Best Practices

When it came time to run the show, Mrs. America creator Dahvi Waller had a wealth of knowledge to rely on.

Written by LISA ROSEN


Dahvi Waller went through the WGA Showrunner Training Program in 2011, although she didn’t get a show greenlit until Mrs. America. “I was the failure student,” she jokes. “They were like, ‘Took you a while to get it over the net.’” (See feature in the Fall 2020 issue of Written By here.)


As much as she loved the program, “it was only, like, seven weeks,” so she still had a lot to learn. “The skills that make you a great writer are not at all the skills that make a good manager.” Fortunately, she’d worked with enough of them in previous writers’ rooms, and applied the lessons she’d gleaned.

“In the first week on Mad Men, [creator] Matt Weiner had us all come in and pitch ten story ideas for the characters. I stole that. You get a sense of what each writer is very good at, you get stories that you could put into your cooler for later episodes, and it just gets everyone's juices flowing.”

During the course of the series, Waller promoted her researcher Joshua Allen Griffith to staff writer, and they co-wrote the finale script. “It's something Matt did on Mad Men. He co-wrote every finale with the writers’ assistant, and many of those writers’ assistants he would promote to staff writers. I was very inspired by that.”

“The skills that make you a great writer are not at all the skills that make a good manager.”—Dahvi Waller

Jonathan Lisco, who ran Halt and Catch Fire (created by Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers), would share all his challenges as a showrunner with the room. “I really appreciated that, because it helped me coming into being a showrunner for the first time. So I took a page out of his book and was really honest with my writers about everything I was going through, and all the challenges that were happening outside the room, because those were five showrunners in my room. They’re all going to run shows, they’re all super talented. If I can give them a little nugget that helps him, that Jonathan gave to me, that would be great.”

Greg Berlanti was showrunner on Jack and Bobby (created by Berlanti & Vanessa Taylor and Steven A. Cohen & Brad Meltzer), where she had her first gig in a room as the writers’ assistant. He taught her to always start from the character's journey. “So you don't start with the plot points. You say: ‘Phyllis [Schlafly]. Where is she starting? Where is she ending?’ And then for every episode, ‘Where is she starting Episode 2, and where is she ending?’ And so we would plot out the arc for each of our characters, going all the way down. And once we had the character arcs and we had the emotional journeys for each character, which came out of these bio presentations, then we’d get to plot.”

Her writers taught her an important lesson as well. “You know what I was bad at? You need to have a lot of breaks. I'm like a camel, I can go hours without having to go to the bathroom, and you cannot let your rhythm dictate the room. They’d go, ‘Can we please get a break?’ You need outside coffee. No one likes the Keurig. It's the getting a hot cup from outside that is rejuvenating and gives you the extra kick in the afternoon. And you have to have good snacks. If you have crappy snacks, everyone's cranky.”