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Fox’s Empire Veteran Writer Dianne Houston Discusses the True Essence of Television Writing

June 9, 2019

ATM: What are the necessary changes that take place in your writing style?

DH: Every show you write needs something different from the last show you write on. I did not know to write Cookie, Jamal, and Lucious until starting to write. It is an evolutionary process.

ATM: Express the essentialness with the music getting put toward the family on this television series?

DH: You could not tell this story without music because it is about making music. The family makes music, and this is what they do. This is what they live for and what they are all about. It would be foolish and impossible to tell the story without music. Music is an essential part of Empire.

ATM: How are the topics of family and social economic status displayed in any of the episodes?

DH: In the last season, season 4, the Lyon family starts off with their version of broke. Their version of broke is not the same as my version. Their version of broke is living in a mansion. If I am broke, then I am broke. In the first few episodes, they are a family who is used to living large with a lot of luxury. Suddenly they cannot afford to put on their air conditioner. It is interesting. The Lyons get a little taste of the real world.

ATM: These same elements of money and family were seen in television shows with black families during the 70s, do you remember this time?

DH: Do I remember the 70s? Yes, I do. Were you even around in the 70s? I do not think you were. There are a lot of topics we discuss now that we never discussed in the 70s. We have an openly gay character on the show. We have a male character who is in love with another male and who has an HIV status. Many shows have never dealt with the fact of this being a reality. Lucious has to get with the program that Cookie is his equal. This is an ongoing thing. A lot of these are themes that were not themes of black families in the 70s. The 70s family shows were largely trying to show the world that black people are just like white people. Empire could care less about this. We are not trying to be like anybody. Empire is just itself.

ATM: If the Good Times’ character’s communication was expressed through music, then how would this have changed the moral compass of the show?

DH: It makes the show deeper and better whenever you add music in an honest way. They did a little of it. If they had more music and showed how the family related to music, then we would have learned more about the Evan’s family.

ATM: In what aspects, do the writers help allow music to contribute to the Lyon’s family’s internal side?

DH: This is a good question. Especially on Empire, the writers create the stories. Then, we have a meeting with the people that do music writing. They try to create songs. If we say this is a sad song or someone broke their heart or this is romantic, then they try to create music that fits the scene. This is how this works.

ATM: Now, in what ways does the music contribute to their ego which is the external side?

DH: Lucious is all ego. The music does something different when Lucious walks into the room. He is the head Lyon and the man. It is different when hearing violins with Cookie. Whereas, you hear basslines with Lucious. It is a different feeling.

ATM: How do you see yourself as a unique storyteller?

DH: You tend to pull a lot on your own life experiences. Especially, when you have been writing for as long as me. It is like the stories you tell are exactly similar to your life, but it becomes unique because of you are bringing big chunks of who you are to the table as a storyteller and as a screenwriter. In this sense, we are having a room full of unique voices. There are no two writers in the writer’s room who are alike. We have people who specialize in science fiction even though this is not this type of show. When we are brought together, we rock out the stories. We make it into one voice.

ATM: Describe the writing process behind the scenes.

DH: The room has about 13 writers in it. The creative season is the same as to when everyone else sees it. Our creative season is in May or June. Sometimes we leave the country together. We go and woodshed. We sit down to talk, and we work through what will happen in the season. In this season, someone in the Lyon family will die. Okay, now let’s figure out who and the storylines. This season they will lose the empire, or they will get it back. We sit down and work around the clock to come up with the ideas that become the pieces of the episodes.

Two writers work together to create an episode. Then, it is reviewed by the entire room. It has to jump through hoops and pass through approvals. Then it gets to the director. We have probably had about nine different directors this season. The director puts their spin on it. It has gone through so many evolutionary steps by the time it becomes an episode that everyone sees.

You would not think one-half hour of television would take weeks and weeks and sometimes months to put together. For example, if we decide in episode eight, we want to introduce a new character, then by the time we write episode eight, we might be filming episode two. We write them long before they are filmed. We might have to go back to rewrite episode six and seven because we decided to invent another character. The story is always evolving until it is locked down into the can.

ATM: How do the writers pitch storylines that help continue the storyline of the characters and also, shine a light on what is happening?

DH: Everyone is reading the newspaper. We go, “Hey we have to move this into the story.” We sit around in the room. Again, it is about 13 of us. We have two amazing people who keep track of our thoughts and the things we say. We sit around and throw ideas at each other. It is a wonderful room. We all get along. We spend half the day laughing so hard people are falling out of their chairs. Other times, we are in tears or fighting about things. The writer’s room functions as the first family of Empire. This is where it begins. There is like a guardian assigned to each character.

For example, I am Cookie’s guardian and also another person named Josh. This means we make sure that nothing is written about Cookie that is not believable or outside of her character. We all look at our character like they were like real people. It is like having a family member that you are in charge of. We had Cookie explore child abuse. There are so many issues we have dealt with this year. These are issues that are pulled right out of the paper. We do this all the time and keep current. Remember we are ahead of the time, we shot it months before by the time everyone sees it. So, something that happens Monday night is not going to show up in next week’s episode because this episode was shot two months ago.

ATM: Explain the bond between Cookie and Hakeem.

DH: Hakeem was about a year old when Cookie went to jail. This is the baby she knew the least. He grew up completely without his mother. Cookie feels guilty about this. She is always trying to make up for this.

ATM: And with Andre?

DH: This is her oldest. Your oldest is your first child. There is always a special bond with a mother and her first. She gets angry at him fast. He frustrated him a lot, but she adores him.

ATM: And Jamal’s character?

DH: Jamal’s character is the one who is the most like his mother. He is very emotional. He is super creative. Cookie knows a good song when she hears it. Cookie probably wishes she could create music like her husband and sons.

ATM: Do you believe the absence of Cookie, in the beginning, impacted how her sons established connections with women?

DH: Absolutely. All of our characters had to evolve. Neither of them had healthy relationships with women until Cookie came back to show them how it was done.

ATM: And how is it done?

DH: By looking at Cookie and Lucious, they realize women are not just tools to be played with. A relationship takes time, patience, and sacrifice. This is something Hakeem, Andre learned in their relationships with women. Jamal has learned it. Jamal treats women with a great deal of respect.

ATM: How did the atmosphere of Lucious staying in their lives become influential with their approach to men?

DH: Lucious taught his sons to fight. He taught them money is how you solve everything. This, of course, is not true. All of them have had to learn that everything is not about thug life. They are still fighters.

ATM: Analyze Lucious character as he looks at Cookie.

DH: Lucious might not ever admit it, but he knows Cookie is a lot stronger than he will ever be. He has a great deal of admiration for her. He wishes that he had the chutzpah that she has.

ATM: What do you believe Cookie’s character sees in Lucious character?

DH: History. He is the person she has been in love with for most of her life. She sees and understands him better than anyone else. She is a ride or die.

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