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.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
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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."
[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.
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
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."
[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.
[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.
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?
- Are you all right, Aunt Teri?
- Mm-hmm (affirmative).
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?
Is anybody there?
[Teri] I'll be okay.
[on phone] Ma'am? [Teri] Thank you.
This is Teri Joseph.
I have a two o'clock reservation
and I'm running 20 minutes late.
- 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.
- It was the first show since A Different World that was
dedicated to the culture of historically black colleges
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,
- 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.
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 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.
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,
Did you ever get any pushback from BET
or requests to temper anything?
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,
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
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.
- 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.
- 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?
Every character you write should have a bit of you in it,
because no one can write that like you.
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,
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.
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