Viewers who tuned in to Glen Mazzara’s new series, Damien (which premiered this week on A&E), saw a dark drama about the now-grown-up diabolical kid from the 1976 film The Omen. What they didn't see was Mazzara’s behind-the-scenes creation: A writers' room that is equal parts male and female—a rarity in Hollywood.
Mazzara, a long-time showrunner (credits include FX Network’s The Shield and AMC’s The Walking Dead), didn’t set out to be a champion for diversity in Tinseltown. But, several years back, he began noticing some troubling patterns that led him to take action and change the ethnic and gender makeup of his writers' room.
It all started when Mazzara was working on The Shield, a series about a fictitious, experimental division within the Los Angeles Police Department. "I looked around the writers' room and a lot of my fellow writers were white, middle-aged guys," says Mazzara. "And we were writing for a very diverse cast."
Mazzara worried that the material they were developing wasn't as "authentic" as it should be, and decided to diversify his writing staff, primarily by hiring black writers.
"What surprised me was that when I reached out to agencies people thought I was just covering myself, that I wasn’t sincere," says Mazzara. "And I really started to see as an employer that the system is rigged to accept white males, to train them and keep them in the pipeline. It’s very difficult to get other people into the pipeline and then to give them the tools to succeed. There's resistance not just on a systemic level but in the writers' room."
Eventually, Mazzara not only hired more black writers but also became involved with diversity initiatives within the Writers Guild.
"Sometimes in Hollywood, showrunners will say, 'I don’t want to hire a black writer—I had one and it didn’t work out,'” says Mazzara. "We will hire a woman to represent the strong female perspective. Why can’t she represent everyone’s perspective? This needs to be corrected, this needs to be changed. It’s better business to have more people telling their stories. The material is better. And it’s not right to be dealing from a stacked deck."
No more interrupting
Bringing biases to light isn't easy. And Mazzara has had to unlearn some of his own behavior patterns. After hiring a couple of new female writers several years back, he was surprised to realize that the women were constantly getting interrupted during writing sessions—and that he hadn't even noticed.
"Everyone’s sitting around the table and it’s a free-for-all," says Mazzara. "People are pitching ideas and writers will come in and want to pitch. After a few days these women said, 'watch what happens when we try to pitch.' Every time they started to pitch someone interrupted them or stole the pitch or tried to change it. I was complicit in this because my male ear was tuned to the interrupting male voice. So I realized I had behavior that I had to unlearn."
Immediately, Mazzara instituted a "no interrupting" rule in his writers' room.
"If someone is coming in and they have the floor and they are presenting prepared material, just let them pitch," says Mazzara. "Then when they finish then you can rip it apart and destroy it and leave them in tears—whether they’re male or female."
Mazzara has made it a priority to reach 50/50 gender parity in Damien's writers' room. But, as evident by the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, Hollywood has a long way to go. According to Mazzara, even our terminology is inherently biased,
“You could say that the term diversity is a sexist, racist term in itself,” says Mazzara, “because it implies diversity to a white, male perspective."