Shonda Rhimes has already shown us how to save a life, handle a scandal, and get away with murder, but now she’s teaching what she knows best — writing for television.
EW can exclusively share that the prolific writer and producer is ready to share her secrets to success as the latest famous face to teach a MasterClass course. The Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator is following in the footsteps of other luminaries, including as Aaron Sorkin and Werner Herzog.
For $90, Rhimes will take students through more than five hours of lessons, teaching them how to craft a script, sell a pilot, and run a writers’ room. Ahead of the announcement, EW chatted with Rhimes about what to expect from her course, why this is such a great time to be a television writer, and whom she wants to take a MasterClass from.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’re going to be a professor… did you ask Viola Davis for any advice?
SHONDA RHIMES: [Laughs.] No… that’s hilarious.
Considering how busy you clearly are, why did you want to take this on?
First of all, as a child of professors, teaching is something I always wanted to do. But more importantly, I thought this was something that seemed really cool because it was an equalizer. You cannot just teach a classroom full of students, you can teach anyone who wants to learn, anywhere in the world. And I can sort of teach how I wanted to; I could talk about television as I knew it and teach what I knew versus somebody else’s curriculum or ideas. We call it Shondaland University here in our writers’ rooms, and it was kind of cool to bring that to other people.
At one point you were a writer struggling to get noticed in the industry. Is this your way to reach out to those who are now in that position?
To me, there’s something lovely about the fact that anybody who has $90 versus the $90,000 or whatever it costs to go to school, can take this class. We talk about trying to normalize the industry and talk about finding ways to give everybody a chance and more education, and it feels like this is a nice way to be able to make it possible for a lot more people to find a way in.
In the video announcement of the course, you say you don’t believe in the term “aspiring writer.” Can you further explain your philosophy on that?
Well, you’re either a writer or you’re not a writer. I don’t think that you’re an “aspiring writer” — that’s like saying you’re an “aspiring human.” But really, like truly, you’re a writer or you’re not a writer. And for me, a writer is somebody who writes every day. So to me, either you write or you don’t write, and if you don’t, then you’re not a writer, and if you do, then you are a writer. And I think it’s that simple, truly in that way. Give yourself that definition of yourself and then do it. And if you don’t do it, then you’re not a writer, and that’s okay. You’re either a working writer or a nonworking writer, but you’re not an aspiring writer.
Having previously gone through writing courses, what did you take away from those that you wanted to either keep or change for this class?
It’s been so long since I’ve been in school, it didn’t actually have anything to do with anything that I learned when I was in school that I took with me. It mostly felt like this was a lot of the stuff that I wished I had been able to learn, simply because you don’t learn a lot of the stuff practically. Also, when I was in film school, I focused mainly on film; television is a little bit different. For me, I learned how to write television while writing Grey’s Anatomy, so it was really kind of great to impart some of the stuff that I had learned.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned on Grey’s or Scandal that you would like to impart to your students?
Um… I think you have to take the class. [Laughs.] I really don’t think there’s anything I could say that would be like a sentence or anything. But a lot of it really was about the mechanics of storytelling, a lot of it’s about how to run a room, how to run a show, which is an entirely different animal than just writing some scripts, structuring pilots, learning how to pitch. All of those things were things that I just had no experience with. Even being a screenwriter, you sit at home in your pajamas, and you write one thing a year, maybe. It’s a completely different animal to write a television show, and going from being a film student to writing a movie to writing a television show, it’s all a big education.
We don’t want to give away too much of what’s in the course, but was there an assignment or lesson that you were specifically excited about teaching?
One of the great parts was that I got to sit with some students and we reverse-engineered the pilot of Scandal, which means we broke it down into its parts, and I discussed how I built the show, how I built the pilot episode. And for me, that was really gratifying because it was a way of being able to explain why you do what you do, how you structure something. I also explained places where I made mistakes, and where I could see where my mistakes were, and explain why I made them, and how I correct them now — or even if I didn’t know how to correct them at this point. And just talk about the process; teaching people the process is very important.
You have so many shows on the air right now. What makes now such an exciting and ideal time to be a television writer?
Oh, wow. There’s so much opportunity now. There are so many places to put your product. I hate to call it a product, but it is. I mean, there’s so many people wanting to have stories and content on the air, and they are looking for it in so many ways: streaming, digital, cable. The opportunities feel a little bit endless in the best way possible, and I feel like there’s an open field out there for so many people. So to me, getting to teach people right now and getting people to get their chance out there, feels perfect.
Aaron Sorkin previously taught a MasterClass on screenwriting. As a fan of The West Wing fan, did you watch his class or any others for ideas on how to do yours?
I watched his a little bit after mine because I felt like if I watched it before I did mine, I would be frozen in time and be unable to do it. But what was funny is that I kept mentioning The West Wing structurally in my class and realizing, “I’m talking about Aaron’s, people should just go watch Aaron’s.” There is a lot to be said for what he did and knowing that he did his. I think our shows are very different, and the way we put things together are very different, but to me, there’s a very interesting education to be had from both of them.
You’re joining a long line of high-profile MasterClass professors, from Christine Aguilera to Kevin Spacey to Gordon Ramsey. If you took a MasterClass course, what subject would you want to study, and who would you want to be the professor?
I can tell you right now there’s two people. One is Beyoncé, obviously. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take a class in… I don’t know, fierceness, fabulousness, dancing. I don’t know what she’d teach, but everyone wants to take a class with Beyoncé to learn something. And the other one, I think would probably be a grouping. Maybe I’d want to take a class with Barack Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton on democracy. I think that would probably be the greatest class in the world. That would be fascinating.
You should pitch that for the next course.
I’m sure that they will be available and not busy [laughs].
You can sign up for Rhimes’ course on the MasterClass website. Watch the video above for a preview of what to expect.