On Story

S10 E6 | FULL EPISODE

A Conversation with Felicia Henderson

This week on On Story, we’ll hear from writer and producer Felicia D. Henderson on her 25-year television career, which includes Family Matters, Soul Food, Sister Sister, and The Quad, as well as current hits The Punisher and Empire. Henderson discusses navigating the shift from writer to showrunner, finding inspiration in everyday life, and exploring relationships through film.

AIRED: May 16, 2020 | 0:26:47
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TRANSCRIPT

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♪ ♪

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- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller

is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."

[multiple voices chattering]

[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside

the creative process from today's leading

writers, creators, and filmmakers.

All of our content is recorded live

at Austin Film Festival and at our year-round events.

To view previous episodes, visit OnStory.tv.

[Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part

by the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation,

a Texas family providing innovative funding since 1979.

[waves]

[kids screaming]

[wind]

[witch cackling]

[sirens wail]

[gunshots]

[dripping]

[suspenseful music]

[telegraph beeping, typing]

[piano gliss]

From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.

A look inside the creative process from today's

leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.

This week's On Story,

The Quad, Empire, and Marvel's The Punisher

writer and executive producer, Felicia D. Henderson.

- Why I find it interesting that family dramas

or dramas or comedies about life are so hard to sell.

They're always like, "What's the engine?",

executives will ask,

and you're like, "The engine is life.

"You never run out of stories

because you're just telling the story of life."

[paper crumples]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[Narrator] In this episode,

writer and producer Felicia D. Henderson

on her 25-year television career,

which includes Family Matters, Soul Food,

Sister, Sister, and The Quad.

Henderson discusses navigating the shift from writer

to show runner, finding inspiration in everyday life

and exploring relationships through film.

[typewriter ding]

- I'm curious to know how you went from majoring

in psychobiology and getting an MBA in corporate finance

to writing for television?

- Isn't that the way everyone gets into television?

Truly, as the rest of my life,

it has always been a series of

fortunate events,

blessings,

right place at the right time,

and getting into television is no different.

So, that I was working in corporate finance

and my boss said,

"If you're going to stay here, you really should get an MBA."

So I said, "Okay," and I thought at that time that's

what I'm going to do, I'm going to work in corporate finance.

That's what I was doing.

So I had to start looking for money

to be able to go to grad school,

and I saw that the Peabody Foundation and NBC together

had this wonderful fellowship that basically was a

full ride at the University of Georgia, so I applied.

But it was for people getting their MBAs who were interested

in management in television,

which I had never considered.

But suddenly I wrote a really impressive essay about

how that's all I'd ever wanted to do,

and so I got the fellowship.

I should've known then maybe like I'm going to be a writer.

[laughing]

So I got the fellowship at the University of Georgia,

and because I got that fellowship

and NBC partially paid for it,

it allowed me then to apply

for the Management Training Program at NBC.

And it was once I was there, part of the job was in New York

and then you spent part of the time on the business side

in New York and then part of the time in Burbank

on the creative side.

So when I got to the Burbank side it was my first exposure

to scripts, and it was there were one of my bosses

told me about the Warner Brothers writers workshop

and said that I should apply.

Mostly based on this, "You give great notes,

you have great story sense,"

and I'd never written a script in my life.

And, I wrote.

I wrote Roseanne from the original Roseanne

because it was my favorite show at the time,

and I got into that program.

So from there, I have literally been writing ever since.

From that program they placed me as an apprentice

on Family Matters ,

better known as The Urkel Show .

So that was my first job ever,

I was writing Urkel jokes.

[typewriter ding]

- It was adapted from George Tillman's film,

Soul Food , and this was also the first show

that you created, I believe.

How did that come about?

- Okay, so that came about because when I was a

student in MFA in screenwriting at UCLA,

I won the screenwriting contest,

and I won it with a family drama

that was loosely based on my own family,

and one of the judges for that happened to be the

head of drama development at Paramount TV

right when they were getting into a partnership

with Showtime to adapt Soul Food .

So the woman, her name's Kathy Ling, asked,

"Can I meet with this writer?"

because it's all anonymous.

"So, can I have her name and meet with her?"

And they said, "Of course."

She got my name,

and I was working on Paramount's show at the time,

eventually got an overall deal at Paramount,

so she's like, "This can't be.

"Her name is Felicia Henderson.

"There's already a Felicia Henderson that we work

"with who's a comedy writer.

What a coincidence."

So she learned, no, that I am the same

Felicia Henderson.

But I met with her, then I met with the president of Showtime,

and he said, "Well, you've never done a drama.

What makes you qualified to write this drama

about three sisters?

And I said, "I have five sisters."

And he's like, "Okay, you're hired."

[laughing]

[Ahmad] This is Big Mama's house,

or at least that's what we still call it.

Because even though she left us five months ago,

the family still gathers here every Sunday for fried chicken,

collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn bread,

and any kind of pie you can think of.

Yes ma'am.

[woman] Nobody's trying my cornbread.

[girl] Mama, can I go to the mall?

- All right, child.

- The series opens five months after the

Joseph sisters' mother has died.

What was your process in figuring out that that's

where you wanted to start the series?

- I think that there were lots of thoughts

and lots of cooks in the kitchen,

and I think one of the things that was most important to me

and why I find it interesting that family dramas

or dramas or comedies about life

are so hard to sell.

They're always like, "What's the engine?"

executives will ask.

And you're like, "The engine is life.

"You never run out of stories

because you're just telling the story of life."

But it's hard for executives to get that.

So I always knew we'd have plenty of story

from these three women's lives,

but the mother character that you speak of,

that she died in the movie, was such--

One, I love the actress,

Irma P. Hall, and I wanted to find a way to keep her,

and I wanted to find a way to keep the process of

grieving for one's mother alive in the series.

So that was why so soon after her death,

like five months after,

and why then I created these sort of visions,

if you will, of her where they could talk to her

and where the grandson Ahmad had a relationship

with his dead grandmother,

basically, where she would come and visit him

when he needed her most.

Because I wanted to keep that actress still involved

and I wanted them to still have a relationship with her

even though the character had passed away.

- I miss you, mama.

- Really?

I don't miss you at all,

because I'm always with you.

And Bird, start wearing your skirts a little longer,

you're somebody's mama now.

- I'm from a very big crazy family, so I also,

I have a nephew who was raised by my mom,

so a lot of that relationship that Ahmad was going

to have with Big Mama was very much based on the relationship

that my nephew had with my mother as well.

- What were the storylines and topics

that you knew very early on that you wanted to explore?

- I mean, I think with every show you're running,

you'd try to start at the beginning of the season at least

arcing out the whole season.

Like, here's where we're going to start

and here's where we want to end,

and then everything in between has to get you there.

So I think that,

again, a lot for me for that particular show

came from my experience.

I have a sister who suffers horribly with anxiety disorder,

so I knew that I wanted to--

and has gone through a lot because of it,

so I knew that I wanted one of my characters

in a very real way

to be grappling with how to live your life

while you're grappling with severe anxiety disorder.

[on phone] Hello?

Ma'am?

- Are you all right, Aunt Teri?

- Mm-hmm (affirmative).

I'm sorry.

I have to leave a message.

I have reservations for two this afternoon

and I'm running a little late.

[phone hits floor]

[on phone] Hello?

Hello?

Is anybody there?

[Teri] I'll be okay.

I'm fine.

[on phone] Ma'am? [Teri] Thank you.

Thanks.

This is Teri Joseph.

I have a two o'clock reservation

and I'm running 20 minutes late.

Thank you.

- So, a lot of that kind of stuff I put in

that I knew that I can't be the only one

who has experienced this.

And then of course I have a writing staff,

that's the beauty of a writing staff,

and purposely trying to hire people

with different points of view than I had

and different family experiences than I had.

But I certainly got to the point in my family

where we'd be talking about something

and one of my sisters would just stop.

Like, "This is not for the show,"

they would say to me sometimes.

Because I would, I would be like, "Really?!"

- It all felt very personal and specific.

- Yeah, I mean, I think because again,

I'm one of eight kids

and so I feel like I've been studying siblings my whole life,

and as a kid I was the quiet one

because I was always watching and listening and studying,

that I'm most interested in the moments between the scenes,

as you just said.

I'm most interested in my youngest brother,

who's now in his late 30s,

who's a father with four kids.

But our dynamics are he's still a guy with six sisters

who tell him what to do.

Like, that's not going to really change.

[typewriter ding]

- It was the first show since A Different World that was

dedicated to the culture of historically black colleges

and universities.

Could you take us through the inspiration

that you had for it and the steps in creating the story?

- Yeah, sure.

It was one that came to me a little differently,

because Rob Hardy, who directed the pilot

and is one of the executive producers

came to me and said he wanted to do such a show

and had been talking to BET about doing such a show,

and I had been talking to BET about doing a show.

So when we talked and had breakfast, I said--

Well, he originally had kind of a different way to go about it

that I wasn't as interested in.

But I said what I am interested in, because it was right after

when we first had our first conversations after

Hillary's first run for president,

and I was very interested in exploring a woman

in a man's world, a woman at the top of the food chain

in a man's world, and what I knew about Hillary's campaign

and all of the tiny little details of why you've got to

switch to pantsuits and being worried about sitting

in chairs like this in skirts.

Little things like that, and yet you're just supposed to

be there just to share your ideas.

So, that's what I was interested in.

If I could explore a woman being the president

of a historically black university that had

never had a woman in any position of power,

that would be interesting to me.

- My ability to survive and my intellect are both very black,

Mr. Diamond.

- My point is simple.

I don't answer to you

and I never will.

- My point is simple, as well.

You do as I asked you

or I will not hesitate to put my foot directly in your ass.

That black enough for you?

- And so that's what we took into BET, and they bought it.

And it was a lot of fun to develop,

because in some ways it was like

if you could create your own college,

that was the experience.

I got to choose what my college colors would be like.

I never thought of all of those things when we were in

development, like I get to choose what the mascot will be

and all of those things, and what will this sorority,

what will be the Greek letters

of every sorority and fraternity.

Those were all the decisions that when you're saying,

"I'm going to create a show on a college campus,"

you're not thinking about.

So, there were lots of long days

just creating what would be the college campus,

let alone what the stories would be.

That's all before stories were ever done.

But it was, from that point of view, it was a lot of fun.

It was a lot of fun.

And also discovering new talent,

that's one of my favorite things.

Just really talented people who are just getting their

first big breaks.

I love that.

- I love that doctor Eva Fletcher, the president,

that she also doesn't have a history with HBCUs,

and this is her first time so we get...

Like, she is the fish out of water here.

- Right. She's our introduction to it, right?

And I think that my experience is that I have a niece

and a nephew who were both educated at an HBCU,

so my experience is that I have paid for HBCU educations.

[laughing]

But I really wanted her to be...

the show, in some ways be for everyone who didn't go to an HBCU to experience it,

so it became important to bring her from the north

having never experienced this.

The second part is because we wanted to explore

all kinds of thinking about what blackness is,

and that she comes in thinking this is going to be fine

because, "I'm black

and it's a historically black university."

And they immediately call her Black Ivy

because she was educated at Ivy League schools,

and she's not one of them and she didn't expect that.

So I wanted to explore a bit of that as well,

so those are the two reasons to make her from somewhere else,

to make her such an outsider.

- Her black skin don't make her black.

Not black, black.

Not what a black university black-

- Fred, I've been listening to you

bitch and moan for two hours.

What's your plan?

- Oh, I've got a good [bleep] plan.

I'm resigning.

I already wrote the letter.

And you know the worst part,

they'll call me to clean up Black Ivy's mess when she fails.

- You start with her, and then how do you decide

how to fill out the rest of your cast?

I mean, this is just using The Quad as a case study,

but for any TV show filling in who they're going to

be bouncing off against.

- Yeah, I think that in a general, general way,

it is about conflict.

So I mean, I always like okay,

what world am I going to be living in?

In that case, the world of the HBCU,

and then what person absolutely doesn't belong there?

Whatever the world is going to be.

Or if you start with a character,

where would be the place most full of conflict

to put that character in terms of

what world that you want them to end up in?

And that's for every thing that I do, I think.

And then, it's still about conflict as you

build out the world.

So obviously it's an HBCU,

you're going to have a band director, right?

And so because of that, now you ask,

"Well, then what is her relationship going to be

with the band director?"

Because band directors are kings on most of these campuses,

and if that's the case,

then where is the built in natural grounded conflict

between Eva and the band director?

So that's really what you try to do is build out a world

that gives you about a million kinds of conflict

for that character,

for your main character,

after putting them in a world that by its very nature

is going to be one that they're going to have challenges in,

no matter what that is.

If you go back to Soul Food ,

making the oldest sister Teri,

the character who even though it's a family drama,

everything about it is conflict for Teri,

who is the one of these things that's not like the others

because she is the most educated,

because she's the most intelligent,

because she's the most ambitious,

because she doesn't look like any of her other two sisters.

All of that means everything about her world

is going to be about conflict,

and then put this very, very accomplished woman

in a relationship with like a FedEx guy.

Right?

So it's always about trying to find ways to fill their worlds

with dramatic conflict.

- And you also deal with a lot of hot topics.

There's hazing, sexual assault,

economic inequality,

cyber bullying,

police brutality.

Did you ever get any pushback from BET

or requests to temper anything?

- Always.

[laughing]

It's sort of the challenge if you're not on premium cable

and it's complicated because you're

on Black Entertainment Television,

so you think if there's any place where you're going to

be able to really dig in, right, and really go for it,

that's where,

but that's not the case.

It really is still a very conservative place that

still feels a bit of the,

well if we're the most well known black channel

there's things that we don't want to say or do,

and that was my experience quite often.

But it's still stings that they canceled that show after

two seasons because we were sort of just getting started,

and it wasn't ever really properly marketed.

The first season of this show where we had a season long arc

of the date rape of a young woman

by a football player

and he's the most popular,

but I really wanted to do two explorations.

One of, I had just seen the O.J. Simpson documentary,

so I was obsessed with this idea of how that person is made.

If people worship you from the time you're nine or ten

because you can throw a ball,

then you never have to develop as a whole human.

So it's sort of the making of a psychopath in a way

or sociopath,

because you never had any reason to become a full person

thanks to society worshiping what you do well.

So I didn't want to paint the rapist as just,

oh, he's the bad guy rapist,

nor did I want to do what network television

often does with a victim is they're used just to

tell the story of how they caught the perpetrator,

but wanted to equally take a look at both of their stories

so that you could just see for both of them.

So that was very... I'm very proud of that.

That by the end of the season and as I had started to

visit HBCUs on behalf of the show

to have a young woman

come up to me and say that she finally talked about

or reported being raped because she saw that show.

So you think about it like that, as like wow, if that happened

for one person, then it was worth all the hell

that I've lived through to try to tell that story,

to try to tell that story accurately.

So that season in particular,

I'm very proud of because it really resonated

with a lot of people,

including athletes who were like,

thank you for not just depicting him as a jerk who thought,

"Well, I should be able to..."

He had a moment where he's like, "Did I rape her?"

He didn't even realize it,

but eventually he did.

So I'm proud of that season,

but it also represents a lost battle

because the original end of it was that

he was going to go to campus when he's kicked off the team

and shoot up the campus,

and they were like, "We can not depict that at an HBCU."

We'd already shot it though, so it became this really

weird episode where he commits suicide instead,

using the existing footage.

[gun shot]

- What is that?

[commotion and chatter]

- Campus 911.

[woman on phone] Help!

I just walked up the steps and he's just lying there.

I think he shot himself.

[911 operator] Okay, try to calm down.

Tell me exactly where you are.

[woman on phone] Second floor, Johnston Hall.

[911 operator] We're sending someone now.

[Officer] We have a male student with what appears to be a

self-inflicted gunshot wound.

[typewriter ding]

- Do you feel like you have questions that you are

continually asking in your shows or in your episodes

or through your characters?

Do you have any examples of those?

- Yeah.

Every character you write should have a bit of you in it,

because no one can write that like you.

Every character.

I once wrote a thing about an astronaut

and I gave him a horrible fear of flying,

because no one can talk about fear flying the way I can.

I hate flying.

So I'm like, oh, who best to give that to?

An astronaut, right?

So every character that you write,

because people are going to read that and go,

"Oh, there is a great depth and specificity

to that thing," because it's coming from inside here.

So I encourage my students to always do that

because you're going to write it so well

and I try to always do that.

Then there are some things that are questions in life

that I'm always exploring that I always want to.

My ex-manager pointed this out to me,

that in everything I do,

no matter if it is comic books,

comedies, dramas,

features, theater, whatever,

there's always a father-daughter relationship.

There's always that dynamic.

Whether it be in the workplace,

an actual family, wherever,

and if it's not there, then I create it.

I didn't know that, but it's true.

But I'm raised by my father and had a very strong relationship

with my father, so it's not that surprising then

even though I didn't realize it

that I'm very interested in that relationship,

and exploring that relationship.

Whether good, bad or very ugly,

I'm always interested in that relationship.

[Narrator] You've been watching A Conversation with

Felicia D. Henderson on On Story.

On Story is part of a growing number of programs

in Austin Film Festival's On Story project,

including the On Story PBS series,

now streaming online,

the On Story radio program,

the On Story podcast,

and the On Story book series,

available where books are sold.

To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival,

visit onstory.tv or austinfilmfestival.com.

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