Interview: Melissa Rosenberg talks ‘Red Widow,’ ‘Big Thunder’ and more

Melissa Rosenberg’s new ABC drama is titled “Red Widow” and it uses “No Time To Mourn” as its tag line.
So when we meet Radha Mitchell’s Marta Walraven and she’s mostly happily married to a scruffy pot-smuggler played by Anson Mount, we kinda have suspicions regarding where things are heading.
Based on the Dutch series “Penoza,” “Red Widow” is really about a San Francisco wife and mother who finds herself forced into the criminal world occupied by her husband, but also her Russian mobster father. It’s a network drama, but it feels a lot like it belongs on cable, which I discussed with Rosenberg last year when she was promoting “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2,” the last film in a wildly popular franchise that ABC is name-dropping aggressively in promotions.
Concentrating on “Red Widow” in this interview, Rosenberg and I discussed the challenges of doing a show like this with a female protagonist like this on network TV, including some comparisons between this drama and AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” We also discussed the ethos of Rosenberg’s Tall Girl Productions banner and how “Red Widow” and the theme park-based pilot “Big Thunder” fit into that brand.
Click through for the full conversation.
HitFix: When you have a show in which the big, shocking event of the first episode is actually spoiled by the show’s title, what’s the secret or challenge to approaching that event?
Melissa Rosenberg: Well, you know that you’re going to be doing something pretty outrageous and I think the secret is that you’ve got to keep your lead compelling enough and engaging enough that the audience is with her, so that you want to see how she’s going to handle it, how the family’s going to handle it. I think everyone has done a really great job of keeping the characters engaged and engaging.
HitFix: When we last talked about the show, you mentioned that you used up the plots from three episodes from the original Dutch series in the pilot here. Is that a change of pacing that’s your own personal narrative instinct, or do you think it’s something cultural?
Melissa Rosenberg: My own narrative instinct is, of course, formed by my culture, so yes, I mean it is cultural. The Dutch series moved at a much slower pace. It was beautifully done, but I think for our audiences and just for me as a storyteller, I was just feeling a need to go through the storytelling faster. 
HitFix: What does that do to the overall approach to and impact of the storytelling? How would the two shows feel different other than, I guess, “faster” and “slower”?
Melissa Rosenberg: It’s a matter of getting to the heart of things more quickly. In the Dutch series, she does not become widow until Episode 3. So here’s the big difference: The Dutch series was a miniseries initially. It was an eight-episode miniseries and they thought they were eight-and-out, so they were telling a story over the course of eight episodes. I’m building a story that is hopefully on-air for seven years, you know? So I’m trying to, right from the start, establish, “What is the series? What is the day-in-and-day out? Who is it about? Who are we following?” In the pilot, I felt strongly about getting to the heart of the story, which is that this is a woman who has lost her husband and who’s a mother of three and who finds herself in a very difficult situation with the criminal underworld.
HitFix: So where and when in the process did the title come in?
Melissa Rosenberg: When did that come in? I think it was after we shot it and we were posting it, or somewhere around there. We’d been calling the working title “Penoza,” because that’s the Dutch series, but that didn’t work… It was [ABC Entertainment President] Paul Lee, actually, who suggested “Red Widow” and initially I was like, “Well… I don’t know… It sounds so kinda lurid… I don’t know.” And then it kinda stuck with me and I was talking to people about and they were like, “Oh good title” or “Oh, I’ll remember that.” It’s memorable and it’s about the series. Obviously it’s a widow and the red is symbolic of the blood, the Golden Gate Bridge, Russia, it just encompasses so many things thematically.
HitFix: With the main character, were there any key cultural tweaks that you had to make to Marta to make her more “American” and less the Dutch character?
Melissa Rosenberg: The Dutch culture is considerably more liberal than American audiences, so there’s a lot of kinda attitudinal stuff that I needed to adjust slightly. That said, I really did actually hold onto and that’s part of what drew me to that character, is the sort of moral ambiguity about her and the fact that she was raised around the Russian mob, so even though she’s distanced herself from her, it’s seeped into her DNA. So she forgives things that the average American wouldn’t, such as the fact that her husband is a pot dealer. Most of us would say, “Oh my God! That’s terrible.” But for her… That’s also why I wanted to set it in Marin County is that there is I think a sense there that it’s a little bit more liberal in its views.
HitFix: A comparison that people are likely to make, for logical reasons, is to “Breaking Bad.” Is that a show that you view at all as being a gendered counterpoint to “Red Widow”?
Melissa Rosenberg: Well God, I think “Breaking Bad” is one of the best television series ever and if I can emulate it in any way, I would. They set the bar very, very high and it is certainly the model for it, absolutely.
HitFix: Do you think there are different rules, though, for what audiences will accept or embrace from a female protagonist or almost a female anti-hero in this circumstance, rather than what they’ll accept from a male?
Melissa Rosenberg: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! We’ve had characters on cable and on network, male characters that are these anti-heroes. You have Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Hugh Laurie on “House.” Dexter. You can do that and over the last decade or so, those characters have become part of our culture, where women have been slower to catch up. We’ve just started on cable with Edie Falco, Mary-Louise Parker. That has not really made the transition to network yet and that’s sorta where I’m heading with this. This is a very cable-esque series and Marta is a very cable-esque character and the storytelling is very cable-esque. My approach to it is that you have to understand why she’s making these decisions. You have to be rooting for her to make these decisions. You have to be saying, “Well, you know… In that situation, I might do the same thing.” I think the way I’ve approached it is that everything she’s doing is to protect her children. Everything. Every move she makes, every decision she makes. Some of it may be misguided and some of it may be just a mistake, but it is all understandable, because her highest priority is that. And I think that hopefully will allow audiences to root for her.
HitFix: Is that a note that’s on your storyboard or is it a note that ABC gives you, that “relatablity as wife and mother” touchstone and making sure that that’s always near the forefront?
Melissa Rosenberg: That’s my note. That’s my note to myself, knowing that there’s a higher bar for women. There’s a double-standard and there’s the higher bar, particularly for a mother, so wanting to clear that bar and keep audiences engaged with her, I knew that going in, that was the challenge of the piece, is “How do I keep audiences engaged with someone who’s making some pretty questionable decisions.”
HitFix: On “Breaking Bad,” Walter White has done some ridiculously horrible things and yet there’s a portion of the audience that continues to believe he’s redeemable. Do you think that Marta could do anywhere close to that quantity of misdeeds and still keep an audience in her corner?
Melissa Rosenberg: Close? Perhaps? The difference in the two characters is that Vince Gilligan set out from the beginning to draw a character over the course of the entire series who goes from being a good to bad, the slow demise of a man’s moral center. That’s not the arc of my particular character. Certainly that moral center will be challenged for Marta and she certainly will step over the line, but this is a slightly different project for her. But yes, she’s gonna step over some serious lines and I want to push it as far as I possibly can. I want to see how far can I push this character without losing the audience.
HitFix: You’ve also got Marta’s kids and kids are always a challenge in writing. When you think over the TV show that you watch, can you pinpoint where the line is between believable young characters, teenage characters, and then teenage characters who adult viewers kinda want to throttle?
Melissa Rosenberg: Throttle? [She laughs.] Well, nobody likes a brat. Teenage girls, in particular, are very difficult to write, where the default for them is like, “Oh, she’s a bratty girl” or “She’s a sullen girl.” The trick for me and what I wanted to do was to not write “teenagers,” per se, but “people.” It’s like everyone with a teenage girl said, “OK. She’s has like a little high school romance” and I was like, “You know what? This is not a CW show….” It’s about what’s happening in this young person’s emotional life in a real way, in an adult way. These guys are all in very adult situations, so I treated them as adults.
HitFix: Is this a discipline that you got from the “Twilight” movies or can we go back to “The OC” for that?
Melissa Rosenberg: [She chuckles.] Certainly the “Twilight” movies, I definitely learned a lot about writing for young people, because I never, ever perceived them as young people. I perceive them as characters and human beings. I never wrote toward their youth. It just was about relationships and characters that hopefully rang true.
HitFix: You’ve talked about this in terms of “eight” episodes. Why was eight the right number? And how would it have been different if you’d been given 13 for this?
Melissa Rosenberg: It would have been a lot harder! It was twofold with the eight: One, it was midseason, so I had more time to do it. And two, it was only eight and a lot of times when you do more episodes, you sorta end up having one episode that’s a bit of a time-filler and with this, because there’s only eight, I have to say I really feel like every single one of them is a little jewel. We gave absolutely our all to every single moment of every episode. There’s not a dog in the bunch. You can do that when you’re only doing eight. I got very behind by episode seven and eight. It was like, “It’s OK, because we’re about to wrap.” If I had had another five to do, I would have been like, “Alright. S***. Let’s shoot it” in that sense where you have to just say, “Shoot it, whatever’s on the page” and you don’t have the opportunity to really hone. I had the schedule of a cable show. I had three months to break the season and I had eight episodes and it was great.
HitFix: But how will that impact how you’re going to pitch a hypothetical second season?
Melissa Rosenberg: Well, I’m pitching 13 or 12, even better. I don’t think the storytelling lends itself to 22. Everybody’s been talking about it as a cable-esque series, so 13 would be about perfect. But 12 would be even better. Plus, when you’re doing the first season of a show, you’re still finding what is the show, what is the engine of the show. And you usually don’t hit it until around Episode 4 or 5. That’s when you start hitting your stride and going, “OK. This is this voice, this is the look, this is the direction.” So in a second season, we’ve done a lot of the groundwork.
HitFix: Paul Lee loves talking about the defining of the ABC brand. How would you define the Tall Girl Productions brand that you’re building?
Melissa Rosenberg: For me, the Tall Girl brand is compelling, complex roles for women in front of and behind the camera. That’s my goal. I’m not talking about chick-flicks. I have absolutely no interest in chick-flicks. I’m interested in four-quadrant series and film with interesting, complex roles for women in front of and behind the camera.
HitFix: And how does “Big Thunder” fit into that brand?
Melissa Rosenberg: Definitely high concept. It’s definitely high concept and it’s about building the female characters, enriching them, filling them out. They’re going to be as strong as any of the male characters. It’s not necessarily about creating leads for women, just complex roles, interesting shades of gray.
HitFix: And is that pilot going to be directly relatable to the Disney ride? Or do you not really see that connection beyond the title and basic hook?
Melissa Rosenberg: Oh yeah! Definitely. The mountain’s gonna look like Disneyland, you know? There’s gonna be goat chewing dynamite. Yeah, totally. We’re really taking the fun of the ride. It’s gonna be fun and completely different from “Red Widow.” That’s part of what I love and I want from for Tall Girl is to be able to do everything from  a really gritty, emotional, character-driven drama to a high concept theme park ride series. I love that!
“Red Widow” premieres on Sunday, March 3 on ABC.