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‘Empire’ showrunner Ilene Chaiken explains how she landed on Fox’s hit show

Producer Ilene Chaiken arrives at Fox's 'Empire' ATAS Academy Event at The Theatre at The Ace Hotel on March 12, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  Angela Weiss/Getty Images

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Ilene Chaiken joined Lee Daniels and Danny Strong as showrunner of Fox’s hit series “Empire” in 2014. Daniels and Strong were looking for a person to execute their vision after writing the pilot. Chaiken brought a range of expertise in television writing and showrunning. She is creator of the Showtime show “The L Word.”

But Chaiken tells us that she was’st thrilled about working on someone else’s creation at first. That was until she watched the Fox soap about a hip-hop family dynasty — led by stars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard – and “fell in love with it.”

Empire’s numbers marked as the best any new show on any network has done since 2005. Although the ratings weren’t as high in season two as they were in season one, new episodes starting Wednesday on Fox are still highly anticipated.

We went to Chaiken’s office in Beverly Hills to talk about how she manages the show, the importance of diversity in the writers’ room, and how the music on Empire helped bring success to the show.

Chaiken’s definition of a showrunner.  

Well, it’s what it sounds like. It’s the person who runs the show. Soups to nuts. I’ve heard people say it’s like being the CEO of a corporation and the corporation is your show, but it starts with being a writer because by definition the showrunner on a TV show is the head writer. But it’s a writer with a broad set of skills, so my first responsibility is the script, it’s the story, it’s breaking the scripts, it’s hiring the writing staff and assigning those scripts to writers and overseeing the creative process of arching out a season of television. There’s this lovely premise in television, which is the writer is the most qualified person to run the show because it’s all about story

At first, she didn’t want to work on Empire.

I watched the pilot and as I was walking out of the room, I was all in.  It was a spectacularly good pilot. I called my agent and said tell me what I need to do. I need to get this gig. I actually said on that phone call to my agent, “This show is a game changer,” and it was. It works and I sensed that the combination of the storytelling and it was doing something that hadn’t been done on television before. That is, it was a big rich nighttime soap about an African American family. It had this music element that worked seamlessly with the storytelling and the culture of the show altogether felt to me like something really extraordinary.

The importance of diversity in the writers’ room.

The writers chosen by me and Lee [Daniels] and Danny [Strong] are chosen obviously one because they’re a gifted group of writers. We looked for writers who wrote with an edge, with sophistication, with original voices that spoke to us. It’s a mostly African American group of writers and that, to me, was a given. This is a show about African American experience, about African American people and the writers need by and large need to be people who can speak about the specificity of that experience. 

Listen to an extended version of the interview below.

Produced by Daisy Palacios

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