The writer-creator of HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER lets us in on the lessons he’s learned working closely with the Queen Bee herself,:
by Nicole LaPorte
Pete Nowalk, the creator of the soapy ABC drama How to Get Away with Murder, knows a thing or two about working for Shonda Rhimes, the über producer behind some of the biggest shows on television. His started out as a writer on Private Practice, spent six years on Grey’s Anatomy, and then co-executive produced Scandal. Then, in 2014, he wrote his own show (which Rhimes produces), How to Get Away with Murder, about Annalise Keating, a cunning professor and criminal defense attorney who becomes embroiled in a murder case involving her husband. The show recently made history when its star—Viola Davis, who plays Keating—became the first African-American actress to win a best acting Emmy in the drama category.
Nowalk was a rookie when he showed up at ShondaLand, Rhimes’s production company, which she runs with Betsy Beers. He knew he wanted to be a writer, but his only real job had been working as an assistant for a development executive at Columbia Pictures. But in between rolling calls at Columbia and co-writing The Hollywood Assistants Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players—”a snarky but practical guidebook,” according to Nowalk—he was always writing scripts. One of which made it into the hands of Beers, who called Nowalk in for a meeting. She didn’t hire him, but she was encouraging about his writing.
“Betsy really got into my head in a good way,” Nowalk said. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’m gonna keep going with this. I’m gonna write another script.’ And based on my next pilot, when they were doing the spin-off of Grey’s,Private Practice, they called me in for another meeting.”
This time, Rhimes—whom Nowalk regarded as a “creative guru”—was also in the room, as was Marti Noxon, the Private Practice show runner. Although Nowalk had never set foot in a TV writers room, he was hired.
As a newbie, Nowalk said the learning curve was tough—he likens getting the hang of TV writing to “learning a language. Of course, you’re not going to be fluent right away.” But he persevered, learning the tricks of the trade from Rhimes, who has greatly diversified network television with shows based on (and written and produced by) powerful women and other minorities, and who is a master of creating richly interwoven plots and the kind of final-scene drama that inevitably blows up on Twitter. So distinct is her touch that she has even inspired an adjective—Rhimesian—a term that extends to shows that she has nothing to do with—as James Poniewozik recently pointed out in the New York Times….