Greenleaf, the popular new drama starring Merle Dandridge, Keith David, Lynn Whitfield and OWN’s founder Oprah Winfrey has become an instant summer hit. Showcasing the lives of a powerful and drama filled family behind a Memphis megachurch, Greenleaf fearlessly explores issues of corruption, sexual abuse and infidelity.
I was so excited to learn that my friend, Mike Flynn writes for the show and last week I caught up with him to learn more about how he got involved.
How did you get started in writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I started writing for as long as I can remember. In elementary school my teachers would make us do free-writing exercises in the morning to write about anything to get our brains working. I would use that time to completely make up stories that made no sense. And when time was up other students would have maybe two sentences and I would have like 3 pages worth of misspelled words and run-on sentences, but I had a story. I didn’t know it at the time that I wanted to be a writer but I guess you would call that a prelude to my career.
I’ve worked mostly on network shows that had short runs – Life On Mars, Happy Town, Detroit 1-8-7, and Rush on USA, as well as screenplays – film is a different beast on its own, but most writers fantasize about doing both, if not lucky enough to actually DO both.
Describe the road that led you to becoming a writer for Greenleaf.
I worked with the show’s creator, Craig Wright, on Rush so we had a relationship from that. When I met with him for this, he described the world and characters—needless to say, I was hooked. He’s a former minister and also is an accomplished playwright, so he has a unique perspective on what it means to live with secular views versus the school of living with religious ones.
Do you work on every episode as a team or as individual writers?
How we work in the writers room is basically like a think tank, with everyone contributing story ideas, pitches on character and episode arcs. The show runner has a vision or story ideas that he wants to do and we contribute to it, adding our take on it and evolves over time. It’s like a gumbo pot—each writer adds something to it, building the flavor over time and figuring out how it can be a delicious dish. Every writer is also assigned to write an individual episode. We help each other build our episodes and whoever is assigned that episode sort of steers the ship in the room to get it to a point where they feel good enough to go off a write a draft.
You wrote last week’s episode (1-04) “Behind Closed Doors”. What does your episode focus on? How does it fit into the show as a whole?
My episode focuses on the division inside the church when the Bishop decides to invite a police officer, who happens to be a church member that killed a Black teen, to service. There are deacons in the church that are opposed to it, especially when there is a church across town that is showing its support for the victim, but the Bishop has the deciding vote—and that rubs some people the wrong way. And Grace, with her being the reason why they’re in this position in the first place, stands in between it all while continuing her investigation on Mac and his victim, which is what ties it to the season-long story. I don’t want to give away too much to those who haven’t watched. There’s a lot that happens, but there’s a delicate dance between stories.
Describe your writing process.
The writing process for my episode was basically trying to find the moments in each scene that would show what the story was about and how to move that forward in a compelling way. It’s a challenge, but one that I love facing. Also, as a Black American male I tried to set aside my morals and ideologies on what’s right and wrong in this situation just so I could tell the truth from the character’s perspective. You want to incorporate your voice in the writing but must stay true to the world and characters in the show. So balancing that is work in itself.
Describe your writing room/brain storming sessions. What do you guys talk about?
We talk about what we’re reading, what’s happening in the news. We discuss what’s happening in our lives that can serve as fuel for stories, which I think every writer does—not taking things that personally happened to us verbatim, but sharing things that can be relatable to an audience so that they can see themselves and people they know, in the characters; television should be both entertaining and a shared human experience. We talk about what makes us laugh, cry, think, depresses us, cheers us up and scares us. Then we talk about how to make each episode better than the last.
How do you guys come up with ideas?
We discuss what’s interesting to us, what we would like to see on television. From there we go about making television.
How diverse it the writing room?
Very diverse. On staff we have two women and three men, total. Three of us are Black. And one is of Cuban descent and gay. I can’t tell you how important it is to have all of our voices in the room—we all represent what America is today; we want our art to reflect the times in which we live. We also have a support staff (writers assistant, show runner’s assistant, writers PA, script coordinator) composed of diverse minds and backgrounds who are all just as brilliant and could easily write on any show—we’re extremely blessed to work with them.
Did you interact with the actors? Did you get to meet Oprah?
We do interact with the actors. They’re mainly on set in Atlanta, where we do our filming, and we’re in Los Angeles. But it is an efficient interaction. And yes, Ms. Winfrey—that’s our partner, haha! Crazy that I get to say that. We did meet her. And it was as fantastic as you could imagine. It’s actually a dream collaboration come true.
What’s a typical work day for you?
We go and start right at 9 a.m. and are done by 6 p.m. most days. It’s an all-day meeting of arcing out the season and individual episodes, taking mini breaks for lunch and to free our minds, but we do get a lot done.
Who’s your favorite character?
I tend to gravitate towards Jacob because he has an inner conflict that extends from the relationship with his father by trying to live up to become something that he’s uncertain he can achieve. He’s had to suppress his own dreams for his wife and the church and maybe that is why he behaves the way he does. So it’s an interesting character study to tackle.
Does a parent have a least favorite child? Haha. Maybe they do… I don’t have a least favorite. They are all too compelling to not like.
Is there a character that you find difficult to write? If so, why?
I wouldn’t say difficult, but Grace is a challenge. She’s our main character who has been away from her family and the church for 20 years so there’s a lot to unpack as to who she was, how she changed, and who she is now. She’s complex, which is a great thing for a writer, but the challenge is how does she move the story forward while fitting into the world—and does she grow with the world or continue to rebel against it? I think she can eventually become one of the most complex characters in television, right up there with Betty Draper (Mad Men), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Walter White (Breaking Bad), et al.
What do you say to viewers who believe Greenleaf is a “church” version of Dynasty, Nashville, and Empire?
I’d say to them: watch and you will see that it isn’t—Greenleaf is in another lane. Which lane is that? Perhaps the audience can come up with one by season 2 or 3. There’s a saying (I believe) that suggests season 1 of a show belongs to the writers, season 2 to the actors and season 3 and beyond to the viewers.
Greenleaf presents a lot of themes in the first episodes—overwhelmingly so—are there any plans to narrow down on a few and focus story lines around those?
Those themes and story lines will continue to evolve over the course of the season (and show) and the audience will hopefully grow with them.
Of some of the themes, corruption of the church, sexual abuse, and infidelity are among the strongest displayed. Why these themes? Why now? Why is this story important for us to know?
Why not? We’re not trying to attack the church as some may initially feel. It’s more so looking inside the church and seeing what’s moving underneath the pews, so to speak. And yes, these are fictional stories and characters, but we want to explore how people in this world would react if this were to happen to them, especially with them being leaders and the source of spiritual guidance in the Black community. A lot of these things occur in the Black community (and church) and people are afraid to acknowledge them. I think the first step in tackling these issues is to address them and let people know that they are happening rather than sweeping the problems under the rug.
What should viewers be taking away from it?
What I’d like them to take away from it is that no one is perfect and that everyone under the sun has flaws.
Greenleaf has already been renewed for a second season—can you tell us what we can expect from season two? Will you be writing for season two as well?
Questions like that will spoil your appetite! Yes, I will be there (praise God!). I’ll let you get to the end of season one first and then let you speculate what could happen next in season two.
Biggest career lesson you’ve learned?
I’d say to always stay hungry and humble. That’ll work in any situation and will take you to unimaginable heights in your career.
See scenes from last week’s episode.