Alex Metcalf is a writer and producer for several acclaimed television shows. Mindhunter, Sharp Objects, and UnREAL are but a few of the projects he’s been involved in over the past few years. Here, he shares his thoughts about television as a medium and what it has been accomplishing, as well as some of his past work and his most recent project, Showtime’s Emmy-contender The Loudest Voice.
Awards Daily: What got you interested in working in television?
Alex Metcalf: Oh, that’s a funny question. Wow, okay. I used to be a feature writer way back when, and then I quit and started and ran a charter school for a few years. I got sucked back into the game by someone wanting to do a film of mine. So I went and got a new agent and when I met the new agent he said, ‘You’ve got to get out of the film game. Because the stuff you want to do–independent movies, small movies, movies about characters, movies about people–nobody wants to make those anymore, that’s in television.’ It was the agent who really drove me to TV. So I wrote a pilot that people really liked and that was that. I just shifted completely into television.
AD: What made you want to tell the Roger Ailes story in The Loudest Voice?
AM: Well Roger is, you know, a great American figure–like him, hate him, he’s uniquely American on one level and uniquely himself on another. He is this larger than life Shakespearean figure, his life is full of drama, full of politics, full of emotion, and so why wouldn’t you want to tell his story?
AD: Going along that route with a figure like Ailes, who is a terrible predator, but he is the master of his chosen field. How do you go about capturing that kind of person?
AM: A lot of it is trying to figure out what makes him tick, and trying to figure out how the psychology of who he was and how he came to be, drives what he did. We spent a lot of time going back into his past and of course Gabriel Sherman and all the work he did on Roger’s biography. Talking about all that and how all that drove the man he became. None of that is in the series. We talked about putting it in at one point, details like his mother leaving when he was in college and him coming home to an empty house, and his reconciliation with his mother after years of seeming to hate her. His big issues with women, which were clearly quite profound. But from a very young age growing up in a working class town with a father who was a union foreman who did not seem to care for the union. So many things from childhood drove him to be the man he became.
AD: What is your process as a writer?
AM: It depends on what it is. I have written in a lot of different genres so everything is kind of different. With something based on facts you really need to go to the facts and find some sort of truth, that nugget of personality or creation like where you think this person comes from. And I guess that applies to all scripts in the sense that you have an idea and you just gradually open it up. The same that we did with Roger when we were trying to find who this guy was and what the story was we were trying to tell. After getting the idea of who he is you keep digging into that until the story opens up and you recognize what the story is. And that is always the hardest thing about any idea. What is the best way to tell the story? And the further you dig into the truth, whether it is a person or an idea, the more that will tell you how to tell the story.
AD: I saw you were a producer as well on Sharp Objects. Can you tell us anything about that experience?
AM: That experience was great! I was a writer and producer on that, more writer than producer actually. Working with Marti Noxon, who is sublime and talented and on top of her game, and also working with Gillian Flynn, who created this beautiful book that I really loved. She has this singular ability to sit in a room and listen to a bunch of writers pitch different versions and different storylines of what might happen, and was not at all married to her work. She just wanted the best translation of her work that could be and I was really struck by that. But that was a fantastic experience. Gillian and Marti were a great team, Jean-Marc Vallée did a great job with the direction, and it was one of those rare experiences that was really a joy from start to finish. As painful as the material was, the work on it was great.
AD: Did you get to interact with Amy Adams much during the process?
AM: I didn’t, I wasn’t on set that much because I had to go back to UnREAL, another show I was working on at the same time. But I will say about Amy is that when she came in as a producer and we pitched the season to her (you know the season is full of deeply uncomfortable things), she came with no agent, nobody at all so a room full of executives and Amy. And she never once responded out of discomfort as an actor, it was always as a producer, always very smart, very articulate, and worried about the show, not about her place in the show, but the show and I was really impressed by that.
AD: So did you get to interact much with Russell Crowe on The Loudest Voice?
AM: Yes, on The Loudest Voice I was there every day. Russell is a man who has very clear ideas about what he wants, both character wise and everything wise. He comes in with a vision, which sometimes aligns with everyone else and sometimes does not. And so it is an interesting process because he is super smart, super articulate, and does a lot of his own research, which is both great and a challenge because sometimes his research conflicted with what story we were telling. But it also made for a better story because talent always helps. So working with Russell–he is a bull in a china shop–he really is, and I mean that in the best way really, because he has a lot of ideas that he brings to the table, and you have got to work with him. And I think because those ideas and bull in a china shop nature are all commitment to the truth of his character and the project (even when it is a challenge to me sometimes) that ultimately makes the project better. Without question.
AD: He actually has a quote I really liked: ‘I owe you my best work. I don’t owe you a good attitude.’ And I was, like, he is absolutely right. I kind of appreciated that.
AM: I appreciate that… [Laughter from both of us]
AD: You have a bit of a different experience than I do with me just being a viewer.
AM: I do, but look, he cares, and we all have our peccadilloes. We all have things that piss us off. (I am talking about me now, not him.) We bring whatever we bring when we work with a group of people. But he cares, and any sort of issues that come up are for me–about him caring so much about the show and caring about the performance and caring that he’s bringing truth to the screen.
AD: Within The Loudest Voice you jump around in time to two different points in history, both within America and also Roger Ailes life. How did you guys go about choosing what point in time you wanted to focus on?
Am: That’s an interesting question because that gets back to how we wrote the script. Roger had so much in his life, from cornering Nixon in the Phil Donahue dressing room to being Nixon’s media guy, to being a Broadway producer of The Hot l Baltimore. He has so many different aspects to his life, so it’s very easy to write and shoot a straight-up biopic. We had a lot of discussion about how to tell the story, and ultimately we realized the story was Roger and Fox News. That was the important kind of connection that we wanted to focus on. It is what he is known for. It’s where he truly blossomed as this sort of cultural figure in the world.
So once we realized that, it became a story about Roger and Fox News. Then it became, what are the important moments? So the first episode was the birth of Fox News, and then it became how events influenced Roger à la 9/11, and then how Roger influenced Fox. It became a little self-evident once we recognized it was both the story of the man and the empire, not one or the other, that everything just slid into place. Once we could connect the psychological to the events at hand, to what happened at Fox News. The beginning of Fox News, 9/11, Obama–all that seemed to just naturally happen when we made the decision about what the big story was, everything slided in.
AD: Then going to the end with him with Trump seemed like a natural reaction to his Obama hatred.
AM: Exactly, it’s funny, it’s all sort of right there. Again, once you look with both psychological and industrial lenses on, all that sort of stuff starts to make sense.
AD: With the actresses that portray the victims of Roger Ailes, you see a lot of the pain that they are going through, and show the power and influence he has over them. How did you get them into that headspace?
AM: First the directors have a lot to do with it, obviously, and I had some interaction with the actors. But I inevitably feel women, especially women who are actors, have all been in some similar situation. Whether it’s just a word or phrase, or a little microaggression here or there, or something more. I feel that all these actresses have been in some similar situations, so I think the jump from that to the situation with Roger and the scripted world we created for them was not easy. Easy is the wrong word, but was familiar on some level. So there wasn’t a lot to do to actually get them there. I think all those women viscerally understood that situation, whether they experienced it or not in their own lives. So the step into the character, into the room with Roger, was not a great leap, as sad as that is.
AD: That is impressive and sad at the same time.
AD: You mentioned that TV is the place you can tell the stories you want. The last two projects you’ve worked on are the TV mini-series. Is that a style of television that you’re more interested in pursuing? Or are you more interested in other things?
AM: I’m open to anything. A good story is a good story whether it’s a two-hour story, an eight hour story, or an eighty-eight hour story. It’s interesting because we are in this fantastic landscape now of stories taking as long as they need to be told. There are movies that work and then sometimes you need more and that’s where the limited series really steps into play. It can be six hours or eight hours but it is still a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As opposed to classic television that goes on and on. I would like to look at it as sort of a hallway, when you’re writing a movie you are walking down the hallway telling the story and you’re closing the door behind you, you’re not going to go this way, you’re not going to go that way, this is the way you’re going.
But with television, especially long form television, you’re walking down the hallway but you’re leaving the doors open so you can go back to them, because there are always other storylines and these other things to explore. So they are very different writing experiences, but I will say a limited series is more a movie than it is an extended television series.
AD: Is there another subject you are currently interested in and that you’d like to do?
AM: There are a couple things I’m doing now that are not public so I can’t really talk about them. A couple are based on real life, one is a huge sci-fi piece that should really not be in real life. Personally it was a detriment early in my career that I liked all genres and liked to tell all different kinds of stories. These days that’s sort of helpful because there’s so much opportunity now that there wasn’t ten years ago.
AD: Anything you want to leave our readers with?
AM: This really is this strange golden age of television. I think that’s really true. Especially now that we’re all trapped at home, together or alone, as the case may be. This is the time that storytellers can really step to the floor and tell stories that matter.
The Loudest Voice is available on Showtime.