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The Get Down Co-creator Reflects on the Long, Tortured Road to Bring the Show to TV

Photo: Netflix

The Get Down, Netflix’s new series from Baz Luhrmann, chronicles the rise of hip-hop in the ‘70s through the lens of a group of young kids in the Bronx. At $120 million, it’s Netflix’s most expensive production to date, and it’s been a troubled road to getting half of the first season to screens (the first six episodes premiere on Friday, while the second half — not yet completed — is expected sometime in 2017). As a Variety story last month reported, the show went through multiple showrunners with conflicting visions, ran into major budgetary concerns, and some “faulted Luhrmann for failing to heed the counsel of seasoned veterans and for showing a lack of regard for the skills needed to pull off a big-budget drama series.” In an interview with the Vulture TV Podcast, Luhrmann’s partner and co-creator of The Get Down — Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis — was reflective about how exactly the process broke down, and insistent that Luhrmann is the last person we should be blaming.

Listen to our podcast conversation with Guirgis below, on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Gazelle Emami: I know Baz Luhrmann, the co-creator, had been kind of thinking about this idea for about a decade. When did you come in?
Stephen Adly Guirgis: I had just done something in TV, but my real love is theater. I had won this award and I was up at Yale, and I was happy because it came with money. I was like alright, I’m not going to deal with TV or film any of that business stuff. I’m just going to write my plays. Then I get an email from Baz, who I’d never met. I didn’t even know, maybe it’s a fake email. He invited me to come and have a chat with him, so I did, and I kind of fell in love with the guy instantly. I could tell right away that he was an artist, like a real artist. He spoke my language and I felt like I could learn from the guy. Then I found out he wanted to write about growing up in New York in the ’70s, which is what I did. A coming-of-age story dealing with the birth of hip-hop, which I love. I left the meeting and I was so excited on one hand, but on the other hand I was like alright, it looks like I’m going to do TV. I’ll have to put theater on the side for a little while. We went out to L.A. and pitched and then we just got started. Now two-and-a-half years later, we’re getting ready to drop the first six episodes.

Jen Chaney: You mentioned that you grew up in New York in the ‘70s. How much of that informed your approach to developing the series? Were you interested in hip-hop from the very early ages yourself when you were growing up in New York?
SAG: Oh, yeah. I remember it was maybe eighth grade when “Rapper’s Delight” dropped, and it didn’t matter who you were, if you couldn’t recite all of the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” you were not cool. Also, just growing up in New York and telling a coming-of-age story — there’s a lot of personal elements you can put into the storytelling. When we started working on the project, I was really interested in learning [all the writers’] personal stories. I found that the more I could learn about the people who were going to be creating the series, the more it’s going to unfold itself into the show. If you’re writing well, you’re writing from a personal place. I would try to elicit the personal. Even with Baz, have you guys met Baz before?

Matt Zoller Seitz: I have, years ago, yes.
I expected him to be borne into the room on a giant clam shell with animated birds around him.
SAG: He kind of walks in and out of rooms with a puff of smoke. It’s this whole Wizard of Baz element to him. It became really obvious to me, the trick to doing this thing right is to learn about who Baz really is. Everyone is telling their own story subconsciously whether they know it or not, and sometimes Baz would speak personally. Sometimes it would just be from observing him. The more I got a sense of who this guy was, the more I was able to figure and present ideas that I think he’d like.

You have the two main guys that Justice Smith and Shameik Moore play, Ezekiel and Shaolin Fantastic. I grew up on the Upper West Side. All my days and early evenings were up in Harlem. I was vaulting between two worlds at an early age and trying to figure out how to fit in. I was, I guess, smart, but being smart wasn’t always a good credential on the street where if you could jump high or get the girl, that’s what made you cool. Everyone has some of that in them, and certainly a lot of that is in the character of Ezekiel. Shameik ‘s character, Shaolin Fantastic, who’s a little bit of a superhero — we’ve all had that friend, where every time you hang out with them you end up getting into trouble. You get home and you’re grounded, but somehow it’s worth it. There were kids like that in my life and kids like that in all of our lives.

GE: You have these personal stories of Ezekiel and Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) on the show, and we’re following their personal paths, but you also have all of these historical, political narratives, and the crime that’s happening in the area. I am curious how you interwove all of these narratives. Did you write each episode as an episode or did you write them as scenes and then piece it together?
SAG: Every episode was written as an episode. There was ultimately an idea behind it that hopefully advanced the story. Really quickly, for me, it was about the kids. We zeroed in that it was going to be about the relationship between these two boys and this young girl, [Mylene], who Ezekiel has been in love with from the second through 12th grade. What made everybody excited in the room was always talking about the kids and their journey.

It’s a risk. We cast a show where basically all of our leads are young kids of color who people don’t really know, other than Jaden [Smith]. Once we got to cast actors and see them and meet them, it just reinforced the idea that it’s about the kids. We talk a lot about Shameik and Justice and Herizen and less about Sklyan Brooks and Tremaine Brown, who are the other two boys in the group alongside Justice and Shameik. Those kids are amazing. Tremaine we found on the subway, and Skylan to me is like the Robert Duvall of the group. This kid is a really good actor. Now, a big problem was that we had to fill out the canvas with adults. It became clear pretty soon this is a kid’s story. We have actors like Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito who are used to playing leads, who are used to doing the heavy lifting. Here they’re in a situation where they’re basically supporting players. Fortunately, they were really excited about the project and the idea and believed in it.

GE: Justice Smith I think is going to be the breakout star. What was the casting process like for him? Were there a lot of other people you were looking at or were you like, this is the one?
SAG: We fell in love with Justice right away. We didn’t know which role he would play, but we knew that we wanted him. It’s interesting because Shameik glistens charisma on the screen, off the screen. When you’re watching, you’re like, Oh my God. Shameik is jumping off buildings, he says all the cool things, he’s a DJ, but yet our lead, our heart of the story is Ezekiel, it’s Justice, and will he be able to carry it? He carried it unbelievably. You know the poem he recites to the class and to the teacher [in the pilot]? I wrote that poem at night with Seth Rosenfeld. He wrote the first pass, I wrote the second pass. Justice got that poem at probably one or two in the morning, and 12 hours later he had it memorized. I just assumed I’d have to cut away a lot. I was like, this kid’s not going to be able to learn two pages. He had it memorized and off book and full. Emotionally full. He’s a special kid. He’s very humble.

GE: That poem is my favorite moment in the pilot. What was the writing process like on that?
SAG: Seth Rosenfeld did the first draft and then I came in and did the second. I went a little crazy with it and I was afraid maybe it was too much, but he handled it amazingly. A lot of the writing process was like that. I might get the final pass on things, but it’s a really good group of writers. The room as a collective had an energy and a breadth of experience that allowed us to bring a lot of choices in to Baz, and then Baz adjusted. One thing about him is that he’s one of those guys that when he was young read like every myth and every great story. It was sort of like going to school for the first couple of months because I’d be talking about “Yeah, this dude …  and then he got mugged,” and he’s like, “Oh, like Odysseus in the temple of Hades.” I’d be like, what the fuck is he talking about? Archetypes, he really knows a lot about archetypes. Smart, smart, smart guy.

MZS: Speaking of archetypes, when this project was first announced, I expected it to be something less of a fable. I wonder what were some of the discussions that went on behind the scenes about what direction to take this story in?
SAG: When you have Baz you’re going to have a show that reflects him, and to some degree me as well. If we had wanted to make a sort of grittier examination then that would be for David Simon. Baz could never make The Wire. In the beginning when they were pitching it they were saying it’s The Wire meets Glee. I sort of know what they mean.

The problem is when you first start, the subject is so deep, so vast, and there’s so many ways that you can go. There’s also so many ways that you can go that are going to be completely wrong. You feel the pressure of which path do you choose?, and then you also feel in some degree the pressure of don’t choose the bad path. For better or worse, whether it’s a good show or a bad show, what we did was we tried to go with our strengths and the strengths of the cast. Nobody can do what Baz can do with music and dance. That’s his thing. I write more from a personal place. Nelson George is basically a historian of hip-hop and the city. He brings a sensibility that’s measured from having been both in the back rooms when hip-hop was created and in City Hall interviewing politicians. At the end of the day, we tried to meld the strengths. When you watch a show, you just assume it was born fully born and then you critique it within an inch of its life based on that. The truth is, these kids were all basically unknown. What if Justice sucked? What if he was bad? We had to shift the story and make it someone else’s. There’s so many different factors that go into it. Some of the reviews have said it’s unwieldy at times and searching for itself. I wouldn’t disagree. We were searching, but always trying to lead with our hearts and with some collective brain power and with the strengths. It was clear to us that the kids are the strength.

GE: There was a Variety piece last month about how this was a long, complicated process. You went through a couple of showrunners. How did all of the issues with production affect things creatively? Was there a point where you had to change the course in terms of where the story was going? Did you have moments where you weren’t sure if the show would come together?
SAG: I think we always believed that the show would come together. A lot of crazy things would happen, but at the end of the day at two in the morning in Baz’s office, we would be sitting down talking and we would constantly find our second wind, our third wind, our fourth wind. Part of the reason that the show was delayed so long was we started out in Los Angeles. The first year the writers room was in Los Angeles, and Baz was not in Los Angeles. That was a decision that I didn’t have any control over. Baz didn’t really have any control over it at the time. It became clear pretty quickly that it’s not going to work in Los Angeles.

MZS: I was going to say, that seems counterintuitive.
SAG: Baz told me we’re going to make this in New York. I just went out to L.A. because I thought that’s where we’re starting. That’s a year. We got some good stuff out of it and [original showrunner] Shawn Ryan is an amazing guy and an amazing writer and a real leader, but it’s a different sensibility between Baz and Shawn Ryan — I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like putting … they’re so different. It’s very hard to find a middle, but that’s how it worked out. Once we got to New York, things moved faster. [Second showrunner] Tom Kelly came in, who again, was amazing. I learned a lot from that guy in a really short time. A stand-up guy. A smart guy. Again, the sensibility between him and Baz — they were quite different in their approach. That’s going to be another delay.

Lastly, truthfully, it took me a while. I didn’t know how Baz was right away, but if you hire Baz Luhrmann to do a TV series and you don’t expect that it’s going to take a long time, and it’s probably going to take more money than you think, then you’re crazy. It’s not an excuse or a justification but it’s like, if you buy a Honda or a Toyota, you know it’s going to get great mileage. It doesn’t break down. For better or worse, if you go out and buy a Ferrari, you can’t complain that it costs $50,000 for a new steering wheel or that the motor’s temperamental. That’s what you bought. At the end of the day when the show makes money — and it will make money between the soundtrack and everything else — that’s what you’re paying for. I didn’t think it would take this long. I don’t think Baz thought it would take this long. P.S. We’re not done yet. There’s another six episodes that we have to shape up for 2017. We weren’t sitting around ordering lunch and playing [around].

GE: Was the decision to split it into two parts a difficult one? What went into making that decision?
SAG: Well, Netflix and Sony, rightfully so, wanted to get something on the air. They’re like, “Let’s get this show rolling.” That had everything to do with splitting the season in two. I think it’s fair and right. What’s difficult about it was that we were writing in parts. We had sort of a three-act structure, which then became like a two-act structure with a p.s. at the end. But originally we wrote it to all be happening in a row. So where we end part one, it’s not exactly like a cliffhanger. And that’s a little disappointing to me. Because if we had known we were splitting it, we could have really made people suffer.

MZS: So is it a question of them saying, “Do we want to bump this thing a year or do we want to get half of the episodes on during the year we said it was going to be on?” 
SAG: Yeah I think that — listen, it’s a business, and rightfully so. It just meant for us to really buckle down and really focus on the first part. And we did. That wasn’t difficult. The difficult part is really the whole process. You know that expression, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I used to be like, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah.” I want this to be great, so I’m sprinting as long as I can. After a while you realize, Oh it really is a marathon. So you have to learn how to pace not just your body, but your emotions. You get caught up in stuff, and that’s difficult. When you have an idea for something and you’re in love with it and then they’re like, “Well we can’t shoot that” or “So and so is not available.” Dealing with that kind of stuff, stops and starts. Changing the regimes, the showrunners. Yes, of course, that has bumps inherent in it. But at the end of the day, it’s like, I didn’t get an email from Shawn Ryan, I didn’t get an email from Tom Kelly, I didn’t get an email from Sony, I didn’t get an email from Netflix. I got an email from Baz. And that’s the guy I went to his house to meet.

Sometimes I feel like I almost died in this last two-and-a half years. It’s just been kind of crazy. But at the end of the day, that’s the guy I’m working with. And as long as I feel good about him and he feels good about me, then it’s like, stay the course. And everyone has been great. I’m not saying they weren’t. I’m just saying that to blame a bunch of stuff on Baz — or anybody, really — it’s stupid. This is an interview not a confessional, so I can’t really say everything that’s going on, but there’s always factors. There’s always things going on. And I’m sure you guys find this out in your jobs too, what I realized was I’m not getting paid to write. I’m not getting paid to create. I’m not getting paid to work with actors. I’m getting paid to put up with all the craziness that happens in between, when we can actually do that thing that we love. So be it. Once you can wrap your head around that, it’s much easier.

MZS: Your description of this entire process, I’m having flashbacks to the stories people told about working on Deadwood
SAG:  My first job was with David Milch. It was on Big Apple on CBS. It was only six episodes. And I got sort of David-lite. That’s not true. But I got to spend time with David at a point where his life literally depended on changing a lot of his behaviors. So I think I got a more sane, a less volatile David. And it’s not to excuse the behavior, but there’s only one David. And believe me, the minute that HBO or any network or any corporate entity decides that working with David is not worth it creatively or economically, they won’t work with him. No one else could have made Deadwood except for David Milch. He’s just a brilliant genius, but he’s got, what’s it called? OCD. He’s got a lot of conditions. He could just as easily be on skid row as he could be making a TV show. Working with Milch at times was crazy. I mean, crazy. At the end of the day, the guy has brilliance, and he’s able to translate that into compelling viewing. And he has the ability to summon it. And if he didn’t, we’d be handing him a dollar in the street. That’s true. But he knows what he’s doing enough that they want to hire him.

Nobody sets out to lose money. And the same thing with Baz. Netflix isn’t stupid. Sony’s not stupid. If they didn’t think it was going to make money, they would not hire him. I promise you.

Nowadays, especially with TV shows, they have metrics to figure out profit before a script has even been cast. Before you’ve even shot a pilot. My friend’s working on a show now where that happened. They’re like, “We have to slash the budget by 40 percent.” And he’s like, “But it’s not even cast. We haven’t even shot a pilot.” The producing entities of the world, they’re not stupid. In fact, they’re brilliant. And they don’t make decisions that are designed to lose money. So if they felt that working with Baz was not worth it creatively, and more importantly financially, they wouldn’t work with him.

I’m not trying to say artists should just be able to do whatever they want. No. It’s just like any other job, and you have a responsibility as a human being to observe certain boundaries. So these stories, they make a good story. If the show’s good or bad, you get what you paid for. So yeah, it can be frustrating, it can be difficult.

MZS: What do you feel like you learned from the first half of production that you were able to apply in the second half?
SAG: On a personal level, I learned how to better absolve myself of guilt. Because I’m a person who tends to err on the side of internalizing feeling guilty. This process has taught me to learn that, you know what, I don’t control the universe. Some things are out of my hands. It’s not my fault.

MZS: If it doesn’t go the way you want, you mean?
SAG: I can’t control if we shut down or don’t shut down. I can’t control if they use my scene or they don’t use my scene. I can’t control if we start work on Monday or in three months. I can’t control even if I get rewritten, even though I’m the co-creator. I did most of the rewriting, but I can be rewritten. I’ve learned on a personal level quite a bit about still being a stubborn ride-or-die soldier and giving your best, but then you have to let go a little bit too, because you can’t control everything. In terms of the process of making television, what I’ve learned is just how much of a collaboration it is. That basically there’s 8 million ways to die and only a couple of ways to really succeed.

Going into the second part, I would say I’m a lot more aware of what I can control and what I can’t control. But also I think I’m a lot more confident in knowing what I do contribute. Baz has always been really open and is extremely collaborative. But he’s hard to come down sometimes. He’s hard to find because he oversees everything meticulously. The story, as it reveals itself to you, you know which parts to feed and which parts need watering and which don’t. I just started keeping plants in my house and a bunch of them died. Some plants need a lot of water, some plants you just leave them there and they’re fine. Some characters need a lot of attention each episode. Some of them, just one scene and they’re fine. So you continue to learn as you go. But the main thing is, I had an idea, at least in my mind, of the thesis statement for what I think the show is about and what I think the individual journey for the characters is about. And to stay true to that, and at the same time stay really open to change.

GE: What was the thesis statement that you had that would have been your ideal version?
SAG: I think the work explores it, and it’s something that Baz and I were in agreement on. As the series unfolds, you’re going to see that Ezekiel starts to become faced with more choices about who he is, who he wants to be, and struggling with his own sense of ambition versus loyalty. Daveed Digg plays [the older version of] Ezekiel. What we’ve learned is that Ezekiel has risen to be a top hip-hop performer in the ‘90s. So far we’ve just seen Ezekiel as the guy we fall in love with. But there’s more under the hood. It gets a little more complicated, and a little more like real life. Often the people that really make it past a certain level of “making it” — like we’ve all made it, but then there’s a certain personality that goes with that. There’s a certain willingness to, frankly, act in your own self-interest that goes with it. Whoever it is. I love Obama. Obama’s got Machiavelli in him. Otherwise he could never have been Obama.

Jay Z is the perfect example. That’s a guy, for better or worse, he had mentors that he learned everything from and then moved on. Moved up and moved on. Sometimes those people end up alone. And that’s, again, the [bigger] picture of the show, assuming there are multiple seasons. It’s what price you pay to really get ahead. At some point you choose between “Do I want to be liked? Or do I want to [succeed]?” And that’s part of Ezekiel’s journey. You see it start to happen in the second half and it starts to build.

JC: I know you’re focused on the second half of this first season and you don’t know for sure whether there will be multiple seasons, but based on what you were just saying it sounds like you have some ideas about what might happen beyond this first season. Have you started thinking about season two, what a narrative arc for that might look like?
SAG: I think we could easily get through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. The 1995 [version of Ezekiel in the show] is there for a reason. It’s not just a narrative device. Ultimately, that’s what we want to get to, because Daveed’s character in 1995, we haven’t learned anything about him. We had the idea that he would be around 40 years old and that he’s right at this crisis point, and in order to move forward he would have to deal with something dramatically that had occurred in the past. The idea being that probably not in season one — although possibly, because we’re still fighting whether we’re going to be able to do 13 episodes or 12 — you would see Daveed as Ezekiel in 1995 walk off that stage and be greeted by someone in his past with a real scenario that needs to unfold. And then going into season two, we start to really get [into that].

Season one is meant to end — and it may not — but it’s meant to end in ‘79 with the dropping of “Rapper’s Delight.” And then the kids recording something that later gets found by other characters, and then they release it but they kind of go their separate ways. And in season two, you would really get the rise of that group, the rise and fall of that part of Ezekiel’s journey. And that’s certainly a full season. I don’t know how many seasons it takes to really wrestle with ‘95, but that would be the full [story].

My argument, an argument that I’ve lost so far, is that I really want the show to end in the present. Because I have a notion — and I know Baz agrees with me on this — that there’s no point to telling a story about the past unless it tells something about how we’re living right now. Part of what I’m wrestling with is, other than the nostalgia factor, other than, Oh that’s fun. That’d be cool, you have to be saying something about 2016. Otherwise it’s just a sentimental journey. When we get to the end, it has to say something about where we are and who we are as people, as a culture, as Americans, right now. Right now is such a crazy, fervent, complicated, difficult, interesting time that in a perfect world that’s where I’d want to get to. And that’s what certainly I’d be shooting for. But through the lens of this young kid who grew up with nothing that ends up with everything, but sort of has nothing again. It sounds a little grand perhaps, but you have to have these grand notions in mind even if you never get there because you need a compass at times steer you through. Why is Ezekiel making this choice? Well, ultimately we want to get to this place. We may never get there, but this is why in this instance he’s siding with Shameik or blowing off his friends and doing his homework or whatever. We would love to keep telling the story, but we’ll see what happens.

Get Down Creator on the Show’s Messy Production