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'Underground' showrunner Misha Green: 'We can all be Harriet Tubmans'

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Writer Misha Green attends WGN America's "Underground" Season Two Party, hosted by John Legend, at 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2017 in Park City, Utah. Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for WGN AMERICA

It's something of a miracle that the TV series “Underground” is on television, let alone just starting its second season.

The series about runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad failed to turn studio heads at first. Pretty much everyone passed on the show before WGN America, best known for MASH reruns and lowbrow infomercials like “Amazing Abs,”  decided to take a chance on the pitch.

But persistence paid off and even John Legend signed on to executive produce. Writer Misha Green is the co-creator and showrunner for the series, which uses modern music to score a pre-Civil War story. 

When she came by The Frame for a chat, Green explained why she and her co-creator, Joe Pikoski, decided to focus on this specific period of American history. 

Interview Highlights:

On choosing to highlight this period of American history:

We started with the 1857 Dred Scott case, which basically decided that African Americans or people who were enslaved were not citizens and they had no rights the court had to respect. So it really blew up this time period because even if you were managing to escape to the North, you then were not free. Anybody could capture you and take you back. Literally a citizen on the street. So for us that was the starting point that we're going to explore — what this time in America was like through the Civil War.

On what that time reveals about America:

It was a desperate and dangerous time which creates desperate and dangerous people. I think that's what we like to explore and see on TV these days especially in long form, is complicated people who have to make tough decisions. Also, it's just a story of American heroes and I think that's also something we always love to watch.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in the WGN series "Underground."
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee in the WGN series "Underground." WGN

On how they initially pitched "Underground":

My co-creator Joe Pokaski and I, we both came from a genre background. We met on "Heroes." We looked at this story and we knew we wanted to tell a story about the Underground Railroad and the more research we did the more the thriller aspect just kept coming out. We were just like, oh my god, how has this story not been told? We make up these fantastical sci-fi worlds like the "Hunger Games" where everybody is against this utopian government. This was happening in our history, which, to me, gives it more depth. I've always been a history fan. We talked about it that way. We pitched it that way. We said it was going to be a thrill ride and hopefully that's how you experience it.

On what kind of research went into the series:

We started with the slave narratives at the Library of Congress and really listening to people who were enslaved telling their lives in their own words. I think for that, it just kind of blew the door open for us because there was so much stuff that was unknown that should be known. The idea that there were plantation dances and they would go to other plantations to meet other enslaved people and fall in love and do all that stuff — we felt that this time period has been held in such a sacred way. I think for us, when we were listening people talk about their own lives we found that there were so many details that had been lost. We don't have to make up that much. Truth is stranger than fiction. We read stuff where we were just like, what!? They literally had little boys fanning people on swings as air conditioning. That's crazy! You would think you'd watch something and be like, that's made up. So I think the ingenuity and the courage involved in the Underground Railroad is really the DNA of the story and we don't have to go that far to find badass characters like Harriet Tubman.

Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in the WGN series "Underground."
Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in the WGN series "Underground." WGN

On the feelings that came with shooting on location:

When we first set foot where we shot the Macon plantation, we all felt the weight of it. It settled in a little bit deeper. You felt that there we did have to represent the ancestors. We did have to give weight to it and do it right. So I think it just challenged us and pushed us to really do work we didn't even know we could do. I think that couldn't have been done if we shot somewhere else. 

One day I was sitting there and Adina Porter, who plays Pearly Mae in season one, was looking at this beautiful huge tree and she was thinking, how many bodies has that tree seen? That just hit me. I thought, these people fought so that we could be here making a show about their heroism. That to me is amazing. When that settles in you're like, it's art. That's what art can do.

On what the audience takes away:

It's about changing the lens. I think we've seen this period in a very specific way like a portrait on the wall. We said we want to take it down and live in it. We wanted to understand these people, what they were going through and the choices they were making to be heroes. Today, one of the things we've always said is, it's not about the occupation, it's about the revolution. I think that is more relevant today than ever and I think that is, especially working on season two of "Underground," like, oh there's hope. Look at the atrocities they were facing. Look what they were up against and they still fought back. They still moved the world to where it's good. I look at that and I go, we can handle today. We can get it done.

On the people behind the camera on "Underground":

Behind the scenes you would see a lot of people putting on bug spray. Also, behind the scenes we are very cognizant about trying to find women directors and about having an inclusive crew because it's important. If you look a certain way and you get to a spot and you don't help other people who look like you get there then you're not doing your job. 

Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee and Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in the WGN "Underground."
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee and Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman in the WGN "Underground." WGN

On how she started writing for "Sons of Anarchy":

I ended up on Kurt Sutter's show because there's a thing called a diversity program where the network will pay for a diversity writer coming in at a staff level for the season. So that's how I ended up on this show. You just get in there and you hope that you can do what you need to do there and then move on. It was a great opportunity and I think everyone on "Sons of Anarchy" championed me. I got there and I was like, I get an office? This is amazing!

I had written features before so I had been sitting alone in my own apartment typing away at my computer. I was like like, I love TV too. I think I want to write TV. But then I was like (whispering) what do TV writers do? Then I got there and everybody was so welcoming and helpful. It was one of my favorite shows the season before so I was just excited. 

On being mistaken for a production assistant:

I think, because you look around in Hollywood — and there are no "me"s. There's nobody that's as young as me, as black as me or as feminine as me. I think that's the problem. Representation matters. When you see it, you can be it — as so many people have been saying recently. That's why. You walk into those rooms and people are like, oh, you're who I'm here to meet? Oh... I'm like, yep, it can come in this package too, guys. You don't necessarily see it or want it to, but it can and we're out here. And it's happening more and more and it's going to have to happen. There's no other way for it to go.

On conversations in the writers' room she likes to hear:

I like to hear conversations that are debates. We had a few topics this season that there were some heated debates about. I think that is when you know you've got something that's worth exploring. I think you shouldn't run away from that. You should go, why do you feel that way? You just had such a visceral reaction to the idea of telling this story this way, why? Then unpack that and see how you can integrate it into telling the story. I think that's when I get excited in the writers' room — when people are yelling back and forth at each other.

On using contemporary music:

From the script stage and from the conception of the show, one of the things we said we were going to do was use contemporary music. When we were pitching it was another thing that people were like, hmm I don't think we know how that's going to work... But we wrote "Black Skinhead" — the Kanye West song that we used at the beginning — into the script to say that this is not what you're used to seeing. This is going to be different. It's going to feel different. Then there's just so much contemporary music that adds that drive. The DNA of the show is that moving, that pumping, that beat. 

On what we can learn from this period in history:

I think there's a lot of DNA to our current America that started during this period. I think acknowledging that and taking it in and learning from it and understanding it [is important]. One of the things we talk about a lot season one was colorism and "house slaves" versus "field slaves" and the fact that this was a concept created to divide people. When you know and have that knowledge you can conquer those concepts. But if you keep ignoring them and brushing them under the rug, it only gets worse. I think that's one of the reasons why it is so timely to look back now. A lot of the issues that we have today started here.

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