origin stories

How a 25-Year-Old Film School Grad’s Spec Script Became Ratched

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Watching Netflix’s Ratched, you’ll recognize a lot of the names from the standard Ryan Murphy roster: AHS queen Sarah Paulson as the titular nurse, Glee and The Politician writer Ian Brennan working on many of the episodes, and repeat cast members like Finn Wittrock and Charlie Carver. But you might also notice that the series was co-created by Murphy alongside a new name in the Murphyverse, and in fact in Hollywood in general: Evan Romansky.

Romansky wrote the spec script that became Ratched four years ago when he was 25 years old, while still in a film program at Loyola Marymount University. He started on the idea of exploring Nurse Mildred Ratched’s backstory while trying to figure out a premise that he could use to show off his screenwriting skills. “When you’re in grad school, you’re not thinking of writing something that you’re necessarily gonna sell; you’re thinking of writing something that’s hopefully going to get you representation,” he tells Vulture. “I was really just trying to think of some sort of IP that I could reimagine as my own and would have a title that people would recognize and actually want to read.”

Depicted as a malevolent but largely mysterious figure in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its subsequent stage and film adaptations, nurse Ratched appealed to Romansky as someone he could “deconstruct.” Ratched, especially in Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1975 Miloš Forman film, serves as the primary antagonist to McMurphy, a criminal newly admitted to a mental institution, and lays down the letter of the law with a side of heavy medication. “She didn’t have a backstory — all we knew about her is that she was an army nurse,” Romansky says. “I wanted to look at why McMurphy threw her off and rattled her.” To him, it seemed that McMurphy’s overt sexuality was something that especially rattled Ratched. “From there, I thought maybe if the worst things in her life happened to her when she did open herself up sexually and emotionally,” he says, “then that would make sense as to why that would make her vulnerable.”

Romansky wrote his pilot script while working in various internships in the film industry in the spring and summer of 2016, “secretly developing this as I was supposed to be working.” At a pitch session organized through LMU after he graduated, Romansky’s now-manager Jacob Epstein got interested in the idea of Ratched and mentioned that he could bring the idea to Michael Douglas, since Douglas produced Foreman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Kirk Douglas, who starred in the play on Broadway, bought the stage and screen rights to Kesey’s novel, which he later signed over to his son.) In an unlikely, very Hollywood coincidence, Epstein ended up on a flight to New York with Michael Douglas soon after sending him the script. He approached the actor after they’d landed, brought up the script, and Douglas said he liked it and that he had “a good avenue to help get us the rights.”

Ratched’s speedy initial development process continued as the script wound its way to Ryan Murphy himself. By that summer, Romansky had also achieved his goal of getting an agent, Joe Cohen at CAA, who had an in with Murphy, also represented by CAA, and also had an LMU connection to the writer David McMillan, who had worked with Murphy. “I had all these Ryan Murphy connections off the bat, so it just made sense to send it to him,” Romansky says. Romansky met with Murphy two months out of grad school to discover that the prolific TV creator was immediately interested in his idea. “From that first meeting, Ryan knew exactly what the show was going to look like, what it was going to sound like, what it was going to feel like,” Romansky says. “He said, ‘Think about it, let me know if you want to do this with me.’ I walked two steps out of his office and I looked at my manager and I was like, What the hell is there to think about? It’s Ryan Murphy! So we said we wanted to do it, and we were off and running.”

Writing his script for the pilot, Romansky knew there was a “99 percent chance you’re never going to get to write the second episode,” and so he threw a lot of his potential ideas into his draft. As Murphy and his collaborators — including Ian Brennan, who wrote many of Ratched’s episodes — came onboard, they “peeled back” some of that density, though Romansky says that the structure of the pilot remained fairly intact. Among the ideas that interested Romansky was the basis for nurse Ratched’s backstory. On Ratched, not only did she serve as an army nurse, as described in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she’s also revealed to be an orphan who was abused as a child. “In the movie, nurse Ratched is representative of this authoritarian system and she’s a product of that system,” Romansky says. “I thought it’d be interesting if we’re exploring the idea that she was the product of a different system that is incredibly flawed, the foster-care system.”

The show also positions Ratched differently with regard to her trust in mental hospitals. In the movie, she sternly follows and enforces the rulebook. On the show, Ratched is more of a rogue agent, scheming and purposefully inflicting violence on people she’s turned against. She is also depicted as explicitly queer, and self-hating because of it. “We, the writers, all believe that she’s not a character who is inherently evil but is instead trying to define her moral code. A lot of the horror of the show is from the grim reality that these were the mental procedures that actually happened,” Romansky says. “She is abiding by a post–World War II society that saw increased attention on mental illness, because of soldiers coming back from war, often with misdiagnosed mental trauma. Mildred is operating within that.”

After Murphy got onboard with the pilot, it took four years for Ratched to make it to the screen, a remarkably fast development period in Hollywood, all things considered. During that time, Romansky worked in the show’s writers’ room — Murphy served as Ratched’s showrunner — helping to extend the pilot into a full season and beyond. “Once we had Ryan and Ian aboard, they really helped carve out what the rest of the story was going to be,” Romansky says. “We’re planning season two … When I wrote the script, I had the basis for how the audience would feel about the character over a few seasons, but Ryan and Ian really hammered out the plan.”

During that process, Romansky got a very up-close crash course in what it is like to write for TV, and specifically for a Ryan Murphy–style series. “It was great because I could come in, having created the show, and not feel pressure to have to carry anything,” he says. “Ryan has taught me how to tell a story in the most entertaining way possible and to make sure you’re getting the most people to watch it as possible.” That Murphy impulse is no more apparent than in something like, for instance, the fact that Sharon Stone’s character has a glamorous pet monkey. “Whose idea do you think that was? Ryan’s, of course!” Romansky says. “That is the thing that Ryan is so freaking good at. He can just see characters and colors and costumes so clearly. He knew exactly what he wanted in Sharon Stone.”

How a Film School Grad’s Spec Script Became Ratched