Writer, director, and producer. Showrunner of the award-winning Showtime series Ray Donovan (starring Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight), Hollander also created, wrote and produced The Guardian and Heartland. He directed the film Personal Effects (2008). Today he writes mainly for television, but it was seeing plays with his immigrant grandmother that first inspired him to become a playwright and theater director. As well as writing for the screen, he also writes music and poetry. In this interview, which he kindly gave after wrapping the current season of Ray Donovan, he discusses the very different skill sets involved in writing for television and putting “a scene on the ground” and shaping an architecture for a twelve hour season that gives an intention to his actors and the rest of the creative team. He shares what draws him to Ray and other “hyper-masculine” conflicted characters, strong female roles, and writing about people “who don't want to change.”

DAVID HOLLANDER

TV writing was never my goal. When I first started, I wanted to write poems, and I wanted to write plays, but I grew up in a small city, and there was not a lot of... no one was a writer. No one was doing that for a living.

My experience was my father comes from a poor background. Hungarian immigrants. My mother comes from a family of immigrants as well. And the city I grew up in had that grouping.

My sort of working-class Jewish family, and then there was a very upper-class wealthy world. And I ended up going to a high school where a lot of the wealthy people lived. So I was balancing between the two places and it created a reality, an aesthetic in me that I wanted to write about. The distinction between the working class and the upper class. That's where it began for me.

And then characters who were impacted. Sort of male American impacted characters who were put in situations where they were striving or close to wealth or close to sort of things that were the American Dream, but they weren't really wanting it. So characters like Ray or characters like my first show were really about people that were negotiating the distinction between working class living and, frankly, upper-class living.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

And there's a conflict but also a kind of, in Ray, a kind of admiration. There's this longing to be in that world, as I see it. It's a heroic character. I want to discuss your whole body of work. As long as we're there, I think it seems like a very difficult line to keep his edginess and to keep our compassion for him. I mean he does some terrible things but he does you know very admirable things, in his defense.

HOLLANDER

Yeah, I mean I'm really interested in the old school American male construct, as it meets modernity, if you will. What is this John Wayne or noir character in the 50s, 40s, 30s and the 20s that the American story was sort of built on. These impacted male areas that feel like they have to be ultra-masculine and ultra strong and do these things that are either violent.

That concept has always been fascinating to me. When you add another piece to those characters, whether it's sexual abuse, addiction, confusion about who they are and where they come from. And that's what fascinates me the most, the American male prototype mixed with their complex backgrounds. So what do you if you're supposed to be this super strong heterosexual character, but you've had sexual abuse? What do you do if you're an addict? Or what do you do if you've lost somebody early in life and you've left to change your paradigm? So most of the things I write about are that character.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It's interesting because throughout and I find that the tension is compelling. Speaking about Ray, but also of your other work. Personal Effects or other stories. With Ray, I'm often reflecting–his life really could have turned another way. Really, at core, he is this compassionate person. It seems it comes out he's defending people, even people who aren't family, but particularly family. And that you see, Oh if there hadn't been this sexual abuse, if there haven't been this I could envisage... I don't know what he would be, but he's very capable. In some ways, he seems like a kind of stressed out CEO, except handling a different set of problems.

I was wondering how, of course, the characters are inventions, but how certain elements of your personal life or your family appear in your work. I know your brother has this very admirable project Kids Voices. And I was wondering how those things are, if I may say, also some personal grief would overlay the storytelling.

HOLLANDER

I think for me. I think a lot of people in the States where I come from, sort of working class or smaller cities. Loss, confusion. For me, I lost my mother when I was younger, I was never particularly successful in the ways of the culture I was in. Whether it was athletics, or whether it was a sense of hyper-masculinity that I didn't really feel so I started to write stories about hyper-masculine people who had tremendous chinks in their armor. Part of it was about grief and dealing with grief so almost every character I ever write has a loss of a mother, a loss of a sister, a loss of somebody feminine in their life and a desire to be this kind of hyper-male and in doing, in wanting to be a sort of savior or wanting to be someone very powerful. Running it into themselves.

Who do you want to be? And who are you? I think most of the characters that I write about have a deep conflict of about their sexuality and a deep conflict about their relationship to family.

They want to be the most powerful person who provides or creates safety, but they're also very dangerous because of that desire. And this idea that control creates in a way violence and a threat to their own outcomes. So Ray is very much like that. He is so much about controlling his family, but actually, he's doing harm to them because of that control. His fear of the things that happened to him happening to them, his desire to put a bubble around everything usually ends up creating huge problems for him.


THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Just thinking about the notion of control. There are just two questions. Is that something, is that why you're drawn to it, is that something you see a lot in American society in particular? An inability to face the vulnerabilities or to lose control? And then, speaking of control, it seems to me–I can't imagine how you do it as a writer and a showrunner and then you direct episodes. This very private process, a vulnerable process. I know you also work with other writers, but it's private. And then you transition to this, I don't mean very controlling but you're managing all of this.

So what is your directing style? What is the process and how do you how do you transition from all those different roles?

HOLLANDER

They are very different skill sets and very different ways of approaching storytelling. Writing is very private. I find writing to be very difficult. I have an idea. I have a feeling, and then I write into it. That part of the process is the most painful and the most demanding. Directing is easier. It’s a very different skill set. It’s applying a story to the technique of how you film it, how it’s going to work. That part is so simple. The writing is brutally hard... There’s an architecture to every season that you write in television. I have to see the whole story. This big twelve-hour story. There’s a lot of math in that. There’s a lot of Where am I going? and How is it going to feel? Because at the end of the day, all I’m doing is trying to make people feel something that I feel.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

And do you find sometimes even if it looks good on paper, it doesn't translate very well?

HOLLANDER

In fact the better it looks on paper, often the worse that it is. It's a strange thing. Ugly scripts make great film. Great scripts sometimes don't. It's hard to explain. Like I can write something so beautiful and so poetic and it's not filmable. But I can write something that's just guttural and a mess and it works and it's very hard to explain why that is.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I like reading scripts and I like seeing the final product. It's fascinating to read scripts. I think they're so interesting and it's true some are beautifully written. If you read a Tennessee Williams, all the descriptions and all that, but it's really changed the way we view things. You can see it going back like a decade or two, there's a difference to our attention spans and the way we receive stories. So it's a leap because you have to hear and see those characters. And is it the minimalism that's difficult?

HOLLANDER

If by minimalism you mean the specificity and the smallness. I like to call it putting it on the ground. If you write dramatically from 30,000 feet and you're above it and you're trying to say something–you're fucked. It only works when you put it on the ground and you make it playable. And it's very hard the older I get, the more that I do it to explain it. To make it work is be alive to it right up to the moment that you film it.

When people want to talk to me about writing. Yeah, I'm a writer. Not really in that form [prose...] I'm actually something that people don't quite understand a lot. Cinematic writing, which is, for those of us that are filmmakers and writers–we're not writing literature. We're doing something different.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You're motivating you. You're bringing their energies.

HOLLANDER

I'm giving my actors an intention and an obstacle, but I'm also giving myself. I know where the camera is going to be. I'm giving my crew a challenge. How do we shoot it? And all of that has to cohese into something that the viewer feels. So I'm not really a writer, that way, I'm actually... It's very hard to explain.

It's not writing–it's math plus emotion plus technical plus time plus visual plus something that's ineffable, which is just... I so badly want to communicate with my audience.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s interesting how you write about the fathers and father figures in your stories. I mean even Mickey, who we were not predisposed to feel affection for, we see that he's really just trying to say he loves his sons. They're not listening.

You have children?

HOLLANDER

I have three.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What do you tell them? Are they pursuing artistic paths as well? What do you make sure that they know?

HOLLANDER

My children are... What I know to not tell them is probably more than what I tell them. I tell them that I love them. I tell them that they're free to pursue what they want to pursue. I try to be an example to them of someone is in process more than product. And they'll land where they'll learn. I don't think I can give them a guidebook.

It's going to be a world of rejection and a world of confusion and a world of hotel rooms. If they are successful at it. But I don't have advice for anybody. That's why I stopped teaching. My students would say, "Am I good?"

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Sometimes you have to tell them what they've written is not good.


HOLLANDER

It doesn't matter what I think. Because it only matters if they keep doing what you're doing. Your vision will either resonate or it won't. But it's not up to me to tell you whether it's good or not. I can only tell you practice your technique. And do the shit that's boring, which is write every day. Don't be afraid of rewriting. Learn rejection is actually your best friend. People fighting against your idea is your best friend. That's the only thing I can teach you. The more people say no to you, the more you listen to why they're saying no. Now that you accept it, that you listen to what they're saying and maybe you find ways to take that tension, that opposition and infuse it into the next pass. Your anxiety, your fear, those are your friends. It sucks, but it's true.

*

Hollander says, “All I’m doing is trying to make people feel something.” How do you communicate an emotion, an idea that begins with a writer sitting in silence, widens out to conversations with directors, writers, actors, camera operators, editors, and other members of the crew?

And with all these voices coming from different directions, how do you make them go in the same direction? How do you work through the obstacles of budgets and locations and creative differences to finally put a scene “on the ground” so that it still retains the intimacy of the original, dreamt up in a room as quiet as the one we are sitting in? And then surpasses it.

How do you translate a feeling from one mind to another? Not just a feeling experienced by the cast and crew, but one that now reaches 20 million international viewers.

Before our conversation, I was at the wrap party for Season 6 of Ray. I saw how much it really is a show about a family and how Hollander has nurtured a familial spirit in the cast and crew. I see the way he is with actors. They tell me notes he gives them to get stronger, more emotional performances. He is kind and considerate to everyone–the stand-ins, the scenics, camera operators. I don’t get to see him work with the writers, but they are a small group, and I imagine that it’s a collaboration like the others, founded on respect and listening. I was told that on some television shows there’s a lot of secrecy with scripts being closely guarded, but that at Ray Donovan scripts are shared beyond those directly involved in the scenes. I imagine that that level of trust inspires crew to be more emotionally and creatively involved in the stories they help tell. The difference between actors saying lines that have been fed to them and believing the words are theirs. The difference between the crew knowing and taking ownership of the architecture of the 12-hour story so that the opening long tracking shot moves beyond the technical aspects of hitting marks to a scene and season finale that vibrates with feeling and meaning.


This is an excerpt of an interview which will be shared across our network of university and national literary magazines in the coming months.

Study for an Audience of the Ray Donovan show

Study for an Audience of the Ray Donovan show