I was lucky enough to meet Anne Kenney when I read a part in a staged reading of her beautiful, somewhat autobiographical play, Last Call, inspired by the passing of her parents.
Anne, who has had an extraordinary career as a writer/producer in television, was kind of enough to sit down with me recently to talk about everything from breaking into the business, breaking down a novel into a TV show, and breaking through the infamously muddy hills of Scotland.
FOOT IN THE DOOR
Anne Kenney: I majored in journalism, graduated from Ohio University. I just wanted to make a living as a writer, and at the time, I had no idea that you could major in creative writing, like at Iowa or one of these places. Ann Patchett—are you familiar with her? I was reading a book, a memoir, talking about how she and her friend went to workshops. You’d go for a summer or whatever. I had no idea that existed.
Anyway, I worked as a journalist for about five years, and tried playwrighting. I took classes at NYU and realized you couldn’t make a living as a playwright, at all, unless you were Neil Simon or something. So then I decided to try to write for television, and ultimately knew I had to move out here [Los Angeles], because there’s not much television happening there.
So I read an article about a guy, when I was still in New York, on Long Island, a guy named Michael Weithorn—this was a million years ago—who was working on Family Ties, and he had a new show he was working on, and he said he would read unsolicited writers.
And so I thought, Okay, and I sent him some things. And I said, “Would you read this?” And he said, “Yes.” And I sent him a script, about the time I moved out here, and I just lucked out and he hired me, which was amazing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I moved out here in March and I had a job in July. So… and then we went on strike in January. That was in 1988.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY, IT’S ABOUT THE (WHATEVER)!
It was Michael, me, and a guy named John Owens—there were three of us. The show got canceled after six episodes, but I had my foot in the door, which was great. And then I spent two years temping, and not being able to get arrested.
My husband, who was not my husband at the time—I met him through some mutual friends—and he knew the woman who was running LA Law at the time.
So I wrote a spec of LA Law, and gave it to her. I went over to her house, sitting in her backyard, and I can remember the first thing she said, was, “Well, this script is a miss.” Like, “Oh, my God.” But she saw enough in it, and she had just let go of two low-level writers, so she hired me.
I’ve worked pretty consistently since then. I worked on LA Law for the last three seasons. I did a lot of law shows, which is also crazy, because of course I have no law background, but I did a lot.
THE BLOODIEST BATTLES ARE FOUGHT IN FAMILY COURTS
I met Paul [Haggis] doing LA Law—he was brought in, and I met him there, and then we did Michael Hayes. Then he and I decided to do a pilot together. He had a very, very messy divorce. And the women who were advisors were his divorce lawyers.
Paul had a deal with CBS. And he pitched the—we actually came up with something completely different. We came up with a police idea that they didn’t like. And then he was on the phone with Nina Tassler at the time, and pitched her this law thing, and she said “Yes.” And so we just did it. I wasn’t even part of the pitch at that point.
It was one of these things where I just showed up at his house to work on this other thing, and he went, well, I just pitched this to Nina—
So we met with the lawyers, and that kind of stuff. And—and it’s funny, because that was the same year that Judging Amy got picked up by CBS. The conventional wisdom was, you know, “They’ll never put both of these on, ‘cause they’re too similar,” and of course they picked them both up. So it’s one of those “Nobody knows anything” kind of lessons.
I was only there—I did one season, and then it just was not a very pleasant place to work, and so I said, okay… But, yeah, the stories were really intense. I mean, that was the whole point of it, was, you know, lawyers will tell you, sort of, the bloodiest battles are fought in family courts.
And then I got tired, I tell people, I got tired of writing, you know—”It’s not about the money. It’s about the (whatever)!”
Or you’d have the story where somebody would be getting—you know, a rape victim. “And then he pulled down my pants!” And it’s like, yeah, I don’t want to write that anymore either.
Anne: I had just done Hellcats, and I had decided, Aw, I don’t really want to go back on a show for a little while. So that was—would have been the spring of 2011. And Paul [Stupin] got hold of me and said, “Hey, we’re doing this show. We need another person in the room. Would you come meet with us?”
And I said, “Eh, you know, I really don’t want to do that. I love you, but I don’t want to do that. But here, I’ll refer you to some people.” So I sent like three of my writer friends in there. And then, for whatever reason, I actually sat down and watched the show. And I was like, “Oh, my God, this is so good.” So I called him and I’m like, “Hmm, have you hired anybody yet?” I felt a little bad about my friends that I had sent in there. And he’s like, “No, come up.” So that’s how that happened.
Lizzy Weiss, who was the creator, had this notion for the idea of “switched at birth,” to have these two girls, and the idea that one was wealthy and one was not. And then my understanding is that ABC Family came back and said, “Can one of the girls have a handicap of some sort?” Or a disability, I should say.
And so then she had done some work with the deaf community and thought, this will be great. And it was such a good idea. And so fun—learned a lot about the deaf community. We had somebody come in to teach us sign language. So it was a great experience. It was really, really fun.
Anne: I met Matt Roberts while doing Hellcats. And he actually told me about the books, ‘cause he had read the books. I think he had worked as a reader somewhere. And I loved the books. When I was working on Switched at Birth, it was in Santa Clarita, so I had this huge commute, so I did a lot of audio books. If you’ve never done the audio books of Outlander, they’re fantastic.
And then [Matt] knew—well, he had done something with Ron Moore. And he knew Maril Davis. And so, through him, he introduced me, and I told my agents—when I found out that they were actually going to do it, I told my agent that—
I WILL CRAWL ACROSS HOT COALS TO BE ON THIS SHOW.
I so want to do this. I love costume dramas. I love the big romantic historical—that was just like my brass ring. So anyway, that’s—I went and met with Maril. I called her and said, “I’m not very good at this, but I want to take you to lunch. I really want this job.” And so, anyway, that’s how I got it.
Generally, we would come up with tentpoles. You just say, “What are the iconic episodes? What are the things we—and the iconic moments that we have to have?” In the first season, of course, it’s, you know, obviously, her going through the stones, you know, the wedding, Black Jack Randall. What happens to Jamie in the end?
The first two season is when Ira Behr was there, and it was interesting, ‘cause there was a real creative tension there, in terms of where the values of the book were. And he was always pulling more toward—he’s the one I would credit with bringing up the characters of Rupert and Angus, changing the character of Murtagh, because he was interested in all those guys. And I think the show is better for it.
As the books went forward—they all presented different challenges. The second one’s hard because of all the political intrigue. And the way Diana will tell the story, she’ll sort of tell you a certain amount here, the front, and then you’ll leave it for a while, then you come back to it either at the end of the book, or in another book. And if you put it all together, sometimes it doesn’t entirely track. But when you’re reading the book, you don’t think about it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, sure, that’s fine.”
I know in the third book, one of the things I had a question about was, you know, when Geillis—you discover her in Jamaica. I loved in the books—was so fun. But when you sat down to break it out, it was like, “Oh, wait a minute, what was her plan before she ran into Jamie and Claire?” She had no plan.
I mean, when you read the book, it’s like—you didn’t think about it. But when we were trying to construct it, and you’re thinking, “Okay, if we’re telling this from Geillis’s point of view…” we had to make something up—we had to come up with something. And that was the whole thing with the stones, and what her plan was, and the baby with the prophesy, that the baby was 200 years old. I remember when we came up with that in the room, we were all like, “Oh my God, thank God! We have something—”
One of the things that happens, I think, when you’re condensing something is, it comes down to the bones.
Anne: Frank is a different character in this show than he is in the books. And that was always from the beginning, the idea. Because, you know, it says something about your heroine, who it is that she’s in love with.
But when you started to see him live, if he was the kind of guy who was this boring historian, you know, the kind of guy who would buy you a vacuum for your birthday, you know what I mean? So we felt like we wanted to make him a more interesting character. And there was always the discussion of why does she want to get back? And it had to be this [mimes a rope pulling towards herself].
And there was the discussion of that. For all of us, you think, “Eh, there’s no shower here. There’s no—where do I go to the bathroom? Where do I eat? What do I eat? What about my teeth? I don’t have a dentist.”
I mean, for a lot of us, the reason you want to get back to the present is ‘cause something’s pushing you. It’s like, “Let me get out of here.” But that is never Claire’s character, which is one of the wonderful things about her. So it had to be the pull.
And, yeah, just curious— what was happening to Claire during those 20 years? She wasn’t just sitting. I remember in reading Voyager again, even when she gets back to the past, a lot of it is still Jamie’s story. All that stuff with the bootlegging, and all that kind of stuff. You feel like Claire’s involved, because she’s telling you the story. But when you go to dramatize it, you realize, “Oh, am I gonna just have her sitting on the bench in the bar the whole time?” No, she needs to be active. We need to give her things to do.
Mr. Willoughby. He was a great character. You’ll see that in the book, you’ll find that whole thing with the Fiend, who’s killing women—it’s something that, for whatever reason, it works in the books, but it feels a little out of nowhere when we dramatized it. And so we had come up with another story for Mr. Willoughby. And we didn’t want him to be, yes, an offensive caricature.
Also, there was the whole thing, and I think that got changed too, of—you know, Jamie suddenly speaks perfect Mandarin Chinese. And we—again, we all call him The King of Men. But there’s a point at which you just say, “Well, wait a minute, this is gonna get silly.” Doesn’t feel that way in the books. But for whatever reason, it would feel that way. So I think that got changed also.
One of the things that I find—through all the books—find so interesting about Claire’s character is that she is very practical and pragmatic. And she’s pretty clear on the things that she can change and she can’t change.
You know, I can remember there was some child that was brought to her who had some ailment, that if she was in the 1960s, she could fix. But looking at this child, she knew she couldn’t—there was nothing she could do. And she feels, you know, badly about it, but she doesn’t—you could have told another version of that story where she’s upset, “I gotta find something! What am I gonna do?” And she just—she’s very, very practical that way.
And I think in the books, that was my feeling about the whole slavery piece of it. Certainly, with Aunt Jocasta and all that stuff, that, you know, she was in this piece of time in history. She didn’t have slaves herself, she wasn’t promoting it, but she knew she wasn’t going to be able to just flip—and it would be, you know, disingenuous—you know, great white savior.
Well, the wedding episode was definitely—without question, my favorite one to do.
And when we were in the—we broke six or seven episodes, I guess that was episode seven. And I think, in terms of you talk about going six episodes before they get together in season three, too—I mean, for me, one of the greatest things in the books, and about romance in general, is its longing—longing, longing, longing.
You know, that’s the—when I was working on Beautiful People, Lisa Albert was on that show, and she wrote this great scene where there were two characters who just were getting together, and they’re about to kiss for the first time, and she says to him, something about “This is my favorite moment. The moment right before you kiss for the first time.” And he says, “Well, how long do you want it to last?” And she says—
“AS LONG AS I CAN STAND IT.”
And that, to me, is the essence of—you just, you want to make people wait as long as they can stand it. And then—and that’s one of the things that really helped the Wedding episode, because by that time, we were all like, “Oh my God!”
But when we broke the episodes, and Ron—we hadn’t assigned any of them, and Ron said, “Okay, is there anything—any one that anybody wants?” And I’m like, “That one! I want that one.” So I got it, which was really fun.
And it’s funny because, I remember at the time, Ron and Ira were like, “Take it!” Because they were just like, “Oh my God, an entire episode of them, you know, basically having sex.” Like, what is that?
And then it turned out that we came up with a great structure for it, in a way that kind of cut in and out of it, but yeah, that was really fun. I had a really good time. And shooting it was really fun. The crew was lovely, and getting to see Scotland was fantastic. The level of mud was astonishing.
We shoot it in blocks of two, and so you would generally be there anywhere between eight and twelve weeks, which is a long time. Which is part of the reason I decided—yeah, kind of like I’m done. Because it was just a long time to be away from home.
Season three of Outlander was Anne’s last. In Anne’s play Last Call, the protagonist, Jill, is a TV showrunner with a dark secret—she was fired for treating her staff miserably.
Anne: Some of the stuff, actually, in terms of Jill’s story, were things that were, like, just her being this monster and all that—which is not me, incidentally. All these stories that she tells about the horrible bosses that she’s had—the things that were all condensed into that one boss, and that were ultimately her—yeah, so some of that was like, “Oh, dear, will people recognize themselves in this?” But it was really—it was so organic. It was such a really liberating experience to write. It was very different. I didn’t have an outline. I just kind of…
I have friends that I’ve worked with, who, everybody thinks that it’s [based on] somebody else. Do you know what I mean? Like, oh my God, that was whoever we worked for. And I’m like, “Well, a little bit,” but no, they were all different. Those are all stories I’ve heard or experienced, but not all of them from one person.
Anne: The world has changed so much since I started. So for me to—you know, this is what I did. I guess one of the things that I will always tell people, though, is—you know, write something that you want to write. Don’t chase the market. Because the market changes all the time.
And because—you know, for all of us, myself included—I have a drawerful of scripts that never were sold. So if you write something that you kind of don’t want to write, and then it doesn’t sell, you’ve had a lousy experience and it didn’t sell. If you write something that really—it really feels good to you, at least you’ve had that experience. You know, it’s been a cathartic and enriching experience for you as writer. If it doesn’t sell, well, it’s a bummer. If it does sell, it’s gravy.
So I think that would be my—like everybody says, you have to write—just write, write, write. I think that’s the bulk of it.
My husband, years ago, took an acting class, although he’s a writer now too. And the teacher said–
“Keep giving them you until you is what they want.”
And I think that’s a great piece of advice.
A special thank you to Anne Kenney for her time, her candor, and her extra strong coffee!
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