Pete Nowalk on creating the world of How to Get Away with Murder, writing an inclusive show that broke stereotypes
When writing this show, I didn't define any character by their race or ethnicity, says Pete Nowalk.
In 2014, when Annalise Keating first entered her classroom at Middleton University and invited us to watch her teach Criminal Law 101, or what she preferred to call "How to Get Away with Murder", we knew we were in for a ride — and what a ride it has been.
Knowing this formidable and brilliant defence attorney, watching her take on one case after the other, assisted by her five students, and ripping apart the prosecution in the courtroom made us root for her, and very often, just be over-awed by her sheer personality.
Keating was an embodiment of strength, success and sophistication, while simultaneously possessing a sexual, mysterious and almost-sociopathic side. Four episodes into the show, Keating — played by the inimitable Viola Davis — does something which was unprecedented in American television: In one scene, we see a flustered and exasperated Keating (she has found out about her husband's affair with a young college student who has recently been found dead) sitting at her dressing table, pondering over her life and relationship. Then, she takes off her wig, revealing her cropped Afro hair, peels off her artificial eyelashes, and takes off her makeup with a napkin — baring herself to the outside world devoid of any tangible and intangible embellishments.
The bathroom door opens and her husband comes out. She looks at him filled with both rage and despair, and says, "Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?"
That was just the start of the first season. Six seasons down (the final season dropped on Netflix in May 2020), How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM) is a pop-culture sensation with a huge fanbase across the globe. Not just for the stellar performances of its cast, most notably Davis who also went on to win an Emmy in 2015, but also the show's writing, character arcs and inclusivity.
The showrunners — Shonda Rhimes, Pete Nowalk and Betsy Beers — have invested in bringing together a diverse set of characters with diverse origins and sexual orientations. At the 2015 GLAAD Media Awards, which honours the media for fair, accurate, and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues, HTGAWM was conferred with the Outstanding Drama Series award.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, show creator, writer and executive producer Pete Nowalk talks about the making of How to Get Away with Murder and its legacy. Edited excerpts below:
You have been an instrumental part of the writing teams of Shonda Rhimes' flagship shows such as Scandal, Grey's Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder. Could you tell us about your journey into the world of screenplay writing?
I first worked as an assistant in film and wrote an advice book about that time called The Hollywood Assistants Handbook. I was writing scripts during that time, at night and on weekends. A pilot I'd written got sent to Betsy Beers at Shondaland, who was then responsible for hiring me as a writer on Grey's Anatomy. I worked with Shondaland for the past 12 years, to the point that I created How to Get Away with Murder under their umbrella.
How did you come up with the idea for HTGAWM?
I love to write about normal people in extreme situations. HTGAWM is very much about that — young people who think their life will go one way (law school, success as a lawyer), but then gets hijacked by the darkest of acts — murder. I obviously can't personally relate to that situation, but that was the fun part of dreaming up this show. The other instinct that drove the story was to have a charismatic leader at the centre, and who better to portray this person than Viola Davis?
In one interview, you mentioned Annalise Keating was not supposed to be a Black woman and that other non-Black actors had been approached to do the part. Today, the character is a path-breaking example in terms of the portrayal of Black women on American TV. Could you tell us about Annalise's story and how she came to be, as the world knows her today?
When writing this show, I didn't define any character by their race or ethnicity. I wanted the casting process to dictate and inform that part of the characters. When Viola's name was brought up, I never thought she'd actually be interested. She was a movie star and I didn't know to dream that big. Once Viola came on board, the character was built around her in so many ways — not just the fact that Viola's a Black woman, but I also adjusted the story to reflect the subjects she herself is interested in. In our first conversation, Viola said she wanted to see Annalise without her wig; thus was born the most iconic moment in the show. Our collaboration about Annalise was one of my favourite parts of making this series.
In a show/series which spans across several seasons, how are the arcs of lead characters like Annalise and an ensemble supporting cast developed? Could you tell us about the writing process of a show like HTGAWM, and the major challenges you faced during the development phase?
We wrote, shot, edited, and aired the show all at the same time. There was no "locking an entire storyline in" before we started shooting. My writers and I would have goals we wanted to accomplish, but those often changed as we reacted to the footage we were seeing. I love this part of writing a "network" TV show — the fast pace and having to pivot quickly, sometimes even rewriting scenes on the same day they're shooting. It's an adrenaline rush, if not stressful. I was lucky to have a team of directors, writers, and actors who could adjust quickly.
HTGAWM has been able to break moulds and pave the way for shows in the future. Whether it is racism, LGBTQ issues, disproportionate representation, sexism, patriarchy — the show has addressed all of these issues. Was this a conscious decision from the get-go, or did it happen over the course of writing the show?
I love how the show's been recognised for its representation, but that was never the goal. The goal had always been to show the world as it truly is. Law schools are diverse. All types of people become lawyers. That was just my job as a writer — to reflect that reality. I also love writing stories about distinct people with varying points of view. This makes great conflict. Great conflict makes great TV. I also strive to write about characters that I personally haven't seen on TV before. That's what makes me interested in learning about them. What's new and unique is interesting. That's all I hope people feel about my characters — that they're interesting.
How did you zero in on actors for the parts? How did you envision the characters they would play?
I love the casting process. Often, I will go into auditions with a specific image of a character in my mind, but then someone will come in and surprise me. This happened with the character of Laurel. I always knew she was a chameleon, that she would adjust herself to each situation she was in, but I had no idea what actor I wanted to play that. Karla Souza actually came in to audition for Michaela. She was great, but Aja Naomi King was Michaela from the first time she spoke. I asked Karla to audition, on the spot, for Laurel. She left the room for two minutes to read the sides, then came back and nailed it. I then asked her to audition for Rebecca too. Karla's such a versatile, talented actress and has taught me to be very open-minded when it comes to casting. Creating characters is a collaboration with the actor playing them.
Are there any interesting stories from the writer's room, regarding character or story development in HTGAWM that you would like to tell us — alternative story lines or different fates for the characters?
The first season, I never knew who killed Lila. The writers and I were debating between Sam and Rebecca until the last minute. We even wrote various scenes showing each of them killing her. It was only when a fellow writer, Michael Foley, suggested it was Frank that I finally understood that story. That taught me to always be open to changing the story to things that I, the creator, don't know yet. This is the best way to surprise me, and thus the audience.
Are you satisfied with the way the show ended? Or do you feel like making changes when you look back?
It's a joy for me to watch how all the actors have been applauded for their performances; I know they'll all show up in other shows as HTGAWM gave them so many chances to show their talents. I'm proud that we wrote characters with nuance, as well as introducing audiences across the world to people they might not have met in real life. Personally, the LGBTQ storylines and themes are my proudest accomplishment. Four of our characters were part of the queer community. I just hope these characters can give queer people across the world encouragement to love themselves and know there's room for them in the world to flourish and thrive.
How has HTGAWM impacted you — professionally and personally? Where do you think it will take you from here, and what's next for you?
I learned so much about making a TV show — how to trust your crew, be a better leader, let others shine. My goal is to continue to write, or help others write, stories that the world hasn't seen. I've got other series I'm currently developing — it's too soon to tell you more — but the most fun part about this process is learning about a world I know nothing about. In the past, that was doctors (Grey's Anatomy), Washington DC power players (Scandal), and lawyers (HTGAWM). I can't wait to find that next group of people to dig into.
All the six seasons of How to Get Away with Murder are currently streaming on Netflix.
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