Producing Creative Dialogue
So what can I tell you?
Even over the phone, Frank Rich ’71 comes across more like a benevolent professor than a high-level entertainment executive. Despite filming a documentary in New York as well as working on various journalistic pieces for some of the world’s most prestigious publications, he still manages to set up our interview himself rather than working through an assistant. When I pick up the phone in my small, Chicago sublet, Rich immediately asks if Chicago is my hometown, becoming excited when I tell him that I am here to intern and take improv classes. “It seems like everyone passes through there at some point in their [entertainment] careers,” he points out. “That’s great that you’re doing that.”
For the few minutes after, as I fill him in on my major and answer his questions about my Harvard experience, I almost forget that I’m the one doing the interviewing. But Rich brings me back—an experienced storyteller to an aspiring one. Having received a brief foray into my life, he now offers me one into his.
It’s difficult to confine Rich to a single occupational title. Even in his college days, he was pulling double duty. During his tenure at the Harvard Crimson, the former Lowell House resident served as both the Editorial Board Editor and the Theatre and Film Critic to the newspaper while pursuing his History and Literature degree. Nowadays he continues his journalism career as an editor and essayist at large for New York Magazine. He’s also recently signed on as a creative consultant for HBO where he is an Executive Producer of the Emmy-Nominated show, Veep.
Rich’s resume, despite its diversity, reveals a distinct and lifelong commitment to good storytelling and creative autonomy. This is what made HBO a perfect fit for his entrance into the world of television production. A haven for creative minds over the past few years, the network has solidified its reputation as the place for artistic innovation over the last decade. Six years ago when current CEO Richard Plepler and President of Programming Mike Lombardo took him to lunch to discuss the possibility of him signing on as a creative consultant at HBO, it seemed like an obvious choice. “I was excited by HBO itself which—besides doing work that I had long admired—also has a business model where there are no sponsors [to answer to], no commercials, and creative freedom is the norm,” Rich says.
Rich’s roles at HBO are almost as diverse as his career before joining the network. His original role as a creative consultant placed him right in the heart of HBO’s storytelling machine. “The idea was to sort of be a part of the free flowing conversation about everything that was going on at HBO from series being contemplated to documentaries to all sorts of stuff,” Rich says.
In addition to participating in consistent creative dialogue, there was always an understanding at HBO that Rich could get further involved with the production and development of any programming that interested him. And while his involvement with Veep dates back to the series’ beginning, it wasn’t the only major project he decided to take on at the network.
Rich produced the documentary Six by Sondheim, which won a 2013 Peabody Award. It also allowed him to delve deeper into the life of—as he sees it—“probably the greatest single artist of the American Musical Theatre for the past sixty years,” Stephen Sondheim (for the record, I completely agree). HBO’s penchant for creative exploration allowed Rich to make iconoclastic, unconventional choices with the project that included bringing in different directors and artists “at no small price” to stage and film new versions of six of Sondheim’s most iconic songs.
Rich’s history with Sondheim dates all the way back to a 1971 Crimson review he wrote on the writer and composer’s musical Follies. But getting to explore the master’s work in depth is something Rich never expected to be able to do before his time at HBO. “[Sondheim] would never be a candidate for a documentary on a broadcast network,” Rich recalls. “Maybe a 10 minute piece on 60 Minutes or Sunday Morning but that’s it. But [director] James Lapine and I were given three years to work on this. We were given the money to do it the way we wanted to do it and then we had it go on the air and be promoted with all the HBO marketing muscle behind it. We know what a privileged situation this is.”
If Six for Sondheim was Rich’s way of using HBO’s resources to further expand his deep-seeded love for theatre, Veep presented a way for him to explore his other area of expertise—politics. And while the show is clearly satire, the creative leniency granted by HBO puts the show in a unique position to explore an alternative style and voice. The absence of sponsors at HBO means that a show, especially one that deals with politics, can try out a variety of potentially subversive topics without fear of upsetting or offending advertisers. The other advantage, according to Rich, is the lack of emphasis on ratings: “Sure they like people to watch. But they’re willing to support shows that do not have huge numbers and they’re also willing to nurture shows until the find their audience.”
For Veep, Rich notes that audience devotion came in the second season and has continued to grow since then. But beyond viewer numbers, the show has also developed a level of cultural relevance that Rich takes great pride in. “I feel now that you just pick up the paper and Veep is going to be mentioned…not pieces of the show specifically, but as a reference point,” Rich says.
This cultural recognition no doubt owes itself to the level of familiarity that the production staff and cast have with what Rich calls the “culture of Washington.” “We’ve had the odd situation of meeting people in Washington who say ‘you must have been listening in on my office, because that is exactly what happened last week,” Rich recounts. Both Rich and the show’s star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, grew up in Washington and though the rest of the writing staff is British, Rich classifies them as ‘Washington junkies’ as well. “We feel we’re delivering something recognizable to ourselves [in our portrayal of Washington],” he says.
Television is a collaborative medium and I love collaboration… It’s just a very exciting and exhilarating experience.
Both Six for Sondheim and Veep credit Rich as an Executive Producer, a nebulous entertainment term that describes both production juggernauts like Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live and actors like Ashton Kutcher who can negotiate the title into their contracts. For Veep, in Rich’s case, the role entails being a part of the production process form beginning to end. And though he considers himself a writer of prose rather than television, he does read scripts at every step of the process. “It does involve…being a part of that discussion that involves Armando [Iannucci, Veep’s showrunner] and the writers and the cast about where we are going, how the scripts work and don’t work, and how we can shake them down,” Rich says.
Rich is quick to distribute credit for the show’s success among all those involved in its creation. From writers, to supporting members, to Louis-Dreyfus herself, Rich speaks of the Veep team as a family, a team, and an ensemble with reverence and gratitude. “They’re all bringing their best game and constantly trying to better work than they even did previously. It’s just a true ensemble. It’s a joy to be around.”
While Rich can’t pick a favorite character, he does have a favorite part of the television process. The collaborative creative environment afforded to him in his time at HBO is a lovely departure from Rich’s many years as a journalist. “I’ve spent so many years as a writer which as you know or are about to discover means staring at a computer screen in the solitariness of wherever you’re writing,” Rich says. “Television is a collaborative medium and I love collaboration…being on a sound stage with a bunch of writers, actors, crew members, designers, everyone’s involved with the main show. It’s just a very exciting and exhilarating experience.”
And his success within and love for a collaborative environment is no doubt a testament to Rich’s unbridled respect for all the artists, established or aspiring that cross his path. Our whole conversation is peppered with small trivia facts and anecdotes about the cast and crew of Veep that he offers with the mix of admiration and familiarity usually reserved for fathers talking about their children. At the end of the interview, he makes sure that I have everything I need, encourages me to email with any follow-up questions, and wishes me best of luck in my future. Then he sends me on my way to stare at a computer screen in the solitariness of wherever I’m writing until I get restless and—like Rich himself—turn to the cast of Veep for a little bit of laughter and excitement.