‘Masters of Sex’ creator Michelle Ashford talks season 1

12.15.13 3 years ago 5 Comments

Showtime

Showtime”s “Masters of Sex” just concluded a debut season so strong that I ranked it the fifth-best show overall of 2013. I reviewed the season finale here, and I talked to the show”s creator, Michelle Ashford, about the finale, about what liberties she”s comfortable taking with the real story of Masters and Johnson, about how she intends to handle the story”s big span of time when there”s no way her series will last as long as the partnership, and more, all coming up just as soon as I tell you babies grow on trees…
The first thing I”m curious about is the passage of time. There”s talk in the finale about how Bill”s been doing the study for about a year, and over the course of the first season Libby gets very pregnant on two different occasions. How much time has passed?
Michelle Ashford:   Time is such a huge issue in the series as a whole, certainly how we divide up seasons. So we spend a ton of time talking about it. We try not to be entirely specific because it”s more about an impression of time passing than getting very literal about it. What”s the point really of getting too specific? But, we have this odd thing where we have certain historical facts that just cannot be deviated from. Like when they publish their first book, which is in 1966. You can”t get away from that. You can”t say it was published in some other time. So we do have these markers we need to hit. So what we”re trying to figure out is how to tell certain thematic chunks of story and keep it within some kind of framework. 
So the thing that got tricky on us here was Libby”s pregnancy. And you”re exactly right. And that”s the one that really is not quite fitting in into a vague yearish amount of time. So, guilty about that. There”s too much pregnancy for going about a year. We had her being about six months pregnant when she had the miscarriage and then she has to go again, which flops over to about a year and three months even at the tightest math. But in looking at the season ahead, we were also thinking that we vaguely ended up in ’57, maybe ’58. And how are we gonna move across now this new span of time? We have to come up with really hopefully clever ways to do it. And that first season is vaguely a year and you just have to not pay too much attention to the pregnancy timeline.
Even if the goal is just to end the show with the release of the study, that”s about 10 years. Even in success, a TV drama on cable is most likely not going to run ten years. 
Michelle Ashford:   Oh no, definitely not.
So do you plan to take some leaps at some point?
Michelle Ashford:   Yeah, yeah. We”re gonna definitely take leaps. I mean here”s the kind of crazy thing about this show that I really can”t look around and point to anything else (like it). Even “Mad Men,” their thing seems to be contained within a decade, it appears to me. I mean they seem to be going from 1960 to 1970 in some form or another. Then you look at “Breaking Bad,” which was maybe two years at the most in his life. Some of the greatest stuff that occurs in Masters and Johnson”s book, career and their personal lives takes place much more toward the end, even going into the ’80s. So even in success, these are business decisions between Sony and Showtime, but Sony would like to see it go six years. I think Showtime could live with five or six. But it”s not gonna go much longer than that if it gains success. Now that we don”t seem to be going anywhere at least for a little while, we have to start looking at this story and thinking, “Well, how do you break this up?” And there are going to be really big time leaps. But no, it does not end in ’66 when they publish their book at all. In fact, you know I looked at that when I read that biography I immediately said, “Wow, there”s four years worth of the story right there.” And I could just see the very obvious chance. And the second chance was going to 1966. So the first chance of getting kicked out of that hospital. Second chance was going to 1966. But when you look at from where we are now you go, “Well wait a minute. You can”t really go from 1957 to 1966 in one season.” That is huge. So we”re really in the middle of figuring out how to break it up right now.
Let”s talk a little bit about your fidelity to the source material and the facts and the ways in which you”ve chosen to take dramatic license at times. Bill and Libby had two kids before the events of the series began. Provost Scully is something of an invention. How have you chosen to fictionalize the story and why?
Michelle Ashford:   I feel a great fidelity to certain ideas and certain milestones of Masters and Johnson”s lives. With the children, given Masters” past, given Libby”s past, given this weird journey these two are about to go on, it seemed to me much more interesting to watch the process. I mean I always found it fascinating that a guy with a personality like Masters was an infertility specialist who couldn”t get his own wife pregnant because he had dead sperm, essentially. We knew we had to start with Masters and Johnson meeting, because that is the series. And yet when they met he already had two kids and then you just think, “Well, we missed all the fun of that.” So I don”t feel like that is too egregious a license to take with their lives to basically just change when it happened – just put it all together in one thing and watch it unfold. The thing we do have to keep consistent is Masters and Johnson”s story, because that is what this series is about. 
And Scully”s an interesting character. There were all these people that swirled around in the world of Masters and Johnson, and there was a hospital official that was a mentor-like figure to William Masters that turned out to be gay. But there were other figures that were also mentor-like. First of all, for legal reasons we couldn”t pinpoint the head of a university and give him this story, particularly because then you could just say, “Well there was only one head of the university at that time. And now you”re saying he”s gay and he”s doing all this stuff.” So we legally can”t do that, and we had to change it from the chancellor to this cuckoo title of provost – I don”t know if anyone knows what a provost is. But there certainly was no provost at Washington University, so then we can go and add to all those stories. And I again feel like that”s an honest attempt to tell the real story, because that was true. There was a guy in Masters” universe that was gay, that was married, that was leading a double life and I do believe Masters was aware of that. And to my point earlier about the work that”s coming down the road, one of their biggest missteps was their book on homosexuality. And so that is a really fascinating part of their story. And I really wanted to lay in some foundation of why this would be interesting to Masters, why he would feel there”s a need to look at gay men especially but also, anything sexual that was perceived as a deviant, and Bill saying, “Hey, how could I help these people?” Because as appalling as that work looks now to us, it”s a little bit like hindsight. I actually believe – and this is why this is very interesting to me – Masters didn”t get into that idea out of anything but trying to help sexually. I think it was just terribly misguided but I don”t think it was coming out of a moral judgment against homosexuality.

Let”s talk about that, and about the sympathies the viewers may or may not have towards Bill. Virginia was alive when Maier wrote the book and Bill was not, so there are some people that say this is her version of things and the book and the show are more sympathetic to her than to him. How do you feel about that?
Michelle Ashford:   I remember somebody first saying, “Oh, that”s such a cliché: the icy doctor, physician heal thyself kind of story.” And I thought, “Fair enough – except for it”s true in our case.” I don”t think that this is at all a stretch in terms of how we”re portraying their personalities. It”s funny with Masters, because the only film that we have now of him is later in his career. And one of the fascinating things to watch if our series has a long life is how he changed remarkably over the 30 years that he spent with Virginia Johnson. And so I do believe the real man was like this. But there”s tons of evidence in that book to support that. And the reason she was so essential was that he just was not good at social interaction. He was, I think, a cold fish. He was a strange man. He was really demanding. He was imperious. He was all those things so I feel like, okay, it does seem like it”s tilted her direction but that”s just because on the surface she”s a much warmer, more engaging person, as she was in real life, which is the reason she was so essential to his work. So when people say, “Oh, he”s such an asshole,” I say, “Just hang on a second. It”s not always gonna be like this with him,” because one of the most interesting things about Bill Masters is this weird transformation that occurred in the course of his life. And it”s true when you go out and look at this YouTube stuff and whatnot of him, later in his life he”s really trying to be jocular and, in his own weird way, charming. And he had changed. He changed a lot. And why he changed is something that”s really worth examining and what it was about and we intend to explore it.
You chose to end the season on this moment: Bill has come to her out of the rain to admit to his feelings about her. On some level that”s a very familiar sort of romantic comedy construct, even though we don”t actually see him doing the running through the raindrops. Why did you chose to go into that place here with that relationship?
Michelle Ashford:   Well, I think that speaks a little bit to what you were talking about earlier.   And those are conversations that I have with my producing partner with the writers, and with Michael Sheen: How do we access this character so the people can understand what”s going on? We have a very internal locked-down man.  How do you start to understand what”s happening with him? And Michael Sheen and I have talked many times about the fact he”s like those Russian nesting dolls. And what the series in success would reveal is taking him and breaking down one of these dolls at a time, one layer after another, until you start to understand what”s actually going on at the center of this man. And so we have a few times in the series where you realize there”s an enormous struggle going on in there. Here”s a very buttoned down man with a suit of armor on and there”s something churning underneath it. And we saw it a couple of times when his wife miscarried and we start to see flickers of it with Virginia Johnson. The reason it goes that direction by the end is he”s lost everything. He”s lost every kind of support that he thought he needed to be the man he thinks he needed to be. And while he”s stripped of all that and the whole thing is in ruin, he all of a sudden can have an honest emotion and finally just say it. Because there”s nothing to lose at this point. It”s all just a disaster. So it allows him to actually break through a little bit and say the thing that he”s been thinking all along. Now, of course, as with any transformation of real people it”s a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing. What happened is Virginia Johnson really unlocked something in Bill Masters. Something really essential in him. And what the man is doing is struggling with whether he actually wants to look at that man that she is pulling out. Even though it does have a sort of rom familiarity, I think it”s a much more essential kind of character moment for, “Oh my God, something is happening to me and now I”m just gonna say it. I”m gonna say something honest. I mean to say how I actually feel and that”s really what it”s about.”

I want to expand on what you said about dealing with the evolution of real human beings and how it doesn”t play out as simply or as easily as it does in drama. As a dramatist trying to turn this into a weekly series for hopefully a number of years, how do you deal with that so it doesn”t feel repetitive in some way where the audience just thinks “Oh God, just Bill get over yourself”? 
Michelle Ashford:   Our are wondering about this and we can talk about this endlessly. And Michael Sheen is very committed to the notion that this is gonna be a really slow thing. And I agree with him. You don”t want to speed the “a ha!” moment and then everything shift. It is about showing how complicated a transformation is in a human being – any of us. How hard it is to change. But what”s really interesting is to look at it, say, “Oh, that guy we saw in the first year is so different from the guy we”re seeing in year six.” If we go that long. That”s such a different man. It”s our job to make it fascinating. That”s all I can say. There were similar struggles probably with “Breaking Bad.” Walter White is making a transformation and how do you keep people riveted for six years in an incremental thing? Hopefully we”ll do it all right. And every time it”s like, “Oh God, this again,” I”m sure someone will send up a flag.
Well, “Breaking Bad” could cheat in a way, because even if Walter White is changing slowly, they could always blow something up or put Danny Trejos”s head on a turtle and then blow that up too. What”s your equivalent of that?
Michelle Ashford:   That”s true. I”m very envious of having a big fat meth lab that you can blow up. It does help you out sometimes. All I can say is we just have to work really hard and we have to find different ways of showing it. But what we really do need to do is to show what the struggle is. Do people see themselves in the struggle? They understand these impulses and then why somebody would try to cover their tracks quickly and that they kind of keep coming maybe in different forms. And then he surprises us by behaving one way and then he just surprises himself and he acts like a complete ass. So hopefully it will be interesting. But it is hard. It is really hard. I can only tell you it just requires many many hours of just going, “Okay, how do we do this in a way that feels fresh?”

I remember when we got to the sixth episode and there”s the scene where Margaret is interviewed by them and they come to realize, “Oh God, this woman has never had an orgasm and she has this terrible, terrible sex life.” Those are real big stakes there, and you don”t have to worry about exploding anything or shooting anybody in the head.
Michelle Ashford:   Yeah, I hope so. That is really my dream that people will say, “Oh my God. The idea of a life lived in such agony is so significant that you don”t need to resort to anything else.” That that will feel very real. That people will look at it and say, “Oh my God, I knew someone like that.” Or, “I”ve been in that situation.” And I know it feels really important. 
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Showtime and CBS are in the same corporate family, but will you have continued access to Beau Bridges and Allison Janney going forward or are they dropping out of the story now that we”ve gone away from Wash U?
Michelle Ashford:   Here”s the thing that I”ve realized: That everybody that we”ve introduced that may be going away to me feels like it”s a temporary going away, because I realize one of the really fun things that we can do is keep bringing people back in the most surprising way. Next season we”re bringing back Betty the hooker because we loved her, and then (Annaleigh Ashford) went to do “Kinky Boots.” And then we found a way to bring her back. Now she”s with us for the entire season next year. And other people had to leave for other reasons and yes, we had Beau and Allison who are now on their (shows). So I think it”s okay to put a pin in that for a bit, but it”s definitely a story that you”re gonna want to follow in some form. We would never not come back to it at all. We just have to figure out how. We can”t have them the way we had them last year because they”re not around as much. 
Have you figured out, without giving too much away about season 2, what it means for him to leave the hospital when most of the people in your cast were people who he was working with there? Is Jane coming along? Is Langham coming along? How is this going to work?
Michelle Ashford:   Yes, we did burn the house down at the end of the season – which I actually find pretty exciting. One of the things that would be really strange about our show is that because we have to move through a lot of time and because their careers change so radically over the course of their time together, our show will look pretty different every year. It”s really gonna change. And so next year it”s totally different. And we”re beholden to the real story, which is both a curse and a blessing. But I think for the most part it”s a blessing because it just forces us to really go, “Well, now we”ve got a new bunch of people. We”ve got to go in another direction and we”ve got to bring different people in and their relationship is always the center of it.” But they really did move through the world that way and so, yes, one of the things we had to figure out was like, “Wow, what about all the people at this hospital?” So like, for example, Jane who is Helene York who we adore and love and she is on “Bullets Over Broadway” this coming season and is literally unavailable. So then we go, “Huh, okay, Jane gone. But Betty back.” And so we have to look at it like that. But Jane won”t just vanish. We”ll find a way to bring her back, but she will not be in the show like she was last year. However, I can completely see Jane then coming back maybe the next season. I think the people that you see in our show will come back in and out of this show in weird ways for the duration.
Some people have been noting over the last few episodes Ethan has become so good and noble and in many ways a better alternative for Virginia, at least emotionally, than Bill is. And they”re wondering, “Well, what about the guy who punched her in the mouth at the start of the season?” So how do you look at the transformation he”s been through?
Michelle Ashford:   This is what the idea was and it”s up to anybody else to say whether or not it works. We wanted to show the idea of a boy becoming a man. We wanted to show somebody growing up, and here”s a guy who”s had everything handed to him – and it”s all gone. There”s been a predetermined path for him from the beginning. And we all know people like that. It was just like “Okay, I”m gonna do this, then I”m gonna do this, and then I”m gonna get married and then I”m gonna be a doctor and…” all this stuff. And what happens is he meets Virginia, who”s very unconventional. And it”s not so much that Virginia is just magic or as someone said, “Oh, the girl with the magic vagina.” That is not it at all. What it is is that as you wander through your life, sometimes you meet someone who triggers something in you that makes you go, “Oh, wait a minute. I can do this a different way or I can be a different way or I”m a different man than I thought I was.” The idea with Dr. Haas was that here is an impulsive boy who meets a woman who is much more sophisticated and world-wise than he is. It completely throws him and freaks him out and that”s both a reflection of who he was but also the time, which is if you were a man and you slept with a woman, the only response you would assume from that woman is that she would want to marry you because that would be the expected thing. And so when she not only doesn”t want to marry him, she”s not even in love with him – it is such an affront to everything he knows and his ability to function as a man that he loses his temper and he hauls off and he punches her. At the beginning, people were saying, “Well, that guy”s dead. That guy”s just such an abuser.” I was like, “I don”t see that at all.” I see a guy who”s freaked out and then has to deal with the fact that he”s now been stirred up. He”s got all these dark emotions, he doesn”t know what to do, he behaves abominably with that candy striper, and what he”s trying to do is figure out who he is. And he realizes that there”s a part of him that could be a good man and that maybe his being a good man is who he should be. And so it”s really about somebody growing up. And yes, he does get to be pretty stately by the end. That is a part of what we need to show Virginia”s dilemma, which is what really motivates Virginia. What is it that propels that woman through life? We talk about this continuously because she”s a very, very curious creature, and what we want to see is why does she choose what she chooses. What”s really underneath there? And so what we wanted to really show is give her a fantastic alternative. We wanted the audience to see if a woman is presented with everything that makes sense that would be good for her, that would be good for her children, why would she go away from that? What”s that about? And that”s what really that story”s about.
When Masters does his presentation, the first half of it it”s a party, everyone”s having a good time. No one is scandalized by any of it but when they start acing the footage and then Bill starts talking aboutthe women”s sexual power, everyone gets upset and Bill gets fired. Is that how that actually went down and what were you trying to illustrate there?
Michelle Ashford:   Lucky for me, it is how it went down. He did present this to his colleagues in one of those afternoon meetings. He did serve martinis. He thought that it would be festive, and that everybody would get into it. He was completely tone deaf to how scandalous that research actually is. And what he didn”t understand is that, other gynecologists and obstetricians didn”t know anything about this. So not only were they repulsed by the whole thing but they also felt threatened by it because they thought, “Wait a minute. This is supposed to be my field but I don”t know anything about any of this.” And also I do think there was a great deal of resentment toward Masters because he was such a big dog at that hospital. And the thing that just sent everybody over the edge was the film. Because it truly looks like a stag film and the idea of taking that and putting it into a medical setting – they just flipped out. Now the license that I did take with that was that it happened slower. It took a few months for everybody to get petitions together and to start complaining to the chancellor of the university and finally Masters just had to leave. He just couldn”t function there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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