with Trump coming into power, a bunch of shit that had always been there got resurfaced. So the idea that this would be pornography goes back to people imagining whips and plantations. What they need to be imagining is how fucked up things are today, and a story that allows us to now dramatize it in a more tangible matter.

Nichelle, do you want to add anything to that?
NS: How could I?

The Producers of HBO’s Confederate Respond to the Backlash